- Jan 16 • 9 months ago
17 years of Transformation – Founder and CEO, Raphael Arnold, leads the discussion on NetRefer’s Company structure and evolving business strategies.
We’re proud to announce the appointment of Dexter Cutajar and Benjamin Briffa to their new roles as Chief Strategy Officer and Chief Finance & Operations Officer, respectively. In order to commemorate their achievements, we’ve invited Raphael Arnold, Founder and CEO of NetRefer to answer a few questions about the Company that led to this momentous milestone in the business’ growth. He offers an extensive look at NetRefer’s history, and the decisions taken which led the Company to where it is today.
Spanning over 17 years, NetRefer has come a long way since its early days as a start-up. In their time with NetRefer, Dexter and Benji have been two major players in spearheading the Company’s progression; their efforts have made headway in the industry as well as the NetRefer community.
Based on your years of experience what are the major indicators that a company structure and hierarchy need to change for the business to evolve?
With the birth of any start-up, you pilot your decisions by feel and instinct. In many ways, you are enlisting people and talent to work as jacks-of-all-trades, to cover as many posts as possible. Because, in NetRefer’s instance, there wasn’t much to start with. So, being a self-funded business that has never taken loans, debt or missed salary payments is quite an achievement.
A lot of it was done through smart thinking. I remember constantly asking the question: “How can we do more with less?” For me, that is at the basis of being agile, because agile means getting to a destination in the fastest and most efficient way possible, challenging traditional methodologies and striving for innovation.
That’s at the basis of evolution. That’s how as a species, we evolved into what we are today, by adapting to the environment around us and periodically challenging the status quo to unlock the next stage in our evolutionary journey.
As a start-up, you must constantly adapt because the stages of business are in constant flux. You start your business, you sign your first client and then you may have a flurry of business shortly thereafter. It can happen rapidly or take a longer time- the key is feeling the business and its changing needs at every turn, again ensuring that you maintain that agile approach.
Ultimately, when looking at what needs to change in a business, the first thing I look at is leadership, its depth and breadth, especially today that we’re amid a 4th Industrial Revolution. Technologies have upended the world in the last couple of decades and the adoption of these technologies signifies an unprecedented, fast-paced, ever-changing environment where “the only constant is change”.
When I say that I look at leadership, I mean I look at how people are acting and interacting within the business. It’s about understanding what’s best for them, both as individuals and as a team. We are now entering the era of Artificial intelligence and that is why understanding human automation interaction is going to be key. How do we use the technology around us? How do we automate monotonous and mundane tasks? How do we use automation and AI to set us free, enabling us to be more specialised in what we do? These are the questions that will enable us to evolve into a business of highly skilled specialists.
If you look at our business from a Performance Marketing perspective, NetRefer revolves around human beings, behaviours, and interactions. I’ve always said that the future of our business is going to be based on the sum of our integrations, with human beings considered to be key business integrations. I believe that in the not-too-distant future, this reality will apply to all businesses.
The long and the short of it is, you must look at how the company operates as a team – one body, one unit. Once you have achieved that, equip the team with the tools they require. This is how you can truly start to push the boundaries to unlock the next level of the journey, all the while maintaining a constant and consistent delivery of value for clients, to continue operating and being successful. Thus, “performing whilst transforming”
It’s an interesting question because it’s quite easy to say that a flat hierarchy makes the most sense. The main reason that people become managers, or have certain positions and statuses, is because they’re tasked with having visibility of the big picture and in turn presenting, managing, and measuring that big picture correctly. So, there are always going to be people who will take on more responsibility than others, the ones that are prepared to go to bed at a later hour because they’ve got challenges that they need to resolve. So long as those people have the best interests in the business and the people that they serve at heart, then you would hope that they should reap the benefits they would get from taking the bull by the proverbial horns.
That said, I still believe that empowering the rest of the team to push themselves to strive to new heights through their own initiative, would bring forth happiness and job satisfaction.
So, it’s important that we start to create a culture that serves to make known what people are doing and what impact they have. I used to think in some respects this was idealistic, but with the way things are advancing, I don’t think so anymore. I believe things have become a lot clearer.
Who is that person whom you see as a seed to be nurtured and grown into an oak tree unto itself? What’s your position on internal employee development, investing in mentoring people, and what is the spark in that person that you see needs attention?
