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Webdirections - Conferences for Web Professionals in Australia & North America

In our ongoing coverage of startups coming out of Australia and interviews with CEOs, Media Personalities, Philanthropists, and VCs, to gauge the innovation and startup landscape in Australia, today we showcase our interview with, the co-founder of Webdirections - Conferences for web professionals held in Australia and North America, John Allsopp.

I did this interview with John to know more about Webdirections, its offerings, its progress and future plans and how his second venture Westciv is progressing. Let us explore what John has to say about the progress of Webdirections and Westciv Australia. This is what he has to say:

• Please tell us about yourself, your background and interests?
I'm a software engineer, with a computer science and maths degree, coupled with quite a few arts subjects at university, and most of a law degree.
Born and raised in Sydney, I lived for a time in the UK, and Italy in the early 1990s, before starting my first company in 1994

I live just outside Sydney, in the national park, with my wife and two young daughters, and try to take advantage of the location I live in by doing lots of outdoor stuff, to counter the hours a day in front of computers.

I've been a volunteer surf lifesaver for a decade, at Bondi Beach, I play football (soccer) with a local team and do quite a bit of mountain biking.

Please tell us about your venture/company/ start-up?
We have two - a well-established small software company called Westciv, which develops web development tools for Mac OS X and Windows, as well as a range of online tools and resources, training and so on for web developers - novice and experienced.

Our more recent venture is Web Directions, conferences for web professionals held in Australia and North America, and soon hopefully elsewhere as well.

Our big event is Web Directions South, in Sydney at the end of September each year (now in our 5th year) - at the Convention Centre - last year saw just under 650 people attend. The conference also includes an Expo of products and services relevant to web professionals

Who are the people behind this and how it started?
Both these companies are run by myself, and Maxine Sherrin.
Westciv was founded in 1994, to develop and publish a hypertext knowledge management application called Palimpsest. Marketing and distributing it online in the mid-1990s lead us to see the potential of the web as a medium for publishing and software distribution.

Web Directions was founded with two others in 2004 as Web Essentials, a grassroots style conference for web developers interested in standards and accessibility. After two years, Maxine and I continued on our own, and have turned an expensive hobby into a successful conference series that has been attended by over 2000 people from all over the world.

How long it took before it was up and running?
  • Westciv took about 18 months from being founded to releasing our first application.
  • Web Directions launched its first conference weeks after being formed, and held its first conference within 5 months.

What is the main objective/mission behind your venture?
  • Westciv - to build the best web development tools and resources available
  • Web Directions - to put on the best possible conferences, mixing content, inspiration and networking for web professionals anywhere in the world.

What market segment verticals you are targeting for?
Both our ventures target web professionals. Westciv is more focused - on designers and developers, people who code websites. Web Directions broadens the focus to anyone whose day-to-day job is building and managing websites, applications, services and communities. That includes IA experts, UX experts, front-end back-end programers, designers, developers, and project and product managers, all the way to senior management.

How many people are using your services?
Westciv - the site and its resources are used by millions of people each year.
Our software is used by hundreds of thousands, and we have in the order of tens of thousands of paying customers.

What sort of marketing you are using to spread the word?
Almost entirely word of mouth and online.

How are you measuring the success of your venture? Are there any special mechanisms/tools in place to monitor the progress?
Food on the table. But seriously, our metrics are quite informal - attendance growth at conferences, inbound linking to sites, buzz on networks like Twitter, number of photos on Flickr, and software sales .

What is the monetizing/revenue model? Is there any new model, which is being tried?
Pretty straightforward model for each - folks buy our software or premium content, or pay to attend our conferences. Sponsorship and the Expo at the conference account for a reasonable amount of our revenue, but our aim there is to work with sponsors to put on a better conference - a better wifi network, better social experience, and so on.

In fact, this model for Web Directions is probably a bit less obvious than it appears. Many conferences see Expos and sponsorship as a primary revenue source, and so their number one customers are sponsors. In our case, the event has always been put on by us as members of the professional community, and so our attendees come first.

