Peter Beck-backed Partly hires Amazon exec after $3.7m raise and $50m valuation

Partly, an online auto-parts startup founded by a former Rocket Lab engineer and backed by his ex-boss, Peter Beck, has nabbed a key hire.

Kiwi Tony Austin, who has held senior management roles at Amazon and eBay, has joined Partly as chief strategy officer.

He is still in Australia, where he helped Amazon set up its e-commerce operation, but will shortly return home in what he bills as a “boomerang brain drain”.

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Partly raised $3.7 million in a seed round that valued the startup at $50m.

The round was led by Blackbird Ventures and supported by the Crown-backed NZ Growth Capital Partners and Beck, who also serves as an adviser.

The firm was founded in mid-2020 by Levi Fawcett, who went to work for Rocket Lab soon after graduating from Canterbury University with an engineering degree in 2017.

“Partly was born out of a huge unsolved data problem,” Fawcett told the Herald.

“The automotive industry today has millions of vehicle configurations, and hundreds of millions of parts, but only manual and paper-based systems to link them.”

The situation is complicated by parts makers and car manufacturers having different names for the same component.

“Our mission is to connect the world’s auto parts by building cloud-based infrastructure to connect parts buyers and sellers at the right point in time.”

As in so many sectors, supply chain chaos induced by the pandemic has been the spur for many players in the $1.9 trillion autoparts sector to finally go looking for a digital solution.

Fawcett said his early-stage company already has two Fortune 500 firms as clients. Contracts forbid him naming them, but he added “our largest customer’s got 350 million monthly active users”.

Austin isn’t quite a Partly newcomer. He also has dibs on the title of co-founder after being one of the investors in a $1.7m”pre-seed” round in 2020, and he’s watched the Christchurch firm from afar via his side-gig as a startup mentor for Blackbird.

And the automotive side of e-commerce is certainly a market he’s familiar with.

His CV includes a stint as head of eBay Motors in the UK, plus a Luxembourg-based role leading several teams within Amazon Automotive European division.

Most recently he’s been country manager, Amazon Global, based in Sydney, where he’s still based pending his return to NZ.

He has the best part of a two-decade jump on most of the team he’s joining at Partly, but rejects a “designated adult” tag.

“I can bring some experience, but to get to work with the bright young talents in that team is exciting. We’re complementary. We can add value to each other.”

After a career working for various multinationals that has often involved taking a product created in a larger market and adapting it for a smaller market, it appealed to go in the other direction and help scale-up Partly for a global market.

And after mentoring startups under a Blackbird volunteer scheme, he now gets to join one. And it’s a working style that held appeal.

“There’s less tolerance for complacency or bureaucracy in the startup world. But I’m a big believer in the potential [of] Partly, and I’m quite excited to be a part of taking it from New Zealand to the world.”

The broader question for the NZ tech industry now is how many expats will follow in Austin’s footsteps and come home as border restrictions are finally lifted.

The onset of the pandemic saw the largest reverse brain drain since 9/11.

But after that surge in returning Kiwis, there was a net loss migration loss as borders slammed shut. And even with the phased end to restrictions this year, Kiwibank chief economist Jarod Kerr says we could see an annual net loss of 20,000 people this year before a rebound to a net migration gain of around 30,000 next year.

A strong venture capital scene will help. Despite the potential for rising interest rates to divert investors attention, Blackbird is looking to raise its largest – A$1 billion – this year, with at least $80m earmarked for NZ startups.

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