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Colette Grgic

Apr 24, 2022 | Podcasts, Australian Startup History, Interview Series

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Colette Grgic explains why diversity is crucial

Colette Grgic is Head of Startup Ecosystem in Australia and New Zealand at AWS (Amazon Web Service), a role which sees her leading a team that works to enable founders to start and successfully scale startups in Australia and New Zealand. Before joining AWS, Colette was Chief Innovation Officer at BlueChilli, Australia’s largest startup accelerator. In her conversation with Adam she discusses her experience of creating a startup before she even knew the term “startup”, and why she believes diversity is crucial in Australia’s startup ecosystem. 

Mentioned

AWS Activate: https://aws.amazon.com/activate/ 

BlueChilli: https://www.bluechilli.com/ 

Colette on Twitter: https://twitter.com/colettegrgic 

Transcript

Colette Grgic: Hello, I’m Colette Grigic and I head up startups for AWS. So the AWS team has a long history of supporting startups in Australia and New Zealand and right now, my role is to lead a team that looks after the ecosystem and in return. So we support early stage startups with programs like the Activate program, which provides cloud credits. It provides mentoring, workshops, upskilling, connections, and then startups grow up and they’re starting to scale. We also do support them with some go to market and making connections with capital and with customers.

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Adam Spencer: Just out of curiosity, is the Activate offering, in terms of AWS for startups, the kind of flagship, the main offering? 

Colette Grgic: Yeah, Activate is the flagship program that most of the startups would know us for, because it’s been around for so long. But we do have a number of other programs whether it’s funding programs or growth programs, like we run forums for CTOs and other executives within startups that they can learn from each other.

Colette Grgic: We provide access to mentors in different markets. We’ve got programs that will help startups if they’re trying to adopt like really advanced services like analytics and machine learning. We’ve got programs like Jumpstart that helps specialists implement those services if they don’t have all of the skills in house, or if they just need a little bit of extra capacity to get it done. So there’s a number of programs across the board that we support startups with, but Activate’s definitely the one that we’re known best for.

Adam Spencer: I’m really excited to go back in time with you with this interview, because you mentioned this on one of the, I think the Innovation Bay interview that you did. And it’s something that I find really exciting about putting this documentary together, with a little bit of effort, it fits together.

Adam Spencer: And as I mentioned before we hit record, spoke to Kim Heras yesterday and he talked a bit about PushStart. And you were the program director there for the while as well. So it’s just really interesting to see yeah, overlap. 

Adam Spencer: I think the longer that you spend in a space, the more you, I think you appreciate that it’s not just when you meet people, it’s not just the capacity that you meet them in. It’s the purpose that you meet them with. And so there’s many people over time that have, that they’ve changed roles.

Colette Grgic: They’ve gone from being a founder to an investor or being an investor to a founder or you know, stepping into public space and trying to change the system from within. But all of those, it’s like the cycle and there’s this beautiful thing where you start seeing people again and again, in different ways.

Colette Grgic: But they’re there with that same passion and the purpose for supporting startups and helping to grow that ecosystem that creates more of those startups. Because I think inherently, they believe that’s something worth doing. And I think that’s really the magical thing is when you see that over time, just, yeah, not just the re-investment, but the connections, it’s beautiful.

Adam Spencer: Can I ask why are you so passionate about Why do you do what you do? 

Colette Grgic: I think for me, you know, I’ve had really wonderful life. But when I think about the time when I accidentally fell into the startup space, it’s like when you see the world in technicolour for the first time, it’s like everything was there and everything was great. But then suddenly, once you’ve seen it for all of the potential and all of the magic and all of the creativity and the opportunity that sits there, you can never unsee it.

Colette Grgic: And I was just really fortunate to have fallen into this community where everybody was really open and welcoming and people were sharing and we were all learning together. And if you didn’t know something you could ask and you could just feel the energy and the momentum, and that’s something I’m just inherently attracted to. 

Colette Grgic: And because I think I received so much from people who shared their knowledge and their insights and their guidance and advice with me, I feel just forever indebted back to the ecosystem itself, because I think how many more people can have that aha moment. How many more entrepreneurs could then suddenly go maybe I can change the future.

