Success came to us late. We were in our thirties when we hit on the idea for Catchoftheday, but before that we worked hard at building shitty little businesses that never seemed to take hold. We had no idea that all those shitty little businesses were small steps towards building much bigger, more successful businesses—some of which would disrupt several industries in the Australian market and shake the retail sector to its core.
If you haven't succeeded yet, don't give up
We started our retail ‘careers’ selling at the markets, the best training ground for commerce you can get. That experience helped us develop a pretty thick skin, which served us well and inured us to all manner of insults and injuries. Starting high school in Australia as teenagers with weird accents, limited English and an aversion to AFL toughened us up even more. But in hindsight, being outsiders made us who we are today.
Our father, Shlomo (Aaron) immigrated to Israel from Romania as a child, and our mum Editha (Edith) was an immigrant from the Ukraine. They met, got married, had three kids—Gabby, the eldest; Einat, our sister; and Hezi—and raised us in Nahariya, a beautiful seaside town in Israel. Our birthplace holds a very special place in our hearts. It was a city where everyone knew and cared for one another. Israel is the home of Jewish immigrants from all parts of the world and, as such, we got to share the best and worst moments of growing up in this war‐affected region with friends and neighbours from many cultures and countries: Spain, Morocco, Romania, Poland, Iraq, Russia, Iran and more. Our community was colourful, vibrant and full of love, laughter and noise. Every family in our apartment block had an average of four kids, and dozens of families shared a play area the size of an Aussie backyard. After walking to school in the mornings (six days a week, not five as is the norm in Australia), the afternoons would be filled with soccer, surfing and wandering the streets hanging out with our friends until it was time to go to bed. We didn't have any devices or internet and we were the better for it. We often tell our kids that we had the best childhood ever, surrounded by friends, love and great weather.
All the parents were out working hard to support the families, so we kids had no option but to grow up fast, fend for ourselves and face life head on. Growing up in this tightknit neighbourhood taught us how to accept people from all cultures, share what we had and be tolerant of other points of view: all valuable life skills that have served us well ever since.
Our childhood sounds idyllic, and it truly was, but it certainly wasn't an average childhood. The closest most Australian kids get to experiencing war is playing video games such as World of Warcraft or Call of Duty. For us, however, war was real. During the conflict with Lebanon in 1982, our city, being the northernmost city on the Mediterranean, was the main target for rocket missiles into Israel. We'll never forget huddling in our houses or shelters during war times, and hearing the non‐stop whistles of rockets falling all around us. Wheeeeeee Boom! Wheeeeeee Boom!
When the rockets stopped, all the kids in the neighbourhood would continue life as if nothing had happened, except for one popular local challenge. We'd all run around to see who could find the largest piece of missile shrapnel and show it off to our family and friends. (You could say we did ‘show and tell’ a little differently in Israel.) Every kid in the neighbourhood had a prized collection of shrapnel in their bedroom. We kept ours on the top of a bookshelf, next to Gabby's poster of Samantha Fox and our 34‐centimetre black‐and‐white Metz TV.
Growing up during a war‐torn period like this made us impervious to most forms of fear and forced us to make a decision. Do we let these situations scare us and stop us from living life? Or do we find a way to overcome them and turn them to our advantage? We chose the latter.
As a result, things that scared others never really scared us. After all, when you've had bombs exploding outside your front door, what is there left to be fearful of? A customer saying, ‘I won't buy your product’; a journalist saying, ‘I can't cover your story’; a supplier saying, ‘We won't let you sell our products’? Meh.
The third door
Our dad, who showed us what persistence really means, said to us, ‘There's the front door, the back door, and then there's the third door’. That was the door you took when all the others were shut. Being poor immigrants (we moved to Australia because our parents were looking for a better life) this third door was often the only one open to us. His strong example of how to push through the doors that were closed has stayed with us ever since.
This ‘no fear’ attitude paid dividends, especially in the early Catch days when we and our small team were working hard to get things done and make a noise. It also helped us get noticed by everyone who mattered: the customers, the suppliers and the media. The support of all three created the magic that enabled Catch (and all our other businesses) to become the ferocious disruptors that went on to fight the giants (some of them dinosaurs!) of Australian retail.
It all started at the dinner table
Our parents were unusual in that they exposed us to entrepreneurial thinking from a very early age. In other words, we talked about ‘how to make money’ a lot. In fact, at dinner it was our favourite topic. Their attitude? Don't focus on saving money. Find ways to make money. Their advice gave us a high appetite for risk, and cultivated within us a mentality of innovation and creativity—all crucial skills for being an entrepreneur.
Our father was an electronics engineer who worked multiple jobs to support the family. In Israel he worked for the Department of Defence, and when we moved to Australia he ran a series of electronic stores and had a market stall at Croydon in the outer south‐eastern suburbs of Melbourne. He was an old‐fashioned kind of entrepreneur, the kind who could spot an opportunity wherever he went. For example, growing up in Israel, he discovered that changing his car over was a quick and easy way to earn a buck. His modus operandi was to buy a second‐hand car at a good price (his favourite was the Peugeot Model 404, mainly because it was the taxi driver's car of choice) and on‐sell it for a higher price.
Dad's business model was pretty basic: he didn't buy a new car or add new features, he just searched high and low for a good deal (in the pre‐internet days, this was really hard work) by driving around the country to locate the best cars at the lowest prices. He'd then add value by giving the car a quick repair, a spit and polish, and then resell it for a profit.
