In The Press
- April 2013 - BRW: "Fast Starters: Immigrant entrepreneurs start over and win"
- October 2011 - Women's Network Australia Magazine: "Where Most Entrepreneurs Go Wrong"
- November 2010 - Think Big Magazine: "How to Change for Good? Part Three"
- November 2010 - Industry Hub Magazine: "Scheduling Creative Space a Vital Step"
- August 2010 - Think Big Business Magazine: "Why Entrepreneurs Fail"
- August 2010 - Think Big Magazine: "How to Change for Good? Part Two"
- June 2010 - Think Big Magazine: "How to Change for Good? Part One"
From left: Authentic Education’s Cham Tang, brandsExclusive’s Daniel Jarosch, Reborn’s Sabir Samtani, brandsExclusive’s Rolf Weber and Tracy Angwin from Australian Payroll.
Sabir Samtani is working towards matching the scale of his family’s former business operations, but he has a way to go yet. When he was growing up in Mumbai, the Sabir family’s factories hired almost 1000 staff, producing vast amounts of elastic, eyelets and battery caps. The empire, which included companies MS Patel and Indian Arrow Fabric, was sold when the grandfathers who owned them were becoming very elderly.
By comparison, Samtani’s Melbourne-based digital marketing agency Reborn Group (ranked No. 36), turned over $3.6 million during the 2011-12 financial year, which isn’t bad for a company founded in 2008. Samtani says his desire to become an entrepreneur was inseparable from his family background.
“Growing up in that environment, it’s something I always wanted to do myself,” Samtani says. “It’s definitely a cultural thing, but for me it was also a family thing. I wanted to show my parents that I was succeeding on my own.”
At least a third of the company founders featuring on this year’s BRW Fast Starters list were born overseas, and 38 per cent of Fast Starters have at least one founder born overseas.
Entrepreneurs like Samtani say their desire to launch their own business – and shoulder the risk and hard work that goes with it – had a lot to do with their experience in countries outside Australia, in uprooting and going overseas, or in being awe-struck by the opportunity here. Some derived their work ethic from watching their parents struggle to set up, while others spotted opportunities in Australia that had already flourished in another country. Common to most is the ability to think big and have aspirations towards global markets beyond Australia’s borders.
Succeeding under pressure
Another Indian entrepreneur on this year’s list is Chetan Saligrama, whose parents raised a “herculean” 10 million rupees in 2002 (around $180,000 at today’s exchange rate) to send him to Australia to study. The currency conversion made him naturally frugal – small savings in Australian dollars equated to large amounts in his home currency. And the Australian system was a dream – in India it takes three to six months just to register a business name, he says. But the pressure was huge.
“My parents had to mortgage their house and use the only savings they had to raise a student’s loan for me to come here,” Saligrama says. “I was prepared to work as hard it takes to make it big. I also knew, if I had failed my family would have been on the streets in India.” Saligrama studied electronics at RMIT and worked in call centres for years, saying he felt disadvantaged compared to local candidates for corporate jobs because he didn’t have residency.
He mortgaged his own house to start Thought World (No. 68) in 2009.
Global entrepreneur network the Entrepreneurs’ Organisation shares the same view. Its members – around 500 are business founders in Australia – turn over more than $2 billion a year.
“I don’t know whether it’s the cultural work ethic or the eye to make a difference,” says EO area director for Melbourne, David Barnes, who was born in Singapore. “We love to travel, most of us. You get that drive, especially if you come from a bigger city and come back to Australia, you might have lived in a large Asian city or in the United States; you come here and everything is of a smaller scale – it pushes you to try and achieve more and try to excel in a smaller market.”
Cham Tang, co-founder of education and training business Authentic Education (No. 94), arrived with his parents on a boat from Vietnam in the late 1970s. He was too young to remember the experience, but does remember his mum spending endless hours behind a sewing machine before opening her own shop.
Inspired by family
“My mum worked so much she wasn’t around to help with my homework,” Tang says. “I was very independent, made my own decisions and wasn’t institutionalised into believing I had to climb the corporate ladder. I think entrepreneurialism is something natural that people have but if they get told repeatedly you should get good marks, get this job and that job you start to think ‘oh, maybe that’s what I should do’.”
Zion Ong’s father grew up selling iced water on the street to support his family, while his mother ran a bicycle shop and did laundry on the side for extra money.
“They have a very strong, tough work ethic and I think it’s transferred over to me,” Ong, who runs marketing agency Alyka (No. 66), says.
Nick Grinberg, co-founder of Maps Gurus (No. 100), immigrated to Australia from the Ukraine in the early 1990s. Supermarkets were amazing, neighbourhoods were safe for children to play in the street, and the opportunity to excel was intoxicating.
“As a result of how much [my parents] appreciated Australia they then drilled in a lot of expectation into my efforts to get the most from everything that I did. Everything from sport to academics to my personal life.”
Even arrivals from culturally similar countries like New Zealand and the United Kingdom found they had to think on their feet to make it here, without the benefit of established networks. Starting a business didn’t seem so risky, given the move of uprooting that they had already taken.
Tracy Angwin, managing director of Australian Payroll Association (No. 97), grew up on a remote dairy farm in New Zealand, with no option but to be self-sufficient. “It actually never entered my mind that some people lived ‘just up the road’ from things such as shops and petrol stations,” Angwin says.
“There’s a certain sense of empowerment and liberation when you arrive in a city and a country knowing nothing and nobody. From a New Zealander’s point of view, everything is big, so there is a certain pull of ‘bright lights, big city’.”
Better than home
And while entrepreneurial Australians often complain about small-mindedness, restrictive tax laws and other aspects of Australia that hamper business, new arrivals from the UK share a common observation that Australia was a place that encouraged everyone to have a go.
“Australia’s youth and confidence is empowering, uplifting and contagious,” says UK-born Dominic Patterson of Connect Events (No. 91). “It’s the perfect sentiment with which to start a business. People want you to succeed.”
It is not always a cultural predisposition towards business that brings success. The experience of setting up somewhere new brings its own skills that can be applied to give a business the edge.
UK-born David Cox of CGC Recruitment (No. 70) says that “it helps to have an appreciation and understanding of the challenges in working in new countries and even interstate.
“With the skills shortages in these industries still prevalent, a mobile workforce and the ability to assist staff with a relocation from overseas is a valuable skills set.”
David Webley, of recruiter Granite Consulting (No. 3), says he doesn’t share the view that the Australian recruitment market is over-saturated – there is a market opening when compared to the UK.
And Australia’s relative good fortune in light of recent global events seems more real to those who come from harder-hit countries.
Just ask someone from Ireland.
“It’s bad here but it could be a lot worse if you’re overseas,” says Philip O’Sullivan, of Callaways Executive Selection (No. 45), who came from Ireland in 1992. “It seemed to me about 10 minutes after I left they decided to have the Celtic Tiger. It drove me along that everyone I knew was being hugely successful. They all fell off the edge of a cliff when the GFC hit.”
Dual Australian/German citizen Daniel Jarosch from BrandsExclusive (No. 1), says the immigration experience often bespeaks a willingness to take risks – a skill crucial in business.
“Starting new in a new country is also an entrepreneurial task,” Jarosch says. “From the motivation it is probably very similar to starting a new business venture. You have vision, a plan and a dream, plus a strong intrinsic motivation to create something new, drive change, discover, learn and succeed.”