When it comes to rapidly scaling a start-up, sometimes you have to call in the big guns.
As pop-up retail firm Appear Here prepares to embark on a post-fundraise growth push that will see global staff figures rocket from 60 to over 100 in the next 18 months, it has done just that.
Well known for making bold plays when staffing its senior management team – a former Blackstone MD, the head of menswear at H&M, and Bonobos’s head of marketing have all been lured to join the ranks of 25-year-old Ross Bailey’s brainchild over the past five years – it should come as little surprise that the new kid on the Appear Here block boasts a similarly impressive pedigree.
Meet Chris Bates, a Minnesota-born military man who took on the role of Appear Here’s general manager in November.
Following two tours of Iraq, Bates left the US army in 2012 before making his mark at Uber in Germany and later in Poland, scaling up the ride-hailing app’s business across continental Europe.
In short, if it is the management of rapid growth you are after, Bates is the man for the job. His brief? To make the right team hires and put the best processes in place to ensure that the Appear Here’s UK business is ready to grow at a rate that will match current market activity.
This is a company that, since being set up in 2013, now has more than 100,000 brands on its books, including Supreme, Loewe, Coca-Cola, Net-a-Porter and Kanye West.
Add to that the fact that the business was supercharged in May when it secured $12m (£8.9m)in Series B funding, led by Octopus Ventures and as part of the vehicle that resulted in LA-based proptech fund Fifth Wall’s first European investment, and you start to get a sense of the task at hand.
It really isn’t about the specific industry knowledge from the outset. As long as you can see and understand the potential you can get to know the rest.”
“After that funding round, the time was right for the company to scale,” says Bates. “Appear Here needed someone with an operational skill set to manage its systems, but also someone who has experience scaling a team really quickly.
“I grew the Uber team in Poland from zero to 270 in 18 months so that’s what I bring to the table, despite the fact I have never worked in real estate before.”
As it happens, property industry experience is far from a prerequisite at Appear Here. Bailey had no background in real estate when he set up the company, and he has put much of his subsequent success down to the “naivety” that allowed him to make bold decisions.
Once upon a time, this approach to hiring was relatively novel. Now, as property companies are desperate to stay ahead of the pack, setting their sights on management and tech talent from other, more digitally advanced sectors makes shrewd business sense.
“It really isn’t about the specific industry knowledge from the outset,” says Bates. “As long as you can see and understand the potential you can get to know the rest. I started to dig into the industry when I heard about this role and could see how it was changing and developing, and the opportunity for this kind of business became very obvious to me very quickly.”
Now, just over a month into his new role, Bates talks Uber, operations and taking Appear Here to the next level.
Supply and demand industry
The main point Bates is keen to make is just how similar Appear Here’s platform is to Uber’s.
The former matches landlords with tenants and brands, the latter matches drivers and riders. Put simply, these are two systems set up to streamline an issue around consistent supply and demand.
“The dynamics are very much aligned,” he says. “Uber started off using existing limousines to do trips and Appear Here did the same thing with existing spaces and tenants looking for those spaces.
“It is very exciting for me having worked for Uber and seen what happened there to see a group like Appear Here at such an early stage, because I know what something like this can turn into.
“The attitude towards my appointment has been overwhelmingly positive so far, despite the fact I am not an expert and people will have to help and teach me a bit. But I think everyone can see that, thanks to my previous experience, I have a lot to contribute.”
Some of Appear Here’s latest projects
And it’s not like he hasn’t learnt on the job before. Bates joined Uber with no previous business experience. He might have been fluent in German, having been stationed in the country between 2005-2012 with the army, and had an MBA from business school in Spain, but he didn’t even know what Uber did when he applied for the role.
“Honestly, I thought it was a German company because of the name,” he laughs. “It was only when I was talking to a friend of mine here in London that I realised how big a deal it was. I had no idea.”
He caught on fast. Within four years Bates had successfully scaled Uber’s Frankfurt and Dusseldorf platforms by putting the right systems in place to bring as many drivers and riders on to the system in as short a time frame as possible.
In 2016 he was moved to Poland and was charged with building the entire operation from scratch. “That role was more about day-to-day infrastructure management,” he says. “Putting processes in place to bring on new people and to ensure the business stayed operational.”
You have to nail the recruiting to create that machine. So that’s my top priority.”
Now, after being approached about the role in September, he is looking to apply similar processes to Appear Here to support an ambitious growth rate over the next 18-24 months.
And against a backdrop of more real estate firms than ever looking to hire outside the sector to get the best talent when it comes to digital transformation, Bailey sees just how valuable Bates could prove to be for the business.
“Appear Here has an ambitious roll-out plan for international expansion, and as we become an international business we need MDs in each market to focus on how we rapidly scale, continue to grow and deliver exceptional service,” he says.
“This year, we launched offices in Paris and New York, and plan to launch more in 2018. As our business moves faster and becomes international, my focus as chief executive is on building a world-class team and leading the business globally.”
Building a well-oiled machine
“You have to nail the recruiting to create that machine,” adds Bates.
“So that’s my top priority. Looking to put more people on the landlord/partnership team and looking for someone to take the lead on brand account management. We are also looking for a data engineer and will be looking to really bolster the tech team across the board.”
As for the day-to-day management of the company itself, Bates has no doubt he will be able to whip the growing team into shape.
“The military background helps,” he says. “That leadership experience stands most people in good stead. It is a great training ground and it makes you very decisive. It is also an environment where you have to move fast.
Ultimately comes down to confidence and risk appetite. You have to make fast decisions with the information you have at the time.”
“I think it ultimately comes down to confidence and risk appetite. You have to make fast decisions with the information you have at the time. You have to take a direction and commit and you also have to be prepared to adapt really fast if and when circumstances change.”
With plans to expand further into the US and Europe on the cards for Appear Here, and Bates’s UK strategy already being primed for the global blueprint, does he feel any pressure?
“No. I wouldn’t call it that,” he says. “I feel more excited than pressured. I have seen a company, very similar to this one, scale so fast and so successfully. I know what is possible and I know what can be achieved.
“And if I didn’t see the potential? Well, then I wouldn’t be here.”