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The Documentary: Part 6

Documentary

PART 6_Australian Startup History_01

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52 min read

Summary

What does the future hold for the Australian startup ecosystem? After five episodes focused on the past, this episode will finally be tackling that question and look towards the future. What are our unique strengths and weaknesses as a country? What are the key challenges and opportunities we face?

From investors, to academics, to government, to corporates and finally, to entrepreneurs – we highlight a variety of perspectives, looking at the individual roles each of us can play. Regardless of what seat we occupy on the bus, there is a place for people of all backgrounds in Australia’s startup community.

Transcript

Malcolm Turnbull:

You’ve got to recognize that we’re living in a time of very rapid change. So how do we deal with that? Well, we deal with that by being agile, innovative, and take advantage of these disruptions and rapid changes so that we can stay at the front of the pack. Simple as that.

Adam Spencer:

At the beginning of episode one, we posed the question, what does the future hold for the Australian startup ecosystem? After five episodes focused on the past, this episode, we’ll finally be tackling the question and looking towards the future. We’ll be hearing from a variety of people discussing what they see as Australia’s unique weaknesses and strengths, and the key challenges and opportunities that the startup community faces today and into the future. We’ll continue our story after these messages from our sponsors.

We’ll kick things off by discussing one aspect of Australia’s culture that many guests brought up.

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Speaker 3:

Australia does tend to have some tall poppy syndrome.

Speaker 4:

Tall poppy syndrome.

Speaker 5:

Tall poppy syndrome.

Speaker 6:

Tall poppy syndrome.

Speaker 7:

Tall poppy syndrome.

Aaron Birkby:

I think it’s where all of us need to be spending more time, is as the humble cheerleaders to every other founder out there.

Adam Spencer:

Aaron Birkby is the co-founder of Tribe Global Ventures.

Aaron Birkby:

What I mean by that is we have tall poppy syndrome here in Australia. We can’t big note ourselves. It’s not part of our DNA, it’s not part of our culture. We are very different to the US in that sense. So we need to do it for each other. We need to stand up and say, “Hey, check this person out. Look at the amazing business she’s built. Look at this company.” And we need to make that relatable to the punters, to the mums and dads, to the voters.

Kate Cornick:

I think a lot of our founders are very humble people that don’t speak up.

Adam Spencer:

Kate Cornick is the CEO of LaunchVic.

Kate Cornick:

As a result, you can’t be who you can’t see. It’s that classic analogy with sports people where we put them on pedal stalls, we really know who our sporting heroes are. As a community, I don’t think we do that enough with our startup heroes. These are people who have done exceptionally well from a business perspective, but we forget that they’re also the people that are building the economy of the future. They’re the people that are supporting disruption, but it’s disruption so that Australia’s economy remains advanced. If we don’t disrupt, we will get mowed over by other economies who are innovating, and we will simply become purchases of other technology. I do think there’s a real thing about the tall poppy syndrome. We don’t profile people strongly enough in the ecosystem, and I think that is a sad thing.

Tim Fung:

Well, I’d say one of the biggest things behind building any sort of ecosystem or movement is that you’ve got to believe.

Adam Spencer:

Tim Fung is the founder of Airtasker.

Tim Fung:

You’ve got to talk a little bit ahead of where things are actually at today. If you think about Silicon Valley and San Francisco and all that, part of the reason why their hub and their ecosystem is so amazing is because they shout up from the rooftops. They keep telling us, “Smartest people in the world. Silicon Valley, this is where it’s at.” They’re making movies about it. The government talks about it. I think we need to do that in Australia. I think we tend to be a little bit more humble and like, “Oh no, no, don’t talk it up too much. Rather walk the walk than talk the talk.” I think talking the talk is kind of important, and I think that if we can convince more people from around the world that Australia’s a great ecosystem and that lots of stuff is going on here, that it’s self-fulfilling. So I think we have to start talking a little bit ahead of where we’re walking.

Alex Carpenter:

Hi, I’m Alex Carpenter. I’ve been working to encourage and support entrepreneurs in their earliest stages for the past 10 years or so, and I do that in all sorts of ways, through the Guild of Entrepreneurs and through various university engagements, as well as through high schools.

I think role modeling is a huge gap. We are getting better, we’re getting so much better in the recent couple of years. I think people like Mike Cannon-Brookes and Mel Perkins are just doing just amazing work in this space. Because kids can’t be something they can’t see, and until recently, there was no famous Australian entrepreneurs that kids saw in the newspapers. And it’s a really important point. I saw a recent study that showed the most desired job for the next generation is to be a YouTuber. That’s great, cool, but man, there’s so many bigger problems to be solving, guys. Can we tackle something slightly larger than making mass content for Google?

There’s nothing wrong with that, but yeah, man, we should be aiming bigger than that. But that’s only because they want to be what they can see, and they’re spending so much time on TikTok and YouTube, they’re like, “Man, that looks like a great job. I want to do that.” Sure, it might be a great job but, really, we’re not exposing them to enough of these role models who are ambitiously tackling the problems that we’re facing in today’s society. And so, we need to be doing a better job of that, I think, and keep doing more of that, getting into schools more and more.

Adam Spencer:

Another aspect of Australia’s culture we heard many people discuss is a relatively high level of complacency and risk aversion compared to other parts of the world.

Colin Kinner:

I think we have economic laziness.

Adam Spencer:

Colin Kinner is the founder and CEO of Startup Onramp.

Colin Kinner:

I think as a nation we have had massive success for a very long time, largely based on a resources boom. I think that has led to a pretty relaxed attitude towards building businesses and building the economy, and I think that’s been a massive disadvantage in terms of having urgency around tackling some of the things that we need to get better at.

Jodie Fox:

The biggest differences, I would say at a broad brush, between the US and Australia is probably the appetite and openness to risk, failure, and success as well.

Adam Spencer:

Jodie Fox is an entrepreneur and author who founded Shoes of Prey in 2009.

Jodie Fox:

I think that historically we’ve also had a little bit of shame and concern around testing and failing at something. But when you’re breaking ground on something that is disruptive and new, that’s just part of the process. And so, I think the attitudes and fears around that in Australia certainly could use a lot more development, discussion, and positivity.

