Beware the superchickens

International businesswoman Margaret Heffernan took to the TED stage a few months ago in Monterey, CA, to deliver an impassioned plea to business to remove the ‘superchicken’ culture. ‘Success comes from collaboration, not from competition’, she implored.

In the video above she begins with the evolutionary scientist William Muir’s experiment with chickens at Purdue University. He studied their productivity (by counting the number of eggs they laid), separating the best performers from the normal. After 6 generations, what did we find? What did the coop of ‘superchickens’ look like, and how were the normal chickens getting on?

Well, the normal ones were all plump and fine, and in fact had increased production nicely. Meanwhile, the more productive ones (the superchickens) were a dispirited lot, what was left of them. Only 3 were alive, as their aggression and over-competitiveness had led to the others being pecked to death. Not many eggs were being laid.

What does this tell us about organising people at work? Quite a lot, it would seem. In studies on human productivity in teams (at MIT), the best team results came from groups not with super stars in them, but those that had 3 things:

  1. High degree of social empathy (team members looked out for each other);
  2. They gave roughly equal time to each other (everyone’s voice was heard, and valued);
  3. They had more women in them (!)

Social connectedness was the most important element.

Does this sound like your workplace? Do you have a superchicken environment, with some high performing alpha people running around roughshod, or do you have a true team environment where everyone’s input is valued and used? Real teamwork, you might say.

I would argue that if you have superchickens pecking each other’s eyes out (figuratively of course, I expect this literally does not happen), it’s important to get them out. Before too long they will start to alter the culture of the organisation, play to their own rules, and be almost impossible to manage. The amount of money they bring in, or work they do, will dictate to the organisation in such an extent that they will make the group beholden to them, not the other way around. Everyone else will hate the environment. Results will drop off. Good people will leave.

If the superchicken(s) can’t be retrained (some can), then they best just flock off. Organisations have enough issues and problems to deal with these days without waging internal battles among their staff. We need to work together, respect each other, and the leader at the top needs to insist on this as the approach. The best results always come from collaboration, not from competition.

As Margaret says: “We have big problems to solve. They can’t be left to a few supermen and superwomen. Now we need everybody. It is only when we accept that everybody has value, that we will liberate the energy and imagination and momentum we need to create the best beyond measure.”


Ecosystem done. What Perth startups need now are success stories

Startup Weekend

Almost exactly three years ago I attended the first Startup Weekend in Perth. 100 plucky individuals bought tickets to attend. 40 or so got up on Friday night to make a 1-minute pitch (if they went one second over, they were stopped in their tracks). From these 40 pitches 15 or so teams formed by 9pm that night, and they were off and running.

By Sunday evening the teams had to pitch their ‘completed’ ideas to some judges. Some had almost complete products out on the web, or in the Google play store. They had branding, cool designs, working products, had engaged in customer validation and had learnt a tremendous amount. Perhaps 6 or more months of learning had been crammed into a frenetic 48 hours. Most would wake up a little bleary Monday morning and return to their day jobs.

I was one of the mentors on that first weekend, and I remember the ‘Breakeven app’ who I worked with ended up in 2nd place. The leader of the team had attended two Startup Weekends in New York previously and thought Perth’s one was better. Better in terms of the quality of the attendees, mentors, judges and ideas.

Wind on three years and there have been 5 startup weekends. There are now 5 tech accelerators in Perth (a year ago, there were none). There have been 3 iterations of Founders Institute. There are half a dozen co working spaces. The Perth morning startup meetup has 1500+ members. I have accumulated a list of 250+ startups that I know of (there are probably way more, and I am finding out about new ones every week).

The ecosystem is full and vibrant. None of this existed 3 or more years ago.

A well known Perth-based VC Matt Macfarlane told me once, “first comes the ecosystem, then the success stories, then the investors.”

We’ve got the ecosystem, now we need some success stories.


Newspaper circulation falls, and falls, and falls (again)

Circulation on the downer

The latest newspaper circulation figures for Australian media organisations make for more sorry reading. Every title, no matter how they try to dress it up (and, boy, have they tried) is in the red, as the graphic above shows (courtesy: ABC News).

