Brett Hales


VC in Australia. Why is it ‘woefully low’?

I’ve started a new chapter and I’d like to share my knowledge, experiences, thoughts and get to talk about things I find interesting. I wanted to test my writing capabilities featuring in-depth, ‘keeping it 100’ real-life content. I’m writing a new column every 2 days for 30 days. Topics will range from tech, health, travel, food, startups, innovation, popular culture, sports, bikes, cars and venture capital. Please feel free to chime in. This is article #2. Hugs and Kisses.

I recently read an article that “Venture Capital is ‘woefully low’ in Australia compared to other developed economies”. It was an article from the Australian Financial Review with comments from some of Australia’s leading Venture Capitalists. It’s short but worth a read. I thought I’d add some insight from an entrepreneur's perspective.

Rick Baker from BlackBird Ventures: Source: AFR Article.

For good, bad or worse, I’ve met a lot of Venture Capitalist’s, Investors, Private Equity Firms, Stockbrokers & Fund Managers at Tappr. You name it, I’ve met them. They are a unique bunch of individuals and I say that out of affection. Each one of them sees the market differently, sees opportunity differently, has different mantras, different skillsets and different appetites for risk — this isn’t a groundbreaking discovery. However, there is a fundamental reason to why these types of companies or individuals exist, and (drum roll) it’s to make money above all else. I note that some people with money would like to join an innovative company with a punchy elevator pitch because it makes them feel empowered in some way, however if you look at many backgrounds some of the current VC’s many came from, it's the KPMG’s and Hedge Funds of the world.

In investment circles, an early-stage VC investment is the most risky type of investment, but also has the most up-side and return. No big surprises there. Being in the startup community, you learn the difference between pre-seed, seed, early stage and growth stage. I’ll generalise here and classify early-stage as all the points above. An early stage venture may not have a tested product, may have an inexperienced team, may not have an apparent market fit, may have unknown barriers to entry, may infringe on someone else’s intellectual property (without knowing) or may not even solve a problem that needs addressing. That’s a difficult situation to analyse for a VC, especially if they are looking at tipping in a lot of capital. Probably the biggest question I got with Tappr is ‘what problem are you trying to solve?’

What problem is Juicero solving? Rich people who are fed up with their current juice production? That didn’t stop $118m of funding coming in.

Don’t get me wrong, I think Juicero is cool, but the world has sooo many issues to solve and challenges to overcome, is some of the USD$118m better spent elsewhere? or spent to educate and inspire more people realise their passions.

I feel part of the reason why Venture Capital funding is ‘woefully low’ in Australia compared to other countries is because traditionally the VC market hasn’t had the returns from the Australian startup community compared to regions with a similar sized startup community eg. Singapore, Israel, Scandinavia and so on.

I’ve spent some time in Singapore and meeting with The HUB Singapore, they’ve now opened two sites, mostly funded by the government. I first went to Singapore in 2012 and worked from The Hub — a co-working space near Orchard Road. I attended a meetup by chance and the host claimed in 2012 there were 8–9 VC firms in Singapore. Travelling back in late 2016, I spoke with the community manager and now there are 70+ VC firms active in Singapore. That’s massive growth for a country slightly larger than 5 million people.

Which Australian VC has invested in a pre-seed or seed round, doubled-up on their investments in the Series A and made 7x — 10x returns? Name two funds and tweet me @mrbretthales

There is a stereotypical VC approach that’s been well documented. VC firms are suppose to invest in a range of companies in various sectors and various stages. 5% should hold up the firm and go gangbusters, 50–60% will do ok, and the rest will fall flat on their face. This is true with most portfolio’s top down, but no more apparent then Y Combinator’s bets on Dropbox, Stripe and Airbnb. However is this happening with our Australian VC’s or is there a different model at play?

Most people know of Atlassian, an Australian ‘unicorn’ company building project management and development focus services. Listed on the Nasdaq and floated for $8bn. But which Australian VC’s got in early? Surprisingly, there wasn’t one. From Scott Farquhar himself on Quora, “Atlassian has never raised on institutional round of funding — i.e. no capital investment”. We’ve had a few companies hit home-runs and Atlassian is one of the few to do it on a billion-dollar scale, and yet no Australian VC investor that I can see has profited from Atlassian’s success. Atlassian did raise secondary funding as mentioned by Scott but it wasn’t because they needed it, it was strategic and that my friends is what’s needed in Venture Capital in Australia — strategic capital. This is the hard part.

