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Start Local, Go Global

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Deborah Noller, Switch Automation

From James Cook University graduate to CEO of a successful software company – Deb Noller of Switch Automation is certainly one of the most inspirational women to graduate from Townsville. We caught up with her to talk technology, scalability and funding – all crucial elements that entrepreneurs will have to consider during their career.

When Deb inadvertently stumbled into a computer science class at Townsville’s James Cook University, her whole life and future career changed. Studying parks management at the time, Deb says she immediately changed her major and ended up graduating as one of two female computer science majors, which effectively launched her career as a software engineer.

Now, two decades on, Deb has created one of the most innovative real estate management programs available. Her software – Switch Automation – not only aims to fundamentally improve the way people manage buildings, it also has the ability to help customers identify 10-20% of their annual energy savings and 5-10% of their annual maintenance savings.

“As a consumer, if you want to make an environmental impact you can buy a Prius or install energy efficient windows in your home. It’s much more complicated for a building operator. They have a huge problem to solve; and for the last decade our ignorance around just how wasteful buildings are, combined with a lack of comprehensive solutions, rendered leaders powerless to affect change. Valuable data remained locked away in organisational silos,” Deb says. “Today, thanks to the Internet of Things (IoT), cloud infrastructure and Big Data, building owners and operators can have access to and ownership of crucial information they need to fuel key decisions. Meanwhile, investors have noticed the bottom line benefits, not to mention platinum tenants that sustainable green buildings attract and now they’re voting with their wallets.”

In 2013, the company had 75 buildings on their Switch Platform. From there, they expanded into the US and now, five years down the track, Switch has grown exponentially, clocking in at over 8,000 connected buildings. As any entrepreneur knows, scalability and moving your company with the times is crucial – so how do you get the mix right?

“My co-founder and I share a background in Enterprise IT and that drives us to ask ourselves ‘Is it scalable?’ in every aspect of our business. That mentality helped us create a hardware agnostic smart building platform designed to scale not only with expanding portfolios but to accommodate existing as well as future technology,” says Deb. “Our vision is to be the global standard by which people manage buildings. As Switch continues to grow and expand to new markets, I foresee us developing multilingual user interfaces and mobile applications geared to serving our customers when and where they most need operational insights. Our open architecture and work with projects like Linux Foundation’s EdgeX Foundry are helping to create a unified IoT ecosystem where customers can find end-to-end, interoperable solutions.”

However, as the company scales upwards, so does the demand for revenue, investors and grants. This is something that Deb has been extremely careful about.

“Funding our growth has been one of the most challenging endeavours because we’ve been very precise with our process. We are extremely deliberate about when we take investment, how much capital we raise and who we accept as investors. It’s very important to us to choose people who believe in what we’re doing and understand why this work is so important,” Deb explains.

This dedication to the financial aspect of Switch has certainly made for some great business lessons, with Deb outlining those most crucial.

“Don’t raise more than you need. Know that it’s really hard,” Deb says. “There are abundant grants and incentives available, so hunt them down and use them wisely. There are plenty of incubators and accelerators out there willing to invest in innovative ideas, so know your market, be confident and seek them out. Invest in your customers. Build relationships with them and show them you value their business by listening to what your buyers and users have to say. Facilitate their success and your own success will follow. Additionally, time is your most valuable asset. Be decisive with it and understand what your primary focus is and why. For example, are you concentrating on fundraising or acquiring customers? Pick one and do it exceptionally well. Most importantly, expand your network and ask for introductions.”

These aren’t Deb’s only gems of advice, either. Both she and her co-founder identified opportunities where they saw them and intuitively worked to fill any gaps – both in the market and in their product. Whilst Deb says that most entrepreneurs struggle and often “kick the rock along the road one step at a time”, there are several things they can do to push themselves ahead.

“It takes perseverance, a strong vision, an amazing team who shares that vision, a sense of humour and fortitude- not to mention a thorough understanding of your market and its problems. Starting a company is a marathon, not a sprint, so you’ll want to pace yourself for the long haul,” Deb says. “On top of that, you have to embrace the uniqueness of what you’re doing and your passion for the why behind it. Know and own your market and finally, cultivate a team of experts who share your vision for success whilst surrounding yourself with family, friends and staff who share your beliefs.”

Whilst Deb did move her company overseas to aid in its expansion, she says that entrepreneurs in Townsville won’t be left behind in this new digital age.

“I lived in Townsville for three years while attending James Cook University and they were some of the happiest years of my life,” Deb says. “I think Townsville is evolving from its mining, agricultural and defence roots into an entrepreneurial mecca that will usher in a digital future filled with new and exciting business concepts. I envision it as a vibrant city that encourages creativity while leveraging its foundation of academia and nature to foster curiosity and inspiration. It’s the perfect place for today’s young entrepreneurs to build and thrive while balancing purpose-driven careers with pleasure-seeking lives.”

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