Fairfax media seem to have totally given up on print’s future, calling the newspaper circ numbers a “historical production metric” (translation: they are so bad, we are not going to pay much attention to them anymore, in fact, they are a thing of history).

The bright side in all this is the growth in digital subscriptions to newspapers… err, sorry, media organisations.

‘Digital only’ paid subscriptions to the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age now surpass the ‘print and digital’ offer (interesting) and are almost as large as the ‘print only’. Total subscriptions though are well down, although the pace of decline has slowed.

Even our local print monopolist, the West Australian (apparently the most expensive, and best performing daily in the country) has seen subscriptions fall another 4.3%.

The Fin Review has (so I am told) 15,000 digital subscribers (not many for a national product) and the Australian around 55,000. Meanwhile, the Financial Times has 700,000+ print/digital subscribers around the globe, 70% of them are digital mix or digital only. The New York Times has 800,000 subscribers, and a team of 300+ staff to manage them.

A migration to digital platforms is now gathering pace. People who want quality news, specialised news, niche news, are increasingly OK with paying for it. Most people get their general news from free web sites, TV news broadcasts and (increasingly) Facebook feeds (i.e. the news that friends of theirs post daily). Facebook has even begun experimenting with its own Facebook news product (‘Instant Articles‘), so publishers can post directly onto newsfeeds of its 1.1billion or so users.

This major ‘print to digital’ trend is now the main game in news media organisations, and within digital (now the largest media category) there is a move to social and mobile.

Will print die? Interestingly, some commentators think it might still have a role ‘in the mix’. Albeit a smaller one.

When a wily investor like Warren Buffet forks out US$344 million for 28 local newspapers in the States (in 2013), then you know there is something of value still there. His reasons for this included the power local papers have to disseminate news to a community, who, bored of the depressing nature of the global news, turn to something they are a part of, and can understand. Newspaper organisations with a ‘sensible Internet strategy’ will do the best and can still make good earnings.

We live in interesting times.



Farewell Jon Stewart, #jonvoyage

Jon Stewart

Jonathan Stuart Lebowitz (aka Jon Stewart), from New Jersey, the world’s foremost satirist, did his final ‘Daily Show’ this week, after 16 years spent poking fun at, and laying bare, political absurdists, buffons and bulls**t artists.

Not a hard job, you may ponder, but done with the precision of a supreme Zen master. Jon used a deftness of touch, warming up his favourite topics of derision with a few minutes of ‘following their logic’ only to expose their stupidity and two facedness with a mix of acidic wit and explosive evidence.

Everyone from the loons at Fox News to those running for (or holding) high office would be laid bare, their own words skewering their own arguments, with Jon just playing the conductor, interlacing clips with biting interjections.

No one was safe, not those on the left, right or centre. The right certainly gave him plenty of fodder every night, but he went after everyone. In the era of ‘sound bite’ politics, where slogans masquerade for political debate, thank goodness for the cutting exposure of The Daily Show, a program I think I watched (almost without missing an episode) these last 10 years or so.

Along the way, Jon brought us Steve Carrell, Stephen Colbert, Aasif Mandvi, Al Madrigal, John Hodgman, Lewis Black, Kristen Schaal, John Oliver, Jason Jones, Samantha Bee,  Olivia Munn, Rob Corddry and Ed Helms. Without The Daily Show there would have been no Colbert Report (who is now taking over the Letterman Show) or Last Week Tonight. Downunder, Charlie Pickering does a pretty good Aussie version on the ABC on Wednesday nights with the ‘Weekly Show’.

Without JS, we now have to smell the BS for ourselves. As Jon himself said, there is a lot of it around. Be aware of it, don’t let it defeat you. “The best defense against it is vigilance”.

His last 4 minute monologue puts it perfectly, and is well worth a watch.

Thanks Jon, #jonvoyage.


The Internet in real time

Click the animation to open the full version (via http://pennystocks.la/).

This animation keeps things in perspective!

Watch as the number of tweets, youtube posts and watches, Linkedin searches, Skype calls, Instagram photo uploads, Google searches, App downloads, Facebook likes, emails sent, Dropbox files saved, Amazon items purchased, Netflix views … and much more, changes in real time in front of your eyes.