A virtual wasteland

In the article, Rick Baker (whom I respect greatly) noted that the combined efforts of the Australian VC firms raised a record amount in 2016 reaching AUD$568m or USD$426m accordingly to their source at Australian Private Equity and Venture Capital Association. That includes AUD$250m in AirTree Ventures which was backed by 2 superannuation firms. The fund will be split into two, one for “outstanding Australian founders who are attacking larger markets” and half towards “Opportunities” as they come. And yet Rick Baker is correct, that this isn’t enough, but I hope he also wasn’t just talking about the capital.

Venture Capital is high-risk, high-return and in Australia, VC returns haven’t faired well with few successes combatted with a host of so-so outcomes. As the article suggested, Bill Gates, who would know a thing or two about tech companies suggested the returns in the VC market as “pathetic”. If Bill Gates himself suggests that VC gains are pathetic, then what chance does the VC market in Australia have? People who know me would consider me to be an optimist at the best of times and I feel the VC market in Australia needs more expertise and knowledge, and then the capital will follow.

The “virtual wasteland” mark isn’t saved for just investors or backers, but also entrepreneurs. There is no recipe for success in business and startups are fragile things that require 100% care and attention like a newborn baby. Founders of startups are bright, otherwise they wouldn’t be successful, but many are inexperienced in business and lack the knowledge about the trials and tribulations of running a company. They might be fantastic technically, but what about managing people, creating a budget forecast or dealing with conflict. Often this will be the first time the company has had to do this type of work. There is a massive difference in creating a business and creating a product.

If you have Netflix, do yourself a favour and watch Print the Legend. My take-away was the sacrifice and burden the founders had during the hype years. Many of the companies in the film would be labelled as ‘must-invest’ companies from a VC perspective, yet you see just how fragile these companies are, and what it takes to be successful in a cut-throat industry with promise.

Where is the recent funding money coming from?

Where the capital is coming from is the key and often overlooked aspect of the VC and PE funds. Referencing back to 2004, at least two full years after the Dot-com bubble, leading VC Starfish Ventures announced a new Technology fund of over $123m fund of which $100m will go to the fund for investments. This funding was suppose to be the uplift that the Australian startup community needed from the fallout from the Dot-com bubble. From reports, the funding came mainly from Asia or overseas funding. Was all that capital spent? and most of all, was it continually spent over the coming years since 2004?

The majority of AirTree Venture’s and BlackBird Venture’s new funds have come from Super Funds. Super Funds have historically been been extremely risk-averse and not traditionally known for risky investments. I think having Super Funds participate is a good thing, so long as they GTF out of the way because being in a startup is the polar opposite to being in a corporate.

Details coming out of the wreckage that is Guvera suggested that over A$185m (you read it correctly) was raised from over 3,000 sophisticated investors from SMSF (Self-Managed Super Funds). This is a startling figure for a company that is still trying to monetise its service while attempting an ASX listing. Don’t get me wrong, I liked the fact that Guvera had a go and was able to boost the local community with employment while learning new skills, but the business model on music streaming is still evolving and it’s a tricky space to win. Here is the thing, next time a individual looks at using their SMSF, will they be as footloose to invest into an early stage company, or hesitate due to the what Guvera went through?

Each of the major banks have their own funds including NAB Ventures and Westpac’s Reinventure Fund. Hedge Funds and Private Equity often stem from Stockbroking/ ASX, family money or investment firms. Now these are broad strokes and getting actual figures on how much capital the Super Funds have been pouring into the VC market is difficult, however between AirTree, BlackBird, NAB and Reinventure alone, you have the lion’s share of VC money coming from either Banks or Super Funds. These are two industries that aren’t flying the flag for rapid innovation, startup mentorship or even being part of the startup community. They are being disrupted and signalling that startups may be able to solve some of the problems they are facing is a step in the right direction. That’s why they are bringing in guys like Todd Forest in NAB’s case to run their funds. Sure, they have capital and I’m not judging anyone from taking their money. Banks or Super Funds might not even be the one reviewing or assisting the founders/ management through the investment process, or they may not be the one pulling the trigger on the investment, but if I know anything about the investment scene, they herd like sheep, like making money and they love telling a sexy PR story.

