Dec 042016
 

As a business born out of a weekend hack  Sydney based GorillaStack is almost a classic tech tale.

“I was involved in a startup previously,” says GorillaStack’s CTO, Elliott Spira, recalling how the company was his co-founder Oliver Berger at the AWS Re:Invent conference in Las Vegas last week.

“We noticed we had spikes in our AWS spend, there was a big attribution issue and one day we said ‘how about we do a weekend project and try to spin something up that listens to our Cloudwatch metrics and tells us how much we’re spending at any time of the month.”

As the challenge was accepted, the team went to work. “We hacked away all weekend as we like to do, being nerds, and by the time the weekend was over we had the basic cost dashboard that told us how much we were spending each month.”

Adding more features

“The next weekend we decided to add another feature and we decided to add cost alerting where we’d get an email when we passed a certain threshold. That was really cool as we could budget and know when we were spending too much.”

“On the following weekend we started working on periodic alerts on how much we were spending over a set set time and from there the idea started to prosper, we thought ‘oh wow, we have a bit of a product going here. Let’s show some friends who also use AWS.’ From that feedback we found people wanted to keep the dashboards up and keep track of what was being spent.”

Today GorillaStack offers a service that allows companies to manage their AWS usage, something that can easily get expensive for organisations not closely watching what they are using. “What we try to do is make a cultural change where people become conscious of what is actually theirs in the cloud.” Elliott says. “We’re actually seeing that change.”

Living the culture

“In terms of that culture, we try to live that culture as well. We have private Slack channels with each of our customers so there’s a constant line of communication,” says Oliver. “Those Slack channels have proved to be an effective customer support and product development tool. “we’ve fostered quite a good community.”

With the initial hack being successful the company was formally founded in June 2015 and to date is bootstrapped, having not taken any investor’s money. “We want to get to a stage where we’re comfortable with the product,”says Oliver.

Currently the user base includes paid customers like Citrix, Bauer Media, Health Direct and the Australian Football League. “We have quite a good spread in terms of geography and mix of customers,” observer Oliver. “Right now the breadth suits us.”

Applying the freemium business model

Following the freemium model, the company also offers a free tier offering a single switch. “If you want anything more you move onto our paid tiers,” says Elliott.

To the question whether the company is looking at catering to other services such as Microsoft Azure or the Google Cloud, the dominance of AWS comes into play. “Right now we’re definitely sticking with the giant, we’re really looking at growing our capability so we do more and offer more to our existing customers,” says Elliott. “I think it’s really important to focus on delivering value to them and our business’ future,” Elliot says.

Looking to the immediate future, their focus is on extending their current customer offering. “We’ve a fair bit on our roadmap, we have a bit focus on chatops with a more in depth integration with Slack and Hipchat integration with our existing product,” says Elliott.

In talking to the Gorilla Stack founders, it’s striking just how the startup follows the classic tech model of a bootstrapped company that started by a bunch of hackers solving their own problem. How the business evolves will be fascinating to watch.

Paul travelled to AWS Re:Invent in Las Vegas as a guest of Amazon Web Services

Dec 022016
 

One of the biggest impressions from the AWS Re:Invent conference is the company’s rapid innovation with the firm’s executives boasting how they have offered over a thousand features on their services this year.

That sort of rapid change requires a fairly tolerant attitude towards new ideas and risk, which was something AWS CEO Andy Jassy explained at the media briefing.

“In a lot of companies as they get bigger, the senior people walk into a room looking for ways to say ‘no’. Most large organisations are centrally organised as opposed to decentralised so it’s harder to do many things at once,” he observed.

“The senior people at Amazon are looking at ways to say ‘yes’. We don’t say ‘yes’ to every idea, we rigorously assess each on its merits, but we are problem solving and collaborating with the people proposing the idea so we say ‘yes’ a lot more often than others.”

“If you want to invent at a rapid rate and you want to push the envelope of innovation, you have to be unafraid to fail,” he continued. “We talk a lot inside the company that we’re working on several of our next big failures. Most of the things we do aren’t going to be failures but if you’re innovating enough there will be things that don’t work but that’s okay.”

While Amazon’s management should be lauded for that attitude, they are in a position of having tolerant investors who for the last twenty years haven’t been too fussed about the company’s profits. Leaders of companies with less indulgent shareholders probably can’t afford the same attitude towards risk.

There’s also the nature of the industry that AWS operates which is still in its early days, sectors that are far more mature or in declines – such as banking or media respectively – don’t have the luxury of saying ‘yes’ to as many ideas as possible.

Jassy’s view about encouraging ideas in the business is worth considering for all organisations though. With the world changing rapidly, having a workforce empowered to think about new ideas is critical for a business’ survival.

Nov 032016
 
the taxi industry is being disrupted by mobile apps

It’s often easy to underestimate the effects of regulation on the development of industries and innovation.

Around the world jurisdictions are struggling with balancing regulation and innovation, last week in the UK Uber lost an employment tribunal case 0ver the employment status of its employees . While in Switzerland the country is struggling with rules over Blockchain as the nation tries to build a ‘Crypto Valley’.

