Nov 042016

Friday was a bad day for former startup darlings FitBit and GoPro with both companies disappointing investors.

GoPro, whose cameras for a while defined a new wave of adventure videos, announced a loss of $104 million dollars on the back of production issues and further disillusioned stockholders with a forecast of further poor sales in the upcoming holiday season.

Those shareholders have many reasons to be disillusioned with the camera maker’s shares reaching $98 two years ago after floating at $24. Today they are sitting at $11.

FitBit shareholders have suffered similarly, with the fitness band’s shares falling to eight dollars after listing at $20 almost two years ago. Their announcement of further problems on Friday saw the stock price dropping thirty percent on the day.

It may be easy to scorn investors in hindsight, but both companies were emblematic of a new generation of wearable technology and much of their problems today owes as much to them trying to stay ahead of the curve as it does from smartphones developing most of their products’ functionality.

The travails of FitBit and GoPro are typical of a time when new technology is changing business. Some companies  shine brightly then fade while others have a rocky road to success. We’ll have to wait and see if FitBit and GoPro survive.

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

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.”

Oct 102016

Earlier this year I did a series of four stories for The Australian on why startups see Silicon Valley’s Bay Area as the best base for their businesses.

From the interviews there were a number of reasons for that migration and it was a fascinating exploration of what drives the development of today’s tech industry along with how a global industrial hub maintains its position.

The stories feature a diverse bunch of founders and businesses which in themselves are interesting tales.

  1. A gold mine in your backyard – why entrepreneurs make the move
  2. Just doing it – the road to Silicon Valley
  3. Maintaining the home base – why many startups don’t fully move to Silicon Valley
  4. Speaking American  – understanding the Silicon Valley language
Oct 092016

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

“Get over here as quickly as you can. Don’t worry about being ready, feeling fully baked or whatever,” says Bugcrowd founder Casey Ellis. “Do whatever you can to get a ticket over here, stay in a hostel and do whatever you need to be here and experience the place.”

Casey Ellis was speaking in the company’s converted warehouse offices just off San Francisco’s Embarcadero waterfront. “Half the price of SoMA,” he smiles while explaining what intending expats should prepare for when moving over to the United States.

Ellis has plenty of reasons to smile as a few weeks earlier the crowdsourced security testing service had announced a successful $15 million fund raising with Australian investor Blackbird Ventures leading the round.

Getting a US base

While he was delighted an Australian investor had lead the funding round, Ellis believed the company had to have a US base from its early days. “One of the reasons for that is if we’re not here, we’re going to be competing with someone who is,” he says.

“When I started going full throttle into BugCrowd, the logic I applied to it was this is either going to fail as an idea or it’s going to move very quickly,” he told The Australian. “If it moves quickly we need to be in a position where we are resourced as well as possible. The place to do it is here.”

“What blew my mind when I got here. I had blinkers on and the move took them off and I’m like ‘there are opportunities here that I hadn’t dreamed of. The reason I didn’t know that was because I hadn’t seen it first hand.’”

Being social

Peter Grant of construction safety service Safesite found social media was a good tool to prepare for the shift to the United States. “If you’re looking at moving at over, but generally speaking you need to make sure there’s a good product and market fit. You need to establish your networks over here, even when I was back in Australia at Muru-D, Twitter was a good way to establish communications.”

“Don’t wait until you get to America, engage with your community and your market as soon as you possibly can. Go onto the webinars, know the language, know the language, know the players – it’s a big country so there’s lots of players. Just start to get involved as soon as you possibly can.”

Founded in Brisbane after Grant found most construction businesses monitored site safety with pen and paper systems, Safesite first moved to Sydney to be part of the first round of Telstra’s Muru-D program. In 2015 he moved to the US as most of the platform’s users were American based and has since set up a network of distribution agents across the nation.

Staying local

“If you’re an organisation like us that needs to be in the US to survive then get over here as soon as possible,” Grant points out. “We have a year on our competitors. If it’s going to be too complex or you already have a profitable business in Australia you may not need to come to the US, you have to be realistic about it. It might make sense to find a local partner.”

Should it make sense to move to the US then it’s important to capitalise on those initial contacts and market research, Grant believes. “When you get over here establish your product market fit and your face-to-face relationships, the dynamic factors that will influence your growth over here.”

The move though doesn’t come without costs he warns, “it can be expensive to set up a business over here so make sure your investors and your legal representation have a full understanding of the implications of what you’re doing and the processes.”

Just do it

Jindou Lee of HappyCo also warns startup founders have to be prepared for some changes when moving to San Francisco. “If you really want to change the world and see your company succeed, get closer to your customers, you need to make sacrifices.“

The founder of real estate inspection app Happy Inspector, Jindou moved from Adelaide to the United States in 2012. After raising three million dollars in funding and being accepted onto the 500 Startups program, the company expanded into general business documentation and renamed itself to HappyCo. “My advice specific to moving to the US is… do it,” he says.

Connecting with the existing networks is also important, “the other piece of advice is to hook up with the different groups that are around,” says Bugcrowd’s Ellis. “The Startmates, the Blackbird folk – figure out who you can get in touch with. People like me who can sherpa you a little bit.” He says “Don’t rely too much on them as you won’t succeed as an entrepreneur if you do, but get a good solid start.”