Allan O’Connor discusses the viability of startup careers
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Allan O’Connor is Co-Executive Director for the Centre for Enterprise Dynamics in Global Economies at the University of South Australia, as well as a researcher and teacher for for the undergraduate Bachelor of Business (Innovation and Entrepreneurship) program. Prior to this role he was the Senior Lecturer at the Entrepreneurship, Commercialisation and Innovation Centre at the University of Adelaide. In his conversation with guest host Alex Carpenter, Allan discusses to what extent a career in startups is seen as a viable option by today’s university students, as well as what he sees as the role of universities in Australia’s startup ecosystem.
Allan on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/allan-o-connor-60464933/
Allan’s bio at University of South Australia: https://people.unisa.edu.au/Allan.OConnor
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. You’re listening to a special interview series as part of a documentary W2D1 is producing about the history of the Australian startup ecosystem. This episode was conducted by guest host, Alex Carpenter. On the episode today, we have…
Allan O’Connor: My name is Allan O’Connor, I’m with the University of South Australia. In particular, I’m a Co-Executive Director for the Center for Enterprise Dynamics in Global Economies. The type of work I do is fundamentally education in entrepreneurship and research in, what I call more broadly enterprise dynamics. With an understanding of entrepreneurship, being a change agent within an economy, within a market, within a region. Enterprise dynamics translates pretty well to entrepreneurship, really.
Alex Carpenter: And so, when did you start getting involved in, I suppose, with the startup scene? However, you define that.
Allan O’Connor: That’s an interesting question. I know you are kind of looking at how this operates from around 2010, but my background to this goes back further. I first started getting involved in this scene through having worked with industry and particularly being in a business development role and seeing that the nature of the industry is changing. The nature of technologies were changing, and I got really interested in innovation and how a company should be behaving with innovation or looking at innovation and capitalizing on innovation. Through that, I kind of stumbled into a course, which was called a master of enterprise innovation at Swinburne University.
Allan O’Connor: And once I started that course, which was motivated by learning about innovation for a company, I suddenly found there was this whole world, which I didn’t know about, or didn’t really have a clue or an inkling or had seen anything much about. Which was, this whole world of startups and venture capital and R&D and commercialization. And it was just a whole new world. And that was around early ’90s that, that really started to come into my view. But then I guess, later on that actually got me interested in the entrepreneurship side of the innovation entrepreneurship area.
Alex Carpenter: And back then, how many people were like you hanging around this kind of concept?
Allan O’Connor: Hard to quantify. And I wouldn’t even hazard a guess of what that was. Except, I would say it tended to, and maybe because I was at a university when I discovered it. But it certainly was something that hovered around the university community, particularly around the commercialization of technology. So if you wanted to think about that as the size of the community being related to the number of people who were involved in commercializing technology out of universities, it was a pretty small community, I guess.
Alex Carpenter: Yeah, definitely. And I suppose at that time, the big thing would’ve been like Wi-Fi and that would’ve spurred a whole bunch of interest around how do we do that again, and that continues today.
Allan O’Connor: Yeah, well, exactly right. And in fact, this was even previous because there was not an internet to speak of and it was really before that started to happen. And I know that one of the questions you might be interested in is what kind of companies were around at that time. And it’s more like the companies of Cochlear and ResMed were the kind of entrepreneurial companies at that time. And then, the whole notion of the startup community and internet and Wi-Fi started to come through late ’90s and into the 2000s where we had the dot-com crash of 2001. And that changed that scene dramatically from being kind of more medical companies into more high tech communications, internet driven technologies.
Alex Carpenter: I mean, how did the transition happen though? Because it’s like, if you’re starting out with the Cochlears, the medical space, the research commercialization, all that stuff kind of continues, but it’s certainly not the predominant thing in the ecosystem now. And now it’s kind of grown into this very broad sense of technology. When did that start to really happen?
