Young Aussie Entrepreneur Makes His Mark In Silicon Valley
By Mike Wheeler
It must have been one of those once-in-a-lifetime moments that will be etched into Ash Fontana’s mind for the rest of his life. Peter Thiel said yes to a meeting about Fontana’s start up Topguest. Sure, Fontana and his partner Geoff Lewis had put in a lot of ground work, and managed to get some investors on board, but this was the big time. The start up was about to take off.
That was over a year ago, and now the Sydney-born and raised 25 year old is starting to reap the rewards of some very hard yards in the competitive world of start-ups, venture capitalists (VCs) and Silicon Valley.
If you follow such things, you’ll know that Thiel is managing partner of VC big hitter The Founders Fund, is president of Clarium Capital, started up PayPal, and was a major investor in Facebook. Not a bad guy to have on your side when you’re about to launch your own online venture.
At its most basic Topguest is a website that integrates any rewards programmes you have when you check into your hotel or airport on Facebook using your phone. So, you get extra points just by being there and sharing it with your friends.
You don’t actually have to download a separate application to take use Topguest. You sign up for the service with your accounts on the various location-based services (LBS) you use at Topguest’s website from your desktop or mobile. Points are automatically credited from all of the applications you used to check-in on Topguest – whether it be frequent flyer, hotel or whatever points you use.
For one so young, the former St Paul’s College student seems to take it all in his stride as he talks about the company. He makes it sound like a breeze, but there was a lot of hard work getting there. So how did it all start?
“We had some money left over from Geoff's previous venture and then raised a small convertible note seed round with prominent Angel investors. [We did this] by showing them our product prototype, [and some] early traction with hotel companies and some user traction,” he says. “The intention was to use this seed money to prove out more over the summer but just weeks after closing this seed funding round we got a lot of traction, there was some big activity in our space and investors made us a very competitive offer for a larger Series A equity financing.”
And once that was all in place, what was the final kick-start that made Topguest stand out from similar services available?
“There were a few events – firstly, getting a good co-founder on board, secondly signing our first few contracts and thirdly securing funding,” he says. “I think that it is important to have a member of the founding team who is both building the technology product and is capable of leading a large technical team. I also think that it's important to work with people you trust, and that usually develops over many years and projects. I found all of these things in Ozan Onay, our CTO and co-founder, when he decided to come on board. Signing contracts with some smaller but very well-recognised brands such as The Standard as well as InterContinental Priority Club, the biggest lodging loyalty program in the world, was a good sign that this was a valid customer need because it involved them committing points and services of value to our users. Finally, having the money in the bank meant that we would get paid a wage and be able to hire good people to build the business.”
Once that was in place, both he and Lewis were confident that the website was a winner, and then it started to snowball from there. If he was intimidated by getting a meeting with Thiel, he showed no sign of it, and if you cut your teeth at the age of 22 at MacQuarie Bank in New York, then why would you? It was that underlying confidence that made him sure it was a winner. So, when did he know it was all going to come together?
“The moment really came when other investors and our first clients validated the idea by committing capital and signing contracts,” he says. “We already had a relationship with Founders Fund but convincing other investors of the deal brought everyone over the line and allowed us to focus on moving forward to build the business.”
Fontana’s entrepreneurial streak, like a lot of young business people, started early when he began a few small businesses while still in high school – from car detailing to tutoring – and it snowballed from there.
“After high school I started a web directory and event planning website for people booking their school formals,” says Fontana. “All were great experiences and delivered a healthy amount of cash for other pursuits – whether they were world trips, investments or the next business.”
Soon it was off to Sydney University where he managed a Bachelor of Laws (1st class honours) and Bachelor of Commerce and then on to Macquarie Bank in New York, and finally Silicon Valley. And how does he find working in the US, especially now that the country’s economy is taking an age to recover?
“I think that this is one of the most enterprising nations in the world,” he says emphatically. “Large companies are willing to explore the best ideas, even if that means working with a very new or small company. There is minimal fear of failure and investors have a higher risk appetite. Also, Silicon Valley in particular, is a magnet for talent from all around the world.”
With already a wealth of experience behind him, and an obvious excitement about what the future holds despite uncertain times in the global economy, Fontana seems not only optimistic about the future, but pretty bullish.
“I have lots of ideas, people I'd like to build businesses with, markets I'd like to explore and problems I'd like to solve,” he says. “I'm particularly interested in how people work and certain markets in Africa.”
Fontana doesn’t lack ambition, and with one Silicon Valley venture already launched don’t be surprised if there are a few more on the horizon.