Striking the right balance in regulation isn’t trivial. As the development of Silicon Valley’s finance models shows, government rules were critical to how the venture capital sector has evolved.

The US Small Business Investment Act of 1958 was the first step in the sector’s development with the creation of “Small Business Investment Companies” (SBICs) to fund and manage smaller enterprises in the United States. In 1978 the sector received a greater boost when pension funds were allowed to invest in the sector.

We’re now seeing a similar thing happening in the US where the Digital Millennium Copyright Act – a law passed to protect the Twentieth Century business models of record companies and movie studios – is being softened to allow end users to examine and maintain the software on the devices they own.

If the trial is allowed to become permanent, it will almost certainly see a far freer and innovative software environment which may even help overcome some of the security problems with the Internet of Things.

Often though that balance isn’t correctly struck and recently we’ve seen many poor decisions that have concentrated power, particularly in the financial and airline industries where governments have allowed huge conglomerates to dominate their markets which stifles innovation and growth.

Those innovation stifling regulations though don’t guarantee companies’ survival as the taxi industry discovered. Despite reams of laws and regulations protecting their licenses, Uber effectively blew up the business as they offered travellers a far better option to the often poor services provided by local cab companies.

Regulation is always going to be a balancing act between protecting the community’s interest and allowing business and society to evolve. It’s one reason why as citizens and taxpayers we need to be demanding our governments are open and transparent in their dealings and law making.

Nov 012016
 

Last week accounting automation service Blackline listed on the NASDAQ stock exchange with a valuation of over a billion dollars.

The listing was a triumph for the company’s founder and CEO Therese Tucker who started the company in 2005 after a client asked her to find a way to manage the ten thousand spreadsheet their firm used for accounts reconciliation.

We spoke to Therese last year during a visit to Australia where she described some of the challenges of building a business.

Therese’s journey is an interesting, and inspiring, tale of how you don’t have to be a twenty something white guy to build a billion dollar tech business. Her story is worth listening to.

Oct 182016
 

As part of Telstra’s Muru-D business accelerator opening its latest startup intake this week, Annie Parker and Ben Sand, the organisation’s co-founder and Entrepreneur in Chief respectively, spoke to a small group of journalists on Tuesday about what they were looking for in the next batch of applicants and how the tech startup sector is changing.

Ben’s entrepreneurial journey from a scrappy, underfunded Aussie startup to a hot Silicon Valley property and back to a corporate incubator is an interesting tale in itself.

His first venture, an edu-tech startup called Brainworth founded in 2010, operated out of a dilapidated inner city Sydney terrace. The business acheived traction and Ben’s team won a ScreenNSW interactive media grant two years later.

Failing the Kickstarter test

Ultimately Brainworth petered out after missing a Kickstarter round. As Ben says, “I focused on getting out the maximum viable model rather than the Minimum Viable Model and the money ran out.”

As Brainworth withered away, Ben joined former university friend, Meron Gribetz at his Augmented Reality startup Meta which went onto join the Y Combinator program. The company went on to attract $23 million dollars in investment, primarily from Hong Kong and Chinese investors, and now has 150 employees.

Earlier this year, Ben returned to Australia after seeing Mick Liubinskas’ blog post about moving to the United States. In that article, his predecessor put out a call out for those interested in replacing him at the Sydney office which Ben answered.

Australian advantages

Now firmly settled into his Sydney role, Ben sees computer vision as one of the biggest opportunities in the tech sector. Bringing together disparate technologies like virtual and augmented reality, artificial intelligence and smart sensors, computer vision allows machines such as autonomous vehicles, drones and medical diagnostic equipment to pull together sources of data that lets machines see what is going on in the world around them.

Computer vision is a field where Australia has an advantage, Ben believes. “Adelaide is the second most funded city in the world in computer vision,” he points out with investments like Cisco’s into South Australia’s Kohda Wireless driving the local industry.

Ben and Annie don’t see the next group of Muru-D applicants being restricted to any one field despite Ben’s background in AR and interest in machine vision. “It’s more the psychology of the founders,” he says.

Mentoring the next wave

Three years of experience is also delivering dividends, observes Annie. “I’m starting to see the early cohorts starting to mentor and support the newer ones. That’s part of what Muru-D is part of, creating the ecosystem.”

Over the three years, there’s also been quite a few adjustments to the Muru-D process, Annie observes. “We change the model each year by about thirty percent.” she says.

Another thing that has changed is that later stage startups can apply for the program which will be open until November 4.

“I’m excited and I’m very confident we’re going to get great outcomes for these people,” says Ben of the next Muru-D cohort. “We’ll be working on getting the most confident founders on board and hopefully helping them to aim high.”

Oct 132016
 
radio programs for techonology, web, social media, cloud computing and computer advice

This Thursday night join Dom Knight and myself on ABC Nightlife to discuss what tools you can use to start or improve your business and how can we encourage more people to have a go.

Last week the last Australian car making jobs finished and a survey of the Geelong Ford workers found only one percent were interested in starting a new business.

If you missed the spot, you can listen to the podcast through the Nightlife website.

