The stacks of boxes in Ian Connor’s office don’t seem out of place. A few weeks earlier he flew in from the US, tasked with building a team of software engineers in Brisbane for enthuse.com.
“Still unpacking?” I ask, taking in the odd assortment of shelves and drawers against a plain white wall.
“Nope. I’m renting this room from the lawyers,” he says, referring to the fact that the space was part of Herdlaw’s offices in Spring Hill.
“They’ve been using this room as a storage area, but they’re clearing it out gradually.” With a wry smile he adds: “It helped with the rent negotiation that the place was absolutely full of boxes when I first came to check it out.”
These few minutes in his company’s humble Australian headquarters provide insight into Connor’s modus operandi. Despite the perceived prestige that people might attach to a US venture-backed company setting up shop in Brisbane, there is little ego. But there is a fierce determination to scrap for everything, a hangover from his previous startup, which received only a modest angel round.
We headed out to the local Subway at Spring Hill Marketplace for a bite to eat. Connor ordered a six-inch sub, no frills: “I’m cheap,” said Connor.
Back in his storage room-cum-office removalists take away shelves and drawers as he explains why Enthuse, a sports franchise loyalty platform, is building its development team in Brisbane.
As TSJ reported earlier, Connor returned to Brisbane for personal reasons, with his wife and fellow entrepreneur, Kim Dowds. The departure of Peter Goldstein, former Enthuse chief technology officer, left a hole at the company. Connor was approached to fill the post and accepted on condition he could build his engineering team in Brisbane. Brian York, chief executive, agreed, and so Brisbane finds itself with a venture-backed San Francisco tech startup in its midst.
Connor is the type of person you bump into at every startup-related event and every hackathon. He was a mentor-turned-participant at GovHack Brisbane. He rallied a team around him, and they created a travel rewards business over the 48 hours. Connor was last-man-standing in that team.
He mentored at Startup Weekend Gold Coast, and attended Silicon Lakes’ Valley trip report presentation. He admits all this networking is partially a recruitment drive, but he clearly wants to give something back to the state where he grew up.
“I hope that if Enthuse is successful, the local tech community will see it as a Queensland or Brisbane success story, even if it is headquartered in San Francisco,” he told me.
Many years earlier, freshly graduated from QUT with degrees in physics and law, Connor found himself working for a law firm. However, he quickly learned that practicing law was, for him, far less exciting than developing workflow tools in Lotus Notes for the other lawyers at the firm. He soon found himself working as a consultant for Dialog, putting his new found Lotus Notes skills to good use.
He soon became very aware, however, that everything he was doing was IT implementation, rather than software creation.
“I was working for Dialog, and we would take Microsoft solutions, we’d take Oracle Solutions, we’d take Lotus Notes solutions, implement them for customers, and that was the extent of the IT that I was exposed to here.”
Looking around at other Australian companies in the sector, he saw the pattern repeated over and over again.
“I wanted to see the creation of it, I wanted to see the making of software companies.”
He came to the conclusion that most tech creation was done in the US. To get involved with tech creation in a significant way, Connor reasoned, he would have to make the hop across the pond. He wasted little time in doing so.
Perhaps there was more to his decision than he let on. Connor, it turns out, was born in Hawaii. His mother was a Liverpudlian who called Brisbane home, and his father, a Melbournian who was “allegedly studying” in Hawaii, decided to move back to Australia shortly after the birth of their son. Thanks to his mother’s foresight, Connor’s birth was registered in the US and Australia, which meant it was simple to obtain citizenship in both countries.
Was there a subconscious yearning to revisit the country of his birth, quite distinct from his desire to move to the US to further his career and technical knowledge?
If there was any yearning, all feelings of nostalgia were soon dislodged by a deep sense of unease he felt on the streets of LA, which was his initial destination in the US.
“I was hanging around the airport, because it’s cheap, and around the airport in LA, and 10 years ago, was really, really bad.”
It didn’t take long for the impending feeling of danger to become real.
