Pete Cooper discusses Universities’ role in the ecosystem
Pete Cooper is a serial founder and mentor who has worked in a wide variety of roles in the technology startup space. He is Director of Cooper & Co, an early stage investment firm, founder of The Start Society, a grassroots industry body for Australian tech startup entrepreneurs, and has served as a mentor for many startup organisations including Muru-D, Startmate, and Founder Institute. In his conversation with Adam, he discusses his very first experience learning about building a technology product by helping his father build a pharmacy system for his dad’s business, and what he sees as gaps in the Australian startup ecosystem.
Cooper & Co: https://cooper.co/
Pete Cooper’s bio on crunchbase.com: https://www.crunchbase.com/person/pete-cooper
Pete Cooper: Hi, I’m Pete. You probably know me from the early days of the ecosystem with events like SydStart that became StartCon the big conference. But we also did a lot of other smaller things that have made a big difference, like the early days of setting up Fishburners which was one of the big incubators and a lot of state and federal and a little bit of local government lobbying to get the ecosystem being supported.
Pete Cooper: And also, yeah, early tech startups, so, ones in finance particular which have been globally successful and helping connect the financial community in Australia to the ecosystem. So we get better investment flow, like partnering with the ASX, for the pitch festivals and the pushing for superannuation funds to invest in tech startups.
Adam Spencer: When did you first start get, you were probably involved before it was really like, you know, quote unquote startup ecosystem, but what year did you first get involved?
Pete Cooper: I got an Apple 2 Computer and started programming and built a pharmacy system for my dad, which was spectacularly bad, and I think the staff actively resented the boss’s son tinkering in the middle of their workplace. Great lesson in customer user experience and customer engagement.
Pete Cooper: But there was a little community around them called the Apple Music Group. So 40 years ago? And we you know, did computer science at UTS, which was proven to be a great decision, because I think UTS has been one of the bedrock institutions for the ecosystem. Probably actually spectacularly unsuccessful in engaging because of the sort of competing nature of the different schools.
Pete Cooper: But once that sort of cross school that innovation at the intersection thing gets worked out, all of the universities have been very successful. I think Sydney Uni’s incubator program run by James Alexander was one of the best from the university’s point of view. But these days it’s probably, you know, maybe Murray Hurps at UTS and the groundwork we did with Murray and Williams before that.
Pete Cooper: So yeah I think one of the great lessons for me is that university have a role, a really important role to play, but it’s probably not as great as they realise, and they’re probably not as well structured as they realise to grab it. And that’s where the independent accelerators and you know, mentoring groups and angel investors and coworking spaces, all those other elements that have been so important.
Pete Cooper: And then once people see that, oh, actually everyone’s got something to contribute then you can focus on being the, you know, the best connected ecosystem rather than the biggest or you know, most dominant institution. So, yeah, it’s a real people game.
Adam Spencer: Can you tell me a little bit about that groundwork that you did with Marianne? What groundwork were you referring to?
Pete Cooper: We’re trying to get into the university a meaningful cultural change to grab innovation. And prior to that we set up Fishburners and I’m not gonna name names of Fishburners cause there’s just too many people that contributed to it, but let’s just say, you know, there was probably six desks and we assembled them.
Pete Cooper: I mean, in that very early days and I think I have to give a special credit to Pete Davidson. Pete, and I, you know, we both independently hit on the need for a physical space. Cause I did set up the events at the conferences and there were some other good ones around at the time just after I think Tech23, which is still going strong now. And they really started to show the universities that this was not a fad. It’s not a black art, you know, building a tech startup.
Pete Cooper: And a global enterprise, very focused on the customer it’s not a black art. It’s actually a science and it’s getting more of a science every day. There’s still, wonderful human creativity. But the rules of entrepreneurship can be learned. And great accelerators like Y Combinator and viewers and Founder Institute, which I helped to support and set up.
Pete Cooper: Big shout out to Benjamin Chong and all the other mentors. They set the groundwork that others then came along and built on like Startmate, which is, you know, world-class the most amazing Aussie accelerator. And the universities are saying, what this is our turf, you know, we should be doing this.
Pete Cooper: We, you know, we’ve got a AGSM, which is great. Well, I did a study at Oxford and Harvard and various courses and did a bit of work at UTS and I think it was a bit of a shock to the universities that they didn’t own this space anymore. And actually they had more to learn from engaging than just by trying to say, oh, it’s all ours.
