Transcript : In conversation with Mark Adams
M: Good morning, my name is Maria MacNamara and I’m the CEO of Advance.org. We’re the platform that connects global Australians with one another and with Australia. Today I’m joined by Mark Adams, a Bay Area based Australian entrepreneur. He’s the managing director of UnReal HiTech and a podcast host of Recruiting Reimagined which is presented by Curious Thing AI. Good morning Mark.
MA: Good morning Maria, how are you?
M: I’m really well. Thanks so much for making the time.
MA: My pleasure.
M: You have a real interest in the future of work and recruiting, and you have a focus on AI and how it will impact our careers over the next 20 years. It is probably the hottest topic at the moment with all attention being focused on it as a result of the pandemic. But let me take you back, let me ask you about the key elements of your career to date. What sent you to this point, what led you to this area of practise?
MA: Yeah, it’s interesting, I’ve always wanted to work overseas. I’ve always been fascinated since my first overseas trip as a child to Hong Kong when I was 8. Ever since then I have wanted to work in Hong Kong. For the first part of my career, it was pretty regular, Optus, James Hardy, which is a pretty iconic Aussie company, or it was at that time, LG electronics, but then I got the chance to work with a start-up. At that point in my career I was 10-15 years in, and the thought of working for a start-up was really intriguing because the concept of being an entrepreneur really wasn’t like it is here. My kids stay here in the US, they breathe that in because it’s one of the things that might be your career option but the idea of working for a start-up was really interesting. I didn’t know anything about it. But I think the fact that I didn’t know anything about it helped me make the decision, because if I did, and if I knew what was going to happen, I knew how hard it was going to be, I probably would have had second thoughts. I took the leap of faith and moved to Hong Kong with this company that had 7 employees, and most of them were in Sweden in Stockholm.
How did an Australian person end up in Hong Kong working for a Swedish company? That’s just how the world works these days. So I was in Hong Kong and right at the global financial crisis as well, so it was an interesting time to be in Asia. It cemented my love of seeing things grow, and of technology, and Australia’s engagement with the Asia Pacific region. I got to see firsthand China, I first went to China believe it or not in 1982, and then all through the early 2000s up to now, so that was incredible. I was in Hong Kong for many years and I actually work with the Government quite closely to actually build the business there. There’s an organisation called Invest Hong Kong which was super pivotal in helping us recruit staff and get office space. Really impressed with that, so we grew the business to about 100 people. As a result of that I moved to the US nearly 10 years ago now. To run the operations of this company here. The business was essentially video streaming apps, working for companies like Netflix, Fox, HBO, to build their apps, so a super cool time to be in that business.
Then as I moved over to the US as the first employee in the US, starting from scratch, but the organisation was much bigger at that time. We built that up, opened an office in LA and NY and Guadalajara in Mexico, so I got a real taste for growth and just the excitement of building something from nothing, but also the concern of worrying about payroll. There’s been many times when I’ve come to that point. But I was sitting in my office one day in Palo Alto and we’re just about to sell this Swedish company to a private equity firm and in walks an Australian Entrepreneur by the name of David McKeague who I think we both know. He was looking for some app development work from my company but we got to talking and I ended up joining that company, and that was incoming media, and AI at its core, very smart people, ended up joining that and going on that journey. That gave me my first taste of Australian entrepreneurship, meeting Australian investors as well.
We had a really great Cap Table, we had Warner Music, Citrix, Intel as well as One Ventures and others. Very cool experience. That got acquired again, most recently by Amaysim. That was really fantastic, but along the way I realised that this is what I want to be doing. I don’t think anything against large companies, but I don’t think they’d have me at this point. I think I’m too much of an independent entrepreneur, but it did get me thinking about what I want to do and what my children want them to do over the next 30-40 years. So that led me to starting a consulting business, working with different companies about US market entry and that’s brought me to today, and my latest project with Curious Thing which is a really exciting AI company.
M: That’s fascinating, I don’t even know where to start with that. The experience in Asia would have given you a sense of East and West, a pace at which would be unfamiliar in Australia, and it would have also given you a sense of how Asia reacts to Europe, very differently than it does with the US. When you’re looking at the current climate, and you’re looking at the pace of change that’s happening in the US, has it slowed? Or is it as frenetic as it was when you first arrived, and what sort of a culture shock is it for Australians that are going for the first time so far into the cycle?
