Mina Radhakrishnan: Five ways to support Australian innovation
Encourage more tech firms to have their HQs here
“Australia punches well above its weight for ingenuity and innovation and we need to promote this more. Canva and Atlassian are proud to be based in Sydney, but they still experience the tall poppy syndrome. We should be more supportive of Australian businesses that have ambition to grow internationally.”
Make it easier for talent to work in Australia
“We need to be much more open to encouraging talent across borders. Some of our people build great careers in the US and Europe, and really want to come to Australia, so why are we making it hard for them? The big thing is changing the visa, skills and immigration policies to make it easier for people to work here.”
Remove confusion about R&D incentives
“The R&D incentives can be amazing for funding innovation in startups, but the rules can be unclear as you grow. We want to feel confident we can continue to use them to build out our businesses.”
Improve employee stock option rules
“We need better employee stock option rules that support employees and companies in a clear and simple way. We want people to be well rewarded for their contributions to a startup’s success. I’ve been fortunate to have a lot of equity in great companies and that’s been life changing. The clearer we can make stock options for employees in Australian companies, the better.”
Support more investment opportunities
“It’s great we have many more local VCs. Now it would be good to see more pre-revenue, early-stage funding, because VC money generally goes towards the more established startups. Some of the big funds are doing this, although we need more investors open to earlier rounds of small investments so companies can try something out.”
She does not care for generational labels, although Mina Radhakrishnan is an alpha representative of her millennial generation. There’s even a smiley face in the brand of her venture with husband Ruwin Perera — :Different — which is modernising property management and will use $25m Series B raised in September 2021 to accelerate national growth.
Radhakrishnan grew up with the internet, using technology to tap into global trends and strengthen human connections — and she’s driven to make the world a better, fairer place. “Like most good South Asian kids, I was meant to study to be a doctor or something stable,” she says. “But after a semester of biology, I was like, ‘I cannot do this for the rest of my life’. I worked out that I wanted a more liberal arts education. At Cornell University [in Ithaca, New York] it was really exciting. You weren’t pigeonholed into a single field of study, so I could major in computer science with a minor in cognitive science — connecting technology, psychology and linguistics to solve problems.”
While millennials sometimes cop criticism for their divergent ambitions and opinions, bear in mind they entered an early 2000s workforce with grim job prospects for young people — and then the global financial crisis struck. It’s no wonder the brightest millennials are driven to disrupt how societies and businesses operate. They practically have to.
Radhakrishnan’s talent for unsettling traditional practices won her internships that lead to employment with Goldman Sachs in New York as a software engineer/business analyst — and praise from the old guard. “In 2004, BlackBerry was the coolest, most high-tech gadgetry in the world and I was building apps for Goldman Sachs,” she says. “One of them was this silly little stock ticker app, which delivered continuous updates. The day after Goldman reported its earnings, I get this phone call from a secretary saying ‘Lloyd [Blankfein, then COO, now senior chair] wants to talk to you’. I said, ‘OK, put him through’, thinking it was a joke. So Lloyd Blankfein comes on and says, ‘I just want to tell you the app you guys have got there, I really love it’. Then he hangs up the phone.”
Leaving Silicon Valley
Radhakrishnan cultivated her flair for making technology people-friendly at some of Silicon Valley’s world-conquering businesses, including Google and Uber, where she was the 20th employee and the first head of product.
The stock she had earned in nearly a decade working with those businesses expanded her life options, and when she married Ruwin Perera — who’d worked on business strategy for Boston Consulting, Google and Softbank — she knew that at some stage in the future they would be great in business together.
“We weren’t sure what we’d build, but we wanted to take on an industry where technology could fundamentally make it better,” she says. “We sold most of our stuff and went travelling around the world for a year and by the end of it, we’d figured out we couldn’t do another Northern Hemisphere winter. So, we moved to Australia, where Ruwin had grown up, and we started looking at how technology could improve Australia’s real estate sector because that’s where so many Australians grow their wealth.”
:Different launched in 2017 with a mission to deliver “proactive property management” by using digital technologies to automate a lot of the tedious interactions in rent relationships, thus freeing up property managers to focus more on the needs of both parties.
“Most people want to be property investors, but not deal with the day-to-day stuff that is the reality of having this asset,” notes Radhakrishnan. “Unfortunately, there are huge inconsistencies in how property managers handle a lot of the tasks such as collecting rent, making sure the documents are compliant and following up on maintenance requests. We saw how much Ruwin’s parents were charged by their agent — and they weren’t getting value for money at all. We decided to fix that with fairer fees and better service driven by data.”
The data insights from tracking activities such as tenancy applications, rent payments and maintenance requests helps the team at :Different manage the fine details, while identifying opportunities for improvements. For example, data on plumbing repairs by different suppliers helps to identify which plumbers are following best practice to do the job well, and at the fairest price.
“Technology is a huge part of how we make property management transparent, compliant and value for money, but it’s also about the human experience,” says Radhakrishnan. “We’re selling a service that gives people the peace of mind that their property and the people who live in that home are taken care of.”
Radhakrishnan says one of the most important strategic decisions for the business was to take on venture capital to accelerate growth. To date, :Different has had three funding rounds — a $1m seed round led by AirTree in 2017; a $7.8m Series A in May 2020, led by PieLAB, and backed by AirTree, Spring Capital and Warburton Group; and a $25m Series B in September 2021, which was led by CBA’s x15ventures and Antler.
The latest round also saw CBA and :Different form a strategic partnership to deliver property investment services and insights to the banks’ millions of customers, including embedding :Different into the Commbank app.
Scaling up the technology platform for national expansion is straightforward compared with the challenge of growing the team, says Radhakrishnan. The team began by headhunting people who had worked in other fast-growth companies such as Uber and Google, bringing valuable business strategy and innovation experience. Now, it needs more engineers, designers, product managers and people skilled at managing relationships. :Different has a technology hub in Sydney, where its product and design teams are located, although the bulk of its engineering team is based in Colombo, Sri Lanka, which has a broader pool of people with technology skills. The company currently has 118 employees.
“We want to grow our engineering team here in Sydney, which is a challenge, because things like product design and product management aren’t taught in schools — you have to learn them on the job, and more of those are overseas,” she says. “We’re very open to sponsoring people into these roles who’ve done it before. And we’d like to help grow Australia’s tech ecosystem.”
In August 2021, Radhakrishnan’s vision for the local tech industry gained her a seat on the board of the new Technology Council of Australia, alongside Afterpay CEO Anthony Eisen, Atlassian co-CEO Scott Farquhar, Canva co-founder Cliff Albrecht and Tesla chair Robyn Denholm MAICD. “A key thing for the Tech Council is creating collaboration with government — which is more than, ‘What can the government do for us?’ — it’s also about ‘What can we do for Australia?’” she says. “We’ve talked about expanding the talent side of things in Australia, and immigration is a huge part of that. We’re also looking at the financial incentives that come into play for creating jobs. We should be able to create more tech jobs here and it’s really important we recognise innovation as a core pillar of the Australian economy.”