It wasn’t hard to find Mike Baukes. He was unapologetically decked out in casual attire among a crowd of serious looking diplomats and government officials at the Sheraton Samoa Aggie Grey’s Hotel lobby.
When you meet Mr. Baukes, you will find he definitely has presence - not only because he towers over everyone in height but also because he has an infectious level of energy that is partly due to being a Tech Creative as well as having a very funny and some what dark sense of humour.
Last week, Apia was a melting pot of not only political Pacific Leaders who were for the Forum but also to some of the most innovative and globally successful entrepreneurs, making it a most dynamic and powerful mix of people.
Mr. Baukes was among them. He is multimillionaire co-founder of Upguard, a company that is based in the Silicon Valley, U.S.A where they specialise in cyber security for companies, corporations and governments.
Mr. Baukes candidly talks about the work he and his company are doing in Samoa, his hopes for this nation as well as sharing some of his own business philosophies he’s learnt along his journey towards being a software mogul.
This isn’t his first time to Samoa, in fact he comes here regularly because he is part Samoan and his parents, Joe and Pulotu Baukes, currently reside at Siusega.
Mr. Baukes was born overseas but was conceived in Papa Sataua. He places his birth stamp in Savai’i and having attended Leifiifi College for a couple of years he considers himself somewhat a local.
While he spent the majority of life in Australia, the United States and the U.K, Samoa is also home for him.
He admits straight away that if the Tui cable were up and running today, he and his family would have moved to Samoa.
For now his business relationships and personal interests are what keeps the Samoan connection strong for him as he goes back and forth from the Sates to Samoa.
In the lead up to the installation of the Tui cable, Mr. Baukes had been working to make sure that the nation is cyber security ready when that time comes. Three months ago, Mr. Baukes came to Samoa and was invited to assess and advise our government around basic security hygiene.
“When I was here last time, I was fortunate enough to meet the Prime Minister and he was very interested from a cyber security perspective,” he said.
“There had been issues here and so I did a cursory assessment of everything and provided software so that the Samoan government could look at that stuff.
“There were some deficiencies naturally but luckily there are some benefits in that Samoa has a stable government, a stable economy and a growing one to some degree but they really needed to take that next step to be able to understand and ask, are they secure?
“Can they guarantee this? Because if they can’t, then ultimately and unfortunately the trust will diminish for these countries looking to invest in the Pacific Islands such as Samoa.
“So I think number one, they recognised it and number two they were fortunate enough to have the foresight to listen and respectfully agree. The great thing for me is that I was here three months ago and I showed them everything and then said, here you guys go - let me know if you need a hand.
“I’ve come back and I’ve had a cursory look at it and they have made a massive gain. So for me that was a pretty amazing thing. So the gains I’ve seen in a short span of time give me a whole heap of confidence.”
Mr. Baukes is based in Silicon Valley and from many written accounts he has been touted as the more aggressive and strategic of the two founders in his approach to business.
This explains the scope of international expansion his company has been involved in with offices from Singapore, Sydney to the U.S. His clientele portfolio is impressive and boasts the likes of NASA and the New York Exchange, so naturally people might be curious to know - Why the Pacific?
“Well number one, I am from here,” he said.
“To be honest, I don’t really see any value in a company like ours candidly trying to sell anything to Samoa. I think that we can help the country and the population generally with their skills particularly given what they are about to do.
“What I actually see is an opportunity. The plan that I’ve seen in the preliminary is of good quality and the people that I’ve meet subsequently like the Samoa Submarine Cable Company (S.S.C.C), they’ve got highly skilled people running this thing.
“So I was quite happy to see that but for me as a business man, I kind of look at it and think that there is actually a different opportunity here, an opportunity that most people who come here would see very differently so people who come here to sell … I don’t think that’s the opportunity here in the future.
“I think the opportunity is that you’ve got a population that’s English speaking, people who can speak and communicate very well and will now have the access and opportunity to actually lift the whole economy theoretically to actually compete on a global stage. “
Mr. Baukes sees a business relationship of reciprocity in the near future as he commits to pursuing further economic relationships with the Samoan government.
