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Bruce Jeffreys
GoGet & Dresden

Bruce Jeffreys is the co-founder of GoGet, Australia's first car sharing service and Dresden, a new eyewear-as-service business based in Sydney and Hong Kong. Bruce has a degree in Economics and a background in marketing and sustainability across the private and public sectors. With his partner Catherine he organised Turkey's first Australian Film Festival.

Q. Tell us about GoGet, how did you get started?

GoGet is Australia's first car sharing service, we started in 2003. Back then people had very stark choice between owning a car that – if you live close to the city you hardly ever used – or relying completely on public transport. It seemed crazy so we looked at how we could share a car amongst the community. We put three cars on the street and opened them up to membership. We had 12 passionate people we didn't know become our founding members. That was the genesis of the business. In a way it was crowd-funded too because we took a $500 deposit from members which helped us capitalise the business and get finance to buy the cars.

Q. Where are you now?

From those three cars and 12 members Go-Get has grown to over 60,000 members now and the fleet of cars is approaching 2,000 cars across four States; we're in Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Adelaide. Over the last four or five years GoGet has been built into new residential and commercial sites. On the residential side GoGet cars are becoming part of a package – you've got a concierge, a gym, a pool and now you have a fleet of cars ready to go. Technology like smart cards and smart cars help here too. Your building access card is also your GoGet access card. On the commercial side we have deals with large retail outlets like IKEA. There are GoGet vans at many IKEA locations throughout Australia so people can get their big stuff home. After watching us for many years State and Federal government agencies are now getting involved and adding us into their fleet options, that's a huge thing.

Q. Knowing what you know now, what would you do differently?

I wouldn't change a thing because mistakes are just part of the journey of learning things. I came out of an advertising agency and after that, the NSW State Government so I thought I knew more than I did; small business is a fantastic reality check. Most of the mistakes I made were marketing mistakes where what I'd been schooled in and what I'd done for large clients I tried on a small level and it failed. For example with branding I assumed we needed a sleek look because when someone sees something professional-looking, they think you are a professional service. But actually most people are sick of the corporate look. When they see something that is authentically small and local it opens doors and is really effective. On a personal level we learnt this with our bees too. We harvest honey and we have so much that we sell it to the local health food shop. We wanted to do a cool funky label but we just didn't get time. When we delivered it they said, 'This is great! Because there's no label people will know it's local.' I'd call that an 'un-marketed' or a 'de-marketed' approach.

Q. You're seeking to disrupt another market now – eyewear and optometry – tell us about that.

We are launching a new business called Dresden that is looking to change peoples' relationships with glasses. It's inspired by glasses wearers like me, who have spent years frustrated by losing, scratching or breaking glasses and knowing how glasses are expensive and bespoke. We have invented a new system where your eyewear is much like a Swatch watch. There's a pair for every different occasion and if something goes wrong you just change a piece of it. I'm taking the idea from GoGet which turned a product into a service. I couldn't understand why buying glasses was so transactional. Glasses wearers are repeat customers so the industry should be loyalty and service orientated. We want to reinvent the industry around loyalty and respect for your time.

We're especially passionate about kids, kids are a huge but poorly served market. Kids are made to put a very fragile thing on their face and told not to break it. Kids are kids; they should be able to run around and climb trees and be very physical. We have a system of eyewear. You can get up to 10 in a pack for $199 including quality prescription lenses and essentially you can just swap and go. We're trying to make eyewear cool and fun. We hope kids will love the ability to swap and collect different Dresden glasses.

Everything is recyclable – made from bioplastics – and we're involving customers in the supply chain by letting them bring in plastics they want to turn into glasses. So they can bring in CDs, milk bottle tops, nearly anything.

Q. How did you overcome the medicalisation of that industry?

We still need the people with medical expertise but we just need to use them better. We believe it is not very patient-centric but extremely practitioner-led. People are not empowered to learn about their eye health. We will offer free screening with the results available in under a minute. It's a classic situation where the technology has come down and is now cheap. The eye testing equipment was $250,000 10 years ago and now its $10,000 but the industry has not changed, it assumes customers shouldn't touch the precious equipment. I want to have the equipment on footpaths and streets and have people operate it themselves; do their own testing. The data goes via the cloud to health care professionals that check it – we're not competing with them but we're breaking the link between the patient and practitioner having to be in the sample place at the same time.

Think about schools. There's hardly any eye testing at schools which seems crazy – how do we know if kids can't see what's on the whiteboard? A school with 300 kids could all get tested in one go, one medical expert in their own time could check all the data and identify which kids need help.

Q. You've worked in other countries such as Turkey and you've lived in India where your mother is from. How does Australia compare regarding innovation and opportunities for innovators?

Australia has tonnes of things going for it. On the regulatory side it's a good country to open up a business because we are transparent. On the capital side Australia has huge challenges because of the high level of home ownership. Many people have mortgages and their mortgage locks them out of starting a business with any degree of risk. In most countries more people rent and so are much freer to plan a business. Turkey is also a country of small businesses. They have a go.

Australians are very risk averse. It's annoying when discussing a new idea and the first thing anyone thinks of is a problem, 'We can't do that because…' but often it can be done, it's just our culture that inhibits business. Our risk aversion comes from the corporatisation of the workplace and also the public service sector. A large company tends to be way more risk averse then a smaller business. At Dresden we have a policy of not employing people from a corporate background until they have detoxed for a year or two.

Risk aversion is just a pain in the ass because with risk comes benefits. If you avoid all risks you have no benefits. If you have no benefits you have no business, you have no value. Australia has a very high level of education which is a good thing and a bad thing. The negative side of it is that educated people tend to be really good at following orders. When the council says, 'Here is your assessment [to do] list' they look at it like a uni assignment and go off and do it.

Q. For investors who invest in supporting innovative businesses what can they bring apart from cash?

Innovation comes when you don't have investors. It's the mother of necessity. Investors can't bring a lot because the most successful businesses don't need investors. If a business is going to you for investment it's generally got a problem. There is an expectation that investors are a big part of the story of how businesses got off the ground but often someone just does it without investors. That doesn't mean they are an individual – they probably have family and friends and everybody else they know helping them – including their customers – but the idea that an investor rides in on a horse with the funding, the advice and the experience is a very American model. All you need is customers.

I was at a Reserve Bank forum recently and an academic pointed out that venture capital is failing at producing expected returns in the States. For the few businesses that go bang [are successful], there is a train wreck of failed businesses and people with dashed hopes. It's a part of the American celebrity narrative, they only talk about the few who make it.

I don't buy the contention that there are a few brilliant people and all they need is investment and some advice and away they go. The world is full of brilliant ideas but they're not worth anything. People who are successful aren't brilliant necessarily, they're just people who think, 'That would be a great service!' and they have a go.