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Top 10 start-up entrepreneurs to watch

Tuesday, 3 January 2012 | By Michelle Hammond
If you ask a member of Joe Public to name Australia’s leading entrepreneurs, it’s likely you will hear some familiar, tried-and-trusted names.

 

Gerry Harvey, despite a rather complicated tangle with the world of online retail in 2011, would probably garner a mention. As would the likes of Dick Smith, Harold Mitchell and Gina Reinhart.

 

But last year saw the emergence of several newcomers in mainstream media coverage of business.

 

With Australian start-ups finding success both domestically and abroad, along with a raft of new local incubators, it’s fair to say that 2011 was a stand-out year for the start-up community.

 

Here are the top 10 fledgling entrepreneurs and start-up industry players who caught our eye in 2011.

 

1. Nikki Durkin

 

Nikki Durkin, still just 20-years-old, has become one of Australia’s most vaunted entrepreneurs in little over 12 months.

 

Durkin is the founder of 99dresses, a site where users upload their unwanted clothes to sell for a virtual currency, which they can then spend on other users’ unwanted items.

 

Durkin was 18 when she founded the business (her third), enlisting the help of tech seed fund Pollenizer, and was recently selected to participate in Y Combinator in the United States.

 

The young entrepreneur beat thousands of start-ups that applied for a spot in the biannual program, at the end of which she’ll have the chance to pitch to a broad range of US investors.

 

“Nikki is a young rising star with a really great future,” says her mentor Mick Liubinskas, co-founder of Pollenizer.

 

“She’s learned a whole bunch since we met her. The only sad thing is that it is unlikely she will come back [to Australia]… Someone like Nikki will feel at home [in the US].”

 

2. Mick Liubinskas

 

 

It’s been an incredibly busy year for Mick Liubinskas, co-founder of Pollenizer, characterised by the success stories of Spreets, Nikki Durkin and Dealised, just to name a few.

 

In 2011, Pollenizer tested 16 ideas, started eight new businesses, raised $7 million for portfolio companies, raised $1.1 million for incubation, and sold Spreets for more than $40 million.

 

In addition to growing from 14 staff to 23, it also introduced the Pollenizer “pod structure” whereby set teams work over four-month semesters, thus bringing consistency to the incubator.

 

According to Liubinskas, the new team structure and four-month process is working really well, saying it’s “something we can see one day taking to other cities around the world”.

 

Liubinskas says Pollenizer is on the verge of making announcements about two of its start-ups, Pygg and Wooboard, while niche property site Unrenovated has also sparked plenty of interest.

 

3. Jo Burston

 

Jo Burston is the founder of Job Capital, which manages the financial affairs of contractors. The business was named the Officeworks Fastest Growing Start-up at the 2011 StartupSmart Awards.

 

Burston founded the company in 2006 after pitching the idea to investor Philip Weinman while working for her previous employer.

 

She built the company from the ground up to record revenue of $9.14 million in the 2009-10 financial year. But as Burston points out, it’s been no picnic.

 

“I literally worked 24/7 to get as much done as I could. I pulled together all my own marketing, contracts, sales material, proposals and went off to sell it to the world,” she told StartupSmart.

 

“Within two years, I had repaid my investor and bought back all of the company equity. I knew I wanted to own the company and have total control.”

 

4. Larissa Robertson

 

 

Larissa Roberson was working for a large recruitment company, SCO Recruitment, when it ran into financial trouble. The board rejected Robertson’s rescue plan, but that didn’t deter her.

 

She purchased the business from administrators, meaning she went from zero to 180 employees overnight.

 

The challenge intensified when Robertson fell pregnant and lost a $3 million client. But that didn’t stop her from building a business with revenue in excess of $8 million.

 

Last year, SCO Recruitment took out the top prize at SmartCompany’s fifth annual Smart50 Awards, after coming second in the 2011 StartupSmart Awards.

 

The business has maintained an average growth rate of 428% over the past three years, making 30-year-old Robertson one of the hottest young entrepreneurs in the country.

 

5. Andrew Birt

 

In July, serial entrepreneur Andrew Birt told StartupSmart he was looking for start-ups to participate in his latest venture AngelCube, an early stage incubator for web-based businesses.

 

Birt, who founded marketing agency StartUP Marketing in 2009, is also the founder of job board Snowballer and co-founder of small cap investment firm Catvielle Capital.

 

He’s now focused on his new baby, with the help of three co-founders. In September, AngelCube announced its first four start-ups, each receiving $20,000 in seed capital, as well as mentoring help.

