Murray Hurps discusses the barriers to growth in the startup ecosystem
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Murray Hurps is the Director of Entrepeneurship at UTS, tasked with growing the number of student-founded startups coming out of the university. With a long list of credentials in the Australian startup ecosystem, including former CEO of Fishburners, Co-founder of Startup Muster, and founder of Ad Muncher, Murray strongly believes that Australia’s future relies on innovation and entrepreneurship. In his conversation with Adam, Murray discusses starting his first company at 16 years old, his work with Fishburners, and what he sees as barriers to growth in the Australian startup ecosystem
Murray’s bio on UTS website: https://www.uts.edu.au/partners-and-community/initiatives/entrepreneurship/who-we-are/meet-team/murray-hurps-bio
Startup Muster: https://startupmuster.com/
Murray Hurps: Hi, I’m Murray Hurps, director of entrepreneurship for UTS. We’ve got an awesome program at UTS Startups that is designed to inspire and support technology enabled entrepreneurship. So, engaging with 45,000 students, plus all the public around UTS, helping them understand, here’s people like you, doing things you can do and getting wonderful results and helping those people to take their first steps as entrepreneurs. And then supporting 378 student-launched startups at the moment and helping them to grow what they’ve started as well.
Adam Spencer: You know the Tech Council of Australia, that news that come out a couple of weeks ago, what do you think of that?
Murray Hurps: I think those kinds of things are really hard because I think they’ve done it quite intelligently in terms of saying, here’s our platform, we’re going to suggest these things be changed and they’re sensible things. And then getting members on board that support those changes. So that can be nice and focused, but it’s just so hard when you’re representing a lot of companies, which they will end up doing and having a voice that makes sense to all of the members.
Murray Hurps: It’s also, I think really hard to represent a nascent industry. So you can, I think, successfully represent large tech companies in Australia. It’s much harder to represent small, aspiring, tech companies in Australia because they’re not going to pay for them.
Adam Spencer: Follow up question to that is you’ve just said nascent industry. Do you still feel as though that this startup, were you speaking about the startup ecosystem, when you said that, and do you think that we are still a nascent industry?
Murray Hurps: It depends, everything is relative. I think we are nascent compared to hotbeds of startup activity around the world where, take your pick, the kind of places you expect when you walk into a cafe and meet someone at the desk next to you that’s working on a similar startup. Those things don’t happen in Sydney outside of a small number of pockets of activity. So I think we are a fraction of what we can be in terms of proportion of people that could be launching technology enabled startups in Sydney and Australia broadly and what they could be doing.
Adam Spencer: I spoke to Cameron Turner actually from University of Queensland. He said, this is his opinion, that we’re paid really well in Australia so it’s that, what do we hope to get leaving our jobs to start a company? There just isn’t that same driver there.
Murray Hurps: No, I think the cost of living in the major parts of Australia and Australia broadly is an impediment to people doing this kind of thing. But I think it also drives a different kind of entrepreneurship. So I would love to see more people looking at what kind of companies have grown quickly over the last 10 years in Australia. Or in the kind of growth that they care about if it’s impact or whatever else they’re trying to design a company for.
Murray Hurps: And following those examples, and those are kind of like the crops that make sense for the environment that we’re operating in here. And they tend to be, I think, taking into account the cost of living the need to generate revenue early, the lack of dependence on the early really high-risk VC.
Murray Hurps: That makes a pathway where I go, you can still afford to live in Sydney or other places while also building this kind of company, but they’re not going to be necessarily the same things that you see in other ecosystems.
Adam Spencer: All right, let’s get on track. When did you first become aware of what we call the startup ecosystem?
Murray Hurps: Well, this is interesting because I started a company when I was 16. It was an ad blocking company. I put a bit of software online. It was pretty terrible at the time, but people started paying for it. And that gives you a reason to figure out what you’re doing. And I ran that for 14 years without referring to it as a startup at any point, because this wasn’t a kind of, that was 98 that I started that.
