BlueChilli CEO: What Australia can learn from American business

CEO Sebastien Eckersley-Maslin (Centre) with COO Tony Burrett (left) and startup evangelist, Alan Jones. Photo: Supplied.

If there’s one thing Australian business can learn from the Americans, it’s how to say no before you say yes.

While there are many lessons the two countries can exchange to improve business at both ends, BlueChilli CEO Sebastien Eckersley-Maslin says the yes/no scenario is the stand out observation he learned during a stint in the US.

Eckersley-Maslin was recently invited to speak at the SelectUSA summit, where he shared the stage with US president Barack Obama. SelectUSA seeks to promote foreign direct investment in the US, and Eckersley-Maslin was there to recount how BlueChilli is creating startup innovation in Australia.

“Basically it’s to support people coming from overseas to the US to be able to do business,” he said.

“President Obama opened the conference, I was on the panel with the CEO of Xero Rod Dury and a few others, and John Kerry, who is the secretary of state.”

Eckersley-Maslin told Business Insider the experience, and his three weeks in the US, taught him a number of lessons about the way the Australians and Americans do business.

“One thing I think that the American politicians do incredibly well is really sell a vision of the US, and sell why people should come to America and embrace American culture,” he said.

“That’s one thing I think Australians can really learn to adopt: how can we better sell ourselves on a global platform.”

Eckersley-Maslin puts this down to our laid-back attitude and our larrikin culture.

“We tend not to take ourselves too seriously.” he said, “but on a global scale that can impact our ability to convince others to come and invest in Australia.

“There’s so many amazing things about Australia that we can sell as leverage: our country, about our culture, about our environment. I just don’t think we do a good enough to telling the world about what these things are.”

Australians have to learn to say “no” until they say “yes”

We can also learn from the way Americans approach failure, he said.

“The two things that we can learn from the US is a) their attitude towards business and b) their attitude towards failure.

“I often say that American culture is one where businesses say ‘no’ until they say ‘yes’. In Australia, you say ‘yes’ until you say ‘no’.

“In Australia, particularly in the corporate landscape, if you’re trying to close a deal or get a partnership, it’s: ‘Yeah, this is really exciting let’s set it up in the next couple of weeks’, and ‘Yeah let’s get these other people involved. Yeah, yeah, yeah’. And then they are saying: ‘No, it’s not for us’.

“Whereas in the US, it’s like: ‘Nup it’s not for us’. ‘Nup not quite, nup not quite.’ But you’re encouraged to keep trying, and then they’re like: ‘Yep, you’ve nailed this time. Let’s do it’.

“In my meetings here, I have been able to establish some pilot trials in two meetings. Where they like it but it needs tweaking. Meet again. Same process. Then you’ve got a pilot.

“It’s that really exciting attitude that everyone wants to try something. I think it draws down to their national ethos which is ‘The Great American Dream’: anyone has the potential to be successful.

“The other element to it is the tolerance of failure,” he says.

“You often hear that failure is worn as a badge of honour [in the US]. It’s not that people are trying to fail, it means that people here really reward entrepreneurship as attempting to try something. Really going for it. And when people fail in America, it’s reflected as a personal lesson. The whole ecosystem from the media to entrepreneurs to VC and even government, it’s all-supportive of that learning, embracing, pivoting and moving on, which is inherently important for technology, and technology startups.”

Photo: Al Levine/ NBC/ NBC NewsWire.

He admits that the scale of America is in an entrepreneur’s favour in this circumstance, whereas the size of Australia means “the probably of success is against you”.

“The sense of scale in AU compared to the US is completely different.

“The population of Australia is 25 million people, the same as California. America is 300 million people. In New York City in a month there was more venture capital deployed in angel rounds than there was in all of Australia, of all rounds, all of last year.

“In Australia, about 5% of startups survive their first year, and only 7% of those raise capital. So we’re talking tiny numbers. Unfortunately the Australian media culture, our support of people who give things a go is not anywhere near where it needs to be to support a thriving ecosystem.

“I remember one of my first failings as an entrepreneur, it took me ages to be able to talk about it. I am able to talk about it now but it took me several years to get over that. I think that’s culturally instilled in us.

“We all have a responsibility to be able to support the entrepreneurs who give things a go and fail, so they can try things again. To celebrate the attempts, the stories and the journeys.

“I encourage very entrepreneur to just come to the US and just absorb it, experience it, and reset that filter to go: ‘You know what, I thought I was big. I’m really not’.”

Australians do more with less

As well as taking on these lessons, Eckersley-Maslin says the Yanks can learn a thing or to from Australia’s business culture as well.

“What I think we do really well in Australia is achieve the same output, learnings and understanding in a business lifestyle for significantly less,” he said.

“The good thing about the US is that there is an abundance of capital and people willing to try things. The bad things is that $1.4 million is the median amount of money to give a company 12-18 months runway to test an idea. At BlueChilli we can take an idea and get it to the same point for about $100,000 dollars.

“That’s why I think there is a huge opportunity to marry these two culture together.

“Australians solve problems in a very cost effective innovative way. Any Australian that wants to come here with the right attitude is going to make a killing.”

Overall, Eckersley-Maslin says the US has a healthy respect for what Aussies are doing in the tech scene.

“The venture capitalists that I have been talking to have got a healthy appreciation for the Australian tech scene. One thing that they really appreciate is Australia’s ingenuity of being able to do a lot with very little. Thinking outside the box.

“The other strong comment that keeps coming again and again is the way Australian entrepreneurs focus on revenue and business. They really focus on the core business model, and trying to capitalise on that. That’s a very strong economical thing to have as a culture. Australian entrepreneurs in the US are very highly regarded.”

Over the next 12 months BlueChilli plans to push into the US in a “pretty significant way”.

“Bluechilli is going to be a very different company in the next 12 months. We will be three to four times bigger. We will be across three of four continents. It’s going to be pretty exciting,” he said.

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