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John Allsopp discusses the startup ecosystem’s evolution from a “community” to an “industry”

John Allsopp is an author, web developer and conference organiser who’s been working in Australia’s startup ecosystem for nearly three decades. In 2006 he co-founded Web Directions, a conference series for people creating tools for the internet, at a time when the field was still relatively new. In his conversation with Adam, he discusses the very first Web Directions conference, which he sees as being “like the Woodstock of the Australian web industry”, as well as his perspective that over the last few decades the Australian startup ecosystem has evolved from a small “community” into a fully established “industry”.

Resources

John’s website: https://johnfallsopp.com/ 

Web Directions: https://webdirections.org/ 

John on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/johnfallsopp/

Transcript

Adam Spencer: Hi, I’m Adam Spencer and Welcome to Day One, the podcast that spotlights Australian startups, founders, and the organizations that empower Australian entrepreneurship. We go back to the beginning to tell a story of Australia’s most inspiring founders and how they built their companies. You’re listening to a special interview series as part of a documentary W2D1 is producing about the history of the Australian startup ecosystem.

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Adam Spencer: On the episode today we have John Allsopp, a web developer, author and conference organizer who’s been working in Australia’s startup ecosystem since the ’90s. In 1994, John co-founded Westciv, a company which creates tools and training for web designers and developers. Westciv was one of the earliest companies to adopt the internet as a distribution channel for software. John also co-founded Web Directions, a conference for web designers, developers and digital creatives.

Adam Spencer: Cameron Adams-

John Allsopp: Mm-hmm.

Adam Spencer: … said you would be a great person to interview for this documentary. How do you know Cameron Adams? Do you know him?

John Allsopp: I know Cameron extremely well. I feel partly responsible for him meeting his wife and which is a very good thing and they’re both very good friends of mine, so it’s lost in the midst of time. But it used to do with Web Directions and Cameron spoke early and often at our conferences-

Adam Spencer: Right.

John Allsopp: … and he also did for two or three years at least, these amazing experimental opening sequences. So opening titles but far more elaborate than that for the conference-

Adam Spencer: Yep.

John Allsopp: … for our major conference. Just showcasing what web browsers could do, really amazing. Because he’s an incredible creative technologist. He’s obviously well known in the world of [inaudible] , in the world of Canva now, whatever. But really where he gained prominence and probably I suspect why the other founders at Canva approached him is he just has this extraordinary way of turning integrated technology and design and creating amazing things.

Adam Spencer: Did you mention the date that Cameron did those presentations?

John Allsopp: I could dig it up for you, but I reckon they were probably… So one of them was when he was doing Google Wave, but I reckon they were probably like 2008, ‘9, ’10-

Adam Spencer: Right.

John Allsopp: … or ’10, ’11 and ’12, that timeframe. Yeah.

Adam Spencer: It’s an interesting circle that happened here. So I know Maxine Sharon, I met her-

John Allsopp: Yes.

Adam Spencer: … a few years back.

John Allsopp: So Maxine and I were both, we found Web Directions together, but many, many years ago we were life partners and so we actually started our software company together in the early ’90s.

Adam Spencer: I did not know that.

John Allsopp: There you go. Sorry there, sprung that one on you. And we’re still very, very good friends and very close and we continue to run the software and then the conference company together long after we were no longer together. But it was a very small world back then. Trust me.

Adam Spencer: It still feels that way now. Very well.

John Allsopp: Yeah. Well I’m too old to try. The number of people was way too big for me to keep track of, but back then you could get them all together in a room, which is what went Web Directions was. It was kind of the room where people who were in the web got together and went, “Oh. I know you. Well, wow, there’s other people doing stuff, I do.” Right?

Adam Spencer: That’s a great segue for us to go back. Do you want to take us back to whatever time you think is most relevant to start this story of your involvement in this space?

John Allsopp: Yes. So very briefly, I was kind of a real nerd at school and personal computers were starting to be a thing. Like pre-PC. Pre-Apple, Mac, we’re talking kind of Apple two. We had a bunch of them at school and also knew… Parents of my friends who… I was way geekier than my friends were and they were getting into, like accountants and doctors and people like that. They were all getting into, we used to call them microcomputers. So we’re talking the kind of very early 1980s and there’d be all these little meetups, what we call meetups now, where people go to go and they’d swap software on floppy discs and shoff. Because there was no business in it. Right? No one thought there was going to be a huge business there. They were all total nerds and now literally dentists and doctors and accountants.

