Almost all of Australia’s best technology companies have bootstrapped all the way through. Those that did take outside funding, for the most part, didn’t take it until they reached quite a late stage. As a result, we have some very well run technology companies, and some world class companies in the making.
Although I am pretty active in the startup community, every second week I am shocked to discover yet another Australian technology company that I have never heard of generating $10 million, $20 million, $50 million or more in revenue per annum. Until recently, I had never heard of companies like RedBubble, Nitro, and Pepperstone. The latter of which has, in just three years, become the 11th biggest forex broker in the world, turning over $70 billion a month through their online platform).
Because the Australian technology industry is mostly bootstrapped, it took longer to get here, but coming down the pipeline are an incredible number of great technology companies.
So if the Australian VC industry is dead, then how are these great companies going to raise funds when they need them? Well, I believe the answer is staring them right in the face. It’s called the Australian Securities Exchange (ASX).
After all, what better way to fund a company than by crowdsourcing it? This is what the resources industry already does today, via the ASX. If you have an early stage speculative mining company, you don’t go begging down Coal Hill Road pitching to mining VCs and spending six months negotiating a telephone directory thick preferred stock structure. No, you write a prospectus detailing what you’re going to do with the money and list it on the ASX.
Likewise if you’re BHP or Rio Tinto, you can go to the ASX and the market is deep enough to raise billions. Crowd sourcing equity from the public has been done successfully for decades in resources. The ASX is in the top five globally for the total amount of money raised for equity issuances from 2009-13. There is no Sarbanes–Oxley in Australia, and listing costs are quite low. (In Freelancer’s IPO, the underwriting fees were $450,000, legal fees were around $100,000, and investigating accountants cost about $50,000.)
Why go to a venture capital middleman unless they are a rockstar with solid operating experience that can add demonstrable value in some way?
I believe that Malcolm Turnbull will bring in legislation to allow the general public to crowdfund early stage ventures without a registered offering document, as is starting to happen elsewhere around the world. This will generate further interest and appetite in investing in technology companies from the general public which already actively takes a punt on speculative, early-stage mining companies (not to mention the Melbourne Cup).
At the moment, to invest in companies without a registered offering document you need to be a “sophisticated investor”, which is curiously defined as a person having income of $250,000 per annum in each of the last two years, or net assets of $2.5 million.
I don’t know why being rich makes you automatically sophisticated, and being poor means you’re incompetent with your money, but I’m sure that something sensible will happen here. If, by miracle, we see some taxation relief for technology investments, then this will be accelerated.
But I’m not holding my breath, even though the Australian government used to provide some form of taxation relief for investors in the mining industry.
When we were considering listing Freelancer on the ASX, many people gave us the usual regurgitated responses as to why it wouldn’t work; investors here don’t understand technology and that we would trade at a discount compared to US markets.
Professor George Foster from Stanford Graduate School of Business showed some time ago that country specific factors were a lot less important than company-specific financial statement-based information in explaining valuation multiples in an international setting.
Markets are increasingly globalised. It’s almost as easy for a US investor to buy Australian shares as US ones. Money flows to where it gets the greatest return for a given risk profile; basically if arbitrage exists, someone will take it. Our stock going to $2.50 from a 50 cent issue price in the biggest opening in the last 14 years and third biggest opening ever on the ASX for an issuance larger than seed size is testament to the amount of pent up interest amongst the general public to invest in technology.
We took a calculated risk – nobody wants to be the first to try something new. But so far it has paid off.
It’s great to see the sector now heating up with recent listings from companies like Ozforex, iSelect, iBuy and MigMe (up 95% yesterday on their IPO, and like I did, broke the bell), and with WiseTech Global, Vista Group, 1-page, Covata, BPS Technology, Grays Australia imminently coming down the pipeline.
I suspect Ruslan Kogan will also be considering his options given the tremendous effort he has done bootstrapping Kogan to date. What surprised me is that the process was significantly easier, quicker and resulted in a more equitable and transparent capital structure than what I have experienced in any of the dozen venture capital financings I have been involved with in the past.
Projecting forward, I think that the ASX will be the primary way in which technology companies raise equity in this country in the future. The ASX realises this as well, and is moving to position itself as a regional hub for the Asian technology sector.
If it is successful—and I think there is a good chance it will be—it will cover a massive market. There are significantly more people in Asia (with dramatically rising incomes), significantly more micro, small, and medium enterprises (MSMEs). It’s a much bigger market for many industries, and there are a lot more mobile phones than the US, to draw comparison to just a few metrics.
The ASX is in a fantastic position to capture this opportunity. In the second half of 2013 a total of 14 technology companies listed on the ASX. Since January 2014 there has been 55. In the entirety of 2013, a total of 59 companies were financed by Australian venture capital.
This is the future for financing technology companies in Australia.
Matt Barrie is chief executive at Freelancer.com