Annie Parker finds inspiration working with startup founders
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Annie Parker is a startup investor and advisor with 20+ years of experience in the digital startup, technology and consulting sectors. Currently, Annie is the Executive Director for Tech Central, a community for tech startups that is part of the Greater Sydney Commission, an organisation overseen by the NSW Government. Annie sees her role at Tech Central as helping to put Sydney on the global map as an innovation ecosystem. In her conversation with guest host Will Tjo, Annie discusses why she finds working with startup founders so inspiring, as well as her frustrations that the startup ecosystem in Australia and globally aren’t more inclusive of women and non-binary people, indigenous people, people with disabilities and other marginalised individuals.
Tech Central: https://www.tc.sydney
Annie on Twitter: https://twitter.com/annie_parker
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 Will Tjo.
Will Tjo: Hi, everyone, and welcome back to the Australian startup series interviews. Our guest today is Annie Parker. So good to have you on, Annie.
Annie Parker: Thanks, Will. Great to be here.
Will Tjo: So to start us off, could you tell us a bit about yourself and what you’re currently working on?
Annie Parker: Sure. So I’m Annie Parker. I’m currently the exec director for Tech Central, so part of the Greater Sydney Commission within New South Wales government. And my role there is to basically help to put on the global map Sydney as an innovation ecosystem. And that includes everything from building talent through our wonderful universities, the great research agencies and companies that sit within the Tech Central footprint, as well as, of course, the fabulous startups, the corporates, the VCs, the whole community that sits within that. So it’s such a wonderful all-encompassing role where I get to work with all parts of Sydney’s tech community.
Will Tjo: I’d love to dig deeper a little bit into your background, Annie, because I can see it from your profile that you’ve been with some of the most iconic names in the startup industry, the global startup industry, from Microsoft, and obviously Fishburners. Tell us, have you always been an entrepreneur?
Annie Parker: No, no. It was total dumb luck I ended up in startup land, actually. And I had a very, very sensible, kind of predictable career in management consulting and then moved into marketing. And honestly, the reason why I ended up sort of shifting from, like I say, the terribly sensible career into perhaps the slightly riskier one was just I was bored. I was literally bored rigid in my day job. And I kind of just got to the point, where I’m like, why am I doing this? I’m just selling more mobile phones. This was while I was working for O2 in the UK; brilliant company, by the way, it was just that whole purpose part wasn’t there for me. So I took a little bit of time out, sort of to mentally and physically figure out what I wanted to do next.
Annie Parker: And like any normal, reasonable and sensible person, I decided to use that time to go and climb Mount Kilimanjaro with my dad and my brother and five friends. And when I got towards the top of the mountain and saw… You can see the sign that tells you that you’ve reached the top from a few hundred meters away. And I thought I would get this wave of adrenaline that would sort of push me to sprint, slash, hobble slightly faster to the summit. And it didn’t happen. I sat in a little heap and started crying because I realized I’d still got to go back to the job I didn’t love. So I took out my phone. Back then obviously there were no wifi hotspots, but cell phone coverage was still at the top of Mount Kili, you could send a text message. So I texted my boss and I quit.
Will Tjo: Wow.
Annie Parker: And then what happened was a series of events of just, I don’t know, I started chatting to folks going, “Okay, what are my other options?” And one of those people I chatted to then rang me on New Year’s Eve 2011 and said, “Hey, I’ve got this new gig. Why don’t you come and join me?” And I was like, “Tell me more.” And it was Telefónica announcing that they were building a startup accelerator program across Europe and would I like to join him? And the rest, as they say, is history.
Will Tjo: Yeah. That’s absolutely amazing. It sounds very much like the accidental entrepreneur journey. You wanted to find purpose and you were bored in your day job and then an opportunity came by that you couldn’t say no to.
Annie Parker: Well, it was that plus, I remember… So the guy that I’m talking about is a guy called Simon Devonshire. And Simon said to me, “What’s the worst that could happen?” I’m like, “You’re absolutely right.” I mean, if it doesn’t work out, I give it a couple months, it doesn’t work out, I go and get myself another terribly sensible, predictable job. But I loved it. I loved it from the first second I got involved. It was just fascinating. From one minute to the next, I’d be doing 27 different things. And about for the first six weeks, as well, I was, gosh, frankly, I was just embarrassed to even talk to other entrepreneurs and people in the communities, like, “I’m really sorry. I’m just here to learn. I know nothing about this.”
