Simon Thomsen saw technology alter the news and publishing landscape
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Simon Thomsen is editor of Startup Daily and host of the Startup Daily show which airs on the business streaming service AusBiz.com.au. He is also an investor in early stage startups, and was previously Associate Editor of Business Insider Australia as well as a range of other roles in journalism and publishing. In his conversation with Adam, Simon discusses how during his time working on a journalist he saw technology alter the news and publishing landscape, as well as what he sees as a common trait among the many successful startup founders he has interviewed over the years.
Startup Daily: https://www.startupdaily.net/
Simon on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/simon-thomsen-journalist/
Adam Spencer: Hi, I’m Adam Spencer, and welcome to Day One, the podcast that spotlight’s 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. On the episode today, we have-
Simon Thomsen: Hi, I’m Simon Thomsen, editor of startupdaily.net, and also a presenter on the Startup Daily show on ausbiz, 2:00 PM every weekday.
Adam Spencer: How did you get involved with startups? What was your very first experience?
Simon Thomsen: In some ways I think that my first experience was before the word had even been coined. Back in the early 1990s I was a young man mad keen to get into journalism after traveling the world and doing a bunch of other crazy things, and the opportunity came for me to buy a newspaper. And it was one of those, the exuberance of youth and the belief that you could change the world, and of course media is a great way to do it, and so I did. It was up in a town called Lismore, it’s been in the news, of course, this year from the flooding, so I’ve been a little bit heartbroken and talked to my friends up there, who I send lots of love to, because it has been a pretty torrid time.
Simon Thomsen: But this was where technology started to change publishing, the barriers to entry came down, desktop publishing occurred, and within a decade we’d gone from a whole bunch of really old slow technology, and if you think about it, even just the way pages were composed for a newspaper, we’d gone to digital. So there was Quark, there was Adobe Express, there were all of these tech solutions starting to emerge, and of course by the late nineties digital cameras were there. So I was taking photos on digital cameras, they were around, I remember, for the Sydney 2000 Olympics, although at the time Kodak was still handing out lots of free film, and that transformed how newspapers could be published and that whole economic models.
Simon Thomsen: And so we didn’t even need a printing press, we outsourced that to another company, and by the end of that period, and I sold the newspaper in 2008, had quite a good exit, I would say, to put it in startup terms, the whole thing was digital. Even the pages themselves were being picked up, there was a time 10 years earlier where I was driving them to Brisbane, or if I missed the bus they otherwise went on, because we do miss deadlines occasionally, journalists, but it was this extraordinary technical transformation that interested me.
Simon Thomsen: So in, I remember it was 1996, I put the paper, which was free, on the internet for the first time. I beat the Herald at the Age to a website for a newspaper, and I’m still pretty proud of that. It was only by a couple of months, but we did it anyway, because I just thought, you know what? The internet is extraordinary, and you can spread your story around the world, beyond the physical confines of a printed newspaper, and that opportunity was there. So I was interested in the technology and that digital transformation, gosh, 25 plus years ago now. But then the other side of that was I ended up having a career as a restaurant critic for a while, got distracted, interested, but the great thing about that was you always got to invite fascinating people out for a meal.
Simon Thomsen: But then in 2013, again, another change in publishing, Business Insider, the US brand, came to Australia as a joint venture project, and I was invited on as one of the early employees of that, just as we were building it out. And this was the era of digital Pure Play media, so you think about the Huffington Posts of the world, there were all of these brands that were just starting to emerge that up until that point, of course, newspapers were printing, and they had a website. But then a whole new era of the Junkies, the Gizmodos, the Kotaku, all started to emerge in that era telling stories in a purely digital form, and off the back of that, of course, the distribution channels were the social media side, so it was the Twitters, it was the Facebooks, the LinkedIn, all of that started to really change the distribution model and the readership.
Adam Spencer: I love that you talked about the impact that technology was having on media in the, was it late nineties that you mentioned, or even mid nineties?
Simon Thomsen: Yeah, yeah, it was, well, if you think about it, it was the mid-eighties when the first Apple computers came to Australia, I remember that, and even back then, because I went up there initially to go back to uni and studied media, I had a Mac Classic II, which cost me a couple of thousand dollars, and I think it had four meg of RAM and 40 meg for the hard drive. I can’t believe what it was then and where we are now.
