Zoe Piper wants to see more non-traditional career approaches
Zoe Piper has been working at the intersection of industry, research and government for two decades, with a diverse and lengthy résumé. She is the founder of Ethitrade, Delmata and Allaran, cofounder of Ecolour, and Chair or board member of multiple organisations including Young Change Agents and Canberra Business School Advisory Board. In her conversation with Adam, Zoe discusses that despite getting feedback from some in the startup community that she should “just focus on one thing” that her diverse and many-faceted worklife is a positive in many ways, as well as advocating for “non-traditional” career trajectories.
Zoe on Twitter: https://twitter.com/zoe_piper
Adam Spencer: Hi, I’m Adam Spencer and welcome to Day One, the podcast that spotlights Australian startups, founders, and the organizations that empower Australian entrepreneurship. We go back to the beginning to tell the story of Australia’s most inspiring founders and how they built their companies. You’re listening to a special interview series as part of a documentary W2D1 is producing about the history of the Australian startup ecosystem. On the episode today we have…
Zoe Piper: Hi, I’m Zoe Piper. I’m the co-founder of Ecolour, the founder of Ethitrade, and also Allaran, my management consulting business.
Adam Spencer: Okay. That’s a few different things. When someone at a networking party, a networking event, says, “What do you do,” how do you answer that?
Zoe Piper: That’s always one of the most difficult questions for me because I do wear a few hats, and that was, I guess, just a subset of the total number. But really for me, it depends on who I’m connecting with as to what might be most relevant at the time.
Adam Spencer: You’re doing an interview right now for the Australian startup ecosystem. Which one of those hats is most relevant to what we are doing here today?
Zoe Piper: I think in terms of the startup ecosystem now it would probably be Ethitrade, but I do think Ecolour is an important component that’s 12 years into the journey there, and it’s a manufacturing business. So, often when people talk about startups, there’s this automatic association with tech, but I do think it’s important to remember that there’s a much broader range of businesses out there, including things like manufacturing, that are also doing really interesting things here in Australia.
Adam Spencer: When would you say you first got involved in this thing that we call the startup ecosystem?
Zoe Piper: So, originally I set up my consulting business in 2008, but then very quickly, a few months after that in early 2009, co-founded a paint manufacturing company. Looking back, I probably wasn’t very well-connected into the startup ecosystem at the time. I just came across an opportunity to do something in business and went for it. I would say it’s only been much more recently that I’ve really built up connections across the ecosystem. So, starting Ethitrade, which began late 2017, it was a far different journey, I would say, than Ecolour.
Adam Spencer: Back in 2009, 2008, were you even aware of this kind of ecosystem at that point?
Zoe Piper: Probably not so much. It’s a bit hard to remember exactly what I did and didn’t know that far back, but yeah, I certainly was not connected into as many things as I am now, that’s for sure.
Adam Spencer: I think David McKenna suggested your name to me. Do you know David and how do you know David?
Zoe Piper: Yeah, so he’s actually one of my interview participants for my PhD, which is another one of the hats. So I’m looking at people who concurrently work across industry, research, and government, and he was one of the people that I interviewed through that process.
Adam Spencer: Is that finished? Did you finish your PhD?
Zoe Piper: No, not yet. It’s still ongoing.
Adam Spencer: I’m just having a hard time understanding how you do all of this.
Zoe Piper: I get that question a lot. I think there’s synergies between the different elements. So, the fact that I am working and connected into professional networks makes it much easier to find relevant participants to interview for my PhD. And while tech and manufacturing are quite different in a lot of ways, there’s still learnings that you gain running any business that can be applied elsewhere, and networks and people that you meet in one sphere end up being relevant in another sphere as well.
Adam Spencer: You said in the last couple of years you’ve become aware of the startup ecosystem. What was kind of your introduction?
Zoe Piper: Probably started getting more engaged in business networks when I was working at the Australian Chamber. My focus there was on improving industry productivity across a really broad range of sectors, and so I got to, I guess, connect to a whole bunch of new organizations that I wasn’t aware of previously. And then from there, I moved on to Data 61 and took on the role of their partnerships lead, and so that involved connecting with everybody from accelerators and incubators, through startups, SMEs, corporates, government, both here and internationally. And one of the key things I took on there was building a directory of Australia’s research expertise and did that in a really collaborative fashion with over 70 partners from across industry, research, and government.
Adam Spencer: I also take a note here that you were the director of the Canberra Innovation Network.
Zoe Piper: Yes. Sorry, I should have mentioned that one, too. And CBRIN is a fantastic organization that brings together the whole innovation ecosystem here in Canberra, and I think we’re very lucky to have that here locally.
Adam Spencer: CBRIN is one of the sponsors of this series. How important do you think these types of innovation networks are to local ecosystems?
Zoe Piper: I think they play a critical role, and one of the things that CBRIN does that I really love are the first Wednesday connects. So, that’s an open invitation to anybody to turn up and network with people that they may not otherwise get the opportunity to run into. So, that attracts people from industry, research, and government, and people have the chance to do 60-second pictures on whatever they’re working on and to connect with people in the room that can help them along their journey.
Adam Spencer: So 2016, a lot of people say the ecosystem, and this is probably talking more Sydney, Brisbane, Melbourne, but I suppose I don’t know what the timeline was for Canberra. That 2012 was about when things really started to pick up and a lot more people started to notice the ecosystem and it really picking up steam. I don’t know if you agree with that timeline, the 2012 point, or if you observed it, but do you have any insight as to maybe what drove that momentum, that community cohesion around that timeline?
