Leadership in challenging times

I recently joined Steve Vamos, CEO of Xero, Ali Akl, owner of Toby’s Estate, Sam Marciana, Founder & CEO of TIKS, and host and facilitator Rebekah Campbell, as part of the City of Sydney Reboot webinar series, discussing leadership in the post-Covid future.

I asked Steve Vamos three questions. Here they are, with his answers.

How do you build a high-performing, best-talent leadership team? 

“At the heart is you – the CEO or business owner, and you have to decide that this is a critical function that you are accountable for. This is one of the challenges I think founders and leaders face. They focus on what they do every day, but as they grow and attract a range of people and talent, all of a sudden they have interesting dynamics and complex challenges as more and more people join the team. And I think that’s really one of the points in the journey where a founder or CEO has to decide whether they really have an interest in being that head coach, a team leader who really is going to care about that aspect of the business. 

“You want to make sure everyone on the team is excited and committed to the purpose of your organization. So getting clarity of purpose, and aligning each person on the team, is important. I think then you look at the priorities, and the value of behaviours, and really make sure that the kind of work you want to get done fits with the people on your team. On top of that, you’ve got the relationships. But the reason why it’s important is that the more people who deal with you, or deal with people who work with you, who are positive about your environment, the bigger your momentum.”

How do you scale in the growth stage, maybe even ahead of profitability, which Xero has done well?

“If you have a mindset of really looking at the team and coaching the team you’ll find that your operating model, particularly in those early years of a new business, almost runs out of steam every six to nine months. So what happens is you appoint certain people into different roles, you decide on the way you’re going to operate. And that serves you really well for six months, and then around the ninth month, you discover that the role is now outgrowing the person who’s in it, or the way your business has evolved means the way you’ve been operating has to change again. Our operating model at Xero is still evolving, I think pretty much on an annual basis. So if you’re growing fast, that is the challenge of growth.  You always have to be open-minded about needing different capabilities, or needing to change the way you’re operating.”

What’s your advice about finding the right partners and distribution channels? How do you go about evaluating that? How important is that to strategy?

“It’s super important. And you know, I think a big part of the magic of Xero and what it’s accomplished has been the phenomenal partnership with accountants and bookkeepers, then the work that was put into connecting with banks and getting them engaged, and they’ve been great supporters, as well of our collective customers, joint customers, and making sure that they can leverage what Xero has, and get that really working for them. 

“So it is in our DNA. I think it comes down to strategy first and foremost. There has to be a good reason for pursuing partnerships because they have to be meaningful for you and for the partner. So you’ll learn very quickly whether or not you’re barking up the right tree or the wrong tree. Sometimes mistakes can lead to great outcomes, because they can probably point you in a better direction. 

“So have a look at your strategy, and then from there, it’s a very human dynamic of connecting, testing, learning and adapting.

“Now,  there’s no reason why you can’t start to think global about reaching customers. And you also have these amazing platforms you can leverage that reduce that cost of getting going, getting started. And what I love seeing is the way the Australian tech industry is continuing to grow and evolve with awesome businesses and entrepreneurs. That’s super-inspiring to see those successes and that development.”

Great insights from Steve, and a great opportunity to share these, and something of Digivizer’s own journey, with the audience.

AGSM Graduation Speech – ‘The power and benefits of being an infinite learner’

I had the privilege to present to this year’s AGSM MBA graduates yesterday. The power and benefits of being an infinite learner, perhaps above all else, was my theme. As newly-minted MBAs, this is the start of their own infinite learning journeys.

Thank you for the privilege and opportunity to share my learnings with you today, and a huge congratulations to all of you.

Let me start by saying before, during and post my MBA, I am a lifelong learner. The AGSM mantra of “Always be Learning” is something I believe is important for us to instil in our families, in our children, in our friends, in the organizations where we work, and most-importantly, for ourselves. 

I remember reading this quote when young and I still love today, from Oliver Wendell Holmes: “A mind once stretched by a new idea, never regains its original dimensions”.  And it is something that I personally aspire to do – to continuously push myself beyond my current levels of knowledge and comfort.  

