Busking in Perth – memories from 25 years ago

Ruff n Ready

The first time I came to Perth, WA, was exactly 25 years ago, as a busker. Christmas 1991. We had a brilliant 10 days, and – incredibly – each made enough to cover our return airfares.

At the time, I was living and working in Singapore, where busking was prohibited. Something about it being against the law to have two or more people gather together in a public place; a law that had been brought in to help quell communism in the sixties. Singapore did quite a good job of quelling communism, but that’s a different story. The strange remnant of this law (since lifted) meant that 2 fellow band members who had travelled down to Perth the year before (‘where there’s a terrific street entertainment scene‘) said we should visit this Christmas and do some busking.

Yes, I had fellow band members. I had moved to Singapore the year earlier, and somehow inveigled my way into a fairly well known (in expat circles anyway) 6-piece rock n roll tribute band (the ‘Ruff n Ready Roadshow’) which was made up of teachers, mainly from the same school I was working at. Anyway, 4 of us agreed to do it, and so we cobbled together a skiffle set of rock n roll classics, interspersed with some silly jokes and improvisations.

Our first port of call was Council House to get the required $2 busking license. It showed some red dots on a CBD map of the city, which denoted where we could busk and off we trotted. We saw one small stage set up in one of the malls, and set to work. Everyone pretty much ignored us, and by the end of day 2, we had not much to show for it.

Oh well, we thought, at least we’ve given it a go. And we are hardly street performers anyway. We’d do 20 or so dinner dances in Singapore, but this live performing to Christmas shoppers malarky was a different ball game. One upshot of actually performing on the street was meeting other performers, many of whom do it for a living, and do very nicely thank you. They can sense when it’s a good time to do a show, know exactly how to build up a crowd and milk it for all it’s worth. People I met that week, I would meet a year later in Covent Garden in London, or in Edinburgh at festival time.

The person I was staying with said that by performing on a stage, Perth people might think we were paid by the council, so the next day we went and found a spot outside Myers’ main entrance in the central shopping mall. There was a steady throng of people there, who were happy to stop and listen. Suddenly the money started pouring in. People would sing along, laugh at our silliness (we looked a picture in our multi coloured teddy boy outfits and greased up hair – the photo above shows us in Fremantle that same week), and would generally get the idea that it was time to pay up when we ended each set with the Motown/Beatles standard ‘Money, (that’s what I want)’ .

On one occasion, the Salvation Army lady was standing near our audience getting donations for her tin, so we decided to donate a whole set’s worth to her. You should have seen her face.

Never change a winning formula, we thought, so we played there for most of the week pre Christmas, and a few days after. In between, we did a day in Fremantle (not so good tippers that lot), and also got booked to play on stage in Forrest Chase for the Carols by Candlelight and were entered into a busking competition (we came second!).

All the while I was struck by Perth’s beauty: the clean streets, stunning blue skies, bright sunshine, great coffee and beautiful beaches. The friendliness of the people and their genuine warmth (we were asked to play at so many parties & corporate gigs, but it was always the week after we’d left). ‘I’m going to live here one day‘, I thought. And so it would prove, about 5 years later. For 2017 denotes the 20th year that Lisa and I moved to Perth. We’re set here for life, and every year about this time, when I find myself walking through the mall or Forrest Place, I always remember the time, a quarter of a century ago, I first landed here, and strummed a tea chest base for 10 days and sampled my first (of many thousand) flat whites.

Merry Christmas Perth, and a Happy New Year. You’re beautiful.

Let them eat cake

Asking for startup money

Legend has it the wife of King Louis XVI of France, Marie Antionette, uttered the words “let them eat cake” on hearing the starving peasants were in revolt against bread shortages. We’re talking late 18th century, and although the Queen would have probably said the words in French (something like ‘Qu’ils mangent de la brioche‘) there’s no evidence that she actually said this at all. The saying actually predates her birth.

But the attribution persists, and has been used to show how out of touch the nobility were at the time, resulting in the French Revolution, and King Louis losing his head.

The words rung in my head this week as I indulged in a discussion I’d had many times before, relating to Perth’s burgeoning startup sector. The weight of opinion agreed that there’s not enough early stage funding deals going on. As to why, there was a distinct divergence of views.