Susan Oliver:

I also think that we are a little bit too rule-bound.

Adam Spencer:

Susan Oliver is co-founder of Scale Investors.

Susan Oliver:

I think this playing it safe will often mean that we don’t take a step outside of a procurement rule to have a look at something else. So a mixture of things. I think it’s changing in that startup sector. I think there’s some really exciting stuff happening in fintech, but I do think that the deep fundamental transformational technologies are still getting a pretty raw deal here.

Adam Spencer:

Another important aspect of Australia’s startup community is the degree to which it is a collaborative and cooperative community. This is something we heard a variety of perspectives on. Some felt that the community could be better integrated and that further collaboration should be encouraged.

Craig Swann:

A lot of people will talk collaboration a lot more than they really want to participate in it.

Adam Spencer:

Craig Swanm is the event director of SouthStart.

Craig Swann:

I think that’s just part of the culture here. There’s a very much, I think, a bit of a zero-sum mindset here where instead of growing a pie, people are more concerned about the ability to hold on to the biggest piece that they can. I think a lot of that comes to the fact that at least up until now so much of this has been based on government support. So if you’re not learning how to raise money by getting customers or finding your own investors or angels or someone to fund your business, you’re relying on grants and the government to do that, which is a zero-sum game.

Aaron Birkby:

The other thing I think that really is holding us back is all of the operators tend to suffer from having unsustainable business models. And part of the reason for that is everyone’s fighting over the same pieces, like the same crumbs on the table.

Adam Spencer:

Again, Aaron Birkby.

Aaron Birkby:

In Australia, everyone pitches for every government grant or every piece of funding that’s up. We’re all running to the same doors to get funding to do the same things. Anytime there’s a new funding bucket, we all spin up a new program to do it, and we lack the collaboration piece. David Cohen’s comment was, “You guys need to stop fighting over pieces of the pie and being the business of building pie factories.” There’s an ecosystem. I think the leadership layer should stop competing and stop annihilating each other and collaborate more. Let’s not keep reinventing the wheel. If you’re spinning up something new, before you do that, go and ask the 15 people already doing it how you can partner with them.

Adam Spencer:

However, many people we spoke to felt that our startup ecosystem was in fact far more collaborative than other areas of the nation’s economy.

Alex Carpenter:

One of the most common things I actually hear is from people that have gone down that corporate route and spent five or 10 years in corporate land or any industry…

Adam Spencer:

Again, Alex Carpenter.

Alex Carpenter:

… they come into the startup ecosystem, and they’re just so confused. They’re like, “I don’t get it, everyone’s so nice. It’s weird. Is someone going to shoot me at some point? Why is everyone so freaking nice? It’s just so unusual.” And if you’ve been indoctrinated into another corporate culture, that makes sense, this is totally makes sense. But we have to figure out how to on-ramp them to go, “Okay, you’ve got to leave your cutthroat banking business behind because, one, you’re not going to get very far because it’s hard to do this on your own, and two, we’re all here to help you. We’re wanting to encourage and support you anyway. We don’t want to steal your stuff.” So drop the attitude, be humble, and let us help you, and we genuinely will.

Lauren Capelin:

I think there is a high degree of motivation across the ecosystem for that concept of a rising tide floats all boats.

Adam Spencer:

Lauren Capelin is Startup Ecosystem Manager at AWS for Startups.

Lauren Capelin:

We do have the tall poppy syndrome as a cultural phenomenon in Australia, but I think the startup industry is one of those places where it’s the least visible because we know how somebody else’s success has this knock-on effect for the rest of us.

Colin Kinner:

Basically, every startup founder has only been successful by having the benefit of other people before them sharing their time.

Adam Spencer:

Again, Colin Kinner.

Colin Kinner:

So there is a very strong give-first mentality in the startup ecosystem in Australia. I think people have recognized that the pay it forward thing actually does work. I’ve yet to see, really, any example of a successful founder declining to give back in that way. So I think it’s an absolute given as you move up the ranks and build successful companies that there is an expectation of giving back.

Adam Spencer:

Many also felt that the Australian community was more cooperative than startup communities in other parts of the world.

Silvia Pfeiffer:

I’ve seen a lot of really competitive behavior in the US where startups might be fighting against each other. I haven’t seen any of that in Australia.

Adam Spencer:

Silvia Pfeiffer is CEO of Coviu.

Silvia Pfeiffer:

We compete, but it’s not like we actively destroy each other, whereas, I’ve seen some really aggressive behavior in the US. That doesn’t happen here.

Adam Spencer:

In previous episodes we’ve touched on the fact that while Australia is a world leader when it comes to quality of research, we are lagging behind when it comes to research commercialization.

Wyatt Roy:

If you look at the OECD, these numbers are probably slightly off, but they’re close enough, we rank about the third highest in the OECD for research and about the third lowest for commercialization.

Adam Spencer:

Wyatt Roy is the executive director of the Tech Council of Australia.

Wyatt Roy:

Culturally, for whatever reason, in Australia, there’s a lot of focus on research for the sake of research, which not to negate that as a concept, but it does hurt us when it comes to commercialization. If you said to an Australian researcher in an amazing institution, “What does success look like?” They would often say, “It’s getting my research published and it being out there around the world.” If you go to a place like MIT or Stanford or Technion in Israel and you say to a researcher, “What does success look like?” They would say, “I want my research to be turned into a product, a business, a service that changes the world for the better.” It’s a very different kind of mindset.

And then I think the way that those institutions in Australia have interacted with industry just, frankly, have a pretty bad history of it. We’re not particularly good at it. There are a number of small things that pile up to impact that, but I think wherever we can create an environment where there are the right incentives for industry and research to interact to the benefit of both, I think that there’s a lot that we can do there. So I think there’s a cultural problem and there’s just some actual hard policy problems that should be fixed.

Alfred Lo:

I think there are too many deep tech founders that optimize for grants rather than investors.

Adam Spencer:

Alfred Lo is the co-founder of Harvest B.

