From After Work to Life's Work: interview with James Bowe and Tim Harley - founders of OwnHome
Our interview series spotlights our founders' intrepid journeys: what makes them tick, what gives them joy, and how they built the conviction to make 'after work' their life's work.
We are excited to back teams solving big and urgent problems (we will be releasing our investment note on OwnHome next week). But an equally big part of our OwnHome investment thesis was the opportunity to back James and Tim - two intellectual powerhouses, who also happen to be best friends. James and Tim’s bromance is the stuff of Hollywood movies - they’ve been inseparable since law school, they’ve road-tripped together, lived together, and Tim carried the cake at James’ wedding. They’ve long thought about founding a business together, and luckily for us, they’ve landed on a problem they’re deeply passionate about solving - housing affordability.
I found this interview as moving as it was eye-opening: full of quirks, cheeky gems, and actionable insights for anyone thinking about taking the plunge and becoming a founder. The OwnHome team are motivated to build something positive for the ages; and we are excited to ride shotgun as James and Tim embark on their biggest roadtrip yet!
Tell us about how you two met!
Tim: James and I have known each other for over a decade. We went through law school together, and travelled the world together. Let’s just say we know each other’s strengths and quirks embarrassingly well. During our time at Uni, we purchased an old Chevy Suburban in the States and drove it along the coast of Mexico for a few months. Spending every waking moment together feels like you are packing a lifetime of friendship into a few months. I won’t forget James trying to teach me to surf at a quiet break known as Puerto Escondido, aka the Mexican Pipeline. It’s lucky we both have a sense of humour!
We dipped out toes into entrepreneurship a while back. When we lived together in Surry Hills, we started hawking a coffee subscription business. We quickly realised that door-to-door sales is brutal! It was a fun foray that exposed us to the eternal chicken-and-egg question - ‘do you build the supply side or the demand side first?’
Ten years later, we were ready to try again - and to bring an increased level of intentionality to building a business together. We set up a weekly call - every Saturday night we’d meet, and we each had to bring ten business ideas to the table. We kept circling around a desire to help our siblings to get their foot on the property ladder, and find a way to surmount the ‘deposit gap’. James had seen a business in the US solving this same problem. Very quickly, we agreed that this was the problem we wanted to dedicate our energies to.
Talk us through your journey… How did OwnHome grow from an idea to a living and breathing company?
Tim: Going through the first steps of the journey was great fun. What exactly is the problem? Who are the ideal customers? How else are people trying to solve this? Why hasn’t this already been done before? And most importantly… what should the business be called? Funnily, purchasing the domain for OwnHome was our ‘walk-the-plank’ moment.
From that moment on, we set out to systematically establish the big proof points we needed to reach escape velocity. We studied market dynamics, other solutions, customer demand, our ability to purchase homes, and partner with banks at scale.
James and I both had demanding careers. He was crushing it as a Senior Manager at Bain, and I was launching TransferWise (now Wise) in the Middle East as their first man on the ground. We applied for, took part in, and won Commbank’s x15 Xccelerate program, after work. When the announcement came out in the press, the Head of Comms at Wise messaged me a link, and said “is there something you’re not telling us?” That was when we knew we had to go all-in (after creating a smooth off-ramp to ensure we didn’t put additional work on our colleagues).
Going full-time about being able to devote 100% of our energies to OwnHome was exhilarating. We feel a sense of urgency about our mission. We want to get people into their forever homes, as quickly as we can.
What inspired you to make ‘Afterwork, work’?
Tim: I want three things from my work: to have a positive and direct impact, to create a place where others thrive, and to be able to grow as a person. Founding an impactful, mission driven business is a great way to realise all three aims. Being able to do this with one of my favourite humans in the world, and work on arguably one of the biggest intergenerational issues facing Australia, was an opportunity I couldn’t turn away from.
What has been the biggest barrier to getting your business off the ground? How did you overcome it?
Tim: Building our own conviction that this particular societal problem is the one we feel excited to make a multi-decade commitment to. We knew we couldn’t do this in half-measures. We had to think, “F*&# yes - this is the business I want to spend the next ten years building”. Once we built our own conviction, every other barrier has been comparatively smaller.
What is a golden rule that you live by?
Tim: Discipline equals freedom.
