Young guns: Top 20 entrepreneurs under 40
Queensland Business Monthly has picked the state's most exciting young entrepreneurs and business leaders for our annual Top 20 Under 40 list.
They are an eclectic bunch but share a common drive to succeed in a year marked by the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Jill Snape, 37, and Scott Tonges, 33,
If we were handing out grades for Queensland tech firms this year, the husband and wife team behind Teach Starter would definitely get an A+.
"COVID really has shone a spotlight on ed tech companies and the need for digital learning solutions and that really lead to an increase in interest earlier in the year," says Scott Tonges who co-founded the business with his wife Jill Snape in 2012.
The Milton-based firm provides digital teaching resources such as unit and lesson plans, activities, games and worksheets aligned to the curriculum from kindergarten to Year 6.
In the next two months the subscription-based company expects to have a million teachers and parents using its resources globally.
"That's a big milestone for us," Tonges says.
Customers can download from more than 140,000 pages of teaching resources.
It's main market is in Australia but it has opened an office in Texas in the US to create content for the American market.
"Our resources are being used in over 70 per cent of Australian primary schools," he says. "And about 58 per cent of Australian primary school teachers use Teach Starter."
The company employs 38 staff and has recently recruited Silicon Valley-veteran Liz McMillan, the former CEO of dictionary.com in the US, who starts next week in the role of executive general manager.
Sam Jockel, 37,
A deal with an ASX-listed child care company and a swag of international contracts means 2020 has been a breakout year for Sam Jockel and it all came about after an investment promise crashed.
Instead she was encouraged to stop spending so much time trying to raise capital and turn her attention to securing revenue from customers for her ParentTV content.
About two years in the market, ParentTV commissions, produces and hosts video content on parenting topics on its website for use by individuals, schools and increasingly organisations like Kids help line.
Jockel who saw the opportunity to provide quality, vetted content from world-leading specialists, now oversees a team of seven in Brisbane.
She says remote working trends in 2020 meant she has been able to more easily negotiate deals with school districts in tthe US for example.
In August child care group G8 signed a million-dollar deal with ParentTV, to allow all its staff and caregivers to access ParentTV content for three years as the company saw an increasing interest and demand from clients for information on child rearing in digital format.
Jockel says others have since done deals for ParentTV to create content under a licensing model which they use for a specific purpose.
"We have signed an interesting partnership with Mater Mothers to produce 75 videos using their health experts covering the 6-month period before and after birth for their use, which will also then come into our wider catalogue," she says.
A Series A funding round is being considered for next year.
Steen Bisgaard, 31,
Steen Bisgaard has lost none of his optimism after a tough year in business. His startup GaardTech produces two and three dimensional tanks and other targets for the global defence sector.
"We've lost a lot of work since COVID hit but we are ending with a bit of a win," he says.
GaardTech is currently completing a number of big orders, including the export of millions of dollars worth of advanced training robotics systems to the United Kingdom.
Bisgaard spent more than a decade serving with the Royal Australian Armoured Corps in the Australian Army before becoming an entrepreneur in 2018. The company has spent the past year investing in R&D, including the development of a robotic unmanned ground vehicle which can be used in combat.
"We have also acquired land west of Brisbane for a private robotics range. We are definitely expanding," he says.
He says his military background gave him the "resilience" needed to cope when the global pandemic derailed some of the company's growth plans.
"Many times in the military things would be very unclear and you would accept uncertainty - it was the daily norm," he says.
The company, which employs 4 and outsources a lot of its metal fabrication, hopes to eventually open offices in London, Middle East and America
Omar Sabre, 29 and Zane Sabre, 26,
Personalised leather goods company Maison de Sabré, has emerged as a pandemic success story, increasing global sales by 65 per cent since March.
Fuelling the growth, according to Zane Sabre is a notable uplift in the purchase of brightly coloured products, and the company's drive to stay ahead of trends.
Zane, who has just moved to Sydney to oversee the opening of a new office there for the Gold Coast headquartered brand, says its young professional demographic has held up well through a challenging 2020.
"It has been a phenomenal year of growth as we found new ways to market and to acquire customers," he says. "It has been roller coaster. We've had highs and lows. The best year of growth but the most challenging time because no one knew what lay ahead. So we've been very measured and focused to make sure what we implemented is world class."
The company says its first release of AirPod cases saw two months' worth of units fly out the door in just two weeks.
