It was February in New York, and Finder.com.au co-founder and young rich lister Fred Schebesta was making a lot of people very uncomfortable.
While COVID-19 was still a distant threat, yet to find its feet outside of China, Schebesta had an inkling of the chaos that lay ahead.
“I just knew things were gonna get really weird,” he says.
“I was telling everyone: the Black Swan event, and everyone’s like, not really aware or comfortable with what I was talking about.
“And I was like, God, this is gonna be big, this is not like normal… and we need to get ready.”
To be clear, Schebesta is no clairvoyant. Nor, in the early stages of the coronavirus pandemic, did he fully appreciate the depth of chaos that had already taken root.
But the disruption that shook him, the world, and his comparison empire Finder.com.au in 2020 could yet propel his company into the list of Australian tech royalty like Atlassian or Afterpay.
“I think now is the time when Finder goes from being just a comparison service to being that plus a financial technology company,” Schebesta says.
The 39-year-old serial entrepreneur – whose $214 million fortune in November put him on the Australian Financial Review’s Young Rich List for a second year running – says he was forced to reboot himself several times in 2020.
His year kicked off with a frenzied flight from New York to his native Australia, and his arrival home just three days before the declaration of a global pandemic sparked a period of perpetual motion.
“I was waking up at 2am in the US and doing stuff there. I was talking to the UK team… the Australian team. I literally just went 24/7, like non-stop taking naps and it was wild,” Schebesta says.
“No company has avoided the pain, some companies have definitely adapted really well, and they’ve really rode the wave.”
“I think we’ve made some really good adjustments and taken our wins where we can but we’ve also taken some hits as well, I don’t think we’re completely unscathed.”
Finder resembled more of a blog when Schebesta launched it in 2006 with his university pal Frank Restuccia. It now employs more than 400 people and compares more than 100 products – from laser eye surgery to slow cookers.
Much of Schebesta’s plans for the new year revolve around the Finder app, which was launched in March to relatively muted fanfare.
The app combines personal finance management with automated product comparison, connecting users’ bank accounts to find savings across insurance policies, home and car loans, bills, subscriptions, and credit cards.
And Schebesta says that’s just the start. With plans in place for a cryptocurrency wallet to be built into the platform early next year, Schebesta’s ultimate goal is to offer automatic comparison and switching.
Currently, the app uses the consumer data it has been given a right to view and presents comparisons in a read-only format. The hope is that, in the future, the ability to automatically switch between products and policies will also be available.
“That’s where we’re going,” Schebesta says. “We’ve got tech teams that are building towards this.”
Schebesta is steadfast in his view that Australian technology, and Australian tech companies, can be the best in the world. He says the success of Atlassian, Airwallex, and Afterpay is something we could see much more of in a post-pandemic landscape.
“Australia can be a great technology country, it’s very stable, very safe. It’s got a solid economy, it’s recovered well,” he says
“And I think that creates a great environment to build technology.”
“The thing about Australia is that we’re so far away. We’ve been using technology from the start. We can communicate to everyone. We’re just used to it. We have a good leg up.”
Finder a window to disruption
In a year of momentous upheaval and change, Schebesta said the Finder team had a front-row seat to society’s evolution. The escalating stages of lockdown and quarantine during the year brought with them a distinct shift in the retail landscape
First came the rush for personal protective equipment and bulk kitchen supplies.
“Everything around PPE was huge,” he said.
Then came stock trading.
“Retail stock trading was huge, around the world and on our site.
“And it’s huge still. Digital banking, massive. Everyone who didn’t have a digital bank now got into it.”
Bitcoin too proved popular, with increased attention from institutional investors and older Australians with self-managed super funds helping propel cryptocurrency up more than 200 per cent to fresh records during the year.
“I think it’s a great alternative to putting money in the bank,” Schebesta, who first dallied in crypto in 2017, said.
“You know, it’s like, it’s like when the internet wasn’t really that big until email came in.”
“Bitcoin is going to be another one of those ones. People [are figuring out that] another use case for cryptocurrency in that it will help you protect your wealth during a massively inflationary, low-yield environment”.
He says while the stock market has proven a rollercoaster, and stimulus-assisted recovery has made for some dizzying returns, it will be the quality companies that ultimately win out.
“I mean, there’s always speculation, and everyone wants to pick the winner of what happens when we go back to normal.
“[But] I think the markets are now looking for value. And I think you’re looking for good companies that are actually not just having three or four good months, because everyone was in lockdown, but what’s actually going to survive and endure for the future.
“I think that’s the difference right now, like, I want to see an earnings report from March. I wouldn’t judge the company by October.”
When he’s able to, Schebesta plans to head back to the US.
“I get a lot of context, being there in the market and listening and understanding,” he says.
“And I think the UK is actually probably the leader but when it comes to FinTech so I spend a lot of time there as well.
But the sojourn back home to Australia hasn’t been without its benefits
“It actually feels really nice to be in one place for once. You build a routine, it’s really nice.
“And just less suffering when it comes to jetlag.”
Source: Thanks smh.com