MY COUNTRY CHILDHOOD
THE LEADING TECH ENTREPRENEUR FROM CHANNEL 10’S SHARK TANK REFLECTS ON HIS EARLY DAYS IN CENTRAL QUEENSLAND, WRITES CLAIRE MACTAGGART.
Technology entrepreneur and millionaire investor on Channel 10’s Shark Tank, Steve Baxter recalls his humble beginnings in regional Queensland.
WHEN THE FIRST Dick Smith store opened on Musgrave Street in Rockhampton, a young Steve Baxter asked his father to buy a $2 catalogue so that he could study its contents. “I had a love of electronics and the catalogues were like an encyclopaedia and that gave me a real interest,” the 47-year-old says. “Late last year I talked at an aviation conference about technology and Dick Smith was there and afterwards I thanked him as it was that experience that set me off on the path I was lucky enough to land in.” As one of the nation’s most successful technology entrepreneurs, Steve enjoys sharing his knowledge and experience and has been an early stage investor of start-ups for the past eight years. In 2012, he established River City Labs in Brisbane — a co-working space for start-ups in the internet, mobile, telecommunications and technology fields. Steve was born in Cloncurry where his father Noel, who worked on railways, was based for four years. After that stint, the family — including Steve’s mum Sandra, older siblings Phillip and Alison, and younger sister Roslyn — moved to Emerald, where they lived for seven years. However, Steve’s parents were originally from Rockhampton and they decided to return there when Steve was in Year 6. He left school after Year 11 and joined the Australian Army in its apprenticeship program and worked as a technician in telecoms, electronics and guided weapons systems. “I did most of my growing up as a regular soldier and I am a very proud digger,” he says. In 1994, he invested his life savings of $11,000 and launched the internet service provider SE Net. Seven years later, he joined with a friend for his second start-up, PIPE Networks, which later sold for $373 million. In 2008, Steve spent a year with Google in the US, working on a project to deliver high-speed telecommunications systems. Now Steve lives in Brisbane with wife Emily and daughters Olivia, four, and one-year-old twins Nina and Kara. For the past three seasons, Steve has been a judge on Channel 10’s Shark Tank, with season four airing this year. Meanwhile, he continues to work on projects such as the regional fibre telecommunications network with the Queensland Government. “If we can build that, it will be a lasting legacy in regional Queensland and the biggest game-changing piece of infrastructure in regional Australia since paved roads.” Regional Australia is close to his heart. “It means ‘Australia’ to me far more than the city. I get asked a lot about what we can do to make our kids more resilient. We are Australians, aren’t we resilient? We’re the people from the tough land and the fact that we’ve thrived here is a miracle. We have to look at what’s made us resilient and those who aren’t facing a bit of self-imposed adversity to improve themselves every day need to have a hard think about that. The more we challenge ourselves the more we improve and to me, regional Australia typifies resilience,” he says. For more information, visit stevebaxter.com.au
We played a lot of sport — soccer and a bit of cricket and we swam a lot — Emerald is as hot as hell! We would make cubby houses and forts and that type of thing. A lot of regional towns like Emerald are very sport- and service-oriented so there was always something going on. We really enjoyed the community and Mum and Dad were in the local Lions club and involved in all sorts of community activities. There was an extraordinary amount of Lions social events — barbecues and fundraisers and fetes, which were always a lot of fun. Our family values were honesty and hard work; Dad was a clerk in Queensland Rail and Mum was a homemaker.
Mum did her senior studies while she was raising us and in our early days back in Rockhampton she graduated, got her senior certificate and applied to university. She went on and got a degree in social work, then got a job — that definitely gives you an understanding of what hard work is. My dad is one of eight siblings so when we went back to Rockhampton for holidays there were about 30 cousins to play around with in the backyard. With Dad in the railway we’d get an amazing discount so we could go to Rockhampton, but it was five hours in the car or eight hours on the train and we’d always take the train! In Emerald, many weekends were spent at the Fairbairn Dam, swimming and fishing. I’m quite impressed my dad gave me that fishing bug. There wasn’t much to catch in the Fairbairn, just in the lower reaches of the Nogoa [River], and when we came to Rockhampton we would go to the Causeway Lake or the beaches attached there to fish and pump for yabbies and that was a lot of fun. Our friends, the Fletchers, were prominent farmers in the district up the road and their son Peter was a good mate of mine and we used to go to the shed on their property and play on the cotton bales and do a bit of irrigation siphoning and make other sorts of trouble. I did enjoy school and did quite well in Year 10, but in Year 11 I turned into a horrible kid. I finished school after Year 11 and was pretty lucky the army took me. I didn’t enjoy my last year of school. I grew up in the Australian Army, I left home at 15, joined as a boy soldier and grew up there. That’s where a lot of my attitudes were formed and a lot of my approaches to work and other people — friends and people that aren’t friends — that’s where those attitudes were set. I always wanted to be a soldier for as a long as I can remember. The one thing growing up in Emerald taught me is that regional Australia is not respected by the rest of Australia. It’s crazy to think of the things we didn’t have access to; the things we had to ride on a train from Emerald to the city to get access to — and that gave me an identity of being from regional Australia.
“We really enjoyed the community and Mum and Dad were in the local Lions club and involved in all sorts of community activities.”
FROM LEFT Steve with his siblings at Cooberrie Park Wildlife Sanctuary near Rockhampton; a four-year-old Steve (left) with his family; Steve as a 15-year-old.
FROM ABOVE A 16-year-old Steve; meeting a koala with his older brother Phillip; Steve (top right) joined the army as a teenager and entered an apprenticeship working as a technician in telecoms, electronics and guided weapons systems.