We recently caught up with Michael and Chhai, the brains trust behind the Majoran Distillery, one of Adelaide’s coworking spaces for the technology startup community.
In between painting the walls and sanding the floors of their new premises, they gave us the lowdown on how things are changing for tech startups in the city. Let’s do some quick Distillery introductions first: who are you, guys, and what are your backgrounds? Michael: currently earning a living doing accounting work. Haven’t always done so. Studied art. Loved painting but doesn’t pay the bills. Always fascinated by computers. Been trying to teach myself to code on and off for last couple of years. Chhai: programmer from way back. Worked at a variety of startup Internet Service Providers and web development agencies. Why the Majoran Distillery? What does it aim to do? How does it work? And what’s a coworking space all about? Why? We wanted a great place to hang out with a bunch of really interesting people. What? Aims to get people interested in the same stuff together and become a homebase for activity around those interests. How? We have a space. People swing by. We hang out. People can be members and rent a desk for a period. Then we get to hang out more with them. Coworking? Coworking is about community. Developing a community of like-minded people who are usually in business for them12
selves and who want to get amongst other people and stay in touch with what’s happening. We become a surrogate office for them. But also, we hold events and opportunities for the members to get to network and share stuff. What first started you down the track towards setting up the Majoran Distillery? We wanted a space for us to get serious about us doing some projects we’ve been working on for a while. We thought ‘let’s get serious about this, because working from home doesn’t work’. The opportunity to actually do it when Chhai was talking to a friend and was offered the use of a space to test the idea out, our previous, much smaller space on Pulteney Street. We talked to a bunch of people about the idea, got a few takers, and decided ‘let’s just jump in’. And it took off. Once we had a space, people could see what it was about in reality, and they just got on board. What do you think is unique about Adelaide in terms of what you’re trying to do? Adelaide has a good DIY culture. You want something done, folks here tend to do-it-yourself. And it’s not actually that hard to do. There is a lot of cool stuff happening at the moment in Adelaide pushing that DIY concept - local artist-run spaces like FELT and Tooth and Nail, for instance. I dig that and it’s encouraging for us. Interest in the Distillery is coming from outside Adelaide as well, isn’t it? Yep, we’ve had people in Sydney and Melbourne reaching out. When Chhai and I visited Sydney recently we met with people from Ninefold, Fishburners, BlueChilli and ATP and they were all keen-as to help out. Peter James from Ninefold is particularly helpful. And Chhai got a call from the UK the other day that spun us out a bit. Someone from a Government agency over there called, basically saying ‘we’ve noticed, and keep up the good work’. What have been the challenges in getting a tech startup community established? Were they challenges or opportunities? I think the challenge is getting people together. There are lots of pockets of cool things going on in Adelaide, but the people in those pockets don’t often get the chance to connect and come together as a whole. Startup Weekend, by Dave Troung and radelaide.me
Orren Pruncken, has been a big catalyst for getting all the parts to come together, at least temporarily. But there’s still heaps more to go, and we’re really seeing just the tip of the iceberg as far as local talent goes. And one great thing about Adelaide is that its geography does enable people to actually physically come together. It’s not a big city. Another challenge would be that we don’t have enormous hubs of tech genius working in places like a local Google office, the way Sydney does. Contradictory as it sounds, Sydney also has the advantage of being loaded with stacks of expensive real estate, the point being that there’s a lot of cash sloshing around over there. That’s very fortunate for them. But obviously that also makes it a very expensive place to live. Advantage Adelaide on that front. Overall though, the good thing about that is that there is awesome talent here in Adelaide which isn’t all getting sucked into some corporate behemoth vortex that chews them up and spits them out like a Sandcrawler. The Distillery’s been in existence since July 2012; what’s happened in that time? Well we’ve had a huge 6 months. When Chhai and I first talked about this, we thought ‘hey we’ve got this opportunity to rent a small room. Let’s get some people we know in there. It’ll be fun and we can get on with our own startup plans.’ But the little idea that we initially had has taken off! It’s been amazing. All these people that we didn’t expect got behind the idea and we now have something that we’re really proud of. We’ve had gatherings where people like Peter James, who’s the co-founder of Ninefold, have come along and spoken about the amazing stuff he’s had the opportunity to do. He’s been a massive supporter of ours, and when he came he had time for everyone in the space. Great to see. We’ve also had Alan Jones come along, another legend. He helped set up Yahoo! in Australia, back in the day. He was also very generous with his time. It’s pretty amazing to host evenings where veterans of the Australian tech industry come and share their experience. And I think that’s an important function for a space like the Distillery: to connect younger, less-experienced people who are starting out with industry champs and people who have done it before. And that doesn’t always mean superstars - here in Adelaide there are guys around who have raised capital for their startups and so have a wealth of experience themselves. When they rock up to our evenings we get a buzz because the space is right there, helping people get to radelaide.me
the next level of what they want to be doing, whether through meeting the right people, attending the right events, or hanging out and working in the right atmosphere. All these things come together to help people get that little bit further down the path they’ve chosen. Not everyone is aiming for the stars, but everyone needs support along the way. There’s big news around the Distillery’s premises, right? You were on Pulteney Street, but now… We were in a tiny box, one room on Pulteney Street, but we’re now leasing a whole floor in Grenfell Street. It’s an awesome space. We love it, the members love it, and the folks who come in to check the place out or who attend an event love it. It’s just a really good space, with heaps of room for coworking. We also have offices and a bit more room for members to chill when they need to take a break. Loads of fun! Can you tell us a bit about the more interesting projects that you’re seeing come through the Distillery? Anything else you’d like to mention? Well, it’s really exciting for us when you have people like Peter O’Neil come on board, someone who has built up and sold their first venture and is coming back for round two. He’s developing apps for music festivals and has loads of advice. It’s also great to have someone like Shane Cheek wanting to take out space. He’s doing his own startup with Acumen Ventures, but from the other side, as an investor, so he has a tonne of advice. Now that we’ve moved we’ve got an interesting team called Insider Publishing coming in. They’re a unit that puts out guides for international students for each city around Australia. They are awesome guys. But all the Distillery folks are awesome! And we’ve got Rebecca Collins from Automattic involved. Just being able to say that we’re reppin’ part of the team behind WordPress is cool. Rebecca’s getting behind the local WP scene by revitalising the Meetups that happened a while back. All cool stuff, all cool people. We’re so lucky to have all these amazing people around.