MA: There’s a couple of things there. One thing I’ll say about culture shock, there was more of a culture shock moving to the US than Hong Kong. Hong Kong is in some ways like a northern suburb of Sydney, there’s about 100,000 Australians there, it’s just part of our neighbourhood. Coming to the US and setting up from scratch is very, very different. It is a different place. We might be familiar with it from Television growing up, but it is a very different society to Australia, it is a much more complex society, a much less stable society as well. It’s probably a harsher environment, quite frankly, than Australia, so that’s the perfect environment for an entrepreneur to thrive. I’ve been here long enough that I’ve seen a couple of cycles. You look at 2010, looking at Palo Alto house prices, they’ve done the full cycle in the 10 years or so that I’ve been here.
Up until pre-February or March, things seem to be steaming along. The economy was never doing better, there were all sorts of jobs being added every month, and I felt the start-up scene was as robust as it’s ever been. It’s harder to say now, I know people are investing still and things are still happening, companies announcing funding rounds, but because all my social interaction is now done by Zoom, it’s a bit different. From Australians coming here, trying to circle back to the start of your question, there’s a lot to unpack there. You have to prepare yourself for something that may look a little like Australia but is really nothing like it from a systemic and structural way, it’s a completely different place and you have to be prepared for that.
M: Talk to me about the differences, what you’ve learnt over the years, help me understand how you navigate, and how you suggest people navigate through the differences.
MA: The one thing I love about the US is they are welcome to anyone to come in and talk to you about an idea or sell them the knowledge. As an Australian coming here without really much of a network, the fact that I was able to go into some of the biggest fortune 500 companies, do deals, build a network is a testament to how open they are about ideas from anywhere. Which is, I think, part of its strength. That comes from an underlying self-confidence, and to understand a bit about American self-confidence, it helps to be a parent of American children, and see how that’s instilled from a young age. When I go and see my kids in class, the way they speak and interact with adults is not something I was ever doing, and maybe times are different now in Australian schools, but 40 years ago or whatever, it was very different and there is a sense of confidence that Americans have. That gives them a platform to embrace things from all over the world.
Where I live here in the Bay Area, is one of the most culturally diverse places in the world. People don’t often think about it like that but we literally have people from everywhere. I’ll go down to the park with my kids and there’ll be like 6 different languages being spoken. People think perhaps NY is like that, but here as well. And you know, Sydney has a lot of strengths like that as well, but here is just at a different scale. That openness, that confidence, then there’s the sense of risk taking, embracing that.
People speak a lot about fear of failure, Australia is more conservative, but we haven’t had to take the risks, we’ve been very lucky, the way our economy is structured, the way our society is structured. That there has been really stable career paths, for a long time we were isolated and now we’re more open. That sense of competition, that’s the other thing, the aggressive competition, there’s even 50 states that are competing with each other. There’s 50 tax codes, 50 different states competing for your investment dollar, to relocate your company, underneath that there’s the counties.
The complexity, it breeds this competition which I think is great. I really believe if you are successful in NY or in LA, then you will be successful everywhere, because it does attract the best people from around the world, so there’s nothing to be afraid of inviting the best people in as well.
M: I’m interested in exploring that whole conversation around the level and intensity of competition. When you’re thrown into an environment that has that level of competition, you sharpen your skills. When you aren’t in that, as you mentioned, when you aren’t in that environment, 30 years of uninterrupted growth, and suddenly you’re facing a collapse of your economy, or let’s not be that dramatic, a reshaping of your economy, and you have to redefine it, being able to compete and knowing how to compete effectively makes the world of difference. So, when you’re looking at the environment, particularly from a start-up perspective, this whole notion of moving fast and knowing very quickly whether you’ve got a market or not becomes very important. How intense is that in an environment like Silicon Valley?
MA: It’s more intense. It’s extremely intense and that’s exactly what you want, it does prevent you from wasting too much of your time or other people’s money on something that isn’t going to work. The idea of failing fast, not necessarily, I don’t think you fail, you’re going to grow as an entrepreneur and learn a whole heap, whether your business was successful or not is sort of secondary to that, but you’ll be a better leader and entrepreneur for doing it.
