“You get your time in the sun”: AirTree founder Daniel Petre to step back from day-to-day operations at the firm

Daniel Petre and Craig Blair, founders of AirTree Ventures

Daniel Petre and Craig Blair, founders of AirTree Ventures. Source: Supplied.

AirTree founding partner and godfather of the Aussie tech scene Daniel Petre has announced he will be stepping back from the day-to-day operations at the VC firm, but will become chair.

The move comes as AirTree is gearing up to raise its fourth fund later this year, Petre tells SmartCompany.

He was 54 years old when he founded the company with Craig Blair back in 2014, he notes. And a new fund requires another ten years of commitment.

“I can’t look investors in the face and say, yeah I’m going to be just as dedicated for the next ten years,” Petre says.

So, announcing his decision to take a step back was about giving a signal to AirTree’s investors — but also to the team.

He was always thinking long-term, and set out to create a sustainable business that would outlast him, not one driven by the personalities of the founders.

AirTree now boasts a “very strong” team of partners and principles, who are more than equipped to drive growth from here.

It’s always been important to Petre that he will be able to watch AirTree flourish without him in the future; that it’s not something that will crumble — or even weaken — without him personally at the helm.

That’s the measure of any company, he notes.

“And I’m very confident that that’s what’s going to happen.”

Petre also sees this as indicative of the way the Australian startup ecosystem in Australia is maturing. He acknowledges his role as an influential person in the sector, having risen through the ranks at Microsoft and working closely with Bill Gates (who he now considers a close friend) before founding AirTree.

But, he would like to see focus shifting away from ‘gurus’, who he says were typically simply lucky to have had successful careers.

“Venture capital can be like that,” he explains.

“Someone is seen as some guru … they’re not really, they’re just lucky, semi-smart people doing great jobs,” he adds.

“We’ve got to move away from it being personalities, and [towards] a more sustainable natural industry.”

The Australian ecosystem is still relatively new, but it’s important to “grow up a bit”, Petre notes.

A focus on the future

Life after AirTree will see Petre focusing on supporting and growing this fledgling industry.

That will mean working with the government and legislators to help support the tech sector, stressing the job creation and tax revenue it generates.

“Government could still fuck it up,” he warns.

There’s also an opportunity to grow the VC sector. A bigger ecosystem means more activity, more competition and ultimately more opportunities.

Currently, there are three major players — AirTree, BlackBird and Square Peg.

“There needs to be ten of those and 50 beneath us, and another ten Canvas and Atlassians,” he says.

Finally, he’ll be focusing on philanthropy, something that’s been close to his heart for years.

“Australia’s old wealthy are not very philanthropic … My hope is that the new wealthy will be.”

Canva co-founders Melanie Perkins and Cliff Obrecht are famously open about putting their billions towards good causes, while Atlassian co-founders Mike Cannon-Brookes and Scott Farquhar have each put both their voices and their cash behind projects striving to tackle climate change.

Petre hopes other ‘new’ Aussie billionaires will follow suit.

Bill Gates is “the poster child” of that concept, he notes — giving away his wealth in a measured way that strives to make societal change.

The early signals are good in the local scene.

“If more and more of these people who are making tens of millions, and hundreds of millions, and billions of dollars could push some of that back to the causes they think are important, that would be fantastic.”

End of an era

Of course, this marks the end of an era for Petre and for AirTree, and today’s announcement does come with a tinge of sadness for the founder.

He won’t be stepping down tomorrow, he notes. But, on balance, he feels that staying in his role for too much longer wouldn’t have been the right thing for the company he’s built, or the people working within it.

“It’s a bit sad, but it’s the right thing to do,” he notes.

Ultimately, he wants to create an opportunity for others to grow.

“You get your time in the sun, you work hard, you enjoy yourself and you do well. Then you’re not greedy, and you let others have that opportunity.”

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