Which are the main competitors or major players in this market segment?
Software- there are several smaller software companies building tools that directly or indirectly compete with ours on the Mac and Windows - none that target both platforms. The applications like Dreamweaver from large software companies are not so much competitors, as our software complements their functionality rather than going head to head with it.

In the conference space, around the world, there are several conferences focussing on a similar niche - but these tend to have a slightly different focus or a slightly narrower focus.
In Australia, there really is nothing like Web Directions in the web professional space.

How do you see Webdirections in future and what can we learn from it?
Conferences are resource-intensive, and require a reasonable amount of startup capital, though this can be returned quite quickly with a successful event.
Conferences tend to be put together by conference companies, which service a perceived need in an industry. Our motivation was and remains quite different. We felt the lack of an event in the professional community we were members of. It's primarily driven by our passion and desire to see the Australian web industry grow and prosper and take on the world, and while we carefully manage it as a business, we definitely spend money and effort where others would see that as a waste.

We hope Web Directions will move from being just a conference to a real hub for the community of web professionals here and worldwide - through events, publications, and other activities.
What did we learn that we'd pass on to others. Temper passion with realism. Have a long-term plan (our conferences effectively lost money for several years before becoming financially really viable if you look at the opportunity cost). But passion and commitment to things you care about go a long way, even when up against multinational companies, and large established players.

What are the main technologies used behind this start-up?
For web directions, we've used a lot of open-source, web-based software as a platform for building our own solutions incrementally. Our sites are run on top of WordPress - which enables us to quickly roll out new events once they are planned.
We've also built a fantastic registration management system using Ruby on rails which means we can get new events up and running online in hours or less. It manages payments via just about any gateway, affiliate programs, promotional offers, and all the registration management stuff we've found we need to run the conference. We can even print our badges more or less directly out of it.

What has been the easiest to use, out of box and helpful technology?
Not a lot of out-of-the-box stuff - though we have been thinking of turning our registration system into an out-of-the-box service for other events - big and small.

Are you using a lot of open-source tool sets for this?
Yes - All LAMP stacks or Rails on top of open source OS's on commodity hardware.

What is your operating environment (operating system) and what type of database you are using?
Server side it's Apache and MySQL - on top of either BSD or Linux. Client side we are mostly Mac, but Windows to an extent too - but most of our management etc is browser-based, so clients are less of an issue.

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?
Rarely. We tend to meet up with a few folks holding events like ours either at our own events here and in Canada, or when speaking at events elsewhere. In terms of software, there's little client app development happening in Australia - we know about 4 in the Mac space we'd say are similar to us ()there's probably quite a few more out there, but we have nothing like the networks you find in the US.

What’s your thought on being an entrepreneur? How tough it is to start a venture in Australia?
Very. Above all because we don't have the kinds of networks and culture you can find in San Francisco and the valley, Austin, Seattle, New York, and several other cities in the US, or London in the UK. There's a lack of the kind of role model and success story you can find by the dozen elsewhere, and few if any mentors in the garage startup space doing in on the super cheap, using little if any credit.

Which city in Australia is more vibrant and can be regarded as the Silicon Valley of Australia?
None. Some stuff happens in Sydney and Melbourne. We've been looking to try and make some more explicitly startup focused stuff happen, but the response from all kinds of stakeholders - VCs, Angels, tech press, and the startup folks or those who should at least be thinking about startups, has been, well, underwhelming. We actually shelved plans for a one-day "boot camp" style event last year after launching it as there was so little enthusiasm for attending or participating.

We have a long long long way to go.

What do you think of new ventures and innovation coming out of Australia?
Some people are doing some excellent stuff. Too often though these side projects languish while folks put food on the table. Sydney and Melbourne are expensive cities, and if you are young, it's hard to turn your back on the lifestyle everyone seems to be living - $8 beers, $75 meals in restaurants, to do the hard years and make the sacrifices it takes to go from good ideas to decent execution.

Do you think we can create a new Google in Australia?
No. While we do have great success stories, like Google Maps, which we always try to get the word out about via web directions, the key to Google and the valley generally is Stanford - really well-educated folks coming out into that community, where networks of alumni can employ, mentor and fund, and there is a critical mass of ventures, VCs, tech press, and so on.
I think trying to create an environment that creates the next Google is not the right way to go forward. We need to create a vibrant community of IT success (I'd focus on the web or one other tightly focussed area - we just don't have the resources to target say "IT". The web also has the advantage of letting ventures fail fast, for little great expense).