Pete Cooper: And then downstream from that, you know, and I do mean downstream. It should have been upstream if there was leadership, but downstream from that, the politicians particularly federally realized probably with the exception of Malcolm Turnbull and one or two others. The importance of it as an ecosystem and a job creator. But in the early days, we were just scratching around, trying to work out what works and what doesn’t and learning from know San Francisco, London and maybe Colorado.
Adam Spencer: The impression that I got was that universities were doing, you know, trying to push this startup ecosystem forward before the private companies and private capital started coming in and setting up these accelerators, like Startmate. Were they in the quote unquote game before? Cause I was under the impression that it was Startmate happened and then universities started to follow, but it’s around the other way was it?
Pete Cooper: I think the universities were, trying to make it work in parallel to Startmate. Startmate was definitely the tipping point because it got the support of the major players. And I don’t just mean financially. I mean, reputation and you know, the Atlassian co-founders for example Mike and Scott and we we probably undervalue as a ecosystem, how many other people were doing it before the celebrity roles kicked in?
Pete Cooper: Because for example, before the words FinTech popped up, there were some spectacular, successful global financial technology companies and placed things like Saasu and Cameron Systems, you know, these are used by thousands of institutions and companies, SMEs and corporates, even Smarts Group and the insider trading detection software.
Pete Cooper: There was a small group of consultants that had productized tech called RJE that did the Hong Kong Jockey Club and then did the Australian stock exchange using basically the same tech. I worked on the control system for that. Sadly we launched the same week of the market crash in 87.
Pete Cooper: And they tried to blame the system, but fortunately that was proven wrong. So yeah, there’s really great heritage in Australia. And it was sort of like a little bit nauseas because we keep talking about innovation, like the hills hoist or the Norma or something. And fortunately we got past, that stage.
Pete Cooper: And now every parent and every, you know, high school even junior school child with even a hint of creativity or entrepreneurship, or both ideally would consider this for a career path. And so they should so it’s yeah it’s, kind of a funny historical journey. It hasn’t been led by the universities.
Pete Cooper: In the early days we were just trying to find like-minded souls to hang out with. The weird guys would be the Apple User Group, got replaced by the coffee mornings that we used to do in Clarence Street or the beers you know, once a month or so. It moved around a bit, but there was, we’re talking tiny groups, 20 people.
Pete Cooper: The first kick start was 50 people RSVP. We thought 20 would turn up and 80 turned up and the security guards were literally kicking us out at the end of the night, because for many of us, it was the first time that we’d send this many people in the ecosystem in one place. That was 2009 we’re starting to get into the, sort of the meaningful stage then, because we realized that this is a global industry and that Australia was going to have a place in it.
Pete Cooper: And it was probably at least three or four years after that, that we finally got even asked to participate in the global rankings, you know, the startup genome global rankings. And we got some of our sort of celebrities starting to kick in like, the Rasmussen Brothers, one of them was trying to bring his partner who was not you know, another great hat tip to Australia and equality and diversity.
Pete Cooper: They had trouble getting immigration visas in other countries, but Australia welcomed them with open arms. And then we ended up with the co-founders of or the co-creators I should say, of Google maps calling Australia home. And it’s like, I personally think that’s as big as, you know, arguing with New Zealand about the pavlova, you know, it’s, a formative moment in our history that ties back to our values and how we see ourselves.
Pete Cooper: I keep getting called the alternatively, the grandfather, which is not very attractive or the godfather, which is also not very attractive, but, you know, occasionally we need to be reminded of these simple things that were done by humble people that, you know, I don’t want to be in the front line and I don’t think I’ve been described as humble, but there’s a lot of people that have just quietly built great businesses, like, you know, Melanie, Cliff and Cam over at Canva that started off doing school books, you know, school yearbooks.
Pete Cooper: We, you know, we did a dental system pigmented and I was finished graduating at UTS into dental system. And now years later I was on the federal task force to stand up the Australian Digital Health Agency and all the national health records. So there is this tiny stepping stones or thin thread that connects us.
Pete Cooper: One of the characteristics of the ecosystem has been so great is it has been welcoming. And to me, it’s really demonstrated the Australian values inclusiveness and equality and, okay we lost their way a little from time to time and competed too much when we should be collaborating to hit the global markets competing against the world, not against each other.
Pete Cooper: You know, and I say we can’t be the biggest, but we can be the best connected and it was role modeled by the Aussie Mafia, a fun term used to describe the guys in the States mainly or international. And I flipped in and out of the country. So I wasn’t firmly in that group, but am certainly connected to many of them.
