James Cameron: I love that I get to work in an industry that’s relatively new in Australia

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Interview by Molly O'Brien, Marketing and Communications Specialist, Advance.  

"The lifestyle is unbeatable and I love that I get to work in an industry that’s relatively new in Australia"

Six months ago, James Cameron relocated from Silicon Valley to Sydney to take up a post as a partner at AirTree Ventures, an Australian venture capital firm with over $300 million to invest in Australian start-ups and "scale-up" businesses. A former vice-president of Accel Partners, James is focused on unearthing startups to scale - particularly within enterprise software, security, infrastructure and fintech industries. 

James spoke to Advance about his experiences returning to Australia after living in the tech capital of the world about how the Australian entrepreneurial ecosystem has transformed from when he left it a decade ago... but still has a long way to go. 

How many years did you spend living and working overseas? What took you there originally? 

I originally left Australia about 14 years ago, straight after uni. I had originally meant to spend 6 months working in a pub in London before coming back to Sydney, but I wound up falling in love with an English woman and so I stuck around a bit longer. I spent 3 years working as a lawyer in London, and from there I wound up spending a year each in Beijing, Shanghai and then Hong Kong, before moving to Palo Alto, California. Living in the Bay Area, it was hard not to get sucked up into the world of technology and startups. I spent a couple of years studying business at Stanford and then 3 years running a fintech startup in the Bay Area. That also introduced me to the world of venture capital – and I later wound up working for a US-based VC fund called Accel Partners investing in tech startups. I spent the last 5 years at Accel where we were lucky enough to back some great companies like Facebook, Dropbox, Slack as well as some fantastic Aussie startups as well such as AtlassianCampaign Monitor, and 99Designs. Eventually, I felt the pull to come home to Austalia – and I landed back in Sydney a few months ago to join Airtree Ventures, an Australian based VC fund. At Airtree, we’re focused on backing Australia and New Zealand’s most ambitious founders and are lucky enough to work with some great startups like CanvaProspa90SecondsPetCircle and HyperAnna.

Where was your favourite place to live and why? 

London is still my favourite city in the world – the sheer level of excitement, diversity and history is hard to beat. If the world ever federates into one nation, I think London’s probably the closest thing we have to the global capital city. I also loved living in Silicon Valley for the ambition and pace.  

What was the impetus to move home? Are you back in Australia “for good?”  

Definitely for the foreseeable future. The lifestyle is unbeatable and I love that I get to work in an industry that’s relatively new in Australia. I think it’s crazy that our economy is still so dependent on pulling things out of the ground – and I love that the startup world can play an important role in helping us become a smarter, more innovative country. 

What was the most difficult aspect of returning to Australia? What about the best? 

Readjusting was tough to begin with. When I last lived in Australia I was a uni student – so I had to learn a lot of basic things about navigating life here as a real adult! Figuring out how to sort out my medicare, pay my taxes, navigate the awful Sydney property market etc – it was a bloody nightmare for a couple of months. I also bought my wife and two year old son back with me, and it’s never easy to have everyone going through a readjustment at the same time. It’s been 6 months now though, and we’re feeling much more settled.

Is Australia’s marketplace in your industry keep up with you where you were overseas?  

The tech ecosystem in Australia is still in its early days. We’ve had some awesome recent success stories, such as Atlassian, REA, Seek, Canva, and this is fueling a huge amount of momentum in the ecosystem here.  There’s never been a better time to launch a startup in Australia.  

Did your time working in Palo Alto, the startup capital of the world, heavily influence what you’re now doing at AirTree? 

Absolutely. The technology industry is global, but the epicentre is still Silicon Valley. Many of the trends in venture capital and startups are hugely influenced by what’s going on in the Bay Area. Keeping strong networks in the Valley is important for us to help our startups go global.  

What is the most advantageous point of difference Australian entrepreneurs have? 

Aussie founders tend to be able to do a lot more with less. I think a lot of that is because historically there’s been less capital available, and a smaller pool of great talent to hire. This is changing pretty quickly though – and it’s incredible to see how quickly this latest generation of companies in our portfolio, such as Prospa and Canva, are growing now that they have access to capital and talent. 

Was there anything that really surprised you about Australia that you hadn’t noticed while you were abroad? Did you face any challenges of “repatriation”? 

Well for a start Sydney got bloody expensive. Australia’s clearly been much more sheltered from a lot of the chaos that hit global economy over the last 10 years. This has a lot of positives, but I think it’s also impacted a lot of people’s attitude to risk. There’s still a lot more job security in professional services here than there is overseas, so making the jump and starting a company is often still seen as a riskier option than it is in the US and Europe. I do think this is changing though – judging by the number of graduates and ex-bankers/lawyers etc moving into roles at high growth startups. It’s great to see.