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.”

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.”

Oct 082016

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

A combination of accessible capital, a huge market and a collaborative culture are why startup founders are making their way across the Pacific to Silicon Valley and San Francisco.

Despite their government’s ideas boom and an easier funding climate, Australia’s startups still see San Francisco and Silicon Valley as being the promised land. In this four part series we spoke to Aussie entrepreneurs about why they’ve made the move across the Pacific Ocean.

In a noisy coffee shop just off San Francisco’s Market Street, PixC founder Holly Cardew explains why she moved to the city. “It’s a place you fall in love with straight away – it’s the people and the attitude,” says Cardew. “You can do anything, people don’t look at you as if you’re crazy if you want to do something big.”

Wider horizons

Cardew made the relocation to San Francisco to find funding for Pixc, a photo editing service that in 2014 was one of the first group of startups accepted into Telstra’s Muru-D accelerator program. In moving to the US she found American investors have far wider horizons than Sydney’s business community.

“Investors ask ‘what’s next?’” Cardew enthused, “in Australia, you don’t even think about that. Americans tend to think a lot bigger. Australians aren’t trained to think about it.” Another aspect Cardew highlights about the Bay Area business culture is how individuals are always happy to help out, “people always ask ‘how can I help’ she says.

One of those credited by Cardew and by many of the people interviewed for this is Temando founder Carl Hartmann. In an archetypal open plan shared office in San Francisco’s Financial District Harmann explains why he’s quick to help, “I’m here today because people who were kind enough to pay it forward.”

Being there

Temando, a logistics service founded in Brisbane, was started to address the difficulties retailers had in fulfilling customers orders across Australia. Hartmann moved to the United States at the beginning of 2015 to access North American customers and to tap local capital markets. “When you talk to the SV funds it’s very hard to raise money if you aren’t here,” he says. “In Silicon Valley it’s where the action is. If you’re not here you are out of sight and out of mind.”

“It’s difficult to build those sort of relationships from the other side of the world. When you’re here, things can move along quickly because it’s easy to collaborate on things. It’s easier to work face to face. For us it makes sense to be here,” Hartmann says. “There’s a unique energy where everyone has come from all over the world.”

Jack Gonzales of location mapping service MapJam is an example of how fast things can move for companies in the Bay Area. “Last year we were approached by some of the big players who asked if we had our own map tiles,” he recalls. “We realised we had an opportunity.”

Gonzales was speaking at the somewhat chaotic San Francisco campus of 500 Startups across from the city’s Moscone Convention Center. Mapjam was accepted onto the prestigious startup investment and acceleration program last year.

A goldmine in your backyard

“You have a goldmine in your local backyard and you have to capitalise on that. Sometimes it’s really spontaneous, ‘hey can you guys come in on Friday?’ You can’t do that when you’re overseas,” Gonzales says. “Our main customers are here and I really want to conquer the backyard before I conquer the globe, just within walking distance from here there are thirty major players.”

Australia does have some advantages for startups, particularly in labor costs for skilled developers. “It’s three times more expensive to employ staff in the Bay Area,” says Affinity Live’s Geoff McQueen in explaining why he’s kept the company’s technical team in the firm’s home town of Wollongong

McQueen, who moved to San Francisco in 2011 to seek funding for his venture believes “Australia is a good place to do a minimum viable product or proof of concept” and warns budding entrepreneurs to have more “than just just a PowerPoint pitch” when they decide to make a permanent move.

In McQueen’s view it’s important to at least visit the Bay Area early in the process of developing a business. “Come over as soon as you can – even if you only have a light idea,” he says. “Anchor your visit around a conference, whatever is relevant to your target industry.”

Achieving your aims

Despite not finding gold on San Francisco’s grubby streets, most of the entrepreneurs The Australian interviewed were all happy they’d achieved their aims in moving to the US which vary from easier funding availability, access to bigger markets and a more vibrant ecosystem than those in Sydney, Melbourne or the smaller centres.

Ultimately though everyone mentions the supportive nature of the Bay Area’s startup culture, “people ask what can I help you with,” says Pixc’s Cardew. “You can do anything, people don’t look at you as if you’re crazy if you want to do something big.”

Oct 042016

What does one of the biggest Chinese backed investment funds look for in prospective companies? During their recent visit to Sydney China Rock Capital Management’s Venture Capital‘s Toby Zhang and Matt Lee spoke about the company’s investment philosophy.

“In general we invest in very early stage investments – we focus on seed to Series A,” says Zhang, one of the company’s partners. “At these stage of development we’re looking at a combination of talent, technology and market.”

“We like to bring these early technology companies to the markets like China and west coast US where we’re familiar, a lot of the companies partner with us because we can help overseas.”