Simon Thomsen: Through the noughties, of course after I’d sold the Echo, I was working for the major media companies, first of all for Fairfax, which is now Nine, and then for News, and it was the digital thing that I was trying to push and advocate for at the time. So when I was the restaurant critic we built the Good Food Guide app because I just thought it was a new way to tell this story, and a new way to engage an audience. And the smartphone were here, it was a possibility. So printing a very large book, which was very expensive, as good as it looked, being able to sell an app of the same material was to me just a great way to be able to tell this story in a new way.
Adam Spencer: So Business Insider, was that the thing that preceded joining Startup Daily?
Simon Thomsen: Yes, it was. So in 2013 Paul Colgan, who I knew through news.com.au, he was the editor of that, the News Corporation site at the time, which of course he’d helped build with a bunch of others into the leading news digital brand in the country. We still used to sit around and chat about what we could do better, how we could do it. And then when the Business Insider thing came along, Paul jumped on it and kicked it off, and then rang me and said, “Hey, do you want to come on board?” I think the funny thing at the time was that probably because he’d known me all the way through my restaurant critic days was he didn’t realize that I’d spent a lot of time doing general news, political news, a whole bunch of different things.
Simon Thomsen: So my country newspaper training, where you write about everything and everyone, stood me in good stead because Business Insider, yes, focused on business, but it would tell popular culture stories, I was telling yes, food, wine, and travel stories, but I could do everything from architecture to whatever story came along, prime ministers, premiers resigning, being ditched by their party, all of those things. And then along the way I started getting interested in the tech thing, because we’d have tech editors, and they were younger journos, they were on the make, and within a year or two they’d generally take off and either launch their own startups, or they’d go and work for a startup on the media communication side.
Simon Thomsen: So we kept having these gaps where I would take over the beat and cover technology, and the more I did it, and if you think about it, this is the early days of companies like Atlassian, ahead of it listing on the NASDAQ, it was SafetyCulture, when it really was still back in a Toomba garage. It was Shoes of Prey, which was an extraordinary story in its day, and we were seeing just first generation, the Envatos, all of these emerging tech companies, which are now big unicorn businesses, just starting to tell their stories, starting to get traction, starting to grow, and starting to get these initial funding rounds.
Simon Thomsen: We were seeing those early days of venture capital. I remember there was a time in between restaurant criticism and me joining Business Insider where I sat down with Pollenizer and had a chat with those guys about a couple of digital ideas I had. Didn’t come to fruition at the time, but the fact that those guys were around doing what they were doing, and I still have vivid memories of that and how it would work, and just even my mind being blown by the opportunity of how it would work with the funding, and everything, was just that first insight into what was going on.
Adam Spencer: What struck you the most over the last, even the last few years, of how much the technology landscape has changed, the startup landscape has changed?
Simon Thomsen: I think it’s been the inflow of capital. It’s been this massive, massive opportunity, it’s been VCs who are hungry to find deals, the deal flow has absolutely grown. And if I think about it, even just in the three years that I’ve been at Startup Daily, there was a pretty set scene around every Tuesday, there’d be one or two or three announcements around a company getting funding. Nowadays it’s almost every day, and it’s 3, 4, 5 every day. So the speed that it’s going on, of course we’ve seen the likes of Startmate, which has been there for a long time now, but then new players like Antler have emerged, and they’ve got their model for backing new startups. We’ve seen a whole bunch of other industry specific ones, the AgriFutures guys, the health tech guys, there is all of these little niche ones now that are building these startup companies that address their industry specific problems through accelerator and investment programs.
Simon Thomsen: And even the universities, you look at what’s happening with UNSW founders nowadays, and the progress that they’re developing, the focus on deep tech they’ve just announced this year. We’re seeing all of these opportunities being created with investment for them to try and get to that next level.
Adam Spencer: In those last three years, as you just said, being the editor at Startup Daily, is there anything that you’ve noticed that makes the Australian startup scene or community stand out? Are there any traits that separate our community from maybe other communities around the world?