Zane says they now ship their products to 75 different countries on any given day and recently clocked $250,000 worth of sales in 48 hours over the click frenzy sale period.
Maison de Sabré, which has about 35 full-time staff, started in 2017 when, due to their father's illness, the brothers needed ways to fund Zane's dentistry degree.
The side hustle soon became a full-time concern, with the pair transitioning into online retail fully in 2018.
Rebecca Klodinsky, 32,
In a year where retail was severely challenged, Rebecca Klodinsky found herself having to rebrand and reassess her multimillion-dollar swimwear business. The results of both are set to bring the IIXIIST founder and CEO more success as she now has a unique new name (after lengthy legal issues with her former Frankii Swim brand) and fined-tuned sales process.
Klodinsky's site which averages 350 sales a week and turned over $7m in FY20, sells clothing to a mostly American market thanks to celebrity devotees such as Kim Kardashian, Kylie Jenner, Rihanna and Hailey Bieber.
While in lockdown on the Gold Coast Klodinsky says she completed an audit of her complete production line, on a mission to do her part in halting impacts of fast-fashion.
She also launched the IIXIIST conscious loungewear brand of sustainable, locally-made basics in responsible quantities using sustainable materials. She also has a swimwear range made using Lycra produced from recycled ocean waste and plastics.
"All my pieces are true to demand. And only once we hit certain quota will I then entertain restocking and reordering," she says.
Sean Melis, 27,
As physical shopfronts were shuttered for months and companies needed to find new ways to talk to and reach customers, this Brisbane startup was in the right place at the right time to capitalise.
Sean Melis's business Bot Hello - which he co-founded three years ago - specialises in developing cutting edge chat bot platforms to interact with customers online. It is used by some of the world's biggest brands.
"It's been a big challenge, it's been crazy," Melis says. "We have seen an uplift. A lot of brands we work with are requiring digitalisation and automation of customer service. We did some more work with the L'Oreal group and we have been getting more work from them because a lot of their retail or resellers were closed.
"So that meant they needed to create ways for customers to shop online via personalised shopping experiences.
"We did more revenue in October than the first two years combined. We had to upscale resources in the space of a few weeks from a team of 3 to 12.
"We are one of the lucky businesses in the right place at the right time."
The surge in demand also means the company can now take a couple of different paths forward - as an agency that works with brands as part of broader campaigns or, as Melis has realised, it can also service a growing need for a pure software product that allows businesses of all sizes to deploy chat bot applications.
"We would be one of the only Australian agencies with their own in-house chatbot platform," Melis says. "There is so much opportunity in Australia with businesses that need assistance to deploy the technology. We know how to do that now. We just have to scale the product."
Jaine Morris, 33 and Ashleigh Morris, 32,
Brisbane sisters Ashleigh and Jaine Morris have strengthened their position as world leaders in their field throughout 2020. Their company Coreo is working with everyone from local governments and schools through to some of the globe's biggest corporates - including BHP, Rio Tinto, Dexus and Lendlease - to demystify circular economy practises into real-world applications.
Growing cactuses for potential pharmaceutical use on degraded regional Queensland soil is one project, helping Mirvac build Australia's first house in Melbourne to show people how circular economy principles will reduce energy bills and improve quality of life is another.
While property giants Dexus and Frasers are undertaking the $2.5 billion rejuvenation of Central Place in Sydney it will be Coreo who will advise on how to transition the precinct towards a circular economy by designing out-waste, regenerating natural systems and keeping products and materials at the highest value.
Jaine Morris said the company had grown in 2020, taking on two extra staff with projects now lined up for next year and beyond.
"We are industry agnostic. So we work across cactus, cotton, coal, copper, and the built environment. It's always about demonstrating what CE will look like in each industry," she says.
They will next year work with Pentatonic, a US company that collaborates with Nike, Burger King and Pharrell Williams, to deliver circular design masterclasses to professionals.
Alex Harper, 26,
He didn't go to university and began his business career as a 12-year-old selling fruit juice at a local farmers' market. But 26-year-old Alex Harper now runs a cryptocurrency exchange that has attracted more than 40,000 customers and turns over $120 million a month.
Harper has big plans for Swyftx, one of the most exciting new startups in Brisbane's burgeoning tech ecosystem that allows investors to trade the growing number of cryptocurrencies. The Milton-based company, launched in January 2019, is now experiencing 150 per cent growth.
