Sam Morgan - the boy's done good

By Leah Haines

"What would you do if you woke up tomorrow morning and had $200 million and everyone was staring at you?" Sam Morgan asked in the few minutes he snatched following the sale of Trade Me to Fairfax last week.

Interesting proposition. One can think of a few uses for the cash, at least. But it is the people staring, rather than the truckloads of money, that had this straight-talking multi-multimillionaire all a titter.

That's because it's the biggest change to his life since Fairfax paid $700 million for the online auction site.

"I had money to buy treats before this," the 30-year-old says when I ask if he was planning on something celebratory to seal the deal. "And I can't think of anything worth one- or two-hundred-million dollars that I want to buy if that's the question."

Not that he's ungrateful. It's just that to Sam Morgan, who founded Trade Me just seven years ago and made his family millions in the process, his phenomenal success is completely unsurprising. He can't understand why the story even made it beyond the business pages.

Lucky, then, that he and father Gareth are happy to share the secret of his success.

But that's later. First, the story. It's a rags-to-riches tale worthy of the cheesiest Hollywood scriptwriter.

As a child, Sam lived with his motorcycle-riding hippy parents and two siblings in a house bus parked in a Newtown backyard.

Too poor to afford a mortgage, his mum Jo drove buses for the council, while dad Gareth pored over horse race statistics hoping to develop a get-rich-quick scheme.

The horses failed him but Gareth became a successful economist instead and got the family out of the bus and into Wellington's posh Oriental Bay. Things were good but then one day Sam tried to buy a heater off the internet and came up with a brilliant idea for online auctions, which made his family multimillionaires.

Yes, you would be hard pressed to say the Morgan family's life has been anything resembling conventional.

But as the hype following the $700-million deal withFairfax exploded last week, Sam and his parents were holding tight to any vestige of normality they could find.

These days, Jo Morgan still drives buses but not for Stagecoach. She is a member of the local vintage bus club and drives groups around for free. In fact, she has been out bus driving the day I visit. A tiny whisp of a woman, with strawberry-blonde, greying hair, she has a face lined by smiles that do nothing to age her. Today, she is wearing a blue Icebreaker jersey and old, black trousers that a friend offered to replace when the Fairfax deal came through. "She said I might get invited somewhere."

The 52-year-old often says "that's cool" and it's a struggle to imagine she has a 30-year-old son who has just made her extremely rich.

Jo has ridden motorcycles since she was 21 and, pregnant with Sam, needed a way to get to antenatal classes.

These days, she has three: One Ducati and two BMWs - one of which is on the way to the United States, where she and Gareth will start touring soon. The other one is for sale on Trade Me.

On the fridge inside their beautiful villa on Oriental Bay is a picture of her 93-year-old mother sitting astride Jo's BMW, her skirt tucked in to her britches.

Around here, where nothing is quite as you expect, they share the palpable lack of surprise at Sam's success.

"To me, it hasn't been something that has just fallen into his lap," Jo explains over Girl Guide biscuits and weak, black tea in the back garden.

"I know the numbers are enormous and a lot of people work hard. But unless you put your head down and go for something you believe in, you don't get life satisfaction or the potential of a windfall like he's had."

But don't most of us feel it's impossible to take such big risks? "Yeah, but that's why we lived in the bus. Because we were broke and Gareth was having a go at a main chance running a form guide. He had all the statistics and thought he could predict what horse would do what.

"It failed so we kept living in our bus and said drat!" - she bangs her hand on her knee and smiles - "and what next? If you play it safe, you are going to tend to go down a middle road."

Though friends thought they were irresponsible raising children in a bus, Jo reckons living in such close confines allowed the children to grow wise beyond their years. Youngest daughter Ruby was born later but for the older three, of which Sam is the eldest, there were never any adult conversations they didn't hear.

Sam showed an uncanny ability from age 2 to follow through with an idea until it was done. Even as a preschooler, he would refuse to come to dinner until he had completed the jigsaws his mum would buy him on Friday nights, she says.

"He used to see things and recognise things that would daunt us."

But the other children were smart too. Jessi, Sam's next youngest sister and first employee at Trade Me, was crucial to his success, says Jo. She describes the company as "theirs".

While Sam was overseas for a couple of years, Jessi virtually ran the company. The entire family would control it from home sometimes.

"We'd be sitting there at dinner and someone's phone would ring and the server would be down and we'd be running around.

"We all participated in getting this thing up to speed because there wasn't money there," she says.