Adam Spencer: I first become aware of you from your time at BlueChilli but I’ve since learned that you’ve been involved long before then, can you take us back to the very beginning?

Colette Grgic: I think probably the origin of my journey into the startup ecosystem, as a startup was, I was traveling the world with my husband, realized that there was this problem with centralized travel that just precluded people from connecting you know locals and travelers really connecting to each other.

Colette Grgic: And we said, wouldn’t it be great if there was a way that we could connect travelers and locals together to have some really unique experiences, because then they would really get the juicy bit of travel instead of just climbing up the mountain, climbing down the mountain and drinking the beer.

Colette Grgic: And we came back to Australia after about two years traveling and my husband started working on this idea and I said, hang on a second, that is my idea. And he goes you’re not doing anything with it. And I was like, game on buddy. Don’t you dare. And that’s really how it started and we started tinkering.

Colette Grgic: We, you know, we had no idea what we were doing. We, and Vinco came in one day and he said, oh babe, I just read a blog and I think what we’re doing is called a startup, and that was really the moment that I went, okay what is this startup thing? 

Colette Grgic: And I went and looked at it and it said if you’re a startup, then step one, you get technical co-founder. Step two, you apply for accelerator. Step three, you get some funding. And then step four, you’re retired on an island. And I was like, sweet. I can follow instructions. 

Colette Grgic: And so that’s really where it started and first I look for co-founders. I signed up on LinkedIn that day found somebody that we had a lot of common interests with, that we played ultimate Frisbee with and connected with him and said technically you’ve got all the capabilities, so you’re going to be our co-founder. And I still don’t know why Roger to this day had said yes, but there must’ve been something there because he joined us and he’s just, he was absolutely phenomenal and really helped us to think through the logical steps of what would it take to start the startup.

Colette Grgic: And then we applied for an accelerator. There were only, I think, only two are open for programs. It was the, I think the very first formal intake for Startmate. So, they had run one program with a couple of companies before, and then Startmate said that they’ve got this program open and we applied, almost got in, didn’t because we had no idea what we were doing truthfully.

Colette Grgic: And then, there was another program after that, PushStart, and so we applied for that as well. Almost got in didn’t quite get in and I said, okay screw it, I’ll just come and help run the program while we do the startups. And that’s really where we decided to pack up. 

Colette Grgic: We were living in Brisbane at the time, we, there was not much support for us there to the same that what we saw in Sydney. And we moved down to Sydney and started a startup and supported the PushStart program. And that was really how I met the majority of the people that I now feel so indebted to.

Adam Spencer: And so what was it, 2011 or 2010?

Colette Grgic: Yeah, it would have been 2010 that we applied. No, I think it was about 2011.

Adam Spencer: Can you recall how you discovered, what means you used to discover Startmate and PushStart? 

Colette Grgic: Yeah. 

Adam Spencer: Was it just Googling?

Colette Grgic: It was, I think I was just Googling. At the time there wasn’t really a lot of competition if you searched for Australia and accelerator. So I think we were just lucky with the timing because it was October when we realized that what we had was a startup. It was October when we met Roger and November we had to apply and December we came down and pitched. And then January we came down for the PushStart pitch. 

Colette Grgic: And by then, because the pitches were held at Fishburners, which was still in Ultimo at the time, just like the top level of the Ultimo building. We kind of got to meet a couple of people there and then I think it just, yeah, once we were in, we were stuck.

Adam Spencer: So it was, the Startmate pitch first was it, at Fishburners?

Colette Grgic: No it was Startmate at ATP, so the Startmate pitches were in the, where Cicada Innovations is now, so Australian Technology Park. So it was downstairs, there was like a big leather couch. I think there were, just a couple of people that I can’t believe that I’ve ever met, just sitting there and interviewing founders like the first, you know, the founding members of Startmate were just there actually having conversations as founders and technologists together with the aspiring CEOs and CTOs. And it was just really wonderful. 