Alfred Lo:

We’ve always had really great academics and researchers and deep tech minds in this country. We punch well above our weight in that space. We talk about how we suffer from not being able to commercialize technology. And it’s true. But in my time in deep tech, I’ve spent over two years at Cicada Innovations. I met a lot of entrepreneurial deep tech founders, and a lot of them are optimizing for grants rather than investors. I think we really miss a trick there. It’ll take some time to change that, but you compare it to other markets around the world where deep tech is well-funded, Australia really struggles in that respect. It’s not just the founders side of things. I think there’s still a market failing in the investment side of things to fund these types of opportunities and types of businesses because it’s not well-understood.

Matt Barrie:

And then you’ve got all this intellectual property that’s been funded by the federal government in research institutions like universities, et cetera, which don’t see the light of date because academics are terrified about losing tenure and leaving to start a startup.

Adam Spencer:

Matt Barrie is Founder and CEO of Freelance Limited.

Matt Barrie:

At Stanford, all the guys that taught me had gone and build a billion-dollar business and come back. Mark Horowitz, who taught me design, did Rambus. John Hennessy did MIPS, Silicon Graphics, and so forth. So you had all your lecturers had gone and build companies, professors. In Australia, that doesn’t happen. They are paranoid about losing tenure. There’s a professor I know who’s a genius. He’s figured out how to make, effectively, ammonia just from air, which is a completely innovative process. He is terrified about giving up tenure and going and starting a business. I could help him raise the money, it’d be a billion-dollar company in no time, and revolutionize the production of things in this country, but just terrified.

Adam Spencer:

Another challenge facing our startup ecosystem is the need for people with the right skills and experience.

Trevor Folsom:

We’re all challenged by the talent war at the moment.

Adam Spencer:

Trevor Folsom is Co-Founder and Chairman of Investible.

Trevor Folsom:

And it’s not unique to us as early-stage venture businesses, but it is particularly challenging when a lot of the activities in capital cities like Sydney and Melbourne, they’re expensive cities to live. And so when you’ve got a talent war going on and a lot of employees need a cost of living, and so starting the ecosystem or having a focus around the capital cities is really challenging.

Brendan Hill:

I think one of the real challenges that we have at the moment is the war on talent.

Adam Spencer:

Brendan Hill is an angel investor and Syndicate Lead at Logan and Wayne.

Brendan Hill:

There’s obviously so much money going around, so many startups getting funded. Every single startup is hiring engineers. We have to compete against companies like the big four banks. CommBank just came out recently that they’re hiring 650 engineers, and they’re paying top dollar. A lot of early stage startups really can’t match those salaries. I have a portfolio company called Tiliter, and they’re hiring 30 engineers. Sometimes I wonder, is there 30 quality engineers in Australia to go around? There’s a real shortage of talent.

Tim Fung:

I think one of the things that is potentially not that spoken about is the zero-sum talent acquisition space.

Adam Spencer:

Again, Tim Fung.

Tim Fung:

Which is that we’re all here to help each other until it comes to the fixed zero-sum nature of talent acquisition, and that’s where there’s definitely a lot of argy-bargy going on between different companies. I think it’s actually not a bad thing at the moment because it’s actually benefiting employees and making sure that people get paid at the right levels and what they’re worth, so I think that’s a good thing. But it’s probably not a very often spoken about topic in how much infighting there is, actually, to acquire the best talent.

Adam Spencer:

While there may be a shortage of talent, this standard of Australia’s founders and their teams were undisputedly considered world class.

Wyatt Roy:

Probably the biggest thing I’m excited about is just the people.

Adam Spencer:

Again, Wyatt Roy.

Wyatt Roy:

Again, Australians love to talk ourselves down, but pound for pound, an Australian entrepreneur is as good, if not better, than any entrepreneur anywhere on the face of the planet. I mean, we are just good at this. I’m really fortunate in the different roles that I’ve had that I get to meet hundreds if not thousands of incredible Australian entrepreneurs. I think that gives me enormous hope for the future in this country. I think that they will be the things that really drive us forward.

Peter Davison:

Here’s the other thing about Australian entrepreneurs.

Adam Spencer:

Peter Davison is a serial entrepreneur and Co-Founder of Fishburners.

Peter Davison:

Because it’s so tough and it’s such a capital-scarce environment, you’ve got to be an actual entrepreneur to be successful. In other words, you’ve got to be resourceful, you’ve got to hustle, you’ve got to really seek out, sniff out where the opportunities are. Australians, because of the capital scarcity, I think you see a greater prevalence of that here. And so, that’s a great environment to get on the internet with and start sniffing around low cost, trying to make money and try to bootstrap. Don’t get co-founders and contracts and everything, just try to make something work.

Adam Spencer:

While it has improved significantly in recent years, many people believe that there are still gaps in the investment funding available for startups.

Andrea Gardiner:

The clear glaring gap that’s growing is in the seed funding stage, professional investing.

Adam Spencer:

Andrea Gardner is Founder and CEO of Jelix Ventures.

Andrea Gardiner:

There’s some good evidence in the AIC’s last report that while there’s a lot more venture capital funds under management in Australia, there’s less professional investment going in at the seed and pre-revenue stage. That’s creating a growing gap in the market. I think that there’s a very serious risk that that will undermine the pipeline for these big companies, the big venture firms, which obviously ultimately has the risk of impacting on economic growth in Australia because startups, they’re big provider of jobs and economic growth.

Cheryl Mack:

We have very few true pre-seed funds.

Adam Spencer:

Cheryl Mack is the CEO of Aussie Angels.

Cheryl Mack:

The VC funds all might disagree with me on that one, but we have very few true pre-seed VC funds. I think the angel investment space hasn’t matured enough yet to provide enough funding to the ecosystem for what it needs. And so, we’re seeing a lot of companies that are struggling to build that momentum in order to reach the point where they are justifiably investible from a VC point of view, and I think that’s hurting us.

Melissa Widner:

One thing, there’s still a lot of room to get more superannuation funds investing in this asset class.

Adam Spencer:

Again, Melissa Widner.

