Outposter unlocks a global workforce to ethically tackle our skills shortage

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Outposter unlocks a global workforce to ethically tackle our skills shortage

Ben Pullen, CEO and founder of Outposter 

Brisbane-based entrepreneur Ben Pullen first delved into outsourcing in 2008 when he set up a back office in the Philippines for his then fast-growing telco Startel Communications.

“There were very few outsourcing companies over there then, and the ones that did exist were only there for large corporates,” Pullen tells Business News Australia.

His learnings over the past 16 years led him to establish Outposter in 2020 as a new offshoring specialist focused on meeting the challenges of startups and scale-ups looking for essential staff needed to grow their businesses.

The mobile phone industry veteran understood the need to strike the right balance between growing the team without jeopardising profitability after scaling and exiting two telco businesses - Startel Communications and Vaya – between 2008 and 2016.

Since then, and in the fallout of a global pandemic that put extra pressure on growing skills shortages, Pullen has been proving that offshoring is a sustainable solution for businesses looking to build on their teams.

Created from a core team that previously worked for him at Vaya, Outposter provides an elevated service for smaller enterprises and startups that often don’t have the resources needed to find the right talent.

The company is an adjunct to another of Pullen’s business assets, ZigZag Offshoring, in which he acquired a large stake in 2017 and has been providing services to clients globally since 2012.

Across the two businesses, there is a combined workforce of over 800 in the Philippines, Singapore, India, Vietnam and Indonesia servicing growing demand from Australian and US businesses to fill key roles.

“We have hit the sweet spot with Outposter with smaller-scale clients,” says Pullen, a serial entrepreneur who is also co-founder of Brisbane-based startup Lula Rum.

“During COVID we experienced a major skills shortage, but at the time all the solutions were geared towards the corporate end of town who really are big enough to take care of themselves.

“The real pain was being felt by smaller businesses, those with up to about 20 staff.

"They’re generally the businesses that are already busy managing the resources they have and struggle to go through the hiring process with interviews.”

Pullen and his team have been building teams of skilled professionals in the Philippines for more than 15 years, creating offshore workforces for enterprises ranging from micro-businesses and startups to public-listed companies such as Uber in the US.

Pullen explains that while ZigZag provides more traditional outsourcing services where there are lower touchpoints for the client, Outposter is built as a value proposition for clients.

“Through ZigZag, we ensure the staff has the skills, so the client doesn’t have to,” he says.

“We deploy the staff, but the day-to-day involves direct client management. The client is generally larger and has their own team in Sydney, Melbourne or Brisbane that manages the staff day to day. Clients even come to the Philippines to visit staff quite regularly.”

Pullen says ZigZag Offshoring “fills a lot of gaps” for larger companies.

“They might have a team of accountants in Australia and a team in the Philippines – one may be sick or away on long-service leave, and this gives them the flexibility to manage their workforce.

“One of our clients operates on a partner and associate model where for every person they hire in Australia they hire someone in the Philippines. They log on at the beginning of the day and work together online throughout the day. Every business handles the resources to suit their needs.”

Breaking down the barriers

In comparison, Outposter's clients don’t have to manage the outsourced staff daily.

“That’s our role,” says Pullen. “It’s a secure and professional way to work with staff overseas, designed with minimal barrier of entry and fully output orientated.”

Pullen’s interest in offshoring stems from a business career that has seen him scale and exit three businesses for a combined value of $80 million. His early success included Pixel Media Productions, which he established with a couple of mates while he was at university.

Shortly after university, and “armed with the limited career opportunities of an Arts degree”, Pullen took on a role as a telemarketer for a telco business working from a house in Woodridge on his home turf in Brisbane’s south. By 2007, Pullen was general manager of the business.

He established Startel Communications, a fixed and mobile service reseller, in 2008 after he secured a wholesale agreement with Optus to market their services – a coup for the young entrepreneur as the business he was working for had previously been rejected.

