A champion of the open source model, Bob Waldie believes in the value of sharing information and being smart to succeed in IT. He also reckons that a little bit of failure does not hurt either.
When he is not working on the next Australian IT startup to unleash abroad, Bob Waldie can be found tending to his beef farm in Queensland, fishing for barramundi, or more recently immersing himself in the finer points of grape growing for his new boutique winery. But it’s the urge to get his hands dirty with startup tech companies that truly gets his blood pumping.
Waldie’s foray into IT was with Hartley Computer in 1980. A great opportunity for a young engineer, it allowed him to take part in the development of an early multi-processor computing system that received an Australian Design Award.
But like so many smart companies, Hartley eventually went into receivership, although this failure turned out to be the thing that forced him to go out on his own. "I learnt early on some of the commercial realities of the technology business.”
And he had clearly learned his lessons well. With some other engineers from Hartley, Waldie then founded Stallion Technologies, a pioneering remote connectivity company that ran for 10 years. The company amassed 80 staff throughout the UK, the US, Germany and Singapore, with revenues reaching $20 million at their peak. “This was a great business growth experience,” Waldie says.
Indicative of a general spirit amongst many Australian technology companies, Waldie recollects that while he and his team had very little knowledge of the market, the quality of their design ideas was what really drove them and ultimately determined their success.
“The key thing in Stallion was, while we were all very raw in terms of our knowledge, the guys I was with were pretty classy technologically. That can compensate for being somewhat ignorant when it comes to market realities.”
Waldie admits, however, that this strategy does not always work, especially if you have not done your homework.
Back in 1998, Waldie and a few associates formed what started as an online wholesale outlet for pharmacy products, eventually extending it into an e-tailing business. For an Australian company, it was way ahead of its time and in hindsight it was a potentially very smart idea. Still, its eventual failure was an important lesson Waldie says.
“Again it was a business that eventually folded and we found that something we were not good at was identifying trends in this space. To be a success in e-commerce you have to be in tune with the marketing realities.”
Stallion was eventually absorbed into LANtronics and remains for Waldie his first major capital experience, not to mention having given the budding entrepreneur valuable exposure to foreign markets. “I thoroughly enjoyed opening offices and meeting people around the world -- I did an MBA and read all the books.”
Like many in the local IT industry, Waldie believes that more often than not indigenous companies succeed despite themselves. It is a view that for him has crystalised after many years observing both the disorganised strategies of state and federal governments as well as an inherently misguided, albeit well meaning venture capitalist (VC) culture, still shackled by concepts that are more reflective of banking than genuine seed funding activities. “We still have a predominantly financial/regulated investment community,” Waldie says. To be fair, VCs have not been helped by the indigenous IT industry.
“You only have a successful VIC community sitting right beside a successful IT industry but I don’t think in Australia that we do have a very successful indigenous industry. IT is not on the current government’s list of important things.”
Not one generally drawn to the public sector, Waldie nevertheless found himself on the Queensland Government’s IIB (Information Industries Board) committee in 1997, where he oversaw the creation of a technology incubator program and was eventually appointed chairman. There are now four major incubators in the state. “That was probably the most tangible outcome,” Waldie says.
However, he learned that he was less effective in a government committee environment than being out there in the commercial world building companies from the ground up. “While I’d invested in a few businesses, what I really enjoyed doing was getting into startups.”
Around this time Waldie founded Moreton Bay Ventures, an embedded Linux appliance company, which he managed until its acquisition in 2000 by Nasdaq-listed company Lineo. Part of the deal was that Waldie would work as an engineer for Lineo in the US for a few years. “That was a different scale of operation for me. From an education perspective those two years were better than any management study I’ve ever done,” he says.
However, the company fell victim to the 2000 tech crash and he learnt another set of good commercial lessons. “I learned never again to sell for paper.”