How successful start-ups got their start


When start-ups become successful global juggernauts, it’s easy to look back with hindsight and say, “Well, that makes sense. Anyone could have done that.” Well, anyone did, and it’s often someone sitting where you’re sitting now.

But where do these unicorns actually come from, and how do they grow so quickly? Why do some founders succeed, while others give up? And what turns a side hustle into a regular, full-time, multi-million-dollar hustle that takes over the world? 

To answer that, let’s look at four start-ups – PaperCut (that’s us), Xero, Cliniko and Telegram – and try to see what they have in common. What you’ll find is that successful start-ups don’t start with dreams, or visions of global domination. And certainly not with an end product. They usually start with a problem: a sysadmin or developer sees an issue, assumes lots of other people have the same issue, and sets out to solve it. Happens all the time. 

Here’s how to turn problems into side hustles, and side hustles into unicorns. 


Let’s start with our own origin story, which is shrouded in the mists of time…if by mists of time, you mean our About page. PaperCut was founded by two regular human sysadmins, Chris Dance and Matt Doran. In the late ‘90s, Chris was working part-time at a local high school, when he noticed overflowing bins of abandoned printouts. 
“That was the lightbulb moment,” he says. “Tucked in a corner of my garage, Matt and I tinkered with a bit of code to help the school monitor their printing and reduce waste. Then, before we knew it, we’d founded a company with offices in Australia, the USA, and the UK.”

Like a lot of successful founders, Chris started with a problem: printer wastage. He came up with a solution that could scale, and that filled a crucial need in the market. This was 1998, remember, when nobody was paying much attention to enterprise-level printer management software. PaperCut was a solution to a problem most organizations didn’t even recognize yet. And that combination – solution, scalability, and originality – is the secret, magic pixie dust that most unicorns are made from. 


One of the world’s largest accounting software solutions wasn’t always an obvious success. “Xero”, so the joke went, “the first IPO named after their revenue.” 
When Xero listed on the New Zealand Stock Exchange in 2007, no-one gave them much of a chance. New Zealand is literally a world away from Silicon Valley. In global tech circles, it’s known more for Lord of the Rings than cutting-edge accounting software. But that didn’t deter founders Craig Walker and Rob Drury. 

Drury was already a successful entrepreneur by this point – he’d built several web applications – and Walker had the coding skills to build pretty much anything. But it was in discussing the challenges of small businesses with his accountant that they stumbled across another problem worth solving.

Together they envisioned a new type of accounting solution: a SaaS product that could be delivered over the internet, tailored for SMEs and small businesses. Xero, as the program was eventually known, turned out to be one of the first big cloud success stories. It legitimized cloud computing at a time when the public internet was still considered a sketchy place. “We didn’t know exactly the value it would have,” Drury said. “But we knew it was inherently valuable.” He got that right: Xero’s operating revenue now sits around $1.1 billion. 


If you don’t work in healthcare, you might not have heard of Cliniko. If you do work in healthcare, you might not have heard of much else. Cliniko sells practice management software to clinics and allied health businesses all over the world, making it easier for them to book patients, manage accounts, and pay suppliers. 
Again, this sort of things seems obvious – now – but in 2010, when founder Joel Friedlaender got the idea, healthcare was still a bit of a digital dinosaur. Filing cabinets were considered cutting-edge technology.

It all started when Joel’s wife, Liora (an osteopath) complained about her clinic’s crappy software. She couldn’t check her calendar from outside work, she couldn’t make useable patient notes, and there was no central place to store information. Luckily, Joel was a software developer, and set out to build something better. That something became Cliniko, which is now used by over 65,000 businesses in 70 countries worldwide. 

How did this happen? Well, in July 2011, barely a month after launching the initial product, Friedlaender already had 37 businesses running a trial. 14 of these decided to stick around. By the next year, Cliniko was in 55 countries, and the business was booming. Friedlaender had tapped into a need – functional, easy-to-use clinic management software – and found a way to encourage digital transformation in healthcare. Something that many clinics were struggling with. It was a combination of right product, right founder, right time. 


Telegram founder Pavel Durov is known in some circles as the “Zuckerberg of Russia”. In 2022 his net worth was $15.1 billion. Together with his brother Nikolai, Durov built encrypted-messaging service Telegram in 2013, which now has over 700 million active users and a cool $30 billion valuation. 

But how did this actually happen? It’s a pretty cool story, and we’d encourage you to read about it in more detail. But here are the Cliff notes: Durov had already built a fortune with his first business, Russia’s most successful social media site, Vkontakte, which started in 2006. But following run-ins with the federal authorities, who didn’t really go for Vkontakte’s whole open web, free speech thing, Durov was forced to sell his shares to government-controlled companies and exit the business. Enter Telegram. 

The whole point of Telegram is private, encrypted communication, free from authoritarian control or government interference. Durov plotted it in secret, using a remote team of 10 to 15 coders, stationed in London and Berlin. When the app went mainstream, he moved the whole operation to Dubai, where Telegram’s servers currently sit. Since then, the platform has been used by Chinese human rights lawyers and Ukrainian government officials, along with extremists on all sides. For better and worse, Telegram is one of the least regulated and controlled messaging apps in the world. Which seems to be how Durov likes it.

The ingredients for Telegram’s success were there from the start. Messaging apps existed, of course, but in an age of privacy concerns, public hacks, and authoritarian governments, Durov built an app tailored for the times. And it hit one heck of a nerve.

So, there you go. Four stories, four very different digital products. But despite their disparate fields, they all have one thing in common: they started with a problem that someone cared enough to fix.

From overflowing printer bins to state-controlled propaganda networks, these unicorns solve common needs, and they do it in accessible, scalable ways that other services don’t offer. There’s a lesson there for founders: it doesn’t matter where you come from, if you can identify problems, and think up creative solutions, any side hustle can go big.