AUSTRALIA’S TALL POPPY CURSE

Anything which drives many of our brightest and most creative minds to go overseas, in order to further their work, has to be considered a curse. The Tall Poppy Syndrome is easily the worst offender, as many of Aussie’s finest innovative minds can testify, and it’s not a case of believing that American streets are ‘paved with gold’ or any other such nonsense. It’s the basic reality that, over here, most investors look to the US and Europe for new ideas that can make money, rather than having faith in local ideas to do so. Sure we are a small market, when compared to the US and Europe, but technology is not supposed to know any boundaries, nor should it. Yet this expensive problem is not caused entirely by the size of our population, it is more about the way Aussies treat folks who are a bit brighter and think differently to most others.

Since the days when computers, cell phones and microwave ovens were the stuff of science fiction mags and Dick Tracy comic strips, the anthem of the guys with the ideas around me has always been “let’s get to the West Coast man”. No, they weren’t talking about heading for Perth, and the ‘lure of L.A.’ is just as strong today, despite the so-called financial crisis. A large part of it is their attitude to failure, considered over here to be the end of the line, by the many “I told you so types”, but put down to experience on the US West Coast, where having another go is applauded and encouraged. It might sound strange to many, but there aren’t a whole lot of differences between those folks who fail and those who succeed. Apart from fame, fortune and that sort of thing of course. It takes many of the same characteristics to do either.

To start with, both have to try. They both have to believe that they have got something to sell, be it a talent, a methodology or an invention. They both have to be passionate and courageous enough to take risks, in order to get their product into the market. Although certainly not always the case, all that sometimes separates the failed from the successful is simple circumstance. It is rare to find a successful person who does not give credit to some luck. Any person who has tried and failed, at anything, knows that failure is a potential teacher, if they want it to be. For some, walking away is their answer, and for others it is another vital building block on their way up to their dream. In the US, having failed, yet still being willing to try is held to one’s credit, that’s the real difference between the American entrepreneurial culture and our own. This is not a suggestion that Australian investors should buy into Australian innovation, regardless of its intrinsic value, that would, in my opinion, be very counterproductive. However, until investors stop seeking the overseas markets’ positive reaction, as the only criterion for value, we will never have a truly Australian innovative product, beyond pop/movie stars and eccentric entrepreneurs. Despite being a vast nation with a population which is less than some European, Asian and US cities, our take up rate of innovation in the market place is way ahead of any of them. For example, when video was pegged at 78% penetration in Australia, it was still only 38% in Japan! The US was just under 50% at the time. We are also the world’s leading consumers of magazines per capita. In short, this as a great test market, let’s use it!

It cost less to reach the majority of people in Australia than it does in any other western country, so the widest range of opinions can be had for the least dollars. When you combine that with our markedly higher take up rate, it becomes clear that this is a great country to launch a product in. When you add the extraordinary expansion of our communications, introduced by the internet, the logic of putting innovative joint venture groups together here in Australia is clear. If that logic makes its way across the great desert, to the home of the current mining boom, maybe the next generation of innovators will actually mean Perth, when they say “let’s head for the west coast”. But the appeal to investors is only part of Perth’s potentially exciting future; the folks who live around there need to learn from America’s west coast.

Although the availability of funds is undoubtedly one of the most powerful magnets for creative and innovative people, it is not by any means the only one. Anyone see these sorts of people rush for the oil-rich states lately? It takes more than money to foster innovation, it also takes an understanding that to try takes courage and failing can provide very valuable experience. That is, if one is not shunned or put down for not being successful on their first, or second, or next try. Painful as it is, failing is a vital part of sustained success. Apart from the ‘lucky’ ones who get it right first time, more often than not because of factors beyond their control, having a go and falling flat on your face is how most of us finally do get it right. In reality, failing is an integral part of success, but it helps to try again, if folks understand that.

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