In that, lies everything. Just as we were speaking earlier: “What do I see, as an indicator of how things must change?” For me, it’s the team. The reason for this is that NetRefer was not built as a traditional business, nor was it intended to serve any specific purpose except to provide opportunities for people to earn a livelihood, and for them to be part of something that was greater than them.
When I first came to Malta, I came as a consultant tasked with setting up a gaming division for a prominent sportsbook. One of the things I was most surprised about was that, in Malta, there was this booming iGaming industry, yet there were very few Maltese people working in it (unless they were working for a company responsible for anything related to licensing). That was when I decided to shake things up and made sure I hired an adequate mix of Maltese and foreign employees. I was, and still am a firm believer that if you operate from a specific country, as a business, you should really be supporting the local economy and making sure you’re creating equal opportunities for everyone.
So with that, I then approached the what-was-then Maltese LGA (Lotteries Gaming Authoritiy) with Mario Galea, an incredible character, someone who really did a lot for the internet and iGaming industry in Malta. We spoke about setting up the iGaming Academy, which was something I started in association with Pentasia. We started creating courses to educate and train Maltese people on the various aspects of iGaming and everything there is to know about Casino, Sportsbook, Affiliate Marketing, etc. I saw Malta as my home and said: “I’m here to make it better than I found it”.
In just over a year, the setup was complete and success followed. That was when I decided it was time to start NetRefer. I wanted NetRefer to be rooted in Malta as it had all the right ingredients: location, climate, and above all, amazing people. I wanted to build a proudly Maltese company, a company that was there to do good.
That is how NetRefer was brought back to life. I had originally started NetRefer in 2001, however, due to some complications and not having the right legal agreements, things did not pan out the way I expected. That experience served as a vital lesson in business management. So, I went back to the drawing board and worked tirelessly until I was in a position to reignite it and make it a reality.
NetRefer was very much inspired by my father. He was a commission-based salesman and would always tell me about the invoice book: the more he sold, the more he made. So, he was a big inspiration for a lot of this, not only the seed that inspired what the product is today, but everything, including the way that I do things and care about people. My mother, on the other hand, was the administrative arm, the one who pushed me all the time to get things done. I was blessed with a great combination of parents. The reason I bring my father up is because I’m reminded of his wise words: “Teach someone how to think for themselves and you’ll do them a great service”. That was my life’s mission, NetRefer is the vehicle.
Through these principles, I see potential in those people who look at something and say: “How can I help?” or “How can I contribute to making this more successful?” rather than “That’s not my job”. It’s about having that can-do attitude. That willingness and curiosity. And sometimes it’s more curiosity than anything because, in order to evolve, you have to be curious about trying different things and exploring all possible methods. Whether it’s doing the research or keeping up with the latest trends, we want a team that starts and finishes projects together. Everything is connected.
It’s also about knowing that your team has your back when you need them the most and reciprocating when they need you. That’s the unity NetRefer aims to have – to make sure we stand together. Believing in each other, both personally and professionally. And this has been the credo of NetRefer forever. Essentially, I look for people who are going to make things better than they found them – including themselves.
It’s not a question of restructuring – it’s more about executing a plan. The plan was something that started around 2017. I realized that the leadership in the business needed to evolve. We needed to build more depth within the business. I’m a big believer in internal promotion; I really believe that in order to maintain the soul and spirit of the business, you need to grow it from within. You also need the kind of people who will assume leadership positions and are prepared to roll up their sleeves and help where help is required. I find that to be one of the most admirable traits because you can’t be a true leader without the people around you. Alone, I’m just me. Within NetRefer, I’m part of something greater.
So, we set out to build this sense of leadership in the Company. We had good leadership in the past which I am extremely grateful for because they had to figure it out as they went along. And we all make mistakes – it’s only human. However, I think success is not necessarily about what you get right or wrong. Rather, it’s more about who you are as a person at the end of it. NetRefer’s success is attributed to that: when the chips were down, everybody was there to make sure that we got things back on track.
We went through some tough times because we couldn’t get certain things done right, including myself. Relying on your instincts to drive your decisions in a business is very daunting if you don’t have enough experience. So, we had to build that experience and bring in the right people for the right roles. By this, I mean those who had the correct understanding of structure and organization around those pieces but were flexible enough to adapt to the business’ changing needs.