Murray Hurps: So, in Sydney that was not that kind of ecosystem where that would be seen as a startup. At least not that I was engaged with and at some point towards the, kind of, end of life for that company, I was introduced to Fishburners and this was when it was one level in a building and Ultimo.
Murray Hurps: And I remember Patrick referred me and said you got to check this place out. There’s other people doing stuff kind of like what you’re doing. And that sounded cool because for the entire life span of Ad Muncher, the people I was working with were wonderful people overseas and no people in Australia.
Murray Hurps: So no, none of the team, none of the partners, like none of it, none of the customers were in Australia really. And so to see, okay, here’s a lot of people doing things in software and technology. This sounds cool. Let’s get involved in there. That kind of bit me a little bit with a bug, that seing a lot of people collaborating, helping each other out, finding their own versions of success and then coagulating into more successful teams. That lit a fire under myself.
Adam Spencer: What year was that that you discovered Fishburners?
Murray Hurps: I think it was 2013 or so.
Adam Spencer: And they had started around 2012?
Murray Hurps: Yes.
Adam Spencer: Around that time, 2012, 2013, what else was visible to you in terms of a startup infrastructure or systems or support or people at that time?
Murray Hurps: Not much, but I think there’s someone that was just finding the way in the ecosystem, that was still enough. If there’s a couple of accelerators, a couple of spaces. A couple of companies that are starting to get interested in doing things in that area. Everything seemed quite exciting. That definitely seemed to be a bunch of hackathons starting to happen around that time as well. So people spending the weekends, building things and starting a new kind of companies on Monday morning. So yeah, a lot of small things, quickly growing number.
Adam Spencer: Yeah, this is what I’m hearing again and again that kind of 2012 time seems to be, yeah, an inflection point where a lot of different activities and momentum from, it just all kind of coalesced and collided. And things really started to pick up at around that time. Can you comment on that? What were some of the catalysts that kind of drove that?
Murray Hurps: I’ve thought about this because for example, you had ATP in 2000 as well. And which is now Cicada and other things over there. But for 12 years or so, that was operating and pulling different companies together. But it didn’t seem to create that explosive point of hundreds of people coming together.
Murray Hurps: I wonder whether, like Facebook groups, I think are underrated in their role that they played. Because for example, the Sydney Startups group on Facebook is now probably 25,000 people or something. And a lot of other kind of entrepreneurial support groups and the Fishburners group itself.
Murray Hurps: Interesting ways of bringing a lot of people together and helping them collaborate, which I think makes sharing a space a little bit easier as well. I think maybe there was a rise in the number of these kind of technology enabled entrepreneurs starting up around the time. But I’m not a hundred percent sure on that.
Murray Hurps: I think there was something else happening around, maybe it was other proof points of people seeing a collaborative space use, coworking and incubators happening and then saying, okay, that seems like a good idea, let’s do that as well. And then that taking off as I think. But yeah, that’s, I’d love to dive deeper into the reasons for that. I don’t have a answer that I’m happy with yet.
Adam Spencer: Are you happy with where the ecosystem is at the moment? Do you think we’re in a good place?
Murray Hurps: I’m going to say I’ll never be happy because this is my thing, I love the experience I had is one that I want other people to have where you’re not trying to get on a certain career path treadmill. You are creating a job for yourself and for other people and a kind of company that makes sense today. That’s a wonderfully enjoyable, rewarding and educational thing for people to do. It certainly was for me.
Murray Hurps: And if an idiot like me can do it, everyone can do it. And, or at least a lot more people than there are currently. So I love seeing people starting to understand this, of trying their own things seeing things working out of, running into people on the street three years after I saw them last and asking how their thing is going and hearing wonderful stories about what they’ve done since or the things that they learned in doing something that didn’t work out.
Murray Hurps: It is a wonderful thing. And in terms of, am I happy with where it is now? I’d say I think we’ve wasted a lot of opportunities across Australia in what we could be doing to pushing, to push things forward.
Murray Hurps: I think we’ve done pockets of good, but when you think of millions of people that could be creating instant, zero-cost exports, and other kind of technology enabled solutions that could be done in Australia and are not being done. This makes me scratch my head a bit and think, okay, what can we do a little bit differently to move things in that direction faster?