I’d like to explode a few myths if I can …

Myth 1 – If they were good deals, they’d get funded

I hear this one a lot. If they were good deals, the argument goes, then eventually (or even swiftly) they would get funded, as an investor would see the opportunity was too good to miss. Some may pass, but eventually a good startup business would attract money.

However, this argument rests on the Perth market for startup funding acting perfectly, which (let an old economist like me remind you) only exists where there are a large number of buyers and sellers, such that no one buyer or seller can influence price. Perfect markets also rely on a perfect spread of information, freely available to all, and homogeneous (exactly the same) products.

Perth’s startup sector is no perfect market. While there are a good number of startups to choose from (300 at last count?), there are a very limited number of private investors willing to back them. There is one VC fund (and that’s already fully invested, 2/3rds in biotech) and one angel group which meets 4 times a year and maybe does 5 or 6 deals annually. Meanwhile, there are plenty of potential investors dripping with (business, mining or property) money removed from startupland.

Neither is there a perfect spread of information, with only a privileged few getting in front of the investors, and as they are all very different, each startup investment opportunity needs to be considered individually, one by one, a bit like buying an investment property. It’s time consuming, uneven and sporadic, at best.

I have no idea what makes a good startup investment (well, I have some idea, but I am not arrogant enough to say I know which one will be a unicorn and which will fade to nothing), but I believe there are many more out there worth a $25,000 or $50,000 investment that are currently being funded. I am seeing too many move away from Perth for funding (and securing funds) and too little getting funded here; and yet, Perth has far more high net worth individuals per capita than anywhere in Australia, and is one of the top places in the world for multi-millionaires.

There is a distinct disconnect between those that might have spare money to invest and those that could do with a decent little early stage investment that could give them 6 to 9 months of road, get them to market and revenues to see if there is something viable there.

Myth 2 – They shouldn’t be raising money anyway

This argument goes that startups should forget about raising money anyway (far too many think the capital raise IS the end game, clearly it is not) and should start pitching to customers instead. Get to minimum viable product (MVP), get early clients on board, earn revenues, and maybe they’ll find that they won’t even need investors at all, or if they do, they’d secure a better price, be able to raise more money and give away less equity in the bargain.

Bingo – I agree 100%.

However, most startups are either doing exactly that (out of necessity) or cannot get any further without something else investing upfront. They’ve piled in their own cash, savings, credit card debt, taken money from family and friends, spent months on the idea, with no pay back, giving it their all. They have got somewhere, and now are looking for some extra help.

Some ideas just need money to get off the ground. You have to spend something to build it, you have to get out there to see if it works, and this may take $50k or more beyond the funds available to the founders.

Most successful startups have had early stage money. Very few are profitable or cash flow positive from day one (or after the family and friends money has gone). Often there are dead ends, false starts, wasted attempts, and this is all the cost of learning. If you’re doing something very new, disruptive and game changing (surely what the investors want to see?) then it simply takes some funds upfront. Like buying the investment property.

It also takes time. The successful ones will tell you it took 5 or more years to make money. It certainly took my startup this length of time, and others like realestate.com.au, carsales.com.au and others took 7 or 8 before profits appeared.

Mel and Cliff from Canva understood this. There they are today, smiling out at us from the front page of the local weekend paper. They’ve raised millions and millions of funds  – are they profitable, or cash flow positive yet? They were helped off with a cool $3 million raise a few years ago, which took them away from Perth to Sydney, and have since raised many millions more. Nick and Al from Simply Wall Street could not raise money in Perth, but have successfully raised $750k from angel investors, also in Sydney (why not in Perth?). Talking to their lead angel at a lunch function a few months ago, he told me that in their case, they had an idea so disruptive, “you just had to give it a go to see if it worked.”

Exactly.

Not all startups deserve money, some may not be at the right stage, but somewhere along the line, many do, and the vast majority of these simply aren’t getting the funds they need, despite there being ample in our city. Water water everywhere, nor any drop to drink.

Myth 3 – The entrepreneurs are unrealistic 

Sure, owners of anything are unrealistic about their valuation. I think my property is worth more than it is, and also my car. The price is determined only when someone is willing to pay for it what I am willing to sell it for.

