Matt Barrie is a reluctant optimist

James Riley
Editorial Director

He won’t thank me for saying so, but chief executive Matt Barrie seems remarkably chill. He has a view of the mainstream Australian economy that suggests we’re all going to Hell in a hand basket, but even so, he’s pretty relaxed.

Maybe it’s because he’s just unloaded 15,000 words of doom onto his 250,000 LinkedIn followers, and the weight of frustration has been lifted. He also published the piece – titled House of Cards – to Medium.

This essay is well worth it, and make sure you read it right to the end. It comes across in parts a bit like a Mogadon (by which I mean it’s a massive downer, rather than boring), but it is well referenced and really quite entertaining in that kind of very smart, very acidic Matt Barrie way.

I sat down with Matt last week for this podcast interview. I am kind of fascinated by how an entrepreneur – life’s eternal optimists – can paint so bleak a picture.

In the end, I suppose he just needed to get some things off his chest. For all the doom in House of Cards, it is ultimately a positive contribution.

He says Australians are not paying attention to stuff that matters, even as the economy is being driven over a cliff. “I wanted to change the narrative.”

From a public policy perspective – which is what we’re focused on here – Matt Barrie is not putting forward policy alternatives. As an overarching statement, he wants less government involvement, not more.

And to the extent that the tech startup sector has gained good momentum lately, that’s in spite of government policy, rather than because of it. His standing view on startups is that they’ve just got to “get on with it”, regardless of what’s happening in government.

Think less about government policy and government hand-outs, and more about building product and finding customers.

It is just a few days before StartCon, the nation’s largest startup and growth conference, which is owned by and serves as a festival of entrepreneurial enthusiasm and optimism.

And that’s important context. For all the House of Cards problems outlined in this essay, Matt Barrie has consistently said that the Australian environment produces outstanding entrepreneurial talent. And that’s an optimistic view.

That’s the thing with this essay. The tech sector should just get on with it, he says. But the economic mainstream needs a kick in the pants. The mainstream public discourse is dumb, and people aren’t talking and doing enough about stuff that’s important.

The laundry list of ills is well-documented. The over-reliance on commodity resource exports; an obsession with property and bubble market; dangerously low interest rates; and education system that prepares kids for jobs that don’t exist anymore; and a political environment that has consistently failed to lead.

Australia is an expensive place to build a startup business (Sydney being the second most expensive city in the world). It has a small market. It is a long way away from other markets. It is difficult to raise growth finance.

And yet here we are. Despite the House of Cards environment, the Australian technology sector is persevering. Even beginning to thrive.

“I have said many times that the operators of our technology companies are pound-for-pound some of the best [entrepreneurs] in the world,” Mr Barrie said.

“You don’t wake up every morning [in Australia] with 250 million people on your doorstep. In Australia, if you build a business that’s successful, then globally it should be extremely successful – because you’ve done it off the smell of an oily rag, and you’ve done it in spite of the fact that we’re in a small market and that it’s very tough to get things done here,” he said.

“And so the business that do emerge out the other side [of those difficulties] are phenomenal businesses on the world stage. These are businesses like Atlassian, like Kogan, like Campaign Monitor … and a slew of others, like Envato.”

“Despite all the challenges and these problems, and despite potentially not raising a lot of money and bootstrapping all the way through, once they get to the other side, they have built a healthy operating business that’s on extremely solid foundations and does well internationally.”

In this podcast, Mr Barrie discusses an Australian culture as a contributor to a ponderously slow response to opportunity, and says an 18th century educational model is preparing kids for “jobs that don’t really exist anymore.” (He says in Australia kids still think an ‘engineer’ is a train driver.)

“Australians have become extremely apathetic. And I think a part of that is because everybody is busy sitting at home watching Netflix and paying off their mortgage.

“They don’t have a lot of discretionary spending. They don’t have the ability to take a lot of risk. They are just surviving as a way of living, because of rising living costs and stagnating wages.

“Australia is an emerging economy dressed up as a First World country. If you think about the economy as a whole, it’s very, very primitive.

“We rank 77th in the world on the Harvard complexity index in terms of how complex the products and services we produce are, and how easy it is for other countries to copy and compete.

“That puts us on par with Guatemala and Kazakhstan. We are abnormally off the deep-end in terms of economic complexity,” he said.

Do you know more? Contact James Riley via Email.

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