After an interesting and successful corporate career, including operating as President & COO of ASX-listed electronics software company Altium, I learned that my passion was for growing businesses and growing people. 

I left to found Digivizer, a digital marketing analytics technology company now 10 years old, The Executive Agency, which provided coaching and leadership development (since sold), and goto.game, a destination for all things gaming which is now three years old.   

My passion is to help businesses grow by helping them get more sales and outcomes from their digital marketing investment. 

And I have learned that if you grow people, you will grow a business.

I started my working career at Macquarie Bank, alongside my Bachelor of Business degree.  Aged 20, I applied one of my assignments to develop a marketing plan for Macquarie, designed an organizational structure and added my CV to pitch the plan, team and my role to head it. I ended up, through a series of presentations, in front of the Executive Director for the division, who decided to give me (a young, passionate and very cocky upstart) a go.  

This was a good lesson in never waiting for a role to be written, or to take the safe, pre-determined career path. I learned very quickly to align with how organizations make their money, or how they can better use their money.  Many executives can help with cost management, fewer can generate new revenue or growth opportunities, revenues and top-line impact. 

And it was here that I forged a career based on marketing and leadership that focused on growth.   

As my career progressed, I didn’t finish my degree, but the years were very much filled with learning – reading, watching, listening, engaging experts and those I admired, studying the “how did they do what they did”.  

Fast forward to age 39, my children were challenging me about why I was asking them to consider studying hard and take a path to university for themselves, when I myself had not completed it.  

I had of course created my own career path, where I achieved great success and financial reward.  But it bugged me how often I was asked where I had done my MBA (not if I had done one), and I realized that the “school of business experience” answer did not equal a complete picture when it came to true stretch and infinite learning.  So with a view to derisking my foray into entrepreneurial ventures, I enrolled in my MBA here at the AGSM. 

It brought amazing focus, support and peer review. And it became much, much more than a “must do” set of tasks.

I used it as my discipline to complete things I needed for my business – today, I still use the cash flow sheet, the marketing plan, and the organizational plan that I built as part of my course work.

And there is no doubt that having a live case study in Digivizer, one where success or failure was real, and which mattered to me personally, added a very meaningful edge and purpose to the MBA. 

I am also delighted to share that I was able to use the work I completed in my strategy year – the research, business models, and market plan – to pitch and obtain over $2.2million in funding for Digivizer.        

It’s now seven years since I was in your shoes. Let me share what I have learned since I graduated:

  1. The first, and this is probably the most important, is to remember the law of the lid (a term created by John Maxwell in the 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership). Wherever you allow yourself to be limited to is how far you will grow. If you cap your thinking, or allow others to tell you what you can’t do, it will stop and stunt your growth.    For me it was leaving the safety of a corporate role to start my own entrepreneurial venture – challenging me more than anything else I had previously experienced.   It is my observation that most people are their own worst constrainers.  And so I also share Henry Ford’s idiom – if you believe you can or you believe you can’t, you are right!
  1. Invest in continuous learning.  The world is forever changing and it is important you don’t fix yourself to any one position. Fix yourself to a compelling vision, and then be prepared to continuously test and learn to get yourselves there.  Adaptability, identification of the levers you can use, the understanding of what the environment or variables are when you make these decisions, are essential. Build these skills, so that if they change (and something always will), you can evaluate what they will mean and then adapt.  In doing so, you will always be at the forefront of where you aim to be. 
  1. Apply what you have learned and everything you learn to guide and be your greatest life-long teacher. As in my own case, your MBA builds your knowledge, capability and skills, but the reality of the world will always throw up new unforeseen challenges, outliers, obstacles – and wonderful opportunities. Example: goto.game, our gaming company, the result of opportunities we saw in working with influencers in the gaming and esports worlds for clients seemed risky – but has more than paid off (and accelerated in a Covid world). Your MBAs equip you to anticipate risk and opportunities, but it is your courage, determination and values that create meaningful and successful responses.
  1. Look after your health. Don’t believe in the fallacy that there is no consequence to working too hard, or burning the candle at both ends.  It took me a long time to learn this lesson, but I am better for the exercise, the time out that brings a fresh perspective, to sleep, and the good health that sustains you over the long term. Not only will it help you be energized for a long career – it helps you balance the demands of family life. As they say on the airline safety card (remember them!?) “Put your oxygen mask on first – in order to be able to help others”. And as you lead, the example you set here is critical to the well-being of your organization. 
  1. Invest in and keep your networks up – investment in others will generate returns for you. The business world is small. Your personal reputation and brand become one of the most valuable assets you trade on as time goes on. The more senior your leadership,  the more important your ability to influence becomes.  Build a model – a frequency of regular contribution, connection, engagement, or investment that builds and grows others. This becomes an amazing source of motivation and enrichment that can be drawn on in important times. And as a leader, the more you grow your people, the more you grow your business
  1. Finally. Remember your value is in the decisions you make – don’t spend time on things that anyone can do or that can be automated. Invest in understanding data insights, patterns, and develop and test hypotheses. Think big, make leaps. No great change comes through optimization or playing on the sidelines.  It is the decisions you make, the risks that you take, the time that you use well – the one thing that is the same for all of us –  that sets you ahead, that makes you super-valuable, and will ensure you continue to excel and move forward in your careers.