“The issue is that in the short term they didn’t really have all the skill sets to identify what opportunities they could participate in,” he said.
“So for me, now that I made a commitment to the government that we would open some type of capability here and more importantly invest in developing certain skill sets that we need over in the valley (its incredibly difficult for us to get particular sets of skills in the U.S and Australia) however for these particular sets of skills that we are looking for- I think that Samoa may actually have them here and if we can tap into that we can use that as a way to sell Samoan skills overseas and skip this whole concept of manufacturing and industrialisation”
Throughout long bouts of technical jargon that Mr. Baukes takes us through that would send any normal person to distraction, Mr. Baukes still has the unique ability to still be down to earth with his ironical and sarcastic sense of humour.
He insists that it is a must-have personality trait in the business world for one to stay sane.
We delve back into his formative years and ask how a “ bad boy” of Leifiifi college managed to start a multibillion-dollar company with a product in high demand by international corporations and governments alike.
“I’m somewhat rebellious,” he laughs.
“I believe it is a quality that most entrepreneurs tend to have and subsequently after meeting lots of others, it’s pretty evident in them when you meet them.
“So I think that when you get told ‘no’ and then you kind of want to understand why? I think if you get this mix of wanting to know why and then pushing the boundary a little bit then you can create something amazing.
“Now for me, personally I was an outsider of where I grew up in Australia because I was a Samoan kid effectively right in the middle of all these white people in the middle of the bush.
“I didn’t go to university, I pretty much flunked out of everything because they couldn’t teach me. So naturally you pick things up fast but then it just didn’t work because it never clicked for me and then it wasn’t until I started playing computer games and I started wanting to know how that stuff worked and then it really started taking off for me.”
Finding his happy place in computer games, in particular the game called Quake, was actually a pivotal moment for Mr. Baukes which led him into the computing and banking world.
Initially playing computer games seemed far more interesting than going to university or holding down a boring job and he found a way to win prize money to support himself financially.
Most importantly while he was playing these computer games he also developed the ability to understand computing, networks and security.
“I ended up working at IBM and from there I just grew. All of a sudden I found myself in finance and banking, I was only 27 years old and looking after these massive banks. Because I was so tall they thought I was a little bit older and they didn’t ask my background or degree or anything.”
Mr. Baukes gives us a run down of a few more things that he considers crucial to have and do in order to be wildly successful in business and life in general.
“Learn continuously,” he said.
“Critical thinking is important and having a philosophical approach to things and life. People think that philosophy is a bull***t thing but the reality is when you look at it, it actually allows you to ask the questions and really test your critical thinking in an appropriate way.
“We have amazingly intelligent people in the company and we don’t look at the pedigree of degrees, we just look for smart people who are hardworking and that want to make a difference and quite often you get a winning combination.
“Some people will look at a wall and try and find some way around it but sometimes you just have to run through the wall!”
Our interview is interrupted several times as Mr. Baukes is inundated with requests for meetings and appointments but as we wrap up, Mr. Baukes wanted to convey that he is genuinely excited that Samoa is about to take a massive leap into the digital world and he is forthright with his intentions to be apart of that transition and its upscale rather than just being an observer.
For Mr. Baukes, he understands some people’s apprehensions about being exposed to “too much technology” but he insists that Samoa must still take that risk.
“I genuinely believe this - Samoa for so long is not just the centre of the Pacific with this heartwarming and beautiful culture but I think that ultimately its about to get something that will enable them to play at the same level playing field as someone in England, or the States or Australia and have all the same access,” he said.
“The equaliser is going to be a net positive for our culture.
“Yes there are down sides of course and there are things that the government are aware of that could happen, they are actually becoming more and more aware of.
“The reality is that, technology is going to happen if it doesn’t happen now, it will happen in 10 - 20 years from now. The unfortunate thing is if it happens too late , we’ll be way too far behind to catch up and I think Samoa has a place to not only become a digital first economy in subsequent generations, more importantly it’s the right time to do it - irrespective of the downsides.”