Investing then investing in an innovative company with a typical founder story is a sexy story, but there is more to making a successful company, or even a unicorn, and its not just capital in.

Where should the money be coming from?

Preferably the majority of VC capital in Australia should come an individual or a tight-knit group who’s developed a revolutionary business or product before or built something truly inspiring in Australia, regardless of being success or failure. The problem is that you don’t typically make a lot of money on failures, and there are a lot more failures than wins. The top tier startups in Australia will naturally gravitate to other overseas markets since Australia is a small market and more often than not, their next capital raisings of $30m+ stems from overseas funds.

We need winners here in Australia, at least have their headquarters in Australia and either receive funding from Australia VC’s or get them to start a fund and pour their knowledge, networks and experience into their investments. We need the VC market to mature enough to lead $5m-$30m funding rounds and build a credible team to supplement the gaps in a startup or early stage company. Every early stage company has gaps to fill, and it’s within the best interests of the investor to assist with startup with more than just capital.

Also worth noting, many of the original founders of companies at an early stage often struggle through the process to raise big capital and sometimes have to make a decision to have a down-round or dilute until the larger capital comes in if they miss a term sheet milestone. Even Facebook missed their first milestone. There is often an extended gap between first money in, and strategic coming in next. I’ve heard of this term being known in investment circles as “the canyon” or the gap between Seed and Series A. This is what Rick Baker was referring to when he spoke of ‘no startups are awash with Series A funding’. When an shortened than expected runway occurs or is unpredicted, the founder or co-founder’s must seek different investment terms, often to the detriment of their own stake. From this their overall return once or if realised isn’t often as great as it should be.

I recently heard of a notable Australian tech company that added an investment term sheet that suggested that if the company hits a certain KPI, that the founder would receive A$1m in capital as a bonus. More terms like this should be implemented to incentivise the founders. I’m not saying this because I am a founder, but if you have a cherry that big at the end of the process, then going through long nights, hard days and no sleep is worth it. If the founders are smart enough (and they should be), they’ll spend their bonus not on Ferrari’s or toys, but on the community with seed investment or resources to grow their company which impacts the community.

Typically when a startup has tremendous success, there is more often than not a highly qualified and experience mentors or advisors involved. In the US, VC firms often call their offering “full service” and that capital is the smallest part of their service. VC firms like Andreessen Horowitz, Kleiner Perkins Caulfield, Accel Partners and Khlosa Ventures employ a host of experts, advisors and mentors that assist their investments with a range of services including corporate, technical, marketing, branding, strategy and business development. If the company is making a great deal of money, that success can often camouflage issues or troubles within the team or the sustainability of the technology or service itself.

Of course all the VC’s that I’ve met had the best intentions for each of their investments because there needs to be belief in the team or founders to do the job, and show progress (with means a better chance of a return for VC’s). However if you investing in revolutionary technology business, then where do you find talent or expertise to support that business. If I wanted to ‘create Tony Stark's computer’ as Meta boldly suggested in their Y-Combinator pitch, do we have that sort of talent in Australia or can an invested VC help me find talent? Meta raised $23m in Series A funding on the back of adding highly-skilled augmented reality engineers that worked on the Google Glass project. While an AR and VR and still being discovered, having top-talent de-risks an investment and incentivises other investors to participate in a round.

Source: Meta

At Tappr, we required a Architect Tech Lead with experience in Cyber Security, building Rails API architecture and connecting to a Card Present Payment Gateway. That isn’t something easy to find, and no startup has $20k to throw at a recruiter, or shouldn’t do it — in Australia anyway unless well past the seed stage. We ended up getting a great guy from Monaco after scouring the earth to find one. For a health-tech startup in Australia, there might only be 2–3 people globally that might have the right experience and the availability to assist. Typically, the VC in the US would assist in ‘filling the gaps’ and strengthening their investment - by way of either finding talent or testing their networks. Sure, the founders and management need to pull their weight, but often the VC sits in an advisory position and we need our advisors to add a host of value.

