The Sunrise: Smart recruiting, UX design and culture building tops the priority list for Australia’s best entrepreneurs

- September 22, 2014 6 MIN READ

A panel of Australia’s most influential players in the startup scene came together in Sydney last Friday to share their experiences with a 700-strong crowd at The Sunrise convention.

The day-long event gave audiences the rare opportunity to ask questions and learn directly from the founders of companies such as Atlassian, Freelancer, Envato, Canva, RetailMeNot, LookSmart and Salmat.

More importantly though was the resounding emphasis by many of the speakers on building a positive and robust workplace culture to ensure their teams didn’t just work for them, but felt inspired to work towards their vision. User interface and experience was also given the nod as a vital future tool for online differentiation whilst hiring the right people was credited in helping to grow the business organically.

The event definitely proved to be a success based on the caliber of the speakers that attended and the seats that remained 90% full even by the day’s end. It was also a clear indicator that Australia’s support network for startups were well and truly growing even though local funding is still a hurdle.

Here is what some of the key players had to say in their talks.

Matt Barrie, Co-Founder of Freelancer.com


Barrie provided the necessary energy and quick wit to get audiences genuinely excited about his startup story. In it he traced Freelancer’s early beginnings as an archaic freelance directory site which he bought off someone in Europe before redesigning, rebranding and re-launching it from the back of his house. As he explained the startup’s rapid expansion into other countries, he reiterated the need for Australian startups to stay in Australia regardless of the current lack of funding opportunities. He said that Australian startups should look towards crowdsourcing or listing on the ASX to secure investment.

 The rest of his presentation gave notable insight into the innovative and aggressive marketing methods that Freelancer undertook in the growth stages which ranged from sticker graffiti on buses in the early days to offering cash prizes for those who created the best Freelancer.com commercial.

Notable quotes and advice:

“The venture capital environment in Australia is somewhat dead.”

“The most important stat for me is revenue, but if you don’t have revenue you can look at things like traffic, signups, page hits.

“You absolutely have to hire the best people you can afford. If you hire A-grade people, they will solve difficult problems for you without you being involved. A-grade people will hire other A-grade people. If you hire Bs, they’ll start hiring Cs.”

“SEO used to work, now it’s all failing – Google’s changing the rules to make more money. Facebook advertising used to work, now no one’s on it; it’s failing. You’ve constantly got to be innovating.”

“With your website, measure everything and track changes so you know what works or doesn’t.”

“The fastest way you’ll grow revenue is by fixing your site and making it easier to use.”

Evan Thornley, Co-Founder of LookSmart


Thornley’s talk took the frank and eyebrow raising approach in explaining his experience in business and startups. A lot of his talk focused on how to avoid the internal politics in business whilst providing advice on things such as team work, efficiency and the need to build a great culture in one’s company. What was definitely intriguing with Thornley’s talk was the raw insight he had into some of the shadier figures in the business world, their questionable morals and the need to stay on the law abiding path when dealing with such people.

Notable quotes and advice:

“Hire through commitment. Think like shareholders, not like employees.”

“If people don’t have a shared set of values about how you treat other people, about how you conduct yourself as an organisation around the world, then that will create massive internal tension in the organisation and it’s just not fun.”

“Cultural DNA of an organisation is set in the first 18 months and it almost never changes. It can get worse, but rarely better.”

Thornley told the audience, not to tolerate unethical and poisonous workplaces and never underestimate the power of symbolic violence.

He also encouraged people to work with those they can trust and maintain self knowledge.

Michael Cannon-Brookes, Co-Founder of Atlassian


Cannon-Brookes is undoubtedly the poster child of Australia’s tech startup scene along with his co-founder Scott Farquhar. At this event, he showed up in his trademark cap to tell the audience of the lessons he learnt from starting Atlassian to directing its growth into today’s multibillion dollar company.

His abruptness was more than evident given he had a flight to catch but what was more noticeable to me was his roots as an engineer and the distinct way he spoke like one (I spent the best part of 9 years studying with engineers). His experiences, whether good, bad or just humorous, were all delivered with a report-style dryness that technical minded people commonly possess. This is not a bad thing, it’s just a very no nonsense and emotionless approach to sharing information. On Atlassian’s hiring process, Cannon-Brookes simply said, “if people are good, they stand out, we hire them.”

