It was 20 years ago today: ideas can come at odd times

In the second post of this series, I recall 20 years ago when an evening with Dame Edna led to a memorable phone message, and a dotcom idea …

Before the idea was born, there was context. A back story. A breeding ground for an idea, with a few push factors that made me look away from teaching, and some pull factors that drew me towards the dotcom idea.

But ideas are just that, ideas. Nothing more than a thought. We must have hundreds a day. What always interests me though is why some ideas become more than an idea, and how they translate into action…

An Evening with Dame Edna

It was a totally unrelated evening out that led down the path to the business that became aussiehome.com.

I’d always loved Barry Humphries, and after a particularly frustrating day’s teaching I was looking forward to a good chuckle with the brilliant Aussie comic.

For some reason we had seats in the second row. Not a great idea if you want to stay a safe distance. Humphries is renowned for ripping into the audience and making them part of the act. Personally, I’m not a huge fan of humiliating paying customers. If I wanted to be part of the act I’d sign up. You entertain me. That’s what I’m paying for. It feels like a breach of the relationship to make fun of the audience, but it’s a long trodden path for many entertainers.

During the first half, he did all his other characters … Sandy Stone, Sir Les Patterson and all. I remember him making eye contact with me a few times. Was I imagining that, or was he sizing up potential victims for the second act?

It was the latter. After the interval he bounded onto stage as Dame Edna, and lights went up on the first ten rows. We all shifted lower in our seats.

After a few minutes he started down our row asking what we each had for dinner. When he got to me I blurted out something or other. Rather than moving on, he stopped and said “What a delightful couple we have here, ladies and gentlemen, what are your names darling?”.

I suddenly felt my face reddening, and within a few minutes he was ordering a meal for Lisa and I from the Subi Hotel from across the street – on a gold plated phone brought out on a silver salver no less.

Twenty minutes later, the meal arrived and was set up on the side of the stage.

Agh, where’s my lovely couple?” he said, as he motioned towards us both. Now, I am happy to be on stage, but I was not sure how well Lisa would go. ‘Losing face’ in public is about the worst thing for Asian culture.

The old professional that he is, Humphries understood this instinctively. He gave Lisa a huge peck on the cheek, and settled us down on the table on stage, and carried on his act. I was too nervous to eat, so tucked into the white wine. Over the next hour he got other people up on stage, and was perfectly lovely with us. He was very motherly with Lisa, and we actually relaxed and enjoyed the rest of the show.

Perhaps, we had the best seat in the house.

Lisa and I with the Grand Dame, on stage, March 1999

Phone call

Arriving home there was a message on the answerphone. “Hey Charlie, Nick here, ring me back; we’re going do properties on maps, you and me baby!”

So I rang my fellow MBA grad Nick Streuli back and we chatted for a while about his idea of a map-based property website. You have to remember that in 1999, property listings were almost exclusively in the weekend papers. Property web sites were few and far between, clunky, had little content and were not updated. Print ruled.

We both knew the internet would make an impact on this market, and disrupt the way properties were marketed, and how people would search.