But with a limited number of genuine local startup investors the power is weighted heavily on the buy side, such that in some cases the negotiation is more like staged bullying (running down the efforts of the down trodden entrepreneur, and finding all sorts of reasons not to invest). Meanwhile, the poor startup trudges back to their lean canvas to see if they can eke out another month or two.

Perth investors have grown fat on the ability to exit their investment through an ASX-listed entity. We have seen 60 ‘back door’ listings announced over the last 2 years, as the mining downturn takes hold and now empty shell companies look to evolve into a tech company. This is a highly expensive and dangerous way for a genuine startup to raise funds. While potentially fine for a commercialised organisation with revenues and a clear growth path, it is clearly not suitable for the early stage venture (or only in very rare cases – FMG was in fact a back door listing, but I wouldn’t classify that as a tech startup.)

Sure entrepreneurs are unrealistic, but so are investors. You can’t have it both ways, you can’t have your cake (or bread) and eat it. It’s a punt. It’s a riverboat gamble. It’s like betting on the horses. You will probably not see that money again. Yes, it’s probably illiquid, for years. But if you win, you win big, so it’s best to make a few bets, to cover yourself. The more you make, the more you spread your risk. You may say ‘no’ to 20 before saying ‘yes’ to your first. But you might do 2 or 3 a year.

Myth 4 – It’s good they get money elsewhere & leave

The argument goes that we should not worry about our best and brightest startup ideas leaving our shores to get funded elsewhere. Sometimes they just need to spread their wings, bless them, and once they make their money they will return and help our ecosystem back here.

OK, maybe. But why can perfectly good Perth ideas get funded in Sydney, Singapore or San Francisco and not here? Why should they have to leave to get funded when we have so much money in the hands of private individuals in our fair city (and come July a nice little tax deduction too)? Why should they have to leave our great lifestyle, family and friends… unless they really want to?

To me, this argument is lazy. While it’s perfectly fine for businesses to go wherever they want (fly my darlings fly), it is not fine to have so few early stage funding deals that jobs and income that could have been created here (and stayed here) are exported to other cities or countries. We are competing in a global marketplace, the gloves are off, it’s either get nimble and innovative, disrupt your own market or someone else will do it for you. Where is the post mining diversification we so badly crave? Even during the boom, people were worried about us becoming a one trick pony. Now that pony has well and truly run its race, where are the up and coming industries? They need to be backed. We have no idea what great businesses might flourish and grow unless we give them a helping hand.

~~

Startup investment is not for the faint hearted. It’s not a slam dunk. It’s not for your nest egg, it’s play money. Many thousands of high net worths in Perth could make two or three $25k to $50k investments a year, and not even notice it. Conservatively, that’s $250 to $500 million of available funds a year, that would make a tiny fraction of a dent in the portfolios of many, yet revolutionise our local economy.

Perth could become a regional tech startup sector, offering a great lifestyle, climate and investment funds to plucky entrepreneurs who want to cash in on a place that just happens to sit in the same time zone as 60% of the world’s population.

It would be almost criminal (and certainly negligible) if we don’t do this.

Why a tech startup? Because the best ones have highly scalable business models. Those guys and gals down at Spacecubed hammering away at their idea on a laptop could have $100 million businesses in a few years (just as Canva does today after a relatively short 4 year journey). This type of growth is hard to do with traditional bricks and mortar businesses.

It’s the most speculative investment these investors will make, but for many of them, it’s the best fun they can have. They can add some value to the startup (sharing hard won advice on commercialisation, open some doors) and it can give them plenty of dinner party conversation.

If we can throw enough darts at the dart board here in Perth, we will hit some bulls eyes. It’s a numbers game. It’s a funders’ game.

So, let them eat bread. Cake will come later. Perhaps.

Photo Credit: Flickr.com, Heather Katsoulis

Perth’s startup scene

start ups in perth I’ve met a few people this year interested in getting into Perth’s startup scene… so here’s a humble overview as I see it. Go to a few of the events below, meet some of the folks and quite quickly you’ll be at the centre of the action. Why not help out and get involved?

Perth Morning Startup (meet up)
http://www.meetup.com/Morning-Startup-Perth/
– run by Justin Strharsky (@JustinStrharsky) and Stef Pienaar (@sfpienaar)
– set up 4 years ago, a free fortnightly meetup held at Spacecubed, Weds 7.30am-9am, now with over 1000 members. The beating heart of Perth’s startup community. Many sessions have been video’d.