Allan O’Connor: Well, I think that really came through because when you reflect on a broad state of technology, lots of times that is connected to digital communications and digitization, if you like. So that kind of movement around 2001 with the advent of the internet, the advent of opening up different types of market, which you could operationalize in terms of long tails. For instance, in markets that were inaccessible before you couldn’t do it profitably, there was a shift in technology which enabled a different approach or a different view on growth ventures. And that vast rise of technologies actually opened up all sorts of other businesses, Airbnb and YouTube and those sorts of things. But the earlier runs were Google and Yahoo, they were the big darlings of the markets. But you’ve got all sorts of others now, because of course, that technology has opened up new markets for other people.
Alex Carpenter: I mean the opportunities keep growing and that’s what the space is, keeps it so exciting, I suppose. From your take, where do you see the biggest gaps? Because obviously if the ecosystem has developed that much in your time, surely, a lot of those gaps must have been filled and would’ve seen things that you wanted back in the ’90s and now surely we have some of them, don’t we?
Allan O’Connor: To a certain extent, yes. I mean the big thing that really has changed with the opening up of technology, with the growth of awareness of what entrepreneurship is that has actually led to a furnishing of different aspects, different functions, different parts of the community being built up. But I think when you talk about the biggest gap, I think there is still a gap between those in the know, and those who don’t. So I think just as a general community sense, remember I said, I got into this community unknowing, clearly not aware of the kind of things that were going on in the startup world. And I think that’s still very much the case today. When I look at smaller businesses or businesses in growth who really aren’t aware of necessarily the market opportunities, that new tech and new, the growth opportunities that com through that startup community really deliver. I think there’s still a gap there in terms of just awareness of how entrepreneurship and innovation are both so important, so critical to driving business growth, period. I do think between the startup community and the general population of businesses, there’s still a gap.
Alex Carpenter: Yeah, I 100% agree with you. I’m wondering if you see a similar thing going on in schools though, because if you’ve got first year university students coming in, are they as excited as you think they should be about entrepreneurship and innovation?
Allan O’Connor: Generally, I’ll just put my educator’s hat on just for a moment, just to really think about the people coming through our programs. We see growth in our programs because I think the generational shift is that there is an awareness of the fact that there is no security in a job anymore. They can expect that they will be changing careers and the visibility of the companies like Amazon and Google and Uber, etc, and their growth is much more in the popular domain if you like. So those companies are not far off the radar for the younger generation coming through. So with that, that sparks an interest, oftentimes it isn’t in the university sector, at least. People generally, across a business program, you would find that they’re not necessarily aware that there is an approach to learn this. And it’s almost like, it might be there, but it’s beyond me.
Allan O’Connor: So it’s not until they start to see that there is a program and start to see where an idea shapes into an opportunity and then, becomes a new venture in its own. It’s not until you start to see that you then see them switch onto the fact, “well, perhaps this is something for me.” So if you like, it’s coming through, there’s not a strong awareness that it is something within people’s grasp, but as they start to see the opportunity there, I think it does tend to reshape them a little bit.
Alex Carpenter: It’s a very exciting thing to see. I’ve experienced that dawning of like, oh, I suppose I am kind of able to follow in the footsteps of the people that have done it before because they started out in university as well, most of them.
Allan O’Connor: Yep, exactly.
Alex Carpenter: So if that’s some of the good stuff, that’s going on, what about even bigger than that? What are we doing really well as an ecosystem that you think you could brag to the other ecosystems like in Israel and Germany and London? Is there anything that we could be bragging about right now?
Allan O’Connor: Certainly, the momentum behind entrepreneurship is growing. So you’ve got here in South Australia, you’ve got the Lot Fourteen, which is a big initiative here to really drive that entrepreneurial behavior where you’ve got a community space or a community hub, if you like. That actually gives a focus point if you like for the entrepreneurship community. So I think the growth in these types of initiatives, and if you look around each of the capital cities, they each have these kind of momentum growing. I think we are a bit of a different country in terms of, we are a very relatively lightly populated country with huge land mass. So that, gives us quite a large spread of area to cover. And you get the cities where you’ve getting the real hub of entrepreneurial activity. So I think that in itself is something to say we are doing well.