John Allsopp: People could afford a $2,000 computer, which was about somewhere between a fifth and the 10th of a price in Western Sydney for a house. Right? Oh seriously. I looked it up once, I think in the early ’80s in McDonald town, Newtown part of Sydney, you could buy a house for maybe $20,000 and these were $2,000 or $3,000 computers.

Adam Spencer: Wow.

John Allsopp: So by today’s standards, it’s like $100,000 in some respects. They didn’t seem like that much money. So that’s the very earliest inklings I had and then I studied in a roundabout way. It was really interesting, back then the harbor and software weren’t things you sort of separated out. If you’re interested in computing, you had to be interested in hardware as much as software. Often you were building and that didn’t mean just putting together motherboards, it was building computers.

John Allsopp: So I studied originally electrical engineering and I ended up doing computer science at Sydney University when there weren’t many people doing that. That was the kind of mid-’80s.

Adam Spencer: Yep.

John Allsopp: Yeah. And then I took a little hiatus and I was really interested in hypertext because I had these interests in the arts and a whole bunch of stuff. I studied law and I really thought about how could computing help you study law and I got really interested in hypertext as a concept and was started working on a hard… Well built and sold in the early -’90s, a hypertext knowledge management system inspired by my study of law on the Mac. And that was my first foray and I got into the web because, well back then the way you sold software was to do, if you were really lucky, a publishing deal, a bit like the music industry.

John Allsopp: And as we all know, because of Taylor Swift, it’s not a great deal for creatives. So you get like 5% of whatever revenues. Someone else completely controlled every aspect of the business. So we, Maxine and I, because we worked on that together, but we thought about was, “Well, this web thing started, maybe we could use the web as a way of distributing our software, selling our software.” And in 1995 we’d started doing that and I went to this conference and there was this Apple executive and there was about 20 or 30 people doing software export from Australia and this Apple executive, I remember having a chat with him over a beer. He said, “What are you doing?” I said, “Well, I’m doing this.” And he said, “No one will ever buy software over the internet.”

John Allsopp: He really said that by the way. He genuinely said that. It’s a bit of a famous, no one ever need more than 640K ram or, no, there will never be a market for more than five computers. But this guy actually said that to me and he was wrong it turns out. So I got into the web in the early ’93, ’94 because I wanted to use it and we were using it as a way to distribute our software. And at the time, like most computer people, the web we looked down on, because it’s like there was a whole world of hypertext, people were doing a lot of research on it and what the web offered was really primitive and really underpowered compared to what we consider the state of the art of hypertext would be. But it slowly won me over and along the way, especially back then people were working trying to create a software business.

John Allsopp: I taught a bit at TAFE. Taught some web stuff and just slowly won me over until it dawned on me that somehow this is something really different because back then a computer was a thing that sat alone if you wanted to transfer information to and from it, you used a floppy disc. There was really no network unless you’re in an enterprise or a university or something. There was no networking. Now were connected. And the web turned something about the network’s nature of all these devices and obviously that had happened before, but the web made it doable for most people. So what I recognized then is the mid-’90s, it was hard getting harder to develop for the web, particularly because a lot of the people who were developing for the web were software engineers, weren’t people from computing backgrounds. They were people from desktop publishing and animation and these other areas.

John Allsopp: So I started working on developer tools and lots of training. We did these online courses for people. I have this great curse. I’m generally about 5, 10, 15 years ahead of what everyone else does when they finally make all their money and by then I’ve got bored moved on. So we had this period, Maxine and I [inaudible] had the software, we were building courses, people would take them online and it was almost like backwards. We started doing in-person workshops and started doing them right around 2000, right around the dotcom bomb, the first dotcom crash.

Adam Spencer: Yeah.

John Allsopp: And that was the first time, almost literally, I’d met anyone who did what I did. I knew people online. I went to New York and met a couple of people there, but I basically didn’t know anyone in Australia and there were no meetups, there was none of that stuff. So if you knew someone, you knew them online.

John Allsopp: And then there was a thing called the web standards group that a couple of folks… There was Peter Furniture, Adam Russell Weekly. Sorry. Sorry, Russ who I still know quite well, particularly Russ. And they started this web standards group, which is very much about people using CSS and HTML and Coolway Technologies. And I went and spoke in, I think it was the end of 2001 at their kind of big Christmas end-of-year celebration where there were like 24 people including the organizers and meet. But this was a big meet up.

