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Wednesday, 11 April 2018 15:00

Are Australian start-up success stories proof of Australian start-up failure?

Are Australian start-up success stories proof of Australian start-up failure? AWS

“If you can’t raise capital for your start-up, then your idea is probably $hit.”

At the Amazon Web Services Summit in Sydney this morning, AirTree Ventures’ co-founder, Daniel Petre, delivered a well-received presentation on what was important for innovation in the world and (in particular) Australia. However, his comment, “If you can’t raise capital for your start-up, then your idea is probably $hit” would have split the field – while it drew laughter in the auditorium, you can bet that the overwhelming majority of Australia’s start-up starters of the past decade or so would have been baulking. Hard.

What is more of an issue, however, is that yet again, an Australian audience was presented with assertions that the Australian start-up scene is healthy and successful with the proof being the existence of the same old examples.

The subsequent “start-up success stories” slide was shown.

australian startup fail

Those who have sat through any start-up presentation in Australia in the past decade would have guessed that Atlassian would have been there. But just look at when it and the other companies started out (while remembering that Facebook was founded in 2004 and AWS in 2006):

Atlassian: founded 2002

Pet Circle: founded 2011

Canva: launched in 2012 with roots in 2007

Seek: Started 1997(!) ASX-listed 2005.

Safety Culture: Founded 2004

Hyper Anna: Founded 2015

So of this start-up-success-story list, only HyperAnna is actually a start-up. It’s also one that Petre has personally helped to grow via Airtree Ventures. Seek is older than some of the people reading this article.

Surely this must stop. 

It would be unfair to single out Petre for doing this. Most of these companies represent a kind of bingo card that can be handed out at any announcement regarding Australian start-ups and innovation.

I spoke to Atlassian management at one such event at Sydney Town Hall several years ago (where Sydney was talked up as the home of Australian innovation at the opening keynote while an announcement at the end of the conference said it was being moved to Melbourne) and they said that they hated being referred to as a start-up but were somewhat resigned to it in Australia. Those who actually use key Atlassian products, like Jira and Confluence, wouldn’t think of them as new and innovative. Both have already been targeted by other start-ups which have released rival products that have subsequently matured.

But surely the main issue is that the continued use of these “examples” — coupled with a near-inability to cite any successful, genuine Australian start-ups — is proof that there are huge problems with the start-up and innovation ecosystem in Australia. I’ve mentioned this in the industry many times over the years and routinely hear the same thing: “The government is making the right noises” over and over, but nothing changes. The same articles get written and the powers-that-be think all is well while they beam over headlines which suggest they’re champions of innovation. If all of this is alien to you, remember the Ideas Boom and the expensive ad campaign that went with it? How many Aussie start-ups could have been funded with that budget?

Meanwhile, scores of genuine Australian start-ups — some of which are very, very good — are stuck without funding and no ability to get any because the ecosystem of incubators, competitions and pitch-fests-with-no-tangible-prizes has let them down and left them disillusioned.

At this rate, it wouldn’t be a surprise if Atlassian was still being cited as the posterchild of start-ups in 10 years’ time.

Wouldn’t honesty be the best policy? Call the Australian start-up ecosystem the toilet that it is and stop congratulating and parroting every policymaker and commentator who hypes it up. Especially if they mention Atlassian.


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Nick Ross

Nick Ross is a veteran technology journalist who has contributed to many of Australia's top technology titles and edited several of them. He was the launch editor of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation online Technology section.



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