INSIGHT: How Serko is sounding out top tech talent

"It’s testament to the growth of Kiwi businesses that it is becoming difficult to attract staff."

Eleven months has now passed since Serko commenced trading on the NZX Main Board, and for the growing travel tech firm, the business has gone from strength to strength.

Since CEO Darrin Grafton banged the gong on June 24, at the company’s swanky Parnell offices, top-line revenue growth has reached 55 percent with total revenues hitting the $10.4 million mark.

In reporting a $6.4 million loss, alongside online booking revenue growth of 62 percent, Grafton claims the business is targeting profitability in FY17.

From the outside in, and for want of a better phrase, it appears the eight-year-old business is flying high in the Kiwi skies.

But due to New Zealand’s growing IT talent shortage, and the need to recruit from overseas, Grafton, much like Rod Drury, Ian McCrae and co, acknowledges that the diminishing Kiwi tech talent pool is causing employers to think outside of the box.

“It’s testament to the growth of Kiwi businesses that it is becoming difficult to attract staff,” says Grafton, speaking exclusively to Computerworld New Zealand.

“If you look at any growing tech company, they are chewing up such huge pools of talent because none of us are slowing down, we’re all focused on growth.

“This comes from investing into Research and Development which helps generate new revenue lines which then requires talent and it’s important to hire early to get ahead of the curve in that respect.”

Grafton, who created the company alongside Director Bob Shaw in May 2007, admits that Serko’s pulling power has drastically changed since its IPO last year, but nonetheless, changes were needed to persuade highly skilled workers to join the ranks.

“It was a lot harder to attract staff before we listed but what we’ve had to do is take control,” Grafton adds.

“In the past we were reliant on effectively poaching talent through recruitment agencies but what we’ve done now is focus on our way of working and establishing a point of difference for us within the market.”

A big move for the company was becoming immigration certified, which now allows for easier recruitment of overseas talent, a move Grafton says is already paying huge dividends.

“During our last job advert in Easter, we received over 900 job applications and around 70 percent of them were from overseas,” he adds.

“That’s a big change and we needed that change to compete effectively because we’re up against some great New Zealand technology businesses in the same field.

“We’ve gone to great lengths to ensure our brand image reflects our culture, something we have really taken ownership of since January this year.”

Culturally speaking, Serko is a cool company. In fact, the technology sector is known for its cool, convention-defying offices especially, think Xero, Orion Health, Vend and the like, such is their ability to relax, have a bit of fun but still manage to kick some ass on the global stage.

As discussed by Computerworld New Zealand earlier this month, the technology sector’s famously alternative workspaces are being replicated by many businesses, but do they have the desired impact on employee retention?

And while the lure of better wages and faster career paths may take New Zealanders overseas in the first place, is the promise of a better lifestyle and improved work-life balance the dangling carrots that will bring them home?

“We realised over time that a lot of our talent was coming through word of mouth and people telling others about out internal culture and way of working,” Grafton explains. “But we also realised we needed to project this vibe outwards also and since the IPO we’ve seen a huge change in recruitment processes.”

According to Grafton, people are now performing powerpoint presentations on why they should join Serko, rather than the Grafton and his board of directors relentlessly pursuing the talent.

Signifying a dramatic shift in how the company is perceived both as a brand and as a place of work, Grafton says the company’s recent round of Callaghan Innovation funding also allows for some “cool projects for new people to come and work on.”

“We want our technology to reflect the different diversities of people using the technology and as you become more of a global organisation you start to want to adopt these cultures even more,” he adds.

“For instance we have a strong male to female ratio which is about 60-40 at present but always changing, we employ people from a range of cultures and it is this diversity when developing the technology that is absolutely crucial in helping portray Serko as an accepting workplace which then helps broaden the overall talent range.”

At present, the 2015 New Zealand Hi-Tech Awards Company of the Year finalist is actively recruiting a Chief Operating Officer, as the company sticks to its plans of significant overseas expansion in the coming months, and years.

But while Grafton is currently looking to fill a senior role at present, he accepts that generally speaking, employers need to offer graduate positions also, insisting that growing businesses should incorporate younger, hungry talent keen to jump on the tech ladder as opposed to always seeking out the IT veterans.

“When I was younger I had a choice between university and going technology courses,” Grafton recalls. “Everybody advised me to do technology courses because I would be immediately productive and gain work experience in the industry.

“It’s crucial to ensure that we are producing talent as early as possible in key areas and we owe it to society to ensure this happens.

“Looking at it, some IT staff can probably earn more than doctors in a lot of cases, and it doesn’t cost as much to get through the training courses.

“So I do think the industry provides an attractive package to bring a lot of students into IT roles, whether that be at primary or secondary school.”

While the Government has made “significant improvements” in helping growth the talent base across the country, the problem for Grafton is that for Serko, it is almost too late.

“They are making progress but we’re years away from getting the growth in numbers within IT,” he adds. “But what you are seeing is high talent looking to move to New Zealand which is definitely a step up although the key is to know ensure we keep up the momentum.”

At Serko, Grafton oversees an initiative that encourages staff to bring their children to work, to help out with a range of little jobs and activities that help improve their understanding of how businesses operate and work.

Whether that be on the IT, admin or clerical side of the business is almost irrelevant, with the aim designed around engaging children with companies at a younger level, and mentoring talent from start to end.

“We want to make Serko a place where you can achieve your aspirations and by thinking outside of the box, we believe we are making Serko an attractive Kiwi company to work for," he adds.

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