 

Birt says the key to being a successful entrepreneur is to identify a niche market and develop a loyal band of customers as a base for growth. He also sings the praises of lean start-ups.

 

“You need to build something lean and mean. It doesn’t matter what industry it is in; just build it lean and create the demand and get some initial customers,” Birt says.

 

 

6. Wai Hong Fong

 

 

Originally from Malaysia, Wai Hong Fong arrived in Australia to study at Melbourne University. Rather than follow in the footsteps of his parents, Fong wanted to do his own thing.

 

With the help of his uncle, Fong started OZHut, a top destination for lifestyle brands and leisure products, predicted to record $3.1 million in sales this year.

 

In addition to being named Best Young Entrepreneur at the StartupSmart Awards, Fong is StartupSmart’s resident SEO expert, with a never-ending supply of tips.

 

Last year, OZHut launched OZKitchenware, a category devoted solely to kitchen appliances and utensils.

 

“It’s going really well in the sense that we’ve seen a 50% increase in the business overall since its launch,” Fong told StartupSmart.

 

7. Domenic Carosa

 

 

It was a busy 2011 for Domenic Carosa, who heads up Future Capital Development Fund, with a portfolio of start-ups including OurWishingWell, CheapHotels, PaintMyPicture, DriveMyCarRentals and RentABin.

 

FCDF invests in young, fast-growing internet, mobile and technology start-ups that have already attracted customers and generate transaction revenue.

 

In July, Carosa revealed he is considering a dual listing in Australia and the United States or the United Kingdom, after raising $5 million to invest in the development of emerging companies.

 

Carosa says the fund is looking to list on the ASX around the middle of 2012 and will aim to raise $20-30 million. This is in addition to a possible dual listing in the US or UK.

 

“Part of the FC strategy is to build our visibility and relationships in international markets, and a listing can fulfill part of that strategy,” Carosa told StartupSmart.

 

8. Adir Shiffman

 

Adir Shiffman, who sold his venture HelpMeChoose.com.au to Mortgage Choice in 2010, recently returned to the start-up market with the launch of a new cash-back shopping portal.

 

Shiffman’s latest venture, StartHere.com.au, has racked up some impressive numbers already, despite only officially launching in early December.

 

The site has 10,000 signed-up members, with $4 million sales completed already. More than 900 online stores are selling their products through the portal, including Apple, Dell and Vodafone.

 

“I haven’t spent $1 on marketing and we’ve got 10,000 subscribers. We will probably look to raise funding next year. At the moment, I have funded it myself,” Shiffman told StartupSmart.

 

“When I sold HelpMeChoose on a Friday, I went to the beach and relaxed on the Monday, and by Tuesday I was already over the retirement lifestyle. Entrepreneurship is in your blood.”

 

9. Mike Cannon-Brookes and Scott Farquhar

  

Cannon-Brookes and Farquhar set up software company Atlassian when they were 22-year-old university graduates. The company is now wildly successful, despite starting up on a shoestring.

 

Atlassian has more than 20,000 customers in 140 countries, but is still headquartered in Sydney. While Atlassian’s success is nothing new, its founders caught the eye in 2011 with their willingness to help other tech start-ups by hosting and sponsoring various events.

 

Both Farquhar and Cannon-Brookes, who have a combined wealth of $360 million, are mentors for the Startmate program and are also involved in Launch48, held over the course of a weekend.

 

According to Atlassian spokesperson Joris Luijke, the company readily involves itself in events like Launch48 because it “bleeds green and gold”, highlighting Atlassian’s support for start-ups.

 

“We want Australian companies to succeed [by learning] from our success but also our own learning process. It wasn’t that long ago that Atlassian was a start-up itself,” Luijke says.

 

10. Shoes of Prey trio

 

 

Shoes of Prey is an online retailer that allows women to design their own shoes, which are handmade and shipped globally.

 

The business was co-founded by husband-and-wife team Michael and Jodie Fox, along with Mike Knapp, all of whom met while studying law in the early 2000s.

 

Shoes of Prey was launched in late 2009 and has since seen its retail model bear immediate fruit. It beat all of its initial sales targets, with 60% of sales in overseas markets.

 

The business recently won the Best Online Strategy Award at the 2011 StartupSmart Awards, and the founders are well known for offering their advice to other small businesses.

 

In October, the founders secured former Google employee Mark Capps as the CEO of new start-up Sneaking Duck, which aims to shake up the eyewear market, costing just $50,000 to establish.
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