Alex Carpenter sees Australia’s startup ecosystem as radically more collaborative than corporate settings
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Alex Carpenter is the founder (or as he puts it, the “Initial Nudger, Steward and Groundskeeper”) of The Guild of Entrepreneurs, an independent organisation that draws on Alex’s experience, as well as that of many mentors within Australia’s startup ecosystem, to support entrepreneurs. Before starting The Guild of Entrepreneurs, Alex founded half a dozen companies, including Citrus WA, a hospitality supplier, and Atlas Events, which organises community events to promotes affordable opportunities for people to lead a healthy and active lifestyle. In his conversation with Adam, Alex discusses how Australia’s startup ecosystem is radically more cooperative and collaborative than in corporate settings, as well as his belief that Australia needs to get better at providing entrepreneurial role models to kids in order to promote startups as a viable career opportunity.
The Guild of Entrepreneurs: https://www.guildofentrepreneurs.com/
Citrus WA: https://www.citruswa.com.au/
Atlas Events: https://myatlasevents.com.au/
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 a story of Australia’s most inspiring founders and how they built their companies.
Adam Spencer: 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-
Alex Carpenter: Hi, I’m Alex Carpenter. I have 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.
Adam Spencer: What attracts you to this space? Why do you feel compelled to help?
Alex Carpenter: It’s actually interesting that someone asked me that question yesterday, “are you more interested in the ventures or the people?” And I’m much more interested in the people. And I think it’s because when someone is doing the things that they’re built to do, then their whole life really flourishes, and it’s amazing to see that.
Alex Carpenter: And so I’m really passionate about helping people to do the things that really make their whole life flourish. And so I think if you’re doing something that you’re built for, that it will work much better than if you’re doing something that you’re forcing yourself to do. And that flows through your whole life.
Alex Carpenter: Your sleep will get better, your relationships get better. It’s just everything falls into place. So I’m super passionate about helping people identify whatever that is. And I think entrepreneurship is the best vehicle for that, because it’s all about exploration and trialing different roles and different things and seeing what really speaks to you.
Adam Spencer: I don’t know if this question will tie into when did you first get involved in the startup ecosystem, but when did you discover what you were built for?
Alex Carpenter: Yeah, not until quite recently. I mean, I’ve always had that entrepreneurial tick, so one of my first businesses, which I don’t count, but I created pencil cases and went to news agencies and sold handmade pencil cases when I was in school. And that was the first thing, and all of those Coke bottles out of the locker room kind of arbitrage opportunities, all those kinds of things.
Alex Carpenter: That’s what I was doing at a young age. I was really passionate about business and I enjoyed business, but I ended up doing an accounting degree which was just awful. And I am very bad at accounting and it’s not what I’m built for at all, but I finished that degree and I thought, what on earth am I going to do now? I’ve got an accounting degree and my WAM was 54. So I was just a terrible student.
Alex Carpenter: And so then I was like, well maybe I should start businesses because that could be good. And then I started a number of businesses and some of them went well enough to fund others that didn’t do very well. And so that over about eight years I launched six companies and then two of them went well enough to fund the other four. And then over the space, I started getting involved in mentoring and teaching. And then that started to really identify that passion of, I actually really care about people and I want to help people not make the same mistakes that I’ve done.
Alex Carpenter: And even if they are going to make the same mistakes that I do, because entrepreneurs are commonly very stubborn and they want to learn the hard way like me… Even if they do want to go down that hard way, I want to be there when everything falls apart and to be able to help pick the pieces back up. And so I’m really passionate about just maintaining really long relationships with people and walking with them on that journey. Even if they ignore everything I say, cause I think that’s a great way to learn. That’s the way I learn. So I never fault anyone for ignoring me.
Adam Spencer: Can you share the story about where did the Guild of entrepreneurs enter your story, and then how did it come to be?
Alex Carpenter: Yeah. So when the pandemic happened, I really saw it as a great opportunity because so many people were uncertain and the world was going to shift. That much was obvious, and that’s now still playing out. We’re seeing how that’s all changing. And I saw like, oh man, there’s so many people that are going to have to embrace entrepreneurship and pursue that. And they’re going to make all the same mistakes that I did, that we all do, because we all think there isn’t a method behind all of this and everything is unknown. And so you just wander out there and trip into all the giant chasms that everybody falls into. And I was like, oh I have to do something to help those people. And so that’s when I was like, well, the first thing is I’ve been building all of the resources over the past five years of all of the go-to stuff that I use to help and mentor and teach.
Alex Carpenter: And so I was like, well, I’m just going to release that and I’ll just give that away for free. And hopefully people will find value in that and use that. And that’s the Guild library. So I launched that. I spent a solid nine months just getting all my notes, everything that I’d accumulated over those years together into one place in a way that was somewhat digestible. And it’s huge, but my hope was that someone would find value in it. And then the thought was like, well, that’s great, they’re resources, but really people don’t even know what to ask. People don’t know what to Google, people don’t know what resource to read. Where do they go to ask that question and receive genuine help from people that they can verify that they know what they’re talking about? But also that encouragement and the support and the help that you see when you find someone else who’s struggling with a similar thing or that are further down the road and they’re struggling with different things, and that real community effect.
