INNOVATION NATION: 10 Australian tech executives share the biggest question on their minds

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Cyan Ta’eed, Co-Founder and Executive Director of Envato

The Australian technology industry may be gaining momentum as fresh capital enters the market and the federal government has taken an increased interest, but concerns remain among some in the industry.

We talked to several of the biggest names in the technology industry, and asked them what their biggest concern is.

Cyan Ta’eed, co-founder and executive director of Envato

For Cyan Ta’eed, who was recently crowned Victoria’s top businesswoman, the biggest question is how to encourage more, diverse groups into the technology industry.

“Right now women seem to leave tech within the first decade, and it’s pretty clear that is down to culture” says Ta’eed.

“Many tech companies seem to be waiting until they ‘get more women’ and see that as a magic bullet. I wonder if getting more women into tech will create a tipping point of cultural change organically, or if we’ll have a whole new generation of women arrive in tech and leave because the culture isn’t ready.”

Ta’eed notes there are several new groups trying to encourage and inspire young people, like education programs Code Club and DigiGirlz.

“In my opinion, tech companies need to be proactively getting ready for an influx of junior female candidates now. Otherwise we may end up going through the same thing legal world went through – an influx of female candidates who get pushed out as they get older.”

Brett Adam, managing director Zendesk for Australia and New Zealand

Having recently moved back to Australia after 20 years in the United States, Brett Adam was struck with the level of risk aversion here.

“There are far fewer venture capitalists, investing much smaller amounts in startups and compounding the problem is that big business, in general, isn’t taking a chance on local startups or small businesses either.”

“The tech sector’s appetite for risk in Australia is the ‘big question’ I have.”

Adam’s notes that the tech success stores, companies like Envato and Atlassian, are few and far between. And he notes there is a gap between the investments being made by tech companies and other big corporations.

“Zendesk, as a global business, has chosen to invest in Melbourne and to base our APAC development team here. We’ve recently signed an agreement with the Victorian government to hire more people, we’ve taken a lease on a much bigger office to accommodate our growing team and we’ve fitted out a fantastic new event space. All of this is investment and risk taken on our part.

“But we need to encourage other fast growing companies to do the same – to invest in Australia, to create more jobs, to create more customers and ultimately be part of a strong technology ecosystem that benefits us all.”

Kyri Theos, regional director for Freelancer Asia Pacific

Kyri Theos, regional director for the Freelancer Asia Pacific. Image supplied.

Kyri Theos questions how Australia can look beyond the buzzwords in the startup sector, especially if the current intense interest peters out.

To accomplish this, he sees a couple of challenges to overcome. Firstly is the fear of failure.

“In Australia, failure in business is too often seen as defeat, rather than a learning experience that improves your chance of success,” says Theos.

“This fear exists because starting a business is not fully accepted as a legitimate career path, like getting a degree or learning a trade. Governments can help change these attitude.”

“In Israel, one of the world’s most innovative countries, the government provides 85 percent of seed funding for entrepreneurs in its startup program. It sees this as a way to address market failure, supporting startups that will benefit the economy over the long term. It also provides incentives for startups to delay their exit, so they can grow into larger companies that employ more people.”

Julie Stevanja, founder and CEO of Stylerunner

“With the rapid pace of advancement, I question whether we as a nation will move quickly enough to create a world class ecosystem that is needed for us to become not only competitive, but global leaders in the field of technology,” says Julie Stevanja.

For her, the question is more than whether Australia can build a technology hub or whether startups can get enough funding.

The question is whether the human capital exists or can be fostered to develop an industry that will profoundly affect the entire economy.

“If we want to nurture the leaders of the future, I think we need to start by introducing fields such as web development and coding early on in the school syllabus with ongoing opportunities for innovation and development.”

“Technology will directly or indirectly affect every industry in the future.”

Greg Symons, founder of Clearmatch and co-founder of Society One

“How will incumbents respond to the threat of financial disruption?” asks Greg Symons.

“Will the tech giants and fintechs completely change the face of banking as we know it?”

With companies like Uber wreaking chaos in the taxi service, and AirBnB doing the same in tourism, the question is whether and how incumbents will respond.

