Wollongong’s potential to become Australia’s Silicon Beach may be credentialed in using successful startups such as Accelo as an example and motivation for what can be achieved.
While there has been much talk recently about encouraging Google to relocate its Australian headquarters to Wollongong. Quietly going about their business in an office in the old NRMA building overlooking Crown and Keira Street is a technology hub with global reach.
Accelo is a venture capital-backed company started in 2009 by Geoff McQueen, Eamonn Bell and three others. It has done the hard yards and evolved to the point where it is expecting to double the workforce at its Wollongong headquarters from 40 to 80 in the next 12 months.
Accelo provides a platform to help run professional service based companies in a wide range of industries.
Mr McQueen said by using technology to automate processes the business was doubling the profitability of many clients. He said that was as incredibly valuable for all concerned but it took engineers, designers and consultants a while to develop the tool and bring it to market.
“Our product was a very big product,” Mr McQueen said.
“To get to the first version we could release to customers it took us a couple of years. We got that out at the beginning of 2011 and then Google invited us out for their I/O developer confernce. It was clear at that point we were on to something but it was going to be a big mountain to climb”.
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Mr McQueen sold Internetrix, another business he started, to move to San Fransisco in late 2011 to raise capital and get closer to customers in the global market. The growth started and has been steady ever since. Accelo is now essentially doubling in size every year.
“We now have tens of thousands of users all over the world. Last year we had customers paying us in between 50 and 60 different countries. Given the product is only available in English that is a pretty big accomplishment. Everyone except me on the founding team is still here in the Wollongong office,” he said. Accelo has 90 people working in three locations but the greatest number are at the Wollongong headquarters.
Mr McQueen said the city was blessed with a great life-style and a university with many talented and highly skilled graduates who make up 90 per cent of its local workforce.
In mid 2016 Accelo employed 24 people in Australia and a dozen in San Francisco where Mr McQueen lives.
It now boasts 25 people in San Fransisco, 25 in Denver, and 40 people in Wollongong where it plans to double that number within 12 months. Applications are constantly being taken at firstname.lastname@example.org.
“This year so far in Wollongong alone we have hired eight more people,” Mr Bell said.
“We are constantly hiring. It is a part of every day life here. There is a lot we want to do with the product. We just need more people to get it done. Developers can only work so fast. And we want to have multiple things going at once. We just need more people to help with that.”
Mr McQueen said the ambitions of the business were large and the opportunities even larger. He said talent coming out of UOW was an X-Factor in Wollongong.
“As far as I know we are the region’s only Silicon Valley venture-capital backed locally headquartered company. But it does not need to be just us,” he said.
“What got us to that point was nothing particularly unique. It was a lot of hard work. But at the end of the day there is no reason stopping others coming out and doing the same.”
Mr McQueen said the talent coming out of UOW could be a real driver for that.
Mr Bell said it just takes motivated interested people to want to do that from a garage, spare room in a house, start-up incubator or low rent office until they find their feet.
Both believe Wollongong’s potential is about harnessing the smart people coming out of the university and helping them and encouraging them to succeed.
“In our experience what we have seen work best is where the engineering and product development remains in Australia and then you open up your sales and marketing opportunities in the markets,” Mr McQueen said.
“It is pretty special to say to someone coming into a role that they can work somewhere like Wollongong where they can walk to the office, afford to buy a house and have a decent salary while working on a globally significant technology platform that is used by tens of thousands of people every day. That is a nice thing but it is not that common.”
Another advantage in Wollongong is when graduates started working here they want to stay and their tenure is longer than what Mr McQueen has seen in Silicon Valley.
It shows the Illawarra is a great place to live, work and play while being challenged, stretched and flexing skills in a good way professionally every day.
“The variability in people’s roles and their ability to develop and grow in a fast growth company is really quite special,” Mr McQueen said.
He said the arrival of companies such as NEC at the Innovation Campus were good for Wollongong and IT sector. He said he loved coming back regularly to see the city centre just get better with new small bars and restaurants.
Mr McQueen said there was a really special transition going on and anything that created more job opportunities will be a good thing for the city.
But to really move the employment needle regionally and nationally will require more startups and entrepreneurship.
It is about cultivating and creating technology.
Mr McQueen said that was because there is one very important global stat that is hard to argue against.
“If you look at the world market seven of the top 10 companies are technology based,” Mr McQueen said.
“Anything that society can do to encourage that process to occur is of benefit. The key for our community is to get behind some of that grass roots stuff. And there are so many people doing amazing things here but fevering away silently.”
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