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Why Aussie start-ups need bigger ambitions

Why Aussie start-ups need bigger ambitions

Australia’s entrepreneurs and business leaders need to aspire to greater ambitions – all the way up to the global scale of giants like Facebook and Google.

As the co-founder of both a leading VC firm (Blackbird) and start-up incubator (Startmate), I believe that Australia is more than capable of building global businesses that dominate on the innovation front. I also believe that the next generation of major Australian businesses has yet to be built.

My own ambition is simple: getting as many Australian start-ups as I can to the world stage. I’m hosting The Sunrise Conference on September 19 featuring many businesses that have already trod this path, including now-household names like Atlassian and Freelancer. Their founders won’t be retelling the usual stories of success, though. Instead, they’ll recount the details of their early days and some of the tough decisions they took to get from ramen-profitable to billion-dollar valuations and global market share.

No detail will be spared. For instance Mike Cannon-Brookes, co-founder of Atlassian, will be talking about the decision the company made to create a second product, Confluence. The move flew in the face of every advice cliché, and there was substantial debate between him and Scott Farquhar, his co-founder, over whether they even thought it was a good idea. Mike will spell out how they made the decision, share their monthly revenue metrics at the time, and how they eventually knew they’d made the right choice.

Why do these details matter? I believe that the next generation of major Australian businesses has yet to be built. John Collison, the co-founder of Stripe, pointed out at the payment platform’s Australia launch last month that less than 4 per cent of Australia’s current consumer spending happens online. And less than 5 per cent of the world’s gross domestic product occurs on the internet today, even despite huge growth in the number of people using mobile technology. In other words, technology is racing ahead while most business models remain stuck in the last century. The opportunities for new industry leaders – and new industries – are obvious and endless.

The challenge is to balance world-changing ambitions with a laser-sharp focus on delighting your customers every single day. Hearing the experiences of successful founders make it easier for entrepreneurs to understand this balance and what they need to focus on and in turn will help their chances of success. Here are some examples:




Ambition is a living thing that can, and should, grow with time. Co-founders Mike and Scott’s initial goal for Atlassian was to earn $48,500 in revenue in its first year, the starting salary of a graduate position they would have otherwise held at PwC. That ambition has grown today to be to software developers what Adobe is to creative professionals, coming at a point where Atlassian is now valued at around $US3.3 billion ($3.6 billion). I would love to see more founders’ ambitions skyrocket after they receive constant positive feedback from customers. There’s a tendency to glamorise high-profile exits, but selling to a large tech company isn’t a particularly high ambition. Far better to be like Atlassian and keep elevating that laser-sharp focus on customers.




Similarly, Stripe was founded by two brothers who eventually dropped out of university to pursue their big idea. John and Patrick Collison were working on one of their many start-up projects, and were having trouble finding a way to accept credit cards painlessly. They talked to other start-up founders and realised that their problem wasn’t so unique after all. So because they couldn’t find a payments platform that did what they wanted it to, they decided to build it themselves.

Stripe now runs operations in 17 countries (having most recently launched in Australia), and just this week announced they’ve become preferred payments provider for Twitter and Apple’s new mobile commerce initiatives. Stripe’s initial platform has grown beyond credit card processing to include marketplace and subscriptions infrastructure, risk and fraud management, and multicurrency support for everything from US dollars to Bitcoin to Alipay. Each stage of this growth was driven by the Collisons talking to business owners and entrepreneurs: figuring out what customers most desperately needed to run their online businesses, and then working hard to provide the very best product to solve those needs. World-changing ambition, laser-sharp focus on customers.


Who’s next?


I love my work because I get to talk to any number of start-ups that might reach these same heights one day. After failing with their original business, Chris Hexton, founder of Vero, set a lofty goal at the start: getting one paying customer. After pivoting from an initial business model which didn’t resonate with customers, and then blogging his views on how Vero could solve pain points in traditional email marketing software, he got the attention of others who felt the same way. And now, Vero has more than 400 customers and is growing fast.

Lauren McLeod, founder of Flightfox, decided to pivot more than half a dozen times during her company’s history – each time moving closer and closer to a service that people would love and rely on. Refining how customers respond to new business models, whether she’s tuning specific user experiences, product types or flight offers, is made possible by a new breed of technical infrastructure like Stripe, Amazon AWS and Dropbox that lets people flexibly and more quickly make progress.

Will these younger start-ups end up disrupting their industries on a global scale? It’s possible. But the point is their ambition keeps growing at every step of the way. If only a few start-ups succeed, it will mean that we’ll have more iconic start-ups in Australia, which in turn means that our ecosystem will leap forward in ever-growing strides. Iterative development for the start-up community itself. I’m no fortune-teller, but I’m certain that with the right focus and big ambition, a lot of today’s newly hatched companies are going to end up having as big of an impact as Atlassian, Freelancer, and Stripe.


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