Nothing ventured, nothing gained

Sometimes, perfect timing can be as important as solid business acumen. When it comes to making an educated bet, Geoff Dolphin has impeccable timing.

The CFO of Telstra Ventures has had an uncanny knack for being in the right place at the right time, whether that’s moving to Eastern Europe just after the Wall fell and opportunities rose, or riding the first dot-com boom.

The CFO of Telstra Ventures has had an uncanny knack for being in the right place at the right time, whether that’s moving to Eastern Europe just after the Wall fell and opportunities rose, or riding the first dot-com boom.

Now, in a world where tech is the target, his organisation is perfectly placed to throw its venture capital weight behind agile innovators.

“We’ve shifted to what we term the eyes and ears – we gave Telstra a second horizon about where the industry might be going,” Geoff says.

Those ‘eyes and ears’ were finely tuned back in the early 1990s when Geoff realised what opportunities were on offer as countries prospered in a post-Soviet dawn.

Geoff had studied at the University of Sydney before landing a job with KPMG, and when the chance of a posting to Prague came, he didn’t hesitate.

“Back in the day if you worked for a Big Four accounting firm (or Big Eight as it was then) and you wanted to go overseas, you went to New York or London,” he says. But Geoff had visited the Czech capital on his travels and fate decreed he would soon return.

Geoff says: “Six months after I got back to Australia, KPMG said, ‘Eastern Europe is exploding, and is there anyone who wants to work there?’. I immediately put my hand up – firstly because Prague was such a lovely place to live, and secondly, it was where the action was back in the early 90s – new markets opening up, and lots of opportunities for fast-paced growth.”

After two years in Prague with KPMG, he became finance lead with drinks giant Allied Domecq for the Czech Republic and Slovakia.

“The drinks industry was booming,” he says. “We had phenomenal growth, and managing that was exciting, interesting and a lot of fun and games.”

He also met his wife, Katarina (herself a CFO with home-loan company uno) and soon their romance and careers blossomed: both won green cards in the US lottery, taking them to San Francisco.

Geoff saw first-hand the growing impact of technology when he joined Three Deep, an electronic inventory management system for the hospitality industry. Using PalmPilots with infra-red scanners, Three Deep revolutionised cumbersome stocktaking.

“Inventory management in bars and clubs was usually a nightmare because you usually had the junior guy wandering around with a pen and paper scratching away, and someone had to type that into a spreadsheet – we completely digitalised that process,” he says. “That’s where my tech world opened up.”

At Telstra Ventures, investments were initially tailored to Telstra’s core business, but now as an independent fund manager it has the flexibility to invest wisely but also widely. Geoff’s experience in the US start-up ecosystem plays to his strengths, as 70 per cent of the portfolio is US-based.

“Collectively we have 100 years of experience of venture capital experience sitting round the table. We’ve all done bad deals as well as good, and the scar tissue and the antennae are pretty finely tuned, so we can pick up on the no-good deal,” he says.

“We come to consensus fairly often but sometimes you’ve got to take a punt.”

In June 2018, Telstra Ventures was spun out of the parent company to become an independent venture capital group – with Telstra the largest investor.

Investments are running at an average of nine a year, in each case about $US5-10 million.

Geoff’s impeccable timing has again come into play. While the coronavirus pandemic has altered the world for just about every business, the Telstra Ventures portfolio comprises businesses with built-in adaptability.

The epitome of this is tech company GitLab, which is – among other things – a code repository, and very much a model for modern business.

“They don’t have a head office,” he says. “From day one they’ve been working remotely.

“What we invest in are primarily cloud software, SaaS, business security, consumer or mobile development companies. These guys can work wherever – give them a laptop, give them fast internet and away they go. There are no legacy systems in companies that are three or four years old.”

The Telstra Ventures portfolio is spread across Chinese, US, Australian and South-East Asian investments, and Geoff says: “Virus or not, there’ll always be a scenario where some investments are doing well and some deals are not, but if you can get diversification going you minimise the risk at a portfolio level.”

Finally, if you’re wondering about the origins of Geoff’s surname, and you know a bit of French, you may have made the link with nobility. It’s derived from the French “dauphin”, indicating an heir to the throne, and his family tree branches through the Norman invasion of England, into Lancashire.

For now, he’s happy bringing a touch of class to the venture capital world.