Spacecubed (co-working space)
– founder Brodie McCulloch (@brodiemcculloch) http://spacecubed.com/
– the first, and largest co-working space in Perth, now on two floors at 45 St George’s Terrace in the city
– the place where entrepreneurs and coders meet, hire deskspace; and where most startup events take place. Head down here to get right into Perth’s startup community.

Startup Weekend (event/hackathon)
http://spacecubed.com/2014/08/26/startup-weekend-perth-announcement/
– held 2x a year, leader is Sam Birmingham (@sambirmingham)
– the essence of startupland; 100 attendees, 40 one-minute pitches on a Friday night begets 15 or so teams with products (and even revenue) by Sunday afternoon. Triplify, Simply Wall St and others have been born at one of the 5 weekends held so far.

Founder Institute (course)
http://www.fi.co
– intensive silicon valley startup course in Perth, with Claire McGregor (@clairesayshi) as Director
– in 2013 and 2014 eight companies were formed (from 20 that started each year); not for the faint hearted, it provides 2 years of learning crammed into 13 weeks. Will it run a course in 2015?

Venture Capital (money)
– Yuuwa Capital http://yuuwa.com.au/
– run by Matt McFarlane (@nullarki) and others
– there are other investors around, but at $40m this fund has been the largest and most active with investments in iCetana, Discovr and Agworld among others. Awaiting its first significant exit, the fund is fully committed mixing IT and health/biotech investments.

eGroup (forum) http://www.egroup.org.au
– internet entrepreneurs club (small fee), Evan Cunningham-Dunlop (@EvanCunninghamD), Rob Nathan, Greg Riebe are some of the current organisers
– been going the longest (since 2003, and in 2010 formally became incorporated as a not for profit association), a unique feature is its ‘what’s said in the room stays in the room‘ forum.
– meets at law firm Wrays in West Perth, first Tuesday of the month 6-8pm.

Atomic Sky / Tech Hub (incubator, investor / space)
– Andy Lamb (@andymlamb) http://atomicsky.com.au/
– part co working space, part incubator and investor, and also event space for startup launches. pitch nights (“Snap”) and gatherings, a funky new building (http://www.techhub.io) on the aptly named Money Street in Northbridge.

WA Angels Association (money)
– Greg Riebe http://www.waai.net.au/
– quarterly pitch nights are held at the BDO offices in Subiaco (invitation only) where startups go for money in front of high net worth individuals interested in investing in new businesses. No shark tank this, it’s a wholly supportive environment, and deals usually do happen.

Sync Labs (co-working)
– Leederville version of Spacecubed, mainly for techies http://synclabs.com.au/
– established by Marcus Tan (@drmarcustan) of Health Engine fame, and others

Silicon Beach (meet up)
– free techie meetup, Friday nights at Synch Labs http://www.meetup.com/Silicon-Beach-Perth/ – bring some beers

Sixty27 (co-working)
– Joondalup version of Spacecubed, although much smaller http://www.sixty27.com.au/
– run by Phil Kemp’s Business Foundations, and supported by the City of Joondalup 

//Startupnews.com.au (media)
http://www.startupnews.com.au/
– central blog, news and events site that maps the startup scene, run by Patrick Green and Marcus Holmes (@GentlemanTech),
– itself a startup, was launched just over a year ago and keeps everyone up to date with goings on.

Business News (media) http://www.businessnews.com.au/list/startups
– independent business media (disclaimer: I work here so this is a shameless plug!) that tries to cover tech sector regularly with an ‘app/tech business of the week’, a Startups List and regular startup/tech stories.

