An inside look at the tools powering Australian business

Six Australian businesses discuss the tools they're using to support their business.
Written by Tas Bindi, Contributor

Businesses have different needs at different stages of their growth, and the tools chosen at each stage of growth can impact how a company progresses.

A study of more than 200 Australian technology businesses conducted in December 2016 by payments company Stripe found the average business uses six to 10 cloud-based tools for a range of functions including accounting, analytics, code repositories, CRM, hosting and data storage, human resources, and team collaboration and communication.

ZDNet spoke to six Australian businesses at various stages of growth about the tools they have chosen and how their choices have evolved over time.



Adam Nowiski, APAC director at Nitro

Image: Supplied

Founded 12 years ago in Melbourne, Australia, and now headquartered in San Francisco, Nitro considers itself a "leading" alternative to Adobe Acrobat and Adobe Document Cloud.

As a fast-growing company with more than 600,000 customers globally, Nitro now invests heavily in tools that can support its sales and marketing teams.

Adam Nowiski, Asia Pacific director at Nitro, told ZDNet that Marc Andreessen's famous quote "software is eating the world" rings true for sales.

"Even five years ago, it was literally a CRM and a phonebook for the most successful revenue teams. But these days it doesn't matter what part of the sales process you're working on, there's an application for it -- whether that be lead generation or email automation or contract management," Nowiski said.

"We're taking that approach of always looking for the next potential piece of software that could improve our capability."

Nowiski said Nitro relies heavily on Salesforce as its single source of truth.

"Salesforce is very much the centre of our universe. Everything that gets built and everything that gets purchased must have a Salesforce integration," Nowiski said.

"Our accounting and finance package which is Netsuite, our ecommerce package which is from Cleverbridge, all must be able to talk to Salesforce to reconcile and update customer information.

"We use a couple of lead scoring solutions that actually plug directly into Salesforce and provide information to us about the type of buyer of our software and what potential chance we have of converting them into a customer based on, for example, their social media platform, based on their LinkedIn profile, based on the historical data we've got on the types of customers that we do really well with."

Wherever it makes sense, Nitro tries to stick with Salesforce products, even switching from external vendors such as Marketo to ExactTarget and Pardot for marketing activities, and Zendesk to Service Desk for customer support.

However, it does not always make sense, Nowiski admitted.

"We thought we had to use a Salesforce integration and then we realised that something else was better. For example, Salesforce has a longstanding capability in internal office communications through a product called Chattr. We used that for a period of time but when Slack came out -- Slack does have an integration to Salesforce, but it's a standalone solution -- it very quickly became the communication platform of choice. It didn't really matter that it wasn't a Salesforce tool. The integration was appropriate and our users loved it," he explained.

Nowiski said early-stage companies will not gain much from adopting Salesforce.

"It will cost you too much and the benefit is very little. When your customer and user base grows, then you will need a more robust, more complex CRM system, but until then, it's not necessary," Nowiski said.

"There are some great solutions out there that are not expensive, that are appropriate for you at the stage that you are in. But always keep in mind about what's potentially coming down the track. Look to the Valley about what is trending in terms of technology to help the business. They're the innovators, they're the pioneers."



Simon Tyrrell, CPO at LiveTiles

Image: Supplied

Australian Securities Exchange (ASX)-listed company LiveTiles has a strong relationship with Microsoft, with its core products sitting on top of Microsoft Office 365, SharePoint, and Azure.

LiveTiles provides tools that allow companies to create custom digital workspaces -- akin to a bespoke intranet -- with API integrations that enable a diverse range of programs to work together. The business was spun out of a company called nSynergy in December 2014, which has since been acquired by ASX-listed cloud services company Rhipe.

In addition to Azure and Office forming the the backbone of LiveTiles' core products, it also uses Microsoft products including Skype for Business, Sharepoint, Yammer, Planner, and Visual Studio for internal collaborative activities.

"We're not a startup where everyone started in one office. We started with me in Hobart, the CEO in New York, the co-founder in Melbourne, the CFO in Sydney, and then a bunch of people spread across various other locations. The key thing for us was just easy, agile collaboration," said LiveTiles chief product officer Simon Tyrrell.

Tyrrell told ZDNet that new businesses tend to gravitate towards Amazon and Google, but "they are not built around a partner model".

"If you can show Microsoft that you're going to do big things and that you're helping them hit their metrics -- the big ones are the consumption of Azure, consumption of services on Office 365 -- then you can get a lot of support. You can get marketing support, sales support, introductions to very large customers. To have a massive company supporting you like that is a pretty powerful thing to have," Tyrrell said.