Symons has seen this issue first hand, as Westpac took an equity stake in Society One, the peer 2 peer lender he co-founded. How these kind of defensive moves play out will ultimately impact what the future economy looks like.

“We see the rise and ultimate dominance of a full-blown financial marketplace (like an Amazon for lending & investing) where instead of monolithic financial institutions that control the flow of money, there will be an ability for financial ecosystem players to transaction together.”

“Think brokers, referrers, lenders and fixed income hunters utilizing a super-low friction technology to offer transparent and relevant products to both sides of the market.”

Chris Strode, founder of Invoice2Go. Image: Supplied.

Chris Strode, founder of Invoice2Go

“When will Australia start to see its own PayPal Mafia effect?” asks Chris Strode.

Strode is referring to the group of founders and early employees of Paypal. Several of them have gone on to become notable investors and repeat entrepreneurs.

Among them, Peter Thiel was an early investor in Facebook, Elon Musk has built Tesla and SpaceX, and Reid Hoffman founded LinkedIn.

“Silicon Valley is particularly good at showing us that success breeds success. The roll on effect of smart, experienced people coming out of successful tech companies to launch their own startups at scale has such an incredible impact on innovation.”

“I think we need a few more years and another few big success stories to see this incubation start to happen.”

Lachlan Heussler, managing director, Spotcap Australia

Lachlan Heussler has questions about the government’s innovation statement.

The report argues that Australia lags other countries on innovation because of an “inward looking corporation culture”.

But possibly the most stunning finding was that only 53% of Australians believe entrepreneurism is a “good career choice”. This compares with 65% in the United States and 60% in the United Kingdom.

“In order to maintain Australia’s position as a leader in the Asian market, policy needs to address the regulatory environment and take steps to create an entrepreneurial culture similar to that of the US and UK,” says Heusseler.

Vaughan Rowsell, CEO and founder, Vend

“The big question for me is if we’ll see the majority of Australian retailers recognise the importance of adapting to the modern shopper in 2016,” says Vaughan Rowsell.

“The new wave of omni-shoppers mean retailers need to merge their physical and digital systems – no matter whether they started in bricks & mortar or ecommerce,” says Rowsell.

“Keeping these two separate just won’t cut it anymore, and retailers are starting to realise this.”

Rowsell notes the success of Shoes of Prey, which was once a purely online outfit but has now opened physical stores in both the US and Australia.

Ultimately, he believes Australian retail can make the transition.

“Rather than seeing online and offline as rivals, we’ll see even more online stores in Australia move into bricks & mortar territory whether through seasonal pop-ups or long-term stores,” Rowsell says.

Graham Schultz, managing director at Tintri ANZ

“The big question for me is how far private cloud will take off in 2016,” says Graham Schultz.

Schultz is referring to the creation of a cloud network behind a firewall, something usually undertaken by corporations. The rise of cloud computing, through services provided by the likes of Amazon and Microsoft, has unlocked a lot of possibilities for many companies. But there are concerns about the privacy and availability of public services.

For many companies a private cloud system is preferable, but there is a shortage of talent to enable its adoption.

“I anticipate it will continue to make bigger inroads into the corporates,” says Schultz.

“However, there is a major skills shortage in ANZ that directly limits the effect and rate of adoption towards the cloud and this needs to be overcome in order for cloud adoption to accelerate to the levels that we’re seeing in markets like the US and Europe.”

Finder co-founder Fred Schebesta.

Fred Schebesta, co-founder and director of

“When will top tech talent follow people, rather than companies?” asks Fred Schebesta.

“Too often we are seeing top talent being lured by shiny objects – companies with funding, big names on the board, and the promise of a great career.”

But while bigger companies can offer larger salaries, Schebesta says the practice is a drain resources away from more promising companies or opportunities.

“The issue here is that this can drain other companies of top talent – they’re running away in pursuit of something better, but ultimately smaller or less-established companies are losing out.”

Talent needs to look beyond the bright lights. Rather than chasing the big name company, you should chase your mentor – seek to work with other key talented people, learn about the business and see what greatness that can lead to. Make your mark and never stop learning.


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