Colette Grgic: I think at the time Niki was still sending all the emails himself. So Niki was still sending all those emails and himself and I actually found, my husband found the email, the rejection letter that Niki wrote us. And it was just really lovely.

Colette Grgic: And he wrote back to him now, 10 years later, going, I just want to say thank you because that was really such an important moment for us to go, you know, they didn’t knock us back ruthlessly. They just said, look, here’s some feedback, build on it and grow on it and stay in touch and tell us how you go down in the future. And for us, that was really what we needed. It wasn’t a no, it was a keep going and that keep going is what kept us going.

Adam Spencer: So you’d never, at that point really had anything to do with pitches, you never been to – 

Colette Grgic: Oh, no. 

Adam Spencer: Knew what it was? 

Colette Grgic: Good grief, we used a Prezi presentation. Like we were zooming from left to right on the screen and zooming in. We’re like, oh, the spectrum thing is so cool, it was atrocious. I think somebody asked us, what’s your CAC? And I was like, excuse me, did you just swear at me? 

Colette Grgic: You know, customer acquisition costs, we had no idea what that was. Somebody asked me, okay if this is sort of the business model and you’re taking top of the ticket, reverse engineer it, how many bookings do you need and therefore, how many, you know, how many hosts and how many travelers do you need and at a conversion rate of what do you need to then, how many markets do you need to cover? And I went, I have no idea what you just asked me, we’re convinced this idea is going to work. Truthfully, we’ve come a long way.

Adam Spencer: Do you remember how you felt walking into that room with all these, I suppose other startups that are pitching? 

Colette Grgic: So for the Startmate pitch, I didn’t know what to expect. We had no idea what to expect. So we got there and first I thought it was really cool that it was such an open building and it wasn’t stuffy at all. It wasn’t like a very corporate space, it was like a very, I don’t know, different space than what I’ve been used to. 

Colette Grgic: So that was my first interaction. And then everybody was just seated in this room. So there were 20, I think, 20 companies interviewing and there were about 20 or so mentors, maybe a little bit less and we were just basically getting up and moving desk by desk, just going around, meeting all the mentors.

Colette Grgic: And so my first thought, I don’t think I really had a lot of capacity for this. I was just like, I hope they don’t ask me X, Y, Z, and then of course they asked me X, Y, Z. But yeah, so I had no expectations and I think that was part of the beauty is we didn’t come in with preconceived ideas. We didn’t know what to expect, so we just rolled with it. And we were a bit like sponges. Everybody gave us some feedback and advice. We went that sounds really sensible. And I think we should go work on it in this way.

Adam Spencer: What happened next? So rejected from Startmate and from Pushstart, A, how were you feeling and what was that conversation like and who was it with to kind of go and join, Pushstart then as the program director? 

Colette Grgic: Yeah, so I think at the time we had already committed, so we were going to do this and I think when we got rejected from Startmate, we just went look, we kind of realized where the baseline was and we realized that we’re not quite there yet. And we just went, okay well, that’s where we’ve got to get to if that’s where the baseline sits and this is the type of questions we need to answer, we just started looking for those answers.

Colette Grgic: And then we followed up with the mentors who interviewed us and we said, hey, you’ve got some feedback around this. Can you tell me more? How do we solve for this? So we just reached out to everybody that we had met and said, you sound like you know how to do this, so please tell us. 

Colette Grgic: And then we, at the same time I saw Kim Heras had put out a role for a program, I think it was a program manager or program coordinator, it wasn’t a director, even. So it was a, it was just a, he needed somebody to actually come and help him run the program because it’s more work than I think people realise to actually run an accelerator and I’ve done some program management in the past and I went, this is easy, I can do this with my eyes closed while I’m doing my startup. And this gives us a good reason to also be in Sydney. 

Colette Grgic: So we basically moved to Sydney within a few weeks and got set up here. And I started working with Kim on that program. And through that, I really got to understand what adds value to a startup, really. So you know, who are the mentors? So what do they need? They need a little bit of capital at the start. They need a quite a lot of mentoring and guidance and advice, but really what they need is somebody to hold them accountable and give them kind of that clarity of the north star. 