John Allsopp: So we started talking with, well, I think what Australian needs is a conference, right? Because 24 people came to this free meet up. So clearly we needed a conference. So it became the germ of something you developed over the next year or so. And the following year, 2004, we did the first web designage element conference in Sydney and there were a few around the world, none of which exists still. I don’t think there was ever anything like that in Australia. And we had a whole couple of hundred people turn up including… One thing I always remember is one of the founders of Campaign Monitor, which if they come up on your radar, have you spoken to either of those?

Adam Spencer: I haven’t spoken to them yet, but I’m-

John Allsopp: Yeah.

Adam Spencer: … trying to. Yeah.

John Allsopp: Yeah. So if people, young folks don’t know, they were one of the first really early success stories of Australian web startup world. And this is before they even were, they were an agency that had built the software to do email marketing. And I remember one of the founders coming up to me, he said, “Oh this is so great. There’s all these people doing stuff like us.” And I’m like, “Wow.” And he said, “Oh, we’re looking to hire someone.” And I thought, “Wow, this is real. People will have real jobs in this industry now.”

John Allsopp: And I remember a few years later joking like I should have just taken a job with him instead. Instead of trying to bang their head against the wall and do the conferences for the last 20, well nearly 20 years. So that leads us to how we more or less started the conferences in Australia.

John Allsopp: As I said, it was a place where a whole bunch of people who’d been doing web related stuff got together and realized… And they could meet people doing what they did because back then probably even the biggest organizations might have maybe one or two people doing web stuff. And even if they, well like ABC… ABC were quite big in that, but the way ABC works was they have individual web people working. They didn’t have a central web team. You work in sport or news or whatever area. So even in large organizations you probably worked with very few if any people. I mean Fairfax were really early trailblazers, not just in Australia but globally doing a lot of really cool and interesting stuff. Yeah. So I guess that was the origins of what we’ve continued to do for the last 16, 17 years.

Adam Spencer: So 2004, 2006 when you started the conference, that’s still about a decade before the startup community really started to get going.

John Allsopp: Oh absolutely. Yep. Yep, yep.

Adam Spencer: And a lot of people have said that really early on it was just a case of these tiny little communities of people catching up at coffee shops or bars and they were very much that crowd that you’re talking about, the web people, the program as the coders, that was the community.

John Allsopp: Absolutely.

Adam Spencer: So I’m glad you brought that up, but can you speak to that a little bit more? I don’t know. Just your involvement in that.

John Allsopp: Yeah, so remember probably the very, very first thing I did in-person. I ran these in-person workshops where, because I had these online conferences and there was a chap down in Melbourne who teaches photography and he said, “Oh, if I got a bunch of people together in Melbourne to do a workshop, would you come down do it for us?” And this would’ve been I think 2003 and I said, “Sure that’s super exciting,” right? Because, funny thing is, people didn’t fly around to do stuff. Virgin was pretty new. Even just flying to Melbourne to run a workshop, it seemed super exciting to me, right?

Adam Spencer: I’m going to be way off here probably with this guess-

John Allsopp: Yeah.

Adam Spencer: … but that was that Darren Rouse?

John Allsopp: No, no, he’s-

Adam Spencer: Because he’s the only Melbourne photographer guy I know.

John Allsopp: No, it’ll come to me now, it’ll come now. I think his surname was Stew Murdoch, I think it was. I’ll look it up. I feel really bad because I really feel I owe an enormous amount to him because he catalyzed. Because he’d seen the online stuff and he said, “What’d you do in-person?” And so I took the online courses and put them together as a one day workshop, went down there and there were about half a dozen people and that was done at the TAFE he was teaching at.

Adam Spencer: Yep.

John Allsopp: I think it’s safe enough to say that now. I think we snuck in on the weekend to do it. So I had done that once. So I did it in Sydney and that had half a dozen people, maybe a few more like 14, 15 people did that. And one of those, he’s someone was one of the founders of Buildkite, Tim Lucas. So Tim who kind of in a sense interned with us… He did a little bit stuff with us around that time because that… So what I did was there were two or three people, a couple people at our workshop who lived around Bondi and lived at Bondi at the time. So I said, “Oh well it’ll be in Bondi.”

John Allsopp: So we put this word out and a half thousand people, Peter [inaudible] , he was at Whistle Out, amazing designer who was at Fairfax at the time, Tim and a couple of people, we all had a beer at the Beach Road Hotel in Bondi when it wasn’t what it is now. So it was a very different world, 2003. And that was what it was it: people knew, “Oh let’s get a coffee, let’s have a beer.” And then the web standards group, which was definitely, I think the only thing like that I knew of that was sort how until… And I would like to think without being too conceited that Web Directions really did bring together people at a scale that hadn’t been, and not just from Sydney, people were coming from Melbourne and even Perth. It was like people coming from all over Australia, maybe even a couple from New Zealand because if you did this stuff there just wasn’t anything else like it.

