Riding the fourth wave of start-ups

Silicon Valley serial investor Bill Tai reckons Australian start-ups have the goods to mix it up with the best in the world.

Silicon Valley serial investor Bill Tai and Google Maps co-founder Lars Rasmussen. Pic: Fran Foo

Silicon Valley serial investor Bill Tai and Facebook’s engineering director Lars Rasmussen. Picture: Fran FooSource: TheAustralian

Silicon Valley serial investor Bill Tai is probably one of the few people in the world to have ever said “no” to the late Steve Jobs.

The late technology maestro is said to have ruled Apple with an iron fist, striking fear in staff with his no-nonsense approach.

Tai, an investor in more than 100 firms including Twitter, wasn’t convinced when Jobs came knocking on his door to source funding for a new venture called Pixar, then a high-end, proprietary computer hardware company. “The most notable company I passed on was Pixar,” Tai tells The Australian. “He pitched it (Pixar) to me and I turned it down,” he recalls.

He says Pixar didn’t seem like a “super-scalable business at the time”, around two decades ago. Pixar, which produced Hollywood blockbusters like Toy Story and Cars, sold to The Walt Disney Company in 2006 for more than $US7 billion.

These days, Tai is on the lookout for technology start-ups that dabble in cloud computing infrastructure, applications and services delivery, and crypto-currency.

He has funded several local technology start-ups as an angel investor including Canva, Posse, Pygg, Bubble Gum Interactive and SafetyCulture.

Tai has noticed a perceptible change in the general start-up scene, which has affected the type of technologies Australian entrepreneurs are venturing into.

“We’re deep into the fourth wave of tech start-ups,” he says during a visit to Sydney. The first wave belonged to silicon companies like Intel, National Semiconductor, AMD. The second involved communications networks outfits like Cisco, followed by network infrastructure/service provider type businesses.

The fourth wave revolves around the user-interface layer, where companies such as Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter thrive, he says.

“That ‘transport’ layer has allowed companies to start anywhere including Australia so there’s a great globalisation of start-ups. As we move more into the interface layer Australia becomes a ‘better fit’ (in the start-up landscape).”

He says Australian start-ups are increasingly prominent, thanks to the success of Atlassian, Freelancer.com and 99designs.

Tai and fellow Canva investor and Google Maps co-founder Lars Rasmussen believe Australia has world-class engineering talent, which holds it in good stead against the likes of Silicon Valley and London. More than 50 per cent of the start-ups he’s funded have “Google DNA”.

Tai’s advice to budding entrepreneurs is “think big” in terms of market size and possible outcomes. “You’re never going to attract financing internationally if you’re dabbling in small markets,” Tai says, voicing a view shared by Rasmussen.

Tai and Rasmussen, director of engineering at Facebook, are in Sydney for Startup Spring and to make a Canva-related product announcement.

Rasmussen was based in Sydney during his time at Google, then relocated to the Silicon Valley with Facebook. He now leads the engineering team at the social network’s London office where he’s “working on a secret project”.

This story was first published in The Australian.

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