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Niki Scevak is optimistic about Australia’s future

Niki Scevak has a long and diverse background in the Australian startup ecosystem. From his entrepreneurial beginnings co-founding two software companies, Niki would go on to co-found Blackbird, a venture capital firm which manages over a billion dollars, and found Startmate, an accelerator that has helped 170+ startups since its inception in 2011. In his conversation with Adam he discusses what he sees as gaps in the Australian startup ecosystem, as well as the reasons for feeling optimistic about the future.

Mentioned

Blackbird: https://blackbird.vc/

Startmate: https://www.startmate.com/

Transcript

Niki Scevak: G’day, I’m Niki Scevak co-founder of Startmate and Blackbird. 

Adam Spencer: Can you give us a bit of an elevator pitch on, Blackbird? 

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Niki Scevak: Blackbird is a venture capital firm that invests right at the beginning of the most ambitious stories to come from Australia and New Zealand. And as the company succeeds we would love to invest hundreds of millions of dollars in those generational companies that truly reshape industries and problems that they’re going after.

Adam Spencer: And yeah, you’re a relationship first; kind of that’s your investing philosophy isn’t it?

Niki Scevak: Yeah the investment world is strangely oriented around them round of capital. So there’s a seed round a seed fund that invests in seed rounds. There’s a growth fund that invests in growth rounds. I guess the key for Blackbird is that we’re an investor and generational company. 

It’s really the relationship with the company, that’s the unit of our business and whether it’s investing a hundred thousand dollars or $300 million dollars, really it’s through the lens of both of those decisions are the same thing if there are about that company that you know very, very well.

Adam Spencer: This documentary that we’re producing is going to be all – try to tell as accurately as possible, the history of the startup ecosystem in Australia. And it seems to me that you have been around since pretty much day one is that fair to say?

Niki Scevak: I would say I have been around since 2009, which I think was the beginning of a second wave of startups. So certainly in the dot com boom and bust of 1999, there was a whole first wave of the industry. But I think sort of, the second generation or the current wave really began around that sort of 2009, 2010 period. 

Adam Spencer: That’s really interesting. Can you you know, you might not be able to answer this question, but what did you understand what the ecosystem looked like pre-2009, you know, the ecosystem didn’t really exist but what did it look like from your perspective?

Niki Scevak: I think what was interesting is that you had a bunch of successful companies beforehand. So Atlassian was created in 2003, there was Campaign Monitor, Halfbrick Studios, Red Bubble, Aconex. These are all companies that were already successful in 2009, 2010. And so even though you had great startups, you didn’t really have great investors or you didn’t really have great other parts of the ecosystem alongside those companies, but really the essential ingredient is successful companies. And certainly there had been many in Australia, they were disparate, they weren’t talking to each other, that sort of circle of life, the magic of Silicon Valley when someone creates a company invests and helps the next generation, that moment hadn’t happened. But you had, you know, the beginnings of really successful companies. 

Adam Spencer: Is that what kicked off the second generation of the ecosystem in Australia? That, you know, and you’ve talked about this in the past with Brad Feld’s book, Startup Communities, like that’s what the premise of that book is about, as I understand it. Do you think that happened in Australia off the back of, you know, the Atlassians and you know, others like that?

Niki Scevak: Yes, absolutely it did. I also think there was a shift from creating businesses that were the best in Australia to creating businesses that were the best in the world and had this global ambition about them. And particularly that as a catalyst, and then certainly the way communities are built from the bottom up from the founders who create successful companies, passing on their knowledge and investing their money into the next generation and helping them succeed really that’s the flywheel, as you said, Brad Feld’s Startup Communities book perfectly summarizes it, but essentially the circle of life of a successful founder, helping and investing in the next generation. 

Adam Spencer: Can you take us right back to when you first dip your toe in the water? What did it look like when you first got involved in terms of the community, size, different support structures that were out there at the time? They’d probably really non-existent, but any government support, what did, just what did the landscape look like?

