How this young entrepreneur is changing the hospitality industry 

Entrepreneurs

Brendan Leeds’ passion led him to create a tech platform that aims to improve a highly fragmented sector.    
Clipboard Hospitality co-founders Brendan Leeds and Tipu Sultan (Image credit: Belinda Vitacca Photography)
Clipboard Hospitality co-founders Brendan Leeds and Tipu Sultan (Image credit: Belinda Vitacca Photography)

Growing up in a high-profile family of media executives, Brendan Leeds remembers dinner time conversations about rate cards and big clients. It wasn’t something he was interested in, and he certainly felt like the odd one out, with his father and two older brothers both in the industry.  

Leeds – the son of advertising entrepreneur and Twenty3 Chairman, Paul Leeds – says his passion, the hospitality sector, was viewed as a “way to earn a buck to put yourself through university”, not a legitimate career choice. But it was his struggle to have his career choice taken seriously by his family that was one of the drivers to co-found Clipboard, a LinkedIn-style platform specifically designed for the hospitality industry. 

“For 10 years of my life I was told ‘when are you going to get a real job’? Leeds says. “I’ve always needed the acceptance of others and be a people pleaser…so it was thing. But I always thought: why isn’t it viewed as a legitimate industry with career prospects? We want to change the perception of the industry as a fragmented, transitional industry.” 

Clipboard – a global jobs, training and career platform across all areas of hospitality – has already attracted around 50,000 users and 8,000 businesses and has secured around $1 million in investment from some big names in business, such as Jayco owner and multi-millionaire businessman, Gerry Ryan, and technology entrepreneur and VRC chairman Neil Wilson.  Leeds and Wilson are also members of Clipboard’s board. The company’s projected revenue over the next three years is upwards $5 million. 

“My father was the CEO of StarCom – a worldwide media agency – and my brothers went on the same career path. So growing up, we would sit around the table, and all I heard was things about the industry… and that perhaps pushed me away from it.” 

“But one thing I did learn from my father was that I always wanted to have something for myself… something made from my own sweat and tears that I could call my own. Just to see what he did, and he’s a massive influence in my life, not only as my father, but as a business leader.” 

Pitching the business to investors was difficult, but Leeds says his toughest investor audience was his father, Paul Leeds.  

“I have pitched in front of multi-millionaires; I have pitched in front of Janine Ellis. The hardest person to pitch to was my father. He was our first investor. 

“I was lucky to have that support…but it made me think, how many people in this industry don’t have that?”

– Brendan Leeds

“One thing I would say about the Australian capital raising economy is that it isn’t like overseas. It’s very conservative.  I’d stand in front of these big investors and I’d just talk about my passion, the industry I’ve worked in for 20 years. I would be real and talk about the real challenges and the real opportunities in hospitality.” 

Neil Wilson – founder of IT firm Charter Wilson, which was acquired by ASX listed firm, Oakton – is an experienced tech investor and entrepreneur. He was approached by Leeds in 2018 and now is a material shareholder, advisor and board member. He told Forbes Australia start-ups need to have several criteria before they capture his attention. Businesses must be platform-based, because “platforms always equal global potential”, he says.  

“The other aspect I look for is data. How do they maximise content and data. The other thing is specialisation. So, if you look at Clipboard, it ticks all those boxes,” Wilson says. 

“What I particularly like is the specialisation in the hospitality industry, because I think the business issue around fragmentation focuses on individuals but also organises them to know where they fit in that environment, but also what opportunities exist for them career wise.”   

Leeds began working in the industry as an 18-year-old while studying marketing at university. The job was meant to be temporary, however he says it wasn’t long before he “fell in love” with the people and the culture of the industry and the numerous career choices within the sector. By the age of 20 he was managing venues and he travelled to London, where he worked his way up to manage fine dining establishments.  

Leeds eventually returned to Australia, where he established a venue at the historic Melbourne property, Ripponlea. One evening in 2018 over a glass of wine with friend and now Clipboard co-founder and Chief Technology Officer, Tipu Sultan, Leeds vented about his staffing issues and other challenges of the hospitality industry. Sultan – who has a background in technology – and Leeds began discussing how these issues might be fixed.  

“We started a conversation around:  ‘how could we evolve this industry, not so much from a B to C, or customer facing or internal operations [perspective], but why can’t we do a LinkedIn for hospitality?’” he said. “We thought:  why can’t we target a niche market and allow a creative, talented and ambitious sector to showcase their brand and grow a network globally? What can hospitality be an identifiable and legitimate career choice?” 

Hospitality, technology and wellbeing

After over a year of planning, capital raising, research and data collection, Clipboard was due to launch its commercial platform in 2020, however the global pandemic derailed its plans. All Clipboard partners and sponsors said: “we’re not spending a dime right now”. “It didn’t stop us – but it made us think about what the platform should look like,” he says. 

Clipboard’s main three focuses are hospitality, technology and wellbeing. The wellbeing focus, including offering training and support to hospitality staff and organisations, was a priority from the beginning, however the pandemic highlighted the need for better support of the hospitality sector when it comes to mental health. 

“The wellbeing pillar of the business really came about because of an experience that I had.  

“In 2008 before my son was born, a lot of things happened – from toxic relationships to business – and I was in a pretty bad space. The first thing I did is I broke down and I looked at myself in the mirror, and I knew I had to tell someone. I was lucky to have that support…but it made me think, how many people in this industry don’t have that? I lost friends and associates during COVID from this – I knew it had to be an important part of what we did.” 

Mental health challenges are common among employees in the hospitality industry. Many people Leeds says are not as lucky as he is, and don’t come through the other side. A whitepaper by Skills For Life (sponsored by Clipboard): Mental Health in Hospitality – the need for industry specific solutions – reported that 61.8% of hospitality workers experienced mental health conditions.  91% of hospitality workers said they  

“The hospitality industry is fragmented and transitional and the romantic story is: ‘well why can’t you have a successful career in hospitality?’”

“It’s not only the bar tender or the chef. It’s the PR company, it’s the interior designers, it’s the marketers, it’s the tech entrepreneurs who might build the next Mr Yum.”