Not only recruitment is a key area to overcome but there are other areas including future capital raising, employee share programs, product innovation, monetisation are just as key. However not having access to cash-flow or capital is always a crippling cancer for founders or management to solve. Capital is a problem that needs to be solved. Often but not always, the founders have never seen a term sheet, nor negotiated with sophisticated investors, or understand option cliffs. Having founders from a neutral perspective to assist founders is a must have in the space. If I had a dollar for every call or email I’ve got from founders/ entrepreneurs that are 5–10 years my senior then I’d be buying a one bedroom flat in Bondi — with a view.

What startups are out there to invest in?

This is the other concern, what is out there to invest in? What mantra does the VC firm have, and how many startups fit that mantra?

I speak often to my friend Pauly Ting about what’s happening in San Francisco and he finds that many Australian startups aren’t ambitious enough, or focus on building products that are part of an ecosystem, not the ecosystem. That’s not to say that all startups should be massively ambitious, but we need to be able to help the ambitious startups just as much as the more reserved ones.

Looking at the Business Insider’s 2016 20 hottest startups, I tend to agree with him. There isn’t anything wrong with any of these businesses fundamentally, but if we are to attract more involvement all round from uni students, to investment managers, then we need some ultra ambitious, game-changing companies to kindle the startup fire. I find it hard to get up in the morning about a new lending company with a simpler signup process or things of that nature. Sure, they have a validated market and known risks, but is this type of company going to move the needle for the rest of the community?

Often I attend networking events and while there I sometimes get my ears chewed off by excited people showcasing their ideas and concepts. Many of them find it difficult to correlate their concept or claim its “Uber for X”. While you shouldn’t discount anyone from having a go, often it’s having a go naively.

Most concerning of all, I get scared when the founder doesn’t understand some of the basics VC’s will look for. Some of the basics include understanding the barriers to entry, who is your competition, what does your business model evolve to or what does your cost-per-acquisition look like. Before you get to capital and valuations, those questions above need to be answered.

On the other side of the spectrum, there are a number of great success stories that are under the radar and rarely in public eye. As an example of this, is a little-known company called the Carbon Revolution out of Waurn Ponds, VIC. Carbon Revolution has recently raised $50m, to expand operations and is aiming to produce 100,000 wheels per annum. Carbon Revolution is getting towards 100 staff and has a multitude of international distributors and partnerships alike.

Source: Carbon Revolution

What gets me up in the morning: I’d like to see an Australian ChatBot company take it to the next level, create an IoT concept linking me to my home or figure out how to grow fresh produce in dense cities. These are exciting, bold and ambitious concepts ripe for the picking.

Is there something stagnating growth in the sector?

I feel it comes down to a few things. I’m sure many people looking from afar suggest that being an entrepreneur is a sexy adventure and ‘after we raise $5m, and our users love us, then we’ll all get electric skateboards, sip latte’s and come into work at 11am’. There is a difference between an entrepreneur and wantrepreneur. They might even have a reasonable concept, yet either don’t understand what it takes, or not willing to put in the sacrifice.

I grew up on the Sunshine Coast and when I finished school I had to either go to university or find a job. On the Sunshine Coast, that can be difficult if you don’t want to be in hospitality or a pro-surfer. I was influenced by my surroundings and they impacted me on what I was to become. I did neither and went to Europe instead to work in hospitality (ironic I know). Someone who grew up in New York, London, Singapore or Korea will have had a different upbringing, but also different opportunities once they left school or university.

Instead of our youth getting a job at McDonald’s, we should want them to get a job as an intern at Intel or Ebay. Also, it doesn’t have to be simply a technology company. What about companies like Shoes of Prey (online store), Canva (Creative), Assembly Payments (Payments) or CoinJar (Bitcoin Platform). It’s a different conversation if an employer is looking at a candidate and instead of working at McDonald's, they did a 6 week internship at eBay. Who are you hiring first? Opening up avenues to get our youth (our future) to learn from company who think differently is a clog into the wheel of change and thinking differently.

We need our entrepreneurs hungry, battle-tested, ambitious and knowledgeable. Going to university and taking a course on being an entrepreneur just doesn’t feel right.

We need our VC’s to support with more than capital and grow their funds with investments from within and with other entrepreneurs. BlackBird has Mike Cannon-Brookes onboard, AirTree have a few, but we need get the market to sustain 20+ VC’s not just 2. For every Venture partner a VC firm brings onboard, we need an ‘operational partner’ join the firm. I’ll go into what an operational partner does further down. Like Singapore and Israel, we need to get the government active in the space as well, but we need to help ourselves before the state and federal governments can assist.

