Inside the secret lives of Aussie tech startups

In the early 2000s, when Queenslander Luke Anear was working as a private investigator in Sydney managing more than 2500 workplace cases, there was one job that changed the course of his life.

“I was spying on people injured at work … there was a case where a guy had hurt his back lifting a piece of concrete at a job site. He ended up at home on worker’s compensation,” says Anear, who is one of four tech entrepreneurs featured in a candid documentary series, Founder, (now streaming on Apple TV+ and Google Play).

“He ended up becoming an alcoholic. His wife and children moved out [she said they’d come back when it was over] … he ended up getting a payout of $600,000 and rang his wife and said it was all over, you can come back now.

“She’d met someone else … and he ended up dying by suicide the day after.

“That experience probably shaped how I thought about investigation work more than anything else … I am either part of the problem or part of the solution.

“Following people around after they’ve been injured, I can’t help them fix this problem.

“That is why I created SafetyCulture.”

Released by Anear’s production company Founder Films, the series includes stand-alone episodes featuring design company Canva’s Melanie Perkins [and co-founder Cliff Obrecht], solar energy Brighte’s Katherine McConnell and Fred Schebesta from Finder, taking us on the journey of their one big idea, and into their intimate family settings and private lives.

“It’s easy to put people up on a pedestal and say, ‘they’re these incredible people’ … I’ve tried to say these are everyday people. They may be doing extraordinary things but they still have to overcome the same challenges as everyone else,” Anear tells The New Daily.

“This is something no one has seen before and that makes the founders more human, more relatable, than just the people behind the billion-dollar companies, with big valuations and big teams of people.

“This series takes you behind the scenes – not only how these companies are built, but how the founders live their lives and the support they get from family, friends, staff in order to realise their dreams.”

‘Naivety is a common superpower among founders’

Anear, whose company is valued at $2.5 billion and runs on a platform used by 70,000 teams in 85 countries, worked up to 19 jobs before SafetyCulture was born in 2004.

Its mobile application, iAuditor, is the most widely used auditing app in the world, mobilising all workers “to participate in real-time data collection and reporting in order to quickly recognise and improve workplace safety”.

In 2021, the Australian Financial Review reported the app was performing “more than 600 million workplace checks a year, everywhere from United Nations checkpoints in Afghanistan to Buckingham Palace”.

Anear started young in his working life, leaving school at 16 and scoring a job working at a petrol station owned by local identity Bill Smith, who went on to mentor him and provide his first management role.

The first episode tracks Anear’s trajectory as he outgrows his home town, is inspired at one stage by American motivational speaker Tony Robbins and sets up a boxing tournament in the Northern Territory, he even works as a gym operator, delivering pamphlets and selling cars.

Luke Anear with staff, problem solving. Photo: Founder Films

An overnight success? Not quite

By the time he became a private investigator, he realised things needed to change, and he took the first steps to setting up a safety training business in Townsville.

In 2008, when Apple’s App Store arrived, Anear got the courage to take the first step to turn his business into a global success story.

In between all this, Anear takes us inside his family, introduces us to his daughters and shares snippets of raising his girls as a single father when they were just seven and nine years old.

“The common thread here is we all stumbled across a problem that we naively – none of us thought how hard it was going to be – thought we could solve … naivety is a common superpower among founders.

“If we knew how hard it was going to be, we may not have ever started,” he admits.

“I don’t know how many jobs I had before I started SafetyCulture but I think it was 19. Overcoming the obstacles and limitations is something people can take away. Also, the belief in themselves.”

A stroke of genius, and a way of getting his young team of software engineers to feel emotionally engaged in workplace safety and quality once the business was up and running (and funded), he flew a group to Bangladesh in 2017 to meet families of the 1100 victims of the 2013 Rana Plaza building collapse.

Watching the 2016 movie Deepwater Horizon on the plane home, Anear was inspired to invite one of the survivors of that horrific offshore oil rig explosion in the Gulf of Mexico to speak to his team in Australia.

Mel Perkins and Cliff Obrecht were jointly listed eighth on the 2023 Forbes Richest 50 List – valued at $10.75 billion. Photo: Founder Films

Never give up!

From Perth, Melanie Perkins and boyfriend Cliff Obrecht had an idea for a graphic design business, and spent a very long time creating a business that would eventually take on some of the biggest companies in the world.

They both candidly share, with good humour, how difficult it was to crack the glass ceiling, opening up about being knocked back by dozens of investors before a few tentatively decided to invest.

“In the case of Mel and Cliff, they created fusion books which was this school year-book service where you can have Year 12 graduates all in one book. 

“That led to the idea that design should be more flexible and accessible rather than just people who have the money for expensive software,” says Anear.

Canva, which launched in 2013 with a “freemium” business model, claims annual revenues of more than $1.4 billion, according to Forbes.

The business has 135 million users worldwide every month, creating more than 15 billion designs, and Perkins is described in the series as a “billionaire with a social conscience”.

Likewise for Finder founder Schebesta and Brighte’s O’Connell, who quit her job with two young boys at home and a mortgage, they too struggled with uncertainly and doubt to create something from nothing.

Their eventual market dominance was not easily won, and the series sends home a clear message that being a founder is a lot about having the confidence that “failure isn’t a major issue”.

Founder is screening across Apple TV+ and Google Play

Stay informed, daily
A FREE subscription to The New Daily arrives every morning and evening.
The New Daily is a trusted source of national news and information and is provided free for all Australians. Read our editorial charter
Copyright © 2024 The New Daily.
All rights reserved.