Niki Scevak: Yeah my first steps into entrepreneurism came when I was at university. So I had done a course called business information technology and there was sort of, it was a scholarship course. You got paid $200 a week to do it. So that was the reason why I chose it. And in that course, there were about 40 people and it was an incredibly entrepreneurial group of people.

The course itself had nothing to do with startups or anything like that. It has to do with sort of information systems at big companies. And it wasn’t entrepreneurial at all. However, in the course because it was very competitive to get in, I think there was like 800 people who applied and 40 people who got it, you had this sort of ultra competitive group of people and included in that were, Mike and Scott from Atlassian as well as a whole host of other folks who have gone on to great success. And so in university, Mike and I were roommates at the time. And we created a, start-up called the Bookmark Box.

We’d kind of been reading at the time there were magazines like the Red Herring and the Industry Standard, these are like 300 page magazines and we go to the news agent and grab them and like devolve them in a couple of days each time. They were launched and we sort of caught this bug of the internet and created a company called the Bookmark Box.

We had an office in the Australian technology park, which is actually a home to Startmate originally. So the circle of life there as well. We were in a really small office with a bunch of other companies. Those other companies tended to be either say consumer internet and I would say held by finance people.

So MBA, might’ve done McKinsey, creating a sort of a financially driven company versus a product driven company. And I’d say that that changed from the first generation of financially driven people versus product driven people was the big difference between say the 99 generation and the 2010 generation.

It was still very much I would say an incredibly small amount of people. So even though the business news at the time was all about the dot com boom. There weren’t so many people in Australia that were creating a lot of startups, there was some activity, but it wasn’t anything compared to today’s activity.

And then certainly, you know, 2002 to 2005, that nearly completely disappeared. What small activity that there was. So I think the big change was the finance types originally got replaced by the product types in this generation.

Adam Spencer: You just mentioned, you know, first generation, the dot com, talking about the second generation product people. I think that’s what that generation can be summarized as. Do you have an opinion on what the next generation of the startup ecosystem might look like?

Niki Scevak: I don’t, I would say the more graceful upgrading is someone who is deeply technical and learning the business skill. Rather than someone with business fundamentals, learning technology or learning products. And so I think it’s sort of a much healthier foundation to have incredibly technical people involved in the founding of companies. Perhaps as technology becomes more and more accessible. 

So like if you rewound 40 years ago, you needed to, you know, almost program in binary or hex code. And you know, the programer, it was this incredibly, incredibly technical person versus today, the programming languages have come such a way that it’s accessible for anyone to learn how to code.

And it’s more logical thinking than it is, you know, memorizing, technical sort of arcane programming. And so I think since programming is becoming more and more accessible it goes to those with the most creative thought around product experiences, it goes to those who have the most creative thought around how culture is changing and how consumer and business behavior is changing. So it’s probably a more creative person in the next generation that is the founder of companies. 

Adam Spencer: So Bookmark Box exited that business in 1999, Startmate started 2010, where did the idea for Startmate come from? When did it enter your brain?

Niki Scevak: So shortly after selling the Bookmark Box to a company in New York, Mike and I both met a guy called Alan Meckler, who was the founder of Jupiter Medium and it had bought out a research and advisory firm called Jupiter Research and Mike and I we’re invited to sort of incorporate the Australian operations.

And then soon after that, I moved to New York to be with that company. And then after that started another company called Home Thinking, did that for a bunch of times. And so I had decided to move back to Australia that 2009 period. And really what struck me was all of the people that I’ve met in the bay area or the people that I’ve met in New York compared to the people I’ve met in Australia, the people in Australia were better, or, you know, at least as good as the, all of the best people I’d met in America.

And even though that was the case, people still weren’t paying attention to those people in Australia. And the people themselves didn’t have much confidence that they were at that global standard. And so it was almost this Australian kind of lost in translation movie of, they just didn’t quite have that confidence or that ambition to give something a go.

