Victoria’s technology revolution: Square Australia’s Ben Pfisterer weighs in

Ben Pfisterer

Read why Victoria is Australia’s technology capital.

It’s official: our state is the country’s leading tech hub. The statistics bear it out. Our tech industry – which employs about 160,000 and brings in $35.3 billion annually – is home to many of the nation’s top 20 technology companies, and we’ve also lured an impressive Who’s Who of global technology leaders to establish regional headquarters here, including Alibaba, Amazon, Dialog, Slack, CyberGym, Hired, Zendesk and Square.

Which makes sense, really, given Victoria has one of the lowest rate of business tax of any Australian state and offers investors some of the world’s most generous research and development (R&D) support in a cost-competitive business environment. As a result, KPMG ranks Melbourne as having the most attractive R&D location costs in the region.

Our tech sector is carving a name for itself most notably in software development, cloud technology, digital games, mobile technology, social networks and data analytics. And Melbourne, in particular, is getting its fair share of tech accolades, including being ranked as Australia’s top ranked Tech City and awarded the 2017 Intelligent Community of the Year.

We’re an educated lot in this realm, too – Victoria produces 37 per cent of Australia’s digital tech graduates, compared to 28 per cent in NSW and 19 per cent in Queensland – and we’re also noted for our cybersecurity stance. Victoria is building cyber and data security capabilities to make it Australia’s leading cyber security location globally.

Key wins to date include:

  • The establishment of the new Oceania Cyber Security Centre at Melbourne’s Docklands, along with a Data61 Cyber Security Innovation Hub.
  • An agreement with Oxford University’s world-leading Global Cyber Security Capacity Centre (GCSCC) to establish a formal collaboration with the Oceania Cyber Security Centre.
  • A Memorandum of Understanding with Israel’s Tel Aviv University.
  • Establishing two fintech hubs in Melbourne’s Central Business District to be operated by Stone and Chalk and YBF Ventures.

There’s no sign of a slowdown up ahead, either: by 2020, Victoria’s digital economy is predicted to soar to $50.8 billion.

Case Study: Square Australia

Ben Pfisterer
Square Australia’s chief, Ben Pfisterer

Digital and mobile payments pioneer Square made a push into Australia in March 2016, when it began operating payments out of its Melbourne base.  Founded in 2009 by Jack Dorsey – who also happened to co-found Twitter back in 2006 – Square is a San Francisco-based publicly-listed company with a market capitalisation nudging $US17.2 billion. Branches are located in the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom and Japan, along with Australia.

Square employs more than 2000 globally, and just over 30 of those work out of Melbourne. Local take-up has been positive, to say the least. Tens of thousands of Australian sellers are now using Square’s products and services, which are tailored towards small-to-medium (SME) business owners keen to start, run and grow. Square’s appeal is using affordable business technology such as card readers and business analytics tools – think cafes and restaurants, bars and clubs, retail stores, hair and beauty businesses, florists and market traders.

Square Australia’s chief, Ben Pfisterer, knows a thing or two about payments technology. He previously worked for Visa, managing their innovation roadmap across all emerging payment technology including the deployment of payWave, mobile payments, virtual wallet and EMV (Europay, MasterCard and Visa), the standard for credit, debit, and prepaid card payments using chip card technology. He also previously held senior positions at National Australia Bank, driving EMV migration, contactless deployment and launching one of the world’s first mobile payment pilots.

Pfisterer is certainly not one to do things by halves. “I’ve always strived to help the companies I work for make sure that we’re constantly innovating or pushing the boundaries of what we can achieve,” he says, “and I’ve never been one to be satisfied in monotonous or routine jobs, which often results in me working on things that are difficult in nature.

“Being able to work for such an innovative company like Square, that builds solutions to help millions of businesses globally, is immensely rewarding – it’s inspiring to hear stories of people who have followed their dream to start their own business and are able to simply and affordably grow it using our technology.”

So why Melbourne for the Australian base?

“A primary reason Square chose a Melbourne office was the commitment of the Victorian Government to growing the local tech sector,” says Pfisterer. “They recognise the broader role that high growth companies, such as Square, can play in expanding the local tech industry and we’re excited to be able to work with that community to expand and offer new employment opportunities for local talent.”

The city also stands out from the crowd because “Melbourne has a thriving small business community and growing reputation as Australia’s technology hub: the collaborative nature of the local startup, tech and fintech communities, along with the support of government bodies in Victoria, is also a big drawcard for Melbourne.”

Square’s two-part formula for success

Square’s global achievement and its ability to successfully scale is down to two things, says Pfisterer – and it’s the same for any service-based company. One, do you provide a service that people want to use? And two, do you make it simple for them to do so?

“Businesses around the world face similar challenges to start, run and grow their business in an era of rapid technology change,” he says. “At Square, we believe the products and services we’re building directly and equitably help businesses in any country. Like our other markets, Australia is a nation of small businesses, with more than two million SMEs.”

“Couple this with being one of the most advanced payments markets in the world, and what we have is a huge thirst for innovation here. Although Square has a clear desire to be a global company, we’re also taking a realistic and achievable path towards our expansion. We ensure we invest in building- talented and committed local teams in each market for the long-term viability of each country.”

Not that his business is immune from expansion woes. “We do face challenges, we face the same growing pains that any company faces as it tries to expand, but I’m lucky to have an incredible team who make coming to work fun every day. The challenges are easier when they’re shared among a talented team who are equally committed to helping as many Australian businesses as we can.”

Ben Pfisterer: how to successfully scale your business:

Tip 1: Keep it real

“Be realistic about what it takes to scale a business. If you’ve put in the effort to get to the stage where you’re ready to expand or open a new location, make sure you consider all the decisions and resources required to get it off the ground. Often, it’s like getting started again. So most importantly, make sure you have the right people in place to help navigate the process.”

Tip 2: Keep good company

“Scaling a company requires a very unique skillset, which differs greatly from running a business in a steady state. When you’re underway, surround yourself with good people and trust them to help you grow. A high-performing team is what makes any brand successful.”

Tip 3: Get help if you need it

“The stages of scaling can change really quickly so although you might rely on yourself or another person to kick things off, you have to know when to step back and bring in additional resources and capabilities. Failure to do so at the right time can hinder your growth at a formative stage, which can be detrimental to the company’s chance of success.”

Tip 4: Network for success

“Networking – whether with government associations or local tech bodies – makes expanding more collaborative and less daunting. Whether it’s funding, office space, local events, contacts, regulatory advice or new talent that you’re after, there are always people on the ground within existing networks willing to help, so reach out and let them.”

Tech Hub Diary

iAwards entries close 8 March

Entries for the Victorian Government-sponsored iAwards – hosted by the Australian Information Industry Association and recognising the achievements and innovation made in information and communications technology across the economy close on 8 March.

For further information and to submit your entry, visit the iAwards website.

DevOps Talks Conference – 22-23 March

The Victorian Government is also a sponsor of DevOps Talks Conference (DOTC) 2018 in Melbourne, 22 to 23 March. DOTC presentations cover innovative technological developments and research such as cybersecurity, artificial intelligence, cloud, digital transformation and much more.

For more information, visit the DevOps Talks Conference website.