The daily for
New Zealand’s Startups

Serial founder Mark Hurley challenges others to give it a go

Hurley’s latest venture, Caruso, is a spinout from another of his startups. Hurley has tips for others starting out based on what he’s learnt from his four ventures so far. 


Suzanne McFadden

Serial entreprenuer Mark Hurley

Serial founder Mark Hurley believes everyone should try to build something at least once in their lives. 

Startups aren’t for everyone, he concedes: “But you won’t know until you try.

“The worst-case scenario is you learn a lot and become more valuable to your next employer. The best-case scenario is you change your life and your family's lives.”

Hurley, who is also an active angel investor, has the experience to back up his challenge. He’s started four successful companies in his 39 years, including a surfwear company in his teens, digital agency Little Giant and commercial real estate firm Jasper. 

His latest venture – software startup Caruso – just raised $3.2 million in a seed round led by Icehouse Ventures only six months after its launch. And Hurley is “laser-focused” on building it into the world’s leading private market fund management platform.  

So what drives a boy from Kerikeri to become a serial founder? Some of his success must be derived from his DNA.

Born in New Zealand, Hurley spent his earliest years in Papua New Guinea, where his parents moved in the early 1980s to start an earthmoving company. 

“They were both very entrepreneurial and saw an opportunity there when it was going through an economic boom,” says Hurley. “They loved it… trying to just make something of themselves in paradise. But then it got dangerous.”

They returned to New Zealand when Hurley was five, and followed his father’s business endeavours until he bought a sawmill in the Far North and the family finally settled in Kerikeri. Hurley lost his father at 14 and watched his mum take on the family’s business legacy, then create her own. 

“I learned a lot from both my parents. It was so easy for me to become an entrepreneur because I never even questioned it. I just stumbled into it,” he says.

Mark Hurley (right) with his older brother Nick in Papua New Guinea

The genesis

At 17, Hurley hit on his first enterprise using his mum’s printing press to design surf-inspired T-shirts, selling them in local stores (“pre-internet, pre-2008 GFC”). He left the Far North to study at the University of Victoria: “I only went because my mum wanted me to, but 90 percent of my time there was spent trying to get this business off the ground.” 

Armed with a commerce degree and living in Auckland, Hurley expanded Fourforty Industries to produce apparel brands for department stores across Australasia, including Farmers and The Warehouse, before creating his own e-commerce platform.

“I'm always super-interested in design, and I figured there was this huge future in technology and the internet,” he says. “It was like the perfect coming-together of what I'm passionate about.”

After seven years, Hurley sold the company, pocketing very little money but a heap of “crazy good learning experience”, he says. “I figured out that if you can run a semi-profitable apparel business, you can literally run any business in the world. It's such a tough space.” 

He then spoke to Michael Little, a software engineer renting business space off Hurley, about setting up a digital agency together. 

“At the time, it wasn’t really a thing; people weren’t talking about UI/UX design. You had traditional advertising agencies and you had companies who just built websites,” says Hurley. “We figured there was a space to cater to that new medium and build brands in the digital age, and we set up Little Giant in 2011.”

The design and innovation agency quickly grew to 60 people in New Zealand, most of them aged in their 20s and 30s. “Everyone partied together and did great work together. It was a special culture, and we built lifelong relationships.” Caruso’s co-CEO Oliver Shaw and head of design Bobby Ferdian both worked at Little Giant. 

Hurley’s wife, Camille, was also part of the company’s success story. They met on a beach in Mexico and she left her home in Texas to move to New Zealand, where she became Little Giant’s head of people and operations. (The couple now live between Auckland and Dallas with their young daughter.)

The plaudits began rolling in: Little Giant was named one of New Zealand’s fastest-growing companies in 2015; one of Asia-Pacific’s fastest-growing tech companies in 2015 and 2016; and Hurley was a 2017 EY Entrepreneur of the Year finalist.

Then he decided to sell to one of the world’s largest advertising agencies, Dentsu Aegis Network. “The agency life is hard – especially to do long-term – and we wanted to have a family,” says Hurley.

“I realised I was very good at building digital products for companies – like Rocket Lab, Air New Zealand and ASB – and I had fun doing it. But it was frustrating creating something and watching it go off on a conveyor belt, then going on to the next thing. You never got to fall in love with the product and see it through long term.”