Universities

~ UWA : Tim Mazzarol (https://theconversation.com/profiles/tim-mazzarol-1526) professor at UWA Business School, leader in research and teaching in innovation and new ventures
~ Curtin : annual ‘Ignition’ week, intensive course, not to be confused with a 10-week incubator course (‘Incubate’, now called ‘Accelerate’) run by Jeremy Lu (@lu_jeremy)

Schools
~ CoderDoJo
: a wonderful innovation, bringing coding to school children, free of charge, supported by the Fogarty Foundation (https://zen.coderdojo.com/dojo/412)
~ Just StartIT
:  established in 2014, a dozen schools formed startup teams, have mentors and then pitch to a judging panel after a few months’ hard work in their own time. Run by Curtin’s School of Information Studies Lainey Weiser and others.  (http://juststartit.com.au/)

Award Programs
~ OzApps
: Feb every year, $100k up for grabs, includes apps from around Australia, Hong Kong and Singapore. Perth has had finalists in each of past 3 years. West Tech Festival. http://ozapp.com.au/ – there are a few other awards programs that feature emerging businesses or IT, such as Incite (WAITTA Awards), Rising Stars, Pinnacle Awards and others.

Tech Accelerators
~ RAC Seedspark : established in late 2014, 3 startups were selected to share in $50k in non equity money, and have access to mentors
~ KPMG Energise : announced Feb 2015, a free tech accelerator focusing on the resources industry, with no equity commitment, but access to mentors
~ Unearthed (RIIT) : announced late in 2014 a resource focused tech accelerator with ambitions to hold events around Australia and deliver over 50 funded startups over the next few years (http://unearthed.solutions)
~ Amcom Upstart : announced Feb 10th 2015, this looks like being Perth’s first pure tech accelerator, with $40k seed money in 8 successful startup applicants in return for a small equity stake, and access to a 3-month mentoring program starting 1st June 2015.
(http://www.amcomupstart.com.au)

An Overview of Perth’s Startup scene (Report)
In late 2013 there was a report done into Perth’s startup scene – some of the info is now out of date, but it is still interesting reading > http://www.boundlss.com/blog/perth-startup-ecosystem-report and full report here> https://48yo.files.wordpress.com/2015/02/5b756-perthstartupecosystem2013-infographic.pdf

There are many other meetups, some more active than others, some more techie than others, and various events. So I’m not trying to claim the above is an exhaustive list – however I can vouch for all the above, having been personally involved or having attended every one of them, and I know the people doing all the work. I don’t believe the community needs more events, but it needs more volunteers to help ‘do the heavy lifting‘. The ecosystem is alive and flourishing, but funding for startups is still hard to come by. Maybe 2015 will be a watershed year for deals?

In praise of the Big Bash

Perth Scorchers celebrating their back to back BBL win

Perth Scorchers celebrating their back to back BBL win

Many of us were on the edge of our seat last Wednesday when the Perth Scorchers won the 4th Big Bash Trophy off the last ball of the game, to successfully defend the league title they won last year, in what was their 4th successive grand final.

cg-ag

Me and the son at the BBL semi vs the Stars

Being a Scorchers fan, you would assume I would get all warm and fuzzy over Australia’s T20 (20 over) cricket competition. In fact, I had no expectation that the team I support would even make it to the final. A week ago I trundled along to the semi at the WACA with my 11 year old son. Perth were playing the much vaunted Melbourne Stars, laden with international players, who were on a 5-game winning streak having beaten the Scorchers the previous week. Somehow Perth got over the line, despite not scoring a single run in their last over and lurching to 144 (160 is seem as a bare minimum score at the WACA, where the average winning score is over 170.)

To be honest I did not care all that much about who won, I was just loving the tournament and everything about it. Even my 13 year old daughter was into the Big Bash, as was my wife, and we watched almost every game, no matter who was playing, throughout the summer holidays, even when we were on holiday. We went to three T20 games at the WACA, one game all 4 of us went along, and we all loved it.

backtoback

Perth win the semi so go onto the final where #back2back cup wins results

The Big Bash League was invented in 2010, after research showed that Australian cricket was in danger of losing an entire generation to the game. The young ones, and females of all ages, were simply not interested. Despite a T20 comp already in place, Cricket Australia, the governors the game, decided a major revamp was required and a franchised city-based T20 comp was designed, with the specific aims of bringing in spectators and fans who would otherwise not give cricket any attention at all. And boy how it has worked. This year, the 4th iteration of the BBL, has seen crowd attendances at games rise 20% year on year. Adelaide famously had 50,000 at its home games, in Sydney records were broken for all domestic game attendances with over 40,000 attending at the SCG (this beats the crowds that turned up to watch Don Bradman back in his heyday, well before TV made it easier to watch from home). Even over in Perth, the WACA creaked to 19,000+ in attendance last Sunday night, far more than turned out to see quality international teams like England play against India at the same ground 5 days later (the crowd there was a little over 7,000).