"We were planning the business for 12 months during which times we were unemployed and lived on Nutrigrain," says Harper.
"We started doing between $10,000 and $20,000 a month on Swyftx but in August we had our biggest month with $120 million."
Growing up in Brisbane's northern outskirts, Harper started a computer repair business in his teens. "I would ride my bike around the neighbourhood to fix computers for little old ladies," he says.
As cryptocurrency emerged as a recognised asset class in 2018, Harper saw the opportunity to establish a real-time digital market.
"There now are about 6000 cryptocurrencies and our platform deals in about 180 of them," he says. There are plans to expand the business over the next few years, growing the 25-strong staff to about 35.
Alana Kennedy, 38,
In 2018 after an indigenous business market attended by some of the world's biggest companies Townsville City Council purchased all the stock of local suncream maker Ochre Sun for its workforce.
Since then founder Alana Kennedy has focused on mining, construction, local councils and defence markets with her sunscreen now sold by Australia's biggest PPE wholesaler.
After many years in the beauty industry she wanted to develop her own ethical product using indigenous botanicals that protects and soothes skin but also provides opportunities to indigenous youth and growers.
As well as being used by Glencore, Brisbane City Council and BHP among others, Kennedy has a deal that will see Ochre Sun plant extracts used in products for the UK hotel market next year, when she will also open an extraction plant in Townsville.
In December Ochre Sun will also go live with its online retail shop to reach individual customers.
"We are creating revenue but it's based on something wonderful, rather than just money making," Kennedy says.
Luke Trickett, 38, Marmalade Group
Had the Global Financial Crisis not smashed the stockmarket in 2008 Luke Trickett could still be toiling away as a "pretty bad" broker.
Trickett, the husband of gold medallist swimmer Libby, started his stockbroking career in 2007 after studying economics at university. - but quickly discovered flaws in his ability.
"I was a pretty bad stockbroker because I didn't really like sales," he laughs.
"All I wanted to do was sit there and analyse companies because my investing philosophy is really patient.
"When I make an investment decision I'd want to keep that investment for a long time."
The arrival of the GFC in 2008 prompted Trickett to leave the day-to-day broking world to launch a slower and more considered investment vehicle.
He founded Blue Stamp - a company which invests in shares using Trickett's own "patience approach".
"There's not too many investors who approach share markets with patience which is ironic because in a successful business there's no end date," he says.
Trickett's decade of success with Blue Stamp prompted him to amalgamate it with his most recent and innovative venture - Marmalade Group.
The groundbreaking financial services company allows businesses to cash-in unpaid invoices instead of waiting for the third party to pay. "It takes risks off the table," he says.
"We have tradies, people in food services and hospitality and manufacturing so we're agnostic.
"The most important thing for us is to execute and continue to deliver a really loved and important service to all of our suppliers."
Trickett has 12 workers at Marmalade Group and plans to expand, making him a busy family man.
"Outside of that Lib and I have three young girls so typically if I'm not running Marmalade "I'm running around picking up toys or appeasing tantrums or shovelling food into someone's mouth," he says.
He credits his business success to wife Libby, whose unconditional support has allowed him to "grow and persevere" - but Trickett has clear advice for people wanting to experience success.
"The most important thing is to love and be passionate about what you're doing," he says.
"The passion and drive allows you to understand what you're working towards."
Shannon Speight, 29,
Queensland vet Shannon Speight is trying to do for the cattle industry what "moneyball" did for the business of basketball.
Her data analysis software startup Black Box Co, set up late last year, examines the production traits of livestock.
"We look at how cattle are performing and we are able to look at the best performers and the worst performers," she says.
"It allows farmers to take appropriate action - whether they want to sell those animals or breed from them."
Black Box Co went through the SparkLabs ag-tech accelerator program earlier this year and now employs six full-time staff.
"It has really taken off," Speight says. "We are looking to change the course of how the beef industry uses data ... and then expand into the lamb industry as well. Beyond that we are looking at (growing) internationally."
Jack Bloomfield, 18,
Young Brisbane entrepreneur Jack Bloomfield can't remember a time when he wasn't pitching or promoting a business.
The "entrepreneurial child" launched his first business, selling greeting and gift cards, aged 12.
Early success paved the way for Bloomfield to expand and launch multiple e-commerce stores under his new Bloomfield Group.
"It took six months to make the first sale but it was the most exciting thing to ever happen to me," he says.