Above all, your journey is yours.  

Be your very best.  Aim to end each day richer in knowledge and experience than the morning.  

I wish all of you congratulations – and every success as you embark on a post-MBA world.”

10 is much more than just a number…

Reflections on what 10 years represent after leaving corporate and committing to the entrepreneur’s life…

Ten years ago I left the safety and good money of corporate c-level income and co-founded Digivizer with Clinton Larson. Clinton and I had worked earlier together at Macquarie Bank and when you know someone is super-smart and a good person, it makes it easy to decide to start a business with them. Clinton had also studied data analytics, lead a number of Customer Insights & Analytics team and had been COO of Memetrics, focusing on driving website performance and brought significant experience in managing and harnessing large customer databases to drive significant wins for businesses taking a data-driven marketing approach. 

I had spent the previous five years as President and COO, at ASX-listed electronics design software company Altium and saw the start of the global growth in intelligent devices first hand. Altium’s customers were designing and manufacturing them on our software, and many of the world’s products were beginning to be designed, not just manufactured in Asia, China in particular as the movement from “ imitation to innovation” was well underway. 

Watching first hand the speed of change and the phenomenal growth of China, now recognised as global economic power, together with a number of technology advancements driving innovation within smart devices, it was a powerful motivator for me to unlock the opportunities this created.

Specifically, as smart devices became more prolific, and social media had platforms to accelerate their growth, consumers became increasingly empowered. Consumers now engaged and interacted from wherever they were, whenever it suited them, on their mobile phones. And there was a lot of new insights able to be gained from the billions of digital footprints that were being left across social, digital and device usage. 

I was also an early adopter of Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn (and subsequently of all social platforms), and travelling often gave me new perspectives on how fast they were growing and the relative population infiltration and scale to what previously could only be reached through traditional media. The 100’s of millions of users in various platforms and forums (now billions), were far greater than the just over 20 million Australian population. That in itself was astonishing, but with digital and social being able to create active conversations and engaging relationships, it opened up a new world of customer engagement, marketing and business opportunities, including easier global reach.

Given all businesses everywhere are looking for more efficient and effective ways to acquire, cross-sell, retain and drive greater loyalty and referrals, it seemed clear that with digital opening up opportunities everywhere, there would come the need to measure effectiveness, in real-time, across these multiple channels, at what we now call the speed of social, managing and analysing millions of pieces of data.   

Thus, we opened our doors to Digivizer on 15th October 2010, with the promise of helping businesses grow through a better understanding of their customers and to help them gain a greater ROI through digital channels. 

Defining a future

While our core vision for the company hasn’t changed – to help businesses grow with a better understanding of their customers and a greater ROI on their digital marketing investment, we have pivoted and expanded the platform coverage and offerings as they themselves changed.

