Perth, the MBA and tech startups

Business Because

I was recently interviewed by Business Because, a network for MBA graduates.

You first studied in the UK – which country are you originally from?
England; I lived there for 26 years before moving to Singapore (7 years) and then arrived in Perth in 1997 – 17 years ago. I was an Economics teacher by training (Portsmouth Uni for Econs BA (Hons), then Uni of London for teaching post grad degree)

Why did you decide to begin an MBA in Australia and what were you hoping to get out of the program?
It was more that I was moving to Australia, and that I wanted to do an MBA anyway, and the timing was that aged 34 I had been teaching for 10+ years, was taking a break, doing an MBA (thinking it would be useful if I became a Principal – I had already been Head of Dept and Head of year for many years). MBA was also a chance to take a break from full time work (I taught at a local school part time), immerse myself in the MBA, meet lots of new people in a new country. Having decided on Perth as the place to move to, then it was a case of which is the best MBA, and there is no question that it’s UWA, so UWA Business School (or GSM as it was then) was it.

As for ‘why Australia?’ I had visited in the 1980s as my older brother moved to Brisbane in 1982 and as soon as I landed I knew I loved the country – “I am going to live here one day” was a strong feeling. Singapore was supposed to be a stepping stone (it was), but I loved Singapore, got married, stayed there 7 years. But we were always going “settle down” in Australia, and so in 1997 it was time and we chose Perth.

You studied an MBA back in 1998 – do you feel they are still as beneficial today?
I think there is a premise in the question that is false – in that the MBA itself has benefit on its own. The MBA is what you make of it – if you are looking for letters after your name, you can get an MBA anywhere – download one from the net if you want! As I was about to invest quite a bit of time (18 months) and money (cost of the MBA plus the opportunity cost of no income for 18 months) into the MBA, I wanted the best from it. I threw myself into it. It was wonderful really – the new people you meet, the whole experience. Sure, it’s not easy, but like running marathons or climbing mountains (which I don’t do!), the sense of achievement is from conquering something that is hard. And it’s why MBAs are taken seriously. Go in and take what you can from it. Don’t expect it to deliver things for you. It gets you a ticket to the dance that’s all. It’s up to you to make the most of it.

Everyone will have a different story, but for me personally, the MBA was life changing. I went in as a economic school teacher and came out the other side as a dotcom entrepreneur – this was unexpected, it was not the plan! But it’s what happened. What then followed would not have happened, “I would not be where I am today” (to steal an old phrase only people of my generation would remember) without it. It’s true. Nothing wrong with teaching, I loved it, but it was time to move on, and the MBA gave me the confidence, contacts and chutzpah to get out there and do something very different. And, importantly, it worked out for me.

What are the benefits of studying in Perth?
Perth is just so beautiful – 290 days of sun a year, the beaches, the wines, the open spaces, the opportunity, great people, the strong economy underpinned by the natural resources we are blessed with, the … everything. If you’re going to study somewhere, it might as well be a nice place!

UWA is 100 years old, steeped in tradition (for Australia!), lovely campus on the edge of the Swan River; great facilities, easy to get to. It’s a privilege really going back to school in your 30s (when you are mature enough to appreciate it) and study there.

You launched a business after graduation and went on to achieve 10 years of success – what was your inspiration behind the idea?
I had met Nick on the MBA, and he, like me, was not from Perth. He was Swiss and grew up in New York. He had run his own hedge fund and was older than me. I was a school teacher from the UK via Singapore. Very different backgrounds. But we got to discuss the internet (which was going off in the late 90s) and how it might be used for business. We had both moved to Perth recently and bought a house using newspaper ads and trawling around the home opens. We both instinctively knew it was not going to be done that way in the future. Our real inspiration was to use GIS (mapping) technology, borrowed from the mining industry, to show properties for sale/rent on the internet. This was 7 years before Google Maps. It was not easy, very expensive, but we did it.

What was the biggest challenge you faced during those ten years and how did you overcome it?
Starting a company is easy. Running it, and managing the growth and all that is entailed – is hard! Anyone can raise money on an idea (as we did, in a week) and launch a business. Because essentially you are ‘buying things’. Anyone can buy things. Go out and buy a programmer, an office, a marketing campaign, and – hey! – you’re in business. No you’re not!! Selling is hard. Selling to hard nosed real estate agents, who have been used to putting their money in a wheel barrow and giving it to the local newspaper for decades, and for whom that works just fine – is HARD! Getting them to change the way they do their business, while at the same time the traffic to the site is not there yet – DOUBLY HARD! I look back and wonder how we did it, how we got through, how we convinced the agents to stick with us while we grew the business. They were very loyal – they didn’t have to be.

There were times Nick and I would look at each other and laugh – “we’ve got MBAs, we can figure this out!” Because, for all the great things I learned on the MBA, there is nothing quite like what you learn in the field. The MBA can help give you a systemmatic way of solving problems, and strategising, but often you have to go on a mix of instinct and good fortune, and make it up as you go along. Make mistakes, and learn, keep trying things til it works.

How beneficial was being located in Perth for a technology/online business?
I think Perth has some advantages to other cities ~ relative isolation means people do take risks, and lean on each other. People give you a go here (it’s a lovely part of the Aussie culture to “give someone a fair go”). The internet/tech allows you to get out from your isolation so is welcomed here. People have literally “got up and gone” to come here, so have a good degree of “get up and go” about them. Maybe it’s our pioneering, prospecting culture/history as well, and the nice weather (seriously – people shine and smile!). The economy is solid, the technology is here, we are wired in. Being removed from other places give you the ability to test things and see how they go, to be ignored by the larger players while you learn your craft and experiment. For us, it allowed us 2 clear years head start to get established before the “big boys” from the east coast came over. Once they pitched their tents here, we were already in business and they had to deal with us.

Google ranks Perth as Australia’s digital capital – what makes it a good place for digital-focused MBAs to begin a career?
The startup-tech scene here is going off. Back when we started there were no co-working spaces (now there are several), no official angel groups (we had to hock our idea around to various rich folks), no startup weekends, no pitch nights… no tech community at all. We felt very much on our own, and that’s why I helped form eGroup in 2003 (it still goes on to this day). There is now Perth Morning Startup (700+ members – a free meetup), Synch Labs, Spacecubed, Silicon Beach, OzApps, … and loads more. All of these have set up in the last 2 years. Now I am at Business News running their digital strategy, I can also mentor/advise various startups, which I love doing, and also can write about them in the paper, giving them promotion.

People come from all over the world here, for various reasons (net 1000 people ARRIVE in Perth every week – that 50k a year net immigration – or another million people in the next 20 years) – there is loads of space – and they bring their ideas and worldly experience with them. Imagine what that creates in a small city. It’s vibrant.

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