An article first published in the Sydney Morning Herald, sharing some experiences of moving to the Bay Area.
Debate is raging in the Australian start-up community. Can we build and support high-growth companies locally, or do you need to be in Silicon Valley? But this is a false choice, and I’m working to prove it.
At the start of March I packed up my life and moved with my wife from Sydney to San Francisco. I’d launched a company, RecruitLoop, an online recruitment marketplace and video interview platform, 18 months ago with three other co-founders. We’re now chasing international growth.
But here’s the thing: we didn’t make a choice to ‘leave’ Australia. It was never an either/or decision. We found another way, keeping a foot firmly in both camps, with my three co-founders remaining in Sydney.
This might seem like a risky strategy. In our view, it was the best one we could take and will give us a competitive advantage in both markets. The US brings market size, access to capital and partners. Australia brings world-class talent, generous start-up grants and proximity to Asia.
The ‘dual-base’ strategy has been adopted by many established local tech companies (Atlassian, BigCommerce, NitroPDF). And we think it will become increasingly common for early-stage start-ups seeking the same benefits.
But how to make it work?
We don’t have all the answers. But in sharing our experience, hope to shed some light for other Australian companies facing a similar choice.
The first two weeks in San Francisco’s Bay Area were a whirlwind of activity, pitching and logistics.
We landed on a Sunday night, with only seven days’ accommodation booked on AirBnB (a site where people rent their apartment, bedroom or couch). By 8am Monday, we were setting up a demo stand at Launch Festival, one of the largest start-up events in the US to pitch to 5,000 attendees along with the biggest names in tech.
We were in a “demo pit” with 200 other star-tups. On a main stage, 50 “stealth” companies had been selected to launch their products in front of a judging panel and high-powered audience. Elsewhere, a “hackathon” took place, with the winners taking home $100,000. The stakes were high.
We had three days of pitching, hustling and handshaking, to investors, potential customers and partners. The biggest goal is simply getting noticed. In a crowded space with hundreds of great ideas, you have a split second to attract attention.
We used every tool at our disposal. Australian accents definitely helped. So did the fact we’d arrived only days earlier. We printed t-shirts specifically for the event, and hacked social media.
Something stuck. On the final day, thanks to an honorary Australian judge (Mark Pesce), we were invited to pitch on the main stage. It was a wild experience. We were given four minutes airtime. This was cut to two as I stepped onto the stage. Only the third day in the country, it was a baptism of fire. And some fantastic exposure for our business.
Timing our arrival with a large event turned out to be an ideal entry point. We hit the ground running, immediately connected with new people and built some initial awareness. It led directly to another pitch event the same week (which we won), dozens of new connections, and eight to 10 coffees with potential customers and investors. Two hundred business cards disappeared in a flash.
These meetings are similar to what we’d experience in Australia, just magnified. Expectations of scale, speed and innovation are bigger. The bar feels higher, and your A-game is needed in every interaction.
Fortunately, due to our smaller market size, Australian start-ups are forced to think global from day one. This is one big advantage local start-ups have over their US counterparts, who can be very insulated. It’s also why we think a ‘dual-base’ strategy can help Australian companies succeed on an international stage. We have presence in two of the most exciting parts of the world: Asia-Pacific and the US.
The first two weeks were all about building momentum. There was little sleep, running on dual timezones. But we now have an initial network, some awareness and customer interest. It was scrappy but effective.
Can we make a dual-base strategy work long term? This is just the starting line. Next comes the hard work of building a business: winning paying customers, hiring and raising capital. It’s going to be a fun ride.