And really it was that mismatch between, you had all of the right raw ingredients of someone truly special and all you needed was a group of people to invest. But I think like even investing money is just one form of giving belief to those people to give it a shot and to take a swing. And that was really the premise of Startmate was bring together a group of people who had created technology companies and invest both money and time and belief in those raw people to, you know, take a swing at it and to give it a shot. 

Adam Spencer: Yeah, just as quick side note, love your LinkedIn about section. It’s just, it’s very short. It’s very, to the point, taking a chance on the hungry, not the proven. How long has that been your kind of philosophy or is that just specifically Blackbird’s philosophy?

Niki Scevak: It has always been my philosophy. Just if you observe success, so look at all of the world’s most successful companies from Microsoft and Facebook, where the founders didn’t even finish university or Google, they just finished university. There is sort of this misnomer that you learn business from a business textbook and you write a business plan and you need business experience.

And it somehow just doesn’t square with the reality of all of the world’s biggest companies were founded by these completely unqualified, in inverted commas, people who had never been a CEO before. They’d never hired someone before. They’d never done anything in business, really. And so it was really that insight is actually the people who go on to great success looked incredibly unimpressive in the beginning.

And at the time investors were looking for repeat founders with business experience and gray hair and all of this. We sort of have this joking phrase inside of Blackbird of safe pair of hands. As soon as someone says someone’s a safe pair of hands, it’s almost guaranteed that that person is not going to be a safe pair of hands.

So it was really to say that all of the best business people had no business experience and were completely unqualified at the beginning. But what was obvious was all of these people had a thirst for learning and you could almost observe this vertical learning curve in each of them such that even though you’re betting on them when they were unqualified all you had to do is wait a certain amount of time.

And then they would be the celebrated CEOs of Jeff Bezos and so on and so forth. So and also the outsiders, you know, bring about the change rather than the sort of boiled frogs of the insiders who have grown up in an environment and accepted things and almost resigned themselves to say that that’s the way the world works versus like, usually naivety is said in a negative way, but actually there’s an incredible positivity to naivety where that fresh thinking which is often wrong, but fresh thinking, which is sometimes right. 

And that’s actually how the world changes. That’s actually how things are done differently. And so I think always get the Atlassian story up close. And again, Mike and Scott, no business experience creating what is now one of the most valuable companies in Australia seeing both up close and from afar. I’d always sort of gravitated towards those unimportant people, in inverted commas, who actually go on and do something. 

Adam Spencer: Before we get into some meaty questions about the startup ecosystem, what was the, A, where did the name and the who come up with the name Startmate? And what’s the meaning, if there is some grand meaning or maybe not, and also Blackbird?

Niki Scevak: Yeah the name Startmate actually came from Mick Liubinskas who at the time was a founder of Pollenizer with Phil Morle. And both have gone on to greater things post-Pollenizer. The name Startmate was an analog to, you know, the Nike, just do it. It was basically sort of, just start mate.

You know, artificial barrier in your mind of starting is what is preventing you from succeeding. And just give it a shot, just go and do it. Don’t talk about it, just go and do it. So Mick was the person and they came up with Startmate as we were throwing around different names and that’s the one that stuck amongst the initial group of people.

 Blackbird comes from, there’s a couple of different explanations, and you can sort of choose your own favorite or choose your favorite interpretation. One of them is, Blackbird is the world’s fastest fighter jet. So Lockheed Martin had for years, maybe even decades, spent billions or tens of billions of dollars trying to create the world’s fastest fighter jet and had failed to do so.

And it was a humongous company with lots of the most talented people. With layers of management and so on, but they’d failed. And then there was a breakaway team, the Skunk Works team that said this is ridiculous. And a small team actually went on to create the Blackbird and I think it’s still even the the fastest plane today.