Caruso co-founders Mark Hurley and Oliver Shaw

Becoming an angel

With money finally in the bank, Hurley made some angel investments in startups including Sharesies, First AML, Whiparound and Joyous: “It was a pretty good time to deploy capital into those companies at a very early stage.”

He also wanted to invest in commercial real estate, but found he had no understanding of that asset class, so he turned to friend Mark Campbell for advice. Campbell was a Kiwi in London who led a commercial real estate joint venture fund between Blackstone and M7, overseeing assets worth more than $12 billion in seven countries.

“With commercial real estate, it was hard for me as an individual without a background in accurately underwriting deals and understanding what the value is for that deal. If I was seeing a deal, it meant the 10 smartest people in New Zealand had already said no to it, so you're only getting the scraps,” says Hurley.

“I asked Mark, was there an opportunity, using my tech background and his commercial real estate expertise, to build a company here?” From that conversation, the specialist commercial real estate investment and asset management company Jasper was born. Hurley and Campbell became co-CEOs when it launched in 2019. 

“It's been a really fun journey, learning about the new asset class and working alongside Mark, who I think is one of the smartest people in New Zealand in commercial real estate – an absolute rising star globally.”

Blackstone came on board as a partner within six months, keeping the fledgling business moving forward during the global pandemic. “It set the business off on a really amazing trajectory that we weren't planning at all,” says Hurley. “They’ve been a phenomenal investor, and they've deployed a lot of capital into New Zealand over the last few years.”

Little Giant's Xmas party the year before it was sold to Dentsu

Now onto a spinout

As Jasper prospered, the company was simultaneously building software to be used internally, focusing on streamlining the investor experience, so fund managers could manage all of their fund operations in one place. 

“It was an amazing internal tool, but we had fund managers coming to us saying ‘Can we buy the tech? Can we license it?’” says Hurley. “The noise just became too loud to ignore at the end of last year, and after doing our research, we decided it was time to spin it out into its own company.”

Caruso was launched in March, and now has $5.2 billion of assets under management, with an additional $40 billion in the pipeline. It secured investment from GD1, Chris Heaslip (founder of Pushpay) and the Rae Family of Gull Oil in its recent $3.2 million seed round led by Icehouse Ventures.

Making a hard split from Jasper to create an independent company, Hurley and Shaw moved across to Caruso to share the CEO role. 

“I still feel like I’m 25, that I’m still very early in my innings,” he says. “It’s crazy to think I've been building companies for over 20 years. 

“Every time you create and build a company, you not only learn a bunch, but you also create a set of internal philosophies, guides and resources to take to the next company. Caruso had such an advantage compared to Jasper, [which] had such an advantage over Little Giant. 

“So much of what you learn translates over and gives you such a head start. I feel like we can get into revenue mode and growth mode very quickly now because we have those frameworks.”

His advice to those wanting to start up new ventures? “The biggest one is that the world has changed a bit from what it was two years ago, in terms of building tech startups in general, and unit economics matter. You need to build a company that can get profitable quicker than previously. Top-line growth isn't everything anymore.”

Although he didn’t have a network of people to lean on when he first started, Hurley now ensures he has those he can reach out to whenever he needs help solving a problem.

Mark Hurley and family on holiday in Hawaii

Hurley’s startup tips

  • Move fast: Slowness anywhere creates slowness everywhere (it compounds). So today, not tomorrow. This week, not next week.
  • Avoid 99 percent of industry events: They are useless. You’re there to grow shareholder value (including your own), not to grow your personal brand.
  • Changing times: The days of easy money and unprofitable unit economics are gone. Get paying customers immediately. Have a plan to become profitable at any stage.
  • Product quality: Your success will be directly tied to the quality of your product and the rate at which it improves. Create a great product people want and improve it rapidly, and you give yourself a good chance of success.
  • Choose your co-founders wisely: Many great startups have failed due to founder fallout. Pick business partners with intelligence, passion and integrity.
  • The team: Establish a framework for founder roles and compensation early. Have the hard conversation to set yourself up for long-term success.
  • Getting valuation right: If you get the opportunity, raise at a valuation you think is genuinely representative of the company's value. Be wary of high values as they usually come with anti-dilution rights attached. Many great companies have died because they raised too much at a too-high valuation.


Suzanne McFadden

Suzanne McFadden has been a journalist for three decades, much of that working in sport. She was Sports Journalist of the Year in the 2021 Voyager Media Awards, and editor of LockerRoom, dedicated solely to covering women's sport. She is now a freelance writer.

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