If you follow the start up scene, care of industry blogs like TechCrunch/GigaOM/VentureBeat/etc, the lack of Australian companies making waves is glaring obvious. It’s not like we haven’t had successes here, indeed you don’t have to look far to find quite a few notables, but there’s no question that we don’t have a technology Mecca where all aspiring entrepreneurs look towards when trying to realise their vision. You could argue that Sydney already fits this bill since that’s where most of the money is but it’s not the place where the innovation is most concentrated as Melbourne as arguably given risen to just as many success stories. This decentralized nature of Australia’s start-up industry presents a significant barrier to many potential businesses and whilst I don’t have a good solution to them the reasons behind it are quite simple.
Reserve bank governor Glenn Stevens gave a speech at the CEDA annual dinner a couple nights ago and hit the nail on the head as to why Australia doesn’t appear to have the same vibrant start-up ecosystem that can be found overseas:
Only 4.8 per cent of start-ups in Sydney and Melbourne successfully become “scaled” (large enough to be sustainable) which is another way of saying that 95.2 per cent fail. In Silicon Valley, the success rate is 8 per cent.
The difference is capital: start-ups in California raise 100 times as much money as Sydney ones in the scale stage, and they raise 4.8 times as much in the earlier stages of discovery, validation and efficiency.
Yet as everyone knows, Australia punches well above its weight in capital formation, thanks to compulsory superannuation and the $1.4 trillion super pool. Why doesn’t any of that money find its way to supporting
Current fiscal policies are quite conducive to long term, low risk, moderate return investments (such as property and bank stocks) and the investment practices of our superannuation funds reflects this. Indeed even at a personal level Australian investors are risk adverse with majority preferring things like property, extra super contributions or term deposits. Partly you could also put some of the blame on Australia’s culture which is more inclined towards property ownership as the ultimate achievement a regular Australian can aspire to, whereas the USA’s is far more entrenched in the entrepreneurial idea.
We then have to ask ourselves that if we’re aspiring to create a Silicon Beach here in Australia what we need to do in order to make that happen.
The report itself details a couple ideas that can be done from a policy perspective, namely making certain company structures and incentive schemes cheaper and easier, however that’s only part of the issue. Ideally you’d also want some policies that make investing in risky start-up companies more attractive than the current alternatives. I don’t think abolishing current legislation like Negative Gearing would help much in this regard but it could potentially be extended to cover off losses made on start-up investments. There are many other options of course (and I’m not saying mine is the perfect one) and I’d definitely be supportive of some investigation into policy frameworks that have been used overseas and their applicability here in Australia.
There’s also the possibility of the government intervening with additional funding in order to get start-ups past the validation phase in order to increase the hit rate for the venture capital industry. I’ve talked a bit about this previously, focusing on using the NBN as a launchpad for Australia’s Silicon Beach, and really the NBN should be the catalyst which drives Australia’s start up industry forward. There’s already specific industry funds being set up, like the one that just came through for Australian game developers, but the creation of a more general fund to help start up validate their ideas would be far more effective in boosting the high tech innovation industry. It would be much harder to design and manage for sure, but no one ever said trying to replicate Silicon Valley’s success would be easy.
For what its worth I believe the government is working hard towards realising this lofty goal (thanks to some conversations I’ve had with people in the know on these kinds of things) and as long as they draw heavily on the current start-up and innovation industry in Australia I believe we will be able to achieve it. It’s going to be very hard to break the risk adverse mindset of the Australian public but that’s something that time and gentle pushes in the right direction, something perfectly suited to legislative changes. How that should all be done is left as an exercise to the reader (who I hope is someone in parliament).