Simon Thomsen: Look, I think I’m going to go a little bit with something that Mark Pesce pointed out in his discussion with you, and that’s that collaboration side. I am filled with admiration for that because having covered a number of industry sectors over the years, yes, you do compete on some levels, but you also need to collaborate to survive. And I’ve seen industries where everyone thinks they’re fighting for the same piece of the pie, rather than understanding that if you grow the pie there is more opportunity, and startup founders and entrepreneurs bring that state of mind, I think, to the opportunity every time. They know that they’re building markets that perhaps don’t exist at this point in time, so they know that they’re making the pie as they go, and if we all succeed then there will be opportunity for everyone along the way, that sense of ecosystem.
Simon Thomsen: If you look at what Atlassian is now and where it is, it’s a business that is like a giant planet with this gravitational pull for a whole bunch of other companies around it, so they’re building in that, and of course they invest in some of those companies, some of them just create opportunities off the back of it. We saw that with Apple over the years, there was a whole bunch of companies that emerged as tech solutions to something that Apple had built along the way, so that you could buy something for half the price that Steve Jobs or Tim Cook was otherwise charging you.
Adam Spencer: Where do you think we need to make the biggest improvement? From your perspective, you’re in a unique position, you’re seeing a lot of startups, and you have a very bird’s eye view of the ecosystem. Where do you think we can make the biggest leaps forward, positive leaps forward?
Simon Thomsen: I think Australia struggles still with being brilliant. I think we’re still a little bit scared and a little bit terrified by it. America certainly does have that brass hero myth success thing, whereas in Australia there’s a natural humility, don’t get too big for you boots, we’ll remind you if you are being a bit of a dickhead, thing going on. But by the same token, we’ve done some extraordinary things. Let’s go back to wifi, put the Hills Hoist to one side, although I think that’s a great technical innovation, but wifi is the most extraordinary thing that we have given the world. We should be incredibly proud of this. We could have a national wifi day and just have another day off, which would be great, where we all celebrate. But it’s those moments in our storytelling, in our mythology, that I think are really, really important.
Simon Thomsen: But off the back of that, and this is where I think deep tech, pure science, the longer term stuff that will really transform the world, is going to be so important. Sure, we can build another SaaS company that will scale rapidly and investors will get their 50X really, really quickly, but the transformative stuff, whether it’s the Cochlears of the world, whether it is heart surgery, and I see so many extraordinary ideas from scientists coming forward, who are not necessarily naturally entrepreneurs, and need a little bit more help and a little bit more push to make it happen, that could transform who we are as people, as societies around the world, and I think on that front we need to value that a little bit more than we do, and also have a little bit more patience.
Simon Thomsen: The one thing I would say about startup sector is there is that get rich quick idea that is slightly alluring, certainly alluring for investors. If you can get an exit in five years and quadruple your money along the way, absolutely fantastic. But you know what? I think, and again, I think people are good and bring a lot of good will to the table, if you are going to back something that 10 years down the track makes everyone’s lives better, you might not get as rich as quickly, but you will feel better at the end of the day.
Adam Spencer: Along the wifi line, I just heard the other day, and I’m surprised I didn’t know this, the very first land network that was ever put together was-
Simon Thomsen: Was here.
Adam Spencer: Was here, by KPMG I think.
Simon Thomsen: I’m not sure if it was KPMG, but I knew it kicked off here, yeah. We were doing all of this stuff at the start, it was absolutely astonishing.
Adam Spencer: Do you have an unpopular opinion about the Australian startup ecosystem?
Simon Thomsen: Look, I’m going to put it this way, I think making a profit is important. I’ve been covering business for a long time now, certainly pretty much full time for more than a decade, and startups are a business. I do think we tell too many land grab stories, which are impressive, but we’ve got businesses in the tech sector now that are coming up to 20 years old and have still not posted a profit. I’m not sure what other sector you could get away with that. And I think the fundamentals of business are the fundamentals of business, we’ve seen market corrections in publicly listed appeals, certainly this year, so that exuberance that existed over the last couple of years from investors in public markets has now seen a correction. We’ve recently seen a couple of companies that have had massive cash burns and then come to a screaming help. Now we know that startups will fail along the way, we know the mortality rates around great ideas and not everyone will get across the line, but I do think setting the example of making a profit is an important one.
