Meet Dave & Ross, two Australian cousins with Sicilian heritage, what could go wrong? Over the last 16 years they have worked together to build products that make people’s lives better
Dave started doing graphic design work for friends and family while in high school, and he found it to be a great way to get some hands-on experience in the field while making some pocket money. So, like any normal 16 year old, he decided to start his own design company, with no knowledge of what that meant.
To give you an example, he went to his local printer and made up a business name (which probably already existed – ‘Inferno Design’ was the name, because he thought his designs were on fire) and logo, made business cards and thought he had a company, until he showed his cousin, Ross (19 years old at the time), who laughed and said WTF (?). At the time, Ross had just started his degree in Multimedia, the first of its kind in Australia (that makes him feel old).
It was right there and then that Ross said to Dave, “let’s do this together – you design and I’ll code”. And that’s when these two cousins from Werribee with Sicilian heritage started working together – what could go wrong? What was the name of their company, I hear you ask? Cuz Design. Yes, because they are cousins; mind blown, right?!
Ross and Dave spent every spare moment they had working together at Ross’ mum’s kitchen table. Whether it was after school, weekends, or holidays, you would always find them working side by side. They loved their craft so much that they never considered it to be work.
They built websites, designed logos, printed brochures, and so much more for friends and family as word started to spread through their small network at the time. Even though they argued like two grumpy old men, their blatant honesty towards each other would, even though they didn’t know it at the time, set them up to achieve great things in their future.
In a world where people tell you what you want to hear for fear that the honest truth will hurt you, Ross and Dave’s honesty towards each other has never derailed the strong bond that has stood the many tests that they were about to encounter.
2003 was more of the same. With Ross in his third year of university and Dave in his final year of high school, they started to think of new ways to get clients outside of their circle of friends and family. At the time, retail was very traditional in that having an online store was mainly for big brands with deep pockets. They wanted to make it easy and cost-effective for any retail store to have an online presence.
So they partnered with Interspire (now known as BigCommerce) and ventured out, door-knocking all of the retail stores down Bridge Road and Chapel Street (Melbourne, Victoria). They were often laughed out of the store to the words “We don’t need an online store, buying online is a fad.” Bet you’re laughing right now reading this, but it is true to the word.
Ross was in the final year of his degree and multimedia, while Dave was entering into his first year of university (funnily enough, they both attended the same university but did different courses, with Dave enrolling on the Communication of Design degree).
During this year, they continued to build up their client base while also trying out a new idea. Inspired by their recent year of building online stores and starting to grow a passive income from the monthly eCommerce subscriptions,they found a gap that they thought they could try and fill.
Their idea was to build an up-market online shopping centre or mall (for those reading in the US) so rather than visiting hundreds of different brand websites, you could visit one website and have all of your favourite retail brands in one place. This allows you to browse and buy everything from the comfort of your own home.
The name was Where Fashion Lives—a marketplace for fashion lovers. This venture eventually failed as they were not able to build up both ends of the market enough to offer real value. This was at a time when marketplaces were pretty new. Undeterred by this stumble, they pushed on.
The company wasn’t producing enough funds to support two full-time employees, so Ross got a full-time job in IT in the education industry while Dave continued working on the business during and after university with Ross. By “during university,” I mean any chance that he had to combine a project with paid work, he did. For example, one project was to create a brand, website, and full marketing material for a fake restaurant.
Instead of just making up a name and going with the flow like the rest of his class, Dave went and pitched a real restaurant that was looking for these services and completed them while in class, turning education into actual paid work.
David graduated university, and with the world at their feet, Ross and Dave decided to change their business name from Cuz Design to S2KA Creative (a play on their surname). They launched new products and services such as domain and web hosting, marketing services such as email newsletter campaigns, paid marketing maintenance and so on.
All of this built up their passive income to a level where they could pay some attention to another idea they had, which was to launch a clothing label (Kode) because, why not? Right? Safe to say that this venture didn’t see them rub shoulders with Donatella Versace. Another one for the archives.