"It was definitely done on a really nil budget or a very, very low budget. No one seemed to have any bucks. They borrowed computer stuff off Gareth and would just potter along very much like kids in a garage."

Then one day, Sam started needing some big money. Initial investors, mainly family and friends, were reluctant to plough more money in while it was running at a loss.

But Sam could see the business growing exponentially so he asked his parents to invest, too.

Jo deferred to Gareth, a decision she should be relieved about today.

"Being of a mean nature, I would have probably said 'oh no, go and sort it out yourself'. But it's quite good that we did have a stake in it."

More than good, I suggest. The couple have turned that initial $75,000 into more than $50 million.

But Jo insists the money will make little difference to them. She promises to keep doing the laundry and making apple pies from the fruit that grows out the back of their already substantial house. And she and Gareth will set up a charity which she will run and donate money to international and local projects.

Last year, when they took a bike trip through Kurdistan, the couple came across a school without a building which they figured they could fully equip for about $200,000.

"That's hopefully going to be part of my keeping busy from now. International as well as local stuff.

"Having been stinking poor and knowing how hard it is to get books together for kids to learn and things together for families, hopefully there will be the opportunity to do things for Kiwis who have high aspirations."

And that's pretty much her eldest son in a nutshell.

Sam seems slightly miffed that we are all so aghast at the enormous amount of money Fairfax was willing to pay for his company.

"There have always been sceptics and this week has been no different from the last seven years," he says.

"All of a sudden, people get it and they think 'far out, maybe it's something of value and something good'.

"That's something I've dealt with since day one. People have looked at me and wondered what I have done with my time. The other day I overheard people in a cafe wondering how we made any money at all."

He laughs. "People think I just run it from my bedroom or something. The main thing that's shocked New Zealand is the fact that we are a successful business. Fundamentally, this is a very, very strong com-pany and that's what Fairfax has bought."

So what will he do with the money? Initially, Sam is contracted to run the company for two years. After that, he doesn't know but says $200 million has not bought him an early retirement.

"How much money do you need in order to sit around and do nothing? It sounds pretty cheap. I mean, a lot of people have the ability, maybe not in central Auckland, but a lot of people have the ability to go and live somewhere else and sit back and do nothing.

"I don't think that's part of the human condition where they want to sit around and do nothing."

So will he continue being an entrepreneur? Dumb question evidently. "As opposed to going and getting a job?"

Is that how he defines himself then - as an entrepreneur? "Well, I don't really sit back and think about that. That's a little bit sort of philosophical for me really."

He laughs. "I just do what I do."

And at the moment, that seems to be making money. Something many of us find simply frightening. Go on, Sam, what's the secret?

"Some people are better decision-makers than others," he says.

"Some people spend a lot of time sitting around talking about things they're going to do and others get out and do them. I think there are plenty of people like that."

So that's the trick? To do rather than think?

"Yeah, I think so. Everyone says a lot of people will no doubt think, 'oh, I wish I had that idea' but what they should think about is 'what ideas do I have?' And get off your bum and go and do it."

That's something the famously forthright Gareth Morgan has been telling us for years. Sam, he says, pulled Trade Me off because he was confident and never afraid to take risks. But he qualifies that by saying the risks were excruciatingly well researched.

Instead of leaping head first into a business that he fancied the idea of, 22-year-old Sam sat back and asked himself what were the biggest internet businesses. They were auctions and dating, says Gareth. So that's what he decided to set up.

"He always had the ability to drill down into what is the business case. If one doesn't exist, then he doesn't waste his time on it."

How are we supposed to recognise when a risk is worth taking, I ask?

You don't try out all your ideas, Gareth says. Eliminate through careful analysis and look internationally. Especially for online businesses.

"That's where the corporates here are completely falling on their faces," says Gareth.

"Like Telecom putting millions into [online second-hand company] Ferret, or Whitcoulls putting millions into Flying Pig and ending up being one. They weren't looking internationally at how thing were being done."

Sam, however, worked out that only one online auction site like eBay thrived in any given market and the trick was to be the first one to start up somewhere.

The trick, Gareth says, is to figure out your competition and ask exactly how they make their dollars.

"Ask what is it the market values. Get to the essence of their business."

It's easy for him to be happy. He's just made $50 million. But the economist says his son's story is incredibly inspiring for young people and he never doubted he could pull off this amazing Kiwi dream.

"He had not only built the site and it was going and people loved it. But he also had the business case for the precedent for it offshore. He had his shit together, basically. It's amazing. And incredibly inspiring for young people. It's just bloody brilliant."

- HERALD ON SUNDAY

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