Melissa Widner:

We know that this pool of capital is what? Three trillion plus now. What if we could just get 1% into this asset class? There’s still big room for growth. I would like to see some, not mandates, but some real incentives for superannuation funds to invest into this asset class.

Nicole O’Brien:

Look, I think certainly the risk appetite within the investment community is probably not as high as it is in Silicon Valley.

Adam Spencer:

Nicole O’Brien is the former CEO of Fishburners.

Nicole O’Brien:

But look, having said that, there’s a lot of investment money out there, and we’ve seen a huge growth in superannuation funds. I think there’s definitely a much stronger appetite now for putting some of that money in risky ventures and also in ventures that are really creating those innovations and those new ideas and products and services that we need to drive our economy.

Adam Spencer:

The final area of challenge and opportunity we’ll be looking at is one we’ve discussed throughout this series, the need for greater diversity and inclusion.

Leslie Delaforce:

Hi, I’m Les Delaforce. I’m a Gumbaynggirr man from the mid-north coast in New South Wales originally. I’m the Indigenous Entrepreneurship Director at Minderoo Foundation Generation One, and been involved in the startup ecosystem for the last six to eight years. So from raising capital with startups to scaling, exiting, and everything in between. In Minderoo Foundation Gen One, we launched a report earlier this year, and we went out to hundreds of aboriginal entrepreneurs across the country. We had focus groups across the country. We commissioned a report into indigenous entrepreneurship.

Interestingly, what came out of that was the lack of networks or the access to networks, access to capital, financial literacy, and lack of intergenerational wealth. For example, for a lot of aboriginal people that have come from nothing, growing up in Kempsey, you didn’t necessarily have much. But once you’ve got a job, you’d hold onto it because you don’t know what’s going to happen next in that lack of intergenerational wealth. To take a risk and throw it all in for a startup, for a lot of aboriginal people, is very unlikely. There’s a number of barriers, and certainly that’s what I experienced, especially looking around and going, “I’m raising capital with all these VCs, I’ve never done this before back in the day, but who can I talk to?” One other aboriginal person has raised venture capital and couldn’t find anyone. We didn’t realize at the time we were of the first indigenous startups to raise venture capital. And then it’s imparting our knowledge onto the next generation.

There’s a lot of different programs out there supporting agile entrepreneurs how to become investor-ready or ready to invest in. Some amazing groups are there, so from the likes of Indigitech over in Sydney, the co-working spaces that are shifting into New Guinea. You’ve got the Wirra Hub over here in [inaudible]. You’ve got the Yarpa Hub, New South Wales Indigenous Chamber of Commerce. Also, [inaudible] are doing an amazing job. Then at the university sector you’ve got a number of programs. RMIT have Nigami, Melbourne Business School have MURRA masterclass. I was an alumni of the MURRA masterclass. But it’s being driven predominantly by this grassroots approach for indigenous entrepreneurship.

Chad Renando:

What Les is doing with what I expect may be when a world first as a national program to attract not just indigenous entrepreneurs but indigenous investors.

Adam Spencer:

Chad Renando, who’s the founder of Global Entrepreneurship Network Australia.

Chad Renando:

Because if you walk the logic through for what we typically try and do of indigenous entrepreneurs, if that investment is still the establishment, then the value from the indigenous entrepreneurs goes back out to the establishment and intentionally to the white fellow and to traditional funding. And so, we’re still yet another extractive industry of the innovation ecosystem. And so, by then creating investment within the indigenous community, we’re keeping that funds in there for them to reinvest an indigenous perspective. I see a lot of value in that as well.

Cheryl Mack:

The other gap that I see, and we’re similar to other countries, western countries all over the world, is the gender gap.

Adam Spencer:

Again, Cheryl Mack.

Cheryl Mack:

We simply do not have enough female founders. One of the reasons, a number of reasons, but I think a large reason is because we don’t have enough female funders. Women who are writing the checks, women who are sitting around the IC table, that’s changing a bit, and some players like AirTree and Blackbird have absolutely taken steps towards doing that, which is great, but it’s just simply not enough.

We’re kind of in this cycle where most of the founders tend to be skewed towards male. And when you go to raise, who do you go to? You go to your friends. Naturally, you can’t blame them, of course they’re going to go ask their friends who tend to be male. And then of course when they go to raise that next round, those male early investors tend to also have male friends who then tend to get introduced to the founder. And then you are pushing them along to the next stage where there tends to be more men around the IC table and then they’re more likely to get funded because they’ve already got good backers. And then of course, the company exits, ideally, and everyone gets rich. The whole process starts all over again because then you’ve got the next generation of founders who were able to make money on the deal that they invested in earlier.

I’ve generalized. There’s a huge generalization there, but there is a cycle, and we do need to break it. There’s a couple of things I think we need to do there. But in general, we’re just simply not doing enough with the gender gap.

Megan Sebben:

Hello, my name’s Dr. Megan Sebben. I’m the Program Manager for CSIRO’S Kick-Start Program. I know there’s a lot of attention, I guess, being paid to this. There’s initiatives to try and increase the participation of women and minority groups in STEM. I think these are all really good things, but from a personal perspective, I think a lot of this starts way before we get into a school. It starts way before we get into a university or a job environment. This is culture and conversations that we have in the house. Small children already identify a scientist, for example, as being an older male figure. We can impact this, I think, really early on in just the conversations we have, the environments we create in our homes and our communities.

I’ve regularly told a story about a toy Barbie doll I had as a child who made comments about, “Maths is too hard, let’s go shopping.” I’m playing with this Barbie doll well until before I’ve started school, so there’s this subliminal messaging there from a very early age. Turns out I quite like maths and I hate shopping, so it didn’t get me in the end. But I think that we can do more. But I think it’s a very grassroots, acknowledging that we have a lot to learn.

Annie Parker:

There isn’t one silver bullet. It’s a series of small little incremental changes that needs to happen all at once in beautiful orchestration.

Adam Spencer:

Annie Parker is Executive Director at Tech Central at the Greater Cities Commission.