This has become increasingly important and relevant over the past 10 years: customers are now researching, buying, selling, influencing companies, markets and governments. We are moving more and more of our transactions online – both B2C and B2B – with increased acceleration due to COVID-19 in the past 10 months.

As organizations have understood the need to find better ways to acquire, grow and keep their customers, it has become increasingly more expensive to do so in digital without an effective digital strategy that uses the customer engagement data found throughout the digital marketing experience.  

Key growth milestones in past 10 years:

  • Initially it was Facebook, Twitter & Linkedin Social that we analyzed and worked with. Our platform now includes Instagram, Youtube, Google, Influencer tracking, hashtag tracking, organic search and web performance, across owned, earned and paid media 
  • Identification and permission-first tracking of influencers (across all their social) working with brands in platform, after recognising that people were following, engaging and sharing posts at a faster growth and higher engagement rate than they were of brands. We were early in identifying influencers, and now the ability to track them with permission is fully supported in our platform.
  • Incorporating and then spinning off a new company goto.game in 2017, after seeing the growth of gaming and esports as an interest area and driving significant engagement and a different type of content creator emerge.
  • Think Global from day one. We started in Manly, have grown out of 2 other offices and expanded across Asia and global, with over 60% of our revenues now earned outside of Australia. This focus on global has helped us serve some of the world’s largest multi-national companies, attract talent due to our footprint and customers, and has also helped with foreign exchange rate wins. It is meant we measure our success on global terms not the smaller Australian market.  
  • Starting with enterprise technology and then realizing that we were limiting our growth to a smaller number of businesses who could afford us, we pivoted to deliver our platform via SaaS, opening it up to thousands of users that could not have been served previously.

My biggest learnings (some painful!):

  • Corporate is safe, starting and growing a business is hard work. Much harder than I realized. I still don’t earn (by a factor of 4) what I did in corporate and yet the excitement of the challenge and genuine rewards that come from starting something that didn’t exist, building an engaged team that believes in your vision and helping thousands of customers is incredibly motivating and what I feel I will reflect upon as my most fulfilling period. If I am honest, I don’t feel the sense of achievement I did earlier in my career where success was more predefined and incrementally achieved, but I love that it is me who is defining the line of ambitious success and the strategy to get there. And the challenge to realise the value in invested by a future cash-investment or acquisition event, or in the value we create ourselves. 
  • Building a platform based on using formally negotiated API agreements in a fast changing world, can put you at risk from their whims and directional changes. Initially our model was built around ubiquitous free data, but as those models have changed, privacy laws have changed, paid advertising on platforms have grown, we have had to be in a continuous state of fast innovation and deployment. This ability to identify and fast move is now deeply embedded into our culture and I believe is why we are still here today, and the hundreds of companies that started in social and digital media analytics around the same time as us, are not. 
  • It’s never too early to charge for value. We started doing so in our second month, using our embryonic technology to deliver unique audits to larger companies about the state of their data and the insights they were missing. Bootstrapping sharpens your focus and gives you purpose. 
  • Be prepared to burn your boats – we couldn’t do enterprise analytics platform development and SMB software at the same time, at the size we were. We significantly grew once we put ourselves behind one platform strategy – a SaaS one for everyone – and although late into our journey (we launched our SaaS platform late 2018), it was the best decision yet
  • Be good to people everywhere and help them grow their careers. The world is small and after 10 years, so much of our business continues to be referred from previous and existing customers and employees. And now our business is larger, we have been able to help and invest in other startups and accelerators to fuel their own innovation. Feeding and supporting the ecosystem grows everyone and everything, including economies.
  • Running agency services (as requested by our customers) to take advantage of real-time insights and the software business, can be both rewarding and challenging. Like all cobblers, our own shoes are often the last to be soled – we know exactly what clients and agencies need, and we scope, test and use our platform ahead of releasing. There are huge advantages in “eating your own dog food“, but when you grow, you keep putting your best people on the biggest, most- immediate client revenue opportunities. When you double this with mostly boot-strapping, short-term opportunities can easily take precedence over longer-term opportunities. This tension is recognised and we happily support the two business models as we learn so much in helping our customers of all sizes grow and we accelerate that with our agency services taking advantage of our platform. But it remains a constant challenge to ensure we put our best people to marketing our platform.
  • Raising money is hard and distracting. I wish I had raised more money when I first raised (which was incredibly fast and easy and I should have put more time into!). We have mostly bootstrapped since which has plenty of upsides around our autonomy, but now I see that having given away more at the start, to have greater cash now to help us scale a SaaS platform, would have helped us grow faster.
  • Don’t give away too much sweat equity. It is a balance to know how to engage talent at the start when you can’t pay them, to allow for enough equity to reflect longer working paths and manage dilution further in your journey of growth (and fundraising).
  • Resilience is a learned skill. I’m so grateful for so many good people who made significant contributions during our first 10 years. It can sometimes be painful to recognize that some people are better suited to specific stages of growth, that is, the people who helped you get to here might not be the people who help you get to there. Being in a startup, or being part of a migration from startup to early-growth, is not for everyone. Growth is not for everyone – some of our earlier leadership team did not like the larger company and changing pressures 
  • Insights are interesting and valuable, but you need to build in capability and actionability of them to be of value to organizations.
  • While I am grateful for my MBA (good discipline, great people you meet, and it was my final strategy paper that I raised money for Digivizer around), nothing provides greater learning then launching a start-up and growing. We joke at Digivizer that every 6 months equals a mini-MBA. We are in continuous learning mode and one of the huge upsides of understanding digital and analytics is that everything can be measured. Keep doing more of what works, stop doing what does not (or does not fast enough). 
  • Culture is everything. You cannot do it all yourself. When you are scaling fast, burning boats or pivoting, you have to have a culture that supports this level of disruption, changing roles and flexibility. Hiring smart, talented people who get things done, are infinite learners and not arseholes, are key to protecting the vision but not being afraid to keep getting better at the ways we can achieve it. 