“On the way to the Bahamas I had a laptop stolen from me in LA. I went to the police department, reported my laptop stolen, and they just didn’t seem to care,” explained Connor. “I felt not very safe in the city, and Pulp Fiction had just come out, and you know, it just seemed, like, a dangerous place to live.”
His views of LA have since changed.
“LA is awesome, and I just obviously didn’t go to Santa Monica and find the nice bits,” Connor now concedes. “So I really didn’t give California a good go, but what did I know at the time?”
The trip to the Bahamas did prove fortuitous. It was a casual chat with a stranger about his less than favourable impressions of LA that ultimately led him to Boston.
“I was bemoaning this fact [about the stolen laptop] to this girl from Vermont, and she says, ‘Oh, you should go to Boston. Boston is really nice. It’s very multicultural, there’s heaps of universities, and it’s very safe, and you’re going to like it. You’ll like the north-east’.”
Boston was also the home of IRIS Associates, the company that created Lotus Notes, a product that Connor was intimately familiar with. This small fact sealed the deal. Connor initially found work in Boston with CSC, Computer Sciences Corp, an IT services company, through a connection there. Subsequently, he ended up doing Lotus Notes/Domino development for IRIS and then IBM for a total of nine years.
I asked him how he began his startup, PubGet, back in 2007.
“Kim [Dowds] was doing a startup that was getting funded. I wasn’t really into that startup but wanted to do another one. Had some failed ones, and had some ones that weren’t really failing but paying the bills. So I wanted to do something meaningful.”
The way to do something meaningful, Connor believed, was to talk to doctors.
“Everyone wants new cures, and wants doctors to be more efficient. We kinda give them terrible technology to do this with, and I thought I could do a better job.
“At the end of the day if PubGet didn’t go anywhere except change the industry and make doctors’ lives better, then at least you can feel good about the fact that you’ve helped.”
Connor, it seems, has taken the “do good, be good” philosophy to heart.
“At the time my previous failed startup was a car hire website, and who cares that I helped create a car hire website? No-one. I still don’t care,” Connor laughed.
“Whereas if PubGet failed, two years after we released PubGet, all of the major link resolvers had changed the way they were doing linking and followed more of our approach,” said Connor, referring to the way libraries enable their members to access publications from the major science publishers. “So we actually made a meaningful impact in the industry and changed how people did link resolution and holdings in libraries.”
His point is that the work he did at PubGet left a legacy beyond the eventual exit to Copyright Clearance Center.
But Connor is a realist. You may be helping doctors and researchers, but you need to have some way to pay the bills. PubGet recruited a business development manager that helped them pivot into a more lucrative space.
“It turns out the reason why the library systems were broken was not really just the link resolution, it was the holding and stats side. So by having a holding and stats side, we ended up helping people to help the people. So we helped the medical librarians, so that their systems are better, and then the researchers’ system is better. It also happens that the librarians are the one with a budget.”
Connor explained that researchers and doctors don’t expect to spend money on software to make themselves more productive. They spend their money on other things. It was the libraries who know and appreciate software. It’s their job to provide researchers with access to information.
PubGet was acquired by the Copyright Clearance Center at the end of 2011 for an undisclosed sum. Connor stayed with the company for a year following the acquisition.
What would he do differently with the benefit of hindsight?
“We were doing it wrong,” he says bluntly about the first year of the company’s existence. “Had we known lean startup properly, we probably could have shaved a year off that whole process and brought it to market much faster.”
“We should have talked to the library from day one rather than spending six months working on the solution ourselves without talking to the library,” Connor explained.
“Having said that, we didn’t know that we needed to talk to the library!” Connor laughed. “It was kinda like the chicken and the egg. So what we didn’t do was the market validation step and finding out who was the customer. Customer discovery, market validation. We failed miserably in the first year with that step. I will never do that again. That’s the big lesson learned.”
Is Brisbane different now compared to when he left? Connor is bullish on Queensland’s startup prospects and obviously glad that there are companies here creating new things rather than doing IT implementation.
“This is not 10 years ago, it’s not 13 years ago. There is a startup scene here now.”