Now that the business is growing at its fastest rate since inception -- 200 of its 340-plus customers was acquired in the last 12 months alone and subscription revenue quadrupled in 2016 -- investment in robust sales and marketing tools makes a lot more sense, Tyrrell said.

The company dipped its toes in Salesforce in the early days, but did not gain much value from it at the time and decided to abandon it. But it has since returned to Salesforce for customer relationship management.

LiveTiles was also using Salesforce's marketing automation platform Pardot, but recently transitioned to Marketo as the marketing team believed the latter has more "powerful" features.

"A key thing I'd say to any [business] is don't assume you're going to pick the tools today that are going to work for you in six to 12 months time. Try and keep your processes flexible enough that it is not wedded into particular digital tools," Tyrrell said.

"If you're successful, if you're growing rapidly, if you're bringing a lot more people on, then you need to be able to adapt to the needs of those people. They might bring expertise in tools that you had never heard of."

Tyrrell said his team had tried half a dozen or so product management tools over the years and recently settled on Aha.

"As we grew over time, we needed to have much clearer insights, more forward planning, the ability to share [roadmaps] externally with partners and customers, and so that led to a need for a more mature platform," Tyrrell explained.

While not all tools used in the past worked out in the long-term, Tyrell said there are no regrets as it's all part of the learning process.



Lucy Liu, co-founder and COO at Airwallex

Image: Supplied

Melbourne-based fintech firm Airwallex provides technology that enables cross-border transactions by using machine learning to find the best buy-sell trade for any combination of currencies. For them, finding the right tools to use from the get-go wasn't particularly difficult. This is because the founding team is comprised of technical people, Airwallex co-founder and COO Lucy Liu said.

The 18-month-old business is using a range of Atlassian's products including Confluence and Jira, as well as Xero for accounting, and Dropbox and Google for document storage and collaboration.

However, given the company operates in both Australia and China, it has had to take into account China's complex internet system and culture, which are underpinned by strict censorship laws.

As such, when it comes to cloud hosting, Airwallex has opted for AWS in Australia and AliCloud in China.

"AWS doesn't really support China very well because the internet system is very different," Liu told ZDNet.

Similarly, communications tools such as Slack or those provided by Google do not work as smoothly in China as it does in Australia, Liu said, so Airwallex is using WeChat for instant messaging and conference calls with Chinese staff.

"WeChat is very good for instant communication. It's like WhatsApp. It also has a translation function built into it. But for filtering, finding things, classifying things, managing groups, I think Slack is a lot better. So for document sharing and tracking things, we still use Slack," Liu explained.

Liu is particularly fond of a recruitment tool called Laugou, built by a Chinese startup.

Likening its design to that of Greenhouse, Liu said Laugou allows companies to track candidates as they progress through the recruitment process.

"We don't really have an HR person, so having something where everyone can track candidates on and review CVs is great," Liu said.

Liu's three pieces of advice to other businesses when it comes to tooling is: Do your research, trial everything, and sometimes less is more.

"Don't get too many tools because it is going to be very overwhelming and hard to manage," Liu said.

Airwallex recently raised $13 million from international investors including Mastercard, Sequoia Capital China, and Tencent to accelerate the release of its collection of APIs for businesses looking to process international payments at scale.



Elizabeth Crooks, client services director at Sofihub

Image: Supplied

At less than a year old, Melbourne-based startup Sofihub is still early in its journey, even though the technology it will commercially launch in August has been in development for two years at Deakin University.

Sofihub's artificial intelligence-powered device uses sensors to learn the normal activities of residents in their homes, which then allows it to detect abnormal activities and alert nominated loved ones and support professionals of potential emergencies. Sofihub can also provide reminders for medication, food, and water intake, as well as important appointments, enabling elderly Australians to live independently at home for longer.

Elizabeth Crooks, national client services director at Sofihub, told ZDNet that the startup's first staff member began work in December last year, and the team has since grown to five. However, all staff work from home or at Deakin University, which makes the use of cloud-based tools essential to Sofihub's operations, Crooks said.

The "most magical tool keeping [Sofihub] on track" has been Google Hangouts, Crooks admitted, as it supports asynchronous communications in an organised manner and eliminates the need to make disruptive group phone calls.

"Effective use of Hangouts means we're all communicating with each other all the time without disturbing each other," she added.

"This morning, we received some paperwork for a partnership with a company in Singapore ... They're going to buy 1,000 of our units for a big project. I put that on Google hangouts. Everybody instantly knew, including [Alex Boyd, head of logistics] who knows we need to produce another 1,000 units."