Annie Parker:

We do need to see access to childcare. Yeah, perhaps if I was building a big old startup accelerator program now, I’d be looking at whether or not we could build in childcare or could we give discount vouchers. So similar to how a lot of places give discount vouchers to the gym, why not include childcare in there? I would look at perhaps having flexible hours around whether or not we would do, say, Monday to Wednesday, and then Thursdays and Fridays could be hybrid and you could dial in. You’re just giving that flexibility so that it makes it easier for people who do have greater demands on their time, whether it’s childcare, or the other thing that women end up typically taking as well, is carer duties. There’s that side of things. And then I think it’s also about celebrating and making those case studies of other women or other people from underrepresented communities and giving them that limelight to help them share their story so that other people who can resonate with that story and go, “This person looks like me. I can do it too.” We need relatable heroes.

Adam Spencer:

While, undoubtedly, further work is needed, important work has been done to increase diversity within Australia’s startup ecosystem in recent years. Generally, the people we spoke to felt that progress is being made.

Yolanda Redrup:

I’ve done a bit of work over the last number of years in tracking the diversity of the ecosystem.

Adam Spencer:

Yolanda Redrup is a senior journalist with the Australian Financial Review.

Yolanda Redrup:

It’s been great to see that there are a lot more women in investing roles within VC now, which is good. Certainly nowhere near equal 50/50, but people like Sam Wong and Michelle Deaker and Jackie and Melissa Widner and Sarah Nolan and Kim Jackson. There’s some great women who are creating pathways, I guess, that others can follow in their footsteps into the ecosystem.

Kate Cornick:

Very early on, there was this propensity to be a bit of the bro culture that you’ve seen in Silicon Valley and other places. It was almost like we were replicating that.

Adam Spencer:

Again, Kate Cornick.

Kate Cornick:

I think that’s changed over time. I think on the country now, you go to events and certainly everyone we work with in Victoria is so mindful of multiculturalism. When we could go to events before COVID, rarely would it be beer and pizza, it was often cheese and wine and beautiful nibbles from all over the world. People really thought hard around all aspects of their program in the context of diversity and inclusion and making sure that the doors swung wide open and no one felt uncomfortable, whether it was attending a event or a program or whatever it might be.

Adam Spencer:

So far this episode, we’ve explored the challenges and opportunities which face us as a community moving forward. Now we will delve deeper into the different roles that each of us can play.

Alex Carpenter:

I’m a huge fan of everyone doing their thing.

Adam Spencer:

Again, Alex Carpenter.

Alex Carpenter:

It infuriates me so much when the government tries to do something that the university should be doing and the university tries to do something that the fund should be doing and the schools try to do something that the government should be doing. It’s like, “Guys, we need everyone playing at their absolute optimal point in order to make this really move.”

And so, we’ve got to be more collaborative and do more partnerships. Like in basketball analogy, it’s like the defender trying to shoot all of the goals. And you’re like, “Guys, have trust and faith in your other teammates because they’re better at that stuff than you are. That’s why they’re doing it. So if you are the defender, just be really freaking good at that role and stay out of everyone else’s role.” If everyone has that attitude of, “I know what I’m good at, and I’m just going to stay here.” We all get pulled into the most illustrious-looking thing, but that does a disservice to the whole ecosystem. We need to figure out where our lane is and then just get really freaking good at that and just keep doing it.

Adam Spencer:

For the remainder of this episode, we’ll be focusing on some of the key roles within the ecosystem, investors, educators, government, corporates, and the entrepreneurs themselves. We’ll be hearing people’s perspectives on what each of these stakeholders should be prioritizing, pitfalls they should avoid, and how we can each best contribute to the growth of the ecosystem. Firstly, we’ll look at investors and VCs.

Cheryl Mack:

I personally feel that the funding environment in Australia is entirely too slow.

Adam Spencer:

Again, Cheryl Mack.

Cheryl Mack:

You look at what’s happening in Silicon Valley and UK and just the speed of deals that get done, you simply don’t have time to ponder what could go wrong. All you could think about is what can go right. And the speed of money that gets deployed allows a lot of really, really interesting things to get funded and to build up an ecosystem where people are thinking about what can go right rather than what can go wrong, and focusing on the founders and how to pick and find the right founders rather than all of the potential issues in their business model.

Andrew Nunn:

I think you need to bring the community along.

Adam Spencer:

Andrew Nunn is the current South Australian Chief Entrepreneur.

Andrew Nunn:

Funds that spread the risk over startups, and so I can invest in a fund that’s spread over a number of startups, because not every startup’s going to scale and be a unicorn, obviously, and so the ability to spread over a range I think is really important. And so, we’re having discussions here about startup funds and how do we make funding available or investible funds available for mom and dad investors to get involved and be part of the ecosystem.

Niki Scevak:

The idea that the investor needs to be the expert or the teacher…

Adam Spencer:

Niki Scevak is the co-founder of Startmate and Blackbird.

Niki Scevak:

… I think that’s actually a dangerous thing where if the investor knows more than the startup about whatever problem that they’re solving, that is a dangerous signal rather than a good signal. People always insert their ego into it of like, “I will only invest in startups that I can help.” 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 will ultimately succeed or not. So I think investing in people with no business experience, investing in things that nothing about, again, all of the best investments we’ve made are where we are the student, not the teacher, that’s always a good test if something is fresh and new and interesting. On some level, if you already know, it’s not new. And so, for something to be unique, it needs to be new. Again, you’re not trying to be the expert.

Adam Spencer:

Next, we’ll be looking at the role of educators.

Phil Hayes-St Clair:

There’s a huge role to be played at universities…

Adam Spencer:

Phil Hayes-St Clair is Co-Founder and CEO of Drop Bio Health.

Phil Hayes-St Clair:

… particularly in undergraduate courses and in TAFE and in other vocations to help people understand what it means to create a product or a service that people love, to be able to sell well, to build relationships and create as opposed to going to study a vocation. So obviously, you need to know skills, you need to know what it is you’re going to go and sell, but if you asked any doctor who is going through med school, “How will you run your practice?” you’ll be greeted with a complete blank look on their face. They’re not taught what it means to do business in medicine, even though medicine is a massive business and an industry in itself. Ironically, you could go and ask an accounting and commerce student, “So what will you do to start running an accounting firm or to make the economics of a big four company work?” they won’t know, they’ll just know how to read a balance sheet. So all of these, the ability to make this skillset known across every vocation is super, super important. There’s a massive opportunity for that.