Pete Cooper: And it was international. It was Australian values being demonstrated. Everything from wealth creation to social impact and welcoming newcomers whether at these coffee meetings or Fishburners that now the Sydney Tech Startup Hub, and hopefully a whole district would get between Central and Redfern.
Pete Cooper: You know, all these things have been decades in the coming and it hasn’t been one person. And it’s because of the welcoming nature that people have thought, oh, I’m welcome here. And I can make a difference. That inclusivity has been just one of the most heartwarming and inspiring and motivating because when you have a bad day, you can share it with your fellow co-founders.
Pete Cooper: And when you have a great day, you can share it with your fellow co-founders. When you’ve got knowledge gaps, the peer learning is really the most valuable. And this is where the closing the loop back to the universities. Universities now realize that community-based peer learning is the most scalable, and fastest.
Pete Cooper: Whereas their curriculum model is like project management, waterfall model, you know, old school. You can’t ever keep up with an old school curriculum development model. It has to be accelerated peer learning, driven by a specialist community. There’s just too many skills moving too fast. The technology industry alone is just going too fast in too many directions.
Pete Cooper: So I think we need to be grabbing this thing by the horns at a national level. And I don’t just mean government handouts. I mean, genuine involvement at the center of the innovation for the country. Rick Richardson is a famous inventor and a good friend of mine who invented the principles of software activation and patented that way before Microsoft had a famous threat in a lawsuit, that he won eventually against Microsoft and he and I, and a bunch of other people have been collaborating on building a new office of innovation for Australia, because it is one of our most potential, really large competitive advantages and once again, social impact and wealth creation, not just one or the other.
Pete Cooper: And if we don’t do it we’re already seeing the competition from other countries gradually whittled away at it as we slipped down the rankings. But now at least we can see that it works and it’s just waiting for people to wake up to it.
Adam Spencer: You mentioned the Aussie Mafia, now I know Mick Lubinskas was one of those guys in that group, but can you mention a few other names that made up that group.
Pete Cooper: Yeah, there’s a fair few. I think the ones that have recently come to the fore are people like Niki Scevac because he formed a very good partnership with Mike Cannon-Brooks. But there’s a lot of people that have got lower profile that I think made very strategic contributions like Elias if you’ve heard of him and Bardia Housman who had built an exited.
Pete Cooper: There’s a bunch of people that weren’t ever formal members of that group that are highly connected in and around it. And maybe didn’t have the commercial chops or the business track record for raising funds or getting shipping product, but they had a spectacular impact on the community connectedness.
Pete Cooper: You know, quiet people like you know, Sean Marshall who did some of the early legwork for SydStart and they brought together these diverse groups, or helped everyone bring together these diverse groups, you know, from like gaming and institutional finance software, which is one of my large background points.
Pete Cooper: And then this new, how do we do it all faster with the customer at the center of the universe, rather than some, IT managed project manager at the center of the universe. It’s these quiet and I put Nick in the quiet category, he’s got a very high profile now, but he’s actually had a very true north, you know, on values and the community first.
Pete Cooper: One of his big driving things is equality and, climate as well. And he’s had you know, this remarkable, true north, these are role models for the country, not just for our ecosystem. And I think that’s one of the, it’s one of the great things about it.
Pete Cooper: And we’ve got high profile women that have been, you know, ignored, I think on the national stage, they’re probably getting a little bit of recognition now, but that have made a huge contribution. Jen and George and Jane Lou and Melanie Perkins from Canva before, Sam Wong from Startmate, but even before that, there was a lot of lower profile people that are probably just more coders and technical architects.
Pete Cooper: And, you know, these geeks that don’t come out of the cupboard very often, they’re much more interested in getting work done.
Adam Spencer: Do you have any unpopular opinions about where things are right now and what needs to change?
Pete Cooper: I think that probably we should be focusing on the big gaps. We’re starting to make some progress on, you know, superannuation being invested in tech startups, and you know, Australia has been, it’s been an incredible success story, but largely because of resources. Imagine if we’d put some of their superannuation into Apple, Google, Facebook, Tesla in the early days.
Pete Cooper: And we didn’t, and imagine if we put some of that money into, Atlassian, Canva, Safety Culture, you know, all the typical ones, but also the ones that, you know, that I led that we exited for just in the simple tens of millions rather than tens of billions businesses. And then spawned hundreds of those companies rather than what we’re doing now, two decades later doing hundreds of companies and potentially thousands of companies.
Pete Cooper: We really should have been on that bandwagon much earlier and measuring ourselves against the progress we’ve made rather than measuring against the programs we should have made is actually what we should be doing now.
