With a population of just 25 million and whole oceans separating the country from major financial centres, Australia can be a hard place to raise significant capital. Its biggest recent tech success story, the enterprise software company Atlassian Corp. PLC, bypassed the Australian Securities Exchange in 2015 to list on the Nasdaq.
But the country’s taste for technology companies is growing: It’s the third-largest sector by number of listings on the Australian Securities Exchange, with its market capitalization more than doubling to 63-billion Australian dollars between 2014 and 2017, according to exchange documents. While the number of venture-capital deals fell in 2017, KPMG reported the total value of startup investments rose 1.4 per cent to US$555-million last year. And a recent survey of 1,200 founders, meanwhile, revealed that 60 per cent of startups planned to raise capital within Australia within the next 12 months.
As chief financial officer and head of venture capital at BlueChilli – one of Australia’s biggest and busiest tech startup accelerators, with a portfolio valued at 260-million Australian dollars – Canadian-born Luther Poier is focused on trying to expand local companies by setting their sights beyond the continent.
Frustrated with the Royal Canadian Navy in the late nineties, Mr. Poier, then a navigating officer, joined the Royal Australian Navy – before becoming a father made him yearn for life on land and he took a job at an investment bank. Since then, the London, Ont.-area native has dabbled in many worlds, including private equity, private office management and startups. He spoke to The Globe and Mail about tech in the land Down Under over lunch near his office in Sydney.
How do Canada and Australia differ in their approaches to starting and investing in startups?
Canada is conservative, in the sense that we’re a risk-averse country. When I was a kid, we lived on a farm, had a big garden and kept things for the winter – because if you didn’t get food ready for the winter, you wouldn’t eat. It’s about storing up. There’s a rhythm. Here, nobody has to put away for the winter. And so it’s really much more short term, whereas Canadians think long term: From an investment point of view, you’re thinking about less risk. Longer term means more conservative, whereas here, there’s a little less long-term-ism.
We used to say to the guys in the navy “a plan never survives first contact with the enemy.” And a business plan never survives first contact with an investor. There’s no investor in his right mind that’ll read anything more than a 10-page pitch deck. What I’ve seen a few times is the presentation of a 150-page business plan – it’s a low sample size, but Canadians tend to go at things like I expect Canadians to: thorough, educated, detailed, almost academic. Aussies don’t go at things in an academic matter. They’re very scrappy here, which, for me, has meant I’ve had to change my fundamental view of the world, ’cause I’m a Canadian inside.
What’s the venture-capital ecosystem like in Australia?
Lots of startups just go in seeing a bunch of money and they don’t understand how to pitch for it. Likewise, investors don’t understand how startups think. So you have this miscommunication, which is, I think, a big problem in the ecosystem. In the U.S., you have history – you even have sitcoms based around Silicon Valley – so everybody can understand what the other person is thinking. You have a big exit in the U.S., you start your own venture fund. People don’t do that in the same way here. When people get a big liquidity event ... what happens is a lot of time they put a whole bunch into property.
Both you and BlueChilli’s founder-CEO Sebastien Eckersley-Maslin have naval backgrounds. How does that inform your work?
Both in the U.S. and Israel, their startup ecosystems very much rise out of the military. You build startups on a group of people that fundamentally say “mission before self” – ship before myself. The view on risk is different. When we think about risk in the military, risks aren’t something to be gotten rid of or to run away from. They are things that you accept and deal with, and in the best case, use to your advantage. Good startup founders understand the risks, and then use those risks to their advantage.
I do a session for the founders here about the OODA Loop. You have to observe, [orient], decide and act faster than your enemy does. I think it’s the same in business. You have to get inside that loop of your competitors, so you can get to the customers in a better way, faster. I think Aussies do that pretty well. Canadians, again, take a more measured, slower approach.
You’re the head of venture capital at BlueChilli. What do you look for in a startup?
We’re trying to get our startups thinking about going global right away. No one in the startup world in the U.S. says to somebody, “I’m building this AI startup, but we’re just going to dominate the market in Los Angeles.” Los Angeles has 12, 15 million people - Australia has a little over 20 million people.
We focus on non-tech founders. Most of ours come to us with deep domain experience. They’ve got 10 or 15 years, they’ve worked in an industry for a while, they’ve seen something that needs to be solved, but they don’t know how to build it. I see technology as infrastructure. It’s like the plumbing in your house: You know you need a toilet, you kind of know how it works, you can describe it. But how many people can plumb it in? That’s why we have a full dev team: We build your product for you, so we take away the technology risk, the build risk.
This interview has been edited and condensed.