Zoe Piper: Yeah. Look, I mean, that aligns with my own journey, stepping out of sort of government consulting and then starting at the Australian Chamber in 2013. So, I guess that’s when I started to become a bit more aware of it. So, I don’t know whether it’s just that that’s where I was in my career or when that’s really when it’s the started to take off. CBRIN, I joined the board in 2016 and it had been going for a couple of years before that, but that, I think, was an important catalyst for really developing up the innovation ecosystem, startup ecosystem here in Canberra.
Adam Spencer: CBRIN, would that have been a reaction to what was already happening or a catalyst to really start to drive things forward?
Zoe Piper: Good question. I wasn’t involved in the establishment of CBRIN, so I don’t know would be the honest answer, but I think some of the people involved had quite a lot of foresight into what was happening and what was needed, and it was a really good collaborative effort across the different sectors here, I think.
Adam Spencer: Jumping forward to present day, what do you think some of the biggest gaps are still in the community, in the ecosystem?
Zoe Piper: I think one area for improvement is really around gender equality. So, I’m currently mentoring for the Department of Industry’s Boosting Female Founders program, which I think is a fantastic and much-needed initiative. We’ve all seen the research showing just how well female startups do, but that’s not necessarily reflected in where the capital is flowing. So, I think there’s an opportunity to do a bit better there.
Adam Spencer: If you were running the show, if you were making all the decisions, how would you help there? How would you move that needle forward?
Zoe Piper: Look, I think there’s no one single answer and there is a lot of great work happening in this space, but I think it’s about scaling up what works. So, part of what I did in my role at [CSIO] was built a directory of resources that are designed to empower female entrepreneurs, and that was an interesting exercise to see just how much is happening. But obviously there’s still more that needs to be done. And I think it’s important to focus not just directly on the issue, but what’s happening that’s behind the scenes as well. So, if you look at something like childcare, which should be a parental issue as opposed to just an issue for women, but that can have a really, really big impact on careerism and what’s possible. So, I think greater access to childcare and making that more affordable would be a huge step in the right direction.
Adam Spencer: Do you have any unpopular opinions that people just don’t seem to be on the same page as you with in terms of entrepreneurship or the ecosystem, but you just firmly believe?
Zoe Piper: Yeah. So I think for me, I do get the question a lot around how are you doing so many things, why are you doing so many things? You’d be better off to just pick one and focus on it. But that’s just not something that works for me. So I’ve pitched my company in multiple forums and this feedback is often quite common. We just want to work with founders who are 100% focused just on their business. But I actually think there’s a lot of strength in being across multiple different things. The channels that it opens up, the ability to keep making forward momentum on a range of different things. If you get stuck in one particular venture, you can move onto something else and then circle back, and often the answer will come to you.
Zoe Piper: Also, another one is around this focus on having a co-founder and having a team create businesses as opposed to what you can do as a solo founder. I’ve been reading some research recently around the outcomes actually being better when it’s a sole founder as opposed to a team. But once again, that’s something that often investors can be uncomfortable with.
Adam Spencer: Have you had any experience with ecosystems from across the world or even just ecosystems outside of Canberra?
Zoe Piper: So, I did spend a couple of years living in the U.S. I was there in 2003 and then again in 2008.
Adam Spencer: Because I wanted to ask, drawing on that perspective, what do you think makes the Australian startup ecosystem unique, if anything, and do we have any competitive advantages here?
Zoe Piper: Yeah, I think the biggest difference that I notice between Australia and the U.S. is everybody says Australians are laid back, which I didn’t really appreciate until living in the U.S., to have that contrast. And the U.S. in particular is fantastic at connections and networking, and you can bump into somebody that you’ve never met before at a coffee shop and they’ll want to introduce you to three people that can help your startup. We don’t quite have that here in Australia yet. I think it’s definitely moving a lot more in that direction, but not at the level of the U.S. And the other thing I see in the U.S. as well is more movement between the sectors. So, people spinning something out of a university, cycling back in, just more free flow of people, I think.
Adam Spencer: This can be either a question of advice that you would give yourself if you go back 10, 15 years, I don’t know, from lessons that you’ve learnt, or just advice that you would give to a brand new founder. What one piece of advice would you give them?
Zoe Piper: I think the key would be to invest in your networks. Business is all about relationships, and it’s really important to build and maintain those.
Adam Spencer: This question isn’t really a question as so much as I just want to give you a couple of minutes here to just talk about something, keeping in mind that I’m trying to put together a very comprehensive documentary about the Australian startup ecosystem and its history, and that we want people from all corners of the ecosystem to listen to this story. Founders, investors, academics, policy makers, everyone. Either pick any of those categories or all of them, but what do you think these people need to hear or know?
Zoe Piper: Yeah, look, I think I’m really interested in seeing people become more comfortable with non-traditional career approaches. So this idea of side hustles, if you want to call it that, or just being involved in multiple different engagements at the same time. So, this approach of one employee with one employer for a really long time is a bit outdated now. I think there’s real value to come from having people move more freely around the ecosystem. Many-to-many relationships, working for many different organizations at the same time, I think is going to be something that only continues into the future, and organizations getting comfortable with that and learning how to manage it better, I think, he’s going to be really critical to getting good outcomes moving forward.
Adam Spencer: I hope you enjoyed that interview. More interviews are on the way. Follow the podcast wherever you’re listening right now. Stay tuned for more interviews with many, many more amazing people from the Australian startup ecosystem. Thanks for listening and see you next time.