Wake up Adelaide, nudge from the “Unemployed Lazy Bum”
Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?
I grew up in Silicon Valley, studying in the same high school as Steve Jobs and started my accounting career at KPMG, San Jose, California. Then I migrated to Adelaide in 1993. In 1999, our team founded ‘Your Amigo’, a venture that enabled companies to rank higher in search engines. In the first 5 years there was no profit. To survive we had to invest our own money and raise local money while matching this with government grants. In the course of 6 years we pitched to over 100 investors and raised over $3 million. While everyone was relaxing during holidays, we were stressing and very unsure if the business would survive the next 6 months. Just as our sales started to increase, 2 Silicon Valley investors offered to invest $11 million but this deal fell through. In October 2005, we finally broke even and the venture started to take off. We became a world leader in automated search engine optimisation with customers from over 30 countries and received the SA exporter of the year award in 2008.
Due to my company’s success, I was able to retire in April 2012 and became the “unemployed lazy bum”. I even have a business card with this title. Since my retirement I continued to travel and have travelled to 52 countries. I felt that people gave me a chance; therefore I would give others a chance by mentoring young entrepreneurs through excellent programs such as Thinclab, Adelaide University’s eChallenge and Flinders University Venture dorm competition. I have invested in great Adelaide startups such as ‘Happy Inspector’ and ‘Portalink’ along with ‘Black Bird Venture’, a Sydney based venture capital firm, which recently did pretty well by successfully raising 200 million dollars. Currently I am also an ambassador for the Impact Award.
In Australia there exist a bias towards purchasing from large multinational and interstate companies, which are viewed, as less risky than innovative local companies.
Why did the $11 million venture capital deal fall through?
It was extremely rare for them to invest outside Silicon Valley but our CEO’s amazing sales ability successfully convinced them. Unfortunately it became obvious things would not work out and the deal fell through. However, our sales started doing well. Afterwards we continued to grow and we were glad things turned out for the best.
How did you start your entrepreneurial journey?
When I was 19, I left home and joined the navy. Being on an aircraft carrier for 2 years with 5000 men made me feel trapped like living inside prison. This motivated me to pursue more out of life. I didn’t enjoy the high pressure environment at KPMG and then I started to work for a few of the Silicon Valley tech companies specialising in accounting management. My ex-wife was from Adelaide and thus I moved here in 1993. As it was difficult to find a job in Adelaide, I decided to cofound YourAmigo which was something I had always wanted to try. I wanted to prove that great things can be achieved in Adelaide and great ideas with a fantastic team can start a successful business anywhere.
Being an entrepreneur is extremely challenging, regardless of your success or failure you will become a better person but be ready to fight the never ending battles for survival every day.
My first job here was in a defence company. This is where I met the group of talented people that was vastly superior compared to anyone other group I met in Silicon Valley. Later on, some of these people became key management figures at ‘YourAmigo’. Our cofounder Rahmon Coupe was consulting at Flinders University and came upon this idea of searching for information on the web that Google couldn’t find. In 1999, we got together to build the software hoping the company could have been sold for $2 billion in 2 years but the Dot-Com crash happened.
As our venture became mature, the work became less interesting even though I still wanted to develop myself further and therefore I retired. These days I feel joyful about having the chance to mentor and giving a great head start to motivated young entrepreneurs.
What does it mean to be an entrepreneur?
Extremely challenging. Regardless of your success or failure you will become a better person but be ready to fight never-ending battles for survival every day. Seeing our CEO’s amazing salesmanship inspired me to come out of my shell to grow further. This journey allowed me to be a part of unique experiences. Thanks to this, I became a more confident and well-rounded individual.
In the present entrepreneurship is being glorified too much without enough emphasis on the stress, long hours, challenges and great work ethics required. As an entrepreneur you better get ready to deal with complacent people in big slow-moving organisations who love their power and are extremely resistant to change.
In the present entrepreneurship are being glorified too much without enough emphasis on the stress, long hours, challenges, great work ethic required.
What did you attribute the success of ‘Your Amigo’ to?
We had a strong team with plenty of experience under our belt from day 1, which helped us make very few mistakes. Our CEO’s conversation with affiliated marketing experts helped us realise ‘pay-per-click’ is the most suitable model for our business. Our CTO’s brilliant strategy drove more traffic to businesses’ websites by creating new content for them. I believe this is what great entrepreneurs do. They adapt and change quickly to the right situation.
Can you tell us about going to high school with Steve Jobs?
In high school I had a few classes together with him and we shared similar interests in spirituality. He was just an average student but very passionate and confident in his beliefs. He was very curious, eager to try new things and enjoyed being different. He combined different ideas to create something better. In 1982, I got to see Steve when he was still CEO of Apple at our high school reunion. He came up to me and said “Stuart Snyder how you doing?”. I told him I’m doing fine and I’m unemployed. He said ‘man I envy you, I wish I could do that’. Steve Jobs’ success taught me to never count anyone out or underestimate the potential of his or her ideas.