Annie Parker: And it took me about six weeks to figure out, oh, hang on, I’ve actually got really useful skills to share here. And I think oftentimes that’s sort of the tipping point moment when a lot of folks who have worked in perhaps more traditional careers need to realize that their skills are super valuable in terms of mentorship and advice. And it was at that moment, I was like, okay, I’ve got it. I’ve got something to bring to the table here. I’m not quite as useless as I thought. And yeah, that was 12 years ago now, I think.
Will Tjo: Yeah. There are two things that came to my mind when you were talking about this and the first one was, what was it about, I guess, entrepreneurship that was purposeful for you? What made it not boring?
Annie Parker: You can see your help helping. You’re not sitting there writing a 27-page document or a 500-page PowerPoint, wondering when you hit send and you send it to your bosses and wondering who it might help or what’s actually going to happen as a result of it. You can sit in front of a founder, give them some advice, and you can see them literally changing their plans in front of your very eyes. And it’s addictive. You’re knowing that your help helps and it’s not just going to go sit in some random digital inbox somewhere. And not only that as well, because you end up getting inspired by all these founders as well. They’re doing incredible work, fixing the world’s problems, making the world a better place, more efficient, all the other different things, whatever you want to say. What’s not to get excited about there?
Will Tjo: It’s interesting that you mentioned that. Even for people who have started in traditional careers, they still have skills to offer the startup ecosystem, although a lot of people draw a distinction as you are either a founder or you’re either just a corporate person.
Annie Parker: Yeah. And I think originally when I first started out in the ecosystem as well, perhaps that line was a lot more kind of blunt. It’s not now. I think a lot of folks realize that you can drift into startup land, perhaps become a founder or an investor or an advisor, and then still have your day job or vice versa. And I think it’s become a lot more mainstream to talk about, “I’ve got this idea for a business and I’m going to give it a go.” And equally, the way that you can start a business now is so easy. You haven’t got to go and buy a bunch of servers and do a huge amount of outlay, and software is so easy to build and there’s so many free tools out there, with the cloud as well. It’s super easy and super quick, so genuinely anyone can do it.
Will Tjo: Yeah. That’s a very fair point. Tell me more about when you first started. So you mentioned 12 years ago, you came in and you were embarrassed to talk to other founders. Tell me some of the big names there. And also, how did you get up to speed?
Annie Parker: So I remember one of the first people I spoke to, and at that time, we were building this accelerator program in London and we were trying to encourage founders to apply to the program, obviously. And I remember meeting one particular female founder in London, who I was just so starstruck by, in terms of the way that she pitched her business, the way that she turned up to every single meeting. She wasn’t a technical founder herself, so she’d been teaching herself the basics of coding and learning enough to be dangerous. That person, she’s called Robyn Exton and she’s now the founder of an incredibly successful company called HER. It’s an application designed to specifically be a dating and communications tool for lesbian and bi-curious women. When we first met Robyn, her idea for the dating app was there, but it wasn’t specific to an audience. It didn’t have that uniqueness. What was the unfair advantage?
Annie Parker: So she didn’t actually get in into the first intake. It was the second intake when she came back and she’d refined her pitch. She made it super punchy, and obviously, like I say, had found the niche that she wanted to go into. Robyn is gay herself. She went through after going through Wira, which is the accelerator program in London, she moved to the US, California, and specifically San Francisco being a huge market for the LBGTIQ+ community. And she went through Y Combinator a couple years after that and I remember chatting to her; she actually came to Sydney about four years ago, and she took me out for dinner, which was an unusual moment when a founder gets to do that, because her business is profitable.
Annie Parker: And you’re like, that’s an incredible outcome for somebody, 10 or so years ago who just got this bare bones of an idea. And then over the years you just see them growing and growing and growing. And I have similar stories of what it was like when we first set up the accelerator program here in Sydney as well. That was coming up to 10 years ago now so some of those original crew that went through that first intake are doing incredibly well. And it’s just great to see. It just takes a little bit of time.
Will Tjo: Yeah. I can imagine it’s quite inspiring seeing the people who were there at the very beginning and then they themselves in turn are the ones that are bringing up the next generation.
