Politician-turned-entrepreneur Alan Griffiths recently turned 60. But he didn’t celebrate.
“Not particularly,” he said when asked if he had a party. “I haven’t celebrated my birthday since I was 10. I’m one of 12 children so birthday celebrations, if you had them, weren’t much of an event.”
However, what Griffiths does lately usually is an event.
The Australian former cabinet minister owns or has significant stakes in a string of hotels across Queensland and is now co-founder of U.K.-based Shopitize. He launched it in 2010 with former banker Irina Pafomova and former management consultant Alexey Andriyanenko.
The startup enables brands to connect with customers and provides personalized offers based on verified purchase history. Users take photos of their receipts with their smartphone, and Shopitize turns them into “smart shopping lists” and spending reports for users. It has so far raised $1.5 million from private international investors to launch the service in the United Kingdom and is on the brink of its second round of funding.
Shopitize is not Griffiths’ first foray into the startup world.
Griffiths founded technology company Quantm in Australia 2000. The company developed software to automate the routes of roads and railways. The software was used by the California High-Speed Rail Authority, among other U.S., Australian and Chinese infrastructure companies.
Griffiths, majority owner of Quantm, sold the company to Trimble Navigation in 2006 in what was believed to be a multi-million-dollar deal.
Before he was starting companies, Griffiths was steeped in politics. While earning a bachelor’s degree in law, economics and politics at Monash University, he joined a 1976 delegation to China at the tail end of the Cultural Revolution. After graduation, the long-running active member of the Labor Party in his home state of Victoria felt a career in law wouldn’t be “sufficiently satisfying” and entered parliament by the age of 30.
He left politics in 1996, following his resignation from political office over the “sandwich shop affair,” in which it was alleged that funds from the Australian Labor Party and his electorate office were diverted to assist his business partner in a failed sandwich shop venture. Griffiths was cleared of any wrongdoing, although he acknowledged that the allegations had taken “a lot of momentum out of my career.”
VCJ Contributor Jennifer Hill recently talked to Griffiths about his startup experiences.
Q: Is there entrepreneurial blood in your family?
A: With 12 children, my mother had her hands full. My father was a timber worker, then a paper mill worker. I believe I get it from my grandfather who was a bit of an inventor. He won awards for his engineering ideas.
Q: What made you give up political life and start your own business?
A: I didn’t want to leave it too late. I had a very strong sense of burning bridges behind me. I got offered very good jobs in the corporate sector, which would have been interesting careers, but that would have meant clocking on and clocking off for someone else. It would have been too comfortable.
Q: How did you fund Quantm?
A: I spent five years working on various projects—small scale property investments, marketing and advising businesses, nickel-and-dime stuff—to give my own company, Griffiths Group, enough [money] to spend time developing ideas. I raised money from people I knew and worked with. My opposition in parliament, Julian Beale, the Liberal Party member, invested $1 million. He was on the board and played a significant part.
Q: How easy was it to raise funds then?
A: We’d just started when we had the tech stock crash. We missed the chance to have investors put in huge amounts of money. We had to do it the hard way and move at a much slower pace. We were very strong on corporate governance. When investors reviewed Quantm they often commented that it was a beautifully organized company with a very clean balance sheet. It’s the same with Shopitize. It’s a very important part of what we do.
Q: And now?
A: Shopitize, like Quantm, takes a very different perspective on an industry. Brands don’t know who their customers are, but if you’re running a business the most important people are your customers. Our proposition is a very compelling one. Raising funds just hasn’t been an issue.
Q: When are you likely to need more capital?
A: I put in another $500,000 of my own money last month. We’ve done some pre-marketing to VCs, but I’d like to get the company to a certain level of maturity. Later this year or early next year we’ll be looking for $5 million to $10 million.
Q: What stage is Shopitize at?
A: We have inherently valuable technology and are negotiating with brands. I know big businesses and I know small businesses. My experience shows me you should concentrate on building the core proposition. We’re very advanced in that now.
Q: What sort of returns have you made?
A: Quantm raised $6 million. I’m silenced by the confidentiality agreement, but investors made well over double-digit returns. It’s a bit early to talk about returns on investment in Shopitize, but you don’t need to be a big Philadelphia lawyer to work out it could be a very profitable and sustainable business.
Q: What’s your advice for entrepreneurs starting out?
A: It will cost more, it will take longer, but win or lose the journey is always worth it.
At a Glance
Co-founder and Director
Birthplace: Melbourne, Victoria
Family: Griffiths is the father of four. He has two children, ages 40 and 37, from his first wife, and another two, ages 12 and 10, from his second marriage.
Education: Bachelor of Law, Economics and Politics, Monash University, Melbourne, 1979.
Work history: Manual work, including scaffolder and taxi driver (1966-1974); articled clerk, Maurice Blackburn & Co (1979-1980); political adviser, Premier of New South Wales (1980-81); Cabinet Minister and member of the Australian House of Representatives (1983-96); founder and director Quantm (2000-2006); co-founder and director Shopitize (2010-present)
Biggest inspiration: Nelson Mandela. “His journey was so much harder than most.”
Would like to be remembered as: A good father
Last book read: “Russia and the Russians” by Geoffrey Hosking
Did you know? He pilots ultralight aircraft and takes 60 flights a year.