The Yankees are here. There’s small but growing contingent of American executives being brought in to lead Australian startups as they outgrow their Down Under boundaries.
Alex Bard, CEO of the Sydney-based email marketing company Campaign Monitor, is one member of the club. He told Mashable it was a conversation with his friend Jay Simons (the American who now helms hometown hero, software giant Atlassian) which partly persuaded him to take up the mantle.
“This opportunity was put in front of me, and I chatted quite a bit to him about how it feels to be an American as part of a company that has deep Australian roots and heritage,” he said. Apparently whatever Simons said worked.
Bard, who spent three years at Salesforce before heading up Campaign Monitor, came onboard after the company raised a particularly meaningful round of financing in 2014 ($250 million or A$329 million). Ben Richardson and Dave Greiner, the two founders, wanted a CEO to help the company scale further, Bard said, and he was ready to get his hands dirty again.
With around two million customers and clients such as BuzzFeed, the company has grown from 70 employees or so to more than 200 on his watch, and they’re set to open a London office.
According to Bard, the phenomenon of American CEOs helming Australian startups is something we’ll see more of as the Australian startup community builds momentum.
Of course, when American companies expand to Australia, they almost never hire local talent in executive suite roles. A country manager perhaps, but rarely anything higher.
For the most part, that’s because the American tech scene is miles ahead of Australia’s in size, and one of the key benefits of a foreign executive is access to new connections and experience. “When you’re hiring leaders, whether it’s a CEO or any kind of leader inside the company, one part of what you look for is experience in scale,” Bard said.
“That’s probably one of the reasons why you have global companies tapping U.S. executives. Because they may have had an opportunity to work at a company like Salesforce, or Intel, or GE the leaders of the technology revolution.”
Not to mention, if you want to make it in America, local connections are invaluable. “Could an Australian CEO do that? Absolutely. But they’d have to spend meaningful amounts of time in North America,” Bard said.
“If you want to spend time with Facebook and Zuck, you’ve got to spend a lot of time in the Bay Area.”
There’s also local knowledge about competitors. In its quest for growth, Campaign Monitor will have to face off against serious competition from established rivals such MailChimp and Constant Contact.
Still, with all that focus on American talent, are Australian startups hindering their ability to meaningfully attack other markets, particularly those in Asia?
“You don’t want to just hire American executives, first and foremost,” Bard suggested. “You want to hire experience diversity, cultural diversity, gender diversity. Because at the end of the day, that’s going to bring diversity of thought.”
In this respect, he suggested Australian startups are ahead of some of their American competitors, for whom the large size of the American market has meant they haven’t looked beyond their borders. “What you find is that going global is an afterthought,” he said. “That was part of what attracted me to Campaign Monitor.”
Ultimately, what may be most challenging about being the American CEO of an Australian company is simply distance. Bard visits Sydney once a month currently, and the two founders are still based here.
Those air miles and time differences make communication critically important. “There’s no way in a globally distributed company you’re going to get people to think and behave the same,” Bard said. “You need similar foundations and alignment, and then you just need to over-communicate.”
One way the company keeps people on the same page is highlighting its five key cultural messages. In Bard’s words: Make mum proud; If our customers kick ass, we will too; Care about why; Create the change you want; Do less but do it best.
What also works for Bard is that Campaign Monitor, like a number of other Aussie ventures, has in his view taken the right approach for the current market, where growth at all costs is no longer as easily rewarded.
Campaign Monitor, unlike a lot of big name U.S. startups, was profitable since it was founded in 2004. “The climate market here wasn’t as fertile, which forced people to build companies in a very different way,” he explained. “And it just turns out we’re in a market cycle right now where that’s serving us really well.
So what’s the worst thing about being the CEO of Campaign Monitor? Probably that 15-hour return flight once a month.
“If I could teleport here, I would spend way more time than I already do,” he said.