Our second profile in the Working Lives series focuses on Katrina McKinnon, founder of Motive Media, McKinnon Group and Small Revolution. With resilience and an enterprising outlook, Katrina has been making her way in technology and eCommerce since those industries first took off in Australia, some 20 years ago.
It was Katrina’s father who first sparked her interest in technology. He came from a dairy farming background, and was the first McKinnon to leave the farm, to get a tertiary education, and move to the city. He became an electrical engineer, and brought one of the very first portable computers into Australia. Katrina remembers it distinctly:
It was an IBM: there was a small orange screen in the corner, a full-sized, fold-down keyboard, and it was about as big as a suitcase. When dad took it through customs, he had to explain to them that it was a computer – they had never seen anything like it before. We had it on our dining-room table, and my brother and I would use it to play a flight simulator game.
Because of their father, Katrina and her older brother were immersed in technology and eCommerce from a young age. Her father continually encouraged her to apply technology to her work in new and interesting ways. Throughout school projects, work experience in graphic design, creating newsletters for an art gallery, and running one of Australia’s first eCommerce stores with her brother, her father was always telling her, “if you can figure out how to do that on a computer, you’ll be a millionaire.” It turned out his advice had merit.
We had a company called Wholesale Direct, in 1992 or ‘93. Once we figured out how to connect with more than one customer at a time, using multiple lines, we ended up making AU$1 million per month in sales. I did all the graphics for the company, and built it using the computer.
Family has always played an important role in Katrina’s professional life: she has worked with her father and her older brother for around 20 years. She said the key is that they all live and breathe eCommerce and technology. Although they argue passionately about what they believe, Katrina’s family are all very sensitive to each other, and respect each others’ ideas.
We’re very closely entwined as a family, and we’re always getting involved in each others’ projects. For us, the key is that we’ve all got separate companies and different interests within the field, yet we rely on each other, push each other forward, and leverage off each others’ resources.
Katrina’s father is undoubtedly her personal hero, and she looks up to her older brother enormously. Her advice to others starting out in the industry is to find a mentor of their own.
Find someone older, who can put your failures into perspective, tell you not to worry about them, and encourage you to try again. Don’t assume that people won’t have time to talk to you, because it can be just as helpful for them as it is for you. I have personally found that mentoring really clarifies my thoughts.
Within the aggressive and fast-paced technology sector, Katrina has felt the benefit of sharing workspaces with like-minded entrepreneurs and developers. She explained that the growth of co-working hubs like Fishburners (http://fishburners.org/about-us/) is fostering a sense of community in the startup culture.
It’s important to surround yourself with ambitious people, who are passionate about the same things as you, because they help to motivate and inspire you. It’s not about networking per se, it’s about finding spaces and friends that fit you.
Katrina has sought out these kind of connections from the very beginning of her career. When programming took off in Australia, a number of people went over to intern with Microsoft. They were the first people to come back to Australia with ASP programming skills, and start their own company. So when they said they needed a coffee girl, Katrina – then in her early 20s – jumped on the opportunity.
I said ‘I’ll make you coffee, sweep the floor, basically do anything just to stand near you.’ While working for them, I got to attend the very first broadband meeting with Telstra in Australia. I also took on opportunities to build websites for clients in between much larger projects.
When the dotcom bubble burst in the mid-90s, the company was acquired, so the staff went their separate ways. Katrina started her own very successful web agency, but it didn’t all come easily. She stated that her greatest challenge professionally is being female, and that unfortunately, not much has changed over the years.
I still see women striving to fit themselves into male-dominated work places, instead of workplaces changing to accommodate women. For instance, I’ve always found that women have to make some kind of overt signal, or emphasise some masculine trait in order to be taken seriously in the industry. Some women swear and talk tough. Very early on, I learned to talk technical: when I was in my twenties, I’d walk into a boardroom full of men in their mid-forties and be asked where my dad was. So I’d rattle off some technical jargon, and suddenly people start listening to what you’re saying.
But Katrina doesn’t think this should put anyone off pursuing a career in technology. Indeed, her own working life points to the tremendous opportunities for fulfilment that lie within this innovative sector. Her web agency, Motive Media, has given her scope to hone and apply her skills for a huge range of clients, from Taronga Zoo, to Sun Microsystems, to Outdoor Oz.
I’ve been running Motive Media since 1998, and being paid to solve clients’ problems, understand their needs, and gain experience from their projects has been an incredible opportunity, and I’ve learned so much. But there came a point where I wanted to build something for myself, and that’s when I started McKinnon Group.
In 2012, Katrina conceived of a whole new business model for her work, and founded McKinnon Group to try it out. There were two moments which led to that decision. First, a client rang her up to thank her for the AU$4,000 website she had built them. They had just landed a AU$30,000 per month client. She realised that she had been thinking in terms of the value of her time, rather than the value of the products she was selling.
Second, she approached a client and offered to build, run, and maintain their website, and sell their product, for a commission of 10 per cent. The client accepted. After looking at her accounts, Katrina found out that client was her third biggest earner, the least work, and the most pleasure. Now, McKinnon Group has allowed her to retain ownership of everything she does: a prospect that is empowering and confronting at the same time.
It’s challenging, and scary! After so many years of consulting work, I’ve actually had to put my own ideas to the test. In the past, it was the case that if people don’t follow my advice, or if they execute it wrong, then the responsibility lies with them. Now, I’m following my own advice, with my own money, and that makes you sit up straight.
Working closely with family, being in a minority group in the workplace, and starting your own business are all daunting prospects. On top of that, the technology industry continues to develop at a rapid rate, with new ideas, start-ups, and opportunities appearing and disappearing every day. Yet Katrina shows these challenges can be faced head on with equal measures of inventiveness, resilience, and synergism.