Pushing the next-tech

Always-on entrepreneurs are driving the current generation of technology and chasing the next, to further turbo-charge their productivity. By MIKE PRESTON and AMANDA GOME.

Now the BlackBerry and laptop are standard issue, entrepreneurs working 24/7 are looking for the next technology’s edge.

By Mike Preston and Amanda Gome

technology entrepreneurs

I was on a plane the other day sitting behind two men in suits. One leaned across to the other and asked: “Run your own business?” The other suit looked astonished. “How do you know?” The answer: “Your BlackBerry.” And the two entrepreneurs spent the rest of the plane trip happily discussing their business models.

A BlackBerry or internet-enabled mobile phone and portable laptop with wireless connectivity have now become the ubiquitous tools of an entrepreneur. Kosmas Smyrnios, professor of marketing at RMIT University, who researches fast-growth entrepreneurs, points out that this strong attachment and dependency on mobile technology has completely changed the way they work.

“The commercial benefits are huge, not only in always being connected to the world, but in cramming more into a day. The office boundaries have gone. There are no more four walls or discussions around CBD or home office. We now have the mobile office open 24/7. These people do business anywhere. And the more they see the commercial and productivity benefits, the more enthusiastic they become.”

Increasingly, however, this second generation of communication devices are making way for the next, becoming portals to software and online applications that are the next generation of entrepreneurial productivity turbo chargers.

Entrepreneurs can’t move to the next generation of technology unless they personally experience the existing technology, he says. And this is what we are seeing now: Entrepreneurs, immersed in their BlackBerrys and wireless, are also exploring the next applications. “Entrepreneurs are keenly aware that if they miss a few steps they will get left behind.”


Always moving

Anna Whitlam, who travels regularly around Australia and overseas meeting clients of her executive search and recruitment business Market U, says a mobile email device such as a BlackBerry is almost mandatory if you run a smaller business in an international market.

“To be available all the time is incredibly important, so to take your BlackBerry overseas and be available in every country is pretty amazing.”

Winter says she has almost got to the point where mobile email has entirely replaced phone calls in her working life.

“I’m in meetings most of the day, so I catch up with people by email late at night when I can’t really make any calls. Of course, that means I’m working pretty much 24/7, but that’s how business is now,” she says.

Brendan McKeegan, an entrepreneur who helps build emerging companies in the technology space through consultancy NinetyDays, tells a similar story. Most of his client companies are focused on international markets, where instant responsiveness has moved from premium service to basic expectation.

To manage this, McKeegan uses relies heavily on his BlackBerry for portable email and a laptop with a wireless modem that allows him to connect to the internet wherever there is 3G mobile network reception.

“From a business perspective, these devices are critical: I have to be aware of what is happening in multiple time zones and be able to respond on weekends or late at night and that means being net connected with a useable device any time at any place,” McKeegan says.

The importance of constant connectivity was highlighted on the weekend when a company he part-owns and is taking to market, credit card authentication technology developer Emue Technologies, struck a snag during a crucial software installation.

“We had a gateway server go down in the UK when we were in the middle of installing some software in a large corporate on a trial basis. This was on Saturday night, so if I hadn’t been able to find out about the problem and call and email to get the right people involved it would have sat there until Monday. That could’ve been a disaster.”


iPhone – king of the gizmos?

Another entrepreneur advocate for handheld communication devices is Ben Prendergast, the chief executive of international project management and CRM software developer Element Software.

Prendergast says he sends and receives 150–200 emails a day managing his international client base, often while travelling between offices in Australia and San Francisco. He praises his BlackBerry, which helps him keep on top of the endless information flow when he’s in Australia, but has even bigger wraps on the Apple iPhone he uses when working out of San Francisco.

Apart from harnessing the trademark Mac user interface and productivity enhancers such as iCal and MacMail, Prendergast says the thing that sets the iPhone apart from other handheld devices on the market at the moment is the superior web browsing its large, touch-sensitive screen allows.

“With most handhelds on the market that allow web browsing it doesn’t feel like you’re actually using the web; it’s hard to see what is going on and the search function is often clunky. What Apple have done is ensure that when you’re using the web you’re looking at the real version of it which really makes a huge difference in terms of usability.”

But wait a minute, you may be thinking – is there really a lot of productivity to be gained through easily portable web accessibility? Sure, you need to access you’re email, but how often do find yourself desperately needing to search the web?

Prendergast agrees that it is easy to fall into the trap of just wanting the latest gizmo for its own sake, but says there are reasons why entrepreneurs will want improved mobile web access in the future.

He says many of the best new productivity improving innovations are not gadgets you can hold in your hand, but online applications or software. “We’re getting to the point where the net means we’re no longer information islands; from contacts to sales data, people are now tapping into information dynamically via the web. You’re seeing business information presented visually through things like Googlemap mashups, and the iPhone is tapping into that,” Prendergast says.


Online apps: the cool gizmos of tomorrow

One entrepreneur who is already using innovative software and online applications to ramp up his productivity and help them manage their work/life balance is Brendan Lewis, the executive director of technology entrepreneurship and innovation forum the Churchill Club.

Lewis says there is a wealth of productivity enhancing software available online, and much of it free. Free online products such as telephony and messaging service Skype, website construction software Joomla! and mindmapping application Freemind each free up a few valuable extra minutes in Lewis’ timetable each day, but he reserves his biggest praise for the Google Calendar application.

Google Calendar is a web based calendar that can be accessed by multiple people and linked with other organisations’ software or websites. A life saver when you’re trying to co-ordinate round-the-clock business obligations and the demands of family life.

“My wife and I both work full-time and we’ve found we need to use work-like technologies for home. We both use Google Calendar to keep track of each other and the kids; it would be almost impossible to organise something like a lunch on the weekend without it,” Lewis says. “Because it is online I can synch it with my mobile phone and some other websites. So for, example, if I put a meeting date into Google Calendar it goes straight into the Churchill Club website.”

Lewis estimates Google Calendar adds an extra 5% to his productivity each day, a small contribution that quickly adds up over the working year.

Entrepreneurs are also using software to better help them find space for creative and strategic thought. David Trewern, the managing director of web design and development company DTDigital, says he uses mindmapping software such as OmniOutliner and OmniGraffle to quickly organise his ideas and put them into flow diagrams or PowerPoint style presentations.

“These programs are as easy to use as a piece of paper and more effective, you can easily put ideas into bullet points and columns or flow charts that you can easily send to other people or search for later on,” Trewern says. “A couple of days a week I’ll sit in a café with my laptop and these programs and find I’ll get more done in an hour than four hours in the office, and since it’s on my computer it’s there for later. If it was in a notebook I would probably never look at it again.”

Sitting in a café tapping some ideas into a laptop might sound pretty good, but there is a not-so -fun flipside to ultra-portable communication and information technology: you’re always at work.

So is it an addiction? Smyrnios says no. For most, while they are preoccupied with new technology and gizmos, most are not addicted. The technology provides instant gratification allowing them to work at an extremely fast pace and in real time, which suits the entrepreneurial personality. But many entrepreneurs are also disciplined about being able to turn off.

Really? Market U’s Whitlam says even as mobile technology makes work easier, it begins to control your life.

“I work 24/7 and I can only do that with my BlackBerry,” she says. “I can’t live without it and even I think I’ve become pretty obsessed. My husband can’t stand it because I never put it down.”


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