And to think most of this did not exist 10 or 15 years ago, and none of it was around 20 years ago.

Back in 1995 the internet was new, a mess. No Google. And scientist Clifford Stoll wrote a piece in Newsweek called “The Internet? Bah!” pouring scorn on its future. What could we do without it now?


How I judge a pitch

Pitching aint easy

I’ve had to pitch in my time, and I’ve seen a few pitches (real and for competitions), and occasionally someone comes to pitch their startup business idea to me.

When judging the value of a pitch, here’s what I look for…

1. Solves an existing/large customer problem

The first thing I look for – is there a clear, sizeable customer ‘problem‘ this new idea is solving? So many pitches look like they are describing really cool ideas, but dig down a little deeper and there is no obvious problem being solved. I’ve fallen foul of this myself. Launching aussiehome.com, we had an idea we were solving the problem of property searching, but our paying customers were real estate agents. There was no problem of property searching for them, buyers came to them anyway (and had done so for years) through newspaper advertising. We may have been solving the problem of property seekers, but they weren’t our customer, they weren’t paying us any money. It was real estate agents who paid (through monthly subscriptions) for our service. Once we got to know the real estate agents’ problems, we launched services for them. That kept us a alive (just)… but it was a close run thing, and an important lesson learned.

* Please note – if you can’t answer #1, do not bother going any further! *

2. Scalable, protectable idea

OK, so you have identified a clear, sizeable problem you can solve for customers who are going to pay you to solve that problem for them. How easy it is going to be to protect that position? How scalable is it? Are you capable of taking the idea to scale and extracting the value? Will you be swamped with competitors and imitators who will take the market from you? When we did our startup we thought we had 3-6 months before someone would copy our map-based property search idea. It was actually much longer than that (18 months or so), but in fact the maps had nothing to do with our competitive advantage. It was the speed of client acquisition, keeping the clients on and keeping them happy that made our business protectable. By the time realestate.com.au and others came to town, we were 3 years old, had great client relationships and could protect ourselves. Before then, we were vulnerable. It took 5 years to really make any money from the business, such we could actually pay dividends to shareholders from the profit earned.

3. Rivals’ reactions factored in

Speaking of competitors, you must recognise that all markets are dynamic. As you enter the market with your services, your rivals (and potential ones, yet to launch or move into your market) have a vote too. They can react in various ways, moving on product, price and promotions. Have you thought through how their moves could affect your strategy? Have you innoculated your clients against the changes your competitors can make? What would you do if you were them? Think a few moves ahead. I meet people who seem to forget that markets can change. The current status quo is just a series of conversations making up a perpetual ebb and flow.

4. IP or secret somehow protectable

Allied to this last point, is there some legally protectable ‘secret sauce’ at the core that makes your idea a knock out? I presume you have the right trademark protection around your brand name, logo design (this easy to acquire, but also very important). Have you some patent on some important process or innovation that you are using? Is the patent secured, or on its way to being secured (“pending”)? Is it reasonable to suggest that what you have (as an edge) is giving you an unfair advantage over incumbents and any potential entrants?

5. A clear market opportunity

Without a clear market opportunity, with potential customers wanting to buy your products at a price you can make a living on, then you don’t have a business. What makes the opportunity an opportunity as of now? How long will that opportunity stay open for (what’s your ‘window of opportunity‘)? Remember, markets are dynamic. Do you have weeks, months or even years? How is it that you (and your team) are going to be the people to exploit this opportunity? You need clear answers here, and do not fall into the ‘China numbers’ trap. I hear so many people say “Oh, the market is huge, $5.6 billion in Asia-Pacific alone, and if we only got 1% of this market then our revenue would be $Xxx million”. Better tell me how you are going to get your first 10 paying customers on board, how you are going to service them, and then tell me how you are going to scale from this 10 to multiples of 10, and 100, and 1000.

6. A great team

Often the investors do not necessarily understand what you are doing, the opportunity you have and how you’re going to do it, but they do know people. They will want to know who your team members are, what they bring to the table, and why you and your team are going to be the winners in this particular case. In the end, this is what they are investing in. People. The sort of people who will do what it takes to bring in the plan, make the sale, stay up late, work long hours, tweak the pricing model, adjust the product from feedback, be patient and persistent.

