Aussie entrepreneur: Rob Smyth

Blue Reef CEO, Rob Smyth, talks about what you need to make it in Australia’s IT landscape

Blue Reef CEO, Rob Smyth

Blue Reef CEO, Rob Smyth

Rob Smyth, CEO of Blue Reef, is a successful entrepreneur who has been in the ICT sector for almost 20 years. He has overseen Blue Reef’s strategic development, operations and strong growth since founding the business in early 2002.

The company specialises in role-based access control and network enforcement in data networking. It’s customer base is largely Australian and is growing globally.

Smyth is somewhat of a serial entrepreneur, despite a reluctance to own up to the moniker. He created two start-up ventures before Blue Reef - Globe Connect and Impaq. Globeconnect, a mobile telephony and messaging business and one of Australia’s first multi-vendor GSM companies, grew from a zero base in 1995 to a business with a customer base of more than 3800 clients. Impaq went on to become one of Australia’s largest privately held ISP/ managed services companies and, during Smyth’s tenure, realised a market valuation of more than $50 million. The company was ranked 16th in Deloitte’s ‘Technology Top 50 fastest growing Internet Solutions Companies’ and won the prestigious ‘Asia Pacific ICT Award for the most innovative new ICT product’.

Despite his success, however, and his clear passion for the industry, Smyth remains unassuming about his achievements.

“People often ask what it takes to be an entrepreneur,” he says. “But I don’t describe myself as an entrepreneur – I’m almost embarrassed to be called an entrepreneur. I’ve just had some great ideas and opportunities and I have run with them.”

But he has learned some valuable lessons along the way, not least of which is the commitment required to create a successful business.

“You have to have a passion for what you do,” Smyth says. “If you’re not 100 per cent in it, it won’t be successful. And you have to have a reasonable appetite for risk.

“If anybody’s going into business, they need to have their eyes wide open. And they need to be properly capitalised – they need to known where their funding is going to come from. It’s not a good time to be raising capital right now, but if you’re not prepared to lose everything, don’t do it.

“Put everything on the line. It’s unlikely that others will back you and even a venture capitalist will want to see you’re completely involved.”

Cultural divide

Smyth admits there are significant cultural differences between doing business in Australia and overseas. In Australia, your track record tends to be judged on success alone, but it’s a little different across the Atlantic.

“There’s almost a fellowship of entrepreneurs in the US and they’re held in quite high esteem. If you don’t have one or two failures under your belt, you’re almost not taken seriously.

“And, of course, the market is so much larger – about 15 times that of Australia. To give you an idea, Blue Reef did almost $5 million in revenue over the last year. We have about 15-20 per cent of the private school market. In the US, that same share would be in the order of 4500 schools and about $50-75 million in revenue – for the same amount of sweat and resources.

“But, of course, there’s the Australian lifestyle.”

Smyth spent six months in the US with the Global Access Program (GAP) part of the UCLA Anderson School of Management. The program works with international businesses to match MBA students with technology companies to develop comprehensive business strategies that enable the companies to move to the next stage of corporate development.

“It was a real eye opener – the cultural difference is amazing. We tend to think of Australia and the States as very similar culturally because we speak the same language and watch the same television, but it’s not the case.”

These days, you could be forgiven for thinking entrepreneurs are a dime a dozen; you can find a slew of self-professed ‘entrepreneurs’ on Twitter and other social networks. But are people who label themselves entrepreneurs really of that ilk?

“I don’t use Twitter,” Smyth says. “And, on Friday, we have a non-internal email day so that people have to get up, walk over and actually communicate with each other. I think I’m rebelling against technology in my own way.

“But to each their own. Probably some entrepreneurs do identify themselves in that way.”

Recipe for success

There’s no magic formula to starting a business but, Smyth says, there are a number of ingredients involved and you need the right mix.

  • An appetite for risk. You have to be prepared to put 100 per cent of yourself into the business.
  • Entrepreneurship. I think you’re born with entrepreneurship in your blood.
  • Management skills. These are different to entrepreneurship; you can learn management skills and if you don’t have those skills you need to be able to identify what you need and surround yourself with the right people who have those skills. A very good team is vital.
  • Find business partners who complement both your strengths and your weaknesses.
  • Optimism.You need to be in the right frame of mind every morning.
  • Leadership.

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