Does Australia Lack Innovation Backbone?

By August 25, 2014 No Comments
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We talk a lot about innovation here at The X Gene blog, and most of it is about how to be innovative and think differently. But I won’t lie when I say we often get frustrated with the lack of desire to innovate. One of my biggest personal hobbies is researching how and why Australia isn’t as forward thinking as other countries. I came across a story that really summed up a component of this problem.

At a tech startup meeting we were about to film, I was speaking to one of the presenters. This man had done what a lot of those the room dream of: he’d built a successful business in Silicon Valley, grew it over the years, and then sold for a lot of money. He had come back to his home country of Australia to try something new, because he wanted to bring what he had learnt and apply it here. This man had form, and he had a strong idea, but what he was struggling to find was people who would work with him. He needed developers, people to do the coding work that is fundamental to these sorts of projects. They needed a few key skills that he didn’t have, typical of an entrepreneur. Building teams is crucial. Because he was operating at a higher level he couldn’t use the freshly graduated and needed a more mid-level group. Unfortunately, anyone who fit the criteria was so used to an 80,000 dollar plus full time wage in a conventional corporation that when he approached them they loved the idea but demanded similar payment. He tried explaining, as he did to me, that this simply wasn’t how it worked in startup land, and that he would be giving these people something that, in his eyes, was more valuable: a percentage in the company. While a lot of these developers understood the value, they had all been so used to the wage they were on and now had mortgages up to their eyeballs and expenses through their families, that even if they wanted to take the pay cut and take the stake in an idea they thought would be worth more later, they couldn’t. They had hemmed themselves in.

What I took from this conversation was a deep concern. If a proven track record in an even bigger market isn’t enough to dislodge talented people in a field, and have them take a little bit of a risk, then what hope is there? It’s true that this business owner might need to take some risks on younger staff himself, but constantly relying on the newest batch of talent is difficult because that talent doesn’t get to learn from more experienced minds. We have this problem at the moment, a disconnection between a small group of visionaries and a large group of Australians very much stuck in old patterns that seem unsustainable in this dynamic climate. We are not talking about changing wages or any of that nonsense, instead we are talking about a mentality to try. Where is that in the Australian culture? Is the lack of risk-taking backbone an ingrained characteristic that is holding us back? If we don’t start breaking out of old habits we will lose big opportunities. The presenter I was speaking to lamented that if he couldn’t find people soon he would have to go back to California where he knew there were plenty of skilled practitioners ready to take a calculated risk. Australia constantly loses talent overseas. If things don’t change it will simply continue, and our nation will miss out in the future.

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