Venture forth unto the web

Published 30 November 2011 12:22, Updated 01 December 2011 07:01

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Most business people are well into their 40s before they join the boardroom ranks; however, at just 25, Gareth Robinson has stepped out of university and into the role of chief executive of his own company, Leasate.

Web start-up Leasate was one of three companies born during the inaugural technology venture class offered to final-year computer science students at the University of Sydney in 2010. Robinson has now secured funding to take his idea out of the classroom and develop it further. He is at the point where he can even take on customers.

The 2011 BRW Entrepreneur of the Year, and CEO of Freelancer.com Matt Barrie, founded the course based on a class he attended over a decade ago at Stanford University.

“I did a class similar to this in the dotcom boom and, believe it or not, in that class PayPal started, along with a whole host of other companies,” Barrie says. “If I could add up the market capitalisation of all the companies that were started in that class over the last 10 years, it’s about $10 billion. That’s a hell of a lot of value and job creation.”

During the class, 40 students are divided into 10 groups of four and required to develop a business plan around their idea.

Throughout the course, they receive lectures from entrepreneurs, venture capitalists and angel investors, and the final class is a pitch day, where they present their idea to would-be investors.

This year, the three winning pitches have all built their ideas into web-based services in the gaming and education field. Robinson’s Leasate could be described as an eBay for the property industry. It will allow owners to list their properties at the site, so that potential tenants can make bids on rental prices.

Three of the companies from last year’s class are still operating 12 months later, including Leasate, which has managed to attract an investor.

Robinson says the class certainly caused a radical shift in his post-university plans, as he had assumed he’d take a graduate role and become an employee before he began working on the Leasate business plan with three other students.

“The idea came from us looking for houses to rent as students, and the fact that sometimes you’re willing to pay a little more than the advertised rental price to secure a property,” Robinson says. “The class’s first reaction was that I was a terrible person because I would make tenants compete against each other, but once you think about it a little, there’s a massive potential for disruption in this market.”

His idea now is to keep his costs low and develop an initial customer base by reaching out to individual landlords via the internet.

“We’re not planning a massive launch. We’ll let it go live in mid-December and test it out for a time among family and friends,” Robinson says. “The idea is for the software to do all the services usually provided by the real-estate agent, so it’s easier for owners to manage their properties.”

There are dozens of groups providing support and limited funding to nascent businesses, especially in the realms of information technology, where entrepreneurialism reigns and rapid progression depends on “Ramen profitability” (see “Using your noodle”, page 40) and finding the right advice early on.

“There’s a huge amount of momentum behind what’s happening right now with technology entrepreneurs,” Barrie says. “Lots of entrepreneurs are starting up incubator programs. And if you look at the businesses that are really doing well, they’re the ones where the entrepreneurs boot-strapped their own business from early on.

“There are start-ups all over the place and they are capital efficient compared with previous times.”

While he’s busy helping in the formation of other businesses, Barrie says being named BRW Entrepreneur of the Year in 2011 provided a tremendous fillip for his own enterprise, Freelancer.com, especially in the access it gave him to other finalists.

“It was great to meet all the other entrepreneurs, and to raise awareness of the Freelancer.com business in Australia.” Barrie says. “And I’d advise anyone who nominates to be prepared for the extra media attention following the award. It was a bit of a whirlwind.”

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