Does a VC firm’s mantra matter?

Of course investment mantras exist in all VC or PE firms. As mentioned above VC in Australia are typically drawn to certain sectors and like to invest in things they understand or know what to do with. Yes, VC’s do have capital, but because they do doesn’t mean they will just hand it out like ice-cream, you need to fit a certain mould.

“We invest in businesses that are global from day one” Blackbird VC

Reading the blogs from the BlackBird Ventures website, they like businesses that have already scaled past Australia, believe that the EMT or founder is the right person, technically equipped, the startup has 2 founders but not 5 and a keen understanding of what is a successful metric that can be quantified.

Many VC’s have similar mantras. They don’t want you to be stuck in Australia, or at least have real ambition and validation for international markets. They want a team with technical skill because more often than not, it’s hard for them to deeply test a prototype or MVP when half the features aren’t built or don’t work.

Often MVP products from early stage companies are beaten up and bandaged together like a red-headed step-child. But that’s what being in a startup is all about, doing amazing things quickly with little-to-no resources.

It’s pretty rare for a investor to understand a new startups tech-stack completely and to be honest they should get someone from the industry to validate if they are taking their investment in your startup seriously.

We found that at Tappr, you’d speak to an investor who would announce they know the space will ‘because it’s fin-tech’ then not know any of our partners or competitors. The amount of times Apple Pay as a competitor was mentioned was hysterical. Overtime we got better at our upfront pitch to cater to those conversations.

What they are currently teaching to computer science students now will most likely be redundant in 4 years or there will be something else that comes along that is the new trend. Thats why there is a trend for developers to drop out of school. I know a number of developers who suggested they typically learnt more in a year with a tech company than they will in 4 years at university. It’s not their place to critic you technically, and it shouldn’t be unless the VC is an expert in your field, so long as you know what you’re talking about or someone can vouch for you.

Would Australian VC’s invest in Facebook in 2004, if they had the chance?

Source: Facebook IPO Documents

I like talking to people in the VC industry in Australia since I get to speak with people involved in it or interested in it. A passion topic that I’ve asked a few people in the community is: “Would you invest in Facebook’s seed round?”

Most of us are familiar with the Facebook story. A whiz-kid from Harvard and his buddies create their own social networking platform to document their lives through college known as They drop-out, move to California and build one of the biggest companies in the world. The story is well documented and most of us use the service, except for my dad; who doesn’t own a phone.

I’ve normally painted the scenario to invest in Facebook for later in 2004 which paints a different picture to earlier 2004 when the founders still were discovering what they had created and didn’t raise the capital until later in 2004 anyway.

Based on the 2004 Yearbook from the Australian PE and VC Association, the total amount of VC money invested in Australia was AUD$2.06m in the 2004 financial year. Yes, I actually had to ring the APEVA office to ask if these numbers are factual, and they are. This means that each VC/PE company spent on average $93,654 in 2004 financial year. A point I’ll go into further is the trend of Australian VC’s and PE’s arriving later than most to the Tech-boom between 1994–1999 and the investment hangover during and after the Dot-com bubble between 2000–2002. Those were the dark years in VC in Australia and thankfully we’ve moved on since then.

As of September 2004, Facebook was aiming to raise US$500,000 (AUD$664k) which is almost a quarter of the total VC market available in Australia in FY2004. I’m going from their second investor presentation which was more rounded and Facebook had more traction, a key indicator for any Australian investor. I’ll paint the picture Peter Thiel and a few other PayPal Mafioso’s had when he invested via a convertible note US$500,000 in September 2014 for 10.2% of the company.

I wont go into a full-investor brief however there are some topics at the time Facebook was dealing with. By September 2004, Facebook’s co-founders had a spat and began looking at options to cut each other out, a lawsuit was filed from ConnectU (if you don’t know the story, think the Winklevoss’ rival service), charismatic yet controversial entrepreneur Sean Parker joined as the company President, the initially incorporated company was acquired by a new Delaware company 6 months after incorporation and the space was crowded with Friendster and MySpace having considerably larger user numbers. This would raise many concerns for investors not only in Australia, but around the globe.