It was a big idea. But what would convert this idea into a business, one we could actually run and what should we do next..?

~~~

To be continued…

It was 20 years ago today: before the idea

The first in a series of posts about 1999 – the year I went from being an Economics teacher to dotcom entrepreneur…

‘It was 20 years ago today’ the Beatles famously sang on Sergeant Pepper in 1967. Well, more than half a century later I’m reminiscing and musing about 1999, 20 years ago.

1999 turned out to be quite a pivotal year for me. I had completed a full time MBA course at UWA the year before, which I did on first arriving in Perth, WA, from having lived and worked in Singapore since 1990.

By January 1999, the MBA course over and I was back in a full time teaching role. Lisa and I were DINKIES (double income, no kids), as she worked in the city.

I remember my parents coming for a visit and they were blown away by Perth.

‘You’ve landed on your feet here son,‘ said Dad, as we walked across the endless cricket ovals of Hale School, where I was Head of the Commerce.

I was coaching cricket too, and often the headmaster (and former Australian cricketer himself) John Inverarity would wander down to the nets to make some comments to the batsmen. Usually he would be accompanied by some legend or other of the game, such as Dennis Lillee, Geoff Marsh or even Barry Richards (who lived locally, and whose eldest son was in the 1st XI). I was just this rather average club cricketer from England. I sure had landed on my feet.

So 1999 was supposed to be the year I would relax back into a teaching role, after the previous two years spent emigrating, completing an MBA, fixing up our house, making new friends and settling into life in a new country.

Yet, by the end of it, I was running a tech startup (or ‘dotcom’ as they were then known).

Before an Idea… the Context

Remember 1999? The Y2K bug? The Dotcom Billionaires? GST being passed into law in 1999 (it would come into effect July 2000). John Howard PM. Richard Court Premier of WA. The referendum on moving from a monarchy to a republic went down. A certain Malcolm Turnbull was running the republican case. The Aussies won the cricket world cup (they were in the middle of a 16 year run of beating all comers). Stars Wars came out of hiding with the terrible Phantom Menace prequel, yet it topped the box office that year. The Sixth Sense and Toy Story 2 were also huge, as were The Matrix, American Beauty and Fight Club. Britney ruled supreme. The President was impeached (but not convicted). There was a shocking school shooting at Columbine. Sadly, some things have not changed in 20 years.

Having bought our first house when we moved to Perth two years earlier, I’d been amazed by the pain staking process of having to wait for the weekend papers (which had minimal information on each property listing, often no price or address), then trawling around the home opens, week after week. It was grossly inefficient, and only by chance really did we alight on the one we bought, courtesy of a great real estate agent, who then became a good friend, and colleague, Phil Knight. We still live in the same house today.

By 1999, dotcoms were being set up all the time, all over the place. The news was full of stories of the latest dotcom venture, billionaire, investor, and the rush to the ‘new millennium’. Boring old traditional bricks and mortar businesses were out of fashion. Every new business would most likely have an ‘e’ or ‘i’ in front of it and a ‘.com’ behind it, so we saw edocs.com, ebusiness.com, inature.com, etoys.com, boo.com, … gazillions were raised (and spent) by these and thousands of other businesses, worldwide. eBay, Amazon, Yahoo and others soared. The race was on. Share markets rose, the new millennium came and went (Y2K was not an issue) and stocks kept rising.

Certainly real estate was ripe for disruption. (It still is.) The information on listings was mainly held by the agents, with scant glimpses released by the weekend and local papers. Internet sites (such as existed in 1999) were limited and held a small proportion of the listings. They were clunky to use, and none showed where the properties actually were.

Push Me Pull You

Around this time I received a letter from UWA Business School that would stir up all these thoughts together.

Incredibly, the letter told me that I had topped the MBA, and after the formal graduation ceremony that April I would receive my award at a ceremony a few weeks later. This blew me away. I’d topped few classes at school, but nothing like this. My scores were set against all the clever business and professional people in Perth, and I had actually topped the whole blooming MBA graduating class of 1999.

‘This has currency’, I thought, ‘And next year there will be a new top graduate. For the moment, and for the next few months, I am it.’

As we moved towards the end of that first term I was somehow not having a good time at school. I can’t put my finger on why, but teaching was not doing it for me anymore.

I grew frustrated and bored. The students would simply regurgitate the class notes in boringly repetitive essays, and yet attain marks that would easily allow them to sail into UWA on a BComm course, which is where most of them were heading. A cardboard cutout could be teaching them. Or a trained monkey. The zing of teaching had gone. I was ready for a new challenge.

On holiday in Esperance in Easter 1999, Lisa and I were walking down a beautiful white sandy beach, and I stopped for a minute and said, “I don’t want to teach anymore… I want to go and do something else.”

It felt good to say it out loud.

Instead of trying to persuade me otherwise, or tell me I was being an idiot, Lisa simply said, “Go do it.”

[TIP: Don’t try and start a new business without an amazingly supportive partner.]

Trouble was, I had no idea what other thing I could do.

The traditional route for the MBA grad was to go into consulting, but how could I consult to business when I’d not done one myself? What other jobs were there for ex-teachers? I’d not gone into the MBA looking for a career change anyway. My idea was that it would be a good feather in my cap when I go for a headmaster interview. Head teachers end up running fairly large organisations. An MBA would be useful.

Should I now turn my back on the career I’d been building over the past 13 years?

I was confused, and frustrated. And at precisely this moment, Lisa and I would have a night out at the Regal Theatre that would open the next door…

To be continued…

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Photo by rawpixel.com

NEXT: Dame Edna pulls me on stage