Alex Carpenter: And so there was nothing like that where it was just free and open and encouraging. And so I thought, well, I need to build that. And so that’s what the Guild of Entrepreneurs was. And so from the very beginning, it was always, well, there’s so much goodwill in the startup ecosystem. All I really need to do is open the door and say, goodwill, come in here, and it’ll just happen. And to a large extent it did.
Alex Carpenter: And so that’s why I shy away from using the word founder of the Guild because really I was just the initial nudger of that snowball at the top of the hill. And then it rolled down the hill, but it was years and years and years of people who have come before me who have set up that culture of goodwill who were just the first people that were helping others without expecting anything in return. There’s this huge train of people that are all connected and they’re all helping each other without expecting anything. And really the Guild is just a vehicle for that to flourish and to be seen by people who aren’t inside the community,
Adam Spencer: That culture of goodwill and just the giving nature of this community is cited regularly in interviews as one of the strengths of our ecosystem. And you just pointed to it then, and the people that have come before that built that culture, but do you have any insight on how that came to be? Why is that such a strength of our community here in Australia, in the startup ecosystem?
Alex Carpenter: Yeah, it’s a good question. And I honestly wish I knew more about it, but I know that from when I started back in Perth, when I just finished finishing up my accounting degree, that wasn’t there. It might have been behind a door somewhere and I just didn’t know about it, but I started all of those businesses thinking I was totally alone. There was no one there to help. The concept of startups was barely a thing and it’s now changed so much for the better. And so I think wherever it originates from, I’m just glad it did and that it’s spreading, because it is growing and spreading and it should.
Adam Spencer: What year was that when you wrapped up your studies and then started those, was it six companies? What kind of timeline are we looking at?
Alex Carpenter: Yeah, I think that was back in around 2011, 2012.
Adam Spencer: When did you really start to notice the startup community?
Alex Carpenter: Yeah, when I moved from Perth to Sydney, 2015 or something like that, there was a big difference. I noticed it because I started to reach out to people and that’s how I ended up in the University of Sydney to begin with. I was just trying to meet people in Sydney. And at the time I had a social enterprise and so I was meeting all sorts of people and just reaching out to them cold. And that’s got me onto it because they started to be like, oh, you could help with this, we need guest lecturer here and you could do a bit of mentoring there. And I was like, oh wow, that’s fun. Okay, sure. And then it’s just one thing led to another and then that’s where it started to become a bit clearer to me. But still there wasn’t one place that I was aware of, even at that time, that it was like, wow, everything’s kind of circulating around them. And I think it’s still growing and there’s still lots of little hubs, little silos, but I think broadly it’s easier to find your way into the ecosystem than ever before
Adam Spencer: Ran that 2015 time. Can you try to paint a bit of a picture of what some of those little hubs were looking like? What were some of the things that were visible to you? Can you name them? Sorry, not only organizations, but people too. Who had their heads above the water, I guess, that you could see that these people were not beacons of the community, but what was visible to you?
Alex Carpenter: Yeah, I mean, because I was currently running a social enterprise, I was focused more on that place. So I initially reached out to the people at SIFA, Social Enterprise Financing Australia, and that was great. And they put me in touch with a bunch of other people, but I also reached out to Tom from Start Some Good and also the founder of Chuffed. And it was like everyone that I reached out to there was this willingness and excitement to introduce me to more people. And that’s really what it is of like, wow, there’s this long chain of these introductions that are mutually beneficial. And that’s kind of where it kicked off. And so I just reached out to the people that were the pillars in the social enterprise space at that time. One thing led to another and eventually I was introduced to many others.
Adam Spencer: It seems to it me that the onus is on the entrepreneur, the founder to do the reaching out, to be the one to go and look for the community. I mean, does that sound right to you?
Alex Carpenter: Oh yeah. I mean-
Adam Spencer: Because the support is there, there were people there, but you don’t see them until you start looking.
Alex Carpenter: Yep. I think that’s a hundred percent right. And for me, I introduce so many people to so many people now. That’s pretty much all I do there all day long. And it’s interesting because the people that are not quite comfortable with following up on these introductions, I’ll introduce someone to them and that’ll be the junior in the introduction scene. And they’re just afraid. And so there’s this hesitancy because they don’t know the culture. And so even getting introduced for the first time, they’re hesitant. Maybe they’ll like, I don’t know what I’m talking about, and so I don’t want to ask them because then they’ll realize that I’m a fraud and I don’t know what I’m doing. And it’s like, no, but that’s all of us. Don’t worry about it. That’s all of us. We all don’t know what we are doing. That’s the whole thing.
Alex Carpenter: And so I find that even now lots of people are just too nervous about actually taking up those introductions. And so then they end up holding themselves back and leaning out of the ecosystem, which is, I think, a great shame, because there’s just so much support available. But actually people aren’t asking for it. There’s this barrier, there’s this lack of humility to go, I don’t know what I’m doing. And then the response is almost always, that’s cool, none of us know what we’re doing. We’re all figuring it out together. Welcome. But you need to then take that first step of, guys, I don’t know what I’m doing. And if you can’t say that, then you’re just going to keep going down your own road and making your own mistakes without leveraging the support that’s actually there for you.