Allan O’Connor:

I think the role of the universities, there’s a couple of roles they play.

Adam Spencer:

Allan O’Connor is Associate Professor of Enterprise Dynamics at the University of South Australia.

Allan O’Connor:

There is a straight education side of things. It’s not only a business degree, it is any degree within inside the university, because entrepreneurship can start from any discipline, it’s not just a business discipline. I think the role of the universities in that sense is to make people aware as they’re progressing through, say, if they’re doing engineering or medical science or whatever it is, to make them aware that there is a pathway for entrepreneurship and that entrepreneurship is a positive contributor to the development of our communities.

There’s also the opportunity to provide those safe places through which people can grow or grow their entrepreneurial ventures. Universities often have incubators, accelerators, or those types of programs sitting within them. Once you’re in these, you are certainly learning at the same time. But it isn’t necessarily a degree qualification that you’re getting, it’s a different real life learning that you’re getting. But it also gives you a safe and low cost environment to try some things, be supported, and actually graduate, if you like, into a growth venture from a university. So it’s a stepping stone role as well. I think universities can actually play a role in getting people started and reducing the risks so they can take those first steps.

Adam Spencer:

We’ll continue our story after these messages from our sponsors.

Next, we’ll be talking about the role government plays in Australia’s startup ecosystem. There are some that feel that government’s role is limited, such as Evan Thornley, who has experiences both a founder and a member of Parliament.

Speaker 37:

I would say, broadly speaking, that government is spectacularly irrelevant to 99% of this stuff, and that we would all profit by wasting less breath on debating what governments ought to do to make us into an innovative economy. Look, I thought some of the policy settings in the Turnbull agenda were good, and hopefully they’ve made differences at the margins. And again, the last thing I want to do is criticize the good people who are working hard to try and make sure government policy is as good as it can be. That’s important work and it’s great that people are willing to put that effort in and then make those changes. I’m just saying, if you calibrate that as one of the levers of change for our ecosystem, I wouldn’t calibrate it very highly.

Sarah Pearson:

We don’t need to wait for the politics to catch up.

Adam Spencer:

Again, Sarah Pearson.

Sarah Pearson:

I mean, it’s really helpful if you have got a government that works for you, and I’ve seen the impact of that in the Indo-Pacific. For instance, Vietnam, it’s phenomenal what’s happening over there because the government’s got so much support. But still, I think something we forgot about in Australia is that it’s actually not about government. I mean, government absolutely has a part to play, but there only just one part of the puzzle.

Alfred Lo:

I think it’s a misnomer to say that governments shouldn’t get involved.

Adam Spencer:

Again, Alfred Lo.

Alfred Lo:

You look at the founding of tech mecca, the Silicon Valley, there was a lot of government involved in the formation of that sector 50 odd years ago. You look at Israel and their startup nation, if it wasn’t for government policy and their intervention, it wouldn’t be what it is today. I think government needs to try things but also needs to stop doing things that don’t work. If you’re going to adopt a mentality like what [inaudible] do, make decisions, try things, find out if they experiments, if they fail, stop it. Try something else. If it works, great, keep on doing it. I think governments and the bureaucracy find it hard to work on that cadence, to be able to admit that something’s wrong but also to change policy quickly. I think that’s part of why there’s always friction, because startups move so fast, therefore, the community moves so quickly.

And you can say that about the Australian industry, it’s unrecognizable from what it was in 2011 to what it is in 2021 compared to any other sector. You talk about mining, banking, telco, they’re all pretty much the same industries, but ours are so unrecognizable. You need to move quickly to keep up with it. I think government will always lag, and that’s part of the challenge, how can they help more?

Adam Spencer:

How can government help more? To try and answer that question, let’s break the question down into a number of areas, starting with funding startup infrastructure and a wide variety of startup support programs.

Leslie Delaforce:

Government plays a role as an enabler.

Adam Spencer:

Again, Leslie Delaforce.

Leslie Delaforce:

If you look at the funding, New South Wales state government’s provided the Sydney Startup Hub, or Victoria, the state government has provided LaunchVic, is massive. That could create significant change. We’re seeing some incredible progress and programs and projects and outcomes in Victoria and obviously in New South Wales. Particularly in WA, we’ve certainly seen a lot more support. And at Startup WA, thanks to the state government, we’re running a number of programs for aboriginal founders, female founders, and indigenous founders as well, and trying to keep this talent here and grow that ecosystem. But it should be an enabler but not getting in the way of innovation. Having worked in the public sector and worked for government for eight years, I can certainly see how government can stifle innovation, and innovation certainly happens outside of government, without a doubt.

Wayne Gerard:

There’s definitely a role for government at a federal level, and there’s definitely a role for government at a state level.

Adam Spencer:

Wayne Gerard is co-founder and CEO of RedEye, and is the current Chief Entrepreneur of Queensland.

Wayne Gerard:

Every state’s different, obviously. There’s some great examples of where the states are investing. In fact, every state in Australia has invested in and continues to invest in building their locally innovation ecosystems. In a state like Queensland, where we are so large and so geographically dispersed, there’s a really important role for government to play in ensuring that regional Queensland has the same kind of opportunities as the southeast corner does or the major metropolitan areas do. And so, investing in infrastructure, whether that’s broadband infrastructure or co-working spaces, there is definitely opportunities for government to play a role.

Nicole O’Brien:

The ecosystem needs to be supported, needs to be nurtured, and needs to be invested in.

Adam Spencer:

Again, Nicole O’Brien,

Nicole O’Brien:

Most entrepreneurs, unless they’re serial entrepreneurs and have exited out of successful companies, are bootstrapping. And so, in those initial early stages, they need as much support as they can possibly get, whether if that’s through access to incubation space and resources and all those things that the incubators and the accelerators provide, or whether it’s access to grants and funding to help them bankroll those ideas and getting them off the ground. The role of government is really critical in fostering that and really contributing to the ecosystem because it takes a whole community of players to really raise a successful startup, and that’s from the VCs through to the incubators, the accelerators, the talent, and the funding that’s available to support that.

