Australians hit Silicon Valley: the new Hollywood

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by Francesca D’Arcy*

“The whole Silicon Valley motto for startups is ‘move fast, break things’ and ‘get shit done’, that is the biggest thing I’ve learned that Australia isn’t doing,” said Tommi Sullivan, a PhD student at Griffith University.

Tommi, who is studying wireless technologies, was part of a group of 20 budding tech entrepreneurs from Queensland, including a self-professed hacker, on a once-in-a- lifetime trip to the tech hub of the world, Silicon Valley, which proved to be a massive confidence booster for those involved. Most came home believing that, with a little luck, they too could make it big.

The Startup Catalyst mission – from September 28 to October 7 this year – is an annual initiative that aims to encourage and promote Australia’s next generation of promising tech entrepreneurs by allowing them to go behind the scenes to see how some successful new companies operate.

The program, which is sponsored by the University of Queensland, QUT Business School and the Queensland Government, plus several other large Queensland-based organisations, aims to build budding entrepreneurs confidence and knowledge of business operations and how to establish tech startups.

“There are so many young Australian’s with the potential and talent to drive the evolution of the tech industry and help establish Australia as one of the world’s technology leaders, we just need to nurture and encourage that talent,” said Steve Baxter, Startup Catalyst’s mission leader.

The participants were exposed to a variety of organisations based in and around San Francisco and the Palo Alto area of California from globally renowned giants including Facebook, Google and Twitter to vast and impressive data centre Equinox. Businesses based on catering for the needs of new startups, namely Kiwi Landing Pad (KLP) and Runway were also visited, as well as online design market place 99 Designs.

During the 10-day excursion, candidates met like-minded Australians who had already made the leap overseas in order to establish their companies and tech careers.

“Joel Pobar, engineering director at Facebook, gave us an extremely informative glimpse into their inner workings,” said Nick Burge, growth marketer from Brisbane. ”He talked at length about how a startup is not all about building a product and seeking capital, but also the hidden frustrations around creating and managing teams. He provided some great advice that we can immediately apply to our working relationships.”

“I really appreciated just how candid and matter-of-fact the tour of Facebook was,” Jack Hallahan, an emerging UX (user experience) product designer said. “It gave us a real insight into the organisation which I really wasn’t expecting and it was incredible to see the kind of working environment they have created.”

For Tex Andersen, currently studying ‘mechatronics’ (building robots) at QUT, it was the tour of Xero that resonated. “It completely changed my perspective on the way things are globally versus the way they are in Australia.”

“99 Designs from Melbourne and Atlassian, who have already outgrown their first San Francisco office are smashing it, Australians are popular over there” Michael Sive an IT and Law graduate from QUT said. The importance of networking was a reoccurring theme across the ten days.

“Everyone is hustling, hacking and pitching, trying to get their idea off the ground. We quickly learned that your personal network is your currency. Knowing the right people will get you capital, talent, customers and may be the difference between a billion dollar success and a regretful fifty million dollar failure,” said Jack Hallahan.

This point was hammered home when the candidates met Australians already in San Francisco.

“It is a great way to get your foot in the door,” said Sian Simpson, community manager of KLP which was established to help New Zealand technology companies grow their business in the USA. “And meet some people who have already begun building their networks in SF. You should never be afraid to ask for help because they started at the beginning at one point too… Talk to everyone, and ask lots of questions,” she said.

And that’s what the group did – talked and asked a lot of questions of other tech startup founders and hopefuls.

“I used to hate networking but this trip has taught me to completely re-evaluate its importance, now seeing it as having passionate conversations with like-minded people,” said Janene, a ‘systems programmer and software engineer’. Janene (not her real name) is our hacker on the trip. She is about 21 years old and makes a part-time living hacking into the websites of various organisations, finding bugs and selling that information to vendors and brokers who sell onto penetration testing companies or government agencies.

Krissy O’Farrel, an IT student at QUT, said: “One of the best things from this experience was the opportunity to meet the other participants. I feel like that was the most valuable part of the trip; forming bonds and connections which will no doubt translate into professional working relationships and networks down the line.”

In addition to helping unite young tech-savvy Queenslanders, the program aimed to inject the entrepreneurial drive and confidence that permeates Silicon Valley.

“Silicon Valley is like Hollywood for developers and hustlers. It attracts all kinds of skill levels and Australians are definitely up there in terms of talent and capability,” said Nick.

Silicon Valley has a mystic that is well deserved, “if every waitress in Hollywood is an aspiring actor then every cab driver in the Valley has a startup on the side” Steve Baxter said.

“Fundamentally San Francisco isn’t better than Queensland” developer Ben Maggacis said. “Startups are embedded in American culture and there are so many people focused on building billion dollar companies which generating an amazing environment where people push themselves harder triggering others to do the same” he said.

But according to Robert Collings, marketing and communications manager at Ephox, who spoke on the first day of the mission at StartupHouse, that Australians don’t always realise, or use this capability and talent. “Australians are twice as smart as they think they are but only half as confident as they should be,” he said.

So, what is next for these guys and the start-up scene in Australia?

“I love the term ‘startup ebola’,” Steve Baxter added. “It speaks to the contagious nature of what we are trying to do. Whether it takes off as a term is nowhere near as important as to whether the 20 young people we took this year infect another 20 each on their return”.

He said: “All of the participants have an obligation to the program to attend events and speak about what they saw; the goal here is to create a cohort much larger than 20.”

Chris Reigar, electrical engineering and business management graduate from University of Queensland, said: “The trip to Silicon Valley has really taught me that what we can achieve here is definitely on par with Silicon Valley. It’s all about the entrepreneurial mindset to give it a go – and knowing there’s a network to help.”

Jordan Gardiner, a recent multimedia graduate from Griffith University, said: “I think I’ve redefined what success means to me this trip. Its been like nothing else I’ve ever experienced in my life so far, and I have nothing but the utmost praise for Steve Baxter and the crew for pulling off such a feat,”

Tex Andersen, our robot builder from QUT, said: “Startup Catalyst has completely changed my life trajectory. Before I was planning on getting a 9-to-5 job where I could stay until retirement. But now I am going to change the world, one startup at a time.”

*Francesca D’Arcy is a consultant at Shed Social, a specialist media advisory firm, who attended the Startup Catalyst mission in Silicon Valley with the assistance of the organisers and BRW.

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