I’m not formally educated, everything I’ve learned I’ve done so through my own research (in fact, I’m still learning and will continue to do so). Therefore, I have a lot of respect for people who are willing to take stuff on – Mark Scerri Pace, Head of Product Delivery, is a good example. He took on a fortune when he began. That being said, it’s not just that he took it on, but that he made it work under tough conditions. Of course, that was a difficult time for Mark because, as a leader, it didn’t give him the opportunity to fully exercise his tactical and operational skills. As you can see, leadership allows you to exhibit different forms of potential in the Company. There are times when the skies are clear and others when you’re in the thick of it. Regardless, you must make sure the engines keep running smoothly.
Besides that, it’s also important for a leader to be able to inspire those around him to succeed – to be a role model. A great leader is someone who understands that, while it’s their job to hold the fort, they need to guide, nurture, and empower others to be leaders as well.
This is something that we’ve worked tirelessly over throughout the years. During that time, I saw mammoth potential blossoming in two Heads at NetRefer. Here, I’m referring to Dexter Cutajar and Benjamin Briffa. Dexter joined NetRefer as the Head of Commercial, driving a side of the business that I could not hand over readily to just anybody. However, in Dexter, I saw someone with whom I connected on a personal level. We shared many of the same viewpoints when it came to business. Most importantly, he truly cared for the product, the business, our partners, and the team. That was really what allowed me to let go and allow him to take the reins.
Anybody who is prepared to go from a C-level role to Head of Commercial is humble enough to understand that it’s worthwhile to go backward to move forward. I firmly believe that leaders are those who lead by their actions. Effectively, “deeds not words”. Dexter was that person. I saw in him someone who had a very strong level of empathy and who was able to use that quality in his decision-making to achieve the best outcomes. He strongly believes in acting fairly, as I do, and doesn’t tolerate anything less. Dexter represents the best qualities of NetRefer’s ambition and spirit: to execute our duties the correct way, both professionally and ethically.
I truly admire his drive. In fact, I’ve always said: “Dexter’s the drive and Benji’s the heart” of the business. Benji compliments Dexter’s qualities as a leader because he brings heart and logic to the table – an unusual combination to find in people. They’ve been a godsend and have made monumental strides within NetRefer.
How can you not love Benji? The truth of the matter is that he is an incredible person: he’s a humanitarian, financially astute, and an overall joy to be around.
He had my respect prior to joining NetRefer. He takes the welfare of others very seriously and makes sure that we are always doing right by our team. There’s no one greater to have in charge of Finance than a person like Benji because, I knew he could toe the line between being professional and compassionate. That he would continue to keep the books clean, and manage audits correctly, as his predecessors had done, but doing so with much more heart and understanding toward the team.
Benji came in as Head of Finance but it was immediately evident that he could do more. I was aware of the limitations of Finance, having managed that department for a long time. When the timing was right and the opportunity presented itself, extending his duties to include Human Resources and Workplace was a no-brainer. For me, HR is the most instrumental part of the business. As I’ve said before, it is all about the team: attracting and integrating the right people into an environment where they can grow and thrive. That is key!
Employee retention is a phrase that’s always buzzing in the employment sector. Benji brings a great balance to the way we do things in this regard and makes sure employee retention is truly embedded in our business culture. So, we really have a strong leader in Benji.
All things considered, I believe that we have an incredible combination of Dexter and Benji. They have immersed themselves in the business from all sides and that’s what allowed them to grow into the efficient leaders they are today. They’ve truly earned their stripes and their accolades are there for everyone to see. I can only expect great things from them.
They are, of course, supported by Mark, who is also making his own impact in the Company, and I look forward to seeing him succeed further.
African proverb: “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together”. The best part of when I arrived in Malta was walking into the office and seeing everybody. I loved being part of the team and feeling that connection. These people who we see every day become a kind of extended family, and who contribute to the way we feel. So, it’s a great feat to have this safe space where we are allowed to be both our professional and personal selves. We live in a crazy and everchanging world, and everyday we choose to go on this journey together. That’s what makes this business.
I’m truly grateful, because I’ve got to grow and be a better person because of it. I really enjoy the fact that we can continue to do this and continue to be that light for one another, because I do believe in it.
Thank you for those very perceptive insights, Raphael. We now have a much clearer understanding of NetRefer: its humble beginnings and journey forwards.
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