Colette Grgic: It’s like, the more people that you have conversations with, you end up triangulating their advice. Because if you follow everybody’s advice, you’ll go around in a circle. But the real skill that I think founders are learning when they’re in an accelerator is how do you triangulate that advice and then set your north star. How do you then use those mentors around you to broaden your understanding of a topic? Whether it’s customer acquisition or whether it’s something deep in your space, like a subject matter expert who can help you really understand payments for example, and then how do you use the process on that week-by-week check-in to really help build your accountability muscle?

Colette Grgic: Because that’s one of those key things that sets startups aside, it’s like, you might be doing the wrong thing, but the faster that you learn how to do something, set the objective, execute it, learn from it. So that little cycle of learning, so set the objective, execute, debrief, learn. Then set the next one, execute, debrief, learn, the faster you’ll actually get to success because at the start, if you’re actually doing a startup, you really don’t know what success really looks like. You have a hypothesis, but you have to actually go through that execution to learn whether your hypothesis is true or not. And the faster that you can do that, the faster you get to success.

Adam Spencer: So 2012, I think we’re at Pushstart, you’re a little bit settled now in Sydney, you’re working at Pushstart. Can you give me a bit of a snapshot of what it looked like? 

Colette Grgic: I mean, so Fishburners at the time was predominantly, so there was, the, Cicada which was called, what was it called before? ATP, ATP Innovations. Yeah, so where Cicada is now. So there was that. It was Fishburners, which was at that point in Ultimo, on Harris Street. And later it was all four levels of the building.

Colette Grgic: But at the time it was the very top floor. So you had to hike up the stairs all the way to the top and then you’d walk in and there were some desks but not quite. And I think when we started working out of Fishburners, there might’ve been a hundred people. There were a hundred of us, there were were not a lot of women. I don’t know why I didn’t realize that at the time. I just actually didn’t notice it. 

Colette Grgic: But yeah, there were just, there were a whole bunch of us working upstairs and on desks. It was very unglamorous. I think later when we got some sponsorship, we painted the walls and the ceilings put some, you know, motivational quotes on the walls. Got some more desks, put up an event space downstairs. But it was very, it just felt like you were actually starting to build something. It felt like that really early stage of creation, where there were a few like-minded people who were all there together. I think it was Mike Casey was one of the directors for Fishburners that helped set it up, I think.

Colette Grgic: Pete Davidson, Peter Bradd was manning the reception at the time while working on his startup. And it just seemed like one of those roll up your sleeves, like you get it done. Everybody does what needed to be done because we’re all in it together. And I’ve never felt that sense of community before, even though it was so small and nascent, but it was just wonderful to be able to be there and to help build it up.

Adam Spencer: What was so important and still is so important about co-working spaces –

Colette Grgic: Do you know –

Adam Spencer: To grow an ecosystem? 

Colette Grgic: I think what makes co-working spaces and any sort of a hub so important for growing ecosystems is that it’s the density of people that accelerates the learning, right? So you’re there with your peers. And even though you’re all working on different businesses, you’re all learning together and there’s similar challenges you have to overcome. 

Colette Grgic: But what makes I think, you can have any sort of a hub, a university could be a hub, or an office could be a hub, but when you have, I think what makes the startup space so uniquely interesting is the openness. For people to ask for help and to say, hey, I don’t know how to do this. I think we’ve all accepted when you’re doing something new for the first time. And I think when you’re there, you’re doing something new for the first time. 

Colette Grgic: So there’s some building blocks that are already built and you don’t have to reinvent every wheel, but everybody knows that they don’t really know what they’re doing. So you have to ask and if you don’t ask you what would make it.

Colette Grgic: So I think that’s what makes it so special. For startup co-working spaces where you have that like-minded community, you’re all there. You’re all agreeing that you have a lot to learn and it’s just about, who’s going to learn fastest and then you’re all sharing. And that’s really the objective is learn as fast as you can.

Adam Spencer: What happened next? What prompted the move to BlueChilli? 