And it was really this idea that small teams can achieve something that big teams cannot. People always think of the incumbent as the best place/person to win a market or a new market to hang on and really that’s not how the world works. The world works through these sort of small upstarts with nothing to lose and everything to gain and those dynamics of success maximization.

So, first of all, if the team succeeds it’ll succeed wildly, they will be the most successful people in the world. And then equally if they make no progress you know, they will just fail miserably and the company will run out of money and they will need to go and get new jobs and so on. Versus in a in a big company it’s more this failure minimization device where if you don’t try, you won’t fail. And if you won’t fail, you won’t lose your job. It doesn’t matter if you succeed or not. Because you know, the consequences, just getting reassigned to another project or there’s no sort of if you actually did succeed, you don’t even get the credit. You don’t get the success, you don’t get the financial rewards or anything like that.

So I think this idea that small teams will always beat big teams is at the heart Blackbird. The other interpretation is so if you’ve read the book, The Black Swan, the black swan is a negative financial event. So a low probability negative financial event. And the idea, you know, black swans are from Western Australia, that these rare creatures that appear is very similar to the way that the startup world works.

Obviously they’re a low probability, positive financial events. But sort of people always miss the rare outlier and that rare outlier accounts for the majority of returns. I think, you know, in the entire dot com boom and bust, if you had invested an equal amount in every single internet company around 1999 and 1998, a single investment in Google would have paid back and generated profit more than every other loss that happened during that carnage of a boom bust cycle. 

So you could have invested in one company that would net out tens of thousands of other companies that lost everything. And really, you know, that’s the way that the startup world works is there is a single company that accounts for the vast majority of returns and Blackbird being you know, first of all, black swans being Australian and so Blackbird being a version of those, but in a positive sense, a low probability positive outcome. 

Adam Spencer: And so you spent about a year or two at Startmate before, you know, launching Blackbird, according to your LinkedIn. In those roughly two years what happened to make, or was it always the plan to launch eventually Blackbird?

Niki Scevak: No, it wasn’t and really, I think the only ambition for Startmate at the beginning was I had moved back to Australia, as I said all of these great people here that were the equal or better of the people I’ve met in the bay area in New York. 

I’d started to angel invest my own money so I wanted to begin investing in early stage startups and I’d sort of started on that path, but I didn’t have much money. Call it like $25,000 for two startups per year. That was the kind of budget I was operating on at the time. And so the idea for Startmate was to bring together a group of people so that we could invest in more startups at the same time if we ran through batches. Decision-making would get better, more rapidly companies would get more value if they were part of a cohort or a community.

And so that was the sort of initial premise for Startmate, but it was run three months of the year. During those three months, I would work two days a week on Startmate and actually I was launching another startup at the time. But very quickly I think realized that this is what I truly loved to do. So one framework for that was if you, you know, you go to a high school, you make a bunch of friends. You go to university, you make a bunch of friends. And after that, and you don’t really make a bunch of more friends.

 And Startmate was really just another wave of friends that I had made. And that was really a clue, I think to say that this is how I wanted to spend my life. And so for the two years before Blackbird and Startmate being a, almost a precursor to Blackbird, it was really that depth of relationship that I’d formed with a bunch of the people that went through Startmate, that said, you know, this is actually what I want to do with my life.

And then secondly, just from a purely business point of view, as I said, there was this paradox, there were already successful companies in Australia, but no one really paying attention to them from an investor point of view. And so from a startup idea point of view, a dramatic supply of awesome companies and a dramatic undersupply of people looking to invest in those companies.

And so really Blackbird teaming up with Rick Baker and Bill Bartee to form Blackbird, it was, you know, the biggest, best idea for a company that we all had because of how dramatically underserved the startup community in Australia was at the time. 

Adam Spencer: Mm, can you give me snapshot of what the landscape looked like in 2010? 

Niki Scevak: Yeah, there were successful companies, the version of success looks modest. I think Atlassian, you know, maybe had $50 million in revenue and they maybe had a hundred or 200 people at the time. So it was sort of, there was a bunch of series B in inverted commas, level traction startups.

