Five minutes: Squiz chair John-Paul Syriatowicz


James Riley
Editorial Director

Universally known as JP, John-Paul Syriatowicz is the co-founder and chairman of Sydney-based enterprise digital experience platform and transformation delivery specialists Squiz.

Squiz began life more than 20 years ago as a content management system during the first dotcom boom. It has expanded its portfolio of products and IP to provide everything an enterprise need to build and scale digital services that improve customer experience, to personalise services and to meet changing customer expectations.

Squiz John-Paul Syriatowicz
Squiz chair John-Paul Syriatowicz on digital experience and growth

The company has offices all over Australia, as well as in the New York, Seattle, London, Edinburgh, Poland, and New Zealand, a globally-focused Australian software and services business headquartered in Sydney.

We took five-minutes with JP, asking where the company has come from, and where it is headed.

InnovationAus: I am sure it’s been a wild ride, with lots of challenges and plenty of high points. Care to nominate a few of the highs and lows?

John-Paul Syriatowicz: There have certainly been many highs along the way but there were two particularly notable moments for me.

The first was when we opened our London office in 2003. Calling it an “office” at that point was a bit of a stretch as it was essentially an apartment that we would pack up in the morning and turn into an office for the day. But it was a pivotal moment for us as a business since it marked our first venture outside of Australia.

The second major milestone was our acquisition of Funnelback from the CSIRO in 2009. It was transformational from a product perspective, it augmented our offering and it quickly became a strong, differentiating factor for us.

One of the biggest challenges we’ve faced has been entering into new markets. While our London launch was a massive achievement for us, it came with all the difficulties of running a business across multiple timezones. On top of that, for some time we were keen to enter the US market, and it took us three attempts to make a success of it. We started the conversations more than 10 years ago, so it’s great to see the traction we now have with the higher education sector in particular over there.

But I can honestly say there have been very few lows. For all the pitfalls you experience when starting, growing and maintaining a business, there have been many more wins.

InnovationAus: If you knew 20 years ago what you know today, what would you and your co-founder do differently?

JP: When it comes to what we would have done differently I’d probably say not that much!

There are lots of things we could have done but they would have been in lieu of what we did, and who knows what might have delivered the better outcome. Our R&D investments have always run to the tune of 15% of revenue, so we could, for example, have decided to seek investment funds to add development to our products. We could have tripled the size of the development team, but without being able to scale the rest of the business at the same speed, we could have ended up bankrupt.

InnovationAus: What’s the best piece of advice you can give to aspiring entrepreneurs and innovators?

JP: My number one tip would be to talk to customers every day to make sure you keep a consistent focus on solving their problems.

It’s also important to stay lean and maintain the commercial acumen you naturally develop when trying to build and run a business with minimal resources.

And simply, stick at it. We’ve been doing this for over 20 years now and some luck might have presented itself along the way but if we hadn’t been there we wouldn’t have had the opportunity to benefit from it.

InnovationAus: Squiz has a long history of building its own IP, investing in R&D and creating best-in-class products and services. What’s the most challenging thing about building product in Australia? Any advice for policymakers on tweaks they could make to help local companies?

JP: Probably the most difficult aspect of building a product in Australia is the wealth of opportunity in other, larger geographical markets and the tyranny of distance, travel and time zones. This has, of course, been made worse by COVID-19, which has limited the amount of meaningful, face-to-face conversations we can have within the markets we are trying to grow in.

Also, as is the case in almost every market, people are expensive and the right people are very difficult to come by. Again, COVID-19 has only worsened this situation.

The things we’d like to see from policymakers are the initiatives that help us support our people who are living and working overseas from their country of residence – being able to acquire the visas people need more easily, move our people between countries within the business, and hire new people, can be difficult with current visa limitations.

Of course, in addition, the more incentives you create for local companies, the better. Things as simple as being able to offer an equity scheme to staff, meaningfully and at scale, are still so difficult in Australia. Other countries don’t have those issues.

InnovationAus: FunnelBack is a chunky piece of search tech that originally came out of CSIRO and into Squiz … and really was a classic early example of a research/commercial translation in software. Based on your experience, how can Australia get better at this kind of commercial translation?

JP: The biggest catalyst in our decision to acquire Funnelback was the opportunity to work with the people first. This gave us the confidence to invest that we may not otherwise have had.

Funnelback started within an academic, university setting. It was only once it became a viable product, with clients to support, that CSIRO spun it out as a commercial entity. The Funnelback team were talking to the same potential customers as us and that overlap presented a massive opportunity to explore a joint offering.

We were fortunate in that CSIRO weighted our offer higher than that of their alternative options for acquisition by foreign investors. The CSIRO wanted the IP to go to a company that was paying tax in Australia and was likely to continue to grow the business from here.

There are a lot of learnings to be gained from that experience and I think one of the key lessons for the likes of the CSIRO is to give inventors the space to create a real business if they have the drive to do so. We saw this with Funnelback. They successfully created a solid, commercial and viable offering then together we grew it into a much larger company.

InnovationAus: I’ve always known you to be an optimist. What do the next few years look like for the Australian technology industry? Where are the brightest opportunities? And what challenges will you be keeping an eye on?

JP: Well, I’ll start with the challenges so I can end on a high! As I mentioned previously, one of the biggest challenges in Australia at the moment is people, finding and moving people to keep the business fully resourced. Travel is unreliable and I suspect many will not want to travel as much in the future because of the way their lives have changed during the pandemic.

It’s also much harder to be a mid-sized business in the Australian tech space these days. In many ways, it is easier to create a startup as there’s increasing support for entrepreneurs with great ideas, but it’s difficult to transition to scale because you will always be looking over your shoulder for the bigger players, many of whom pose a threat from overseas.

That said, tech is booming in Australia and around the world, so it’s a great space to be in. The proportion of unicorn tech companies in Australia is surprisingly high for the size of our population and something that we should be very proud of as a country.

So, that leads to opportunities.

I believe we will see a continued proliferation of SaaS applications that get better and better at doing specific jobs to make our lives easier. For example, I have a small farm. To help me manage the property, I use a SaaS application called AgriWeb. It makes it easy for me to manage my livestock and meet my governmental compliance obligations.

Who would have guessed that a manual venture like farming would be transformed by digital so quickly? Or, as another example, we all got introduced to ordering food from our table via a QR code thanks to COVID-19. I’m guessing technologists will continue to evolve that technology so that soon we won’t even need to place an order, the cafe will know what you’re after as you enter. I’m all for that kind of convenience and it’s really not far away.

This article was prepared in partnership with Squiz through its involvement with the InnovationAus 2021 Awards for Excellence as sponsors of the People’s Choice Award.

Do you know more? Contact James Riley via Email.

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