Entrepreneurs who break the mould
You don’t have to be a young, male geek to run a start-up.
Featured on The Age – Written by Christopher Niesche
Brandon Cowan is the stereotypical entrepreneur: young (he’s only 20), male, a university drop-out (twice), and someone who put everything on the line to pursue his vision.
“I started my company when I was 16 years old with no experience or idea of how to make an app, no venture capital. I just had the passion to make things happen,” says Cowan, the founder of Crazy Dog Apps, which has developed four top 100 smartphone apps over the past four years.
But for every Brandon Cowan, there are many successful entrepreneurs who break the mould – older, female or university educated.
“There’s no scientific formula for it,” says Rui Rodrigues, an investment manager with venture capital funder Tank Stream Ventures and Tank Stream Labs in Sydney.
Rodrigues has heard pitches from hundreds of entrepreneurs over the past 18 months, and while the fund has backed youth it has also put money into the ventures of older founders. It was among the investors who tipped $3 million into taxi booking service goCatch, for instance, whose founders Ned Moorfield and Andrew Campbell were in their 30s.
Tank Stream Ventures has invested in only five of the 500 pitches Rodrigues has heard. “Business can be profitable and can achieve a reasonable growth path without requiring external financing,” he says, pointing out that while some young entrepreneurs win hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars in seed funding, many entrepreneurs fund their own start-ups.
Jane Lu is a case in point. She funded her online women’s clothing business ShowPo with her own credit cards – all the while dressing and leaving the house each day so her parents didn’t know she had quit her job at professional services firm EY.
ShowPo now turns over more every day than Lu’s annual graduate salary – and she mollified her parents by paying off their mortgage.
Lu says that having no venture capital was an advantage because it meant she was forced to make her business profitable quickly by adapting and making changes fast. “It’s like survival of the fittest,” she says.
Lu earned distinctions in her accounting degree at the University of NSW and says the experience she gained there and in the workplace were valuable. “It’s not necessarily what you learnt, but I think it gives you important life skills and it really develops you as a person,” she says. “You learn to push yourself and how to manage yourself. The work ethic and professional working skills and communication skills have really helped me.”
Glyn Brokensha founded his business in his late 40s but says the entrepreneurial and “disruptive” beginnings didn’t begin until his early 50s. It was then that his employment screening business Expr3ss! took the unusual step of performing psychometric testing on prospective employees for a range of companies before they got the job.
“The grey hairs give you a broad sense of perspective; the professional background and qualifications mean that what you create or build actually works, it’s not speculative; and a broad experience of people means that you understand how to deal with other people who are suppliers to you or become employees,” says Brokensha, a former GP in rural Victoria and psychotherapist.
One key to being a successful entrepreneur is the ability to adapt and change direction quickly. While this trait is usually associated with youth, Brokensha says older people can learn it too.
“People are a lot more malleable and flexible in their egos than we like to think they are,” he says. “If you put them in a rapidly changing environment and show them how to enjoy it, they become able to make quick decisions and become much more rapid thinkers as a result.”
Jo Schneider says her gender has been a bonus in DVE Business Solution, the consultancy she runs with her mother.
“You can get a point of difference sometimes,” says Schneider, who was formerly a mechanical engineer at Holden in Adelaide. “At DVE we take my manufacturing and my lean, continuous principles into non-manufacturing environments like education and health, and being female really helps because it sets you apart a little bit and women tend to be better communicators.”
Schneider says her degree in mechanical engineering has also helped her entrepreneurial career, which includes founding animal heath retailer Animal Therapeutics Online, because it’s essentially about problem solving – a major requirement in founding a business.
The strong desire to solve a problem is what unites successful entrepreneurs, says Rodrigues. “They’re excited, obsessed about solving a specific problem.”