7. Cost of production & client acquisition as compared to price

Once we are sure you have a market, then some pretty straightforward economics come into play. How much is it going to cost to make the widget, or provide the service, compared to what you are going to charge (and customers are willing to pay)? Average costs may come down with increased output, so how many paying clients do you need to ‘break even’ and make the profits you are hoping to reap? I’ve had potential investors triple my costs and half my projected revenues, and only then decide whether to invest, so make sure things are robust. There should be clear daylight between your running costs and the projected revenue, but also guard against the unrealistic “hockey stick” revenue projections so often seen in pitch decks. Reality is rarely a hockey stick, it’s usually a slow, hard climb up a very long shallow mountain.

How much does it cost to acquire a new paying client? Hopefully, this cost will fall over time as you gain scale and your reputation grows. Ultimately you will want your clients to do the selling for you (by referring your service to their contacts), but well before they do this, investors will want to know what assumptions you are making around promotional activities which lead to sales, and the cost per new client as distinct to what it costs to then provide the service. All this needs to be covered by revenue. I’ve seen SaaS (software as a service, or subscriptions) products launched where the cost to acquire a new client is well in excess of what that customer is paying per year. That’s a journey you don’t want to undertake.

8. Strong clear business model

Investors will want to look at your overall business model. My favourite for online business is subscriptions (SaaS) which includes a monthly or quarterly or annual payment, which renews automatically, and where the new client coming on just starts paying upfront and uses the service without much human interaction. No expensive sales force or marketing plans required, it’s a slow organic build, but once past the point of break even, every new client is almost pure profit. Believe me, it took us 5 years at aussiehome, but on the other side of that hill are beautiful green pastures, bubbling brooks and gamboling lambs. You can sit under the tree strumming your mandolin, the sun is shining and it’s heavenly. Well, maybe not quite, but you get the picture. I’m not saying advertising or etailing cannot work, they can, but subscriptions models are wonderful, and the ones I favour.

9. Disruptive to existing market

This is not a prerequisite, but often in the area of tech startups you are disturbing an existing market, and forcing it off in another direction. Uber, Netflix and AirBnB are classic examples, and have each become billion dollar businesses in a relatively short period of time. It’s the tech subscriptions model at scale which is wonderful, and in each of their cases, they did not have to invest in heavy capital things like cars, TV stations or hotels. They thought about an existing market in a different way and used the power of online connectiveness to create value. Each one started out in a niche market before scaling to national, regional and global size. How I would have loved to have heard their initial pitches. I wonder if they truly understood the massive new business they were creating. I’d like to think not. They have a problem they wanted to solve it, and went out there and explored.

10. Exit opportunity

Remember, investors are also thinking “how realistic is it that I am going to get my money back, how many times over, and when?” Investing in tech startups is about as risky as betting on a horse, but even with a horse race you have a realistic understanding how you might get some money back, and when. You presume it’s gone, but if it returns, it returns many times over, and it’ll be a few minutes time (or not at all). Angel investing in startups is often a patient activity. Besides a dividend at year 5, it was 6 years before our investors even got a sniff of an exit opportunity, and 10 years before the final trade sale. If you are taking money from investors (and there could be very good reasons NOT to do this at the very stage you’re at) then it’s a responsibility you should not undertake lightly. For them, it’s an investment opportunity, that’s all. They need to know what realistic avenues they have for crystallising the/any value in their ownership, and when – a trade sale, dividends, an IPO, a merger, management buy out… all of the above?

I hope this is a useful list. It adds up to 10, as it happens, which is a fluke. I have probably missed some important factors, or over played others. But to me, with 15 years experience on all sides of tech startup land, it’s what I deem to be the major factors I look for these days …


Why your LinkedIN profile needs a good photo

LinkedIN pix

I was lazily scrolling through LinkedIN the other day and got to that bit where people who you may know are served up to you as in some professional speed dating site (not that I know what that looks like). You know, the rows and rows of people who are linked to people you are linked to, hence LinkedIN’s clever little algorithm thinks they might make good connections for you.

