Spaceship – the Australian superannuation fund challenger with “tech at its core” – is taking on the A$2.3 trillion Australian super industry market with a diversified portfolio carrying the likes of Alphabet, Apple, Facebook, Netflix and Tencent. Paul was previously Investment Director at AirTree Ventures, an early and growth stage venture capital firm based in Sydney.
Daniel Kjellsson: Paul, how did this whole thing start?
Paul Bennetts: Wow! Big question. I grew up in Queensland and did a Bachelor of Business at QT. I was working at a computer store during my last year in University and during my time there I felt like I really understood the fundamentals of that business, the store. How it all worked together, how to talk to customers and things like that. So when I finished University I thought ‘stuff it – why don’t I try to do this for myself?’
You started buying parts, building computers, selling them?
– Yeah. I found a little store that used to have a computer store in there. I was able to move in with all the infrastructure in place. I just had to buy some stock and have a go. It was a wonderful thing because there is no better way to really understand the economics of a business than to be out there trying to compete with people in the market; competing with the guy across the road, trying to win a customer off him and understand how you think about inventory, pricing and things like that.
How old are you at this time?
– 20 years old. I have wonderful memories from those days. We used to get really jazzed when we had 30 customers come through in a day. But over the period of three years computer prices went from $2,500 to $500. So you start to understand how interesting pricing is. I picked up a book called the Culture of Success, about Goldman Sachs and got totally sucked into the idea of the investment bank; being right in the epicenter of big business. I thought ‘Wow! That sounds amazing.’ I went back to school, did an MBA, a CFA and ultimately ended up spending five years at Goldman Sachs.
Starting there and fast-forwarding through a career at Goldman Sachs, a role at a $500M family office, AirTree Ventures and ultimately Spaceship – what have you learned about starting and growing a business?
– I think what’s missing from a lot of founders is that you don’t generally think enough about what your small business will look like when it’s a very large business. Generally I see a lot of founders not understanding what a good business looks like at the end of the map. Because that decides what they should be doing now, at a very small scale right?
– And thinking about it from an investor’s point of view – everyone’s on a journey right? I love photography, for example. One of the things they teach you is that you have to take 1,000 photos before you take a great one. It takes a really long time to just kind of figure it out. Well, every single person you meet is on such a journey. I sit down with people today and I imagine where this person and this idea might be in two years – and I talk to them like that.
In leaving AirTree Ventures to launch Spaceship you switched sides; from the security of a job to the insecurity of a startup. Why?
– I had the best job in Australia, I really felt that way. What I started doing was thinking about how I was going to retire one day. So I started doing more and more research and was like ‘Okay, what’s happening with my superannuation? Who’s looking after it? What are they doing with it?’. What I found out wasn’t great and I started to think that if I – an investment professional – am struggling with this, how about everybody else? So I started to believe that I could get a team around this problem that could do a better job than what was on the market. So that’s why.
How did you, a 35-year-old, start to think about retirement?
– Superannuation is a savings in an investment product. So I’m 35. I’m trying to retire when I’m 65. But people I asked had no idea about how much they needed to actually retire. Is it $2 million? Is it $3 million? Or how much? How do you know whether you’re saving enough this year if you don’t even know what the end goal is? So what we’re doing at Spaceship is just slowing things down. We ask people to think about their savings first. Think about whether the percentage of your salary that you’re currently sending to your super fund is going to be enough for you to retire. The first question I want to know the answer to then, is how much do I need to save this year? What financial market return am I assuming over the next 30 years to retire? Personally, I prefer to be over-conservative and then wake up when I’m 50 years old with too much money. Rather than wake up when I’m 50 and go ‘Oh shit! Why did I think that markets were going to do so well?’
It comes back to thinking about investments, whether it is the cash put into your superannuation fund or the time and money you dedicate to starting a company, in its most fundamental form. Most of us have business ideas coming and going – how would you word the difference between just thinking about your idea, and actually evaluating it?
– A good example is the idea of a subscription business. A lot of people like the thought of that; it’s recurring revenue, a close relationship with your clients and so forth. But not nearly as often is the model actually unpicked and properly looked at. If you want $100 per year out of a customer, what will you have to invest to attract him or her in the first place? Will you need a salesperson? If you foresee a salary being paid to that salesperson, is $100 in annual revenue per customer enough? If you unpick how business models work and the economic engines of your idea, you’ll start to figure it all out.
Beer with an Entrepreneur is proudly supported by Hahn SuperDry. Show anchor Daniel Kjellsson is wearing Oscar Wylee glasses and a t-shirt from Citizen Wolf and a Halda Race Pilot. Beer with an entrepreneur is filmed at WeWork Pyrmont, Sydney, Australia.