The whole idea that you can put something into market very quickly, especially if it’s software, and you’ll find a bunch of people here that you can talk to about it, who are open to giving feedback, from corporates down to small or medium enterprises, to investors, to other kinds of users, they will tell you if your product will work or not. There’s a few people that ignore that advice and keep going, and are successful regardless, any success, if you really look at the statistics, any success in the entrepreneurial game, you’re an outlier, especially to become a company like Canva or Atlassian, or any number of start-ups here, you really are on the edge of the standard deviations. You’re all the way up to the right because you potentially ignored things or saw things, but regardless, you will still get traction one way or another very quickly, which is the exciting thing. That’s why I really think it’s important for Australian companies to get over here, if that’s the goal to be a global business, and test your market out here, and see what sort of feedback you get.
M: These incredibly successful organisations that are growing have a new problem, and that’s finding the right staff and being able to attract talent from anywhere. But also to make sure that you don’t miss out because your recruiting procedures are arcane. There’s technology that’s being used to help HR teams, and obviously Curious Thing is one of those, talk to me about how that works, and about the benefit of going down this path as opposed to the original path.
MA: Automation of the recruiting process is something that works really well in high volume recruiting scenarios. AI at the moment is not going to replace the judgement of a recruiter or a human being, the human should be left to do what they do best which is engage with candidates, and move them through the process. If you can employ some sort of automation, which is what AI is, to cast a net really wide, to give everyone a fair and even opportunity to apply for the role, to be assessed fairly in a way that completely respects diversity and opportunity, and then with that data, let the recruiter make the judgements about who to carry forward. That works really well in high volume roles.
So we have a client here who’s recruiting 25,000 people in the next 60 days. So this is a high volume, contact centre, that sort of stuff, support staff. Which is one of the biggest industries here, it actually employs 3 million people, that’s about 3% of the work force that work in call centres. That’s a USD $9-13 per hour job. But, a lot of those people maybe don’t even have resumes, or they can’t get to make an appointment during business hours, so if you’re given an opportunity to do the call at 9 after their kids are in bed, have a conversation that captures your strengths and adds more dimension to you rather than being a bunch of dot points on a resume. Quite honestly, a lot of companies are forgoing resumes anyway, especially for that, they need to fill seats.
They understand these people won’t work there forever, that’s really huge. To cast that net a little bit wider and let as many people apply, because yes, it’s a $9 an hour job which is unthinkable in Aus, but there’s plenty of those here. America is not a bed, it’s a ladder, and you have to start somewhere. It’s just getting people on that first rung of the ladder which I really like. That’s the application, for especially Curious Things technology, there’s more sophisticated use cases but that’s where we drive the volume. That technology was all invented in Australia which I’m very proud of.
M: So, in terms of the sort of work that you’re talking about, that can be done remotely, it doesn’t have to be done on premises, is that what you’re seeing, companies tapping into the remote workforce?
MA: That’s an exciting opportunity. Work has always been done remotely or offshored, and now there’s a couple of factors driving an even higher adoption of that. People rethinking their recruitment strategies entirely, just in the Bay Area, Facebook is saying that a large percentage of their workforce don’t have to come in anymore. You’ll find most do want to come back in, people talk a lot about a new normal, and I have a few opinions about that. Largely I wouldn’t be too concerned long term if I was a commercial landlord, people need that face to face interaction, people will come back. But more broadly speaking, when I think about where companies are choosing to do their high value R&D and high value product development. Traditionally that might have to be done here because there was the right number of PhDs or computer scientists, computational linguistics, they were clustered and there’s a bunch of smart people here. They keep coming here from around the world.
Now that has potentially slowed down and is causing people to rethink all sorts of things. The H1B workers scheme has been suspended temporarily. There’s always been pressure to reduce that. There’s deeper questions in Australia as well, why do we need to import so much talent? But some of the greatest companies have been founded by people on those very visas. It’s an interesting one. Say that’s paused and say I’m a CTO or someone in charge of product development, I’m casting around the world, where can I get stuff done? Not generic stuff. Not $20 web development. Really deep tech product development. Australia keeps coming up more and more in conversations I’m having with people, I’m working with a really interesting new broadband start-up here. Ultimately, it’ll be a $3 billion project. They came to me and said, I’ve heard about some work being done at Macquarie Uni, and this is really what we’re interested in doing and I think we need to do this work in Australia. It’s attractive because of the stability we have, it’s attractive because of our exchange rate, and it’s attractive because it’s almost like a shiny new object.
