On Friday I attended the Prime Minister's Forum on the Digital Economy along with 40 other people involved in the online space.
The event kicked off with an introduction from the Prime Minister, then Google Australia head Nick Leeder painted a picture of how Australia should be aiming to build a Silicon Beach, I love the ambition of this and it ties in nicely with the views of Paul Graham that I blogged about previously. Nick raised 3 key issues for Australian to develop a Silicon Beach:
- Education - we need more people studying software engineering at University
- Support for the Venture Capital industry - so Australian startups can raise capital
- A change in our culture to encourage risk taking and entrepreneurship.
It was great to see Nick pushing 2 of the major issues I wanted to see the group cover.
It was fantastic to see the Prime Minister introduce one of our successful online retailers Jane Cay, founder of Birdsnest to speak next and share her story. Birdsnest are a women's fashion retailer based in the country town of Cooma in the ACT. Out of a town of 8000, Birdsnest employ 70 people!
Shortly after this I gave a brief overview of Shoes of Prey and raised my 3 key points using our experiences at Shoes of Prey to explain:
- the challenges of hiring software engineers and how our education system needs to encourage more people to study this degree;
- the challenges of raising funding and how the Australian VC industry needs support; and
- how setting up an ESOP is challenging due to the taxation issues around this.
I would loved to have raised all 7 points but I didn't want to hog the floor early on and dilute the message of these 3 largest points. Fortunately I had the opportunity to raise one of the other points shortly after...
Ahmed Fahour from Australia Post talked about the changes and innovations that Australia's oldest company is making to adapt to the digital economy (Australia Post is 203 years old!) I followed up with a question for Ahmed on what we as an industry can do to help Australia Post bring their international shipping costs down as these costs are a challenge for Australian retailers wanting to export overseas. Ahmed mentioned that they face issues on price due to the Universal Postal Union structure but that they're launching a new tracked international shipping product for the Australian domestic shipping price plus $6! I spoke with Ahmed in the next break and the product is called International Track and Trace. At the moment it's only available to the US but Australia Post are working on making this product available to our 5 largest import/export partners.
Scott Farquhar of Atlassian brought up the excellent issue of Australian businesses off-shoring some jobs and how we need to be accepting, both politically and culturally of this happening if we want to be successful as a nation in the digital space. This is a key part of our business at Shoes of Prey, our business wouldn't be possible if we didn't manufacture our shoes in China and despite doing this, we're a net exporter.
Possibly my favorite comment of the day came from Jane den Hollander, Vice Chancellor of Deakin University who during a discussion about telecommuting and the digital workplace made the good point that much of life is about meeting people. While the digital economy can make working and studying more efficient, we'll never and don't want to eliminate the "sex, drugs and rock 'n roll" aspect of actually meeting, working and learning from people in person.
My favorite quote for the day came from Rob Nixon of Nicko's Kitchen who when talking about social media said, "Treat your customers on social media like you would your girlfriend; don't argue with them, be nice to them."
Some of the later commenters mentioned the positivity that came out of the session and I couldn't agree more. The fact the event was organised in the first place is a great start for Australia's digital economy. The ideas and discussion were all excellent. Everyone from startups to Google to Australia Post to the Commonwealth Bank, Universities and research bodies like the CSIRO are all adapting to and embracing the digital economy and the Australian Government is keen to hear what they can do to help.
That said, the most critical step in an event like this is what follows. The Prime Minister summed up her 4 key takeaways as:
- Education - we need more people studying software engineering. The PM said she would follow up with the Education Minister Senator Chris Evans and organise a follow up meeting with some attendees of the event to work through ways to encourage more people to study software engineering.
- Telework - the government has a goal of 12% of the population working from home 1 day per week by 2012. This isn't a major issue for us and while in the fast paced life of a startup there are significant benefits to working in the same physical space as your colleagues, we're not far off achieving this at Shoes of Prey already and it forms part of our culture.
- Cloud Computing - there was a lot of discussion around encouraging larger organisations and SMEs across the country to adopt cloud computing. There are significant productivity benefits to doing this but I don't think this is necessarily something the government needs to encourage beyond building the NBN. Cloud computing providers like Google are doing a great job of promoting their products in this space. It's also not a major issue for us as a significant part of our operations are already in the cloud.
- Expanding the scope of the Cyber White Paper to include a range of the other issues raised throughout the day. Theoretically this is where my other 6 points could fall.
It was a little disappointing that more of my 7 points didn't make the Prime Minister's top 4, but the points she took away were all ones that were discussed a lot - large organisations like Australia Post, the Commonwealth Bank and others have a very different set of issues to startups like ours. And what was good was the PM took away the big one which is education. I'll submit the other points to the Cyber White Paper which ties in with her final take away.
On a personal note to be asked to contribute to a discussion like this on government policy in an industry I'm so passionate about was a career highlight. Not to mention meeting the Prime Minister who prior to the event had been on our website designing shoes! She told me that being on her feet all day she prefers a 2inch square heel as a nice combination between style and comfort.