Back to the future

To predict precisely how the next 10 years will unfold would be foolish, but I am confident that with growth and variety in the number of platforms, smart devices, knowing what is automated and human engagement together with the growth in digital advertising spend – organizations will need to increasingly understand their customers and what matters to them. They will need to invest in platforms that help them know how to drive the greatest measure of delight and ROI. Digivizer will continue to spot these trends and insights and will answer this increasingly valued need of businesses.

Whilst the way we engage and work with our talented employees is changing, one thing I am confident of is that it will be our amazing employees who drive our growth and I look forward to rewarding and celebrating success with them. 

As for me and the next 10 years – I have a lot still to drive and deliver for Digivizer. I know why investors will often back a serial entrepreneur, the lessons you learn are invaluable. And while some lessons were painful, and some I would have done differently (and will do differently if I start another business), I remain a committed learner and am passionate about returning value to our early investors and employees, and importantly (and with great excitement) to help thousands of businesses grow and to help them gain more from their investment in digital marketing.   

Thank you to my family who have backed me, and to all of you who have supported and encouraged me over the years and who continue to believe in our continued growth and success.

This article is also published in LinkedIn.

The Facebook boycott: short-term strategy, or long-term solution?

The digital marketing and social media sectors continue to change the way consumers engage with each other and brands, and the way brands approach their digital marketing.

And some of these recent changes have been confronting to brands: in July, a number of global brands took the decision to withdraw their advertising spend on Facebook and Instagram, as part of the Stop Hate for Profit campaign.

But the reality was that for many businesses, especially those with large consumer customer bases, this wasn’t a long-term strategy because demand and necessity were always going to remain on Facebook and Instagram, and because any continued absence would likely raise huge opportunities for challenger brands.

What’s more, this decision by global brands masked a number of other inconvenient truths – around the role all of us have in stopping hate on social media, in the way we chose to use social media, and the way we engage with brands that chose to take these positions. 

I think the answer has to be to push for sustained, meaningful, long-term change across all channels, and it starts with education. Read my perspective in more detail in my latest article on Mi-3.