In 2007, they were approached by a company called Members Benefits Group (MBG), asking them to join their group of companies and have the opportunity to sell their services to MBG’s massive database of clients. This situation was almost too good to be true, so they decided to go all in and give it a go. This change also meant another name change for their business, now it was called MBG Interactive, to fall in line with the other MBG offerings such as insurance, education, etc. (think Virgin).
Their clients had got used to them changing names and it almost became a novelty with their clients: “Guys it’s been 12 months, time for another name change yet?”
Ross, having spent some time in the education sector, had an idea for a new business. The idea at the time was that there was no way for you to record and store all of your school notes and have them readily available whenever you wanted. The name of this app was ‘Edlife’, and they pitched the idea, along with the initial concept visuals, to an investor who loved it and agreed to fund us 500k as an angel investment.
They signed the terms and the very next day Ross quit his IT job to join Dave full-time. A short time into building Edlife, they burnt through their savings, and it was time to draw down on their 500k investment.
When they asked for the funds, they never came, and after a month or so of back-and-forth their investor, who will remain nameless, was jailed for embezzlement; safe to say they didn’t see a dollar, and that contract they signed was worthless – all of this while Ross had just quit his job, and they had their backs up against the wall.
Forced to dump Edlife and focus on their core services to survive, both Ross and Dave still didn’t give up. They made a promise to themselves that they wanted to build a product and move out of the service-based industry, as at that time, businesses like ‘Freelancer’ and ’99 Designs’ were eating their lunch.
With the recent app boom spurred on by Apple, they ventured into building apps for clients. Having built the first version of the wildly successful Home Doctor, they were then joined by Stephen Pegoraro, a young coding genius who also happened to be a pilot (flying was his passion, but he was an unbelievable developer).
To fund their app development ideas, they also started a nightclub called Bar of Eden (’cause that’s what you do, right?) with a group of friends who had successfully built and sold a nightclub just the year before.
After getting on a bit of a roll when the nightclub showed early signs of success, they thought that 2010 was going to be their year. Little did they know that good old life was winding up for a swift swing to the chin. After a great summer with the nightclub, local competition got fierce, with organised fights taking place in their venue during peak times. This resulted in having two or three nights with 1,500+ people coming through the bar to less than a 100 customers on some nights.
With all of these incidents taking place, their time was split between their current design and development business, which was suffering, and spending time at the local police headquarters dealing with security footage of the previous weekends’ events. They were both doing 90+ hours per week, and by the end of 2010, they were broken.
Having almost hit rock bottom, they asked themselves whether they were cut out for this life or whether they should just get jobs and work 9 to 5. That week,they were invited to a networking event called The Entourage, and they thought, “why not?” At the event, they sat next to two guys who had their own startup called Innovative Beverage Co. They made a relaxing drink called ESC (think the opposite of Red Bull).
They had a great product but no sales, no website, and no marketing. So, at this event, Ross and Dave pitched the idea to them that if they took over all of their marketing and digital presence, they would give them $1 for every can we sold. They agreed, and a new business model for them was born. After working on this product for about six months, they introduced Ross and Dave to their investor, Philip Weinman.
They instantly connected with Phil and were invited to work out of his building in St Kilda, which was a quirky old mansion next to a church filled with over 10 other startups. The place was buzzing. Also, just a small side note – David got married this year to his darling wife, Grace.
With fresh beginnings, it was time for another name change, so we kicked off 2012 known as ‘Locomote’, which in Urban Dictionary meant “To travel with a set reason in mind,
unwavering toward that goal”. During this time, Phil had just launched a new travel agency along with Clive Sher (PlanB Travel), and that was our first exposure to corporate travel.
At the time, Plan B was a startup of its own; they were in the midst of building their brand, while getting their travel licenses to be able to operate. Phil wasn’t happy with any of the logo designs he was receiving for Plan B, so asked Ross and Dave if they wanted to submit a pitch.
They did, and they worked tirelessly to ensure they made a good impression; they got the brief on Thursday and delivered the first draft on Friday (which was Good Friday – Easter). Phil and his team loved the new brand, and we were then invited to work on another project for Plan B, which was to revamp the booking tool that they were using with their clients at the time.