Pete Cooper: We’ve just been thinking too small, too slow, too often. The best example I could give was the first time we spoke at New South Wales parliament house. And I was talking about the importance of open data, famously a garbage collector stormed into the conference and basically took over the stage while I and another speaker, we’re just taking questions after speaking, and he wasn’t interested in our agenda.
Pete Cooper: He was interested in grabbing a headline and but I must give my applause to the guy because at that time we were talking about open data and someone was at risk of being legally prosecuted by the state government for putting bus timetables online which is now something, every Australian accepts as normal, right? You can see how far your bus away is and how reliable it is. And some countries, they do star ratings on bus drivers and you know, real time feedback to the central control and all these things that are now accepted norms.
Pete Cooper: That person was going to be potentially jailed or fined for copying public data and Rees to his credit had the moral fortitude or good advisors enough to stand up and say, this is wrong. We shouldn’t have been prosecuting this guy. We should be apologizing to him and thanking him for creating the app and being a role model. And in response I’m going to create the app for New South Wales competition, which is, you know, I know it’s small beer money in the scheme of things, but it’s been a wonderful motive for people to innovate and often beer money’s enough to have spectacular innovation.
Adam Spencer: What are some of the biggest gaps that you see today?
Pete Cooper: Well, the lobbyist controlling the agendas of politicians and media and lobbyists controlling the agenda of politicians, media short-term, lobbyists long-term, sadly crept into our industry sort of a little bit too early and, without naming corporates names, some very big well-known names were involved in that.
Pete Cooper: So it would be very useful if we had, I believe it would be very useful if we had a truly independent national industry body. I think it would be really nice if we sat with representatives of that body at the heart of federal government advising them on future fund and advising them on where the entire population of Australia’s retirement money gets invested.
Pete Cooper: Because frankly. We know better than they do. And we’ll continue to know better than they do because we have a better way of learning this peer learning was talking about before. It doesn’t mean we’re always going to be right. It’s still risky. Investing is risky. Investing is dangerous, but you’ve got to take a balanced risk.
Pete Cooper: And at the moment we’re sort of you know, fractions of 1% going into real tech. And imagine if we’d just put, you know, 10% into Apple, 10%, which is now the biggest tech company in the world, 10% into Google, 10% into Facebook, 10% into Tesla. It would actually kick Australia up from being sort of fourth or fifth to possibly even third in the world in fund administration and the flow on effect, the wealth creation diversifying away from resources and strategic soft power influence globally from it.
Pete Cooper: So, yeah, I think that’s a big gap. Mainly I just think we should be putting more effort into it being a daily conversation. Most of the kids know that tech is central to the world, but they’re only looking at a very narrow place. And as consumers of tech, like users of Facebook or users of Reddit, users of TikTok and rather than creators. And if we don’t create we are going to be doing to consume other people’s products. Encouraging and letting people experiment and giving them beer money to attempt and experiment customer centric, global startup experiment.
Pete Cooper: And we’re talking hundreds or thousands, not tens of thousands of dollars to do that. I think it should be mandatory for every student in every discipline almost. Because the cross-disciplines innovation at the intersection is just, there’s so many demonstrated examples.
Pete Cooper: You know, if you ask, was there an intersection between tech and mental health or tech and philosophy five years ago people would say nope. But now there’s an entire category. If you asked about you know, non-government controlled finances in the crypto space, for example, or, you know, data sharing with personal control, like blockchain these are now accepted global norms and less than a decade ago, they’re unheard of.
Pete Cooper: And I think we’re just getting started, you know, there’ll be stuff in genetics, there’ll be stuff in the new wave. It’s not even new anymore AI and machine learning that we just haven’t even comprehended yet. So yeah, I think it needs to be much more mainstream and it would be great for our diversity as a country in terms of income, it would be great for our resilience.
Pete Cooper: You know, if we do end up with this sort of global conflict going on and it’s also a sort of an inspirational hope thing that it aligns with our core values of being an optimistic country and equal inclusive you know, optimistic country. Not one that’s head down ashamed and locked up in COVID.
Pete Cooper: But one that’s looking out to the world, even though we’re physically constrained, it doesn’t mean we need to be mentally or electronically constrained. And it’s such a shining light for the world, you know, if you compare us as a democracy, a stable long-term democracy with freedom of speech against large parts of the world and making the internet dark and regulated and controlled.
Pete Cooper: And the more we can use it, use this freedom and teach it because it’s not a black art anymore. The wealthy will be, but also I think we’ll be happier. If we align it with our values and get the social impact that we know we can at scale for millions of people.