And elsewhere, I commented on Snapchat’s first global B2B marketing campaign in CMO magazine. Snapchat  is doing what all businesses are doing (including the other social and search platforms) – to advertise that brands should spend their marketing dollars with them. Any brand can be successful if they create content that is right for its audience and that maps best to the platforms being considered, by testing and measuring impact, and by refining content based on where the best results are found.

Data for every business – but how, when and why?

Yesterday, I took part in a panel discussion with executive recruitment firm Morgan McKinley, discussing how companies can accelerate their digital, data and automation strategies.

It was an interesting debate, not least because of the variety of roles and organizations taking part – SMEs and technology super-users, COOs, CEOs and founders, from the fintech  space and more-broadly. You can catch the debate – How to Unlock The Potential of Your Data – on demand at Morgan McKinley’s website. And it was great to join Leanne Ward, Salem Lassoued and Simon Herbert.

We were all asked for our top-five insights into getting the most out of your data. Here re mine:

  1. Start and be guided by your business objectives. Identify the customer outcomes that you need to deliver,  to achieve your business objectives.
  2. Determine what metrics are most important to you (and the business) – these should  indicate the customer outcomes (customer acquisition? product usage? et.c), and understand what is the core data you need to:
    • Understand success
    • Understand the funnel and levers you have to move that will drive that success – in other words, the relationship between all these touch points and data that will lead to successful outcomes
    • Make decisions against these
  3. Make your data actionable – identify the frequency and timeliness of data requirements, and the decisions you need to make and when you need to make them. Consider everything as a test environment where you are putting a series of hypotheses to test. For example, propose things like “if we do x, y should happen” – then measure if that hypothesis proved to be true or not.
  4. Present all data in the context of:
    • what it is
    • why it’s important
    • what you recommend be done next 
  5. Hire smart, talented people, who get things done, are infinite learners, and aren’t arseholes! You need highly adaptable, critical thinkers who can build and deliver outcomes.  As things change quickly, so must they, you and the decisions you make.  

I’d be interested in knowing how you and your organization get leverage from your data…

Making Australia Fit for the Future

I was recently part of a panel discussion on Sky News here in Australia – hosted by Andrew Johnson of the Australian Computer Society, alongside Gisele Kapterian of Salesforce and the Blueprint Institute, Alex Colvin, CEO and Founder of Pendula, and Edward Mandla, Advisory Board Member.

The topic was the current economic downturn expected by most – and how the technology sector will play a pivotal part in the turnaround.

Here’re some of the points we made as a panel:

  • technology underpins everything, and is part of every vertical market sector, and every horizontal economy
  • we’re a small country economically: just 0.33% of the global population, just 0.15% of the global GDP, and the 15 countries above us in the global GDP league tables contribute 69% of global GDP. We have to export, and export more than gravel – technology levels that global playing field in Australia’s favour
  • a lot of capability remains to be unlocked, there is upside at almost every turn – but only with equitable access to skills and technology, essential to turbocharge growth, especially as we pull out of the pandemic lockdown
  • government incentives must change to flatten the IT playing field to that Australian tech successes can mix it with the global leaders (something I’ve written about before) – in R&D funding, how VCs can enter and exit funding rounds, and how export activity is supported
  • today’s customers are digital. Be where they are
  • create content to create trust and transparency, engagement and sales…and do so using digital channels

Watch the full program on Sky News.

It’s all about the c-word

It’s time we focused on customers, not COVID-19. More than ever you must invest in your customers, understand what matters to them, reward them for their loyalty, and focus on helping them be more successful and prepared for the future.

At Digivizer we’re working with a number of businesses that have had to recast their physical go-to-market presence into enhanced online alternatives very quickly. The fastest wins have come for those prepared to keep things elegant and simple, and those measuring everything to understand where they are winning, where they are losing customers, and in continuously testing new audiences.

By designing for customers first, and improving each metric to increase performance and results, they are preparing their businesses for the future.
The results are encouraging: by investing in digital, many of them are reinventing themselves at a speed and in ways they hadn’t imagined were possible two months ago. The brands that are doing well are those that have the customer experience and journey front and centre.

