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A Journalist Perspective: Innovation & Startups Landscape in Australia

In our ongoing coverage of interviews, with CEO's, Media Personalities, Philanthropists, and VCs, to gauge the innovation and startup landscape in Australia, today we showcase our interview with Freelance Journalist and public Speaker, Mr Brad Howarth, who writes on Australia’s startup industry, digital marketing, dangers of climate change and other relevant topics in this domain.

We did this interview to get a holistic view from the Journalism side of the Innovation and startup landscape in Australia. Let us explore what Brad has to say about the state of affairs in this domain in Australia. This is what he has to say:

• Please tell us about yourself, your background and interests?
I’ve been a journalist for 13 years now, having completed a degree at RMIT in Melbourne back in 1994. I’ve worked for a wide range of publications, starting with technology trade titles such as ComputerWorld and Australian Reseller News, then moving to spend two years on the technology section of The Australian at the height of the dotcom bubble, before moving to become the IT editor at BRW. I also spent a period editing a magazine for Fairfax called BusinessOnline, then returned to BRW as an innovation writer and then as marketing editor. I also managed to write a book during that period, Innovation and Emerging Markets, which was a study on the process of commercialising and exporting Australian technology innovations. About four years ago I left and went freelance, and have been pursuing a wider agenda across a broad range of publications including BusinessWeek, The Age and Sydney Morning Herald, AFR Boss magazine, GQ Australia, Australian Anthill, Inside Film and others. In the last four years, I’ve written on everything from Australia’s start-up industry and the changes being brought by digital marketing to the impact of civil war in Northern Uganda and the dangers of climate change.

• Please tell us how you became a journalist?
I started as an engineering student, but I’d always had a fascination with the media and learning about new things, and journalism is a great way to keep absorbing new information. The course at RMIT gave me the necessary skills to break.

• What’s your thought on being a journalist? How tough it is to be a journalist in Australia?
It is great fun, but can be bloody tough to get established. As a profession, it is like being back at university, but you change subjects every day and get paid to hand in your essays.

• How did you become a specialist in writing on tech trends and innovation?
By accident. My background as an engineering student (initially) helped, but I wasn't pursuing technology as a specialisation. It just happened that my first job was in the tech trade press.

• How do you research and learn about on topic you have to write?
Lots and lots of reading, followed by as many conversations and interviews as possible.

• What do you think of the digital revolution which is breaking the conventional business model for media houses?
Adapt or die. Either move to where the money is or make yourself so compelling the money comes to you.

• As compared to the US where New York Times is now a free service and WSJ is also following that path, we don’t have that model in Australia yet for AFR and BRW. What do you think it’s inevitable that the online business model will change here as well?
No. I don’t believe that it is inevitable. Publishers are realising that some content is still worth paying for, so there will always be items behind the paywall - possibly more so in future. But that doesn’t mean that sites such as AFR and BRW won’t evolve.

• Recently the Aussie iconic magazine Bulletin said they are closing down, what do you think factors attributed to this?
Poor editorial decisions that saw it lose touch with its audience and advertisers. The death of the Bulletin does not mean the death of print and certainly does not mean the death of magazines.

• Please tell us which is your favourite online newspaper and magazine in Australia?
Pure online (not a hybrid) – ZDNet Australia and SmartCompany. I otherwise read the Australian Financial Review, Australian Anthill, The Diplomat, The Monthly and a bunch of others offline.

• What do you think of Google and its ambition of being a media company?
Do they have ambitions to be a media company? They don’t create any content that I am aware of. Their model is based on organising and monetising other people’s content, not creating it.

• What are your thoughts on Microsoft's bid on Yahoo and if that succeeds what changes do you see in Australia, especially in the context of channel 7 ‘s tie-up with Yahoo and channel 9’s ties with MSN?
On the bid – seems a little desperate and problematic in terms of working with the various content platforms. It does show how quickly one-time growth industries can enter the consolidation phase.

• What do you think of Telstra with Sensis in its portfolio (dominant in local search and classified ads with tradingpost) and with 50 % holding in Foxtel? Do you think Telstar is similar to Google in Australia and could be positioning itself as a media company?
Telstra is positioning itself as a media company and has not shied away from this, particularly in relation to BigPond. What will be interesting is whether they can also leverage the benefits of owning the access networks as well as having content, and hence make more money than pure-play competitors.

• Any thoughts on who is going to get the network coverage for the launch of the iPhone in Australia?
I think that has been decided now.
(It's Vodaphone and Optus at this stage)

• Do you think Telstra is the major player for the future growth of Australia in a digital economy?
Yes. Its size and coverage make that inevitable.