You talk about needing to restructure the economy, and I really think it’s day one in Australia for that. Our profile as a country is actually much lower. We think it’s high, but I talk to people who don’t know anything about Australia. They literally don’t. Not just people in NY or LA, but all over the country. They don’t have much of an idea of what we’re all about, which is hugely exciting. I show them a picture of surfer’s paradise, and they think it’s Rio, or Miami, they aren’t aware of places like this that exist. Despite the millions of dollars on tourists and adds over here. That’s completely fine.
Once people do figure that out, plus they figure out there’s a bunch of really smart people, smart R&D research, then that’s going to be huge for us. I think about the top 50 companies, spent USD 400 billion on R&D this year. But under that there’s probably another USD 500 billion all the way down the list of different companies with really interesting projects that they might not be able to staff in their home countries.
Especially in the US, a mid-tier company here is like a $3-5 Billion company. If they were made aware of what we can do for them, if Australia branded itself well around specific skill sets then that I think is really huge. It’s not going to replace $200 billion worth of trade with China overnight, but year by year, if we can grab 0.1% of that R&D, then 1% of that, it has 2 really good effects.
Number one, we get exposure and deep integration into the global and US supply chain. Number two, it actually trains the next generation of product leaders so they get exposure without leaving Sydney or Brisbane or Melbourne. This global workforce, or this global workflow, then from there they get to go and hopefully start their own companies and get inspired to do something entrepreneurial, but they’re getting first class exposure and training. That’s the thing over the next 5-10 years that’s a real opportunity, I don’t think things will be volatile from now till forever, and they always have been, but I think Australia has been an Oasis of calm and stability, but with huge advantages. I know we’ve been shouting about them, here it feels like a whisper. So much more we could do.
M: This is a really interesting part of the conversation for a number of reasons. When you look at Israel, Ireland, Estonia or Toronto, there are 5 key elements. One of them is the attraction of global R&D hubs to do exactly what you’ve just said. The competition for those in the past was very stiff, but I’m really interested by the comments that you make. Obviously COVID19 has given us a new opportunity, we have the curve under control, it’s a safe place to exist. If you have a team, or if you have work that is high risk and of high impact and high importance to an organisation, it’s a great place to quarantine those people and that work. It won’t be disrupted.
MA: Exactly. Australia is, and must be one of the most stable countries in the world, and I think we’re a much calmer set of people to be honest. When I say R&D as well, it’s not the deep science in the lab, it’s really just run of the mill product development, the next generation and iteration of product. And that to me is super exciting, we have great R&D centres in our universities, that’s very well known in those circles, but the fact that we can translate that into products, and be commercially focused and execute on it is the next step there, and that’s really going to be amazing for us.
The parallels with Montreal and Toronto and Israel, they’ve really done well at branding themselves around specific verticals. We can do that as well. We don’t want to take it all on and there’s no reason we should, but we have the capacity to go deep in a certain number of areas. I’m sure there’s many more but I think about our, there’s 5,000 computer science students right now at UNSW, all churning away. There’s a really broad set of skills that you can take from computer science and mathematics, economics, linguistics, and put that together to make really amazing things that can do world class work. That’s what I’m convinced of, and my thesis for the next ten years with Australian business.
M: I completely agree. I want to add to that that we have what is thought to be 1 million Australians living and working overseas, and DFAT has just reported that 300,000 have come home. Some of those are obviously travellers, but a lot aren’t. That talent pool that we’re starting to see at Advance is the sophisticated talent pool that has chosen to accelerate their return home. Now looking for opportunities here in Australia, for work that they‘re doing overseas. As you know, not all of that work has traditionally been available here. So the ability to attract the R&D, the product development that your talking about would be ideal because not only have they got the stability of the health system, our ability to manage COVID, they also have this pool of talent that is globally trained that could slot in and they wouldn’t notice the difference. There’s a lot to be celebrated, of course the University talent that we have produced is great quality. The question that I have for you then is, what will it take to attract them. What kind of conversations and with who? Is it a government conversation or a private sector conversation?