Read more on why businesses that will succeed as we leave the lockdown will be those who never forget about their customers, in my article published on Mi3. Link –  https://www.mi-3.com.au/03-06-2020/its-all-about-c-word]

What marketers should do as the apocalypse hits

As the NSW and Australian Federal Governments edge ever-closer to following the UK and other countries into Covid-19 lock-down, I wrote this article for Mi-3 on how marketers can take the lead as the four horsemen of the apocalypse come over the horizon.

Businesses of every size and in most markets are facing similar challenges: how to engage with nervous customers, how to loosen spend in nervous markets, how to position their solutions, what are the best strategies to launch products, when attention is understandably focused elsewhere.

With uncertainty and change, there are opportunities to help organisations test new ways of doing things, to test new markets and new messages. Read the full article here: https://www.mi-3.com.au/23-03-2020/what-marketers-should-do-apocalypse-hits.

And of course, always happy to talk more.

Just don’t die – the art of growth

I was honoured to speak last week at an event organized by Investible and FD Global Connections for International Women’s Day.

With the theme #SheScalesGlobal, I wanted to focus on what I passionately believe are the foundations for success for anyone in business, whatever their gender in growing a business globally. 

The core requirement for anyone wanting to forge new markets is one of determination and resilience. Making it personal and being super determined with a minimum view of do whatever it takes, as long as you don’t die. See everything you pursue as an opportunity to continuously learn. Scaling into new markets is so much more than translation. It is localisation. And the only way you can localize is to understand the local landscape, the social, economic, political, business and personal aspirations of a country (and for large countries, the counties or regions).

International Women’s Day reminds everyone of what women continue to achieve (Apple’s advertising for International Women’s Day raises the bar I think), and more importantly, it reminds us that our own futures are ultimately in our own hands.

For any list of successful women, whether they are women from history, or women you know and work, I suspect they share a number of traits: they were the first to break barriers, they knew what they wanted to do, and they developed the skills and strategies needed to get there.

I acknowledge that the need to champion women remains, to call out their successes, and to call out entrenched biases when we see them. But I have never wished to measure myself, and any success I’ve had, only against half the population – so I speak not as a woman in business who has experienced success, but as a business leader that has experienced success.

When a vision prevails

One example comes from my time as President and COO at Altium. In the mid-2000s, Altium (a global, listed Australian software company) was expanding into China. We had a huge opportunity there, because China had declared its intent to change from “made in China” to “designed in China”. Altium’s electronics design software, though widespread, was universally pirated. Rather than take a heavy-handed legal route to clawing back revenue, we decided to emphasize and offer the added value users would get from using legitimate versions of the product. 

Our vision was to legitimize our software and our customers, our strategy was to compete with, and not police software.

Noting Mao’s famous statement that “women hold up half the sky”, my experience in China was interesting. I was in my mid-thirties, the most-senior women executive in Altium, and the second-most senior of any executive after the CEO, a mother of 3 children, and they could not understand how this was even possible, for a company so well-known in China, in a culture with a one-child policy still in force.

The question was often asked there how I did it, and I made the answer, especially with the language barrier associated with being in China, very straightforward: because I want it enough.

The second example is of course Digivizer. I’m still often asked how it was that I chose to leave the corporate safety of Altium, to start a new company with new technology, again with still-young children at home. Again, the answer is that I wanted it enough.

This time, though, the vision was mine alone, for what the new company should be, what skills I would need in finance, operations, and leadership, and also to know when things simply couldn’t be done, in a company with a handful of resources. I wanted to help all businesses harness the digital footprint of their customers and prospects and make sure we built a platform that was affordable and easy to use. 

I went from running a company of 450 and 2000 reselling agents globally to starting a company with 2 people, growing it today to a company of 50+ people.

About three years ago, we expanded into south-east Asia, setting up a hub in Singapore and hiring great talent in 12 other countries around the region, including Korea, Malaysia, New Zealand, Indonesia, Bangladesh and Thailand. In Digivizer’s case, we did this by learning as we went. We were moving too fast for the government bureaucracy to keep up, and we went from client contract signature to open for business in five weeks.

