Our top 10 digital entrepreneurs

The hardest part about compiling a list of Australia’s digital entrepreneurs was to narrow it to just 10. By BRAD HOWARTH.

By Brad Howarth

Who are Australia’s emerging digital entrepreneurs, making their mark across the world, disrupting technology and business models and making millions of dollars along the way?

SmartCompany set out to compile a top-10 list. The most difficult part of the exercise has been to choose from such a strong field.

Probably first, would be Hitwise, which in April, was sold to Experian for $240 million. Success for founders Andrew Barlow and Adrian Giles was a matter of tenacity in the face of adversity.

“We always had a clear vision of where we wanted to get it, and the sort of exit we wanted to have,” Barlow says. “Entrepreneurs are problem solvers – that’s what they do – and you’ve just got to keep focused on the final outcome and keep going.”

While some lament the difficulties of building a business from an Australian base, Giles contends that being here in some ways makes it easier.

“We benefited a lot from government assistance. We’ve got a very skilled, globally competitive workforce. And Australian entrepreneurs should be confident of their abilities on a global scale because in some ways we do things better.”

It’s heartening too to see that attitude reflected amongst many successful entrepreneurs, including current NICTA chief executive David Skellern.

“There is a lot of good potential in Australia, and you need to people who are prepared to risk their money and help out with getting them off the ground,” Skellern says.

And as Prime Digital Media chief Tony Surtees points out, the amount of capital required to get a digital-based business off the ground now is a fraction of what it was when he was a vice president at Yahoo! in the US back in the 1990s.

“I like to work in businesses that have the capacity to have a large impact, and that really are shaping industries,” Surtees says.

The list is notable for its exceptions. Evan Thornley and Tracey Ellery made millions when they floated LookSmart, but have been quiet on the entrepreneurial front of late. Mitch Davis sold one company to Microsoft for upwards of $US200 million then founded another one that raised $US400 million but, like Rupert Murdoch, he hardly spends any time in Australia.

So while there are many others who could have been considered, here is our list of 10 of Australia’s top digital entrepreneurs.

Andrew Barlow and Adrian Giles

Together Barlow and Giles built and sold one of Australia’s most successful online businesses, the internet measurement service Hitwise. Barlow is still a director of Hitwise but left his executive position three years ago, and today runs Max Super, which was recently sold to Orchard Funds Management. Barlow will now turn his attention back to early-stage companies thanks to the role he will play in Orchard’s venture capital fund.

Giles has stayed on with Hitwise, but remains interested in helping other start-up businesses. “I get benefit and enjoyment from talking to other entrepreneurs who are going through the early stages of that, because I can provide that value of having done it before,” Giles says. (Hear the podcast of Adrian talking to Amanda Gome)

Andrew and Paul Bassat

Brothers Paul and Andrew Bassat rank as one of the most successful partnerships in Australian digital media, working together as joint chief executives of the highly successful ASX-listed online recruitment site SEEK. While Andrew takes responsibility for overall strategic direction and expansion, Paul takes care of SEEK’s online employment in Australia and New Zealand.

Mike Cannon-Brookes and Scott Farquhar

Web 2.0 is the buzzword of the day, as blogs and wikis steal the limelight from traditional software. Leader of the Australian web 2.0 pack is Atlassian, a five-year-old developer of corporate wiki software that has grown to more than 100 people servicing customers around the world. Having got to where it is without a cent of venture capital investment, the company is predicated to go much further yet. Co-founders Mike Canon-Brookes and Scott Farquhar were also recently lauded by Ernst & Young as joint winners of the 2006 Australian Entrepreneur of the Year.

Nam Do and Tan Le

Nam Do and Tan Le know what you are thinking. The pair are at the helm of the San Francisco-headquartered, Australian-born company Emotiv, which is combining brainwave sensing technology with advanced algorithms for uses such as controlling characters and objects within computer games. The company aims to have its first commercial product in the market by next year, retailing for about $US150. All hype aside, some people have suggested they are looking at the biggest breakthrough in human-computer interfaces since the invention of the graphical user interface.

Steven Goh

Many entrepreneurs dream of receiving US venture funding. Steven Goh made it happen. His mobile software technology company MIG33 recently received $US10 million from top-tier US venture firms. Goh had previously been the founder of Australia’s first online stockbroker, Sanford Securities Ltd, which was listed on the ASX in 2000. Today he is focused on growing MIG33’s existing four million customers to over 100 million.

Steve Killelea

Although he made his name in 2000 with the successful ASX-listing of the enterprise software company Integrated Research, Steve Killelea it is as Australia’s largest individual donor to overseas aid that he will most likely be best remembered. Killelea remains an active investor in a range of Australian technology start-ups, but says he true focus today is the study of peace. His latest project was the Global Peace Index, developed in conjunction with the Economist Intelligence Unit, which ranked 120 countries on the basis of internal and external piece.

Larry Marshall

Serial entrepreneur Larry Marshall has struggled to find an opportunity he couldn’t make work. Over the past 18 years he has founded six successful companies in biotechnology, photonics, and semiconductors, two of which were listed in the US and the other four sold. Today he is co-chairman of Arasor, an ASX-listed company developing laser chips for use in everything from next generation televisions to high-speed wireless networking equipment.

Steve Outtrim

Australia’s original digital entrepreneur, Steve Outtrim rocketed to prominence in the late 1990s as the founder and CEO of Australia’s first dot-com company to hit the ASX, Sausage Software. Since then Outtrim has been involved in numerous start-ups, and today is a director of Majitek, a Melbourne-based company developing high-end software for networking computers.

David Skellern

Along with Chris Beare and Neil Weste, David Skellern was responsible for one of the most successful deals of the dot-com era, when the three sold the wireless technology developer Radiata to the giant US network hardware Cisco for $567 million in shares. Skellern stayed with Cisco for four years before leaving to work with a group of Australian start-ups. Today he is the chief executive of NICTA, a government-funded centre of excellence for technology research. Skellern believes he can infuse his experience into the research culture at NICTA to produce the new batch of technology spin-outs.

Tony Surtees

One of the first Australians to identify the stunning impact that the web would have on our daily lives, Surtees shot to prominence in the 1990s as vice president of Yahoo!s e-commerce division in the late 1990s. Since returning to Australia he has been involved in numerous internet companies in Australia and Asia, and today is developing the digital media strategy for Paul Ramsay’s rapidly growing Prime Television group.

Agree or disagree with our list? Got any other suggestions? Send them to [email protected]

For other top stories, click here.

To hear the growth stories of more entrepreneurs, click here.


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