Hands up who thinks we need ‘earn’ the right to startup in Australia?

(Warning: this post contains massive generalisations, and should not be read as an invitation to start trolling. It is about an idea, not a piece of research, and thus it will be utterly flawed in many respects. So I will delete all nitpicks from comments…)

I found myself out of work recently with no real idea of what I wanted to do next. I did a fair amount of writing, some for me and some for others, but mostly I mooched around thinking my little head off, trying to figure out how to feed my family whilst not risking it all on a pipedream. I’m sure this is something that happens to a lot of people, this process.

Fortunately, now I have a venture to work on which is viable, easy to grow and based on cash flowing in. It carries no inventory – it’s a service. This service is based on the needs of small non-profits to provide reports to grant-makers and stakeholders. If you’re someone who administers a small non-profit, or you know someone who does, it would be terrific if you’d direct them to this survey. I’m also looking for a beta tester group – so something for nothing for those willing to give feedback.

The important thing is, I arrived at the idea for my new venture only after I abandoned an idea about entrepreneurship that thrives in Australia, an idea so deeply encoded in our day-to-day exchanges and media stories about business that we don’t even notice it. In the words of a once-famous Australian TVC for Palmolive dishwashing detergent: “You’re soaking in it!”

It’s been said over and over that Aussies cut down tall poppies – for those of you reading from the US, the expression means, when Australians see someone standing out from the pack because of their success, they cut them down to size, either out of envy or in a genuine belief that they are protecting them. Australian entrepreneurs who have been wildly successful have taken their cues from their US counterparts of from family and friends who have one-eyed belief in them. There’s been enough said about our tall poppy syndrome. I’m talking about something else here.

Sometimes, just a tiny shift in way you see something can result in an enormous change. I experienced one of those shifts of perception recently.

In the US, if someone needs work and can’t find it, or if he or she sees an opportunity that would pay them more or give them some other benefit, it’s an acceptable thing to start a business. Americans worship startups begun in the garage or on the dining room table, or out of the trunks of cars or doorknocking with their new gadget.

In Australia, we admire these people from a distance, and only in retrospect. We give them the tick of approval after they’ve achieved great success. And even if their success is not that great, but it’s still better than your average job and employs a couple of people, we still don’t admire them. We kind of act like they’re in loser purgatory because the only reason someone would be an entrepreneur is because they’re trying to hit the big time, make loads of cash, right? So someone who misses that mark and makes $200,000 per annum out of his or her slightly different insurance brokerage may as well go back and get a real job, because in comparison to Bill Gates, they’re nothing.

Here’s another one:  just exactly who should be attempting to start their own business? Obviously, a mechanic who’s worked hard in his or her career for two decades deserves a shot at it out on their own, of course. But not setting up business as a pool installer – that would be a bit much, wouldn’t it? There are guys who’ve been working in the pool industry for decades who should be better at that.

And who’s qualified? A guy who decides to retire early, and take a redundancy package, can do two things with it: go on a luxury trip that takes in St Andrew’s fine greens, or start a dynamic new consultancy selling services to his best buddies back in the washing machine industry. A guy who’s been recognised as one of the brightest in his final year at school and topped the class in his MBA must start a business, as a duty to the rest of us.

But what about your next-door neighbour? The lady who keeps cats who chews your ear off talking about the latest craze in kitty bling? Perfect niche internet business. No, she has not earned it. She wouldn’t understand the internet. She’s too old and on the pension. It’s not for the likes of her.

What about your cousin, the guy who invented his own non-processed food regimen and lost 40 kilos (88 pounds)? Perfect coaching/consulting business – might even be a candidate for franchising. He’s been looking for work for years, but nobody wants to take him because of the big hole in his resume caused by his (now long gone) depression.

So here is the thing I saw, that changed a lot for me. This is the crucial difference: in the US, if either one of them said they’d like to start their own business, people would support them, celebrate them. It’s the American way. And it’s the responsible thing to do -that’s right, earning money, by setting up a business, is a responsible thing to do.

In Australia, we equate responsibility with conservatism. So someone on income support shouldn’t register domains and start importing rare motorcycle memorabilia, young people with not enough education mustn’t squander all of our time and taxes on an event company that might fail and single mothers should just shut up and do party plan instead. In other words, we see startups as uniquely irresponsible, in comparison to getting a ‘normal’ job.

This seems like a little thing, but it’s not. To the extent that it’s true – I have no figures, it’s only an observation – it means that a disproportionate number of startup businesses in Australia are started by middle-class people with money and education. Innovation happens there, but not in the outer suburbs, not in the high schools, not in the senior citizens clubs. And when innovation does happen, it’s reined in by all our ideas about responsibility being aligned with conservative choices.

However, how could it be responsible to order only a container load of a new brand of sunscreen at the start of the summer holiday season? Why is it irresponsible to order ten containers? Surely, in the rational mind, the mind that is not hung up on holding back as a lazy means of practising risk management, the correct thing to do is to make the order for ten containers and then spend money telling the market about it. Rather than the Australian way, which is to order one container load and then cut back the marketing budget because you have no hope of building sales volume. Remember, these are gross generalisations and I know that Ruslan Kogan does not fit this mould. Thank God for that.

I wonder how wealthy our country would be if our attitude to small business wasn’t about owning small brokerages, Muffin Break franchises or vietnamese restaurants and was instead about the best ideas, the best market knowledge and the best support systems. And that it was responsible to start businesses and create jobs.