Simon Thomsen: Someone asked me about this last night with their startup and they said, “Well, what’s a reasonable timeframe?” Well, when I had my business, I bought it as a loss making entity, is why it was slightly cheaper, and it was my firm belief that I could turn it around and make it profitable. That took a couple years, and I took investors on at the time to do it, but we got to profit. And we grew, and our audience grew, and we had a whole bunch of success, but in the end, if you’re going to pay everyone you just can’t keep taking on more capital in order to keep the business growing, you’ve got to come to a point where this is working really well, people are giving us money, and now we redistribute that wealth, to your shareholders, to your investors, to your employees, there are all of those options.
Simon Thomsen: And I think that’s just a really important fundamental lesson that the startup sector wants to be able to tell across the board, because of course the other part of that is you pay tax, and we’ve seen the debates in this country around global tech companies and whether they pay tax, and how they arrange their tax affairs. I think Australian startups will need to lead the way on this one and say, we are good corporate citizens, and this is how we contribute to society. It can’t just be billionaire founders and philanthropy, it can’t just be this constant growth and constant losses, there needs to be profitable businesses so that they set an example for all others.
Adam Spencer: As you may have heard, I ask all guests the startup advice question. I want do it in two parts with you, over the years how many founders would you say you have interviewed?
Simon Thomsen: Well, let me put it this way, on the Startup Daily show on ausbiz I did stop at the end of 2021 and figure out that we spoke to roughly 1200 people during the year. Now that’s not 1200 individuals, we have regulars on the show who come back on, but there was roughly 1200 interviews in the year. But every day I would be talking to three or four founders of companies, either for the site, or on the show, so multiply that out over 50, we’re talking a couple thousand people.
Adam Spencer: Is there anything that stands out to you that, of the successful founders that you’ve spoken to, that you see in every one of them?
Simon Thomsen: Something that stands out? Let me put it this way, this is about relationships, everything’s about relationships. So investors choose founders, not so much for their idea, not so much for where they think the business will be in five years time, certainly not for the exit, they invest in the founders, and they feel it. And I think when you’re an interviewer you feel the people who are good, who bring a good heart to the table, you feel the ones who are a little bit Gold Coast, white shoe developer vibe as well. You do see a few of the hustlers along the way, and I think I’ve got slightly better at picking those after you’ve had a chat with them. You see the full gamut of humanity, as you would expect.
Simon Thomsen: But I do think the good ones do bring a humility to what they do, and they also bring a desire to bring everyone with them. They have that sense of the rising tide lifts all boats, they want everyone to succeed around them, not just themselves, and I think that’s a really notable thing. But I also, I suppose, because I am getting into that later stage of my career at this point in time, when I look at the younger entrepreneurs, what I’ve loved seeing is that shift in compassion and purpose that they now bring to the table and bring to their efforts, that wasn’t part of, you know.
Simon Thomsen: I grew up in the Christopher Skase, Alan Bond, Holmes Court where it was all slightly crazy, make as much money as you can. I suppose we still have that one enterprising politician at this election who happens to be a billionaire, won’t name him, but you know who we’re talking about, but it is that thing of there’s this great generational shift that is not just good enough to be there making money, you have to be doing this for a reason that leaves everything a little bit better. So we are tackling issues around climate, we are tackling issues around equality and diversity, and I think that’s a fantastic mind shift that we’re seeing in the next generation of entrepreneurs that wasn’t necessarily there earlier on.
Adam Spencer: Yeah, what drove that change, do you have any guesses?
Simon Thomsen: Well, if you want to believe the sledge, they’re just woke, but I actually think they’re just better people. I think the next generation are slightly better at being human than our generation was, and I think that’s a good thing, and we can learn from them. I love this, this is one of the things, I describe myself sometimes as a vampire because I feed all the energy that they bring to the table, the ideas they bring, that enthusiasm, it’s just fantastic to watch, and it’s that sense that the world will be in better hands, it will be a better place because there are some great people with great ideas tackling some seriously big problems.