bb-trophy

Me with the Big Bash Trophy

This all reminds me of what Channel 9 and Packer did back in the 1970s – they took the game by the scruff of the neck, invented day/night cricket, coloured clothing, white balls and wall to wall marketing. 40 years on, if cricket is to survive, it simply has to make the most of the 20 over 3-hour format. It packs grounds out (a full house but with only 4 hours to serve rather than all day), brings in new spectators, new investors, new sponsors and a whole new audience. You can get down to the ground after work (they typically start around 7pm) and watch the game. It’s pumped out on free to air TV at prime time. There are colourful characters, great catches, huge sixes, frenetic running, skillful bowling. Even the commentators are more youthful, with open neck shirts and howls of laughter, a mile away from the besuitted Ch9 crew, who now look old and creaky in comparison. How the world turns.

I am a cricket tragic, a traditionalist (Test matches are still the thing for me) and yet absolutely love the T20 format. Invented by the British to revitalise the game over in the UK over 10 years ago, it’s been India and Australia (followed by South Africa, West Indies and New Zealand) who have developed their own leagues that attract players from around the world, showcasing yesterday’s heros and today’s up and comers. In the meantime, as is their wont, England have dropped the ball and put their T20 on successive Friday nights over a 3-month period. Guess what? 7,000 people show up at best (average attendances across Australia, with a far smaller population was three times this per game). England need to rethink things quickly, or become an afterthought.

So, all hail Cricket Australia, and Big Bash league, all power to you.

Just get out there

Road

I’ve just concluded an annual series of eBusiness lectures I’ve been presenting at UWA Business School for the MBA program since 2005. ‘Getting away from the day job‘ to concentrate on the more academic side of ebusiness has always allowed me to think through what I am doing, as well as try to present some practical advice to the students taking the course. As a former teacher, I still enjoy the dynamic of the classroom.

The best bits are inviting local ebusiness leaders into the class to tell their stories. This year, they represented small and large ebusinesses, private and public, old and new. There were some gems of advice from these fellow practitioners, and the class really appreciated their insights.

The Chetty brothers, Craig and Jeremy, made for popular presenters – their infectious enthusiasm for their Student Edge business (now in its 11th year) was plain to see. “Just get out there, if you have an idea” implored CEO Craig, “you have nothing to lose.

Sam Birmingham (he of Startup weekend, Pollenizer, PhDo and CoderDojo) said of startups looking to pitch “most of them should be pitching to clients, not investors“, making the point that by just getting out there, you learn from your early customers, and don’t have to bet the bank (or other peoples’ money) to do so. In fact, you may not need investors til later, if at all. This gets around the current funding problem that seems to exist among the Perth startup community. It also echoes Amir Bhide’s Bootstrap Financing paper of the early 1990s (by far the best thing I ever read on my MBA) about just getting out there, because only by being out there will you be able to take advantage of the opportunities that exist (which you would have no idea of knowing were out there til you get out there!).

Becky Lee, of startup Virtualiis, and Chris Baudia, GeoMoby, wowed the class with their innovation. Stephen Langsford of Quickflix, Graeme Speak of GoPC and Mark Woschnak of rent.com.au, impressed with their perennial good nature and positive attitude, pitted as they are against major competitors with deep pockets. Marcus Tan of HealthEngine, and Claire McGregor (formerly of Agworld), both shared their experience in ebusiness, and everyone was incredibly giving of their time. These people also give back in huge amounts to the startup community in Perth, running events, talking with startups, having various cups of coffee and being the leaders they are.

Let’s watch their futures with interest. All of them have ‘got out there and done it’. The other road was easier, but they all choose the one they’re on. They, and many like them, are an inspiration. Thank you.

Perth, the MBA and tech startups

Business Because

I was recently interviewed by Business Because, a network for MBA graduates.

