Lessons Earnt Tech en­tre­pre­neur Ca­tri­ona Wal­lace of Flamingo AI found suc­cess af­ter learn­ing from her mis­takes.

Dr Ca­tri­ona Wal­lace, founder of Flamingo AI, is one of Aus­tralia’s most suc­cess­ful en­trepreneurs but stays true to her sense of com­mu­nity and greater good.

Virgin Australia Voyeur - - NOVEMBER - As told to AN­DREW MAR­MONT

DEAR CA­TRI­ONA, you are born and raised in Syd­ney by a very en­tre­pre­neur­ial fam­ily. From early on, you and your sib­lings were ex­pected to do two things — build your own busi­nesses and be of ser­vice to your com­mu­nity. Both of these things be­come ex­tremely im­por­tant through­out your work­ing life and also when you be­come a par­ent later on, too.

You no­tice how so­cially re­spon­si­ble your fam­ily are. They run the Wal­lace Foun­da­tion, a char­ity to help com­mu­ni­ties who need as­sis­tance. You start your first busi­ness at eight — breed­ing and sell­ing birds in the street — and de­velop a deep love of an­i­mals and the land from a young age. With a de­sire to be­come a farmer you de­cide to go to agri­cul­tural col­lege.

Af­ter two years of study­ing agri­cul­tural eco­nomics at Syd­ney Univer­sity, you get out­side your com­fort zone and en­list in the po­lice force. It hor­ri­fies your par­ents but you are in a re­bel­lious phase. You spend four years train­ing to be a po­lice pros­e­cu­tor. It’s chal­leng­ing and is a world away from your com­fort­able up­bring­ing. Through­out this time, you learn many im­por­tant things — no­tably re­silience and quick think­ing — and both will hold you in good stead as an en­tre­pre­neur in later years. While work­ing in the courts, you be­come in­ter­ested in sys­tems and how peo­ple in­ter­act with them.

With this in mind, you quit the po­lice force and join a large man­age­ment con­sult­ing firm. But you feel rest­less, so you start your own con­sult­ing com­pany at 23 and quickly find suc­cess, charg­ing your­self out at $800 a day. You broaden your fo­cus with sys­tems and their in­ter­ac­tions with peo­ple by study­ing a mas­ters in so­ci­ol­ogy and com­plete a PhD in or­gan­i­sa­tional be­hav­iour. Your the­sis is on com­puter tech­nol­ogy re­plac­ing hu­man lead­ers in the work­place, a con­tro­ver­sial topic at the time. You spend plenty of time think­ing about the role that ma­chines and soft­ware will play in our lives in fu­ture.

Once you fin­ish study­ing, you start a cou­ple of busi­nesses — a mar­ket re­search firm (ACA Re­search) and Fifth Quad­rant, a cus­tomer ex­pe­ri­ence de­sign com­pany. They give you

two new per­spec­tives and lessons.

Firstly, cus­tomers con­tinue to have poor ex­pe­ri­ences with banks, telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions and es­sen­tial ser­vices. And sec­ondly, it seems ironic com­pa­nies are pay­ing you to fix their ex­pe­ri­ences with con­sumers. There could be an op­por­tu­nity to build soft­ware to help this re­la­tion­ship im­prove. This is how Flamingo AI is born.

The hard work be­gins. The ini­tial idea — in­vest­ment in a $50,000 web plat­form for cus­tomer ex­pe­ri­ences — is smart but un­for­tu­nately prospects won’t pay for it. It’s an im­por­tant les­son: it doesn’t mat­ter how good your idea is, if some­one is not go­ing to pay for it, then it’s not go­ing to work. You start again — this time, you take $200,000 and de­velop an en­ter­prise so­lu­tion based on im­prov­ing cus­tomer ex­pe­ri­ences with an AI com­po­nent.

You take it to a ma­jor bank, but they say it will take 18 months be­fore they can in­te­grate it. It’s too long for a startup. So you take the soft­ware and head to Amer­ica with big dreams — and your two youngest chil­dren (there are three older ones), In­digo and Saxon, in tow. It’s the big­gest risk of your life and ca­reer, but also the most ex­hil­a­rat­ing. A com­pany called Clar­ion Group helps to con­nect you with a range of For­tune 100 com­pa­nies. En­cour­aged by your first sale with Na­tion­wide, you raise $1.5 mil­lion to ex­pand to Amer­ica.

For the next three years, you spend your time be­tween New York and Aus­tralia. In­digo and Saxon join you on many trav­els. This path forces you to re-think how to build a busi­ness, raise a fam­ily and de­velop re­la­tion­ships on an en­tre­pre­neur­ial jour­ney. You some­times sec­ond-guess whether you are do­ing the right thing by your fam­ily — but you take pride in how they have grown into well-ad­justed, worldly kids.

Over the next 18 months, you get more in­ter­est from Asia too, and de­cide to build Flamingo glob­ally out of Aus­tralia. In No­vem­ber 2016, you list it on the ASX, be­com­ing the sec­on­de­ver fe­male-led busi­ness to do so. It’s a proud mo­ment.

Be­com­ing a pub­lic com­pany is a bless­ing, as it gives you a dis­ci­plined ap­proach to do­ing busi­ness. Your team raises an­other $18 mil­lion dur­ing this time and in­vests in new tech­nol­ogy.

As a phi­lan­thropist, you fo­cus on the ar­eas of women, girls, Indige­nous young peo­ple, women pris­on­ers and asy­lum seek­ers.

On re­flec­tion, you re­alise that re­silience is so nec­es­sary. For each thing that goes well, 100 will go badly. But you keep turn­ing up, know­ing that when we fail, it’s about get­ting up and mov­ing on quickly.

CLOCK­WISE FROM TOP Wal­lace as a child; the en­tre­pre­neur aims to fill tech pan­els with more women; list­ing Flamingo AI on the ASX; with her two youngest chil­dren, In­digo and Saxon; dur­ing her time with the New South Wales Po­lice Force (seated third from left); with au­thor Anne Sum­mers and for­mer prime min­is­ter Ju­lia Gil­lard.

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