There were a bunch of early stage founders. So maybe someone had raised the seed round and 10 people or between 20 and 50 people. There was also, as I said, a change in personality from the founders running those companies were all very product driven and they’re all very technical and they were all trying to be the best in the world.

You know, the Campaign Monitor was eking it out with MailChimp and so on, on the global stage Big Commerce, Atlassian, Halfbrick Studios had just enjoyed some initial success in the iPhone app store with Fruit Ninja and Aconex and Red Bubble were sort of growing very, very quickly as well.

So I would say there was a bunch of early growth stage companies. But I would say in total there was probably 30 companies or 50 companies in Australia that had any level of commercial progress. A successful community, but it was still a really, really small group of people. 

And, but all, as I said, the starting of Startmate was a bunch of coffee meetings and it wasn’t, I didn’t convince anyone. I just surfaced this belief in all of them, surfaced this agreement that, you know, they’d been thinking about something similar and it was almost like just giving them a way to say yes to that idea that was already in their head.

And I think also, there was a surfacing of belief in that they would have loved for this community and this program to exist when they had started their own companies. And so particularly amongst those founders who were the only people that I spoke to in building the initial mental community, it was almost like a one coffee, yes, meeting, because again, they’d been thinking about this already and I wasn’t convincing them or educating them in any way. 

Adam Spencer: So Startmate into Blackbird and then the last decade or so up to today, what are some of the biggest movements or positive or negative that you’ve observed happened in the ecosystem that kind of, you know, the big, broad jumps to get us up to where we are today? What’s changed over the last decade?

Niki Scevak: I would really frame it in the terms of ambition. So where in the beginning, people were focused on being the best in Australia, and now they are focused on being the best in the world. Where they were focused on exiting their companies after a couple of years, like, you know, back in 2012, all investors and all startups, all investors were telling startups and all startups had this, you know, silly idea of an exit strategy and they would have a slide in their pitch deck of when they would exit in five years. And they predict the price that they would exit at to five decimal places. And they would nominate the company that was going to acquire them at a specific point in time in the future.

And it was really this almost like sad state of like, if they did become successful, they would sell. Which is, you know, almost like saying if you would have a great marriage what’s your divorce strategy? You know, it doesn’t make sense, if something is going well to not continue that.

And so I think the big change was globally ambitious and the big change was someone doing their life’s work over a number of decades. And so the fact that Atlassian did not sell I think was a huge important turning point in the community. You know, recently as we’re sort of recording this interview Afterpay decided to sell to Square a few months ago, it was an incredible journey for that company.

But I would argue that had they waited just another decade or two, you know, again, if you just keep compounding, if you keep like it’s all down to those generational companies and staying independent. And if you give it enough time, you’ll be worth hundreds of billions of dollars or trillions of dollars and Australia will have its version of Facebook or Google and enter into that same realm of a trillion dollar company. It’s just the decision not to sell because if you’re doing something that is really successful, you’ll definitely get offers to sell for a hundred million dollars. You get offers to sell for $500 million, a billion dollars, $10 billion.

You know, the list goes on and it’s really only those founders and companies who are doing their life’s work, who almost irrationally say no to those office, because they’re very generous in the moment in time. But incredibly, you know, short-sided in the, you know, hindsight of the future. And so I think people trying to be the best in the world and then people trying to build a company over their life and a number of decades, that’s what really changed rather than, you know, trying to be the best in Australia and sell for $20 million after a couple of years. 

Adam Spencer: Yeah, you’d definitely put Canva in that category of doing their life’s work?

Niki Scevak: Yeah I think Australia so far has produced three generational companies, Atlassian, Afterpay, and Canva. I do think, you know, I’m obviously very biased. I think you know, Canva could you know, be the thoroughbred of Australian business history. It is the father of our time. It has a chance to grow into a trillion dollar plus company. 

