Digital disruption has affected almost every industry and every business sector within, but according to FindaConsultant founder and managing director, Sharon Melamed, the recruiting and consulting industries have been ‘laggards in this space and are being challenged by a range of more nimble start-ups’. Sharon speaks with Business First about intelligent matching: firstly, through her consultant match service (FindaConsultant), and secondly through a buyer-supplier match service called Matchboard, focused on the sales, service and back office space.
In 2013, The Harvard Business Review published, ‘Consulting on the Cusp of Disruption’. The article analysed changes to the business consulting industry based on an influx of disruptive models that were then beginning to have an impact. Whilst the article deals primarily with business consulting, its premise is very much true of any industry. The article states: “We have come to the conclusion that the same forces that disrupted so many businesses, from steel to publishing, are starting to reshape the world of consulting. The implications for firms and their clients are significant. The pattern of industry disruption is familiar: new competitors with new business models arrive; incumbents choose to ignore the new players or to flee to higher-margin activities; a disrupter whose product was once barely good enough achieves a level of quality acceptable to the broad middle of the market, undermining the position of longtime leaders and often causing the ‘flip’ to a new basis of competition.”
That is the way of the world. Innovation and disruption influences future business decision and keeps business in its constant state of flux. Without that flux, businesses, products, services and consumers would be riding an eternal merry-go-round.
Business requires disruption and entrepreneurs to lead the way. Sharon Melamed has offered this disruption through two businesses: Matchboard, for sales, service and back office sourcing and FindaConsultant, which connects clients with their ideal consultants.
“Entrepreneurs spot gaps and fill them or spot problems and solve them. The one I spotted was that in every office, every day, people spend huge amounts of time searching online for suppliers of products and services,” Sharon says. “A search engine might bring up 300,000 search results for a given request (let’s say “call centre outsourcing”) – where do you start with a list that long to determine the best fit vendor for your needs? It literally takes days or weeks of time to research the market from scratch. My idea was to radically reduce this wasted effort and time, and help people get to a shortlist of between 1 and 5 ‘perfect match’ suppliers, just by investing 60 seconds in answering several filtering questions. Our matching software then locates the suppliers in the market that meet all the clients’ criteria (eg. product/service features, budget, location, industry specialisation, timeline).”
It is a model that has already shaken the market. In essence, Matchboard simplifies the way companies find new suppliers, and suppliers find new clients. Under the mantra, “Smart sourcing for sales, service and back office”, the company matches the market for hundreds of products and services that help businesses acquire or service customers – through call centres, the web, apps, social media or in person.
What sets Matchboard apart is its business model built on trust.
“We trust our suppliers to report their wins from the leads we provide, so we can claim the success fee which is our primary source of revenue,” Sharon says. “This model sends shivers down the spines of most businesspeople, but what I’ve found is that this honesty system works – the suppliers have a vested interest in being honest so they continue to get a stream of leads, and we monitor the progress of leads through buyer satisfaction surveys. Larger deals are public knowledge and can’t be hidden anyway. Last financial year, $5.9 million was invoiced as a result of our buyer-supplier matching service.
“The second differentiator is that all our suppliers are screened, and only those highly rated by their clients are allowed into our community. Big online platforms, whether it’s Google or Freelancer, simply can’t compete with this high-touch service. The end result is that we minimise the risk of ill-informed purchasing decisions, as we only recommend suppliers with solid reputations.”
Outsourcing has developed significantly since Sharon first started working in this sector. She says companies used to outsource either to save costs or as a means of servicing customers in foreign markets.
“The outsourcing agenda still includes these drivers, but has matured, and is now just as much about accessing global best practice and talent pools, where there’s a skills shortage at home. Outsourcing used to be the domain of large enterprise, but thanks to new models of engagement, is now very much a strategy used by small and medium-sized businesses as well. Enabling this trend are countries such as the Philippines, where there are now a range of outsource vendors with models and tools to make life easy for offshore first timers. These vendors often have an account manager or sales representative on the ground in Australia; some are even owned and operated by Australian entrepreneurs, removing the cultural barrier that can thwart success.
And of course, technologies such as those created by Sharon have enabled the sector to grow and impact all industries.
“Technology has replaced human interactions in much of the ‘grunt work’ of front and back office operations, meaning that outsourcing is moving up the value chain, and outsource vendors are now managing more complex transactions than before. For example, whereas a call centre agent used to assist a banking customer with their bank balance information, of course this is now available through self-service online, mobile apps or IVR/speech recognition systems. Robots are automating back office processes in a growing trend. Outsourcers have had to move away from wanting to generate as many calls or transactions as possible (as historically this is how they have made money), to a mindset of adding value to their clients by proposing technology solutions to actually reduce volumes and improve customer experience.”