Adam Spencer: Why conference?

John Allsopp: I know it’s almost like how intuitive, right? I was doing all this online stuff, why would… I don’t know. Even then, I think the instinct was, and maybe especially because I’d taught a TAFE in person because I’d given these workshops in person, I’ve always felt there’s a tremendous power in humans together in a room. And I think by connecting people together, short circuiting a lot of the thing that can take… And back then there was no Twitter, there was no Flickr, there was no nothing. There was no Facebook, there’s no way really for people to create online community. Probably the chief thing was things called news groups, but they were very, very structured and focused on the topic and conversation. So I think there was even more need for that in person back then when there was just nothing social online really to speak of.

Adam Spencer: Is there a point in time where this web community, this web-based community and then you’ve got the startup slash tech, I see those as two different things. They’re very similar to different groups. Was there a time where you started to see that other group emerge out of your community?

John Allsopp: Yeah, look really, I think where it’s more obvious in a way is in the US. So you have people, I was having a conversation with someone in the web world, very, very well known that I know about. So there’s people of the web, I guess they’re very much… For them, the web’s a medium in the same way that television, radio, cinema, whatever. It’s a media to be explored way of communicating to be explored. And in the US that largely focuses not exclusively but on the northeast, which was where traditional publishing was: New York, Boston. So you’ll find a lot of people who are of that kind very much based in the northeast. And then you have the people who, I guess it’s the start up world, it’s the Silicon Valley world, whatever the product world, whatever you want to call. And it tends to be more Silicon Valley based and the web is a means to an end it’s a delivery mechanism rather than the web being the end in itself, the medium to explore.

John Allsopp: And I suspect for the most part the people who’d first gravitated to our conferences, they were of that latter kind. And then partly because in Australia, as I’m sure many of the people you’ve interviewed will have said, there just wasn’t the same kind of community certainly. But probably our third or fourth conference we decided we’d do a day for startups where we would focus on the things you need to know as startup around intellectual property. Because we talked to all these people, some of them were really well known now and they had no idea about IP and they’d be doing some stuff that it was probably legally problematic or at least opening up to the possibility that someone doesn’t like what they’re doing and just shuts down their entire business. And so legals. And we thought we’ll put together this thing sort of like a bootcamp, we called it that, I think it was the Startup Bootcamp and you were then going to get these insights from lawyers and accountants and all those sorts of people about how to do start up right.

John Allsopp: And we had two people sign up for it, so we just canceled it because there wasn’t a demand, at least in our industry for something like that. And this is years before Start Con and some of these other things. It wasn’t really on most people’s radar. So I guess I could dig up the details, but can’t have been any earlier than 2006, it could have been in mid 2007. And I think it just spoke to the fact that our world wasn’t like that because a lot of people in our world, for example, [inaudible] spoke in 2006 and that was their first year.

John Allsopp: So it’s not like we didn’t have people in our world and as we talked a bit about Cam Adams, so they had spoke numerous times at our conferences. So it wasn’t like people who didn’t either were in or didn’t end up in that world, weren’t in ours. I think it came much later in a lot of ways and because I think a lot of people went to Silicon Valley. People, well, either side of 2010 were going off to White Combinator, or they going off to Silicon, Silicon Valley. That was very much a thing either to work or start their companies.

Adam Spencer: I do want to talk about that later period in a second. 2006 is when it says Web Directions was started.

John Allsopp: Yeah. So we did 2004, 2005 with Russ and Pete-

Adam Spencer: Yeah.

John Allsopp: … and then 2006 onwards, Maxine and I.

Adam Spencer: Right.

John Allsopp: [inaudible] . So the original one was called Web Essentials and after a couple of years, complicated stuff, whatever with the history, Maxine and I continued, we sort of-

Adam Spencer: Right.

John Allsopp: … took it in a slightly different direction but very much based on the foundations of Web Essentials.

Adam Spencer: Right, okay. Can you tell me about that first year, the 2006-

John Allsopp: Yeah.

Adam Spencer: … year of running the conference? Sorry. What was that like?

