Richmond, Melbourne: The Startups of Oz

Fawn Fitter

Australia may have a famously relaxed culture, but it’s no slacker when it comes to the digital economy. Since 2015, the government has announced an AU$1.1 billion investment to support innovation, including AU$38 million targeted specifically at incubating small tech firms.

Much of that funding has found its way to Melbourne, Australia’s second-largest city.

Shu Das

Shu Das, director of content at tech community organization Startup Melbourne, says the startup scene there has grown quickly in the last 12 months as local incubators and co-working spaces have received grants and new startups have sprung up all over the city.

Melbourne has already birthed several global successes. Redbubble, a marketplace where artists can sell their work on T-shirts, dresses, scarves, bags, pillows, stickers, phone cases, and more, went public in May 2016 with a market cap of US$288 million. Culture Amp, a platform that lets companies track and tackle workplace morale, has raised US$16.3 million in venture funding since 2011 and counts digital economy companies Uber, Pinterest, Warby Parker, Box, and Etsy among its customers. And Aconex, which makes cloud-based project management software for the construction industry, is a publicly traded company currently valued at US$886 million. Since these companies had their beginnings in Melbourne’s downtown central business district, however, the center of gravity for startup stars has shifted to the Richmond neighborhood, two miles southeast.

Five minutes from downtown by light rail, with a major train station that makes it an easy commute from Melbourne’s southern suburbs, Richmond is the kind of urban area that Das calls “young and stimulating compared to Sydney, which is far more corporate.”

99 Designs

Richmond’s most successful startup to date is 99Designs, reportedly the world’s largest online graphic design marketplace, which has raised US$45 million in venture funding. Although it moved its headquarters to Oakland, California, and has opened offices across Europe, 99Designs still maintains a strong local presence—fitting in a neighborhood where stylish young geeks hunch over their laptops in the hipster cafes scattered along Bridge Road, the main commercial strip.

Richmond is a mélange of styles and uses: the Melbourne Cricket Ground and adjacent Rod Laver Arena (home of the Australian Open tennis championship) sit cheek-by-jowl with modern apartment blocks and shops, Art Deco buildings, and Victorian terraced houses that include some of Melbourne’s oldest homes. Many of the old brick warehouses built in Richmond’s early 20th century manufacturing boom still stand, too. Although some have been converted into pricey loft apartments, others are still used for commerce. In fact, the former Australian Knitting Mills, just down the street from the Richmond train station, now houses Inspire9, Melbourne’s first community-run co-working space. Founded in 2011 for fledgling businesses, it recently expanded to an additional floor, adding Foundry9, an affiliated space for investors and more established startups.

Richmond is ‘young and stimulating, compared to Sydney, which is far more corporate.’ 

– Shu Das, director of content, Startup Melbourne

The city has nearly 150 co-working spaces, more than half of them clustered between Richmond and the central business district. Melbourne is also home to at least three accelerators and nine regular networking events for local startups. There’s even a new mixed-use development, Digital Harbour, which is located in the city’s Docklands area, west of the city center, and designed specifically with tech and new media in mind. It’s reportedly the fastest growing neighborhood—not just in Melbourne but in the entire country.

“It’s an interesting time,” Das says. “Everything’s been happening organically, but now it seems there’s a concerted effort to make things more formalized and official.”

The crowds who throng to community events like Startup Grind and Silicon Beach “Drinks & Pitch Night,” both monthly, suggest that the growth is going to continue. The government of the State of Victoria, of which Melbourne is the capital, will likely add to the mix: 400 companies have applied so far to receive AU$60 million in state investment funds for new companies.

The state has also provided Startup Victoria (the statewide tech industry group) with funding to map the true extent of the local startup ecosystem. The effort aims to count everything, from established startups with funding and market recognition to one-person ventures headquartered at kitchen tables and in coffee shops.

Once the community begins to grasp its own size and influence, expect to see a wave of growth: more partnerships, more investment, and more ambitious entrepreneurs making their
way in a city where they can press forward—while remaining laid-back. D!

Where to eat:

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Scopri High End Italian

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Noir Contemporary French

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Minamishima Omakase (chef’s choice) Sushi

Where to stay:

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Park Hyatt Melbourne

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 The Hotel Windsor

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The Lyall

Read more thought provoking articles in the latest issue of the Digitalist Magazine, Executive Quarterly.


Fawn Fitter

About Fawn Fitter

Fawn Fitter is based in San Francisco, where she writes about the spots where business and technology intersect.