The reason for selecting Hangouts over other communications tools, Crooks explained, is simply because Sofihub is "already using Google for everything else, so it just made sense".

As a pre-launch and pre-revenue startup, Sofihub has a very lean collection of internal business tools, with legal and accounting tasks being outsourced to individuals or online services.

For example, the company has recently been experimenting with contract management tools such as PandaDoc for memorandums of understanding and non-disclosure agreements.

Mad Paws


Alexis Soulopoulos, co-founder and CEO at Mad Paws

Image: Supplied

Pet services marketplace Mad Paws, now two and a half years old, is being used by more than 6,000 pet sitters and 100,000-plus pet owners in Australia. Co-founder and CEO of the venture-backed business Alexis Soulopoulos told ZDNet that at the current stage of the company's growth, investing in the right marketing and customer analytics tools is very important.

The Sydney-based company initially used MailChimp to send emails to customers, but as its community of pet sitters and owners grew, it needed a tool with additional tracking and reporting capabilities, Soulopoulos said.

As such, it switched over from MailChimp to Campaign Monitor and started using Google Analytics.

However, Soulopoulos said Mad Paws needed to "get even more granular" and added Mixpanel to its toolbox, which tracks the actions individual visitors take on websites and applications.  It also allows companies to do A/B testing , where they change the colour of a button or the wording in a call-to-action and then measure the impact of those changes.

"It's very crucial to understand which customers we are acquiring and what is their behaviour in the long term. If I spend so much money on one customer, I need to know that they're going back to the website at some stage and that they're going to be a profitable customer. I can see things like a user booked us once but then never came back. Maybe we should send another email with the value proposition of why they should use us again and perhaps a discount code," Soulopoulos said.

"In a much more powerful way than Google analytics, [Mixpanel] also gives us a very good overview of cohort behaviour -- information like when do people come back and what is the frequency of them coming back. It just provides us with actionable insights into our numbers, into our metrics, on where we can improve."

At 18-people strong, Mad Paws is always on the lookout for new talent to bring on board. It is currently using Flare HR, backed by Westpac's venture capital arm Reinventure, for recruitment, onboarding, and employee management.

"It's basically free software to manage the HR side of things from job descriptions to onboarding to organising team activities to picking the right t-shirt sizes for staff to setting up the right accesses," Soulopoulos said.



Mark Stanley, founder and CEO at Literatu

Image: Supplied

Like Sofihub, Literatu's journey also began with Google. The backbone of Literatu's technology -- which allows educators to create interactive activities or assessments, capture and analyse data at the student, classroom, school, and cluster level, and create personalised learning paths -- was initially supported by Google Cloud.

However, as the edtech company matured, so had its needs.

Literatu, now four years old, eventually migrated to Amazon Web Services (AWS) because they were "outpacing" Google in terms of the capabilities they could provide, according to Mark Stanley, founder and CEO of Literatu.

"AWS just make it so simple. They really do. You can turn them on and off in a heartbeat. It's very low cost to get going with AWS. They were just outpacing what we could do with Google," Stanley told ZDNet.

"As we grew, we got more entrenched in the bigger services from Amazon such as the Relational Database Service, and then scaling our servers to meet demand at hotspot times. Amazon is really good for that.

"It's always about getting the best bang for your buck."

But then Literatu began forging ties with Microsoft. As the relationship strengthened, Microsoft began to play an increasingly important role in Literatu's cloud, machine learning, and artificial intelligence strategy. The company, currently armed with more than 120 million data points, is using artificial intelligence and machine learning to identify the best learning experiences for individual students based on their past interactions, as well as predict future performance.

Stanley said there were two key reasons for moving Literatu's stack across to Microsoft Azure: The first is that the tech giant provides additional forms of support to startups around marketing and access to enterprise customers; the second is that Microsoft's various platform-as-a-service offerings are a "clear rival" to AWS.

"If you just want to put a box into a black space and have it available, they both (Microsoft and AWS) do a really good job. But if you want to talk about leveraging marketing, building a business relationship, Microsoft is definitely a much better option," Stanley said.

The edtech business has not completely abandoned its roots; it still uses some of Google's services such as Gmail and Calendar, though AWS is no longer a part of its backbone.

Stanley stressed that Literatu has selected cloud-based tools from day one, including GitHub for code base storage, Dropbox for file storage, MYOB for accounting, and Asana for task management.

"We always wanted to be in the cloud because it's the safest place to be," Stanley said.

While the vendors that Literatu had selected changed over time, Stanley believes they all served their purpose well.

Literatu's technology is now being used in more than 1,500 schools around the world, predominantly in Asia, followed by Australia and the US.

Editorial standards