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How a former tech journo, now at Australia’s startup coalface, sees the sector now and beyond

- December 18, 2019 6 MIN READ
Around about the time Melanie Perkins, Cliff Obrecht and Cameron Adams were founding Canva, Harrison Polites started out as a young technology journalist covering the nascent startup sector.

A few years later, he’d cross over to what the media calls “the dark side” (with some, but not all jest), to work in PR specialising in tech. In 2018, he founded his own specialist Melbourne-based PR firm, The Media Accelerator, to help startups and emerging brands tell their stories.

Startup Daily has worked with Polites and his clients on stories throughout the year, and we have enormous respect for his ongoing passion and advocacy for the startup sector.

We’ve spoken to a bunch of founders over the last week to get their views of the year past and ahead, and we’ll be bringing you those views over the summer break.

But ahead of that – and in 2020 Startup Daily will be launching a new podcast, The Helicopter View, looking at the bigger picture and big issues in the startup and tech sectors – we wanted to see what a keen observer of the startup sector, who’s now also a founder, saw in 2019 and what lies ahead, as well as finding out how he’ll catch his breath this summer.

Australian startup founders will be sharing their views on the same questions over the coming days.

Here’s what Polites had to say:

What were your highlights for the tech/startup sector in 2019?

Hearing international speaker, after international speaker talk about how big the ecosystem has become, and express their surprise at it. 

The phrase: “This didn’t exist five years ago” has become a staple for almost every talk and fireside chat. And it’s true. It’s good to take stock of just how far we’ve come and how quickly it has happened. 

 

What were your personal highlights?

Running my business for a full year, and finding a way to take leave while doing it. Helping my clients hit some incredible milestones and giving honest and frank PR advice to founders. Sometimes brutally honest.

The Media Accelerator founder Harrison Polites. Photo: supplied

 

What company do you most admire for its achievements in 2019 and why?

That’s a difficult question, as I work with a lot of high achievers that have done amazing things this year. So in fairness, I’m going to pick a company I don’t work with.

Back when I first starting my business, a company called Preezie sought me out for PR advice, they connected with me on LinkedIn. They were way too early for PR, they had a great product but couldn’t articulate it or who it would resonate with. I told them as much and them some advice on what to do next, based on what I’d seen other companies do. 

I ran into them at an event, and we ended up having a coffee a year and a bit on from that first meet.

Since then they’d won a slew of new clients and managed to get their way into Skalata Venture’s first cohort. They are working with some incredible mentors to align their company for its next stage of growth. They are kicking goals during what is one of the hardest phases in building a business in Australia. 

There are plenty of startups out there like Preezie, too early for public recognition but are really killing it.

Many won’t take a break this Christmas too. So I admire all of them, because I now know personally, that building a business is hard, and the odds are stacked against you pre-Series A. 

 

How do you view the current technology climate in Australia? 

Policy-wise, not great. After the AA bill (Assistance and Access, aka encryption, Bill), the developer community, in particular, is nervous about the government’s next policy move. I’ve overheard a few conversations among teams to that effect. 

Beyond this, though, it’s still a fantastic industry and there’s plenty of opportunities.

 

Who do you think could be the next major tech unicorn?

Locally, I want to think it will be one of the older technology companies that have been in the sector for a long time, like Airtasker. Deputy, which has flown under the radar until just recently, seems like a hot contender.

But global trends and valuations would point to it being a fintech. Maybe one of the neobanks, payment companies or remitters? Some of the valuations overseas — and the speed in which fintechs are reaching them — are eye-popping.

 

What tech startups will you be watching in 2020?

I’ll be watching segments of the market rather than one company. The biggest theme to watch in 2020 will be the regulation of big tech. 

It will be interesting to see if the regulators really do catch up with Google and Facebook next year, and what implications that has for startups.

Meanwhile, I’m sure local regulators will keep an eye on what’s happening with contractor-based startups like Uber, Uber-Eats, Deliveroo and others abroad, and perhaps consider action here.

 

What are you expecting to see in tech in 2020?

More automation tech. Working as a solopreneur is getting easier every day. 

Less actual robots replacing jobs. More IFTTT (If This Then That, aka web-based applets) on steroids.

It could be the tip of the iceberg for a broader social problem around this technology. History says that new technologies aimed at making work easier, tend to make us work harder. Two decades ago, you’d leave your email at work. Now it follows you everywhere.

Will automation break this rule? Or will we break ourselves trying to keep up with the bots? Lots of fascinating questions with this technology. 

 

What are you hoping will happen in 2020?

I want the startup ecosystem to continue to grow, and I want the industry to be acknowledged as a creator of jobs. Founders tend to talk a lot about this on Twitter, but that chatter doesn’t really have any cut-through to Canberra or the mainstream media. 

We don’t have any hard data on this, and it’s a shame. 

The automation trend I just mentioned is inevitably going to see larger companies shed jobs to hold their margins. The growth of the startup sector needs to be presented as a counterpoint to this trend and needs to include all parts of Australia, not just the techy, entrepreneurial types. 

 

What are your goals for the year ahead?

I want to learn some new skills, both for work and take on some new hobbies. Ideally, also play a more active role in the ecosystem and educating founders on how the media actually works. 

 

What’s keeping you awake at night, business-wise?

Mainly the consolidation of the tech media in Australia. 

Journalist Ben Grubb pointed this out in a blog post a few years back, most have moved into PR. But haven’t really been replaced. 

It’s a shame. There are more tech startups than ever before in Australia, each with a story to tell.

Broadly, tech journalism plays an important role helping policymakers and the general public understand the industry, and bringing them along for the ride with its growth.

 

Are you taking time off over Christmas and if so, how long and how do you plan to spend it?

Yes, I’ll be taking a few weeks — barring any super-urgent media enquiries. 

I’m planning a last-minute trip away. But already have New Years and Christmas plans locked in. 

 

Where’s your favourite place to head to relax?

I’ve gone camping the past few years between Christmas and New Years at Bright in Central Victoria and I find this really relaxing. It’s funny, as I never camped growing up. Other than that, the beach. 

 

What are you most looking forward to for Christmas?

Setting my autoreply and logging off my email, Slack, WhatsApp, WeChat and all the other channels for three weeks! 

 

Your favourite summer holidays tradition.

Actually using the time to do something. If I take time off I want to use it to experience something new. I really relish downtime, but get itchy feet if I just spend the entire time without doing something substantial. 

 

What 3 books people should read over summer – and why?

Lost Connections — Johann Hari.

Starts off as an investigation into the effectiveness of anti-depressants pans into a broader philosophy for life and finding fulfilment. Incredibly insightful in an era where depression and anxiety are rife. Also, great writing and story-telling. Johann has really mastered his craft. 

 

Lab Rats — Dan Lyon.

Dan, a former journalist who moonlighted as a startup marketer, has written some incredible ‘counter-hype’ stories about the startup sector in the US that I think we should all take note of. His most potent point in this book is that companies have gone from treating staff like family (irreplaceable, sad when they go) to treating them like batteries (replaceable, and quickly changed with little fuss). 

 

Trust Me, I’m Lying — Ryan Holiday.

I read this when I first moved into PR. It’s a book about capitalising on the modern US news cycle, makes some fascinating points but I wouldn’t take it as gospel for how Australia’s media works. If you’re a startup considering PR in 2020 though, it’s a good read to get a clue on how modern media industry operates.  

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