Brought to you by Haystack: A recruiter looks behind the scenes at Trade Me

  • Opinion
  • September 4, 2015
  • Alen Levis
Brought to you by Haystack: A recruiter looks behind the scenes at Trade Me

Trade Me’s secret sauce – why their recruitment culture is so good.

Trade Me is New Zealand’s very own wonder child. Equal parts Kiwi humility, ingenuity, and innovation, there is little doubt now, that Trade Me is a true success story in the tech start-up world. Now in its late teens, Trade Me has well and truly hit its stride. From the humble beginnings of a seed of an idea to the heady heights of becoming a publicly listed company in a mere 13 years. Bought out by Fairfax for $750 million in 2006, they now upload 72 images every second. Trade Me is the envy of all tech start-ups, and rightly so. But what is it that allows this technological freight train to continue unobstructed?

In 1999, a young computer consultant named Sam Morgan founded a small website called Trade Me. According to folklore, Sam came up with the idea after a frustrating experience buying a heater for his chilly flat. He was pretty fed up with other options like the Trade & Exchange. So, convinced he could provide a better service, he got cracking. Thus, the online marketplace, Trade Me, was born.

In two days, Trade Me had its first twenty registered users. Before long they had, 200, and then 200,000! Today, there are well over two million members and more than 650,000 using Trade Me every day. Now, fast-forward 15 years, and Trade Me is a household name. They’re now a publicly listed company on both the NZX and the ASX and have around 450 staff. To put this in perspective, back in 2010, Trade Me had 164 staff and by 2012 they had 245 staff.

In 2014, Trade Me had a staff of around 300. Through acquisitions of complementary businesses – Paystation, Life Direct, and an equity stake in Harmoney (peer to peer lending) – they’ve grown their workforce to 400 people.
This is a spectacular growth, and also an almighty undertaking. Despite this dizzying increase in staff, they say they have another 80 jobs to fill, yet they are not rushing to fill them. They want to get the right people for the right job.

So, how have they managed to achieve such growth without the wheels falling off the cart?

A staff increase in the realm of the numbers above is unbelievable in any industry, let alone tech, where there is a constant shortage of workers with the right skillset. How do they do it? Curiosity got the better of me, so I wanted to investigate further.

I was given the opportunity to talk with Michelle from Trade Me Jobs, and she kindly offered me a tour of Trade Me’s cool new offices. You’d have to be a fool to turn down such an offer. Naturally, I did not hesitate to hop on a plane to Wellington.
What really impressed me about Trade Me, wasn’t the three-level slide (although it was fun), nor the caravan meeting room and not even the cool, funky, retro reception sourced from its very own auction site. No, quite simply, it was the culture.

Why was everyone so damn happy at Trade Me? Well, at least from the outside looking in

I remember walking into the lift after my tour, and a young woman staff member was leaving for the day with a big smile on her face. This is a business. A happy workforce is a healthy workforce; and probably a damn effective one. What had begun as an innocent tour turned into a recruitment mission to find out what was going on under the hood. After all, the engine appeared to be humming.
I decided to make it my mission to arrange a second visit and interview someone for my blog; I wanted to know what it was that made this place tick? Why so smiley? Much to my surprise they happily obliged my request.

Admittedly I felt like a bit of a spy initially – a benign one I assure you – but one nonetheless. They granted me access to their inner sanctum, kindly answering my many probing questions. It was then that it struck me; they were proud of their culture and happy to talk about it. Then again, why wouldn’t you be?
The following is a casual conversation with a Trade Me staff member I had in ‘the central hub’, where everything appears to take place.

We work hard and play hard.
We’re informal but focused; much more interested in ideas and the execution of them, than the clothes people wear. We don’t wear suits to work every day (you shouldn’t be surprised to see stubbies, jandals and a t-shirt in summer), but we work hard and we make sure we hire people who get things done. We celebrate together when we do well.

We work towards a common goal

(Note can make a comment from opinion)
Other hallmarks of Trade Me’s workplace culture include:
– A desire to make good, day-to-day decisions based on merit and data, not bureaucracy and hierarchy
– No executive car parks: these are given up, and those staff who bike or scooter to work get to use them
– Deployment of changes to websites on a daily basis
– A strong respect for the Trade Me member community
– A very flat structure and an open office environment – including our CEO, Jon, who sits in the fray, in amongst our staff

How Trade Me sources people in a challenging market

We’ve sourced people from overseas, done the road show recruitment in Sydney, plus we have a full-time recruitment team that’s constantly expanding, with the sole focus of looking for more great people
Our hiring policies also depend on the role, the skill set and the experience; as well as location, urgency and level of seniority. We are a very picky bunch – finding people who have the right attitude and ‘light behind the eyes’ is just as important to us as technical smarts. That said, a typical process for us will look a little like this: Define the requirements of the role, define what our ideal person looks like in terms of experience to date but most importantly what sort of potential we want them to have. Then discuss how and where we will find them. We don’t rely on any one source to find our people. We have a great referral scheme. We utilize our networks and approach people directly. We advertise on Trade Me Jobs (obviously!), and also use recruiters as well as specialist off-shore places such as Stack overflow. We make good use of LinkedIn and Facebook and jump on Twitter if necessary. Our interview process can be quite intense, but we make no apologies for being thorough. We give everyone a test during the interview process, whether you’re a Developer, a Business Analyst, or a Customer Service Representative – this isn’t about knowing your IQ, it’s to get a glimpse of how you think and your approach to your work. Attitude is everything for us.

We know our core values and culture

We have seven core values that are really important to us:

1. Deliver awesome online experiences
2. Be entrepreneurial
3. Care about the community
4. Be trusted & straight up
5. Decide & act on merit
6. Hire & grow great people
7. Don’t be a dick.

“ #7 is actually a really important one to us”. “People at Trade me are down to earth – one anecdote from a staff member beautifully epitomises this. The other day I came into work and was amazed that Jon, the CEO, was wearing jandals pretty much like me, which is really down to earth.”

What does recruitment look like for Trade Me over the next 12 months?

The last 12 months has been a period of massive expansion for us, across technical roles mostly, but we’ve grown numbers in commercial teams as well. The next 12 months is a little hard to predict, in that we are still just as busy as ever filling new roles. In six months’ time, the focus may shift more to proactive talent-mapping. We will look to fine-tune our processes, make small and regular changes and get feedback from Trade Me folk who have been recruited recently, to find out what we could do differently; how we could improve. We will also look at new recruitment technologies and off-shore talent more closely.

Final takeaway:

So what did I learn about Trade Me? Had I cracked the happy code? Probably not. But I certainly have a better idea of the combination. They manage to foster mutually beneficial relationships between all staff. Yes, they have hierarchy, they have bosses; but the bosses are relatable. They mentor you, they wear jandals like you, and they want the best for you.


Alen Levis is a recruitment expert and the creator of Haystack Jobs. This post originally appeared on Haystack's blog.

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