You first studied in the UK – which country are you originally from?
England; I lived there for 26 years before moving to Singapore (7 years) and then arrived in Perth in 1997 – 17 years ago. I was an Economics teacher by training (Portsmouth Uni for Econs BA (Hons), then Uni of London for teaching post grad degree)

Why did you decide to begin an MBA in Australia and what were you hoping to get out of the program?
It was more that I was moving to Australia, and that I wanted to do an MBA anyway, and the timing was that aged 34 I had been teaching for 10+ years, was taking a break, doing an MBA (thinking it would be useful if I became a Principal – I had already been Head of Dept and Head of year for many years). MBA was also a chance to take a break from full time work (I taught at a local school part time), immerse myself in the MBA, meet lots of new people in a new country. Having decided on Perth as the place to move to, then it was a case of which is the best MBA, and there is no question that it’s UWA, so UWA Business School (or GSM as it was then) was it.

As for ‘why Australia?’ I had visited in the 1980s as my older brother moved to Brisbane in 1982 and as soon as I landed I knew I loved the country – “I am going to live here one day” was a strong feeling. Singapore was supposed to be a stepping stone (it was), but I loved Singapore, got married, stayed there 7 years. But we were always going “settle down” in Australia, and so in 1997 it was time and we chose Perth.

You studied an MBA back in 1998 – do you feel they are still as beneficial today?
I think there is a premise in the question that is false – in that the MBA itself has benefit on its own. The MBA is what you make of it – if you are looking for letters after your name, you can get an MBA anywhere – download one from the net if you want! As I was about to invest quite a bit of time (18 months) and money (cost of the MBA plus the opportunity cost of no income for 18 months) into the MBA, I wanted the best from it. I threw myself into it. It was wonderful really – the new people you meet, the whole experience. Sure, it’s not easy, but like running marathons or climbing mountains (which I don’t do!), the sense of achievement is from conquering something that is hard. And it’s why MBAs are taken seriously. Go in and take what you can from it. Don’t expect it to deliver things for you. It gets you a ticket to the dance that’s all. It’s up to you to make the most of it.

Everyone will have a different story, but for me personally, the MBA was life changing. I went in as a economic school teacher and came out the other side as a dotcom entrepreneur – this was unexpected, it was not the plan! But it’s what happened. What then followed would not have happened, “I would not be where I am today” (to steal an old phrase only people of my generation would remember) without it. It’s true. Nothing wrong with teaching, I loved it, but it was time to move on, and the MBA gave me the confidence, contacts and chutzpah to get out there and do something very different. And, importantly, it worked out for me.

What are the benefits of studying in Perth?
Perth is just so beautiful – 290 days of sun a year, the beaches, the wines, the open spaces, the opportunity, great people, the strong economy underpinned by the natural resources we are blessed with, the … everything. If you’re going to study somewhere, it might as well be a nice place!

UWA is 100 years old, steeped in tradition (for Australia!), lovely campus on the edge of the Swan River; great facilities, easy to get to. It’s a privilege really going back to school in your 30s (when you are mature enough to appreciate it) and study there.

You launched a business after graduation and went on to achieve 10 years of success – what was your inspiration behind the idea?
I had met Nick on the MBA, and he, like me, was not from Perth. He was Swiss and grew up in New York. He had run his own hedge fund and was older than me. I was a school teacher from the UK via Singapore. Very different backgrounds. But we got to discuss the internet (which was going off in the late 90s) and how it might be used for business. We had both moved to Perth recently and bought a house using newspaper ads and trawling around the home opens. We both instinctively knew it was not going to be done that way in the future. Our real inspiration was to use GIS (mapping) technology, borrowed from the mining industry, to show properties for sale/rent on the internet. This was 7 years before Google Maps. It was not easy, very expensive, but we did it.

What was the biggest challenge you faced during those ten years and how did you overcome it?
Starting a company is easy. Running it, and managing the growth and all that is entailed – is hard! Anyone can raise money on an idea (as we did, in a week) and launch a business. Because essentially you are ‘buying things’. Anyone can buy things. Go out and buy a programmer, an office, a marketing campaign, and – hey! – you’re in business. No you’re not!! Selling is hard. Selling to hard nosed real estate agents, who have been used to putting their money in a wheel barrow and giving it to the local newspaper for decades, and for whom that works just fine – is HARD! Getting them to change the way they do their business, while at the same time the traffic to the site is not there yet – DOUBLY HARD! I look back and wonder how we did it, how we got through, how we convinced the agents to stick with us while we grew the business. They were very loyal – they didn’t have to be.

