It is hard to believe that at 32 years old, Murray Hurps AAICD is a start-up veteran with more than eighteen years experience behind him. At just 14 years of age, he launched his first start-up, focused on an internet filtering technology. Working with other like-minded techies across the globe, Hurps founded Ad Muncher, selling and licensing the technology worldwide. Ad Muncher is still in operation today and at one stage was ranked as one of the most popular ad blocking software programs in the world.
“The market in Australia was very small back then, so we sold the product internationally. Ninety-six per cent of our customers came from overseas,” he says.
Growing up on a rural property in western Sydney, Hurps said there was not much to do so he turned his attention to programming. “I started programming when I was seven and I was earning money from this before I began working on the filtering technology. There is an advantage for start-ups who operate outside the major cities,” says Hurps. “You’re forced to look beyond the local area for talent and customers, and this leads to looking overseas. This is where I found myself.”
At seventeen and with a Porsche 911 parked in his garage, the young entrepreneur dropped out of school to run his business. Hurps credits his parents, Geoff and Rhonda Hurps with inspiring his business sense. The couple founded Australia’s largest hydraulics company, Hydraulic Distributors.“It was helpful having parents who were entrepreneurial and who didn’t think twice about what I was doing. One of the biggest problems I see in Australia, as compared with other start-up ecosystems, is how people think about themselves and the opportunities available to them.”
“In Australia, we have huge amounts of access to capital to invest, proximity and access to enormous markets, a stable business environment, strong educational systems, entrepreneurial tolerance, and enthusiasm,” he adds. “The only real impediment is people not utilising these opportunities and falling into a more traditional career choice.”
He believes the tall poppy syndrome can take hold. “The most successful people I know are humble, they don’t boast about their achievements. However, when you’re doing business overseas, you quickly learn that the self-deprecating, quiet Australian is not competitive when you’re competing with the bravado and confidence seen in other ecosystems.”
The Fishburners story
In 2014, Hurps became the CEO of Fishburners, Australia’s largest start-up space. More than 170 start-ups converge in one large building in Ultimo, Sydney. The name Fishburners was inspired by the Fishburn ship that arrived with the First Fleet and brought supplies to Australia, leading to its propserity.
Fishburners’ focus consists of gathering inspiring new start-ups and a collection of promising start-ups into large spaces, and then connecting them with support from all areas of the start-up ecosystem. “Currently we only accept about 30 per cent of applications”, says Hurps. “We try not to give advice to these start-ups, but instead focus on feeding the funnel for the people and organisations throughout the ecosystem.”
Although he has many years of start-up knowledge behind him, he says it is near impossible to pick a winner or know what the next big start-up explosion will be. Hurps reiterates that Fishburners is there to provide an environment where start-ups can succeed. “In all the time I’ve spent dealing in start-ups, I still can’t pick a winner,” he said. “I’ve been proven wrong many times, often with the most exciting and unique opportunities being overtaken by a more pedestrian but well-executed idea. This happens over and over.”
On each floor in the Fishburners office, there is a bell. The bell is rung when someone wants to make an announcement. “It’s wonderful to hear it go off,” he says. “And nice to know that the same bell has been rung by successes such as GoCatch, DesignCrowd, OrionVM, and 99Dresses, along with many others from the 621 start-ups that have started in the five years at Fishburners.”
Another start-up Hurps co-founded in 2014 is Start-up Muster, the largest survey of the Australian start-up ecosystem. It aims to measure and publish the challenges faced by, and opportunities available to, Australian start-ups. Based on figures from Start-up Muster surveys over the past two years, Hurps says young Australian start-ups are crying out for technical talent, funding and customers.
“These three things are easily the most common challenges reported by start-ups, but I would argue this will always be the case. They should be treated as focus areas for support, rather than roadblocks that need fixing. They’re also obvious areas for corporate Australia to become engaged with start-ups, through the provision of support with accelerators or start-up spaces, investment, and patronage,” he says.
In 2015, Fishburners implemented a new constitution and aappointed new board members, including the appointment of Dr Katherine Woodthorpe FAICD, a member of the AICD NSW Division Council, as chair. “Our constitution is designed to have four experienced board members with three-year terms, and four board members elected from the community for one-year terms. This aim is to give these entrepreneurs board experience, and generate a diaspora of entrepreneurial directors for other organisations”
Hurps says the search for new board members was extensive, under the guidance and very significant contribution of the previous chair, Patrick Crooks and professional services firm, PwC. “Every board member believes in Fishburners and is passionate about our goal of creating start-ups which, when combined with a comprehensive skill-set, provides a wonderfully productive and efficient structure to work with as CEO.”
Hurps says too many boards he has worked with are often too focused on managing downside risk and don’t focus enough attention on upside risk, and the opportunities that could be passing them by. “Upside risk becomes more and more relevant when working with scalable companies, as the opportunities that could be missed become larger and larger. We’ve become too cautious and we don’t look at opportunities. Boards should question what they’re missing out on. People are advocating for more entrepreneurial thinking on boards and I’d love to see more of this.”
He said the notion of being a lucky country is thwarting entrepreneurialism in Australia. “The biggest risk to a great life is a good life, and Australians are at more risk of a good life than people almost anywhere else in the world. We need more people who are audacious enough to pursue a highly-scalable company instead of a comfortable career path.”
Much of Fishburners’ success has been attributed to the shared economy aspect of business, and Hurps believes this will continue. “As opportunities become larger, and resources are limited, collaboration is naturally incentivised.”
Today, Hurps’ focus remains on realising his goal of helping 1,000 new highly-scalable Australian start-ups get started by 2020. Each month Fishburners adds another 20 to 30 start-ups, despite turning down 70 per cent of applications. “These are companies, not people,” adds Hurps. “If you had told me this five years ago, I wouldn’t have believed it.