Zhang and Lee were in Sydney for the announcement of their investment into a local VR video capture company, Humense, the fund’s first foray into Australia.

“When we first started CRCM we only invested in Chinese internet companies,” explained Zhang. “While we’re based in Silicon Valley we were looking at what’s going on in mainland China. We’ve launched three additional funds, all three of these are early stage and cross border. We not only invest in China but also in the US, Israel and now in Australia.

Understanding the founders

“We spend more than fifty percent of our time understanding the entrepreneurs and who’s behind the company. When we form a financial partnership it’s kind of like a marriage where getting a divorce is really difficult so you have to really understand the entrepreneurs.”

“Secondly we look for businesses which can easily pivot if they have to. A good example is a company we invested in recently called Music.ly. We were a fifth stage investor in Music.ly while they still  in Shanghai, we saw entrepreneurs who we knew from their previous jobs so we knew how talented they were and we were prepared to back them.”

“More importantly though was their business’ focus on social media particularly with the age group that the existing platforms were losing traction with.”

“Finally with technology we’re looking for companies that can create barriers early that allows them to outcompete their competitors.”

Humense’s volumetric capture relies on an array of cheap, commercially available cameras to collect the images, something that appeals to Zhang’s investment philosophy.

Opportunities for Virtual Reality

“We spent a lot of time looking at the VR space, particularly volumetric capture,” says Matt Lee who originally hails from Sydney. “we felt in Australia with the background of special effects and animation so we felt there was a strong talent base we could leverage.”

Toby Zhang sees the fund making more investments into the augmented and virtual reality sectors. “We think AR/VR is a global tech movement,” he says. “Although historically we’ve been mostly investing in Silicon Valley and China, we have been constantly looking for opportunities to get to know start-ups, entrepreneurs, and investors from all around the world.”

It’s notable the Chinese backed fund is now looking around the world for investment opportunities and focusing on VR and AR technologies.

That strategy makes sense as the barriers to entry fall and the tech industry’s focus moves beyond Silicon Valley and into new markets. Where the US investment funds go will be the big pointer of future opportunities.

Sep 092016

Over this week I’ve been posting a series of interviews with the candidates for this week’s Sydney Lord Mayoral election. All of the teams have interesting schemes and ideas on how they can improve the city’s profile as a global tech centre.

While each team’s plans are worthy, it’s worth asking exactly what governments can do to make their communities more attractive to businesses and whether short term subsidies and incentives can help.

There is some evidence they can, prior to San Francisco changing its tax rules the city took second place to Silicon Valley in the southern Bay Area. In the last ten years, the city has become the focal point for the tech industry.

However there is a counter argument that San Francisco benefited on a generational shift of lifestyle preferences away from the leafy suburban lifestyles of Palo Alto and San Jose to the grungy but walkable communities of the Mission and SOMA.

The Bay Area though is a special case, Silicon Valley’s success as a tech hub is based upon massive Cold War tech spending that drove the region’s industry and its that high level support that probably tells us more about government support.

In the case of London and Singapore, the successes have been due to the national governments putting in broader economic reforms and incentives. Also their proximity to Europe and East Asia respectively has made both cities attractive.

On balance it’s those broader economic factors that make regions attractive as industries clusters – local incentives count little compared to access to factors like markets, capital and skilled labour. Taxation is, at best, a secondary issue.

The biggest challenge for Sydney, and most Australian cities, is the the crippling cost of property. In 2013, staff.com released a survey showing Sydney to be second only to Zurich in the cost of establishing a startup.

In many respects, the cost of property doesn’t really matter to prosperous industry hubs – San Francisco, London, Singapore and New York are all eye wateringly expensive and yet they still thrive – however all of those cities have better access to capital and markets, if not labour, than Sydney.

Addressing Sydney’s chronic shortage of affordable accomodation is firmly in the state and Federal governments’ remit and beyond giving property developers a green light to build high rise apartments neither level of government has shown any interest in addressing it.

Similarly, the tax structures which penalise Australian employees of high growth businesses and dissuade investment in early stage ventures are totally the responsibility of the Federal government and it’s hard to see that changing in the term of the current dysfunctional administration.

The relative powerlessness of local governments leaves initiatives by the City of Sydney limited in scope and schemes to promote the city or offer incubator space are peripheral to the factors that encourage the development of a global industrial centre.

Ultimately though, the question has to be how much any government can do to create a Silicon Valley, factors such as labour availability and access to capital come down as much to the community’s attitudes and business’ risk tolerances.

So perhaps we focus on what governments can do for business. Maybe just providing a level playing field can be the best we can hope for.