Welcome to a new series that showcases some of Australia’s innovators, movers and shakers in and around ICT.
This week, we talk to entrepreneur Peter James.
At the point when many people would be pondering the joys of semi-retirement, Peter James is on the hunt for his next business challenge.
Sitting on the boards of a variety of Australian firms and an investor in a number of innovative start-ups, the technology industry veteran has rarely been busier.
“I love what I do and I don’t consider it to be work,” says James. “What particularly excites me is having the opportunity to take great Aussie technology and help to grow it on the world stage.”
James recalls starting his career back when “working with computers” put you in a rather small group of people. “You’d go to dinner parties and, when you told people what you did, they ended up quickly changing the subject,” he says. “These days it’s a bit different.”
After completing a computer science degree at the University of Canberra, James quickly realised it was the business side of things that excited him the most. Working at Computer Power Group in the 1980s, he rose to become managing director and chief executive officer while growing the firm into one of the country's leading IT services organisations.
Later, James acted as a non-executive director of Australian internet service provider iiNet and chairman at cloud hosting company Ninefold. Currently, his responsibilities include being chairman of service provider Macquarie Telecom Group. He is also chairman of high resolution aerial imagery specialist NearMap and of small Australian company DroneShield.
Based in Sydney, James spends considerable time travelling. As well as keeping an eye on his business interests, this also allows him to keep up with developments in the technology sector. On a forthcoming trip to the United States, he is mixing a series of business meetings with an opportunity to learn how to operate underwater drones.
“Drones are very hot at the moment,” he says. “I would put them, together with cybersecurity and software-as-a-service developments, at the top of my current technology interest list.”
Reflecting on his career, James says the best advice he can offer to young entrepreneurs is to “surround themselves with good people who you can trust are there for the right reasons”.
“You have to take a team approach to be successful in the long term,” he says. “Look for areas where there are strong growth opportunities and where you can see that the business model you are using can work."
He says it’s also important for budding business builders to remember that technology firms operate in a global world and your nearest competitor might be sitting in a small office in Bangalore. This is why regular travel and having a network of like-minded people is so important.
“At the end of the day, for me it comes down to the thrill of the chase,” he says. “You can measure business success in a number of ways but, for me, it’s also about the journey – about working with smart people to develop something of value.”
Celebrate success, learn from failures
Looking at the factors that hold some small Australian technology firms back, James says the ‘tall poppy' syndrome still plays a part. In some cases, it can prevent a young company from creating the flourishing business environment needed to turn their good ideas into reality.
“If you go to the United States, over there they celebrate success,” he says. “Here, we don’t want to be too successful because you might be letting your mates down.”
On the other side of the coin, James says entrepreneurs also need to be sure they are not limited by a fear of failure. The most successful technology firms in the world did not start out that way. Rather, many had to overcome setbacks and problems before finding their feet.
“In the US … failure is just part of having a go,” he says. “It’s okay to fail as long as you get up quickly and learn from it.”
James says he joined the Australia Computer Society back in the 70s after completing his university studies. He saw it as a good opportunity for professional development and to establish connections within the industry.
“An association with the ACS is valuable and I am always telling people that I am a member,” he says. “I am also now at the stage where I am able to give something back to the organisation which is satisfying.”
Looking to the future, James is determined to continue doing what he does for as long as possible. "My children are grown up, my wife has her own successful career, and I don't play golf," he says. "I can't see a reason to change."
Peter James is a Senior Member of ACS, based in NSW.