MA: So, my role, I think governments are great at creating the environment, and then letting the private sector do what it does best. In many cases it’s just, either getting out of the way or creating the right set of conditions from taxation and legal and all the things that governments do best. There’s nothing wrong as a nation with having industrial policy around technology, if I look at the start of Silicon Valley was embedded with the government’s industrial policy, starting with the military. Japan is the same, of course China is the same, most successful companies and businesses are in a strong partnership with the government. There’s nothing wrong with that. Government has a big part to play.
But the best framework for executing is with private enterprises who can go out there and actually create, or make contacts with the US, bring that work back. I think it’s fantastic that people want to come home, there’s two reasons for that. One is that yes the environment we’re in. Two, if you’ve been away for a long time you start to get to that point in your life where you’d rather be in Australia than over here, or anywhere else. You sort of see, I’m very grateful for being in the US for so long because I’ve learned so much, and it’s been great, but now I want to come back and share it with everyone else, lift Australia up to that level which is really exciting.
M: That is exciting because I’m quite looking forward to you coming back and building your next company here, being successful here. In many ways, that’s what we’re looking at Advance, to help in a sense that if we know that people are coming home, we want to start working with them from the moment they decide that it’s 12 months out, or 18 months out. Connecting you up with the ecosystem back here, because it’s been a while. 10 years away from the ecosystem.
MA: 14 years for me.
M: Exactly, it’s like being an immigrant coming home.
MA: I have been lucky because I was the CEO of an Australian company at least, so I was going back to Aus 6-8 times a year at one point, now this has been the longest time in my life since I’ve been outside the country, it’s been about 18 months now. Far too long.
M: When you do come back, when you think about building your company back in Australia, what will that look like? What will you be looking for as an entrepreneur that wants to succeed in our ecosystem?
MA: Obviously the number 1 thing is access to talent. Businesses now are people businesses, they live or die by the quality of people. Another thing is having a decent cost base which is so important. I like the fact that Sydney is putting in the new technology precinct there, UTS, that Atlassian are building, but one of the issues in Australia, and this is another nice contrast with the US, Australia is very concentrated. America is more diverse and spread out. You can do things in the regional areas.
One of the things I’m thinking about is, perhaps you need a presence in Sydney, but the regional areas of Australia as well, Brisbane to Gold Coast corridors, there’s great universities, great lifestyle. Having the right step of cost base in comparison to Sydney in a place that’s attractive enough to attract talent. That’s super cool. I’ll also say, I plan to spend a lot of time in the US, I need to be able to fly again as well. This is where the customers are going to be. We do need to get through this period but I think, to be honest, we’re starting to build a couple of really nice, world class technology companies. People with that growth experience will be there; they’re still rare.
I was talking to a head of talent form a VC in Australia, her portfolio companies come through asking for a person that’s gone from 0-$1 billion and scaled to 200 million users and they just don’t exist, or if they do, they’re too busy doing other things, perhaps on their yacht or something. There’s not the population of really skilled people. The idea that there is an overseas population of people like me, and definitely more skilled, that could come back and that’s going to be super important as well. To have that global mindset global experience, be used to working at the place and intensity and level of competition as well. Having experience from the cut and thrust of the US, European or Asian markets is super critical as well. It all comes down to people.
M: We’re negotiating an FTA with the UK, so there’s a focus on new markets in that regard. There’s also obviously India sitting at our doorstep, where that market is opening up in a way that we haven’t seen for a while. How much of your trade at the moment, or how much of your business involves working with those markets, the UK, the European, the Indian.
MA: Nothing right now, which is huge. The work I’m doing at Curious Thing that is focused in the US because this is, we’re a very small company and quite frankly, there enough here to keep us going, that is the attraction of the US market. There’s a few conversations happening in Europe as well. My focus, that’s another interesting thing, the world is so large you can have a different geographic focus, mine would be on the pacific, both sides of it. That includes certain parts of Asia, which I think is really interesting. I don’t know much, and this is the other thing, you know, unless you read The Australian every day, which I do, we don’t hear a lot about the FTA between Australia and Europe or the UK, you’ve watched the news here before you know what’s on. I think that’s a great opportunity, I think everywhere should have an FTA with everywhere else quite frankly. That’s super critical.
