The timing was bad, but the growth was fast. In March 2000, with many internet start-ups disappearing off the radar, 25-year-old Leigh Jasper quit his job at McKinsey & Company and threw his hat into the dot-com ring. With business partner Rob Phillpot, Jasper managed to raise capital for Aconex, an online information management solution for construction projects. He went shopping for second-round funding the week of September 11, 2001. It took a bit longer, but he succeeded. The business now employs over 300 people servicing 4,950 projects in 65 countries.
Interviewed, edited and condensed by Jodie O’Keeffe.
The deep end is for swimming.
Not sinking. I grew up in country Victoria. My parents had a service station. I went to boarding school at 14. It was pretty rough, but I learnt to fend for myself. After year 12, I went on exchange to Switzerland. I had a family there, but I was also on my own and I didn’t speak French. After university, my first project with McKinsey saw me leading a client team of eight. They just throw you in and see how you go.
Naivety can be a plus.
Our first business plan was overly optimistic on short-term performance, but the long-term opportunities are far, far bigger than we imagined. If we had put what we do now into our original business plan, people wouldn’t have believed us.
It ain’t easy being lean.
Rob and I used our savings to develop the business plan in 2000. We were lucky to raise some capital but, with the dot-com crash, we had to really make it stretch. After 9/11 we battened down the hatches. We were only 17 people, but we took out the management layer, so Rob and I were hands on again. We had a few sleepless nights. In 2002, we secured further funding, mostly from existing investors.
The best investor is an informed one.
VCs can bring a lot, but we prefer to raise capital from private investors who add value, from the business community and the construction industry. They act as mentors and are aligned with our vision. We communicate openly with them and treat them like real partners in the business.
It takes a real believer.
On our first projects, we spent a lot of time explaining why using a system over the internet to manage construction project documents was a good thing. The people who took us on were real believers. Some had problems on projects – perhaps litigation or lost information – and realised the benefits of everyone working on the same system. In new markets like North Africa and parts of Asia, we still need to find those people.
You can’t skimp on service.
We provide a level of ‘country’ customer service. My first job was putting petrol in people’s cars, even in an age of self-serve. Now, we invest a huge amount of resources in client service. We sell our system with unlimited training and support. It costs a lot, but is worth it because happy clients come back.
Culture is key.
Maintaining the company culture is one of our greatest challenges. We’ve effectively doubled in size each year, so at any one point half our people have been there less than 12 months. In the past, if somebody lacks that cultural fit, we’ve been too slow to move them on. It’s really important to act quickly.
Don’t be afraid to make mistakes.
If we’re getting everything right, we’re probably not taking the opportunities ahead of us. But we count on people to take responsibility. If they do make a mistake, we want them to own
up and say, “This is what I’ve learnt.”
Replacing thousands of paper documents, Aconex enables those working on major construction projects to view, track and share files on a central online platform. The system services projects worth a combined $200 billion worldwide, including London’s Savoy Hotel restoration, the Dubai Metro and the East-West Highway development in Algeria.