Allan O’Connor: I guess on the flip side of that is how we join that all up, is the next challenge. Because we are a smaller country in terms of population and with this land mass, how do we actually get the critical mass to actually really drive entrepreneurship. Whereas, countries like Israel, smaller place, large population in a smaller place, and fairly defined country parameter and different types of drivers behind their entrepreneurship that gives them an advantage on that front. But I think our hubs of activity in the capital cities are the things that they actually will define us eventually. And really, as we start to think about how they join up and how we get the strength of entrepreneurship across the country. I think you’ll start to see Australia coming to the fore in entrepreneurial ventures, not to say we don’t already.
Alex Carpenter: Very true. I mean, I think we’re punching well above our weight if you think about it, but I’d agree. We’ve got to develop the hubs more and get them better integrated, but also potentially more specialized. And that’s one of the things I love seeing about South Australia is that the government there is having a very clear idea about, we want to be the hub for space. And there’s very good environmental and geographical reasons why that is the case and they’re going after it. And they’re putting their money where their mouth is, saying, we want to be the space startup place. And they’re going to make it happen, I think. So that’s, a really good sign. I mean, from your perspective, especially with the time looking over it, what’s the unpopular opinion that you’ve developed over the time about the ecosystem?
Allan O’Connor: Interesting that one of the things that you just mentioned is the role of government and it’s absolutely something that is critical to kick-starting some of this, but I guess the unpopular side of this. And if I go back now, to thinking around when the entrepreneurial ecosystem conversation really became a community conversation and not just an activity of a few people, which was around that kind of early 2010s time. The opinion of the entrepreneurial community at that time was government back off, government get out of our way. And to some extent, that is probably true. And I think it’s really important for whether it be government or industry or entrepreneurs or technologists or universities to really be aware that everyone has their part to play.
Allan O’Connor: So the unpopular opinion is not just down to the entrepreneurs. It is about building that community and how we fire off of each other, how we contribute to the gain of each other and ultimately, how we actually lift the whole performance. And that from an individual company’s view is not what they do. They’re there to grow their company and they need to focus on that. But at the same time, there is this sense of ecosystem around this, that they are connected dots and we each have a role to play, and we each have something to contribute to that ecosystem outcome.
Alex Carpenter: I absolutely could not agree with that more. I love that, it’s every person on the bus needs to know what value they’re delivering, but also knows that they’re not the bus. There’s many people, there’s many players and the old saying of, ‘it takes a village to make a startup.’ It’s that kind of mentality of the entrepreneur is important, a 100%. That’s the ignition source often where it’s like, actually you need the first followers, you need the early adopters then. And that starts to build out that and you need support from all sorts of different places. I fully agree. So what about the improvement? There’s definitely that piece around getting more of the players on board and getting them to understand their role in the ecosystem. But is there anything else that you think is a big area for improvement that we should be investing in that we’re not?
Allan O’Connor: Well, being an educator, I think I would actually take that back to education. I do think there is a stronger role to play for awareness of entrepreneurship as a potential career opportunity. Now, I think there’s something quite nuanced about that too, because I don’t think an entrepreneurial career is necessarily for every person either. And I don’t mean that it’s a particular type of person that can undertake this necessarily. I think that anyone can position themselves to be an entrepreneur. But the key to this is that the awareness that you’re not likely to be doing this alone is the key area that we need to improve upon, through our education system. It’s not an identification of the smart individuals, but it is a development of that teaming capability.
Allan O’Connor: And if you have a goal, if have an ambition to start a venture, it is not a venture of your own making, is a venture where you bring others into it and actually make something more of it. So if there’s anything that I would want to see invested for improvement, is really embedding that idea of a startup as team. Start the entrepreneur as team rather than, individual and the ambition of team is what really drives and supports the growth of a venture.
Alex Carpenter: Thinking about from the university’s perspective in particular, what role do you think that they’ve kind of done in the past and what do you think that ideally their seat on the bus, what’s their seat on the bus and how do they do that better?
Allan O’Connor: Okay. There’s a couple of roles they play. There is a straight education side of things and 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. So 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. It also potentially a negative contributor. So which is why we need to actually be careful and thinking about exactly what is the business we’re growing. What is the market and what is the implications of these markets. So we certainly need an ethical lens, put on an ethical and moral lens, put onto our decisions that we actually make around entrepreneurship.
