Geoff is originally from Perth, but moved to the USA after graduating from Curtin University of Technology with a Computer Systems Engineering degree. Whilst in the USA, Geoff founded two companies and has been involved in many start-ups. For the past 9 years Geoff has lived in Boulder, Colorado where he has been supporting the local start-up community. Geoff has recently returned to Perth and is looking to help companies grow and fortify their business through the use of technology.
What’s the most significant change you’ve noticed in Perth since your return?
Perth is no longer the slow and sleepy city I remember. The most obvious and visual change is the huge Brookfield Place skyscraper, in downtown Perth, predominantly occupied by BHP Billiton and completed in 2012. There is other notable construction including the new underground railways, automotive tunnels, the extension of the train lines to neighbouring towns, the new entertainment center, the new conference center, the number of high-rise apartments throughout the city and surrounding suburbs. I see a significant increase in the use technology around town, including the new transportation “Tag On, Tag Off” card-based passenger metering system. It is obvious that the population has risen significantly and Perth has a new energy about it. The increase in the cost of living and inflation is also a big surprise and a common subject amongst the locals here.
You spent many years working with start-ups in the US. Which ones? What did you learn?
Great question and I could talk for hours on what I have seen and learned. I have worked and consulted to a number of start-ups in the USA, including Application Devices (tablet computing), Netraverse (remote desktop computing and private cloud), CNS Vital Signs (computerized neurocognitive assessment), Collective Intellect (social media insights), LinkSmart (electronic publishing), SoundsTrue (spiritual media retail and broadcasting), Surgiview (medical broadcasting), Birdbox (photo exchange through social media), and WellTok (Healthcare). I have been fortunate that my place of residence, Boulder, has also become a mecca for technology entrepreurialism and has a thriving start-up community. Just being part of the Boulder community puts you in touch with hundreds of start-ups and progressive local companies. Notable to me are Sketch-Up (now Google’s CAD product), Rally Software (software management tools), GNIP (social media aggregator), Crocs (revolutionary shoes), RoundPegg (corporate culture management), GreenGarage (green automotive care), PivotDesk (property management), Bloomin (seeded greeting cards), EcoProducts (Green Products), Celestial Seasoning (Tea company) and hundreds of other great companies. Not to exclude all of the great new start-up Restaurants and Microbreweries that are doing extremely well.
One of my biggest observations is that it’s not just money that enables a start-up to be successful. Of course there is an initial amount of capital that is required to ignite a project but millions in the bank is no guarantee of a win. The companies that have thought through their product, market, and execution strategies can often succeed faster and with less resources. Being an IT Infrastructure specialist I see the value of well timed acquisition and use of the technology. Using too little, too much, or the wrong technology all together can make or break a company.
You mentioned that some were successes, and some were failures. What was the most spectacular failure you were involved with? What do you think went wrong?
I’ll keep this one personal. In 1998 I enhanced one of the first WiFi access point devices to hit the market and added the ability to meter “hot-spot” usage. I imagined that airports, libraries, coffee shops, and other public places would want compensation for the privilege of accessing the internet at their location. A great idea I thought, nothing was on the market like that, but only very few people had wireless devices and so the investment community shut it down, wanting more. So I designed and built some of the first “Kiosk” computers for use at these “hot-spot” locations. The investment community shut it down, wanting more. So I developed software to enable people to access their home desktop from these “kiosks” computers. The investment community shut it down, wanting more. I finally raised over 10 million dollars, with a business partner, to effectively implement “remote desktop computing experience” from our inhouse-built “private cloud” environment. The venture began. Two years later, after all of the brain power (60+ people), all the investment money, and a slew of great ideas, the company was effectively shut down.
There were lots of issues inherent in this start-up but there were two fundamental issues. One was that we were too far ahead of the market. The second issue, that I have seen several times, is that there was a lack of focus and “listening” within the company. Instead there was too much talking, too many people bring their own realities and ideas to the table, too much comfort with a full bank account. Slowly the core original plan was replaced with bigger and better plans – so it would seem at the time. These plans lead to bigger scope, bigger expense, and as it turns out just a bigger failure.
In hindsight, each of those original ideas were worth millions of dollars. Timing is everything. Knowing what I know now I could have given the investors back most of the original investment and still created a huge win for everyone. This is a missed opportunity I chalk up as “tuition fees” – where you receive an incredible education but unfortunately at an incredible expense!
What was one of the notable successes?
Most recently, I was one of the early employees (10th employee) of Collective Intellect, just missing out on that significant equity stage. But I was delighted to be able to contribute to another start-up. My primary role was to cover everything IT, whilst development built the product and the business side covered the financial, administration, marketing, and support responsibilities. My first IT budget for the company was $300 for a server and toward the end I was buying $12,000 dollar servers, two or three at a time. Over the course of five years I grew Collective Intellect’s IT Infrastructure commensurate with the requirements of the developing product and business. The end result was a multi-million dollar scalable, real-time, data storage and processing engine; consuming and processing millions of message per day from over 200 million data sources, including Facebook and Twitter. Collective Intellect was acquired by Oracle in early 2012. Though I did not receive a payout from the sale, my contribution to Collective Intellect undoubtedly contributed to the success of the venture and a win to the stakeholders!
You mentioned that while you were at Collective Intellect, the company made a serious pivot. Tell us a bit about that. What was it like having to change direction dramatically?
I wouldn’t say that Collective Intellect had to change direction dramatically, but they did change their business plan as they developed a better understanding of the industry they were pursuing. Collective Intellect started out looking for key indicators in social media data that might effect publicly traded company’s stock value. Instead of “insider trading” I’d call it “outsider trading”. There are still some companies in the market pursuing this today. Over time Collective Intellect realized the full potential of the technology they had created and rather than look for unknown quantities of “needles in the haystack” they could provide social media insights for corporations. In one case a national TV network was able to gather “show” social media feedback and use it to feed the writers months in advance. Many customers were using the tool to monitor their marketing campaigns. Collective Intellect’s technology aligned perfectly for this task. What is important in Collective Intellects case is that that market and technology drove the direction of the product. Well done Collective Intellect.
Do you see any key differences between our start-up community here and that in Boulder?
It is still early days for me here in Perth and I am yet to comprehend the full scope of the Perth start-up community. The immediate difference appears to be that support for the “start-up” community here in Perth is relatively new. The city, press, legal, financial, property, citizens, and start-up participants of Boulder have been fostering supporting the “start-up” community for many years. Boulder currently supports a tremendous number of start-up companies and consequent ongoing businesses. I am confident Perth will achieve a similar status and hope one day start-up communities will be aspiring to “Perth” as today we aspire to “Boulder.”
What kind of opportunity are you looking for here in Perth?
I’d love to consult and work with early stage companies. Contributing my experience and knowledge to help grow the company efficiently and effectively. And gain a return on investment for all of the “tuition fees” I have paid.