However, Bloomfield dealt with customers who would falsely claim a product "never arrived or it was faulty".
That prompted the 18-year old to launch
Disputify - which pre-emptively identifies likely fraudulent transactions before they occur.
"We've processed thousands of chargebacks already worth a million dollars," Bloomfield says.
Jodie Mlikota, 36,
From coming to a complete standstill in March to seeing revenue grow over 200 per cent for the year, 2020 has provided "the highest of highs and lowest of lows" for food tech startup co-founder Jodie Mlikota.
Not wanting to pivot to pure takeaway, Mlikota and her crew at Gathar - that pairs chefs with special menus and sends them to your door to cook and clean up - successfully added virtual dinner parties to the selection.
To celebrate Melbourne coming out of lockdown they just hosted one event with 400 people who each got meals delivered together.
Another boom category was couples hiring themselves chefs for degustation menus while the company saw more chefs than ever joining its platform due to reduced work in the wider hospitality industry. They now have about 120 chefs on the books across four states and a busy Christmas period ahead.
"When restrictions started to ease we started to get a huge increase in demand," Mlikota says. "People wanted to get back to celebrating things they had missed and we had a huge backlog.
"We've had to constantly navigate changes in each state and the rules can change daily - we've had chefs ready to go for a wedding and restrictions have changed and then on the Saturday we've had to change what's happening that day. It builds a lot of resilience though."
The Cairns-based business also raised $300,000 from investors which was matched by state government business development funding this year. Mlikota says it has allowed her to plan for growth with the service opening in Perth this month.
Gathar now operates in 12 cities and hopes to expand to New Zealand and beyond.
Jordan Votan, 32 and Cameron Votan, 37,
Cameron and Jordan Votan's growing restaurant and bar empire is based on their two passions - authentic food and an eclectic interest in wine.
For Cameron the focus is on the wine experience while Jordan keeps his eyes firmly fixed on the food and operational side of the business.
"All of our businesses have that same ethos - authentic food and a major focus on amazing small produced wines," says Cameron.
"We always try to create venues that are uniquely Brisbane. We're catering for a local crowd of loyal customers who love the flavours, food and wine."
Since 2014, they have operated Chinese restaurant Happy Boy then followed up with their French bistro inspired restaurant/wine bar Greenglass in George Street in the CBD.
Then came Snack Man which has just won the Maverick gong in the national Wineslinger awards for its boundary pushing combination of Chinese snacks and "unlisted" European wines cellar.
Their latest offering is the southern Asian inspired Kid Curry which joins Happy Boy and Snack Man on East Street in the Valley.
The former Wilston State School and Brisbane Grammar schoolboys started their first business together with their "shearer inspired" Imperial Brand Clothing when Cameron was studying chemistry at the University of Queensland and Jordan was still at school.
It was when Cameron moved back to Brisbane - after also co-founding the successful online fashion retailer The Iconic - that the brothers kicked off their partnership for the second time, although their have been a few bumps along the way.
Jordan says COVID-19 has been a "real test"
"In the first instance we had to go 100 per cent takeaway and that was a real stress on all of us," he says. "Only seeing our customers in a mask over a desk and takeaway bag is not something we want them to experience. We want to see the smiles on their faces."
Brigid Woolnough, 34,
Sunshine Coast chocolatier Brigid Woolnough has become Australia's largest purchaser of certain types of raw chocolate in order to meet demand for her artisan goodies since starting out in 2013 as a teacher turned hobbyist.
Woolnough's Kokopod has grown 300 per cent and doubled its staff in 2020 despite several arms of the business such as airport retailers and hotels being impacted as unprecedented demand from local consumers keen to buy quality, southeast Queensland produce has propelled her to expand.
She now hopes to lure a chocolatier from Melbourne or Sydney as Kokopod products are stocked in over 300 places as well as a growing ingredient in hampers.
"With Kokopod once they try it they are converted," she says.
"It's all about consumer demand in this climate and consumers changing their behaviour, reviewing what's important to them and putting money back into the local economy."
Jonathon Runge, 36,
VostroNet founder Jonathon Runge's persistence in building a profile in Asia is paying dividends as his internet company conquers the Pacific despite COVID-19 restricting international travel.
Runge launched the award-winning VostroNet, which delivers high-speed fibre-to-the-premises and Wi-Fi for multi-dwelling developments, in 2014.