However, there are two metrics that made Peter Thiel, Reid Hoffman and others stand up and take notice above and beyond all that concerning activity. Firstly, the daily page views was past 3 million a day and growing rapidly and secondly, the 95% monthly unique users. That shows volume and sustainability right there folks.

A final point to consider is monetisation. Reading the Facebook story, at the time, the server’s were housed in San Diego. This was due to cost comparison with servers in the Bay Area and Facebook needed to continually increase its server load and storage capabilities to keep up with demand. An increasingly worrying burn-rate, matched with the fact that revenue was at a big fat $0.00, would have concerned the most bullish investors; but the metrics are undeniable and I wonder which of the VC’s would have understood those over the concerns beginning to form during late 2004.

I can only speak for myself, however I feel that many investors — not just VC — in Australia would pass on the opportunity not only in 2004 when capital in startups was almost non-existent, but even today I think it wouldn’t be easy to raise $500k for a company with next to no revenue. VC partners naturally gravitate to what they know from their personal experiences and knowledge, and many wouldn’t have seen a company or the type of metrics facebook suggested in their presentation before alongside the risks that Facebook possessed at the time. Add to the fact that with the IP and legal disputes which were in full disclosure of the VC’s, then you’ve got a lot of your hands before you’ve begun.

Often investors who put into an early round have a first right of refusal and should the company ‘hockey-stick’ existing investors are reluctant to let other investors in early unless the new investors are ‘importantly strategic’. That means if an Australian investor passed on the seed round, more times than not wouldn’t have the ‘strategic networks’ to garner a seat at the next raising.

Lets get VC’s and PE’s some returns from startups

Source: Quip

VC and PE firms have a tough job to survive. They invest in companies that while have huge upside, often with gaps and don’t see returns for 5+ years, if ever. They review unfinished or still-evolving technologies or businesses in uncharted waters or pioneering sectors. They are under pressure to perform and show returns to their investor group and show that they are worth a damn. We need our VC’s to be bold, aggressive and see an investment through till return, even if it means taking a down-round or two in the process. We need to supply them with not only capital but intelligent people to compliment their investments and add more value than just capital.

I read that the number #1 reason why startups fail isn’t due to bad market conditions, but incompetence. There are some other information pieces to suggest that market fit or business model fit is the reason, but I find the incompetence part of not understanding the business, the market, the customer, the challenges ahead or product fully. However, incompetence can be turned around by education unlike something like bad market conditions which can be a combination of things that are often impossible to manage. At Tappr, we learnt a lot and made as many mistakes as successes. We learnt more from trying things and some worked, some didn’t, and we know for next time. Most importantly, we can pass on this information collaboratively to others going through similar discoveries.

Anyone putting capital in a company with gaps to fill should seek to compliment their investment with other services. It’s say that’s Series A and below. If you’re a VC, that means you are a professional investor focused on a high-risk area of investing.

I look at the cream of the crop VC’s and see how their made up. From a quick skim at LinkedIn and their own websites shows that of Accel Partners, Khosla Ventures and Index Ventures have an approximate 50:50 split on investment managers vs industry knowledge experts. In most cases, these people are called “operating partners”.

Most of a all, we need the next crop of companies to be in a position to justify $10m valuations and be able to go pass $50m and head for the billion-dollar territory. We are going to need more than one or two to knock it out of the park. We’re only going to do that with support for bold ideas and have accessible experts to show the way.

It starts from up to a year before the founder has founded a company, that is where we need the most help in the Australian VC landscape and its before the investor has ever met the entrepreneur. Marry that with our own VC’s looking at adding quantiful ‘operating partners’ and supporting ambitious concepts from the idea stage through to launching and that may move the needle enough for the Australian VC scene to go from ‘woeful’ to ‘adequate’.

Let’s tackle that together one step at a time and maybe in a few years we might get to where we want to be.

‘Woeful’ or ‘adequate’ shouldn’t be the aim, I’d settle for ‘above average’ in a heartbeat.

This is an opinion piece and just suppose to add some context from an entrepreneur in the space. The post got longer than I expected but its a big topic and I didn’t want to leave something out I’d regret later. I’ve shown this to a few VC friends and they suggested following this up with a crowdfunding vs VC piece. 2 articles done, 13 to go.

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