John Allsopp: Yeah, so the last year we did it at UTS. So we did 2004, ’05 and then ’06. So ’04, ’05 with this relatively small place at UTS. And then 2006 we went to quite a big, I think we had 350 people. We built a wifi network because there wasn’t one at the university. You think about, “Oh wow.” It’s like, well the average laptop probably max would’ve come with wifi cards. The average laptop didn’t, there was no iPhone, there were no smartphones to speak of. But we went and built a wifi network where we had to do wireless back haul. Which would’ve cost us unbelievable amount of money. I think we had a sponsor who were like air hosts, whatever, they probably don’t exist now, but we had to buy. So we bought a whole bunch of radio routers to put around the auditorium and then we plugged them in back and did all this back haul just to give you a little sense of how primitive some of this stuff was, right?

John Allsopp: It’s the first time we had two tracks you, because what’s really important to think, and this is a bit more on the geeky end, but these days you have such specialization, product roles, design roles, engineering roles, backend roles, front end roles, Uh-huh, you did everything. You had to do everything. We didn’t have… You would probably call a web developer, maybe call a web designer and you kind of did everything. You did the back end, you did the front end, they were not product people, there were simpler times. So our content was very much… But this year we had a first split track. We had more designy producting, I don’t think we really used the term product in 2006, but we had more design product stuff and then we had more the engineering stuff in the other.

John Allsopp: So we were starting to see a little bit of specialization, but it was still very much, I think I remember even two or three years later, we had a conference in Canada and we had one of the big famous UX people saying, well our research shows that the average e-commerce team is four people. That was it. The whole team was on average four people. And that was, “Oh my goodness, what a big team, four people, what do they all do?” So these days you have button engineers, but back then you did everything. You plugged in the wifi, you seriously, you ran the servers in a cage in your rooms, the whole business.

John Allsopp: So obviously it was very interesting to try and program conferences like that and some of this is easier because you pretty much did something on everything. But I think that was probably what was starting to happen. And I think as I said, Mike [inaudible] came and spoke I think was the only time the two founders of [inaudible] Monitor agreed to ever speak on stage, which I think Maxine, who is this kind of magical power with people and somehow she got them to come and speak. So we had the founders of [inaudible] , we had one of the founders of Atlassian.

Adam Spencer: Wow.

John Allsopp: We had a person who’s now the head of product at Zip, she’s who’s still a very good friend of mine. Some people who’ve kind of continued to really impact. Cam spoke actually, I think that might have famously been when and met his wife.

Adam Spencer: Wow.

John Allsopp: They’ll correct me on that. But I have a feeling it was that year because Lisa was a stage manager. So it was like a Woodstock. It was the Woodstock in the Australian web industry. Yes.

Adam Spencer: That is a great line.

John Allsopp: There you go. [inaudible] .

Adam Spencer: That’s going in the documentary.

John Allsopp: There you go. Well it seems so long ago and it seems so in some way, it is so long ago. I mean I’ve got four kids now and none of them were born back then. Well 2005 was my oldest. But it was a time when I think Australia, the Australian industry was emerging and things were becoming real jobs that people actually got paid for. Whereas you go back much before 2000 or even into the 2000s and there’d probably be fewer than a hundred people in 2001 being paid as a job in Australia to do web stuff. Might be slightly exaggerating, but I think I have the right order [inaudible] there, right? So this was the time you could sense something was really starting to happen.

Adam Spencer: Can you comment on, so started the conference 2006 or 2004, 2006,

John Allsopp: Yeah.

Adam Spencer: How quickly did you see the community grow?

John Allsopp: Yeah, so 2006 and then ’07 were, so the UTS told us we were too big, we had to go away. So we went to the convention center in Sydney and really stepped up again to like 500 or so people who came and we started adding multiple tracks. I think we were doing three tracks. So we used that similar model then until about to 2013 at the convention center we have a design track, engineering track. So what became a sort of product track as well. So it was certainly, I think what you were seeing was this growth before there was this real splintering of the industry perhaps 2013, ’14, where probably with the real start of the rise of startups in Australia and a proper startup ecosystem. Before that we always used to joke about everyone called themselves a VC, but literally no one, none of the VC funds in Australia actually had any money and never invested in anything.

John Allsopp: So I’m not kidding, I mean well into the ’20 teens, people talk about being beat. There was almost [inaudible] in Australia, there was still very much this model. So we used to run congresses in North America and Europe and Japan as well. So I was spending a lot of time in North America, a lot of time in Silicon Valley and talking often to product people, founders and so on and say, you were required to come and be in Silicon Valley. So you got invested, you bring a whole team from Atlanta, you bring your whole teams. It was sort of this expectation. I think that was one of the challenges in the early days of Australian industry faced was the expectation was, well if we’re going invest in you, you are going to come to Silicon Valley. And that was probably a very big ask for a lot of Australian companies. So I think this is of the time when that was starting to happen.

