Freelancer.com CEO Matt Barrie is a bit of a polarising figure in the Australian start-up community. He is a physically imposing, tough-talking, intense character with a string of graduate qualifications including a Masters from Stanford.
Many see him as arrogant. To illustrate: just as I was about to chat to him at an event a couple of months ago, the person beside me said: “I bet you he mentions Stanford within five minutes.” (He didn’t.)
The $400m offer from Japan’s Recruit Co for Freelancer.com is an important landmark for Australia’s tech start-up industry.
It shows Atlassian, the software giant founded by Mike Cannon-Brookes and Scott Farquhar valued in the region of $1 billion, doesn’t need to be some kind of outlying freak success.
To be blunt, one big Australian tech success looks a little bit like luck. Two makes it looks like you’re starting to do something right.
Australia’s so-called “start-up eco-system” has come of age in the past decade. There’s an increasingly robust support structure for entrepreneurs who have an idea but struggle knowing where to start in getting it off the ground.
This is seen in shared office spaces that give people a place to work and cutting-edge professional start-up conferences like SydStart, run by Pete Cooper, whose career has included technology leadership roles at Macquarie and Standard Chartered.
There are investment groups like the Sydney Angels and Stuart Richardson’s Melbourne-based Adventure Capital that provide funds for early-stage companies, and maintain networks with venture capitalists looking for bigger opportunities.
But when you speak to many founders in the start-up scene there’s a palpable confidence deficit.
With the exception of those who have managed to generate decent revenue streams and as with most early-stage small businesses, they are stumbling from month to month trying to make ends meet. Everyone’s worrying about their next round of funding.
Few talk about making a few hundred million bucks and taking over the world. Timidity pervades.
Is it a problem? Not necessarily: as one experienced observer of Australian start-ups said today, it means “when you do get in front of US investors they are starting to learn we mean business, and when Aussie entrepreneurs are confident we have a real reason to be so”.
Part of it is undoubtedly the natural Australian tendency for understatement. But there are others who argue it could be holding the industry back.
In a report in April this year, PricewaterhouseCoopers looked at growth of Australian start-ups but noted that “fear of failure” was “considerably higher” here than in other entrepreneurially-minded countries like the US and Canada.
The report also noted that Australia had a record of world-leading innovations such as Wireless LAN – the key technology of WiFi hotspots – and the Cochlear bionic ear. “Flaunt these successes to the world,” the report urged.
Barrie himself is probably among the leading advocates for the start-up sector in Australia. He believes the venture capital industry in the country is “dead” and has spoken about its growth being a “national imperative”.
In terms of backers Freelancer.com had a capital injection from angel investors Startive back in 2009. The rest of its growth from a Sydney start-up to a 340-person company with offices in Europe and South America was almost entirely without outside investment.
So if it’s sold for the offer reported – and sources familiar with the matter have confirmed the offer to Business Insider today – it would make Barrie worth around $200 million.
Barrie’s hard-wired alacrity suggests he would be guaranteed to apply some of the cash to other ventures.
Many in the sector may have their quibbles with Barrie’s way of doing things. But nobody can argue with his success.
There are a lot of fledgling Australian companies that could do with a healthy dose of his attitude, advocacy and persistence, because often a terrific idea isn’t enough.
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