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Digital Dreamers 6: Turnbull on Tech

Fairfax technology editor Asher Moses questions shadow Minister for Communications & Broadband Malcolm Turnbull on how Australia can make the most of its burgeoning start-up tech scene.

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Tall poppy syndrome - alive and well in Australia or a cultural relic of times past?

I think culturally we gotta grow up and realise that we gotta start telling people how good we are and not expecting people to notice it, despite our humility. 

The consensus seems to be that we're slowly leaving it behind but how far in the rear view mirror is under debate.

Aussies hindered by humble nature ... Google Australia head of engineering Alan Noble.

Aussies hindered by humble nature ... Google Australia head of engineering Alan Noble.

Certainly, one look at the reader comments on the entrepreneur articles published with the Digital Dreamers series on this website gives the impression that Australians still love to attack and cut down people of genuine merit.

"We still do have a cultural problem with success and failure that we need to address and we need to start admiring our successful entrepreneurs as much as we admire our successful footballers and cricketers and tennis players," says Doron Ben-Meir, CEO of government organisation Commercialisation Australia, which invests up to $2 million in start-ups that struggle to get funding elsewhere.

"We're good on sport we need to be just as good on business."

"Andrew Stoner, the NSW Deputy Premier, told the <em>Herald</em> that buying back water rights was "blunt and simplistic". How?"

"It's a mentality that we tend to have in Australia, the lucky country, she'll be right" ... NSW Deputy Premier Andrew Stoner. Photo: Jon Reid

He says we have to take a more American approach and stop viewing failure as a black mark against people's name.

"I think culturally we gotta grow up and realise that we gotta start telling people how good we are and not expecting people to notice it, despite our humility ... culturally we've gotta get more comfortable with that and not try to cut people down," said Ben-Meir. (Video interview with Ben-Meir)

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See more on this issue in Digital Dreamers Episode 5
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Doron Ben-Meir, CEO of government organisation Commercialisation Australia, says culturally Australia must grow up.

Doron Ben-Meir, CEO of government organisation Commercialisation Australia, says culturally Australia must grow up.

But Opposition communications spokesman Malcolm Turnbull says that while a generation ago the cultural differences between Australia and the US were "very marked", today that's  not so much the case.

"I think our culture is becoming more resilient but we need to become much more resilient. [Unlike in the US] I think there are still many Australians that are worried about failure and setbacks and of course the culture of the media can be very scathing about that," he said. (Video interview with Malcolm Turnbull)

"You've got to recognise that in the world of entrepreneurial business you don't learn very much from your successes but you do learn quite a lot from failure or lack of success ... if you have five goes, you may well have four duds, but if you get one that works and works really well that'll make up for everything else."

Funding for start-ups is a clear problem that needs to be fixed in order to create a vibrant technology industry in Australia, but the cultural changes could be much trickier.

"Partially it's a mentality that we tend to have in Australia, the lucky country, she'll be right, there'll be another mining boom or before that, off the sheep's back," said NSW Deputy Premier Andrew Stoner.

"We do actually need to be a really clever country and we need to hang on to the smart ideas that originate in Australia."

Jindou Lee, founder of Happy Inspector, says Australia has a "culture of scarcity".

"So if you have something good and you tell someone they go 'oh don't share it, keep it to yourself', in the US you would meet a random person down the street and they would say 'hey I run Zynga' or whatever it is and they'll just say 'hey come for a chat' and everyone there is just so willing to share information, to help you to grow," he said.

Alan Noble, head of engineering at Google Australia, said the classic Aussie trait of not wanting to broadcast our successes may "actually hinder us". (Video interview with Alan Noble)

"Probably the one thing that would help more than anything else is visible success. There's nothing like success to foster success, we need to really shout out about our success stories and we tend to be probably a little bit too modest about our success," he said.

"We've had some fantastic entrepreneurial success stories and yet most Australians would never have heard of them."

Watch the complete Digital Dreamers series