Adam Spencer: What are some of the gaps, if you want to talk about gaps, like where can we improve?
Alex Carpenter: Yeah. I think role modeling is a huge gap and we are getting better. We’re getting so much better in the recent couple of years. And I think people, like Mike Cannon Brooks and Mel Perkins, are just doing 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. People, they like to trash on media and say it’s not as influential, but kids just are like sponges. And so I saw a recent study that showed the most desired job for the next generation is to be a YouTuber. And 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? And there’s nothing wrong with that, but yeah, 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. And sure, it might be a great job, but really we’re not showing them, we’re not exposing them to enough of these role models who are 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: Yeah. I mean, you said there’s nothing wrong with that. I disagree. I think we’ve got enough YouTubers and Instagram people. That’s my opinion. And not the opinion of anyone else to do with this series. There’s enough. There’s enough YouTube influencers, everyone. Anyway, on a positive note… And we’ve mentioned one of the positives, like the supportive community, but what do you think we are doing really, really well in this ecosystem, in this community?
Alex Carpenter: Yeah. I think the level of fear is good. So I still get asked a lot about people that are scared, and they don’t want to share their ideas, and can you sign this NDA, and I’m going to get a patent, and all those things. And I’m not necessarily saying those things are wrong, but they’re often almost always misguided because those tools are just not effective in this ecosystem, because… Not going to get into that, but you really shouldn’t be worried about someone stealing your idea, because if it’s that easy, then it’s not really a very good idea anyway. And so you’ve got to lean into, what are you here for? Because if you are here to do that thing, if you are built to do this thing, then no one’s going to stand a chance at competing with you. It’s like saying, oh, well I’m a 7’2″, really dextrous, really fast athlete. Oh, but I don’t want to tell anyone I’ll go into basketball because they might beat me at it.
Alex Carpenter: And it’s like, you’re a freaking idiot. You’re built for that. You’re so tall. You’re so dextrous. You’re so fast. You are going to smash the competition. You could tell everyone you’re going into basketball and you’ll still smash them all. And that’s the thing, everyone’s built for something. And it’s just, as soon as you figure that out, you’re like, wow, I’m in a league of my own. You guys might be doing something similar, but it’s not quite the same. And what I’m built for, I am damn good at that. And lean into that, and you don’t have to be afraid of someone stealing your special source. If it’s that easy to steal it’s not that great. So I think that’s something we’re doing quite well, is that the culture leans into that and shares our struggles with each other and we generally support and that’s good.
Alex Carpenter: And so I think we need to do more of that and figure out a way to on-ramp people from not understanding that culture to understanding it. Because one of the most common things I actually hear is from people that have gone down that corporate route and spent five or ten years in corporate land or any industry. They come into the startup ecosystem, and they’re just so confused. They’re like, that I don’t get it, like everyone’s so nice. It’s weird. It’s like, is someone going to shiv 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. It 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 1, you’re not going to get very far because it’s hard to do this on your own. And 2, 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.
Adam Spencer: This question might be redundant because there’s some good pearls in here for founders, but what piece of advice would you give a new founder?
Alex Carpenter: I think don’t neglect your failures and your past. So often, especially in pictures, people polish the dusty, dirty road that they’ve been on to the point to be like, oh this all just happened very quickly, and it has become very easy, and we’re very good at this.
Alex Carpenter: And it’s like, guys, your story, your perseverance, and all your failures, that’s the stuff that’s so valuable. That’s your story. That’s your secret sauce. And don’t ignore it. Lean into it. Say like, oh man, I did this and it failed, and then this happened, and I realized this, and then this customer said this thing, which put me onto that idea. And then boom, that’s actually the idea we’re going with because I’ve had all this experience, all this failure to get to that point. And really you’ve got to lean into your story, and it fits like, oh I was doing this in high school or I was passionate about this in uni. It’s like, there’s crumbs there. There’s all these crumbs throughout your life that kind of point to the thing that you should be doing, and ignoring that is just the wrong way around. You should be looking at opportunities both around you, but also from your past of like, where are you actually leaning towards, and then go forward with that.
Adam Spencer: With this last minute or so that we’ve got, keeping in mind that what I’m trying to do here is put together a very holistic and truthful documentary about the history of the Australian startup ecosystem. We want academics, policy makers, founders, investors, everybody from every corner of the startup ecosystem or community to hear this story. What message do they need to hear from Alex? What would you want to tell them?
Alex Carpenter: Yeah, I think I’m a huge fan of everyone doing their thing. And 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. And 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, because it’s the same.
Alex Carpenter: Like, it’s in the 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. And if everyone has that attitude of, I know what I’m good at and I’m just going to stay here. And 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: Thank you Alex. It’s been a pleasure.
Alex Carpenter: Thanks Adam. So appreciate chatting through all this stuff with you.
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.