Dave, Ross and Stephen designed and coded a fresh look for the tool which helped PlanB win over 50 clients since launching it, and again they did this for a small fee and a clip of every booking that went through the booking tool.
Word spread fast about what they had done within the travel industry, and it was late one night that Phil got a call from a friend who was consulting to Xstrata Coal on their travel programme – they had a meeting the very next day. They needed a new way to manage, approve and book their travel, as they had tried all the current tools on the market and nothing met their needs.
Phil then called Ross and explained the problem, and the next day Ross flew to Sydney to chat through the potential idea. The very next day Ross, Dave and Stephen began working on what this product could be.
That week, David created a slide deck with what the product would look like and how it would work, and with this slide deck in hand Ross flew back to present the idea to Xstrata Coal. The meeting was a success, Xstrata loved it. But they didn’t want to pay.
They discovered that corporates get incentives from Global Distribution Systems (GDS) to stay on their network, and that moving Xstrata from one GDS to another would provide them with the funding they required to get started. So they convinced Xstrata that if they converted them to an alternate GDS with no disruption to their business, they would pass on the incentives, and they agreed.
They were on Sabre GDS at the time, and they moved them to Travelport GDS, which got the attention of the CEO Gordon Wilson, and that’s when they started working with Travelport.
So, before a line of code was written they had their first paying customer, and at that time if you visited their website, Locomote was still providing website design and marketing services, with a little feature box that showcased the corporate travel platform – crazy when you think about it.
Amongst all of this, David and Grace were blessed with their first child, Chelsea (named after the football team, of course, he tried to go with Zola but that didn’t sit well with Grace).
With the help of Phil and Clive, who later invested in Locomote to help speed up the development of the platform, they opened up doors into various other corporates, which allowed Ross and Dave an opportunity to go in and pitch what Locomote was, why they were doing it,and the vision for the company. After each meeting they knew they were on to something, as each corporate loved the idea, adding their own insight into how they managed travel.
Knowing that they finally had a product, they started to build a team to help bring this vision to life. They made the decision to solely focus on this product and to sell off the service side of the business that they had been working on for the past 12 years, which was a huge decision for them.
Stephen was also a major part of the journey up to this point, but decided to follow his passion to become a pilot for Cathay Pacific, which he still is to this day. An amazing achievement in itself for such a young person. Ross and Dave wouldn’t have achieved what they had without the help of Stephen.
In 2014 is when they officially launched the travel product into the market. With the launch, they were on a roll, signing flagship clients such as World Vision, ANZ Bank and Medibank, just to name a few. Travelport (NYSE: TVPT), a leading travel commerce platform that was mentioned earlier, acquired 49% of Locomote, after they had successfully collaborated on some projects together.
This was an important strategic investment made by Travelport as they now had a stake in a corporate facing product that they never had before. The win with ANZ Bank was a landmark deal as it was a first of its kind where the corporate chose the technology first, then the GDS, and lastly the travel agency sparking a shift in the ways travel was bought and managed by corporations at the time. Also, just as a small side note, Ross got married this year to his darling wife, Rachel.
With the continued success in 2015, Travelport took up a majority stake in the company, increasing their shareholding to 55%. Although terms were not disclosed, media reports peg it at being valued from $50 million to $100 million.
This was a significant deal as it showed how serious Travelport was taking their corporate direct approach and their confidence in the Locomote team. They had also signed up strategic travel agency resellers to help them build momentum and to build their sales force globally. To add to this great year, David’s second son, Leo, was born.
Locomote grew it’s footprint from just an Australian operation to a global force opening up operations in the United Kingdom while having a presence in Japan, Malaysia, and Singapore. In June 2016, they agreed to sell their remaining stake to Travelport as the time was right on many fronts for the co-founders Ross and Dave, along with initial investors Phil and Clive. To top this phenomenal year, Ross and Rachel were blessed with their first son, Alexander.