There were times Nick and I would look at each other and laugh – “we’ve got MBAs, we can figure this out!” Because, for all the great things I learned on the MBA, there is nothing quite like what you learn in the field. The MBA can help give you a systemmatic way of solving problems, and strategising, but often you have to go on a mix of instinct and good fortune, and make it up as you go along. Make mistakes, and learn, keep trying things til it works.

How beneficial was being located in Perth for a technology/online business?
I think Perth has some advantages to other cities ~ relative isolation means people do take risks, and lean on each other. People give you a go here (it’s a lovely part of the Aussie culture to “give someone a fair go”). The internet/tech allows you to get out from your isolation so is welcomed here. People have literally “got up and gone” to come here, so have a good degree of “get up and go” about them. Maybe it’s our pioneering, prospecting culture/history as well, and the nice weather (seriously – people shine and smile!). The economy is solid, the technology is here, we are wired in. Being removed from other places give you the ability to test things and see how they go, to be ignored by the larger players while you learn your craft and experiment. For us, it allowed us 2 clear years head start to get established before the “big boys” from the east coast came over. Once they pitched their tents here, we were already in business and they had to deal with us.

Google ranks Perth as Australia’s digital capital – what makes it a good place for digital-focused MBAs to begin a career?
The startup-tech scene here is going off. Back when we started there were no co-working spaces (now there are several), no official angel groups (we had to hock our idea around to various rich folks), no startup weekends, no pitch nights… no tech community at all. We felt very much on our own, and that’s why I helped form eGroup in 2003 (it still goes on to this day). There is now Perth Morning Startup (700+ members – a free meetup), Synch Labs, Spacecubed, Silicon Beach, OzApps, … and loads more. All of these have set up in the last 2 years. Now I am at Business News running their digital strategy, I can also mentor/advise various startups, which I love doing, and also can write about them in the paper, giving them promotion.

People come from all over the world here, for various reasons (net 1000 people ARRIVE in Perth every week – that 50k a year net immigration – or another million people in the next 20 years) – there is loads of space – and they bring their ideas and worldly experience with them. Imagine what that creates in a small city. It’s vibrant.

The airport lounge waterfall

March 22nd, 2010, Perth. The largest storm in 50 years tears through suburbia leaving a $100mn clean up operation. The largest hail stones ever witnessed in Perth (upwards of 6cm wide) fell with relentless force in under an hour, knocking out power to 150,000 homes. In some areas 55mm of rain fell in one hour, some places experienced 27mm deluges in under 10 minutes.

All of this was behind me as I drove eastwards out to the Perth domestic airport to catch my flight to Kalgoorlie. A 5pm flight was due to get me in the mining town an hour later, giving me a few hours to wander through the place before my training day the next morning. I could see there was a storm coming, but was only to know later that my colleagues’ cars left in the carbays at work were to be ruined by hailstones the size of golf balls, which pummelled everything in their path, stripping trees of their leaves which blocked drains and quickly led to flooding. The commute home for many was going to be a terrible one that evening.

Meanwhile at the airport, I parked in the long term carbays and tossed up whether I would walk to the terminal, but seeing the oncoming dark clouds wisely plumped for the shuttle bus. It was about then the storm hit the airport, and 5 minutes later I dived in to the building to check in and offload the baggage. You could hear the storm the overhead and guessed we’d be delayed, but it was about 20 minutes later I saw the roof start to collapse inwards, and water pour in at various places. I was wondering if the planes were OK. Meanwhile, the lounge bar quickly gained an unplanned waterfall (see picture). Within minutes we were evacuated out of the building, and 5 hours later allowed back in to take our flight. I arrived at my Kalgoorlie hotel 6 hours late, only to find out they have messed up my booking. I think I got a room sometime around 2am.

I’ll never forget that day, as will few others who experienced it. On returning to Perth a few days later, the damage done by a ferocious hail storm was incredible to see. Pock marked cars were everywhere, car garages were giving away hail-damaged cars at ridiculous prices. Repair shops had months of queues. Leaves were piled up and strewn over the roads. Carports were down, windows smashed.

More pix on the storm here; video taken a few streets away from our office (amazing to think this is 4pm in the afternoon) here.