Steve Paea has his sights set high. He’s taken Liberate I.T. from a fledgling start-up to one of the biggest players in ERP and NetSuite in New Zealand, with the Australian market already opening up to the opportunities ahead. We spoke with Steve about his accomplishments over the last decade including selling NetSuite to Xero, Pasifika in IT, and what it is that makes his approach so different.
G’day and talofa, Steve. How’d you first get into IT?
I remember not knowing what I wanted to be when I was younger. Dad was a taxi driver, and he told me he always had to pay his accountant a lot of money – so I should become an accountant! I studied economics and accounting, but that really was a side-step. I’m sure I would have done fine, but I’ve always been a people person – I’ve got a fascination with talking with people, and understanding their journey, so the drive was getting into sales. I like the hunt, and I like closing deals.
Before 2011, I used to work in freight and logistics, and import distribution – certainly nothing tech-related! But I was familiar with NetSuite, and knew that Liberate I.T. were going to lead the ERP here and abroad. It made sense to get out of my comfort zone and take on the challenge of learning something new – so I took a leap of faith and got in front of the directors.
Tech’s always been an innovative industry, and that’s where the world’s moving. It’s where I saw myself. So that first year was all about education; I’d not known much about IT before then, so I had to know NetSuite inside-out if I wanted to be sure that our clients were getting the right product for them. And the whole tech landscape, too – how the hardware and software work together, and the tech speak. There was a lot of jargon learning!
And now, 10 years on, you’ve helped shape Liberate I.T. into a major player in ERPs across Australasia.
When I started, I was Liberate I.T.’s first salesperson – and the first employee. And we’ve grown in a big way and had some incredible wins over the last five years. I’ve brought on a team across Australia and New Zealand, so we can continue to do great work and build relationships across the IT ecosystem. We’ve worked with some big companies, and have got a reputation as being a knowledgeable company. The team knows their stuff. We stick to one product, and we do it well. And that’s what’s working so well for us.
There’s a lot of churn in ERP; most people only last 2-5 years. When you’re selling a product that people can’t see – a cloud-based software – you have to do it really well. You have to be dedicated, and patient. And you have to get peoples’ trust. So there’s a lot of listening too.
Speaking of successes, you’re the man who sold NetSuite to Xero. How’d you do it?
That’s probably our biggest win to date! Xero is a huge global software company, and they’re doing fantastic things around the world, so to sign them up to NetSuite and get them on board really proved that we were doing the right thing.
The secret’s the relationship. When we went to market, they were looking at another application. So we got to understand their needs and requirements. They were looking at out-of-date tech; they wanted a cloud software that could serve their international teams too. So, I rallied the team, and we took them through the evaluation process. The fact that we were up front and able to coordinate all the stakeholders with that evaluation process showed them that we’re committed to delivering. And it worked.
If a reputable company like Xero with hundreds, thousands of employees are prepared to put their trust in us and into NetSuite, then we’re on the right track. Because for them, like so many businesses, getting a reliable cloud-based ERP doesn’t just mean faster and easier processes; it’s scalability as well. Expansion and acquisition across all markets are suddenly easier too.
Plus, it helps that I love working with organizations to improve their business. It’s great to present a product and have the company say, ‘We don’t have to do that reporting anymore; we don’t have to stay late waiting for X to be done.’ That’s a real joy – to see that value and time returned to them. Plus, an SME could easily save $20-30k a year at the smaller end. If I could save you 20% more time in a week, how would you invest it?
Giving back is important to you, isn’t it?
For the community, and for work, yes. It’s the upbringing. Pasifika people – we care about family and supporting one another. That’s why we’re so good in tech.
How do you mean?
The key thing is working in a team environment. We’ve got a quiet nature, and we bring a lot of respect and empathy to a team. We have a ‘one team’ approach. You put yourself in your clients’ shoes – and you be humble about it. With all of that, relationships and trust are so important for us. I was brought up in South Auckland by my parents who are from the Islands, and what matters to us is faith, family, and humbleness – that’s what’s helped me most in my approach with customers.
But then there’s the flow-on effects. We believe in family and supporting one another; the faith and the brotherhood are strong. So the ripples help families and communities. I still visit my parents in Otara every week and ask them for advice. They keep me grounded and remind me how grateful I am to be in the position I’m in.
If what you’re doing isn’t giving back, then what’s it for?
Is that why you got involved with Pasifika in IT?
In the tech space, we make up only two percent of the workforce. Maori-Pasifika are largely in the labor force. With the introduction of automation, a lot of that work gets replaced by machines and computers. Who’s going to be affected? Maori-Pasifika. I want to drive the message out there: there’s another avenue.
Pasifika in IT is the largest Pasifika IT network in the world, and we’re dedicated to removing the obstacles and getting students into great IT and tech roles. We’ve got some stigma to overcome, so I’m going out there and telling people that they don’t have to take tertiary study; tech is always moving rapidly, so we’ve focused on getting people into the job and supporting them to get micro-credentials along the way.
You don’t often see Pasifika people as the first employee of a start-up – and taking it where they are now. We want to practice what we preach. IT and tech are screaming out for more Pasifika people. There’s a lot of ground to make up. And that flow-on effect – contributing to ourselves, our family, our communities, and society. That’s the goal. So when I’m not at Liberate I.T., I’m at my old high school in South Auckland – De La Salle – doing my part as a board of trustees member and a Collegian, and showing kids that there are great opportunities out there. Plus I sit on a few boards including AUT, and a digital advisory board.
As part of Liberate I.T.’s growth, you’re managing a growing team. Are you finding yourself flexing the same muscles?
Absolutely. But I don’t see myself as a manager but as a mentor. My goal is to make them successful, so we do a lot of coaching and development, and sharing stories. As Liberate I.T. scales, keeping our ethos alive is important – approaching clients with empathy, being honest and down-to-earth. When people know they can trust you, you know your relationship is off on the right foot. They’ll be more open to understanding what’s possible with NetSuite and what their utopia looks like – and how to get there.
It resonates with the other charitable work I do. I’m at the position where I’ve achieved some of those life goals and can give back and shape the next wave of people coming through the industry. I didn’t get that kind of advice when I was coming through the ranks. I want to help people navigate the journey and make them successful.
Is that what’s kept you driving forward with Liberate I.T. over the last decade?
The work I’m in – I love it. Meeting new people, working from home, jumping on a video call with the team. Helping the team grow personally and professionally. Helping organizations get the results they’re after, and again, giving that time back to their people, so they can use it in a way that’s meaningful to them. Yeah, it’s kept me going.
We’ve got a great work-life balance and a real culture of flexibility. Get that balance right, and everything else falls into play. I’m a family man, and the beauty of what we do means it’s no worries if I take a half-day off to watch my daughter’s school play or athletics. Being there and around her to watch her grow is everything.
It’s been hard work. You’ve got to be patient, and have perseverance, and filter out the things you can’t control. But you get back to the grind, get in front of people, and keep showing what’s possible. Being patient through that hard work, and building trust and relationships really help.
I’m extremely proud of where the company is, having been there since day one. I’m passionate about our success. I’ve got long-term plans I’d like to achieve. We’re on our way to becoming the leading partner across Australia and New Zealand. We’ve got our eyes on JPAC, then the world.