A big problem here is that those coming out of post-secondary IT and comp science courses simply don't have much exposure to the kinds of technologies web ventures need. No idea how long it will take to have that addressed.

What Government resources have you used to help your business? And have they made an impact?
We have used Export Development Grants for some aspects of our promotion of Westciv. These pay back about 50c in the dollar you use for promoting exports, after a threshold. They are also time-consuming or costly for smaller companies to take advantage of, and the threshold means that large companies can much more readily benefit from them than smaller ones. So much so in fact that we felt that it simply wasn't worth the time and effort to go through the hoops for the money we would receive, having done it the first time.

Have you sought any funding?
No. We've managed to grow organically to date. Whether we'd seek funding in future depends on particular hurdles we face and goals we might have at the time. The main reason Westciv, in particular, is still around and doing well is probably because we never had funding, and so could follow the path that made most sense over time - which is how we ended up in the web development space.

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?
I think there are several factors
  • A lack of startup culture - it's just not what folks in the IT industry, IME, see as a big goal of theirs.
  • A risk-averse culture - in Australia, failure is bad, and a lifelong stigma in business.
  • It's expensive to live here, and startups require lifestyle sacrifice
  • I often find in Australian business culture what I call "professional cynicism" - Australian business folks often respond to ideas with "why it will fail" as the very first response. No one ever got sacked I guess for not investing in Google. They got sacked for investing in the failed ventures that are part of the ecosystem around successful ones.
  • The number of folks who pooh-poohed using the web as the distribution medium for software when we started in 1994/5, and predicted no one would come to our conferences far outweighed those who were positive.
My experience of the US (which is reasonably extensive now) is the opposite is true - people give you a hearing and look at the whole picture far more than just try to pick holes. I always came back from the US much more enthusiastic than when I left.

Do you have any thoughts on our TAFE/Universities and their curriculum in terms of promoting and encouraging entrepreneurship and innovation?
In terms of the web, we have a huge bottleneck when it comes to the skills folks need to hit the ground running when it comes to the web. Even things as simple as HTML, CSS and Javascript, let alone back end development skills, and so on. I can't say when it comes to the innovation/business side - but my experience is that the innovation, particularly in the web space, has almost entirely come from technical, not traditional business/management/marketing folks. Here, IT folks seem to largely be isolated in the operations side of things. That really has to change, and a lack of technical literacy among decision-makers should be seen as in essence a lack of basic literacy.

What do you think the government (federal and state) should do to improve the culture of innovation and the telecom industry?
I've already written about war and peace :-) That would be the Lord of the Rings, and the Bible rolled into one.

But, start by having government and political decision-makers with technical literacy. That includes a basic understanding of how core technologies work, what hey are capable of, and frankly, an understanding of emerging technologies, and the impact they'll have on the policy context of their decisions. A simple example. The previous federal government a few years ago gave away a huge chunk of valuable spectrum to incumbent TV broadcasters, with the mandate that it had to be used for Digital TV. Digital TV is just bits, like all other digital information. That was simply backward-looking.

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?
The web emerged bottom up as the loose coupling of people, and technology on top of a simple stack of open, interoperable standard technologies. That's how all lasting change occurs. So, the 20/20 summit really was no doubt a well-intentioned, but ultimately pointless anachronistic exercise. Is there a single minister in the Rudd government who ever used a wiki?

Any thoughts on the launch of the iPhone in Australia?
The key thing is - will it drive realistic, affordable, transparent mobile data plans? Right now they are stupendously overpriced (along with public wifi access) - and frankly, in a digital age, this is as crippling as the lack of public sanitation was to the growing urban centres in the 1850s/

Do you have any advice for people who want to start their venture?
If you are driven by passion, and committed, willing to sacrifice time, money, and other opportunities, it can definitely be done. And I hope it is easier than when we started.
Thanks, John 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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