Despite the reluctance to start new businesses it’s never been easier to do so with a range of tools making it simpler to run one. Tonight on the Nightlife we look at some of those tools and what we can do to encourage more people to have a go at running their own companies.

For the program, I’ve a compiled a list of tools businesses should be using. It certainly isn’t exhaustive or definitive and if you have any suggestions on better or newer tools, I’ll be happy to add them.

Some of the questions we cover on the program include;

  • who ran the survey of motor industry workers?
  • what were most of them going to do?
  • so what sort of businesses can these workers go into?
  • what programs are being offered to these workers?
  • how has starting a business changed over the past twenty years?
  • is the focus on tech startups intimidating people who might want to start a business?
  • what are the basic tools every business should have?
  • a few years ago social media was all the rage, does it matter any more?
  • what’s the number one advice for anyone thinking of starting a business?

Join us

Tune in on your local ABC radio station from 10pm Australian Eastern Summer time or listen online at www.abc.net.au/nightlife.

We’d love to hear your views so join the conversation with your on-air questions, ideas or comments; phone in on 1300 800 222 within Australia or +61 2 8333 1000 from outside Australia.

You can SMS Nightlife’s talkback on 19922702, or through twitter to @paulwallbank using the #abcnightlife hashtag or visit the Nightlife Facebook page.

Oct 112016
 

This is the last of four stories I did for The Australian on why entrepreneurs are making their way to the United States’ Bay Area.

“It is a very good time to be Australian in America,” says Dr Catriona Wallace , the Sydney based founder of Flamingo Customer Experience. Despite that goodwill she and those who’ve made the move to the US have found the ways of doing business in the two countries can be quite different.

US decision making processes are one trap, Wallace observes. “Americans will say ‘yes, yes, yes then no’, whereas Australians will say ‘no, no, no then yes,’“ she told The Australian. “I had to learn that an enthusiastic “Yes” from an American is an expression of their interest and intention, not necessarily an action that can be followed through.”

Swinging for the fences

Casey Ellis, who relocated his Sydney security startup Bugcrowd to San Francisco in 2013, finds the scale of ambitions are a key difference between the two countries. “Americans are comfortable with those who swing for the fences whereas Australians aren’t.

“I had a million dollars committed already but people weren’t buying my execution because the way I was selling it was that I had it all figured out, which is what I’d been taught what to do in Australia – we’ve figured how to make sausage machine then the key to making more money is to build a bigger handle and crank out more sausages.”

The reality though is different in the United States warns Ellis. “If I’m pitching like that to VCs over here they’re like ‘we like what you’re doing but your vision is too small.’ I always had a big vision for Bugcrowd but I’d been taught not to put that at the front. In the US you put the vision first and the execution follows.”

Figuring out the differences

“I spent some time trying to figure out why it is different,” Ellis reflects. “If you think about it Australia is a country was formed by a bunch of people who were thrown out for stealing stuff, dropped on a rock and told to figure it out, so we’ve got this incredible culture of troubleshooting and innovation but we’ve also got this tall poppy syndrome of ‘don’t stick your head out too far.’ That’s a very strong cultural feature of Australians and how they interact.”

“If you bring that over to America you will fail because this country was formed by entrepreneurs who set out to find a new land,” Casey concludes. “It’s not about saying Aussies are meek, they’re not, but Americans are completely comfortable with swinging for the fences and Australia’s aren’t.”

Peter Grant of Safesite warns not to overplay the Paul Hogan persona. “Coming from Australia is a novelty but you can’t play the dinky di Aussie card, you have display professionalism and represent you are serious about being a US company and serving the US environment,” he told The Australian. “Americans are a lot more accepting of risk and have a fear of missing out on the next big thing.”

“The country is founded upon going out and doing your own thing and being a maverick, so they are a lot more accepting of risk and have a bit more of a fear about missing out on the next big thing, “ Grant explains. “We’ve developed a strategy of saying ‘we’re working on this, this is going to happen and we’re talking to your competitors.’ That seems to work.”

Watching the clock

One respect where Australians’ laid back attitudes come unstuck is in time keeping warns Flamingo’s Wallace, “Americans are super punctual. Conference calls typically start 5 mins before the hour rather than 10 minutes after as it would in Australia. Meetings finish at quarter before the hour so people can get to the next meeting 5 minutes early.”

“If people are delayed and get to a meeting a few minutes late they will apologise profusely for several minutes and then apologise again at the end of the meeting. American’s will warn of the need to finish a meeting at a certain time by saying, “I have a hard stop at quarter before”

Humour lapses

Another difference is the sense of humour, Dr Wallace warns. “Americans typically are not funny in business as we Australians are. There is not much joking in meetings. I once used the enormously funny expression of, ‘That customer experience would have been like having a hot chicken blood enema!’.”

“Instead of this being outrageously funny I was surrounded by a group of 10 executives whose mouths hung open in shock that I had just said something like that. The meeting tanked from there on….”

“All this being said, the American business community love Australians,” Wallace concludes. “They find us hard working, great at relationships, good at navigating politics, honest, authentic and transparent. In some ways they aspire to be more like us. We cut through the bollocks – although they don’t understand that word – or bullshit and get things done. Americans like that. We are generous. They like that too.”