M: We make it happen. So I just have one question for you in terms of students. The young adversary affected and acutely impacted by the COVID pandemic, but I also believe there’s tremendous hope in a sense that a whole new market are opening up for them, they might need to reskill, but they’re certainly young enough to pivot their careers, what’s your suggestion for those who may need to shift their focus from careers that they had begun. Where do you see the opportunities for the young?
MA: They will definitely have to shift, no matter what. It’s interesting to get your first pivot out of the way early. If I think of a graduate graduating this summer from University, they’re looking at least at a 50 year career ahead of them. The retirement age, the longevity, there’s a 20th century model that we’re working on now which is that people died relatively young and retired at 65, that was fine. That needs to go away. As soon as people start thinking about it, I’m actually going to have not just one career, but 5-10 year careers, or 10 5 year careers. Your whole career is going to be a tail of constantly pivoting, constantly reskilling, constantly learning.
If that’s what is in front of you now, get used to it, because that’s what’s going to keep happening for the next half century, if not longer, we might all live to 100, not necessarily me, but my kids for sure. The way they think about their careers and life is going to be in such longer terms, the time frames are going to be completely different. Yes you might be looking at a short term pivot or sideways move now because of COVID, but there’ll be another 10 COVIDs, pandemics, recessions in the next decades to come. Embrace it. That’s how it’s going to be. That is something that’s going to happen and someone gave me a book the other day called the 100 year life. It’s really just, starting to reorient society around the idea of living for a long time. Even now, it doesn’t matter if you have a 50 year or 20 year career, what you learned at University will be obsolete fairly quickly. Circumstances, economy and environment are all going to change. You have to aggressively stay in front of it. That’s something else I’m passionate about. On one hand, at the bottom end, machines and AI taking some jobs, and at the top end a constant state of flux of skills, jobs that didn’t exist 5 years ago won’t exist in 5 years time, this constant need to reinvent and reskill. There’s a huge opportunity in that.
M: In terms of that reskilling, is it the traditional route, is it back to university with a 4 year degree. Or is the reskilling much more in the microcredential, the self motivated learning.
MA: A lot of it had to be self motivated. I don’t think I have the time or money to take the break out of your career. Part time study. Learning and development as a way of life, like every single week. No more on Friday than you did on Monday and you will eventually be successful. It has to be ingrained in the way we operate. That’s how companies need to think as well. They ended up having to make 2,000 or 5,000 people redundant because they were surplus to that businesses requirements, and if they had taken a view of ‘well we know no matter what if the economy is good or bad, this set of skill sets probably isn’t going to be there in several years time’. So what are we going to do about it? Are we going to go through the expense of retrenching, rehiring, retraining, or are we just going to embed that into our operating plan? We need to keep reinventing our people. You can’t change a company without changing the people. People have to keep growing, you can’t grow a company without growing the people. Part of that is learning, most of it is learning.
M: I’ll bring it full circle, that makes the ability of these new recruiting tools fundamental because if you haven’t got a tick box approach, if you can’t just say I went to his university, did this course and that’s enough, then you need a far more sophisticated tool to analyse if the capability of the person matches the role.
MA: Yeah, and not just in the recruiting aspect as well. Once they’re on board the whole employee lifecycle. You need to keep checking in with them because they might come on board perfectly and ticking all the boxes on day one, but by year 3 they’re at a point where they’ve fallen behind. Through no fault of their own, they’ve just been doing their jobs. That constant appraisal of where you need to be and those gaps versus the skills you have, that needs to be part of what HR departments and people operations are thinking out of as well.
M: You’re almost reapplying yourself for each role throughout your career. The recruitment comes in, then you have recruitment to remain.
MA: That works both ways as well. Companies should keep rehiring, the same people, people should keep re-employed.
M: And that creates opportunity and that’s what we love. Thanks so much for your time, I’ve enjoyed this conversation tremendously, particularly about attracting global R&D to Australia. I’m very much looking forward to continuing our conversation again. See you soon.
MA: Thanks so much Maria.