Resilience and adaptability: Technology enables survival of the fittest in business
Michelle Melbourne is Co-Founder and Executive Director at Intelledox and will be appearing on the Entrepreneurs and Innovation panel at the Canberra Mobile-ising Women in Business event on Tuesday, 28 February. Ahead of the event, Michelle talked to us about how Australian businesses use data and tech, and why this matters for business success and survival.
Starting in Tech with the Desktop Revolution
It was my Dad that led me into IT. I was enrolled to study science at ANU and Dad said to me, “Make sure you include some computer science subjects because it might come in handy one day.” This was back in the late 1980s, still early days in computing technology, and it was the beginning of what we called ‘the desktop revolution’. Microsoft and Apple were still young companies, and it was still very expensive to have a computer at home.
My other major was in psychology and I was planning to do a Masters in organisational psychology and teams and culture – which is my passion to this day – but in a ‘Sliding Doors’ moment, in the summer before I started my Master’s degree, I got a job with a software technology company in Sydney.
For a girl from Canberra who’d been waitressing her way through university, the offer of a permanent job at the age of 20, in the ‘big smoke’ of Sydney was too enticing to pass up. It was a start-up company, and that’s where I got my love for all things software.
Starting Intelledox was a natural progression. It’s what I’ve been doing all my life, helping organisations to take advantage of the latest technology to improve the way their business operates.
Our regulatory environment drives early adoption and creation of technology
The beautiful irony is that Australia’s very strict compliance and regulatory business environment dictates that companies are scrupulously managed. They have to have everything well organised and published and financials have to be transparent; the way they manage their policy has to be in accordance with law and regulation. So as much as we moan about our government and how there’s so much control and how much red tape there is, this has meant Australians are world-leaders in adopting technology because we need it to comply. Australia weathered the global financial crisis because it has always been very well regulated by governments and authorities.
Australian business clients have sophisticated needs, so this means we’re running a gold-medal race right here. When we show our technology to global banks in Europe and North America they’re blown away by the sophistication of what we’ve developed.
Australia is so developed in its adoption of technology because we have had to be. Our cost of labour is so high here, we have to be smart about automation and re-engineering the way repetitive, predictable processes can be automated.
Automation is essential for the Australian labour market, as we can’t afford to pay the high wages for people to muck about with low value tasks. On the other hand in China, for instance, the government needs to employ more people. As people come into the city, they need jobs, so the Chinese government is not driven by the need to automate, it’s just the opposite.
Resilience is key
For a small Australian technology company, we’re very ambitious and we punch above our weight on a global scale. We get to the table for a big technology deal and we come second in the tender and evaluation process and it’s not because we don’t have the best product, we do have the best product. But we don’t have that big reputation. We’ll be told, we are too small, and it’s because some risk manager in a company has said no, we’ll only deal with someone if they have more than 100 million dollars in revenue.
It’s still a challenge for us today, and this is where innovation needs to get a better reputation for success; the big entrenched systems and decision making processes of the past need to be reset. People want the cutting edge technology but they are also still a bit wary of innovation and the associated risk.
The perception is that small start-ups always go out and win these ‘David and Goliath’ battles, but that’s not always the case. We’ve won plenty, but if we hadn’t been stymied at times by that perception problem, if we’d won more, we’d be that 100 million dollar company by now.
You have to just keep doing your thing and pitching your next project. It builds resilience and determination, and you simply have to be up earlier and run faster than everybody else. For us to win a deal we have to be 10 times better than the competition and at least 80% cheaper. The issue is that even then, that’s risky, because the people making the decisions can also make judgements about what that says about us and the quality of our service. If you go in too cheap people just write you off as being not credible.
Innovative business requires an innovative culture
We may be a technology company, but people are most critical to our success. We are a values-led organisation, so we hire based on values and attitude and potential rather than someone’s perfect resume and experience.
There’s a tangible vibe in the office of super-smart, passionate, driven individuals who all believe in the company and the product. We therefore have a positive cycle of great culture that drives the engineering of a superior product, that drives resilience for us to overcome coming second, that makes us even more determined to win.
We’re winning more and more, we’ve just won two major contracts in the US. But you don’t just show up and win from the first day; it’s taken years to establish ourselves.
It comes back to the culture in the team and the kind of people who want to work for us: people who can resist being disillusioned when you don’t win every job.
I have a playbook for how I find people, how I interview them and engage with them. It’s not easy to find the right person, especially in Canberra where you compete with the federal government to attract the best people. Our environment is the complete opposite to the public service, very flat management structure, very intense and at times chaotic, and that’s not the right fit for everyone.
We have a lot of long-term team members. We have a cohort who has been with us longer than 15 years and they’ve had multiple careers inside our company. I believe that’s a testament to a great workplace, where we’ve attracted new generations to work in the company.
We try to be innovative in every aspect. It’s about survival; to remain competitive we have had to have better employment conditions and be more flexible. We have a couple of guys who only work 9 or 10 months of the year because they like to travel, we have a lot of parents who like to be home by 4 o’clock. In order for us to keep them, because they are valuable people, we’ve had to develop flexible employment policies. In return when we really need them to work long and hard on a crazy deadline, they are happy to step up.
In nature, the organisms that adapt are the ones that survive, and it’s often those that face the hardest challenges that make the strongest adaptations. It’s the same in business.
When everything is running smoothly there’s no drive to look for a new or better solution. Innovation doesn’t come from being comfortable, it comes from being challenged.
The more you come second, the more you want to win.
Hear more from Michelle on forging a successful career in tech at Mobile-ising Women in Business, Canberra on 28 February. There are still some tickets left; bookings and details here.