As I scrolled down, I noticed that less than half had a proper photo – a neat, professional-looking head and shoulders shot taken with a neutral background that clearly shows the person concerned. About a quarter had no photo at all (what are they hiding?), just that grey shadow image that LinkedIN defaults to if someone hasn’t even bothered to upload a picture of themselves. About another quarter had photos from the beach, or the logo of their company, or a cartoon, kids pictures, bad selfie, a tiny photo, squished photo, blurry photo, a studio (I am not making this up), a picture of 5 people (this is not Facebook!)… you get the picture (or not, as they case may be).

So I was wondering what these people were playing at. I assume this was done through either laziness (they’ve not got around to getting a proper photo done), or they did not know how to take or upload a photo, or they genuinely thought the logo was the done thing, or the beach shot was ‘kewl’. Now, I’m not saying I’m some expert, but if I’m looking to make a new connection (or recognise an old one) I go straight to the face. I think we all do. Human nature.

To me, no clear photo means you are either trying to hide something or do not know how to network online or have nefarious intent (like spamming, or monotonous self promotion). Either way, I’m moving on.

In my frustration, I posted this to my LinkedIN status:

I don’t understand people on LinkedIN who do not have a photo of themselves in their profile… (or worse, a bad one).

It would appear I am not alone. Here are some of the comments I received …

  1. Sevgi Erogul Sevgi Erogul

    I’ve had nightmares about some of the display pictures I’ve seen on LinkedIn. I kid you not, I’ve seen an accountant with a picture of themselves pole dancing as their display image

  2. Matt Edwards Matt Edwards

    Some of us don’t have much to work with Charlie :-)

  3. Danny Grillo Danny Grillo

    Serious? – Pole Dancing?

  4. Lyn Hawkins Lyn Hawkins

    Matthew Wallis take note. It’s not just me who thinks this way…

  5. Matthew Wallis Matthew Wallis

    thanks Lyn Hawkins! Duly noted :-)

  6. Marisse de Wet Marisse de Wet

    Or that view your profile anonymously … Really..?!?

  7. Rob Haynes Rob Haynes

    Or have out of date contact details, or no contact details at all…….

  8. Cameron Gurr Cameron Gurr

    No contact details are better than out of date ones. You can always hit someone up through the messaging service. But bad photos…

  9. Peter Taliangis Peter Taliangis

    Yes Charlie Gunningham as you know it is the first tip in my Linkedin presentations – Good Photo – want to see you face – want it to match the person I meet when I see you in “Your Job” – Dont want to see a logo, ball photo, wedding photo, night club photo, photo with more than one person in it, selfie taken at the beach in your bikini etc etc Sevgi Erogul, Matt Edwards, Danny Grillo, Lyn Hawkins, Matthew Wallis, Marisse de Wet, Rod Haynes, Cameron Gurr :-)

  10. Warren Hinchliffe Warren Hinchliffe

    I agree completely re photos, no logos, cartoons or poor quality holiday or boozy party iPhone snaps. I have seen some shockers and have occasionally sent people a message that it is not in their best interest. Get someone to take it for you, well lit, well focused AND well dressed. If you can’t get a friend or rellie to take it, get a professional. Even one from a shopping centre booth.

Notice 9 out of the 10 have nice profile photos, except in one case, who was called out on it, and saw the error of their way!

So, dear LinkedIN wannabe connection, get a proper photo done. First impressions count you know, and usually last.

Pic Credit: examples taken from Andrew McCarthy.com


Why short term thinking is destructive

Short termism One of my favourite quotations from economist John Maynard Keynes was “in the long run, we are all dead.” He made this quip to pour scorn on those who thought the problems of the day were insurmountable and impossible to cure in the interim. He argued for the government to take the lead, and ‘prime the pump’, engaging the country in mass building programs to put people back to work and get those important multiplier effects working through the economy.

Although long term issues do require long term solutions, you should not feel defeated before you even begin, thinking everything is impossible. Where will that get you? However, an over reliance on short term results can distort decision-making such that the future is sacrificed for a result today.