It was the software behind Matchboard that was the key to get the business up and running and eventually making it the success it has become.
“The hardest part of setting up was writing the spec for the matching software and finding developers I trusted, within a very lean budget. I was lucky to find a fantastic strategic IT partner.”
The other side of the equation was the supply side. With any online marketplace you have to balance buy and supply and if you have thousands of suppliers, and not enough leads to feed them, they’ll leave in droves. The flip side to that is if you have diverse buyer requests, but not enough suppliers to draw on to match them with, buyers will soon look elsewhere. Finding the balance is tricky. To bring suppliers on board, Sharon deliberately chose a niche for Matchboard: sales, customer service and back office.
“I knew most of the suppliers from my 20-plus year career in this arena, so bringing them on was a breeze. Even though our matching service is free for the ‘buyer’, the biggest challenge is getting a constant stream of buyers to use the service. Once they use it, they love it, but it’s a general awareness issue, which we overcome through a combination of PR, SEO, social media, referrals and direct marketing.”
That 20 years of experience contains 15 years with Prestige International, an entrepreneurial-minded Japanese company that not only taught Sharon about cultural divide, but about long term relationships. She learnt that patience is a virtue and this is reflected in the strong emphasis she places on relationship development and building trust with her clients. She also learnt the power of leading by example and infusing her own ethics of integrity and transparency in those around her.
It was this work environment that gave her the courage to follow her own entrepreneurial goals. Sharon did move into a more corporate environment with IDT, Sitel and Excelior following her time with Prestige, but in 2012, she was ready to make the move from corporate to private operator.
“Ironically what held me back was that the Japanese company I spent most of my career with was so entrepreneurial itself, and gave me so much autonomy. It was only when I moved to the more traditional corporate sector that I felt something was missing and took the leap of faith to found a business and pursue the dream I’m now living.
“People think a job in the corporate world is ‘safe’ but I see it as the opposite. As people move into their 40s and 50s, their jobs are more likely to be at risk. As an entrepreneur, owning your business, you can’t be fired, you’re not dispensable, and your fate is in your own hands. It’s a very liberating sensation not to be at the mercy of a corporate taskmaster! Of course that wasn’t the only reason I moved to start-up land. I wanted a more flexible lifestyle, where I could work from a beach in Sydney or a café in Tel Aviv, and manage my family commitments at the same time. I also had a burning desire to make a difference in the world with a service that didn’t exist before, a service that made people’s lives easier, and Matchboard was my idea for that.”
Sharon was on the ball immediately. The matching software took a couple of months to spec and four months to build. The team got it right from day 1 with enhancements to the matching software made twice a year as the company takes on board customer feedback and suggestions.
“Our analytics capability has also evolved to allow us to slice and dice all the data we’re collecting about buyers and suppliers, and action those insights in the way we approach the market,” Sharon says.
This approach to the software made it easy for Sharon to launch FindaConsultant in September 2014, which is also a B2B matching site. Whereas Matchboard matches businesses with suppliers of sales, service and back office solutions, FindaConsultant matches businesses with consultants.
“The idea came about from a number of Matchboard clients, who were happy with the customer experience consultant or contact centre technology consultant we referred, and now wanted consultants outside the Matchboard niche – marketing consultants, IT consultants, HR consultants, Digital consultants…I thought for sure they’d be an online consultant match service, but at the time, I couldn’t find one, so I built it.”
FindaConsultant tackles the same problem as Matchboard (helping people find their perfect match suppliers of business services), but in a different niche – consulting, which is an A$8 billion market in Australia alone.
The matching technology which powers Matchboard and FindaConsultant is the same, it is just the front end is different.
Sharon now has more than 1200 Matchboard clients, including more than 60 household name brands. For the small, low-value requests (someone wants to buy SEO consulting services), it’s all online, but with large requests (for example, a $10 million outsourcing deal), Matchboard typically hop out of online mode and meet the buyer face to face.
“When large amounts of money are at stake, we take a very personalised approach and provide free value-added advice to clients to assist them with their procurement activity. No matter the size of the client, they receive our monthly newsletter full of thought leadership content and business tips, so that we’re front of mind for the next product or service they need to buy.
As the business grows, Sharon’s goal is to stay true to the mission she started out on three years ago: to save people time in finding trusted, perfect match suppliers. She is also considering a launch into larger-scale markets like the UK and US, whilst also seeing the matching platform take on a life in other shapes and forms which make a meaningful impact in other industries, even in government or not-for-profit settings.
In the meantime, she says she hopes to inspire others to take the plunge into entrepreneurship and follow their dreams because it is evident that we need more disruptors in the world. BFM