By LAURA LOREK
Reporter with Silicon Hills News
Steven Ciobo, the minister for trade, tourism and investment for Australia, spent Australia Day, the day Australians celebrate the founding of its nation, in Austin promoting trade with Texas.
“There is a strong focus in continuing to diversify the Texas economy and therein lays the opportunity as I see it,” Ciobo said.
Australia and Austin have strong ties in the technology industry, Ciobo said. Australia needs to continue to look at opportunities for collaboration with Austin and Texas, he said. In Australia, the country has a strong agenda around innovation, he said. Capital, labor and commerce are global today and countries must be able to engage with one another to build successful modern businesses, Ciobo said.Ciobo spoke at a G’Day USA hosted luncheon Thursday afternoon at the South Congress Hotel. The event featured a panel of technology leaders including Graham Weston, co-founder of Rackspace, Bob Metcalfe, inventor of Ethernet and Professor of Innovation at the University of Texas at Austin and Steve Goldsmith, general manager of HipChat software development at Atlassian in Austin.
About a year ago, the Australian government opened an Australia Consulate-General office in Houston. The office also plans to host several events around South by Southwest.
On Wednesday night, the Australian government met with Gov. Greg Abbott for a barbecue at the Governor’s Mansion to honor “Australia Day.” The Australian Counsel-General to Texas Alastair Walton also attended the event and the luncheon.
At the luncheon, Nicola Watkinson, head of Austrade North America, the Australian government trade commission, moderated the panel discussion. She asked Goldsmith about his experience with growing Atlassian’s business in Austin.
Texans and Australians turn out to be quite similar on how they approach things, but it takes a little while to figure that out, said Goldsmith. The company’s customer support, marketing and sales is based in the U.S. and the company’s research and development operations used to be exclusively based in Sydney, but in the last few years it has become more globally distributed, he said.
Rackspace, with 4,000 employees in San Antonio and 600 employees in Austin, opened an office in Australia a few years ago, said Weston. The company has 6,000 employees altogether and $2 billion in revenue and it just recently went private, Weston said. The company also has an office in London with 1,200 employees.
If a company is thinking about expanding to another country, the U.K. is an easy one but Australia should be on very high on the list, Weston said.
“The culture between Texas and Australia is very similar,” he said. “Among the countries in the world to expand to it is certainly one of the easiest to do. And I wish we had done it years and years earlier.”
Rackspace had a very significant customer base in Australia long before the company arrived there, Weston said.
The panelists also talked about the San Antonio and Austin region and how it is developing as a powerhouse technology region in the country.
“I think of Austin as being the hotbed of innovation,” Graham said. “And I think of San Antonio as being the hotbed of execution.”
There are a handful of Austin companies that have opened offices in San Antonio when they look to scale their operations, Weston said.
Metcalfe said it’s good that all the big cities in Texas want to be innovation hubs. Creating an ecosystem for startups is a mystery and no one really knows how to do it but a research university is at the core of tech ecosystems, Metcalfe said. He not only jokes that San Antonio is a suburb of Austin, but he also jokes that Dallas-Fort Worth and Houston are suburbs.
“One element is getting critical mass,” Metcalfe said. Companies like IBM, Apple, Intel, AMD, Dell and others create a technology culture and critical mass in Austin that feeds the startup ecosystem, he said.
San Antonio is building its tech startup ecosystem through Geekdom, Metcalfe said.
Weston, who co-founded Geekdom, said the purpose of the technology focused co-working space and technology incubator, is to help spawn the next big technology company in San Antonio.
“I think it’s very important that every city create fertile soil for new companies to grow in,” Weston said.
A successful tech startup ecosystem has a research university with professors and students starting ventures, venture capital, entrepreneurs, strategic partners, early adopting customers and a vibrant tech media, Metcalfe said.
Watkinson with Austrade asked the panelists if there was an opportunity to create an even larger global virtual technology ecosystem using technology tools.
Weston said there was.
“I think there really is an opportunity for Texas to be the most Australia friendly state where we can be the launching off point,” Weston said. “I think there is an opportunity for Texas and Australia to be special partners.”
Already, Austin has a daily nonstop flight on British Airways from Austin to London, Metcalfe said. There is an opportunity to have a daily nonstop flight on Quantas Airlines from Austin to Sydney, Australia, he said.
There is already a direct flight from Dallas to Sydney, Watkinson said. Goldsmith said he takes that flight a lot.
Atlassian’s HipChat solves the problem of global communication, Goldsmith said. Its product works to break down communication barriers between geography and make it feel like a conversation even if you’re not in the same room, he said.
“Location, culture and geography are a distant second to the ability to communicate and network effectively,” Goldsmith said.