Top 10 start-up entrepreneurs to watch

If you ask a member of Joe Public to name Australia’s leading entrepreneurs, it’s likely you will hear some familiar, tried-and-trusted names.

 

Gerry Harvey, despite a rather complicated tangle with the world of online retail in 2011, would probably garner a mention. As would the likes of Dick Smith, Harold Mitchell and Gina Reinhart.

 

But last year saw the emergence of several newcomers in mainstream media coverage of business.

 

With Australian start-ups finding success both domestically and abroad, along with a raft of new local incubators, it’s fair to say that 2011 was a stand-out year for the start-up community.

 

Here are the top 10 fledgling entrepreneurs and start-up industry players who caught our eye in 2011.

 

1. Nikki Durkin

 

Nikki Durkin, still just 20-years-old, has become one of Australia’s most vaunted entrepreneurs in little over 12 months.

 

Durkin is the founder of 99dresses, a site where users upload their unwanted clothes to sell for a virtual currency, which they can then spend on other users’ unwanted items.

 

Durkin was 18 when she founded the business (her third), enlisting the help of tech seed fund Pollenizer, and was recently selected to participate in Y Combinator in the United States.

 

The young entrepreneur beat thousands of start-ups that applied for a spot in the biannual program, at the end of which she’ll have the chance to pitch to a broad range of US investors.

 

“Nikki is a young rising star with a really great future,” says her mentor Mick Liubinskas, co-founder of Pollenizer.

 

“She’s learned a whole bunch since we met her. The only sad thing is that it is unlikely she will come back [to Australia]… Someone like Nikki will feel at home [in the US].”

 

2. Mick Liubinskas

 

 

It’s been an incredibly busy year for Mick Liubinskas, co-founder of Pollenizer, characterised by the success stories of Spreets, Nikki Durkin and Dealised, just to name a few.

 

In 2011, Pollenizer tested 16 ideas, started eight new businesses, raised $7 million for portfolio companies, raised $1.1 million for incubation, and sold Spreets for more than $40 million.

 

In addition to growing from 14 staff to 23, it also introduced the Pollenizer “pod structure” whereby set teams work over four-month semesters, thus bringing consistency to the incubator.

 

According to Liubinskas, the new team structure and four-month process is working really well, saying it’s “something we can see one day taking to other cities around the world”.

 

Liubinskas says Pollenizer is on the verge of making announcements about two of its start-ups, Pygg and Wooboard, while niche property site Unrenovated has also sparked plenty of interest.

 

3. Jo Burston

 

Jo Burston is the founder of Job Capital, which manages the financial affairs of contractors. The business was named the Officeworks Fastest Growing Start-up at the 2011 StartupSmart Awards.

 

Burston founded the company in 2006 after pitching the idea to investor Philip Weinman while working for her previous employer.

 

She built the company from the ground up to record revenue of $9.14 million in the 2009-10 financial year. But as Burston points out, it’s been no picnic.

 

“I literally worked 24/7 to get as much done as I could. I pulled together all my own marketing, contracts, sales material, proposals and went off to sell it to the world,” she told StartupSmart.

 

“Within two years, I had repaid my investor and bought back all of the company equity. I knew I wanted to own the company and have total control.”

 

4. Larissa Robertson

 

 

Larissa Roberson was working for a large recruitment company, SCO Recruitment, when it ran into financial trouble. The board rejected Robertson’s rescue plan, but that didn’t deter her.

 

She purchased the business from administrators, meaning she went from zero to 180 employees overnight.

 

The challenge intensified when Robertson fell pregnant and lost a $3 million client. But that didn’t stop her from building a business with revenue in excess of $8 million.

 

Last year, SCO Recruitment took out the top prize at SmartCompany’s fifth annual Smart50 Awards, after coming second in the 2011 StartupSmart Awards.

 

The business has maintained an average growth rate of 428% over the past three years, making 30-year-old Robertson one of the hottest young entrepreneurs in the country.

 

5. Andrew Birt

 

In July, serial entrepreneur Andrew Birt told StartupSmart he was looking for start-ups to participate in his latest venture AngelCube, an early stage incubator for web-based businesses.

 

Birt, who founded marketing agency StartUP Marketing in 2009, is also the founder of job board Snowballer and co-founder of small cap investment firm Catvielle Capital.

 

He’s now focused on his new baby, with the help of three co-founders. In September, AngelCube announced its first four start-ups, each receiving $20,000 in seed capital, as well as mentoring help.

 

Birt says the key to being a successful entrepreneur is to identify a niche market and develop a loyal band of customers as a base for growth. He also sings the praises of lean start-ups.

 

“You need to build something lean and mean. It doesn’t matter what industry it is in; just build it lean and create the demand and get some initial customers,” Birt says.

 

 

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