It has the chance to be a Microsoft or Google or Facebook size company over the next couple of decades. And I think just how product driven they are, how they have built the team and the culture at Canva, how it’s still not even one decade old. I think it has a truly a special chance not to say it is preordained or it will happen, but I think it has a great chance of something truly special and something that has not been seen in Australian business history. 

Adam Spencer: Now, now that we’re kind of caught up to present day, pretty much. What do you think? Did we miss anything really important up to today?

Niki Scevak: I think the other element that really laid the groundwork was the decision by Google to open up a local engineering office. So many people might know that Google maps was invented and built in Sydney. Google acquired the company so that the team was in Sydney beforehand. But they also you know, built large parts of Google Chrome, large parts of other Google products.

They build from an engineering team in Sydney. And then also there’s a bunch of other global software companies that also started up local engineering and product offices. But I think sort of Google what was the most important catalyst that provided a lot of the early talent to Canva for example, then a whole host of other startups.

So I think that was another important moment of as well as this community of founders who had succeeded, wanting to invest and help the next generation. You also had this Google office in Sydney that had attracted an incredibly smart group of people that provided the technical talent for a whole host of startups after that. 

The other thing is that AWS completely changed the ability of a company to get started. So used to require permission to start a company. And this is what sort of tied startups to Silicon Valley. Because you needed permission to start the company because you needed to raise around a capital to buy up servers and database software, and you know, rackspace in a data center.

You needed to, you know, have $5 million to start. So the only way that someone would give you $5 million, if you built a close, personal relationship with them in Silicon Valley and so you needed to be in Silicon Valley. So the idea of Amazon and AWS, letting someone get started for $10,000, not $5 million.

That allowed people to start wherever they were in the world. So not specifically Australia, but all around the world, people could just get started with their idea or with their product. And so I think also the launch of AWS on the technical side, and then the launch of perhaps the iPhone app store on the customer acquisition side really changed the ability of a company to get built outside of Silicon valley and Australia has had its fair share of successes because of that. You know, huge change in the ability to start a company. 

Adam Spencer: From your perspective, and we’re talking modern day here, like what are some of the biggest gaps that you see still in the Australian startup ecosystem? Like what are some of the areas we could improve on the most?

Niki Scevak: I think again, this is a snapshot that I have a hundred percent belief that will get fixed and will get improved. If I rewind back, well what were all the criticisms of starting a company in 2010, for example. The criticisms where you could perhaps hire, you know, some technical people, but as soon as you wanted to build and scale a technical team you would need to build that in the bay area, not in Australia.

And as people just prove that you could build, you know, thousand person engineering teams in Sydney or Melbourne or wherever in Australia. The sort of current criticism is that we don’t have the leaders, the executive talent to help those thousand person engineering teams or, you know, a couple thousand person companies scale into that Google or Facebook or Microsoft level of company. 

And beforehand, I think what was really unique was so Atlassian in doing that mainly built that level of talent in America, in the bay area. Whereas I think Canva stubbornly or wishfully built the senior management in Australia and they’ve attracted a whole host of awesome people who have relocated their life back to Sydney, Australia from all over the world that had no connection to Australia except for the job opportunities that Canva presented them.

And so I think that was beginning to play out. However, obviously with COVID, obviously with Australia’s general attitude to travel at the present, perhaps that is more in danger of being able to, again, people internally into those senior managers, but you, you know, whenever you’re doing that, you do need some level of imported talent and imported executive leadership.

And perhaps that is probably the biggest risk area, at least currently with the way that COVID is affecting the community that, that not being present. The importing of talent presents a risk for those rapidly growing companies. 

Adam Spencer: Drawing on your experience, you know, being involved in the US kind of ecosystem, and by the way, how have you been involved in any other ecosystems around the world?