Colette Grgic: I might answer it in a different way and kind of talk a bit about what happened in the ecosystem first, because that might give some more colour to this. But I think what we saw in especially like in the early two thousands and then, especially in that time that I just happened to step into this, which was around that 2010 in Australia, is there were a couple of things that happened, right? 

Colette Grgic: There was this cambrian explosion of startups after that. And I think Startmate was a very important catalyst for that because it was bringing a model that was just starting to get proven out and getting traction in the US, the accelerator model where VCs that had traditionally had to write $10 million checks as the first check for a startup to get started was able to, you know, go a little bit earlier up the funnel and have other people assume that risk at the start for a lower amount of capital. So I think the capital is a really important part for what drove a lot of the explosion here. 

Colette Grgic: But the second thing I think really that we can point to also sits with the cloud. I do think that the ability for a startup to get started for $5,000 or $10,000 was a game changer. And that really was when I think back now, from where I’m looking at it from an AWS perspective, at least, I look back at that growth and the establishment of AWS in the startup space.

Colette Grgic: And I go suddenly, startups I would have to have set up their own servers, and will have to have a network engineer and have to understand how do you deal with infrastructure, didn’t have to do that anymore. And we saw this massive boom of startups that were, cloud-first, SAS-enabled.

Colette Grgic: Being able to deploy at a lower cost I think really spurred startups to set into that space because it opened the aperture a little bit. And when you couple that with venture capital, because in 2012, what happened is Blackbird raised their first fund and it took 22 months for them to do that. But in January of 2012, we had our first kind of, I would call it like US similar type of a venture fund that went, we are investing in tech startups. 

Colette Grgic: And that’s been a long time for Australia coming, you know, and that was really quickly followed. So Squarepeg also launched in 2012 and then we had Rampersad in 13, and then in 14, Atlassian hit their $3 billion and then we had AirTree and Reinventure came in 2014 and then we had that whole innovation economy with Malcolm Turnbull and that whole innovation agenda. And then suddenly it was a game changer. And I don’t think that people realize when you look back at 10 years, we take a lot of the things that we have now for granted. Like we look at VCs and go, oh, of course we have VCs.

Colette Grgic: Have you realized that we’re not even 10 years old? Our VCs are not even 10 years old. Like just, let that’s sink in I think we’ve come such a long way in a very short span of time, but we’ve done it with an amazing group of people that got us to where we are today and when I look at what we’ve built out in the ecosystem, I’m actually really proud. And a lot of people will stand back and go, it’s not America, or it’s not Tel Aviv, and you got actually, it’s amazing what we’ve done in 10 years.

Adam Spencer: Yes we have come a long way. We’ve done a lot of great stuff, but what do we need to do to get to the next stage? 

Colette Grgic: Look, I think there’s two things that I care very deeply about that I am, in as much capacity as I can, baking into the ecosystem. First one is how are we building an inclusive ecosystem? And it’s not for the feel goods. It’s because we have some very big problems in the world that we need to solve.

Colette Grgic: And if we keep solving them in the way that we’ve always solved them with the same type of perspectives that we’ve always solved them, we’re not really going to solve anything new. Both in terms of, like when you open that aperture and you go, who else could really help us solve problems? And where are we not looking for solutions, where we’re not looking for problems and where we’re not looking for solutions, then I think it gives us this ability to really step back and say when startups are best place to solve that solution, what is that perspective that we have in the startup ecosystem?

Colette Grgic: How broad is that really? Are we all coming our problems with the same perspectives and the same world views? And I think there’s a massive opportunity for us, not just within gender, but within many different backgrounds to start building up more diversity in our ecosystem. And we can only do that when we take an inclusive approach.

Colette Grgic: When we go, everybody is actually welcome here and everybody with their different skillsets have something to add. From that perspective, I think the thing that we could still do better, even though, you know, 2012, we were 4% female founded and I think 2017, I think it was something like 15%. And now we’re at that sort of 24, almost 25% female co-founded at least. 

Colette Grgic: And I think we have come a long way, but obviously there’s still somewhere to go before we get to parity. And then the second thing that I care deeply about is climate change. You know, I think we’re beyond the point where we actually have an option for caring about it or an option for opting in to solve it.