And in all of these examples, this has not been about any focus on my confidence as a woman, and everything about my confidence, skills and expertise as a business person. 

It’s been about building the confidence to use radical candour and about managing by Objectives and Key Results, as we do in Digivizer.

Neither of course is gender-specific. And I might add neither does success become a destination reached. It is a continuous journey where I keep striving to the next peak, only to enjoy the view of the next I set to conquer.

Sharing what I have learned

My first point is a simple statement of intent: whenever I’m faced with biases, I acknowledge them, challenge them by ignoring them, going around them or over them. This is not about the empowerment of women, more a fundamental position in life that I’ve chosen to take. 

Universal rules that anyone can apply include: 

  • Focus on seeking to add value to a business or a relationship
  • Embrace people who focus on growth and seek to create great outcomes
  • Focus on talent, not gender
  • Don’t do what is asked, instead deliver what is needed and do what delivers greatest value
  • Remove yourself as the limiting factor. We often place a lid on our growth because we do not think big enough
  • Develop the mindset that you are the best person for the job
  • Choose to pursue where your strengths and passions will best be used, and where they will make you most successful
  • Make sure you understand the problem you solve and the value proposition you are offering, this should guide your priorities
  • Identify what’s negotiable, and what’s not and stick to it (especially around balancing time with your family commitments)
  • Do what makes you happy and pivot when you need to – growth implies change, so recognizing what makes you happy and continuously adapting what you do and how you work to ensure that you feel congruent in all you do!

In short, in business, the first rule is don’t die:then change, pivot, be flexible, then never give up. Put all your energies behind what you believe in, so that you are determined to smash through barriers. Only we can be responsible for our own futures and success. 

I’d love to know more about your experiences and inspirations. Please share your tips and thoughts below!

With thanks to Investible, FD Global Connections, Hotwire Global, and everyone who attended the event.

This article is also published on LinkedIn.

Heading: ICT industry needs a jolt to get it going

Harvard University’s Kennedy School’s Centre for International Development recently published its Atlas of Economic Complexity. It’s a fascinating read because it measures what the University calls an index of the value added by countries to their economies, and then rates them. 

Its power comes from being able to compare what drives a country’s economic activity, the point where added value appears, and the proportion it contributes to the overall figure. Digivizer plays on the ICT sector, so we looked into how Australia’s ICT sector performs. The answer is sobering – over the past 30 years or so, it’s essentially flatlined. The Australian Financial Review carried my observations as an opinion piece, but if you don’t have a subscription, here’s the summary:

  • The Australian Financial Review’s Aaron Patrick described the findings for Australia as: we’re rich, dumb, and getting dumber. Our Economic Complexity Index ranking has dropped from 19th to 32nd even as our GDP per capita has grown by 182% between 1995 and 2017
  • At no point does ICT rise by more than 157 basis points in a year (1991-1992, in reality a reversal of a similar drop the previous year). In contrast, the biggest annual rise for iron ore was 426 basis points (2007-2008), 605 basis points for coal (also 2007-2008) and 267 basis points for travel (2014-2015)
Source: The Growth Lab at Harvard University. The Atlas of Economic Complexity. http://www.atlas.cid.harvard.edu.  Analysis and chart by Digivizer. Terms used are those used in the source.

  • If we overlay the IPO dates of Altium (August 1999), Atlassian (December 2015), and WiseTech (2016), we can see small increases in the export activity of our ICT sector. It seems that these companies have contributed some heavy lifting
  • Comparing other markets and choosing the US as an example, we see consistent growth, even after the original dotcom bust. The sector is back to where it peaked just before the GFC. In comparison, and within its own context, Australia’s ICT export recovery was slower and flatter

Long-term commitments are needed to kick-start Australia’s ICT heart.  Industries such as ICT, as well as pharmaceuticals, medical products, high-technology and manufacturing, are needed to create the economic future and competitive playing field that we deserve in Australia. Action is required now if we are to maintain our standard of living.