Niki Scevak: So I lived in New York for a little more than five years from 2003. So I saw the beginnings of the New York ecosystem. It was still very much the beginning, even when I left. I’d spent a bunch of time in the bay area. So I, and you know, from when I was in the US and then also ever since I started Startmate and Blackbird have always you know, been a regular visitor to the bay area outside of COVID and so they’re the main sort of sets of observations that I’ve made and obviously all of the experience in Australia.

Adam Spencer: So the two part question, what do you see as, like, what are we doing really well in Australia in terms of the startup ecosystem? And have you observed anything that makes us unique? Like a competitive advantage that we have here that maybe haven’t observed in other ecosystems?

Niki Scevak: Speaking at an ecosystem level, I always like to describe it as in the context of you know, the Olympics and Australia will win more than its fair share of gold medals in all these different variety of events and it just requires those people to show the determination and the skill and the resilience and the day in day out work to get to that Olympic standard in whatever pursuit that they choose. 

Like it’s more about the people it’s about Australia, does it have a competitive advantage in swimming? But, you know, Ariarne Titmus and it’s those personal stories that are the key and sort of culturally to support more and more of those stories I think is anyone can do anything basically. And so I think there’s no competitive advantage in the ecosystem level, but Australia is full of super talented people with, you know hopefully given the ambition to take a swing, we’ll always win more than our fair share of gold medals in whatever they choose to focus on. 

Adam Spencer: Amazing answer. I want to ask you the advice question. I ask everybody this, if a brand new founder came to you tomorrow what one thing would you tell them that would give them an, a slightly better chance of succeeding?

Niki Scevak: I think just do it. The number one thing that stops people is they overthink it. So they, they erect all of these artificial barriers in their mind. The idea isn’t quite perfect. The situation’s not quite perfect to the something else is not, it’s not quite right.

It’s just go and do it. And I think also the go and do it, is keep it very, very simple. It is only about the product. And talking to customers. So build the product, talk to customers. Those are the only two things that you should be doing. You should not be concentrating on PR you should not be talking to big partners, you should not, you know, care about the 30 under 30 list. You should not care about the, almost like this theatrical element of startups, because it’s easy to, easy to do. 

There’s no need for a business plan, like sort of at one extreme, you don’t need to fall into this sort of perfect plan fallacy. I think you just need to get started. You just need to talk to customers. And then you just need to build the product. And I think, keep it very simple, product and customers and only do those two things. And you know, what can you do today? Like, there’s nothing that should be stopping you. You should be able to, you know stop listening to this and just go and do something, go and talk to a customer right now. Don’t talk to people for advice. Talk to customers. 

Adam Spencer: So I got two more questions for you, Niki, do you have an unpopular opinion that you’ve just firmly believe is truth, but no one else seems to be on the same page with you about in terms of startups and entrepreneurship.

Niki Scevak: We talked a little bit about the hungry, not the proven, I don’t think people even now look to invest in people with no business experience, for instance. The other one is that the idea that the investor needs to be the expert or the teacher. I think that’s actually a dangerous thing where if the investor knows more than the startup about whatever problems that they’re solving, that is like a dangerous signal rather than a good signal.

And people always sort of insert their ego into it, of like I will only invest in startups that I can help. Like that the best startups need no help and the best startups will succeed anyway. And so you’re inserting this artificial handicap onto the decision to say, could you help the startup or not doesn’t matter. 

It’s your ego, it’s not whether the startup ultimately succeed or not. So I think investing in people with no business experience. Investing in things that you know, nothing about, again, all of the best investments we’ve made are where we are the student, not the teacher.

And that’s always like a good test as to if something is fresh and new and interesting. On some level, if you already know it, it’s not new. And so for something to be unique, it needs to be new. And again, you know, you’re not trying to be the expert.

Adam Spencer: So the last question, isn’t really a question it’s more of, I want to just give you a couple minutes to talk about whatever is top of mind for you, like what do you, what, what keeps you awake?