Adam Spencer:

As well as providing support through funding and support infrastructure, governments at the local, state and federal levels can help grow the startup sector by purchasing products and services from Australian startups.

Wayne Gerard:

There’s a bit of a saying, and the saying is, “Customers not grants.”

Adam Spencer:

Again, Wayne Gerard.

Wayne Gerard:

In order for a startup to truly get traction and become successful, it needs customers. Customers create revenue, customers create that pressure and environment where the startup has to grow and implement appropriate systems and processes and really learn how to manage customers. And so, our startups need more customers. It’s ideal if we can get government, which is really the largest procurer, purchaser of anything in Australia, if we can get them to be consciously wanting to become customers of local startups, then really what they’re doing is helping those local startups to get product market fit, get references and case studies, get testimonials, and that gives them the ability to then scale both nationally and internationally.

Moira Were:

One of the best levers I think government’s got, and this is at all levels, local, state, and federal, is their procurement policy.

Adam Spencer:

Moira Were is a startup founder and mentor with decades of experience and is founder of the Hen House Co-Op.

Moira Were:

If you want to procure things, make sure you put in your procurement policies some attention, minimum amount. 10 or 20% of procurement needs to go to social enterprises. I mean, our state here in South Australia, the Department of Transport have really done that beautifully. They’ve started to look at how they can build into all of their contracts a portion of that for social enterprises, and that’s fantastic. I’d like to see more and more of that. So procurement is one lever.

Adam Spencer:

Former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull believes government has an important role to play by investing in research.

Malcolm Turnbull:

I think where the government should be putting more money is in pure research. I do think we need to spend more on pure science, deep science if you like, and that’s obviously mostly done by university, CSIRO, and so forth. I think we need to spend more there, but clearly, you’ve got to make sure you’re getting the first class output for the investment.

Adam Spencer:

On top of everything we’ve already discussed, there are a variety of other ways government can incentivize innovation.

Rachael Neumann:

Right now, investors need to be sophisticated as a definition, which means they need to have assets over two million or income of 250,000 per annum. I understand why that policy is in place, but I think it’s the wrong hurdle.

Adam Spencer:

Again, Rachael Neumann.

Rachael Neumann:

There’s discussion right now of them actually increasing the bar for sophisticated investor, so increasing the means test, and that’s just the wrong direction we’re going. We need to get more and more people to smartly and safely, but we need them to participate as early stage investors in Australia. We’re only investing about $3 per capita in early stage companies versus the US is putting about $25 per capita. We just have this huge funding gap. If we know this, and we need more and more people to become investors, we should make it easier and not harder. We should allow people to educate their way into the asset class rather than having to have a certain amount of money. Having money doesn’t mean that you know what you’re doing. I just hope that we make some small policy changes that are in pursuit of what we’re trying to achieve, which is mobilizing more capital and more interest and more energy into the sector.

Moira Were:

Also, creating the culture is another one…

Adam Spencer:

Again, Moira Were.

Moira Were:

… so that we begin to support and talk about and make visible those people who are those kind of leaders. Again, a South Australian example of that is we have the Office of the Chief Entrepreneur here, and there’s an advisory body, the Entrepreneurship Advisory Board, and I’m a member of that. That gives me an opportunity to make visible social entrepreneurs and impact investors and impact investment and drawing attention to those things. So that’s a really simple way to start to build some of the cultural infrastructure. And then supporting big movements and national festivals so that you can showcase these things and people get to see, “Oh, I can do that.” or “I can support that.” Just again with the South Australian example, Southstart, which is an incredible national event that we host annually.

Adam Spencer:

Before we move on from discussing the role of government, there’s one last factor we’d like to highlight: the need for consistent support.

Darryl Lyons:

I think one of the problems, I guess, we have with short election cycles is we get a bit of stop-start, and that’s problematic especially in regional areas to just keep momentum going.

Adam Spencer:

Darryl Lyons is the Indigenous Entrepreneur in Residence at James Cook University and co-founder at Escavox.

Darryl Lyons:

In our Escavox journey, we were lucky enough to be a recipient of this accelerating commercialization grant, but when that goes into election cycles, when they announce caretaker and whenever it is in the next month or two, that whole area of grants will be going on hold and it’s in doubt to what’s going to happen if there’s a change in election, which could be totally ripped out or changed. So is it two years before they put something similar out there? That’s just an example of a really successful program for Escavox, that we had a million-dollar grant from that which enabled us to develop out our system and we tracked it all around the world. If that’s continuous, it just allows a continual flow of grants for people to keep going on rather than stop-start mentality.

Adam Spencer:

Next, we’ll take a brief look at the role that corporate business communities can play in Australia’s startup ecosystem.

Nicole O’Brien:

But I think certainly the corporate sector has a role obviously to play there.

Adam Spencer:

Again, Nicole O’Brien.

Nicole O’Brien:

The corporate sector certainly is investing in incubating some of its own innovation and startups. We’ve seen quite a bit of that, for instance, in the fintech space. Yeah, look, I think it’s definitely those incentives, there needs to be that encouragement there because it’s a journey that you need to undertake. Anything that’s provided to make that less risky and easier and financially feasible I think is obviously a really good thing.

Baden U’Ren:

And then corporates, apart from some exemplars, corporates just don’t know how to play.

Adam Spencer:

Baden U’Ren is the co-founder of The Unconventional Group.

Baden U’Ren:

When I go across to Israel and see the way in which multinational corporation intricately and intimately are linked into the overall startup ecosystem in Israel, we have a lot to learn about how larger organizations can be a proactive contributor to the Australian innovation ecosystem. Apart from some exemplars, and there are some good players in the Australian ecosystem, but generally speaking, our corporates just don’t know how to play.

Sarah Pearson:

Yeah, I think the corporates should be doing a lot more than they are.

Adam Spencer:

Again, Sarah Pearson.

