University of Melbourne Magazine

From student to startup

  • Herk Kailis and Robbie Russo

    Starting up: Herk Kailis and Robbie Russo. Picture: Chris Hopkins


    Ask Herk Kailis what he’s doing at the weekend and you’re likely to get the answer: “The same thing I do Monday to Friday.”

    The 27-year-old has put his social life on hold to give his startup, NoteXchange, the best possible chance of success. It’s all-consuming, but for Kailis and his co-founder Robbie Russo, it’s the only option. “There’s no hacking a startup. There’s no putting your jacket on the back of your chair and leaving it for the manager to see,” he says.

    NoteXchange is a platform that allows students to buy or sell lecture notes. It launched in January at the University of Melbourne, has now expanded to Deakin and Monash Universities.

    Kailis (BA, BCom, ME 2014) and Russo (BSc, DipLang 2013, ME 2014) hope to eventually take NoteXchange to China. “The Australian market is too small. We’re only 26 million people and you can’t sell anything in any sort of volume. That’s why everyone goes overseas,” he says.

    “Education in China is massive. They’ve got 35 million students at the moment and that’s going to go to 70 million in the next five years. We feel like there’s scope to go in there but we need to have an operating business here that’s earning revenue.”

    Their big ideas are being supported by the Melbourne Accelerator Program (MAP). In addition to some funding, it gives them the opportunity to work alongside other startups, and access to mentors. It’s part of the University’s contribution to creating a stronger entrepreneurial culture in Australia, along with the Master of Entrepreneurship launching in 2016.

    Kailis comes from a long line of entrepreneurs and isn’t daunted by the risks involved. If NoteXchange doesn’t hit the big time, he’ll try again with something else. And, he says, it’s not about the money.

    “We never look at our business in terms of how we can maximise profit. We look at it as how can we deliver the best experience, the best product to our customer. If we can get 10 per cent of that right maybe they’ll come back again,” he says.

    “If you’re motivated by money a 110-hour week is not going to do much for you – especially when you’re making zero dollars a week. But when you see people get benefit from a product you’ve created, it’s really rewarding.”

    And his advice for current students who want to create a business from scratch? Study hard, learn as much as you can – then use what you’ve learned to create a startup.

    And accept that you will have to keep learning. “You learn very quickly in a startup because you have to do everything,” Kailis says. “You learn all about marketing, about sales, tech stuff…you have to be CEO, CTO, janitor, you name it – you’re doing every job. There’s no steeper learning curve.”