ALEX Mair presides over a million-dollar-a-year celebrity news empire from a modest sub-let office in Canberra.
The entrepreneur was at one point a self-employed business consultant who left his job for a failed attempt to start a juice franchise in London but was forced to move back home with his parents financially broke at age 30.
But the man who knew little about famous people returned to his childhood bedroom with a new business already under way.
Within a year, the website he launched for fans of celebrities with the name Who’s Dated Who was matching his $75,000 salary at the Treasury, and these days it gets 120 million visits a year.
‘‘My parents are happy,’’ says Mair, 36, who became a new father last week.
Canberra is the nation’s business failure capital, but it also flaunts the highest proportion of start-up businesses in Australia.
The ACT economy is tightly bound to the fortunes of the public service, which now faces 12,000 redundancies nationally under Tony Abbott and the Coalition, and inspiration to some could come from the tale of Mair and his trajectory from civil servant to do-it-yourself millionaire.
But as most young and successful Canberra entrepreneurs tell it, starting a business is not as easy as Mark Zuckerberg makes it look.
Mair travelled the world to find a business idea and spent a year in Britain trying to launch a juice enterprise inspired by the success of Jamba Juice in the US and Boost Juice in Australia.
To this day, the former engineering and economics student admits he has never sold any juice to real paying customers – only to his family and friends.
‘‘I learned the most important thing was to get your idea out quickly and refine as you go, rather than perfecting it before you launch,’’ he says.
His new idea was simpler, catchier and had far less forward planning, but was still only making him $6 a day three months after going online. He moved back to Adelaide and then to Canberra for a reliable public service job.
One turning point came when he allowed users to edit the site’s information themselves.
Who’s Dated Who mostly attracts readers from the United States and boasts 850,000 registered users who post content about the rich and famous and use the site as a way to network with each other.
The overheads appear to be low. Mair, wife Irene and a web developer make up the staff roster. His infrastructure costs are limited to an office in Manuka and 12 web-hosting servers in Texas.
The site’s popularity skyrockets with any news about the world’s uber A-listers.
And who are they?
‘‘Last year it was Justin Bieber, this year it’s probably Miley Cyrus,’’ he says.
‘‘Content is king – if you build or run a website, you need to try not to get bogged down in the technical aspects of building it and focus on the content and user experience.’’
An estimated 5500 public service jobs will be made redundant in Canberra by the new federal government, and some believe the pruning could start a recession in the capital’s economy.
Entrepreneur Alexi Paschalidis, 30, started Oxide Interactive, a web development and technology company, a decade ago.
‘‘I didn’t necessarily set out to start a business, but when I finished uni it seemed like a good idea,’’ he says.
‘‘Starting a business straight out of uni was a good move though – we didn’t have many commitments, so it was low risk.’’ He believes redundancies could put more skilled workers onto the market and help the growth of start-up companies.
‘‘One of our biggest challenges is competing with public service salaries,’’ Paschalidis says.
However, he was paid by the public service at one point early in his company’s development. He found a part-time job managing the Royal Australian Navy’s website when his own business was not covering costs.
‘‘That was probably the hardest time,’’ he says.
Paschalidis and partner Tim Siers, whose business is expected to turn over about $1 million in the next year, encourage anyone leaving the federal bureaucracy with a business idea to find at least one partner.
‘‘Find two or three like-minded people who share your vision,’’ Paschalidis says.
‘‘Also find people who have been there before. There are heaps of really talented people around Canberra.’’
While there have long been calls to diversify the territory’s economy, Australian Bureau of Statistics figures show the public service has accounted for about a third of Canberra’s workforce since at least 1981.
Only once in the past three decades have public servants dropped below a third of the workforce during a census. In 1996, public servants made up a quarter of the city’s labour pool.
Entrepreneur Pred Dragila, 32, started in Sydney in the banking business, one of the third-tier sectors in Canberra, but says he felt treated like a number while he was working for a big company, so he started his own brokerage in the territory.
He kept bumping into web developer and future business partner Matthew Savage, 28, and together they established Fat Zebra, a secure online payments business, at the start of last year. ‘‘Canberra’s a great place to start, but when you’re dealing with people’s money they want to see you face-to-face, so we do a lot of travelling to Sydney and Melbourne,’’ Dragila says.
‘‘We’ve found some people in Canberra are wary of using start-ups – they say ‘You’re a start-up, why should we use you?’
‘‘Sometimes it’s other start-ups that say this, and Canberra’s the only place we’ve heard that.’’
Fat Zebra now employs 10 contractors and it will soon hire a handful of web developers as it competes with the likes of PayPal, SecurePay and eWay.
‘‘We let the market decide where we would sit,’’ Dragila says.
‘‘We thought we’d be starting with mums and dads, but we quickly found ourselves playing with bigger customers – we now have clients like Starbucks on our books.’’
■ A festival of Australian start-ups organised by StartupAus began this past week and finishes on October 9. On Tuesday morning there will be a talk at the Microsoft Walter Turnbull in Canberra building by three chief executives of Canberra ICT companies: Citadel Group’s Miles Jakeman, iCognition’s Joe Mammoliti and UberGlobal’s Denis Jorgensen.