It was during this period that Pullen discovered the opportunities the Philippines offered companies globally as a source of highly skilled employees.

After exiting to Truphone in 2010 and remaining as Startel CEO for Australia and the Philippines until the start of 2011, Pullen then kicked off Vaya after pitching to Optus the then novel idea of offering post-paid SIM-only phone services without a lock-in contract.

Through Outposter, Pullen says he is providing a sustainable and ethical global solution to the skills shortage that is currently plaguing Australian businesses.

He sees countries such as the Philippines, with a burgeoning, young and highly skilled middle-class workforce, having the capacity to fill positions that are proving to be pressure points for Australian companies. Among the services provided by Outposter are accounting, administration, sales support, marketing, graphic design, IT and human resources.

Pullen’s core team is based in the Philippines, a country that for decades has focused on upskilling its workforce to cater to a global market – a strategy that has transformed human resources into one of the country’s largest exports.

Ben Pullen: "It’s a very competitive marketplace and we have to work hard to find the best of the best for our clients"

 

“The Philippines Government has geared the economy towards increasing skills within the workforce, leveraging the industries already there including mining and services,” says Pullen.

“You could say people power has become their biggest export because the government has incentivised people to produce skillsets and talent that are geared towards these industries. As a result, a healthy middle class has grown in the Philippines since I started working here in 2008.”

But the depth of talent in the Philippines also pits Outposter against the likes of Microsoft and Google which are also competing to find the right talent to grow their teams.

“It’s a very competitive marketplace and we have to work hard to find the best of the best for our clients,” says Pullen.

Reflecting on the growth of the industry since he first ventured to the Philippines as a 24-year-old, Pullen says finding quality outsourcing partners was challenging for the then fledgling industry.

"That’s why it was such a risk for other companies to do it themselves; it wasn’t part of their core business, they didn’t have the resources or desire to explore the opportunities when also weighing up the sovereign and legal risk," he says. 

"The industry has definitely grown and matured, and we now have the experience to provide advice to people looking to engage the people and the culture in a meaningful way."

And with major corporations now scoping for outsourced talent from an increasingly globalised workforce, Pullen says the stigma that was once attached to the practice of offshoring has turned on its head.

“We come across people now who may have worked remotely with people from the Philippines for the past 10 years, but it’s only now that they are openly talking about it. This has lessened even more as people have become accustomed to working remotely,” he says.

“From a sustainability perspective outsourcing also makes a lot of sense, especially with the housing crisis facing Australia and other parts of the world.

“If we can employ people in their local economies, close to their families and their culture, it provides benefits on both sides.

“We are doing it in a way that doesn’t lead to a mass displacement of people, and as long as it’s done right there is long-term growth for us as well.

“We are 100 per cent work from home and we connect people from about three or four countries – all on the one invoice. The back end is taken care of, people are genuinely employed, and taxes and superannuation are paid locally.”

Busting the myths

Pullen equally dashes any notion that outsourcing is exploiting cheap labour, despite Outposter delivering its clients in Australia and the US savings of between 50 and 70 per cent for equivalent domestic staff respectively.

“The cost equation has gone out of it for many companies in the past two or three years anyway, largely because of the shortage of skills we have been experiencing,” says Pullen. “More recently the attitude has been we just need someone to fill these positions.”

Pullen points out that wages in the Philippines have risen faster than they have in Australia.

“We’re fine with that because ultimately it’s about a balance.”

Pullen also notes that a better understanding of the merits of offshoring has also diminished arguments that it is costing local jobs.

“Obviously there has been a tremendous need for it in the past few years due to the massive skills shortage,” he says.

“But today it is also seen as a way of utilising global resources to grow your business. It also enhances the personal and professional growth of our own workforce.

“We have staff that work for fintech companies in Sydney that are being exposed to different management styles and cultures as well.

“Staff don’t stay with us forever and sometimes they move on and set up their own businesses. It’s a real two-way street in terms of knowledge sharing.”

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