We can see this from everything from daily (and hourly) share market fluctuations  through to the climate change debate. Last week the headlines and broadcasts screamed about a 110 point drop in the ASX due to a problem in China. Almost mass hysteria followed. The next day the markets rebounded 100 points. At the end of the week, they pretty much ended up where they had left off a week earlier. Hardly worth any fuss you would think. How can people get so overly concerned about a one day dip and then almost go ‘meh‘ when the losses are recouped on the morrow? Are we more wired to react to bad news? Is that what the news media know only too well? Of course they do. They are after ratings, after all. They are in the entertainment business, not the information business. Eyeballs are everything. Everywhere. They are being judged on short term results too. What were this week’s ratings again?

In business, it is fairly easy to get some short term results. Sack a few staff, slash costs dramatically, tell your suppliers you’re renegotiating everything and you’ll see your results rebound almost instantly. Many companies are doing this right now. Fair enough, for many it is a matter of survival. No doubt they can impress the markets with an improved quarter. But what have they done to the morale of the team, the future output of the company, the relationships with suppliers and the service standards to your customers?

Of course there is a balance. In the long run we are all dead, but overly concentrating on the minutiae of the short term makes you a reactive leader. Failure to “see the wood from the trees” means you make strategy the hostage of tactical decisions. No great business is built this way.

It takes time to build a business. It even takes time to understand what your business is, what it means to your customers (whose needs are constantly changing) and staff, and where the market you operate in is going. A deft hand on the tiller is required, not a lurching from side to side. Calmness, not craziness.

I went to a presentation a few years ago where a speaker argued the stock market should open one day a year simply to readjust prices, and then we could just get on with business in the meantime. Not a bad idea.

A friend of mine once put it this way. He likened a business strategy to a long walk through a mountainous region. In the foothills you look up at the mountains stretched before you, and have to plot your path through them. The decisions made there dictate which valley you will be heading down days from now. Get these decisions right and you will make it through. Having to change course half way through a pass means you have to either go back the way you came, or take the treacherous sideways climb up and over the valley to get to where you now want to go. Plan accordingly, pick your way and keep on the path. Many a traveller has come to grief without a well laid route map, provisions and knowledge of the road ahead. Short-termism is a pest of the modern day age. Don’t get sucked in.

For more on the threat of Short-Termism, read this excellent Forbes article from last year.




Having just returned from his hometown of Chicago, I must declare that I have long admired Barack Obama. I was (frankly) amazed, and delighted, when he was elected President of the United States in November 2008, for it seemed to be a heralding of a new age, and a resolute about turn from the years of the 2nd President Bush.

The realities of being President must weight heavily on the Presidential shoulders; you could see it visibly tire and age Clinton, Bush Jnr and Obama. They each started with houses of Congress in favour, only to find them both turn against them. They each found different ways to get things done, and yet Obama has probably had the hardest road of all. With little executive experience (he had been a national Senator for only a few years before launching his race to the White House), Obama has been faced with a vicious blocking campaign against his major plans.  Despite this, he succeeded in winning 97% of all his congressional votes in his first year, a record for any President. Johnson had 95%.

To me he seems like an intelligent, thoughtful and strong man. Probably naive in many respects, he was the first President to be born after 1950 (he was born in 1961), he came to the Presidency in his 40s, bright, alive and shiny. 6 years on, he seems weathered and worn, more grey haired, yet he still seems as determined as ever, and pretty cool to boot.

Looking at what he’s got done, against all odds, it has been quite an amazing record:

  • the US economy was on the brink of complete disaster as he took office; unemployment was spiralling, the GFC was in full swing and yet, since then the stock market has tripled, and there have now been 64 consecutive months of jobs growth
  • 223,000 jobs were created in June, unemployment is now down to 5.3% (or half the rate when he took office) – NY Times
  • he has ended two wars (Iraq, which, unlike many, he vehemently opposed from the beginning, and Afghanistan)
  • the budget deficit has been cut by two thirds
  • has introduced major health care reform, which has cut the uninsured rate by a half
  • repealed the insidious ‘Don’t Ask Don’t Tell’ Act, and is the first President to champion marriage equality (now vindicated by last week’s Supreme Court ruling)
  • normalising relations with Cuba
  • Wall St reforms
  • developing a peace deal with Iran
  • and, famously, he got Bin Laden, which despite all his hawkishness, Bush Jnr completely failed to do
  • Ironically, he earned a Nobel peace prize within 6 months of taking office (in a major slap in the face to Bush Jnr), and then (probably) went onto earn it
  • Obama even has a Grammy (two, in fact)

