Australia’s world-conquering female tech entrepreneur

26 years ago Michelle Melbourne took a few small steps that inadvertently changed her life forever.

At the helm of a firm that specialises in helping clients achieve digital transformation, Michelle Melbourne was described by Fairfax earlier this year as one of Australia’s nine most influential female entrepreneurs.

Yet it might all have turned out quite differently had Melbourne not, while at university, taken a few extra subjects on the side.

“I studied psychology at ANU [Australian National University] but also did some computer science subjects. My father had insisted they would ‘come in handy one day’,” Melbourne says.

Michelle Melbourne

“I was about to start my honours year when I got offered a technology trainer job in Sydney. It offered what, to a starving student, seemed like amazing pay.”

While she didn’t really have the experience required for the role, her employer took a punt on her. It paid off.

“I was teaching people DOS and Microsoft Word,” Melbourne says. “The joke was you only had to stay one page ahead of the class with the manual and project confidence. That said, it was an intense experience – I had to learn a lot very fast; I got five years’ work experience in twelve months. I also got to work with some fantastic role models, both male and female.”

After that baptism of fire, Melbourne returned to Canberra. Along with her then boyfriend and fellow ANU science graduate Phillip Williamson, she began advising businesses on Microsoft products.

Though they were earning ‘crazy consultancy rates’ in their hometown, Melbourne and Williamson soon took up an offer from an Australian computer company to work in Hong Kong. “Once again it was an ‘in over my head’ experience; I was working on major technology transformation projects for global firms,” Melbourne says.

“Important people were paying a lot for our skills and advice. It was around that time I realised I actually knew what I was doing, that I had developed a deep understanding of both technology and people. Even back then, before the internet had taken off, it was obvious those skills were going to be in high demand. Plus, Phil and I were passionate about helping organisations use technology to eliminate low-value effort and wasted time.”

The couple returned to Canberra and launched Intelledox in 1996. “It was meant to be a lifestyle business,” Melbourne says. “Phil and I love biking, skiing and surfing so we wanted to be somewhere where we could do those things. Plus, we wanted to be business as well as life partners. We are complementary. He’s a big picture thinker who hates what he calls ‘the touchy-feely stuff’ whereas what I really care about is people.”

Twenty years on, that lifestyle business has offices around the world, employs 45 staff and turns over $10 million a year. While it might appear Melbourne has glided from one success to another, she points out there have been endless challenges along the way.

“In the tech industry you have to reinvent your organisation every 12 months,” she says.

“So I’ve had to foster a highly adaptive and innovative corporate culture. Also, like most business owners, we soon discovered we had to deal with crucial operational areas – marketing, accounting, legal – that we had no idea about. We handled that by surrounding ourselves with super smart people. The psychology training and insight into what makes people tick means I usually make great hires. Intelledox wouldn’t have had the success it has had if I hadn’t assembled an incredible team.”

Intelledox currently sees its core business as digital process automation. “We’ve partnered with some of the best technology firms on the planet, such as Fuji Xerox and Microsoft, and are working with blue-chip clients,” Melbourne says. “Intelledox is now recognised as a global leader in its field. It has commercialised some world-class intellectual property.”

Of course, world-beating success creates its own problems.

“Challenges don’t go away as your business grows, they just get bigger,” Melbourne says. “We’re now trying to figure out how to keep up with massive companies such as Microsoft while scaling fast enough to satisfy a market that’s hungry for the technology we have to offer.”

When it comes to offering advice to others thinking of launching a start-up, Melbourne is characteristically warm but straight to the point.

“Do it,” she says. “Be the best at it, work smart, enjoy it. And be a good person along the way.”