Adam Spencer: So after the Fishburners, what do you think were some of the next things that happened in the Sydney ecosystem that Fishburners was a big deal, but what was the next thing?
Murray Hurps: That was interesting cause Fishburners are, so taking space on the city fringe which all of these incubators around the time, around the world were doing. And then they all run into the same problem of they expanded faster than I thought they would. By the time they want more space in this affordable part of the city, it becomes more gentrified and more expensive and less available.
Murray Hurps: And all these entrepreneurs moving in, create a vibrant environment for cafes, restaurants, and other things around the area as well. So Fishburners expanding like that, like all the other similar incubators I’ve met around the world did was interesting, but then created the next logical step of, okay, if it’s taken over the whole building in Ultimo can’t find more space in the area, but demand is still continuing what does that create?
Murray Hurps: It makes Fishburners want to find other location opportunities. And that started to start a little giant process around looking at every building around the area, every building around the CBD, a lot of other things outside of the city as well, while also creating a lot of opportunities for other coworking spaces and incubators to get off the ground.
Murray Hurps: So there was a lot more starting, I’d say most notably Stone and Chalk and probably Tank Stream Labs. And then kind of, WeWork and other operators becoming or, either establishing or becoming larger through the change in demand as well.
Adam Spencer: Do you think that was a similar timeline and challenge in other cities around Australia that co-working spaces and incubators were starting on the fringes of the CBDs in more affordable premises and then running into that same problem of running out of space?
Murray Hurps: Yes, I’d say definitely. Take River City Labs for example, that I’d say they had a similar experience, similar experience down in Melbourne. And then you start to see a kind of precinct in Queensland set up as a solution or Sydney Startup Hub in Sydney, or the Docklands site in Victoria. There’s a natural magnetism towards the middle of the city and larger spaces to deal with the growth of these companies. And the you see the same thing happening again and again in Australian cities as well.
Adam Spencer: Is it a case of what got us here, won’t get us there in terms of what do we need to do next, or what do you think we need to do next to keep the ecosystem growing?
Murray Hurps: I think the question is, why is it not growing? Because everyone is full of ideas and I think it’s easy to come up with things around what we could do in high school education or younger, or what we could do in Centrelink allowances and other support for people that are unemployed or what we could do in the business environment that we provide for people or what we can do in visas, in entrepreneurial visas or visas are appropriate to early stage companies.
Murray Hurps: But then for, and there’s such a long list after that of good ideas. The question is why doesn’t Australia start to adopt these things. And maybe that’s a similar question to why don’t Australians do this in as larger numbers as they can. I think Australia has the same problem that Australians have that the best impediment to a great life is a good life and everyone, and us as a country, I think, has been quite comfortable where we are.
Murray Hurps: Why shake things up? Why do something in the immigration that will maybe be unpopular, but will provide a long-term economic boost. Why do something in education that parents aren’t maybe going to be supportive of? I think until we have that catalyzing moment that, oh nuts, we need to do something quickly to help our economy bounce back and realize what it can do that we’re not going to change.
Murray Hurps: So I can have ideas for days and I’ve got ideas for days. But until I think Australia has these moments that make us all say, okay, we need to change things and the public supported and government supported and everyone else realised this is something we all need to be doing, then I don’t think things are going to change.
Adam Spencer: What wave are we in at the moment? Or what generation of startups or the startup ecosystem, would you say we’re in at the moment?
Murray Hurps: Ooh. I feel like we kind of missed out on the first bubble. When people talk about the startup and kind of cycles overseas, they talk about bubbles. But I didn’t, from anything that I saw, see much of a bubble around Australia at the time that Silicon Valley was experiencing their first one. So I feel like the real wave of activity in Australia has been kind of 2010 onwards.
Murray Hurps: That burst of enthusiasm, the kind of initial things being set up, different parts of government amping up and doing more and more, and then Malcolm Turnbull coming in and bringing in the national innovation and science agenda. That kind of spur of activity, maybe as a crescendo of that first wave.
