Tony Rothacker

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Lean Start-up expert Tony Rothacker is the new Coordinator of Coffs Harbour Innovation Centre. The Centre is jointly owned by Southern Cross University, TAFE NSW and Council. Focus had a chat to Tony to find out what steps led him into the start-up and innovation field.

Hi Tony. Can you tell us about your connection with the local area? I married a local girl, went overseas and when we were expecting our third child, we decided to come back to Coffs Harbour. Our love for the outdoors combined with the family connection made it an easy choice to come back.

What do you love most about living here? Living close to the ocean and being able enjoy the space with the diversity we have makes it a unique place. The fact that within two hours’ travel time you can reach so many diverse locations is just amazing. Not only exploring the many camping areas, but taking the plane to Sydney, Melbourne or Brisbane makes the Coffs Coast one of the best places on Earth.

Could you briefly describe what it is that you do and a bit of background? I initially trained as an engineer and managing large infrastructure projects, there were not many opportunities when we landed here back in 2004. As many would do when you start from scratch, I wrote down my strengths and weaknesses and looked for opportunities. I like to solve problems, and one of the main problems back then was internet connectivity, so I looked for the options. Due to lack of options, I ventured into the Internet Service Provider space. Running and managing my own ISP business was a steep learning curve and taught me what it takes to run a customer service business in regional Australia. After eight years I was looking for change and was recruited to work for a privately owned broadband carrier, which led me to work for a software development house – where I worked for about four years as a Business Development Manager.    

Can you tell us about the different roles that you have, as you wear several different hats? In December 2011 I was appointed as a board member of Regional Development Australia (RDA) Mid North Coast, with particular emphasis on my advisory capacity in the IT and Telecommunications Sector. I am delighted that my professional network connections and ICT expertise can be utilised to develop regional Australia.

You are actively involved in innovation, and we heard a rumour about a local incubator. Can you tell us about that? Yes, we are working towards establishing a more formalised start-up program here on the Mid North Coast.  We are getting a lot of support from the community, the local council, the Southern Cross University and TAFE.

What sectors do you see on the Coffs Coast that are ripe for innovative solutions? Health and Aged Care would be a focus point, but we are finding some niche markets and opportunities across all sectors.

Are there many local people getting involved? Since December last year we seem to be getting some traction. We are getting more and more inquiries from start-ups currently based in the metropolitan areas who do want to enjoy a better lifestyle and explore their start-up ideas.

As Coffs Harbour was one of the first roll out sites for NBN, we enjoy the benefit of fibre to the house. Not many communities in Australia have this. Connectivity to the internet is one thing, but combined with the right infrastructure such as airport, hospital, top schools and the much lower cost of owning a house, we believe we have a compelling case.

How can people find out more about funding and opportunities that exist? There are many sources for funding, from government grants to private investors. Many require to have the business model validated, be part of an incubator and be able to demonstrate the product – market fit. This is where we want to help and offer a one-stop shop. We not only train how to pitch their business to potential investors, but to provide management techniques that address the entrepreneur’s dilemma of extreme uncertainty.

What are some of the common pitfalls people fall into when trying to develop a solution to a problem? The most common pitfall is the innovators focus on the solution, rather than the problem. People are often so convinced with their idea and invest time and money into the product that nobody wants.   

It is a long way from light bulb moment to commercialisation. How do innovators make sure all their boxes are ticked? Apply the lean start-up principles. The lean start-up methodology provides a scientific approach to the creation and management of start-ups and shortens product development cycles.  One of the strongest benefits is the validated learning based on early customer feedback.

What is the most successful innovation that you have seen come out of the Coffs Coast? Depending on the perspective, some would argue the Blueberry, but there are many that have a much smaller footprint. There are some rising stars on the horizon, but let’s revisit this in few months’ time.

Do you think there is room for improvement in the local area, and how can this occur? Setting the right ecosystem and culture requires a driving force and a supportive community. I believe we are gaining momentum, but we are not there yet. Now is the time to make it happen, so watch this space.

What are your plans for the future? Our aim is high; we not only want to play an important part in the Australian start-up scene, but we also want to attract like-minded people from around the world. Coffs Coast is the place to be!

Where can people find out more? Come and see us at the Innovation Centre at the Coffs Harbour Education Campus, or simply send us an email: coordinator@coffsinnovation.com.au and we would be happy to follow up with a phone call.

Thanks Tony.

Photography by Vivienne Shorter

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