11 May 2017, Written by Ben Hall


HE SPENT a decade conceiving and building Blue Sky Alternative Investments (ASX: BLA) into an ASX top 300 company and when Mark Sowerby stood down as managing director in August 2016, he was looking to spend more time with his growing family after years of long hours away from home.

But he'd barely packed his cardboard box and said his goodbyes when approached by the Queensland government to become the state's first Chief Entrepreneur.

Sowerby was an obvious choice.

From humble beginnings in Brisbane, he left Blue Sky with $2.7 billion of assets under management, forecast to become up to $3.3 billion by the end of the year, and it now has a market capitalisation of more $500 million since listing on the ASX in 2012.

He does get to spend more time with his family but, as chief entrepreneur, his job now is to identify emerging talent, pass on his experience and knowledge and convince investors that Queensland is brimming with young entrepreneurs who have the ideas, passion and skills to bring brilliant business ideas to life.

In part one of our exclusive interview, Mark Sowerby tells Business News Australia about the 'tsunami' of entrepreneurs coming through and what to do, and what not to do, when trying to secure venture capital.

You've been Queensland's chief entrepreneur now for 8 months, what have you found so far?

I think the interesting part for me was finding out how much I didn't know was going on, so you think through the Blue Sky journey and the venture capital and we were a start-up ourselves that you had a really good sense of everything that was going on and I just had no idea there was 10 times more going on at the grass roots then I expected.

And probably it's not that surprising, it's on the ground and people are just getting on with doing it and there's no screens to find these deals or these opportunities, and so the only way you find them is by being on the ground.

"It's a relentless journey and you know you need to box yourself
in and give yourself no optionality for failure because
you never know when the pain is going to end."

Then someone says 'oh, you should talk to such and such' and then you walk into their office and go 'oh, you've got 60 people here and I don't even know you exist'. So, there's a lot going on and there's a lot of younger people coming through that decide that being an entrepreneur is a career path.

They used to think about accountancy, law, medicine, stock broking and now they're thinking entrepreneurship. I think QUT has done a really good job of getting that message out there and universities are definitely on the same path, so there's a wave coming through, it's a tsunami actually.

You've been on a tour of regional Queensland, were you surprised from the response out there?

I'm from the regional areas so I'm always biased. They are so friendly and so engaged and because it's always more challenging being in those areas and you tend to find there's sort of an underlying entrepreneurial streak. But engagement across those towns was extraordinary and there were really high quality ideas. Each town seemed to have its own sort of streaks and things that it was interested in.

Entrepreneurs are always the same. They want more information and more engagement and more friendships and more ideas.

And part of your job is to get investment venture capital, how's that going?

We're definitely attracting, more people here. The precinct in the city (Brisbane) is very attractive for that because it allows them to be based there and see the deals and get those random collisions and opportunities that come through. There's lots of pitch nights and all those things happening as well, so it's sort of like a deal flow feed that's coming through. We're not short of deals and probably there's more offshore interest. Recently we had 10 or 15 billion dollars-worth of venture capital money there so it's about sowing that seed and saying 'why don't you come here?' because they know they've got to be on the ground to get the deals.

Do you think the young community or the start-up community needs to learn a bit more about how to attract venture capital, do you think that's a key?

Yep, they will have to learn like we all have to learn, and what we're trying to do is teach the younger kids the rules around that.

"You want to get as far along as you can on your own
money and close family and friends because it's a great
filter to stop you just having a punt."

I've heard of a few tech companies around town that have raised some money recently and the younger guys and girls, they've said 'you know we've raised money at this crazy price' and that's a recipe for disaster because they're not going to meet the expectations of investors and all those things.

Yes, they might have sold less equity but they're going to have a problem down the track and that's going to be probably a business killer. So, always selling shares at a price that you think that you're going to make money from is a really good filter but only when you've got the conviction that you're sure that it's going to make it and the other piece is alignment.

So, what do you see the main challenge is for budding entrepreneurs right at the moment at the start of this wave, or tsunami as you put it?

It's mostly going to be experience, and I guess it depends on the assumption that entrepreneurs are young and they're not necessarily always young. I mean I was 35 when I started out. That's not particularly young but it feels young now that I'm 45, but experience is one thing and you want to fill that gap if you can with good investors.

You need a good crew, good people that have done it before and there's a really good base of people across Queensland that have done that and they need to draw on them to help them through the journey because the rules are the same. It doesn't matter what the industry is. The rules are the same, and we live in an ecosystem that supports them and carries them and we can mitigate the risk of failure.

Steve Baxter recently said to us, when we asked him what it took to be an entrepreneur and he said, 'if you ever get a chance to talk to Mark Sowerby, talk to Mark Sowerby, he's got a message for entrepreneurs and one of the things he said was 'it's not for the faint hearted'.' Did he peg you right on that?

It's in the context of my own experience, but also we're uniquely positioned with the Blue Sky journey where we were a start-up ourselves. And we had all these younger businesses that we invested in so we sort of saw both sides of the equation.

"If you choose to be an entrepreneur and start your own business ...
you're making a life choice because you're giving yourself a platform
to express yourself to the world. There's something invigorating about
being unleashed and that attracts a certain style of person." 

I think it's quite a unique perspective and it's a relentless journey and you know you need to box yourself in and give yourself no optionality for failure because you never know when the pain is going to end.

Everybody seems to go through this and it typically takes a decade and it's just a journey that you go on and it's the same for everyone and they experience it in different ways and different times. It never runs like a spreadsheet so I think when you're making a choice to be a lawyer or an accountant or whatever it might be, you're making a career choice.

But if you choose to be an entrepreneur and start your own business, you're making your own business. You're making a life choice because you're doing it for yourself, you're giving yourself a platform to express yourself to the world. You're taking on the world that relies on you. It's your ability and learnings and experiences and talent that's going to get you through, or not, and you're exposed, but there's sort of something invigorating about being unleashed and that sort of attracts a certain style of person.

But there's that side of the excitement of getting started and having your own company and logos and all of the things that you do that are all really sexy and then there's the reality of the grind and the reality of the risk of partners and the reality of cash flow the reality of trying to make sales and tell your story. And Australia's a big country there's a lot of travel and that's hard on your body and your family and relationships and friendships, and that's just 'is what it is', but when you get to the end, you know if you get to the outcome then it's just like everything in life. The reward has to be worth the risk.

Click here to read Part 2 of the exclusive interview with Mark Sowerby.

Business News Australia

Author: Ben Hall





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