The Startup Wizard of Adelaide
Can you please tell us a little bit about yourself?
My name is Chhai Thach, I am a software engineer and an entrepreneur. Before starting my own venture, I worked for various companies with a focus on IT. I am the co-founder of Majoran coworking space, Furio, Payhero, Go Reception and founder of SouthStart conference. I truly believe that South Australia has the potential to become Australia’s entrepreneurial hub. Currently Adelaide’s entrepreneurial ecosystem development is about one and a half years behind that of Sydney and 1 year behind Melbourne’s. I am passionate about entrepreneurship while working hard towards growing the start up scene in South Australia. It is my goal to help turn one company in Adelaide into a billion dollar company.
How did you start your first venture Majoran?
I went to Start up Weekend and I met Michael Reid. Michael, William and I saw the need for a dedicated space for entrepreneurs to get together and build their concept. There was the Tomorrow’s Studio – a state government shared office initiative, but it had just closed down. We realised that Adelaide’s start up scene really needs a co-working space. Such concepts are extremely popular all over the world and in interstate. This is what lead us to start Majoran, which became Adelaide’s first private co-working space.
Having a chat with Michael Macolino, John Kamuchau and James Stewart at 2015 South Start Conference
We filled up a very small building in Pulteney Street in 2012. We did a lot of renovation work, put in some chairs and tables, installed WiFi and opened it to the public. We created a blog about the venture and promoted it to the community of people formed around Start up weekend. We received a huge response from a lot of people who wanted to move in and use the space before we had even started, which gave us enough market validation to begin with. This gave us a lot of confidence in the potential of this idea and therefore we found a bigger and better place at Grenfell Street and moved there 3 months later. During the movement to the new building we received a lot of help with renovation from the community we formed around our co-working space which was just awesome.
“Majoran co-working space is the physical representation of all the cool start up activities that exist in Adelaide. It has become a key element in Adelaide’s start up ecosystem dedicated to helping entrepreneurs take their concept to the next level.”
We started organising entrepreneurial events to educate the public on entrepreneurship and raise awareness about SA’s start-up community. Now we have received $100,000 annual support for the programs we run at Majoran from the government for the 4 years. Majoran has evolved into something beyond our expectations. Majoran co-working space is the physical representation of all the cool start-up activities that exist in Adelaide. It has become a key element in Adelaide’s start-up ecosystem dedicated to helping entrepreneurs take their concept to the next level.
What challenges did your team face when starting Majoran?
We didn’t have a community of Adelaide’s entrepreneurs, since Majoran was the first, and the community needed to be built and promoted. It was a challenge by all means. We knew that we could get membership to pay for rental space so even without sponsors our concept would have still worked. The biggest difficulties were in growing the community of start up enthusiasts and getting government support. Getting to talk to the right people in the government is not an easy task. If you want government support, you have to do something that they can showcase.
Chatting with Michael Reed (Majoran cofounder) and Alan Noble (Google Engineering director) on Majoran’s roof before 2013 South Start event
“You have to start your business with the expectation that you are going to fail a few or even 4-5 times before you reach success. The first year is really hard and this is when most business fail but the second year is even harder when your start up is not making enough money.”
Did you have any business experience before starting Majoran?
University helped me gain some good skills that I could use in my work such as problem solving. I did try to set up a web design business while studying but I failed. After this failure I decided to concentrate more on my studies instead of trying to start another venture. We got an idea of building a website but couldn’t make it because we didn’t get the support we needed, had no clue of how to run the business, and how to get customers. We didn’t manage to get any customers. There were a couple of potential companies which were interested in what we are doing but they didn’t want to work with students. We were all technical IT people so we knew how to code and build a product but not how to run the business. The main lesson I learnt from this failure is that there needs to be a strong support network of people I can count on when I do business.
Starting your company while studying is the best option because you don’t have to pay bills. Work on your business in your spare time, gain more experience, skills, grow your network and learn from your failures. After I graduated I was doing some small businesses in Adelaide and so I gained a bit more practical knowledge from there.
“Currently there are so many opportunities and support options existing out there, that there has never been a better time to start a business in Adelaide. Give your concept a go, be persistent and stick in there.”
I personally believe that all life experience helps in running a business. The skills and experiences I gained from working as an employee only helped a little bit with running the businesses. I was good at what I was doing but learning how to work well in a business does not help one run a business well. Running a business requires very different skillset. You need more than just a university degree or working experience to become a good entrepreneur. You don’t have to work in a corporate job for 5-6 years before starting your business.
What other start ups have you been involved with since starting Majoran?
I co-founded Furio with Steve Barret at around the same time when Majoran was founded. At Furio we built and invested in tech start-ups. We invested in early stage start ups that lacked the right technical expertise, whether it is from not having a tech co-founder or not having enough money to pay a developer. With this initiative we wanted to help support and create more successful start ups to emerge from Adelaide.
“You don’t always have to do something that you are passionate about. Passion will go away after 6 months when you bang your head against the wall because no one is buying your product or because there are too many unexpected problems that occur. Once people start to use and pay for your product you will learn to like your business a lot better.”
Then in May 2014, Steve and I founded another venture called “Go Reception”. Go Reception replaced the traditional pen and paper visitor sign-in process and changed it to a digital process through the use of a software on a tablet. This gave visitors a unique simple and modern sign-in experience. All visitor information is stored securely in the cloud and helps the host simplify the visitor management process. For our users this meant a highly customisable visitor management solution where people can customise badge printing, notifications, multi-language and design. We have achieved global sales with customers such as NSW government, SA government, Konica, Coca Cola, Sydney Airport, McDonald’s, Rackspace, iiNet. We currently have more than 250 customers using our product in over 15 different countries.