No doubt there are still issues unresolved (immigration, gun control, environmental policy, Guantanamo Bay, welfare…), but by any stretch he has been (and still is) an impressive global leader, and on this 4th of July , I hope the American people realise what a special person they have in charge of their executive branch and what a good job he has done, and is still doing. Many other countries would wish to have him as their leader. I know I do.



Behaviours are set early

Dickensian pick pocketers

The passing of Alan Bond this week has made many think back to the decade of the ’80s with its big hair and even bigger, brasher entrepreneurs. It was the decade that saw a new generation of leaders in Steve Jobs, Bill Gates and Richard Branson come into their own (their companies still hold sway to this day), and downunder it was Bondy, Skasey, Murdoch & Packer.

Reading Paul Barry’s book, The Rise and Fall of Alan Bond (pub. 1991), made you realise that Bondy had been up to his old tricks way back when he was a sign writer and wannabee businessman. Legend has it that having seen For Sale/Sold signs go and up and down on various developments around Perth, Alan realised he was in the wrong game. The serious money was being made in property development, not in sign boards. Allegedly, the various deals he started making back then were just as risky, as he flew close to the wind many, many times, and made enemies and riches in equal measure. He was the consummate salesman, a bit loud, full of himself and convincing, and every now and again struck gold.

In 1983 I visited Australia for the first time. The bright sun, land of opportunity and, yes, brashness, appealed to this 20 year old back packing uni student. I lobbed up in Brisbane where my brother had been working for a year (he’s still there, 30 years on). The Commonwealth Games had just happened, and of course it was the time of the famous America’s Cup win (which did wonders for WA, Fremantle and Bond Corporation in particular). The USA had won the Cup continuously since 1851. No more. Bondy bankrolled this fourth attempt at resting it from their hands, and won. He made sure he cashed in too, and all went well (Bond Towers, 6X Brewery, Channel 9 and van Gogh’s Irises among some notable deals) until the stock market crash of 1987 exposed the problems within his vast empire. To keep things going he had illegally taken $1.3 billion in cash from one business to prop up another, an action that would land him up in jail for 3-4 years.

4 years in jail is what another sometime Perth businessman ended up with this week. A Perth court found that Bill Ardrey had faked $394,000 of consultants’ fees paid by a company he was a non-executive director of. The money was going to him. He had put up an elaborate web of deceit to cover his tracks, even faking a stroke in an attempt to stay out of court. (As with Mubarak of Egypt, Milosevic of Serbia and Alan Bond, an imminent court appearance can often herald sudden illness). It was sad to hear of his misdeeds. I had met Bill at UWA when he was completing a PhD. He sometimes subbed for lecturers if they were away, and he was an odd looking but amusing presenter, with a mix of humour and what seemed a little like shyness. I remember once he rushed through a 3-hour lecture to have it all done in 75 minutes. He wanted to get off early, and I suppose so did we. I met him a few times years later, in Singapore, where he and I did some occasional lecturing for UWA. He was good company, but had those ‘shifty eyes’, which I put down to shyness, but perhaps hid something he was up to. On the night I won a 40under40 Award in 2003, so did he. Whatever the ins and outs of the case, it’s sad to see someone fall so badly, and make the mistakes he must have made that led him to the court last week.

I feel sorry for the families of those affected by these deeds, the companies and people defrauded. I never met Bond, but I bet he was charming company. Great salespeople (and great fraudsters, and Bondy was Australia’s biggest fraudster) always are. These behaviours are often set in stone early in life.

In a footnote, it seems odd though that Bill gets 4 years in jail for $400k, the same as Alan for $1.3billion. If jail time was linked to dollars, Bondy would have had 13,000 years. Or Bill would have had half a day. Maybe he’ll get out early with good behaviour.