Did you believe Adelaide could have become Silicon Valley of Australia?
When I migrated to Adelaide in 1993, I found it quite similar to the Silicon Valley in some sense. Having three excellent universities, headquarters of Australia’s defense industry and a talented workforce were just a few of the impressive features I noticed. I honestly thought Adelaide could become the Silicon Valley of Australia but this never materialised. Silicon Valley was known as ‘The Valley of Heart’s Delight’ and was well known for its fruit canning industries. Steve Jobs’ success at Apple encouraged more investors to support entrepreneurs there and it became known as Silicon Valley.
Steve Jobs’ success taught me to never count anyone out or underestimate the potential of his or her ideas.
In Adelaide lots of people enjoy a great lifestyle and choose the secure traditional employment route. This somehow discourages them to live with passion and try out the amazing ideas many of them possess. Australian Venture Capital investment has been mostly a negative return. But the recently increasing number of successful Sydney and Melbourne tech startups encouraged more investors to further support the entrepreneurial spirit in those areas. This is what Adelaide is missing right now. Maybe I am dreaming but I still believe one day South Australia’s bright talented workforce will create world class tech startups.
People in America were excited about the fact that our software allowed people to find stuff Google couldn’t. They focused on the benefit of our services while in Australia there exist a bias favouring large multinational and interstate companies. As long as the culture here doesn’t fully support entrepreneurs and provide a suitable environment for them to thrive we will continue seeing great South Australian talent moving interstate and overseas.
What are the difference between Adelaide and Silicon Valley?
People believe Silicon Valley is paradise but this is far from the reality. It is a great place to work, however it is expensive and crowded. There are lots of materialistic, and egotistic people living there. But there are also lots of great people who believe great things can be done just from an idea. I left a long time ago but I think things have not changed that dramatically. There are tons of opportunities over there while the talent is quite diluted and in Adelaide there are plenty of talent but a lack of opportunities.
South Australian market is very risk-averse and older business people in other industries rarely get excited about tech startups. This makes it very challenging to raise capital here. I
In Australia, the immense contribution entrepreneurs make toward our economy is not fully appreciated or understood.
What is your view regarding innovation and entrepreneurship in Australia?
Academic researchers need to collaborate more with entrepreneurs to focus on solving real world problems. The number of IT graduates in Australia is actually decreasing while tech ventures like Uber and AirBnb are changing the world and disrupting the entire industry dynamics. How will these students be prepared for the digital world we live in?
In Australia, the immense contribution entrepreneurs make towards our economy is not fully appreciated or understood. Heavy dependency on mining industry resulted in complacency without adequate support towards innovation and entrepreneurship. I predicted that the mining boom’s ending will lead to high rates of unemployment and greatly slow down the economy. Sadly my prediction was true. There needs to be more will power to create the environment that respects, encourages and supports entrepreneurs.
What do successful entrepreneurs do that others don’t?
Solve real problems
There are over 100 apps out there having similar functions. Dozens will raise funding but only a few will actually become profitable. Focus on solving a real problem and you will go far.
I went to high school with a guy who was an average student but had incredible passion for what he believed in and never gave up. He ended up changing the world. His name was Steve Jobs.
I wanted to prove that great thing can be achieved in Adelaide and a great idea with a great team can start a successful business anywhere.
Do you have any advice to people who want to pursue this entrepreneurial path?
Learn to sell
At a defence startup in Adelaide, in 3 years we beat out multinational defense organisations by securing $30 million in contracts. Our CEO could get in front of anyone and sell the vision and sell himself. To be a successful entrepreneur you must be great at selling using techniques such as being confident, use people’s name, utilise correct gestures while looking people in the eye.
I was a loner but I realised that networking was absolutely critical. It is one of the biggest assets in your life and career. Learn to be around those with great potential and avoid the time wasting “consultants” who add no real value. I strongly believe educational institutions that teach entrepreneurship need to provide courses on selling and networking. Our team frequently attended industry trade shows to speak and connect with others and that helped grow our reputation as industry thought leaders.
Being entrepreneur demands lots of energy and long hours. If things don’t work out, it is much easier to bounce back when you are young.
Enter startup competition
Participation in programs such as eChallenge and Venture Dorm can develop your skills further. You get to learn from experienced mentors while growing an invaluable network. These are safe environments to learn, fail, test your idea and grow.
Maybe I am dreaming but I still believe one day SA’s bright talented workforce will create world class tech startups.
Listen to your market
A lot of people are emotionally invested and believe their idea are the best. To find out the truth, listen to the market – your customers and do what is best for your company in the long term.
Do you have any final thought?
Our state currently has the highest unemployment rate in the nation and this is only going to get worse. We need to urgently wake up to the fact that the world is changing. There are successful low profile South Australian businesses out there achieving great heights that need support. Things have changed slowly but it is not enough. Now more than ever we need to support South Australia’s entrepreneurs to develop and promote our great state.