Colette Grgic: It’s something that is affecting us all, that is going to affect us all continuously and at a much higher degree. What kind of excites me though, is that same cambrian and explosion that we saw that was driven by VC and cloud, I think we’re going to see the same thing with climate.

Colette Grgic: We’re already starting to see it, ESG mandates in these big funds that are investing into VC are specifying environmental and sustainability and social outcomes and governmental outcomes, right? So there’s already, almost like this baked in mandate now going into VCs as to where they should be investing or where they shouldn’t be investing.

Colette Grgic: And then you’re getting, that’s getting met with this groundswell of entrepreneurs who are actually deeply caring about solving this problem and going, this is where I want to spend my life’s work. So you’ve got venture capital, that’s sitting there waiting to be deployed.

Colette Grgic: And then you’ve got founders are coming up problems trying to solve these problems. And then you’ve got technologies that are actually helping to accelerate that now. And I think within that climate space, especially I think, things like data analytics and machine learning and to some extent, maybe in the future, some AI, really speeds up our innovation and our route to market. 

Colette Grgic: And there’s never a time when that’s been more important than now to actually have that speed. So I think we’re going to see the same two things that affected that first explosion. We’re going to see the same thing in the climate space.

Adam Spencer: So jumping back on the timeline, going back to joining BlueChilli cause I think we have a mutual connection. I’m sure we have a few mutual connections, but Alan Jones I think you said he made the introduction there for BlueChilli. I think he was working there at the time, maybe as well. 

Colette Grgic: So once we shut the startup down, Alan reached out and said, hey, I’ve got this opportunity where, you know, you had a digital agency at the time, they were doing some innovation work within Smartsalary, which is now the Smartgroup, and they were trying to launch a startup within a corporate, cause it was a very I think forward-looking innovative CEO there who had set a mandate for continuously disrupting his own business. So he was trying to build this startup inside the corporate and Alan said, can you come in and actually help them do this?

Colette Grgic: Because you’ve got the skills as a founder to understand that what it’s actually going to take without turning this thing into a corporate project. And so Alan actually referred me into there and then while I was there the new agency got acquired by BlueChilli.

Colette Grgic: And you know, when, I think a little bit when I left the autogene startup inside the corporate, Alan said, do I want to come and work with him? And I said, look, you’re on the northern beaches and I’m on the eastern beaches and I’m not doing the two hour commute every day and he goes, okay, fine.

Colette Grgic: If you’re not going to join me, then you should go work at BlueChilli. And then I think it was about a month later where it was formalized and then we were actually working together in the end anyways. But yeah, Alan is really such a catalyst for, I think, I have a real appreciation and admiration for the way that Alan has built connections and connected the people to opportunities.

Colette Grgic: And it’s not opportunities that always benefit him, but it’s things that he can see will benefit the overall ecosystem. So I think he’s done that almost like quietly, there’s a bit of mastermind engineering that’s happening over there that we should poke into.

Adam Spencer: So it’s really interesting to me that back in 2010, 2011, when it was getting rejected, I should stop using that word, from Startmate and now fast forward a decade or so you’re I think – 

Colette Grgic: I’m a mentor. 

Adam Spencer: A mentor, yes. How did that happen? 

Colette Grgic: Yeah, I just think look, at the time I’ve never come across an accelerator model before, but I’m very much a program thinker. So I think as programs and for me, it made complete sense why this would be something that could add value. I could see in the Pushstart program, the value that we added during the Pushstart program to the 10 founders or the 10 startups that came through that program and just that halo effect and the flow on effect. 

Colette Grgic: Because it’s not always apparent at the start, right? So you’ve got people that are going through a program at the start and you go, maybe they’re successful with this startup, maybe not, but then fast forward, five years they make this come back and that’s when they really hit it.

Colette Grgic: But all of that value and benefit and goodwill, if you like, and that generosity then back into the ecosystem still stays attached to some of those programs that they’ve come through. So when I joined BlueChilli for me, it was meant to be a six month. I was going to cover for Catherine Ivaner who was on maternity leave and six months came and went and I went, I really liked to building up programs of work.