Murray Hurps: And then I think, this is not fantastic to say, but I suspect from all the data that I’ve seen that, that high point, which would have been 2017, has been a decline since, and then probably accelerated by the last two years of COVID impacts.
Adam Spencer: As in accelerated, downward?
Murray Hurps: Yes.
Adam Spencer: Another hard question, but how do we break that? What do we need to do?
Murray Hurps: Well, this is the thing, I enjoy getting up every day and having this as a problem. So I think for anyone that cares about this, and certainly anyone that cares enough to listen to this podcast, you sitting wherever you are listening to this. What are you doing each day to get more people understanding the opportunities available to them and pursuing those opportunities and for the people that are pursuing them to be supported and have access to what they need.
Murray Hurps: So I think that, until something really motivates Australia to change on a larger scale, it’s up to the individuals who have any kind of leverage to be using that leverage, to support more entrepreneurship here.
Adam Spencer: What is your one piece of advice? If a new founder came to you tomorrow, what would you tell them?
Murray Hurps: I think it’ll be the same, it’ll be, don’t listen to idiots like me.
Adam Spencer: That was it.
Murray Hurps: Because if you ask me, how do you start and grow an ad blocking company 25 years ago, I can tell you really well, how to do that. If you ask me, how do I do a photonics IP-heavy, deep tech startup in 2021 in Sydney, I can give you super general advice, but the most useful thing I can probably do is connect you to people that know more than I do.
Murray Hurps: And particularly people that are building similar companies and are further along and have built it in the environment that you’re building it in and are most similar to you in the enablers they have versus what you have. They’re the people that I think can really provide support. So the general advice, I try to stay clear of.
Adam Spencer: What I’m trying to do here is create a documentary that accurately, truthfully, chronicles the history of the Australian startup ecosystem. I want everyone from all corners of the ecosystem or community to listen to this. It’s founders, investors, policymakers, academics. What do you think they need to hear? What is something that you think about all of the time that just needs to be talked about?
Murray Hurps: So Chickenlittle gets ignored. If you stand on a mountain top and say the sky is falling, people don’t want to internalize that and deal with how that makes them feel and what they need to do. Similarly, if you are the opposite of that, and you say everything is wonderful and here’s this wonderful opportunity that’s too good to be true.
Murray Hurps: People don’t internalize that either. I think there’s a natural hesitancy to expose yourself to something that could be wonderful, but might not. And honestly, I think you can be Chickenlittle and say automation is coming and there’s going to be a massive change in workforces.
Murray Hurps: And the impacts of the pandemic and the world is overtaking us and blah, blah, blah. And people don’t respond to that. And you can say, for the first time in human history, someone with a laptop anywhere in Australia can create a company, a new solution and reach customers all around the world instantly at zero cost potentially.
Murray Hurps: And that’s transformative and should be something that, where especially as a remote kind of island of the world that we should be jumping on as our next major export activity. People don’t jump on that as well cause that sounds, I think, too good to be true. I think the way to drive changes to find a middle ground of, we need to be doing this because existing industries are challenging in the different ways that they are challenging.
Murray Hurps: And also there’s wonderful opportunities that I’m not going to oversell. But I can point to clear examples of things that people can be doing and hey, you listening, wouldn’t it be nice if you use that expertise you have in a particular industry and your knowledge of that particular problem and your knowledge of how to reach customers in that area and did something with it that’s not putting everything on the line, but it’s saying in a measured way, I’m going to start to transition into this and build something that I’m proud of and that is designed in the way I want it to be designed. And those one-on-one gentle encouragements are, I think, the way to the best change we can make at the moment.
Murray Hurps: So if you take nothing else away from this, I think I’m not gonna say everything should be wonderful and will be wonderful cause it won’t. I won’t say the sky is going to fall and you need to do something straight away, cause you probably don’t. But I will say that there is an opportunity for a better Australia and a better personal outcome for you in technology enabled entrepreneurship today. And people need to be thinking about that.