James: Long-term games with long-term people. This is a core maxim for us and for OwnHome, and guides everything we do - including who we’ve brought on as investors, hires, and early customers. We’re also guided by this maxim in all our relationships - we’ve been best friends since University, and although we spent 7 years living in other countries, we’re now home building OwnHome together.
Outside of work, what are you into right now? Any secret pleasures?
Tim: Peak awe is running and cycling in nature; and my secret pleasure is listening to Endure by Alex Hutchinson. Nature and physical exercise is a salve for the soul while hardening the mind.
James: I love getting out to the surf, and also love to soak up family time. As one of five siblings, I now have an extended family of nieces and nephews. After so many years living overseas, I’m making up for lost time.
What is it like working with your best mate?
Tim: I wouldn’t have it any other way. I often feel a deep sense of gratitude that we’re able to build OwnHome together. Admittedly, the toughest past has been retaining our personas as ‘mates’ and doing ‘matey’ things without conversation spilling over into work-related goals for that week.
As best mates, we have a level of underlying trust that acts as a lubricant to our decision making. We know each other’s quirks, strengths, and biases which means we can make tough calls rapidly with less context.
James: I couldn’t imagine starting a business without Tim - and this isn’t our first attempt! Building something from scratch is hard going. Doing it with someone with whom there’s absolute trust is critical. Over the past decade, we’ve got to know each other’s quirks well. Every Sunday afternoon, we go for a walk and reflect on the week, and share frank feedback for each other: something each of us did that was great, and what we could do better. Although the feedback is candid, we know that it comes from a place of genuine care for each other, and shared ambition. It’s fun building things with mates.
What unusual or childhood experiences prepared you for what you do today?
Tim: Rowing had a huge influence on my life. It’s a pretty ridiculous sport: you get up at 4:15am six days a week to put on a funny outfit and pull on a wooden oar as hard as possible to try and go backwards as fast as you can…
Amongst the many things it taught me, my coach Andrew Randell hammered one thing home: focus on the process; the results take care of themselves.
Focusing on results clouds the way ahead and often causes reactive action. Disciplined action and belief in the process creates progress, which leads to results.
James: I helped my mum run mail-outs since before I can remember. My Mum ran her own business; in part because she needed to have flexible work, so she could care for my intellectually disabled older brother. She did an awesome job of pulling us all in and divvying out roles and responsibilities. When I was five, she would draw pictures on the envelopes for where I needed to put the stamps. This was clearly slower than doing it herself... but it was formative in seeing how small businesses worked from a young age. Much of business building is ‘unsexy’ - much like sticking stamps on envelopes - but it compounds.
What, or who, is your north star? When you are filled with doubt and need to drum up courage, what reorients you?
Tim: A tool I find useful for gaining perspective on a situation, or finding a better course of action, is to imagine what the ‘idealised’ version of a persona would do in a given situation. This could be an idealised leader, CEO, partner, friend, product manager, race car driver or whatever fits the context.
This tool helps break down the narratives we hold, which may be impeding our view. It’s often embarrassing how quickly an obvious answer can materialise to a problem you’ve been grappling with for hours.
James: Energy management is critically important - perhaps even more so than time management. We do a great job of calibrating each other’s energy levels, particularly after a series of rejections or setbacks. My wife, Holly, has also been OwnHome’s unsung hero, and has been the wind beneath my wings as I’ve launched OwnHome with Tim.
What advice do you have for anyone looking to take the plunge?
James: Build your investment thesis, and then ask: how can I prove or disprove elements of this thesis with the resources available to me today? Is it understanding how much it costs to convince customers to use your product? What do you think is going to be the hardest part of your business and how do you test just how hard that is going to be?
For us, we knew OwnHome would need to partner with banks for our customers to graduate to full home ownership, so landing the partnership with the Commonwealth Bank from the outset was a huge boon. We knew that was going to be the hardest challenge, so we tackled it head-on.
Tim: I am in no way qualified to give advice on such a broad and complicated topic. I can only offer the advice I would give to a younger Tim: figure out what has held you back so far. If it feels like you haven’t taken ‘the plunge’ - interrogate why. It will be different for everyone, but there are some common themes: money, fear, expectations, fear of regret, lack of conviction… Knowing what has held you back helps you to know when the right time to take ‘the plunge’ might be.
Make sure you don’t miss our investment notes on OwnHome - coming out next week!