Colette Grgic: And so I sat down on and went, well this could be better, this could be better, fix it like this. We can make this better. And I started building up more of a program and helping founders to think step-by-step you can have a go to market strategy if you haven’t already thought about what your key messaging is. You can’t have customers that you are having conversations with if you haven’t given any thought at all as to what are you actually offering them or what your value prop is. So there’s, I just started building out this like logical flow of work that they had to get done in time.

Colette Grgic: And then in doing that, I realised that one of those critical steps is, having customers. And at the time BlueChilli was very much focused on building a lot of the tech solution. So, you know, we’d have to agree to scope beforehand and this is the project and this is what we’re actually scoping out and building which didn’t leave a lot of room for that iteration without necessarily adding a lot of cost to it. So I started thinking about ways that we can bring customers into the conversation earlier so that startups had that opportunity to do that customer development before they were committing to building a lot of things. 

Colette Grgic: And that’s really where we started working with big companies like Westpac who were doing innovation and we’re looking for, you know, new innovations and solutions for their customers, but also recognize that they couldn’t necessarily move at the speed that a startup could. And we started bringing them together through these innovation programs, where we spent a lot of time with very senior executives within Westpac understanding, what were some of the challenges that they were trying to solve. And then I would translate that into startups speak and go startups, these are some opportunities that you could be looking at solving. 

Colette Grgic: And then I sat as that translator in the middle, between the corporate that had a very precise idea of what they thought they wanted and a startup that was very willing to be adaptable and had to translate between those two and then bring them together in that program so that you could actually bring a customer at the start of the conversation and really solve for a particular use case. And what we saw was that really drove the startups into a commercialization track a lot faster than if they were just building and then hoping that somebody would buy it down the track.

Adam Spencer: This could be a good segue into your current role now, because I think that’s something that you’re really trying to achieve is bridging that gap between startups and corporates. Something that you really want to see happen, am I right?

Colette Grgic: Ultimately you can have all the capital in the world and you can have all the talent in the world and you can have all the best ideas, but you need a customer. That is one thing I’ve gotten a deep appreciation with at Amazon is it always starts with the customer. And if you can’t work backwards from the customer and what their problem is and what you’re trying to solve for them, then you have no where to go.

Colette Grgic: So, Amazon has a massive network all over the world. It’s really rich and vibrant the number of companies and industries and stages of companies that Amazon gets to work with and through and alongside. And what I’m thinking about very intentionally is what are the types of programs that we’re shaping to make that access and to make that connection between startups and those companies that are actually looking for innovative solutions that they can buy off the shelf from a startup. How are we accelerating that? Because if we can do that, then we can solve problems on both ends. And that’s the best type of outcome that we’re looking for.

Adam Spencer: What do you think this ecosystem is doing really well? What do you think sets us apart maybe from other ecosystems if anything? 

Colette Grgic: Do you know where I think sets us apart? We do actually have a very distinct culture within Australia. And I think it was because we were lucky that at that inflection point, when we got to build the ecosystem, we don’t have a 20 year or 50 year legacy that we’re driving. You know, if you think back over the 10 years where that really was a catalyst point, that was also a point of awakening in the world around a lot of social issues. 

Colette Grgic: So both those two things that I mentioned earlier around climate and inclusion, those were things that started becoming front and center stage around 2012 and 2013 and 2014. So right around that inflection point for us. And I think because there were these big issues globally that were being discussed that kind of started to get baked into our culture here.

Colette Grgic: And I think we got to be a lot more intentional and not just adopt what we saw happening overseas, but to actually be intentional and build that culture ourselves. So I do think as intangible as that is, I do think the culture is something that sets us apart.

Adam Spencer: Do you have an unpopular opinion about the ecosystem, just something that you firmly believe either good or bad that other people just can’t get on or won’t get on the same page as you about? 

Colette Grgic: Look, I think with every, let’s just call it with every initiative, right? There’s the first believers and then there are the fast followers. And I think within that fast follower group, sometimes you have people that are well-meaning and very enthusiastic.