Adam Spencer: From an operational standpoint, yourself and Maxine running this conference and growing it, how steep was the learning curve? Because today, I’m just reading this off your website, 12 cities, 13 years, 67 events, 600 plus speakers and 10,000 plus attendees. You’re-

John Allsopp: That’s probably got to be bigger since we wrote that one-

Adam Spencer: Right.

John Allsopp: … because now we’ve gone online.

Adam Spencer: Well really interesting though the difference between these tens of thousands of attendees and we’re right now talking about 2006, 500 people.

John Allsopp: Sure.

Adam Spencer: Yeah. A]., the operational side: how steep was that learning curve for you? How did you pull this off?

John Allsopp: Well, it was very organic and incremental, I think. I think we acquired capabilities as we went and I think it’s always been this challenge and somewhat frustration for us in a world of massive rapid growth that we, and this changed to be in the last couple years ironically, but with physical events… So in Australia where in the scheme of things, a tiny market, the size of the development designer market in Australia is tiny compared to Europe or North America and elsewhere. How do you grow a business like this? So it’s very different ironically, again, to the sort of businesses that would attend our conferences.

Adam Spencer: Yeah.

John Allsopp: For them, growth was going global. Growth was that massive total addressable markets and our total addressable market was tiny. So we probably had a non-trivial percentage of the [inaudible] TAM in Australia of developers and designers. But it’s not actually your super great business. So essentially, I guess we’d run in person work workshops for 15 people and worked out how to do some of that. We ran a conference a couple of years for 200 people and it became 250, it became 500, became 600.

John Allsopp: And then we’d reached this relative local maximum release. So we started doing some more focused events in Melbourne around engineering and design and we picked up a partner in Japan and we started running some conference in Japan. We had a couple partners in Canada, we ran a couple of years there and then we took that to North America and then we acquired a conference from someone we knew who was leaving the industry in the UK. So it was our biggest, we probably did Japan and Sydney and Melbourne and US and it was just all a bit ridiculous really because the costs increase kind of linearly. Marketing is very focused and local. I guess ironically, our business is very different, at least until the last couple years for most of the people who’ve come to our conferences.

Adam Spencer: Right.

John Allsopp: Certainly most startups.

Adam Spencer: Yeah. So I imagine going on, you keep saying last couple of years has-

John Allsopp: Mm-hmm.

Adam Spencer: … changed and that’s the going online part.

John Allsopp: Yeah, so look, we’ve been exploring online stuff around conferences for years. So once streaming became in any way feasible, so first I think in 2012 we really explored the idea of streaming to say a non-a Australian audience, our developer conference in Melbourne. So you immediately run some issues, which is, well it’s the middle of the night in most of the world, right?

Adam Spencer: Yeah.

John Allsopp: So we’ve got Southeast Asia and whatever, but they’re generally, and they’re good large markets in some respects, but the average income’s generally lower and so on. So we explored that and we finally, we did a lot of work exploring how we might do that and we never really did it, but in the meantime we had been videoing and producing high quality versions of our presentations since 2012. So we built up this on ever growing archive of hundreds and hundreds of these presentations, some of which literally introduced the world to groundbreaking ideas.

John Allsopp: Progressive web apps launched at one of our conferences just by way of example. So we’ve been long thinking, well what do we with these, because people at conferences take video and just put them in YouTube and then, well no one benefits really. The conference has spent a lot of money and let me tell you, we’ve done this and we’ve got some videos with hundreds of thousands of views and collectively millions of views probably and no discernible marketing benefit for us. Plus how does the speaker benefit? Well at the end of the day they’re not monetizing their IP. So we just felt there was value that was just not being properly recognized. So we’ve been working a long time on how we can do that. And so about three years ago we sort of softly launched and we’ve been organically building again, essentially a platform for conference videos, I guess in want of the better word, Netflix for conference videos.