In January 2015, I co-founded another start up called “Payhero” together with Steve Barret. I found it really hard and took a lot of time to keep sending out subscription renewals to customers. The traditional process was to create customized invoices for different customers from our database and then print them out and mail them, which is a very tedious process. So we created Payhero – a payment and e-commerce platform for business. It allowed businesses to easily set-up and manage recurring payment services. It also saved them time, by getting the job done much easier and cheaper while generating more recurring revenue from their customers.
“Finding a co-founder is like getting into a marriage. You just have to trust people to do the right thing. There needs to exist a certain level of trust and mutual understanding between the business partners.”
In 2013, I founded the high profile “SouthStart” conference together with Aainaa Rahman, who is Majoran’s director. It is the first major start-up conference in Adelaide held over 2 days. The conference focussed on technology innovation and start-ups, it also was a combination of an expo, workshop and start-up pitching competition. The event aimed to connect, educate, inspire and showcase local South Australia’s start ups. “SouthStart” brought about vibrancy to Adelaide start up community and demonstrated the great potential, technological and entrepreneurial capability that Adelaide possessed. Whether an entrepreneur, student, investor, hacker, founder, ecosystem supporter or just somebody who is new to the start up world, this conference showed people the cool start-up activities that are happening in South Australia, gave a boost to the start up community’s network and inspired more individuals to move forward with their own entrepreneurial pursuit. I sincerely hope that “SouthStart” can inspire more start ups to come out of Adelaide.
Our first year’s operation was very hard. We didn’t get any funding and yet we still managed to have over 350 participants. In 2015 we had about 500 participants, 50 exhibitors and over 24 local, interstate and overseas speakers attending our event. Once we gained more momentum we were able to get more sponsors. State government gave us annual support worth $50,000 while other sponsors jumped on board. We were very lucky to have these awesome sponsors supporting us. Currently we have the South Australia’s government, WordPress, Bluesky funds, Anz, Polaris, PWC, Majoran, News Corp, Hills, IBM, Adelaide Business Hub, Adelaide University ECIC, Inbusiness SA, Adelaide City Council, Optus innov8, New Venture Institute, Payhero, Venture Catalyst, Innovyz, Hub Adelaide, Venture Tec, Bradford Public Relation and Uber supporting us.
How did you transition from working a full time job to running your own business?
I was blessed with having a really strong support network of family and friends which made my transition much easier. I just had to help them understand what I was doing. It is very important to be part of the right network. If you want to do business, what you know is important but who you know is even more important. Spend time to learn how to connect with others. With Majoran, we created events so people could come and meet us. This helped us build our network. I am good at creating and planning and so I preferred to set up events and having people visiting us instead of us going out there to meet them.
“Learning how to work well in a business does not help one run a business well. Running a business requires a very different skillset. You don’t need a university degree or working experience to become a good entrepreneur.”
Was it difficult for you to manage a team when you started your business?
Not really, I already had experience in managing and working in a team while I was an employee. It is my philosophy to treat others how I want to be treated and I apply this to my team. I don’t micro manage people, instead I let them do what they are good at.
How did you select your business partner?
Finding the right business partner is a hard thing to accomplish. Personally, I wanted to give people a certain level of trust beforehand. I trusted individuals who wanted to work with me and who I knew would get the job done. But when people don’t match their words with their actions and fail to keep promises then obviously it is hard to trust them. It is easier to find the right co-founder when you have worked with them on various projects, as it was my case with Steven Before forming Payhero, we worked well together and he had the complimentary skills to my own set. You have to make sure that you get along with your co-founders. Sometimes you just have to open up to people and keep your mind open too. Finding a co-founder is like getting into a marriage, you just have to trust people to do the right thing. There needs to exist a certain level of trust and mutual understanding between the business partners.
Hanging out with Steve Barret and Boss Camp’s winner Jack at Majoran.
Do you have any advice for young entrepreneurs?
The number one tip which I would give is to build a strong support and business network. Currently, with so many opportunities and support options existing out there, there has never been a better time to start a business in Adelaide. Give your concept a go, be persistent and stick in there. If you fail, the experience and skills you gain will help you in your future endeavours. Running your business is not just about earning money, it is about learning new skills, gaining new experience and growing your valuable network.
You don’t always have to do something that you are passionate about. Passion will go away after 6 months when you bang your head against the wall because no one is buying your product or there are too many unexpected problems occurring. Once people start to use and pay for your product you will learn to like your business a lot better.
“Starting your company while studying is the best time because you don’t have to pay bills. Work on your business in your spare time, gain more experience, skills, grow your network and learn from your failures.”
If you want to start your business, build up enough funding for at least a couple of years or find someone who can pay the rent for you. You have to start your business with the expectation that you are going to fail a few or even 4-5 times before you reach success. The first year is really hard and this is when most business fail but the second year is even harder when your start up is not making enough money. Your savings are there to help keep your venture going and allow you to sustain yourself before your venture reaches a sustainable stage. Even if your revenue occurs, you might not make any profit for quite some time. It is better to fail fast by trying something and getting feedback. If feedback is not good and no one is paying for your product or service then it is very likely this business idea won’t work.
Do you reckon you have what it take to become Adelaide’s next start up wizard? We would love to hear your thought.