Adam Spencer: And the other part of that question is advice. Maybe something you’ve learned along the way, or from your turning the newspaper around, what advice would you have for new entrepreneurs?
Simon Thomsen: I think the important thing is to have your story clear. I’m a storyteller, but founders are storytellers. You have to have a vision that you can explain to investors, to the team you’re going to bring along the way, to your mum and dad as to why you are doing this. So having that story clear in your own mind sets your goals and agenda along the way. So think about the story that you want to tell everyone, because life is a pitch all along the way, so get that pitch right, and it’s not about why you’re giving me money, it’s why I’m here in the first place.
Adam Spencer: Before I ask you the last question I ask this lazy one, is there anything I missed, is there anything you really want to talk about that I didn’t ask about that you think should go in?
Simon Thomsen: Well, you’ve got Usman and Catalysr. Usman Iftikhar, Western Sydney guy, he runs a program. So very simple backstory for him, you really should have him in there because I would say this, that part of Australia’s entrepreneurialism, and let’s take it broader than, the idea of technology, has been founded on immigrants coming out here, and whether it is the corner milk store, whether it is a range of other businesses that they’ve created along the way, whether it’s Harry and his bloody apartments, American apartments all around the city, or John Hems and fashion, which then turned into just him building a bar empire. There have been these extraordinary migrants who’ve come out to this country and built things from scratch, and that’s an entrepreneurialism which I think is such an important part of our story.
Simon Thomsen: We tell it slightly different to the American version, which again is the hero myth, because you go to America to make your fortune from scratch, but we do it in a way that weaves back into the society in really interesting ways. Usman’s backstory is quite simply that he got out here, he struggled, couldn’t get a job, despite being highly qualified, and that is part of what does happen around here, and we’ve got this debate around skills at the moment, and skilled migration. But Usman came out and he, so he set up Catalysr as a way for migrant entrepreneurs to start their own businesses. And so he does his own program, which I probably should have mentioned during that, when I mentioned Antler and Startmate, because I think what Usman does is just as important, and he’s branched from Sydney to Melbourne now, and he’s giving new Australians this opportunity to build the business for the first time in a new country, which I just think is something extraordinary. So he brings an incredibly different perspective to the middle aged white guy one that I have, but it’s a great one.
Simon Thomsen: Look no, I think we’re pretty good. And I think you’re just going to get such an incredible, there are so many incredible layers, there is a temptation as a journalist to always want to have the giant umbrella over the top of everything and cover everything, but you know what? There is this incredible diversity in the people you’re speaking to at the angles that they bring that we’ll get there in the end.
Adam Spencer: That’s what I’m hoping.
Simon Thomsen: Go off on an MBN rant, some lost years and wasted money, and all of that, or I could talk about what I think is now amazing, is the efforts that we’re seeing around climate tech and that transformation. I just think the wonderful thing is we are seeing this moment where the market itself is sorting out what needs to be done. We often tend to turn, and certainly the last two years have conditioned to turn to government to find solutions. The interesting thing is that the market and entrepreneurs will find solutions before government can even get a round table together of premieres and prime ministers to talk about it.
Adam Spencer: So this last question is, we’re trying to tell this documentary, we’re trying to create this documentary that will tell the entire history, to the best of our ability, of the Australian startup ecosystem. We want founders, investors, academics, policy makers, everybody from the community to hear this story. Pick any one of those categories, or the whole group, what is a message that you have that people absolutely need to hear from you?
Simon Thomsen: Believe in dreaming, and that goes back to the deep tech and science thing, and pure research. I just believe that when we give people permission and opportunity to imagine, that’s when great ideas emerge, great transformation emerges. And we’ve gone into a slightly practical state of mind whereby if we train people to do this, then they’ll be able to supply our labor market for this solution. There needs to be a little bit of time sitting around and just farting and coming up with wild ideas, because that’s how you transform society, that’s how you transform the world. It’s those moments of daydreaming, and we shouldn’t discount the opportunity to daydream and what can emerge from it.
Adam Spencer: Thank you so much, Simon, for joining me on the podcast.
Simon Thomsen: Great to talk with you, 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.