John Allsopp: And most of them are ours, but they’re not all from us. We’ve got a few partner conferences, people we know and like and they’re on that platform as well. So we’d been building out a lot of ideas about what online stuff should look like. Then COVID hit and we essentially didn’t have a business anymore. But I think because we invested a lot in building that technology and more importantly thinking about what that could be like, we were able to move our conferences online. And I’d like to think we did in a way, well firstly it’s been really successful. We now have 40% plus of our audience outside Australia up from close to zero at the beginning of last year. We’ve grown to six specialized conferences across the year. So we thought really deeply about what you should be doing online, that if you were doing a conference online from scratch, what should it look like?

John Allsopp: And you see most conferences are still just taking their two day, eight hour a day conference slapping online, it’s all live, the quality is like this. And what we thought is, no, no, no, all of this, we got to rethink all of this. So we pre-record everything, we really produce it well. We do great transcripts, we do a whole bunch of stuff around accessibility. We make the day shorter. So we’re not expecting people to be eight hours a day. We make them three to four hours. Once it’s three to four hours you can run it prerecorded, you can do it three or four times and cover the whole world in a day. We don’t do the multiple days, we do two days over two weeks. So you can create a whole different kind of event if you think what is native when you go online.

John Allsopp: So that’s where we’ve got to, bringing a ton of what we’ve learned from running conferences, it sort of all come together here. Now we’re about to announce that we’re going to do one in person conference next year. We’re going to do our big end of the year summit, but the rest is all going to be online. It’s gone really well and I genuinely think that it delivers enormous value for everyone. And yes, you don’t have the people meeting in person, which is an important part of conferences, but not the only part of it. So it’s been an interesting journey. Hopefully every step has of been informed by what we’ve done before. So going back to your question that prompted this long diatribe, I think it’s very much about organically learning and each step of the way, if you go back to look at me teaching at TAFE in the nineties, in a way there’s a through line here because it’s about education and professional development and how that works. And that ironically, the in person at TAFE became the online, which became back to the in person and now we’ve gone online again. So this is sort of cycles. But hopefully each of those cycles we’ve learned what to do, learned what can be approved, learned what we shouldn’t be doing. Yeah.

Adam Spencer: Before I ask you, there’s this last question that I ask every single person.

John Allsopp: Mm-hmm.

Adam Spencer: But before we get to that, how much has your audience, the conference audience changed since it first began to now when this startup community, technology community, has really grown quite a bit-

John Allsopp: Mm-hmm.

Adam Spencer: … the last 5, 6, 7 years. Has that changed your audience?

John Allsopp: So I think at the macro level when we started, it was about a community. It’s literally people were there probably getting paid less than they could be paid elsewhere in many cases. They were driven by interest and a passion a bit like those kind of accountants and dentists and doctors I talked about in the early eighties. The driver for them was not, this is great careers, this is great businesses because it wasn’t, right? It was interesting, there was an intuition people had that there was something new and interesting here. So that and then [inaudible] community. And I think we spoke to that and that motivated us and drove what we did. I think now I would describe it as an industry and as a group of professions. And there’s not a discouragement, a disparagement, it’s not a criticism, it’s just a reserve. A transition that’s occurred where people often, it’s what no one studied web design at university in 2000, the career pathways were very eclectic and people coming in from all different angles, usually not out.

John Allsopp: I was unusual in someone that had a computer science background in the web, at least in Australian people I’m mixed with in the late nineties, early 2000s. So I think what’s happened is we’ve become an industry and a profession and I think along the way the sort of events we’ve run have initially probably instinctively but increasingly more kind of consciously adapted on the basis of that. It’s less about that meeting someone like you because you are the only person in your workplace and you probably barely have ever spoken to someone who does what you do. That’s just not the case for most people anymore. That’s not the job that they need a conference for. They need it to be, we continue this incredibly fast moving, doesn’t matter if you’re product, design, engineering, whatever area you are in, it’s incredibly fast moving. So how you keep up and we are very much about, well that’s our job.

John Allsopp: Our job is to help you keep up with developments in the field. And so I guess the audience has changed because we still have a lot of people who came right at the beginning are still coming. All the people they run that run or they’re right at the top of the organization, but people in their organization can’t [inaudible] . Right? But I think how I characterize them now is they’re not members of a community, they’re professionals and we are not a community, we’re an industry and that’s inevitable. And you do, I miss the early days of what the web was like. Absolutely. Although it might be a bit more nostalgia than anything else because maybe at the time we certainly didn’t think it was super awesome to be not earning a lot of money and all that kind of stuff. But now it’s definitely a profession, definitely an industry and that’s definitely what we cater to with our events.

Adam Spencer: Last question, keeping in mind that what we’re doing here, this interview is going to be part of a documentary about the history of the Australian startup ecosystem.