• What do you think what is government trying to do to resolve the conflict between Telstar, ACCC and the C9 consortium?
It’s a mess, and typical of what happens when politics is called into play. There is a market failure in terms of providing communication services to regional areas that the government needs to fund, but the previous government (and to a lesser extent the current one) have been more interested in making announcements and winning votes than in actually seeing a service delivered.

• Why do you think that we have not created many world-class companies in technology-based business (except, medical science-based) as compared to other OECD countries?
  • Firstly – Scale. Our companies grow to a certain size (less than $100 million) prove themselves on the world market, and then are speedily acquired by larger foreign interests. In some ways other parts of the world (particularly the US) are outsourcing a small component of their R&D to us.
  • Secondly – Conservative Capital Markets. Despite the huge pools of money that are sloshing around superannuation funds, little is invested in start-ups. Australian investors are often risk-averse, and in many cases only give companies enough money to enable them to fail (rather than grow and succeed).
• What do you think of the software industry in Australia? Not many companies building IP/Products in Australia? How can we change that?
There are hundreds out there. Most of them are small tho, so difficult to see, and unfortunately, the failure rate is high. Greater funding for market development activity may help to alleviate some of this problem. The issue is not the generation of ideas – we have plenty of those. The issue is in creating an environment in which the companies can thrive.

• What do you think of ACS? Do you think it's making any impact on the software industry in Australia?
I have very little to do with the ACS, although as a professional body, I understand it is well-regarded by its members.

• What do you think of new ventures and innovation coming out of Australia?
See my answer to the software question above. I would contend that we punch above our weight in terms of the quality of our innovation, but well below in terms of our ability to commercialise.

• Any new ventures you think are worth keeping an eye on?
Dozens :-)

Do you think we can create a new Google in Australia?
Which is a bit like asking, “Can you father a new Donald Bradman”? Google is something of a freak. That is not to say that we cannot develop large, global market leaders here. There is no reason that a company like Salesforce.com could not have been born here and retained its R&D here.

• Which city in Australia is more vibrant and can be regarded as the Silicon Valley of Australia?
None of them deserve that title. No city in the world comes close.

• What do you think of our TAFE/Universities and their curriculum in terms of promoting and encouraging entrepreneurship and innovation?
I do not know enough about them to have a valid opinion.

What do you think the government (federal and state) should do to improve the culture of innovation and the software industry?
Yes – provide greater tax relief and foster an entrepreneurial spirit around solving problems, rather than creating interesting engineering projects.

• How do you see the opportunities in green tech/sustainability, esp; after Australia is a signatory of Kyoto?
Kyoto is not really relevant – our climate is on the fritz anyway, so our need to develop green/clean is pressing regardless. We have a hot, dry climate, which increasingly will be called upon to provide food. Much of the world is in the same situation. By investing in technologies to help this aim, we could quickly be a world leader. Similarly, we have some of the best science in wind and solar energy (along with many other alternatives), and should foster this also.

• The change of guard at the Federal level has taken place, what do you think what can we expect from the Rudd government for the IT and Telecom industry?
So far, not much has changed. I am not sure that it will.

• At the 2020 conference, PM Kevin Rudd is meeting with the top 1000 people from different backgrounds to discuss and collaborate on the issues facing the nation. What issues would you like to raise if you are given an opportunity to attend?
Greater support for start-up tech and digital media companies with the view to fostering a world-recognised export industry.

• How often do you catch up with others trying similar things and where do you catch up? Do you have dedicated communities in your city?
Many and often, but not as often as I would like. CeBIT is coming up for tech, The Domain is a good is a good spot for digital media, along with the other AIMIA events. I was at the Consensus Awards last week. Would be good to see Webjam restart.

• What is the most challenging thing you find?
Finding enough hours in the day, and managing communications.

• What is the most enjoyable and satisfactory thing you find?
Finding great new ideas

• Do you follow any games?
I’ve wasted a large amount of my life on Civilization III. I used to be a mad AFL supporter when I lived in Melbourne until my team was slaughtered and sent to Brisbane.

• Do you have any advice for people who want to become a journalist?
Don’t - I have enough competition as it is. Seriously however it is a great job. In some ways, it is like being at university, in that you are constantly learning. But you change the subject every day or week and get paid to hand in your essays.

Thanks, Brad for sharing your thoughts with us. All the best for the future.

For coverage on other Australian startups, innovation, and tech trends check this out our coverage on interviews can be found here

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