We've followed this same ‘business model’ ever since and we can attribute much of our success to it. We learned a valuable lesson early on: you make your money when you buy the goods, not when you sell them. If you buy low, selling the product is easy.
Building the family business
Being brothers, and sharing a room for 16 years growing up, we knew each other well, and could rely on each other to do the right thing. This trust enabled us to build the Catch business together but work on separate things, thereby doubling our output. We often worked in separate locations on different parts of the business, so we sometimes didn't even know exact details about what the other was doing. But we always knew we were there for each other and had each other's back, no matter what.
We mostly speak as one throughout this book, but occasionally we'll break out and tell you an individual story. To get started, here's an honest, in‐your‐face appraisal of what we think of each other because, we know each other best.
Working weekends at the market
Not long after arriving in Australia in 1986, our parents set up a stall selling stuff at Croydon market. While our neighbours went to the beach on a Sunday, the Leibovich family went to work. It wasn't optional. We all had to go.
As soon as Gabby turned 18 (Hezi was 12 at the time) and got his licence and his Holden Gemini, we struck out on our own and set up another stall at Wantirna market. We'd arrive at the Wantirna market car park at 4 am on a Sunday to secure our place in the car park queue. Sometimes we'd even sleep in the car overnight to ensure we were in a good position when the doors opened. Then, as now, location is everything. At 8 am they'd let us in and as soon as the gates opened, we'd race to get the best spot.
We sold clearance apparel that we managed to source from a factory in Clayton (thank you Mr Roitman for giving us our first break!). On our first day, we made $700 in five hours. Not bad for a couple of kids. We packed up and went home early as we'd sold out of everything.
But there was a reason for that success. Other than our great merchandise, we found a way to increase our chances of success. We put our individual talents to work. Gabby would shamelessly jump on the table and spruik at the top of his voice to get us noticed. He turned the stall into a show. As the crowd gathered to see what the hell was going on, Hezi would pitch the benefits of owning a beautiful $2 Australiana T‐shirt with a picture of an echidna or emu on it, and why everyone in the family should own one as well. We also set up a very efficient bagging and payment process, so it ran like clockwork. We were a great double act.
The challenge of working in any market—online or offline—is that sometimes all the stallholders sell the same thing: row after row of it. It's crucial to have a point of difference. The great thing is that you don't always have to reinvent the wheel. It's okay to be inspired elsewhere and apply it to your own circumstances. One of the more memorable vendors we recall from our time selling at the market was a guy called Jonno, an older guy who'd been working the markets for years. He'd stand up on the back of his truck, speak into a crackly hand‐held microphone, hold up one product at a time, and work the crowd into a fever on the premise he only had a few in stock and once the product was gone, it was gone. The crowd would fight to give him their money and his wife would move around, pocketing the cash as quickly as she could. They sold so much they hired someone to hold open the bags so his wife could stuff the product in and move on to the next person.
This concept of focusing on one item at a time, within a limited time span, and spruiking it loudly to the world, must have seeped into our subconscious because those three principles formed the basis of what Catchoftheday would become.
The cut and thrust of the markets was our introduction to running our own retail business, and after a while we became quite good at the basics of the retail trade. What's more, we could see a direct correlation between our efforts and our earnings, and we loved every moment of it! We've taken many lessons from those market days and applied them to our business. Buying, pricing, selling, haggling—it's all part of the act. We've been ‘playing’ at it since we were kids. It's in our DNA. It's who we are.
Something has to change
‘Free spinal check’: three words I never want to hear again
The ‘can't fail’ idea
A little website called eBay
But there's always that third door.
I did my research and discovered that Sunbeam had a factory outlet store in Maribyrnong, 11 kilometres north‐west of Melbourne, and it was open to the general public. You beauty! I drove over in my trusty Mitsubishi one‐tonne van, filled it with stock, took it home, photographed the stock, uploaded it to eBay, watched and waited … and sure enough, the sales rolled in. It's hard to believe now, but at that time, I was the only person selling Sunbeam online. I owned the market! My mission was to keep finding unique products just like that: products people wanted that couldn't be found anywhere online.
One memorable product that sold well in those early days was security safes. I'd buy them from Bunnings for $19, sell them for a huge profit, and make more money in a day than I'd made all week at Panasales. I still smile every time I walk past the safe aisle at Bunnings.
However, selling on eBay in those early days wasn't without its challenges. The downside of not having a lot of sellers online was that there weren't that many buyers online either. But all things considered, especially compared to now, selling online back then was a piece of cake. Those were the days!
The early incarnation of eBay was a topsy‐turvy world. Items that you could buy for $20 in a brick‐and‐mortar store could sell for three or four times that at auction on eBay. People were willing to pay more for a host of different reasons. For some it was the thrill of the auction and the ability to access new products. For others it was the sheer convenience of having the products home delivered. For others again it was the novelty of buying online.
So, it's late 2005. There's Gabby, building up his small eBay store from Melbourne. Meanwhile, Hezi is building up his small eBay store on the Gold Coast in Queensland. They were operating in parallel without realising it. So when Hezi returned to Melbourne, they decided that maybe they should pool their resources, and their websites, and work together. That small decision would turn out to have a massive impact.
* Chutzpah has no equivalent in the English language, but in Hebrew it means arrogant, audacious and brazen. In a business sense it means finding an undiplomatic and creative way of getting things done.
* UX (user experience), UI (user interface), SEO (search engine optimisation), SEM (search engine marketing).