The outback innovators

By Matty Soccio
Monday, 03 September 2012

feature-businessman-field-thumbYou’d be forgiven for thinking that the dominion of the Australian start-up resides close to its shores, with its citizens holed up in metropolitan warehouse share-spaces, dingy studies or back rooms.


It has become a lamented stereotype now; the image of the well-dressed city-slicker sipping coffee in a café, talking about their cutting-edge app at the latest tech meet-up.


The opportunities to share ideas and troubleshoot, the access to support and possible funding is something that urbanites take for granted when building their business.


So spare a thought for those outside the grid, where easy access to internet and support are limited, and the opportunity for networking even more so.


While it may seem that starting a small business away from the big city lights is a fruitless endeavour, having less competition for ideas and services for rural locations is its massive advantage.


Tech start-ups in the Mallee


Looking at the sandy soil of Menangatang in Victoria’s north-west edge of the Mallee, you wonder how anyone could make a living, let alone create a fast-growing tech start-up.


But PA Source founder Ben Jones has done just that, developing software that allows farmers to harness the power of satellite imagery data to plan how to plant and grow their crops.


This sophisticated software was Jones’ brainchild, built from the ground up – not through the love of start-ups, but the need to solve a problem.


“I worked as a scientist in Menangatang with an agricultural company in the area and they were looking for ways to shift data themselves,” he says.


“I set up a system for them that was based around Google Earth, and it was a bit of winner for people involved in it.”


“We could see that there was potential for something bigger outside of that company and at the same time I was doing research on precision agriculture, so it fell together.”


Jones believes the secret to the success of PA Source is in its focus on the user.


When you’re clear that there’s a problem to be solved, the business grows from there.


In his case, the user is himself and communities like his.


“There’s definitely a strong user focus if you’re getting out and driving a tractor (I was still farming while I set up PA Source) or talking to advisors who would be users one day,” he says.


“I think it helps to create a user focus in things that you’re doing – rather than being excited about your idea, your focus is on solving a particular problem and how, as a user, you’d like to have solved and you can imagine the people that you’re working with interacting with what you’re doing.”


“It’s good to be close to your community of potential users – in this case the community was out there.”

“It’s probably good to start without any preconceived ideas about how fast things should happen.”


“Not being around people trying to do the same thing, there wasn’t that pressure to conform.”


Numbers on small business start-ups located in regional areas are not easy to find.


According to statistics from the Department of Innovation Industry, Science and Research released last year, of the over 1.9 million businesses classified as small, 58% of them were to be found in NSW and Victoria – but how many of these are regional?


However, there are organisations attempting to find out – while still in its early stages, the Startup Nation survey is one such organisation (though from the looks of it, there’s a long way to go before it reveals some solid stats).


365Cups in Wagga Wagga


And one regional start-up I uncovered through the survey is Simone Eyles’ 365Cups, an online coffee-ordering service for cafes that allows their customers to order coffee via their mobile, based from her home town Wagga Wagga.


Eyles says: “It just stemmed from an idea we had. I’ve never been in the hospitality industry, I’m not a developer (luckily my business partner is) but I’m a lover of coffee.”


“One of our biggest challenges was to make sure we could get 365Cups going in at least one café. When we did, it became a lot easier after that.”


Eyles’ comments are humble, considering that 365Cups has spread from Wagga Wagga to many of the major states and New Zealand.


But she also indicates being based in a major city may be far from a start-up prerequisite.


“It doesn’t matter where you are nowadays – now you can be completely mobile, do everything over the internet and, if there are any problems, jump on the phone to solve them.”


There are, however, additional benefits to being far from the bustle (aside from the quiet).


Eyles points to the cost-of-living issues that face many city-based start-ups.


“The cost of living is a lot lower. Yes, there is travel, but in general it’s cheaper to live and set up a business in a regional area.”


Jones believes that having a solid ‘farming income’ helped give him the time and focus to build PA Source, which, according to Jones, was developed through the good fortune of a bumper canola crop.


In addition, access to initiatives such as the Small Business Support Line (SBSL) may have helped him along.


Outside help


However, Jones also believes that while there may have been state and government assistance to draw from, it may have not have been right for him at the time.


“I think you need to be in a certain place in your development to take advantage of those kinds of things,” he says.


“If I’d found one of those projects four or five months after I started, while I was still learning a lot for developing the software, it probably wouldn’t have been as efficient and would have been quite frustrating.”


“It’s good to have a gradual ramp-up in terms of improving your own skills. (Though) some sort of networking support would have been a help.”


But, while Eyles is content for 365Cups to remain a proud Wagga Wagga resident, Jones has moved PA Source’s operations to Melbourne.


“It (the move) happened at a good point in the life of the business because there are things about country life that are a distraction – you put a lot of time into travel, especially if you have a family,” he says.


“If you’re on a farm, that’s another ongoing distraction. So it was good to be able to take those out of the way.”


“The local community can also be a big distraction, there’s only one way for things to happen in rural areas and that’s by being involved in them.”


“If you want to take yourself out of that picture it’s just not easy to do, whereas in the city you could be highly dedicated to something and no one in your community will notice because they’re off doing other things.”


“The city is a good place to be selfish; it suits the whole start-up enterprise.”


Community feedback


For Eyles, it was the community that gave life to 365Cups, not only by embracing the technology but giving old-fashioned feedback on its usability.


“Without the feedback we received, which allowed us to fix the little bugs, we wouldn’t have been able to build it into what we have today,” she says.


While Jones’ advice for rural start-ups is ‘if you can fund it, get out of the country’, he encourages regional entrepreneurs not to lose their perspective on why they’re doing what they’re doing.


He says: “There’s a whole culture around start-ups in the city, where people want to do a start-up and then go look for an idea – entrepreneurs looking for a problem to solve.”

“PA Source started from a problem that needed to be solved and turned into a start-up. I’m not a wannabe; I don’t know who the ‘start-up’ cool people are.”


Eyles’ advice is simpler. However remote you are, your success is relevant to your tenacity: “Don’t lose belief in yourself and what you’re doing.”


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