Home Data Govt 'lagging' on incentives for small IT firms

Govt 'lagging' on incentives for small IT firms

The co-founder of what is claimed to be Australia's largest data visualisation company says the incentives provided by the government to small businesses could be much better.

Jack Zhao, director and joint owner of Small Multiples, a Sydney-based company, told iTWire during an interview that there could be much more encouragement provided to small entities such as his.

"For us, we desperately need to scale in order to create more jobs for the economy," he said. "We’re a team of 10 full-time staff right now, and on the verge of being eligible for payroll tax - which is another cost for us.

"It’s good to see the recent company tax cut from the federal government, but Small Multiples feel it’s not enough. Right now, a lot of focus has been put on ‘start-ups’ but for companies like ours, the ‘scale-ups’ are not given enough attention nor support.

"Companies like ours need help to overcome the barrier to ‘scale up’, and grow larger so we can have more specialised roles in the team, be able to have support staff etc."

Jack Zhao.Zhao said some of the incentives the government could provide were access to tax credits or low-interest loans for small tech companies, subsidised office space, and easier access to business advisers to help identify opportunities and untapped resources.

"Business advisers are available now, but there are lots of hoops to jump through," he added.

Zhao suggested that the government could match industry spending on paid internships to prepare STEM students for the industry and incentivise small companies to hire less experienced graduates, as small tech companies were more nurturing environments for developers and creative people than big conglomerates.

"To address the immediate skills shortage, the government should streamline the 457 visa process," he said. "Companies like ours are genuinely in search of skilled and specialised developers, as opposed to a profit-driven outsourcing firm wholesaling tech workers to big telcos.

"The government should be able to make a distinction between the two very different motivations. The talent we attract is usually bright highly educated young people from countries that are of similar GDP to Australia, some of them looking for a lifestyle change.

"They would become valuable members of the Australian community if given the chance. So, lower the fees, cut the red tape, expedite the process for small tech companies like us. The visa system is clogged at the moment; from our experience, we’ve seen processing delays of up to six months."

Talented and experienced JavaScript programmers are needed for the kind of work that Zhao undertakes and he said there was a lack of such people in the domestic market.

At the moment, Small Multiples has a team of 11, five of whom are technical staff. Zhao said he had two staff from abroad, one from Sweden and one from France. He agreed that since both these workers were young they were bound to move along sooner or later, and the accumulated knowledge that they would take away was a concern.

The hours that people worked at Small Multiples were sometimes long, but the payback was the sense of satisfaction they derived from the work they did.

"I like doing projects for the government because that way our work serves the maximum number of people," he said. He and the company's head of digital production, Ann-Marie Jones, were down in Melbourne in the first week of April to meet representatives of the Victorian small business minister Philip Dalidakis, in a bid to obtain work in Victoria.

Zhao said the company had done a fair bit of work for the education department in NSW and was looking to translate that to Victoria's education sector. For example, data visualisations were being used to plan the setting up of schools, their location, the number they could cater to and so on.

Despite having been in business for only about six years, Zhao and co-founder Andrea Lau — who also happens to be his partner — have what can only be described as an impressive list of clients.

Small Multiples has created data visualisations for the ABC, The Australian, SBS, The Guardian, the NSW Government and the University of Sydney among others.

Zhao said that the company would, at times, suggest to clients how the data that they provided could be used. But on other occasions, they would accept the parameters that the client laid down and work accordingly.

On the financial front, Small Multiples is privately owned and had been able to turn a profit right from the start, Zhao said. He was hopeful of extending his company's work across the nation, in small steps.


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Sam Varghese

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A professional journalist with decades of experience, Sam for nine years used DOS and then Windows, which led him to start experimenting with GNU/Linux in 1998. Since then he has written widely about the use of both free and open source software, and the people behind the code. His personal blog is titled Irregular Expression.