Justin Strharsky moved to Perth, Australia, with the perfect business idea. He would build risk-management applications for small-to-midsize mining, oil, gas and construction businesses in the country’s western region.
His new business, Synaptor, is just six months old but it's already going strong, thanks to the country’s booming energy and mining industry.
“In the next few years, mining, oil and gas will add 30,000 new workers to Australia. It is huge over here right now,” says Strharsky, who came from Oakland, Calif.
A lot of Americans are looking to relocate to Australia, and many of them to start businesses, says Lauren Levin, a Georgia native and owner of Levin Immigration Law. She attributes the interest to the growing strength of China.
“A lot of companies want to use Australia as a gateway to Asia Pacific and expats would rather live in Australia where they can speak the language than in places like Shanghai,” says Levin. Her legal practice has offices in Atlanta and Sydney, Australia.
The continent’s stable economy is also attractive. Charles Blunt, chief executive of the American Chamber of Commerce in Australia, says the country hasn’t seen a downturn in more than 20 years. That means the population has grown and there is a shortage of labor, which is especially evident over the past five years.
Entrepreneurship is a popular path for Australians, but Dr. Greg Chapman, a native of Australia, says the population does not have Americans’ preference for risk. However, things are changing.
“About 50 percent of employment in the private sector is through small businesses, which accounts for around 30 percent of our GDP,” Chapman notes. “It is only getting higher.” Chapman is founder of Empower Business Solutions, a business advisory firm in Melbourne and creator of The Australian Small Business Blog.
Strharsky says there is opportunity for entrepreneurs to move to the west side of the country, where most of the energy and mining activity takes place, and start business that support workers. A miners’ schedule is a few weeks on, then a few weeks off, so workers are looking for places to spend their money during holiday periods.
“Employees in Western Australia and Queensland have a lot of disposable income and are very interested in luxury goods," says Strharsky. "If you can offer something in that market, you’d do very well out here.”
Businesses that support the in-person retail market are also in high demand. Big-box Australian retailers have yet to compete with online outlets.
Chapman says retailers are in desperate need of people who can give advice on how to put products online. If a foreign-born entrepreneur “could approach major retailers with a solution of how to get customers back, you’d have a lot of people listening to you," says Chapman. "The retail business in Australia has become prehistoric.”
If you're not in the energy, luxury or retail market, fear not. Chapman recommends that interested entrepreneurs travel on holiday to the land down under to find gaps in the marketplace.
“Back in the '80s, I was living in the U.S. and businesses offered pizza delivery,” he remembers. “That service didn’t exist in Australia at the time, but about two years later, someone brought it here and made a lot of money.”
Customer service companies represent one gap that needs filling. Chapman says Australian companies do not excel at customer service.
Workers in trade specializations, such as plumbing, electric wiring, heating and cooling are also in demand. Blunt recently had to wait six weeks for a lawn-care company to quote a tree-trimming job at his home. There was simply too much work and not enough people to do it.
According to these experts, the Australian government wants to increase its population and immigrating isn’t all that difficult.
Here’s the catch: The Australian immigration system is designed to respond to the current labor and market conditions.
“That means that the government has a skills-shortage list, a list of jobs they need more people for,” explains Levin. “If your profession is on that list, you will have the opportunity to relocate quickly.”
First, book a flight for a holiday trip. Levin suggests setting up meetings beforehand with local trade associations such as the Australian Trade Commission, a government-run organization that helps people set up shop.
Levin recommends calling a solicitor (Australia’s term for lawyer) who is also a "migration agent." This is an expert in the regulatory environment for specific professions.
“Make sure the person is registered as an Australian migration agent," Levin says. "Some people are not who they claim to be.” If you don’t have any contacts, try looking through the Migration Agents Registration Authority to find someone who is certified.
Once on the ground, Strharsky recommends touching base with your state or territory’s small-business development corporation. Another great resource to connect with is Commercialization Australia, a government initiative to help entrepreneurs get businesses up and running.
The Australian government wants a few things in place before it will grant a temporary visa (called a provisional visa). According to Chapman, officials want to know how much money an entrepreneur is coming into the country with and how available they are to start a business.
The government also want to see a business plan.
“The government will use your business plan to monitor your progress over a period of time to see that you are contributing to the economy,” Chapman says. “When they see that you are operating a legitimate business, you can apply for permanent residency.” The provisional visa expires in three to four years, depending on an entrepreneur’s skill set.
Compared with other parts of the world, American entrepreneurs won’t experience vast cultural differences when setting up shop in Australia.
One of the biggest contrasts, Blunt says, is in “nuances of language.” These differences can be slight, but make a big impact, especially in marketing materials.
“I’d highly recommend running your marketing materials past an Australian communications firm before publishing them or you might embarrass yourself,” Blunt says.
Another difference is in the way businesspeople converse with each other. Chapman says the U.S. operates in what he calls, “a ‘have a nice day’ culture, where relationships are casual and fleeting.”
Australians are much more laid back and in-person communication is held in high regard. He recommends scheduling lunch and dinner meetings more frequently than in the U.S., and making sure not to rely on e-mail communications alone for the lifecycle of a business relationship.
Why You Should Take the Plunge
Not convinced you should start a business in Australia? Levin recommends going for a visit.
“Once you see it, you will fall in love with it,” she says. “The quality of life, the people, the strong economy, the skilled workforce for potential employees—you just can’t ask for more than that.”
Image by OPEN Forum