In his talk, Cannon-Brookes highlighted the importance of using metrics to track business noting that their current benchmark is $2 million in sales per day. He also singled out user experience and design as the key differentiator in online businesses in the next few years.

Notable quotes and advice:

“I’m not the greatest programmer. Two things we did well? We wrote crappy code that got us to the next phase to hire some people to keep going…we got to the next year, the next month and that was what was most important.”

“Secondly we hired way better engineers. We knew we were bad at being engineers and we hired people to remove our code over time.”

“Believe in the blue ocean; there is scale to be had everywhere. It all depends on your marketing.”

“There are still billions of people who don’t know who Atlassian are. I’m focussing on them.”

“If you’re a pure technology play where your competitors are worldwide, then you’re going to get crushed if you’re in Australia. You have to think about being global from day one.”

“Design will be a key differentiator in the next five years for scaling.”

Collis Ta-eed, Co-Founder of Envato


Ta-eed spoke emphatically of his own setbacks in his journey towards creating Envato – the operator of multiple online creative marketplaces.  One of them was a formal threat from Adobe no less. More specifically, he delved into the marketing side of Envato and the strategies they used to capture their market.

Notable quotes and advice:

“Market fit is the most essential factor to success and failure.”

“It’s a good idea to artificially stimulate a market. I don’t think in starting a marketplace unless the need out there is burning.”

“You have to manually intervene until your market place has some momentum.”

“We sell something every 6 seconds, 1 million WordPress themes a year, largest stock music place by volume.”

Ta-eed spent six months building his first digital marketplace FlashDen only to garner 335 visits on launch day with a $10 sale. He said that although metrics and analytics were important to track growth in today’s market, startups should also rely on their intuition from past experience to make key decisions.

Bevan Clark, Co-Founder of RetailMeNot


RetailMeNot is the coupon trading site that put Bevan Clark and Guy King at the pointy end of Australia’s rich list after selling their site for $90,000,000 to an American company WhaleShark Media. His talk was an endearing walk down memory lane that highlighted all the trappings of generating revenue online at a time when Australia didn’t have the infrastructure to support it (their first revenue was an Amazon gift voucher which couldn’t be used from Australia). Their first office had no air-conditioning or heating – though they did have a beer fridge. Here’s what he had to say about everything from competitors, to hiring to marketing.

Notable quotes and advice:

“With hiring, it was all the people we had worked with before and all recommendations.”

“It’s very very important to keep the culture right and hire the right people. One fantastic engineer is worth five average.”

“Being in Australia is a mixed bag. Early stages it helped us and that came down to the naivety that basically shielded us from any external influences. For later stage there’s more benefit to the U.S. I think people should startup here and spend the first few years here.”

“A huge thing that contributed to the success is hiring a PR team – we had a lot of inbound PR enquiries and handling that from Australia for a US audience is very challenging so we had a PR team that would look after that in San Francisco.”

“With marketing, you still have to have a product and story to tell otherwise there’s nothing for them to do.”

On the competition front, Clark said that it’s important not to look at competitors all the time and your own have clear goals.

He also added that money coming into his business never clouded their decision making. In regards to marketing, Clark revealed that Search Engine Marketing provided no positive ROI for RetailMeNot even though they had spent $20,000 per day.

Phil Salter, Co-Founder of Salmat

Screen Shot 2014-09-22 at 12.40.25 pm

Salmat’s veteran co-founder Phil Salter rounded off the day nicely by reinforcing what many of the other entrepreneurs had mentioned throughout the day. When it comes to workplace culture. He told the audience, “if you have someone toxic in your environment, get rid of them. You can’t change them.”

The Sunrise conference proved not only to be an information hub for next generation’s entrepreneurs but also an event that showed how far Australia had come in terms of its startup ecosystem. Cannon-Brookes explained that eight or ten years ago, there would have never been such thing as a group of entrepreneurs sitting together in a room. With this network now in place, startups in Australia have the go-to experience and knowledge to succeed locally and compete globally. Was the event a success? In ten years time we should be able to tell by how many people are on that stage.

 image: Alison Le