It was this year named one of the Asia-Pacific's top 500 fastest-growing companies and Runge has no plans to slow down.
"The thing that gets me out of bed in the morning is that challenge for growth and being thrown in the deep end," he says.
"We are pushing into the Asia-Pacific and we were before COVID-19."
The internet services provider is making a play to expand into Malaysia and the Philippines where English is the first business language.
Jen Geale, 33, Michael Geale, 36, Mel McCullough, 37, & Tim McCullough, 35
The two couples behind Queensland mountain bike parts and accessories retailer MTB Direct are riding high on the online shopping boom.
Sales are tracking 60 per cent up on what they were a year ago, pushing revenue "well over" $10m a year, says Jen Geale, MTB's chief executive.
The COVID-19 pandemic which has forced more people to try online shopping for the first time.
"We are getting a huge increase in new customers and we have seen a bit of a change in our demographic - more younger people buying online with us and more women," she says. Geale and husband Michael (below left) are based on the Gold Coast while their business partners Mel and Tim McCullough (below right) live on the Sunshine Coast.
And perhaps fitting for a fully online business, the retailer has no head office and all of its 24 staff work from home.
Keen mountain bikers Michael and Tim started the parts business while they were still at high school. Initially it was run out of the garage under Michael's parents' house and within 18 months they had opened a shop on Brisbane's southside, which they sold a few years back. The online Mountain Bikes Direct, now MTB Direct, kicked off in 2012, making it one of Queensland's e-commerce pioneers.
This year marked a milestone for MTB, which launched in New Zealand - a move which could provide the blueprint for further overseas expansion.
Marie Mortimer, 38,
There were many naysayers in the world of finance when Mortimer launched her bright pink-themed online lender loans.com.au in 2011.
With 43,000 customers and $6 billion now under management, it has grown to be worth almost half the entire business of Firstmac, started by her father 41 years ago.
Mortimer also helps run loans.com.au, savings.com.au and georgie.com.au. Together they are Australia's 14th largest lender.
"The term fintech is really popular these days but we had a fintech before that term existed," she says.
"We build everything from scratch here. So we call ourselves a tech company first and a finance company second."
Mortimer saw the opportunity after working on IT investment bank projects in the UK before coming back to Brisbane.
She is also a Fintech Australia board member and keen advocate and mentor of other women in the industry.
James Creswick, 28,
James Creswick grew up in his parents' caravan dealership on Brisbane's southside but the youngster saw there were more opportunities to make caravans rather than just sell them.
Creswick is now in charge of family-owned Burpengary-based Titan Caravans which is fast gaining a reputation for tough, luxury off-road vans
Titan recently snared a $7 million deal to supply more than 100 vans to one of the country's biggest dealers, South Australian-based Dave Benson Caravans.
Creswick, who worked with auto giant Toyota before joining the family firm, says he aims to boost after-service professionalism in the sector.
"People are spending six figure amounts so they deserve good service," he says.
Creswick also says Titan now operates a 24 hour 1800 service number for customers.
Titan, which has been building vans for seven years, moved from Eagle Farm in March into larger premises at Burpengary earlier this year.
Jessica Kahl, 25,
Engineer, entrepreneur and gender equality advocate Jessica Kahl added a few more feathers to her cap in 2020.
The 25-year-old is the managing director and founder of Dream Big Australia, a not-for-profit organisation dedicated to encouraging more women to pursue careers in the traditionally male-dominated fields of STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics).
Last month Kahl won the $54,000 QBM Griffith MBA Responsible Leadership scholarship, which she hopes will enhance her ability to expand Dream Big Australia and spread her gender equality message.
Kahl, a chartered civil engineer who established Dream Big Australia in 2014 while completing her undergraduate degree, also recently took on the role of project manager corporate development at SunWater.
In collaboration with industry leaders, teachers and university academics, Dream Big Australia provides workshops and events as well as networking and mentoring opportunities to encourage more young women into STEAM professions.
Kahl's impressive resume also includes being a short-listed nominee for the 2021 Young Australian of the Year Award, being named among the "100 engineers making a difference'' by Engineers Australia and speaking about the next generation of STEAM leaders at last year's World Engineers Convention in Melbourne.
"In my experience ... diversity within an organisation improves its ability to solve complex problems, collaborate and deliver innovative outcomes," Kahl says.
Originally published as Young guns: Top 20 entrepreneurs under 40