Colette Grgic: And I think, we’ve got this notion within Amazon around keeping a really high bar on things. And I do think it is important for us to keep a high bar because when it comes to something as important as building the future, the founders that we’re shaping and the beliefs that we’re setting within them for how they can create the future, I think we need to have a really high bar for what that is, whether that is with how aspirational we are, with how high we shoot, with how critical we are of ourselves. 

Colette Grgic: I just think that it’s good have both sides of the story where we’re not all just buying into the hype and going, aren’t we such a great ecosystem. So I think it is, yeah, I think it is necessary for us to have some critical poking around at some points and going, are we actually creating good startups or are we just blowing smoke up our ass?

Adam Spencer: Okay, I want to ask you the advice question. I ask everybody this question, either what advice would you give 2010 Colette going into that startup or what advice would you give a brand new founder that came to you tomorrow?

Colette Grgic: I think the thing that still holds true is the advice that never fails is you have to start with the customer and you have to stay close to the customer. Whatever layer you put between you and the customer is going to be the hurdle that fall over. So that’s really, if you’re doing a startup. 

Colette Grgic: What I would give on a more personal level, I would say, look for new perspectives, always try and disprove your beliefs. Because if you’re trying to do that, then you’re actually looking for new information and whatever outcome you have at the end, whatever belief or insight you have at the end will be stronger if you’re constantly looking to disprove just your top soil layer of what you think an answer is or what something actually is.

Adam Spencer: Before I ask the final question that I ask everybody, is there anything that we’ve skipped over that is an important part of the history of the Australian startup ecosystem? 

Colette Grgic: I mentioned it a little bit earlier, but I do think that that 2016, when we saw Malcolm Turnbull take a stand nationally for innovation. And that was a point when we saw a lot of infrastructure get put in place, that is really now still continuing to support the ecosystem and I think that was a really important point that for us in startup world, we don’t always pay much attention to what’s happening in policy or politics.

Colette Grgic: I think quite a bit of that has changed and I’m certainly excited to see what the Tech Council of Australia, how they end up helping to shape the ecosystem and the playing field going forward. But I really do think that that was an important part because that was when we got the national innovation and science agenda that was roughly around the same time that we saw changes to ESV CLP policies and legislation that made it possible for more people to start smaller funds.

Colette Grgic: And I think that really supported a lot of founders that probably wouldn’t wouldn’t received backing off big funds at the time, or, you know, I just think it grew exponentially then the amount of investors and the amount of founders and the amount of infrastructure that we have. And I think that was a really important time and I don’t think we often credit that enough.

Adam Spencer: Last question, keeping in mind that I’m trying to make a documentary here that will as holistically as possible and as honestly as possible, tell the history of the Australian startup ecosystem. I want people from all corners of the ecosystem to listen to this story. Founders, investors, academics, policy makers. What do they need to hear? Any one of those categories or everybody, what do they need to hear from you?

Colette Grgic: I think that we need to stop solving small problems. There are so many giant, big, catastrophic problems that we need to solve in the world, whether it’s in health or in climate, or, you know, in equality, and the repercussions of, the second order problems that if we don’t solve those first order problems are in education, for example.

Colette Grgic: And I think we need to stop playing small, the time for, yet another photo app, as delightful as they are for wasting time on, I think we need to challenge ourselves to really step up and it takes courage. It takes courage for somebody to go, yes, I’m going to tackle this big problem because the stakes are so high.

Colette Grgic: But that doesn’t mean that we get a pass for not trying. And I think that’s something that there’s this ember burning inside founders, where they know they have to and they know they can. And then it’s just about shutting out the rest of the world that tell them that they can’t and just go for it. Let’s tackle some big problems and let’s make some big changes and let’s set ourselves up for the world that we want to live in.

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Credits

Production Credits

  • Andy Jones
  • Will Tjo
  • Alex Carpenter
  • Alan Jones
  • Oliver Gaywood
  • Aleshia Spencer

Special Thanks

  • Sorrel Osborne
  • Alan Jones
  • Murray Hurps
  • Maria MacNamara
  • Peter Davison
  • Pete Cooper

Music Credits

Music by Lee Rosevere

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