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Start-ups putting it on the line in US

05:24pm March 25 2019

Sylvain Mansotte, CEO of whistleblowing app Whispli. (Peter DaSilva)

A box of Tim Tams can go a long way in barbecue country.

At the South By Southwest Festival (SXSW) in Austin, Texas, the snack was a lure to bring conference-goers to Australia House – in a joint initiative by Austrade and Tourism Australia – to meet some of Australia’s most innovative start-ups.

SXSW is a 10-day event that takes over downtown Austin with events and installations taking in technology, music and film. More than 70,000 attend the event, and it is seen by the world’s largest brands including Amazon, Samsung and Accenture as a launching pad for putting their products or services in front of a highly influential audience.

For Sylvain Mansotte, a French Australian whose experience uncovering a $20 million fraud at Leighton Contracting prompted him to start Whispli, an anonymous whistleblowing platform, the festival was a tailor-made opportunity to get further traction in the US.

A big theme among the sessions at SXSW was the fallout from the #MeToo movement and the issues around trust in institutions. The mostly millennial and Generation X audience at the festival treated inequality-busting politicians like Elizabeth Warren and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez as rock stars. Ideology aside, for major companies looking for a steer on what their younger customers or employees expect, it sent a clear message that ethics and values would be a major theme influencing corporations.

That was music to Mr Mansotte’s ears. His company, based in Sydney with 15 staff, is embarking on international expansion. Mr Mansotte recently moved to Boston to be closer to major clients. The company has already signed up 200 companies to the platform, and is earning revenue in the seven digits.

The Tim Tams helped too.

At the Australia House showcase, Mr Mansotte was introduced to a dozen potential clients, including a New York-based investigative journalist keen to recommend the platform to colleagues. Having journalists on the platform acts as a regulating mechanism, because any corporations unwilling to act on the wrongdoings disclosed are aware that negative press could be a consequence. Whispli’s CEO estimates that the market for his platform in the US alone is valued at about $US2 billion ($2.8bn), and as countries introduce more legislation around whistleblowing, HR issues and supply chain transparency, that market will only grow.

“The feedback, including from our large banks in Australia, is that the quality of the reports via the platform is actually a lot better,” Mr Mansotte said. “The ability to be able to communicate with the informants is crucial in terms of investigation and it leads to a better outcome for the informant and the organisation.”

In the past 18 months, Whispli has had over 6000 reports submitted via the platform – 70-80 per cent of issues were related to workplace harassment like bullying or sexual harassment, with the remaining reports related to wrongdoing like fraud. Mr Mansotte said the anonymity protection was a key selling point, as often workers were nervous about having conversations on such issues face-to-face.

Whispli was one of a number of Australian tech firms that were showcased at the Australia House stand at SXSW. Austrade’s San Francisco-based trade and investment commissioner, Patrick Hanlon, said US firms saw Australia as a good early step for international expansion because Australians were early adopters for technology. They were also attracted by the proximity to Asia. The American companies he talked to regarded Australian companies highly in terms of fintech, blockchain technology and cybersecurity, so Austrade was pitching to a niche audience of influencers at the festival.

“This is a place where you have to do something big or don’t do anything at all,” Mr Hanlon said. “We’ve decided to attack the war for attention by going deep into the deep tech side, bringing in key players who may not be household names but they’re rock stars in their own industry.”

Whispli is not in that category yet, but hopes to be. The company was one of 20 up-and-coming firms attending SXSW as part of Westpac’s Businesses of Tomorrow program. Prior to attending the festival, Mr Mansotte and the other program participants spent a week in San Francisco learning key lessons about scaling their companies from top executives at Facebook, Airbnb, Salesforce and Slack.

Alastair Welsh, the head of commercial banking at Westpac who accompanied the Businesses of Tomorrow on their study tour, said he was impressed at how much confidence the founders gained during the visits.

“It comes down to the fact that they realise how good they are and what great businesses they have,” Mr Welsh said.

This article was originally published in The Australian


Jackson Hewett is an Associate Editor on The Australian’s commercial editorial team. Previously he was head of Business Video at the Australian; editor of Business Spectator; and a producer, reporter and videojournalist for BBC World with positions in the UK, the Middle East and the United States. Jackson completed a Master's of Journalism from Columbia Graduate School of Journalism where he was a Knight-Bagehot Fellow in Business and Economics, and received an MBA from Columbia Business School.

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