TALL POPPIES: Telstra Boss David Thodey Says Australia’s Start-Up Problem Is More To Do With Culture Than Cash

David Thodey. Picture: Bloomberg

Telstra boss David Thodey says has blamed Australia’s lacklustre entrepreneurial activity on a culture that fails to accept failure and celebrate success.

Addressing the Australia-Israel Chamber of Commerce on Monday, Thodey reiterated the increasingly common sentiment that the nation needed new, innovative industries to remain globally competitive.

Local entrepreneurs – including Atlassian co-founders Mike Cannon-Brookes and Scott Farquhar – have complained of being held back by onerous tax conditions and a lack of capital for some time.

But Thodey disagreed:

There are some tax things that I know Malcolm Turnbull is looking at. I think they’re important to tidy up but I don’t think that’s a big issue.

The big issues is do we have the will and do we want to do it.


I worry that we don’t have a culture of innovation; we don’t celebrate science and mathematics, we don’t really applaud great education.

Why is it that when you go to Silicon Valley, you’re just overcome by the incredible energy?

You may be cynical about that but there is undoubtedly this energy and this flow of people saying: ‘I am going to change the way things are done, and failure is accepted.’ It’s about people who are willing to push the limits and not give up and are willing to innovate.

Personally, I don’t think this is a venture capital issue.

A lot of people have said the venture capital industry is not strong in Australia. Well, yes and no; maybe there’s not that [venture capital] attitude but there’s no lack of money in Australia, whether it’s private or in companies like ours.

The chamber wasn’t entirely convinced; AICC CEO David Schlessinger pointed out that Australia had significantly less venture capital per capita than the US and Israel, at $US7.50 a person, compared to $US22 and $US60 respectively.

Another audience member criticised the “myopic” scope of Thodey’s speech, arguing that an anti-competitive environment – constrained by giants like Telstra and the big four banks – was keeping innovators at bay.

Thodey argued that, with the exception of fixed-line telecommunications, Telstra faced fierce competition from global giants like Amazon Web Services, Google, and Singtel Optus.

He suggested that Telstra had a better reputation overseas than it did locally and argued that Australians needed to be better at celebrating success to encourage innovation.

“Within the telecommunications sector, whenever I travel around the world, Telstra is known for its engineering innovation excellence,” he said.

“Somehow, I don’t know if it’s part of our psyche to push things down, but we need to celebrate our success and say it’s great.

“For all of us, no longer is our competition only in Australia. You’ve got to think of your competition as being global.

“The digital age is creating global competitors, not just local.”

Now read: David Thodey: Telstra’s Future Is In Global Technology