Australia's first San Francisco landing pad: So how was it?

Margaret Paton

San Francisco has proved to be the ideal entry point into the US. Its tech ecosystem leads the world in fostering successful start-ups, and has produced icons such as Facebook, Airbnb and eBay, says Chris Oldfield, Australia’s Consul General and Senior Trade and Investment Commissioner in the city.

Now, the first batch of Aussie start-ups and entrepreneurs on Austrade’s San Francisco landing pad are nearing the end of their three-month stint in the US at the RocketSpace co-working space – and already – the second cohort have already been picked from “significant number of applications,” says an Austrade spokesman. Very soon, they’ll be on their way over.

As they wrap up their three-month stint, here’s why these three founders and their start-ups decided to make the trip – and what they’ve taken from it.

Tristan Alexander, Gymsales

Tristan Alexander, Founder and CEO of Gymsales, has already decided he’ll stay put in San Francisco to keep growing his business. A former gym owner, he set up the online “smart” lead management tool for fitness clubs in January 2013 in Melbourne, nurtured its growth with about 600 Australian gyms signing on, and sees the US market as its future.

“There are about 3,000 gyms in Australia, whereas the US and North American market has 45,000. We’d got a contract with 1,100 Snap Fitness clubs in the US in October last year, so I’d been commuting before that for four months to contract signing, then four months after to support them in the rollout,” he says.

“If I wasn’t in the US, I was working US time zones in Australia. I put on a few staff there, but nothing worked well, so I knew I was just going to have spend time there.”

“I came here for a head start in building networks within the bay area."

Alexander relocated with his family to the US and since has even hired a couple of US staff to work with him there. The landing pad’s onboarding process was “seamless” and he’s been networking big time since.

“I came here for a head start in building networks within the bay area. For me, that’s mentors, investors, advisers and other startup founders that I can reach out to in the future. I’m on the way to achieving that. Austrade has given me warm intros over email for me to follow up with a meeting or coffee and the expat network is very beneficial and influential,” said Alexander.

The US market’s size has been a revelation, but the “biggest take away” for him is to “stay completely focused on what my company vision is” despite much distraction about what else he could do.

For those considering the landing pad, he advises to break into the US market from Australia first as people in the US “really only respect the traction and market validation you have in the US market”.

“If you don’t have a single customer in the US, it’s a much different story and people are less confident about your product and ability to execute. Being on the landing pad it still hard work and it’s almost the same as starting from scratch again.”

Shannon Gove, Rosterfy

Another Aussie startup on the landing pad agrees. Shannon Gove, created event staff rostering and management platform, Rosterfy, in July 2014, and now works with business partners Bennett Merriman (on the landing pad) and Chris Grant (based in New York) plus five staff.

Even before Merriman arrived on the landing pad, Rosterfy had two huge US clients including reportedly one of the world’s biggest events, Tough Mudder.

“Our goal was to create partnerships with people aligned with us in the industry that need what we provide."

Gove says: “It was a no brainer for us to go given we had two of America’s biggest events on our resume. We may as well make the most of our opportunity.”

“Our goal was to create partnerships with people aligned with us in the industry that need what we provide. We’re focusing on other suppliers to the event industry that already have the client list so we can offer them something for their clients that they couldn’t offer.”

Many tech companies are also taking the referral partner approach rather than having a floor of telesales people or doorknockers cold calling, says Gove.

“We have a lot of really good business in the pipeline.”

Lucy Khayat, VaXXin8

That, too, prompted VaXXin8 Co-Founder Lucy Khayat to join the landing pad’s first cohort. VaXXin8 is an offshoot of a cybersecurity and networking firm, Dragonfly Technologies, she runs with her husband, Ninkovic. VaXXin8 is an online portal helping enterprises monitor the vaccination status of their frontline, mostly health, workforce.

“We have some traction in the Australian market with VaXXin8 having about 10,000 users since launching March 2015, but it’s a small market in comparison to the US. The US market also opens up the opportunity to get funding to help us reach out across the US and further,” said Khayat.

“My aim was to ascertain if there’s an opportunity in the US market. It’s similar in the regulator space. I’m working with a business development manager in the bay area who’ll continue to work here after I return to Australia to see what traction can happen.”

"The US market also opens up the opportunity to get funding to help us reach out across the US and further.”

Austrade has helped her start-up with connections and analysis plus she’s realised the American way is to “hustle” by going out every day, meeting people and making connections. She admits she literally knew no-one in the States when she arrived on 1 July.

“Anyone can show up and hire a [RocketSpace] desk, but here you have the backing of the Austrade team. It gives us kudos as people want to hear what we have to say,” she says.

All up, Khayat’s paid about $25,000 out of her own pocket for all expenses. But “if you’re serious about the landing pad, you’ll put your money behind it,” she says. 

Margaret Paton

Former Sunday Age staff journalist, Margaret Paton (formerly Jakovac) has written widely for corporations/government departments and more than 100 online/hard copy mastheads in regional NSW, Sydney, Melbourne and Europe

Image: William Hui, Flickr Creative Commons License

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