Silicon Valley acceleration heavyweight Marcus Segal is in Sydney this week talking to entrepreneurs and scouting possible startups to invest in.
Mr Segal has made a good life in tech. He most famously spent time at the internet phenomenon Zynga, where he joined early, did a lot of different jobs and ended up as chief operation officer for Games Studios worldwide.
The hyper-growth Zynga experience was the kind of wild ride that everyone in startups dreams of being involved in at least once in their career.
More recently, he is general partner at Upshift Capital and in January starts as a mentor and investor at the Google LaunchPad accelerator. In the meantime, he’s staying in Australia until then “having a ball” and getting a deeper understanding of the Australian local ecosystem.
Mr Segal has enjoyed the kind of success in tech that allows him the freedom to travel where he wants, and meet the kind of people he wants to meet – companies that have a product, that have started to build revenue and which are ready for a new growth stage.
It means he has spent a lot of time in the past year in different startup ecosystems around the world.
In this podcast, I talked to Marcus Segal about Silicon Valley and about the character differences of the different ecosystems across the world and how different attitudes to government policy has helped to shape each of them.
And here’s the thing. Australia, he says, does pretty well. There’s clearly some interesting stuff going on here, the government has taken a proactive role in promoting the sector.
But he’s got some advice about the global war for talent. Right now, in Australia, the fight must be to get access to top engineering talent – because that’s the base layer on which the rest of the ecosystem can be built.
“At this point what I’m hearing is that it’s difficult to hire top engineers into Australia,” Mr Segal said. “So first things first, Australia: Let’s get the best engineering talent in the world into this country.”
“Because the truth is that a senior engineer from anywhere in the world, that engineer can mentor, teach and train a new graduate. And in two or three years, that new graduate is able to teach and train other new graduates,” he said.
“That middle layer is absolutely vital to your ecosystem. That’s my advice.”
Mr Segal has met with 30 to 40 startup companies in the few days he’s been in Sydney. He’s also met with leadership teams of local VCs. He’s got a fairly simply philosophy about how he goes about things.
“I meet a lot of startups. I invest in very few of them. I try to leave them better than when they met me – through advice, or something that can help them on their way. And I’m always looking ahead.”
In terms of global ecosystems, he says Ireland is really interesting these days.
Years ago, the Irish government had set up favourable tax incentives to attract multinationals. And it worked, starting with companies initially setting up things like customer service call centres and the like.
“But the talent pool is incredible there, and over time these companies found they could engineer, they could build tools there and provide nights and weekend service,” Mr Segal said.
“Now we’re seeing a new generation of entrepreneurs coming out of Ireland and building very impressive companies.”
In Australia, where public policy has been targeted they seem to have worked – especially in building capital.
“I have been impressed – It seems like the government here has been studying everything that works [elsewhere in the world], and they are making sure to deploy capital intelligently, and even using advantageous tax rules to incentivise investment here,” he said.
Marcus Segal says he will spend some time in the coming weeks at the innovation and entrepreneurship centres at Australian universities. But he’s not so interested in the research, or in trying to unearth some unheralded new discovery.
That’s not his thing.
“My superpower is in accelerating things. I’m not here to help you find your product/market fit. I’m here to help you when you’ve found it,” he said.
“I’m gasoline on the fire.”
“I’m not really the right guy to be solving that problem [commercialising early research]. But I hope that somebody finds that [breakthrough] and then builds something … and when you get to $50,000 or $100,000 a month in revenue that they’ll come and find me,” he said.
“Because I will bring my chequebook and I’ll help you take it to the next level.”