Niki Scevak: I think, you know, our future in Australia is really going to be determined by if we can create technology rather than if we can consume it. If we are only consumers of technology, if we’re using Google, we’re using Facebook and, complaining about how little tax those companies pay, that is a spiral downwards.

If we can create technology, if Australia can produce products that change the lives of people all over the world and those have the best products globally, then Australia has a chance of continuing to rise up through the rankings of the world. And I think there’s also just this network effect of ambition.

So if you do something that is incredibly ambitious it’s actually more likely to succeed than if something is, if you try to do something that is not as ambitious. People always think if you sort of half your ambition and you double your chances where my opinion is that if you half your ambition, you half your chances.

If you do something truly ambitious, it attracts all of the best people to work for you. And if all the best people work for you, all the best investors will want to invest at the best evaluations. And there’s a certain network effect to ambition such that by being ambitious, it makes the outcome more likely because all the best people want to work on ambitious things and want to make that ambition thing a reality.

And so I think culturally in Australia, to encourage great ambition, to encourage people to do their life’s work, again, not to sell the company after five years after it’s initially successful, but to let the ambitious idea compound away over their lifetime, such that you know, you get the Atlassian and you get the Canvas, you get the Westfield, which is again, another life’s work that was compounded over many decades. And I think culturally, if we think in that way of global champions of creating products, not consuming products then, you know, Australia is going to be a very successful country.

Adam Spencer: I mean, that way of thinking is that what’s part of what’s contributed to the success of Blackbird, that, that you were so ambitious from day one?

Niki Scevak: I think so, I think also it was about those outliers and not being afraid to embrace them. So again, if something succeeds, even as an investor, your first reaction is like, wow, it’s exceeded, let’s, let’s sell. Which is the wrong reaction. It should be let’s buy. And so you know, we first invested $250,000 in Canva, right at the beginning, but we’ve invested more than $270 million over Canva’s life.

We hope to invest even hundreds of millions of dollars more. And so think the sort of making the business all about the black birds, the rare outliers making it about building those relationships rather than subtracting from them if they are successful, I think that’s always sort of guided us.

And also just sharing your philosophy, publicly sharing the sort of belief that it’s okay to be ambitious. I think again, that sort of chemically reacts with the people who listen to that and decide to go and do a startup go and aim higher and so on. So I think I will view our role as hopefully re-raising people’s ambition such that again it’s sort of chemically reacts with the people that hear it, and then they go on to try something and that then goes on to inspire people, to join them and to fund them and again, this is all a network effect of progress. 

Adam Spencer: I’ve really enjoyed this interview, Niki, what’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?

Niki Scevak: I think just the opportunity to learn from people. I think people artificially constrain that to people that you meet. So one incredible thing is just the internet and its broadening of knowledge.

You can learn from all of the best people in the world. So previously you could learn from the best people in the world, through the books and libraries of history. But just the internet is sort of a hundred X that, and if you listened to podcasts, you listened to presentations and read blogs.

And there’s just like a, you can actually learn a lot from people at their best. I think, you know, I’ve been given the opportunity to meet with a lot of awesome people in Silicon Valley. And almost if I compared listening to the podcast to having coffee with them I oftentimes learn more from the podcasts because they were prepared, they were sort of had clarified their thinking.

They were you know, charismatic and sort of pithy. And I think people underestimate just how much you can learn from people now that we have the internet and just how much knowledge and you know, mentors are good for in-person sort of a one-to-one mentors are good for reflection and accountability, but just that, that first piece of the knowledge piece is just, you know, you can make anyone your mentor and I’ve learned so much from Warren Buffett or Charlie Munger, or all of, you know, Peter Thiel, all of these people that I’ve met Peter Thiel once. But haven’t met Warren Buffett I haven’t met Charlie Munger but those, those people have just been so instrumental in the way that I think about the world that again, everyone is given that opportunity now that there is the internet. So again, just having a thirst for learning combined with the internet means anyone can achieve the heights that just wasn’t possible even 20 years ago.

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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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