Sarah Pearson:

I think they should be realizing that Australia is a fabulously safe place to have staff and to innovate, that Australia is this amazing knowledge base. I would love to see corporates really stepping out much more than they are right now to think about Australia.

Adam Spencer:

And last but not least, we will discuss the role of the entrepreneurs and their teams.

Sarah Pearson:

I think the entrepreneurs are doing a good job, and the Tech Council is a great example of entrepreneurs jumping in and saying, “Okay, so we can see a gap here. Government’s not doing everything we’d like them to do, so let’s set up the tech council and work with a whole ecosystem.” They’ve got a bunch of really great partners that they’ve brought together to try to drive some policy changes. I think that piece is really good. And of course, the serial entrepreneurs are really good at investing in new ideas, like Steve Baxter here in Queensland and the great work he’s done for many years investing in the ecosystem. But serial entrepreneurs could do more of that and be great mentors as well. I think something we’re missing in Australia is we need many more mentors to help these early stage ideas.

Andrea Gardiner:

I think another really important thing is that you’ve got second-time founders reinvesting their time and expertise and money into the sector.

Adam Spencer:

Again, Andrea Gardner.

Andrea Gardiner:

I think that’s probably the biggest and most powerful and important change, is that we now have lots of second, third-time founders or successful founders that are reinvesting their time, their expertise, and their money into the sector. You just have to look at Scott Farquhar, Mike Cannon-Brookes, and a ton of our investors.

Adam Spencer:

Of course, one of the roles of an entrepreneur is to create startups that solve problems and change the world.

Colette Grgic:

I think that we need to stop solving small problems.

Adam Spencer:

Colette Grgic is Head of Startup Ecosystem at AWS Australia-New Zealand.

Colette Grgic:

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 in equality. The repercussions of the second order problems that if we don’t solve those first order problems are in education, for example. 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. But that doesn’t mean that we get a pass for not trying. 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 to 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.

Sarah Pearson:

Climate tech would be another obvious one given how much we’re impacted by it.

Adam Spencer:

Again, Sarah Pearson.

Sarah Pearson:

It’s a no-brainer for Australia, I think. I’m really disappointed that we have left it behind for so long because we could be leading the world right now. But anyway, blah, blah, blah, we can still press on now with that.

Annie Parker:

I think there’s the conversation that we should start having very, very clearly around renewables and clean tech.

Adam Spencer:

Again, Annie Parker.

Annie Parker:

Not only is it something that we clearly need in Australia, whether it’s obviously renewable energy in the form of solar panels or batteries that can hold that energy, being able to grow food in difficult climates, we need this stuff. This is country imperative for our own safety and longevity, let alone the fact that that is equally as needed in many, many countries around the world and will increasingly be so. I think we do need to do more on just convincing everyone that this is the right thing to do.

Adam Spencer:

Before we wrap up this episode, we want to underline one final key point. There is a place for people of all backgrounds in Australia’s startup community.

Lauren Capelin:

The thing that I think could set Australia’s ecosystem apart if we do this right is that real acknowledgement that the startup ecosystem is for everyone.

Adam Spencer:

Again, Lauren Capelin.

Lauren Capelin:

What we’re really trying to do in Australia is make everyone feel like they have a role to play. We actively want different viewpoints, different backgrounds and experiences. I always like to talk about the fact that I’m a creative writing and theater studies major who has found a place in this ecosystem, and I take it very seriously that people with those kinds of creative backgrounds have an important role to play. But it also extends to how we think about who’s investing and how we think about who’s hiring and building and all of those sorts of things. We need to make sure that it is a representative ecosystem. So, however, we can disseminate that message and keep the barriers low to participation in whatever form, even if you’re just an evangelist and a fan, that’s okay. Even if you’re not a builder or an investor, there’s so much that can be done. I think the worst thing we could do is keep building up walls and increasing the participation barrier and making people feel excluded or outsider. I think, yeah, everyone from policy to entrepreneur to investor has a role to play in keeping that clear.

Wayne Gerard:

There really is a role for everyone in the Australian startup innovation ecosystem.

Adam Spencer:

Again, Wayne Gerard.

Wayne Gerard:

We are going to see a lot of innovation introduced into Australia that is going to really enhance the way the Australian economy works. I just think about, for example, my own business. We’ve literally got people who used to sell cars, we’ve got people who worked at David Jones, we’ve got people from the mining industry, the oil and gas industry, the water industry, the power industry. We’ve got people from all different walks of life in my company. Importantly, we’ve also got lots and lots of amazingly talented new Australians or migrants. There’s such a rich migrant community in Australia that I sometimes feel like those people don’t know how to plug in. I look at the skills and the passion and the energy of those people, and I think that truly is an untapped market for Australian startups and innovators. So attracting talent into the innovation, the startup, the scale-up ecosystem here in Australia is absolutely mission critical for the success of this industry.

Our industry, the innovation industry, the technology industry, the startup industry, whatever you want to call it, it really is one of the largest jobs growth industries in Australia. Our companies grow faster. We employ more people. We create typically higher paying jobs than a number of other industries, and we are very sustainable. The potential to build really high value long-term companies that can have a great social impact is what we are building.

Adam Spencer:

That brings us to the end of this docuseries, from where we began this story in the ’60s with Australian pioneers innovating well before the term startup was in use, to the highs and lows of the dotcom boom and bust, through the Cambrian explosion of the early 2010s, and right through to the present day. While our story is over for now, no doubt, Australia’s startup community is just getting started.

A huge thanks to you, the listener, for sticking with us this far, and to our sponsors who made this project possible. And of course, a huge thank you to everyone who took the time to speak with us for this series, both on and off the mic. This project wouldn’t have been possible without your support. And throughout the almost two years of production, the dayone.fm team have been consistently blown away by how supportive and collaborative Australia’s startup communities have been. We continue to be so inspired by the work being done by the founders, investors, academics, and policy-makers and in all corners of the ecosystem. While there is so much we weren’t able to cover in these six episodes, I and the dayone.fm team really hope you feel we’ve done this story justice. This is your story, and it’s been our privilege to tell it.

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Production Credits

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  • Will Tjo
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