Allan O’Connor: And I think the universities have a key role to play in educating those who are coming through, who potentially could be starting businesses into the future. And as I say, that’s not just from the business community, but it’s across the university. So I think that’s an important play, but they also play some other things. Because having educated people in this space and as an educating function within society, there’s also the opportunity to provide those safe places through which people can grow or grow their entrepreneurial ventures. And universities often have incubators, accelerators or those types of programs sitting within them. It is not purely an education function, but it is a add on to the university experience, not to say it doesn’t perform an education function. Once you’re in these, you are certainly learning at the same time, but it isn’t like it’s necessary, a degree qualification that you’re getting.
Allan O’Connor: It’s a different kind of 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. So there’s a foundational educational platform if you like, but also the stepping stone, otherwise you do the educational thing. Students are out on their own and they’re taking all the risk on their own as well. I think the universities can actually play a role in getting people started and reducing the risks so they can take those first steps.
Alex Carpenter: I totally agree. And so, when you are talking to your students and I’m sure you get this question a lot, I know I do. They’ve got an idea and they’re budding and they’ve spoken to some people and they’re wanting to give it a crack. What’s the one thing, if you only had them for an elevator trip, what would be the biggest thing that you could say focus on, don’t forget about this or focus on this and that’ll improve your chances of winning and then, success?
Allan O’Connor: That’s like any business venture, the success of the business is not just down to one thing. So that’s a harder question or a harder thing to define in terms of one thing, because I think it actually changes too. If at the early stage, the very one thing you need to focus on is what is the value you’re actually providing to a customer. So you really need to learn how to walk in other people’s shoes, how to understand the customer and actually, almost be able to anticipate what the customer will want. And that means you have to be able to readily adopt different perspectives and being open to different perspectives. Your idea may not be the one that the customer actually wants. That doesn’t mean the idea is bad, it just means it needs shaping to actually maximize the market opportunity. So that is the very first point if assuming it’s an earlier venture. But I’d have to fast back that up to say, but just knowing your customer and knowing what they want is not enough.
Allan O’Connor: If you want an entrepreneurial venture, you’ve really got to understand how you differentiate and how you acquire and move into a market space, which is not so much uncontested, but an area within which you can grow and maintain the edge in that particular segment. Otherwise, you end up with a small business in a very highly competitive market. So you’ve got to really find, first the market and understand really that customer definition and the requirements and the needs and that’s in the early piece. But then, you also need to rapidly step into the second phase of this, is to really understand, do I have the capabilities that are built into this venture, which are going to give it its long term growth opportunity. Those two things together is my one answer.
Alex Carpenter: I mean, it’s a great answer. I’d firmly get behind that answer as well. Thank you so much for all your insights. I’m just wondering when you reflect on all these kinds of questions and the startup ecosystem and entrepreneurship as a topic and the whole community, is there anything else that you think is worth putting on the public record that you want the next generation to hear and the rest of the ecosystem to hear?
Allan O’Connor: I guess for that I would actually, Alex, just start to think about the research work that I do, because I am very much interested in the entrepreneurial ecosystem. And one of the cautionary notes I think I would like to highlight is that when we think about entrepreneurial ecosystems, it doesn’t take long for Silicon Valley to come up or the Israel experience to come up or Boston area to come up. Those kind of iconic ecosystems are fantastic and they each have their own histories. They each have their own government and institutional settings. They each have their own populations. They each have their own university sectors and none of those are Australia’s. So my point being, that on entrepreneurial ecosystems are not the same everywhere.
Allan O’Connor: We really need to think about how we create the functioning of an entrepreneurial ecosystem with the actors, with the elements, with the ingredients that we have. And how we can actually put that together in a way that delivers the best entrepreneurship outcome. So my cautionary note is, whilst we can learn a lot from others, we have those lessons are only informing the kind of actions that we take, but we are unique in the way we do things. And just like a business should be unique, I think our ecosystems should also reflect the uniqueness of who we are.
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 more amazing people from the Australian startup ecosystem. Thanks for listening and see you next time.