John Allsopp: Mm-hmm.

Adam Spencer: I want people from all corners of the ecosystem to listen to this story. So founders, investors, policy makers, academics, do you have a message? Do you have something that you want to tell that everybody that’s listening? Yeah,

John Allsopp: So I have long thought about this and having seen this very, in the scheme of things, long transition, what I felt for a long time, it frustrated me a great deal, and I saw it in people in the industry, I saw it certainly in policy makers and elsewhere, and look, it’s not unique to Australia by any means… I think that the best way of putting is that you, how many times [inaudible] Silicon X? Including Silicon Roundabout, Silicon Beach, Silicon Alley. They even do it in New York. But I think the challenge continues to be seeing that there’s a single model of development in a startup ecosystem. It’s got to look like Silicon Valley and I think a lot of the time we kind of ape those rituals. They’re like rituals you perform. You have a VC, you have C. And I think a lot of time as founders and entrepreneurs and people, we are kind of a bit obsessed with the trappings of that rather than going, I think thinking about what is unique.

John Allsopp: So Silicon Valley is unique, it’s a unique circumstance and I think everyone who wants to talk about it should think about the history of Silicon Valley, where it comes from. And I think Fred Wilson wrote this marvelous piece that was very critical of the new… And he’s a VC in New York and he was very critical of what I’m talking about in New York of all places. It was probably the second, if not the third kind of most vibrant startup ecosystem in the world. And he talked about how what’s unique about Silicon Valley is it’s had probably seven or eight kind of generations of startup leading to success, leading to spawning dozens if not hundreds of people with real money and the experience of being involved in fast startups. Australians have what? We’ve had a handful of really world class successes and there’s not, again, not disparaging, not criticism and hopefully we’ll have many more.

John Allsopp: And I think a lot of the time, rather than thinking about what is unique and special about Australia, what do we have here that we can really take advantage of? And so for the longest time, I think things like areas, I think it’s one reason why financial technology FinTech has done quite well in Australia, relatively speaking, is because we do have a really strong financial services sector that is world class. It has a lot of issues and challenges probably in no small parts due to its success. So to me it seems that rather than this scatter approach, really identifying what does Australia have some kind of relative strength in. So one area we do super well in is in the whole developer, developer tools, developer… We got like whether it’s Atlassian, whether it’s Buildkite, there’s a whole bunch of successes in that area.

John Allsopp: And I think that’s an accident, right? Because you get these virtuous cycles of inner relationships between startups and their market and I think a similar ones around education. I think the last couple of years of shown us that online based education is the shit show. And I speak as someone who has four kids under 16 and one of whom was eight and I worked really closely with particularly the lockdown in Sydney for three months and we were using products from the biggest names in technology and they were fucked. I think there’s this huge opportunity in specific areas and I think Australia in the education sector has huge advantages. We have a really healthy, well-structured… Despite everything’s happened the last couple of years, well-structured education system. It’s really incredibly interestingly regulated and I think there are real opportunities there.

John Allsopp: So I think from the perspective, maybe the bigger picture, I think what we really should be thinking about is where do we excel and then whether you’re a policy maker, whether you’re a government, whatever you are, whether you’re an investor, think about what are those two or three sectors we do super well, right? And let’s really put all the wood behind that, those arrows, rather than try and think we are a mini Silicon Valley and just fund everything that comes up about the [inaudible] and see what works. I don’t think we have that luxury of doing that in the same way that well Silicon Valley and pretty much no one else does. That will be my thinking. What are those things that we do super well in Australia and where there are real opportunities and health is one obviously and some great [inaudible] and there’s some great success stories [inaudible] space. I think education developer tools, let’s really focus on those, right? Because we are already seeing some great success there and hopefully we’ll see more.

Adam Spencer: Thank you so much, John. Thank you for your time.

John Allsopp: You’re very welcome, Adam.

Adam Spencer: I hope you enjoyed that interview. More interviews are on the way. Follow the podcast wherever you’re listening right now. Stay tuned for more interviews with many, many more amazing people from the Australian startup ecosystem. Thanks for listening and see you next time.

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Credits

Production Credits

  • Andy Jones
  • Will Tjo
  • Alex Carpenter
  • Alan Jones
  • Oliver Gaywood
  • Aleshia Spencer

Special Thanks

  • Sorrel Osborne
  • Alan Jones
  • Murray Hurps
  • Maria MacNamara
  • Peter Davison
  • Pete Cooper

Music Credits

Music by Lee Rosevere

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