Annie Parker: Yeah. And also it doesn’t always have to be quite that linear. So yeah, Robyn did really well in that particular startup program, then went through Y Combinator, now a profitable business. Sometimes it’s not the first idea that’s the one that sticks. It might be the second, third, fourth or fifth. It doesn’t matter. As long as you’ve learnt the skills and you’re transferring that to the next best idea you’ve got in your wonderful brain. And I love seeing some of the other pathways. So one of the other crew that went through the muru-D program in Sydney in the first intake, it was a startup doing basically financial advice for small businesses.
Annie Parker: So kind of using the outputs of a tool like Xero, but then turning it into insightful information for a founder, so that if you don’t have a CFO and you’re never going to because you’re such a small company, how do you get that insight around what your cashflow is? When do you think certain pinch points might be in the year when other invoices drop and perhaps you might not have the cash flow? Anyway, that company didn’t quite make it. The CEO of that company is Jeremy Kwong-Law, who is now basically the lead dude at Grok Ventures for Mike Cannon-Brookes. So yeah, still an incredible career path and doing incredible work, just not necessarily in the original idea that he came up with.
Will Tjo: Yeah. When did you move to Australia, Annie?
Annie Parker: I am nearly 10 years in now.
Will Tjo: Wow. So you’ve pretty much seen the whole spectrum of when, I guess, we were still nascent back then, right?
Annie Parker: Well, yes and no. There was a huge amount of work that was already going on, it was just a smaller scene back then and it wasn’t particularly popular in the sense of there wasn’t a huge amount of investment dollars. Corporates weren’t playing with startups, or the startup community back then. But yeah, the likes of the Pollenizer crew, Dean McEvoy, Alan Jones; they’re the originals, I think.
Will Tjo: How has the ecosystem evolved over the last 10 years? Has it been what you expected the growth rate to be?
Annie Parker: Yeah, it’s been as I hoped it would be. I think it’s had a decent organic growth, if that makes sense. It hasn’t been too frothy, we haven’t got to the point where there’s so much money floating around that the ideas that they’re funding aren’t good. I think the growth of the investment dollars has happened at a similar pace of the experience that we have within the founder community as well. And the things that I love about the Aussie startup scene, it is super helpful to each other, they do give back, it’s super connected. That isn’t always the case in my experience when I go to other cities around the world.
Will Tjo: Tell me more about that. What other geographies have you experienced?
Annie Parker: Oh, gosh. In my previous role to joining the Greater Sydney Commission, I worked for Microsoft for four years in a global role. So pick a major kind of startup city, I’ve probably been to it, whether that be in India, China, Israel, Europe, North America. I didn’t do Latin America. That’s very sort of remiss of me. I do have a huge soft spot for places like Argentina and Chile. They’ve got some incredible founders down there. But one of the beauties in a way, despite the fact that Australia is an enormous geographical footprint, where we do have startup communities, they are actually relatively neatly organized, if that makes sense. So the Sydney CBD is quite small, which lends itself to folks kind of being able to rub shoulders within each other and turn up to the same events or the same places and start sharing ideas and helping each other out and making those connections.
Annie Parker: Silicon Valley is often held up as the world’s best ecosystem to emulate. I wouldn’t agree with that statement for a number of reasons, but the first reason is geographically there is no such thing as Silicon Valley. It’s a collection of different spots all across the San Francisco Bay Area, which means you cannot sort of move from one place to another unless you’ve got time to go and sit on the train, or you’ve got time and money to be able to own a car and drive yourself around. You don’t need to do that in Sydney. You certainly don’t need to do that in Brisbane and Melbourne. These are very easily navigable cities, and that gives us, I think, an unfair advantage.
Will Tjo: When you mentioned that, I guess one of the challenges… Or not challenges, sorry, one of the strengths of our ecosystem is yeah, everyone is just so willing to help each other, there’s a lot of good will in the ecosystem. But then you pointed at that to be just our relative size, that everyone knows each other. Do you think it’s inevitable, then, that we will end up like a Silicon Valley once we grow to a size like that?
Annie Parker: Maybe, maybe not. And I think that’s perhaps something as ecosystem leaders, whether it be government, private money, the angel investor community seeds, community leaders like the accelerators and the Startmates of this world, I think that’s down to us to make sure we’re putting the right sort of foundations in place and stewardship to make sure that doesn’t happen.
Will Tjo: Changing gears a little bit, I’d love to know what your perspective is on what we could still be doing better.
Annie Parker: Look, I think there’s a conversation we should start having very, very clearly around renewables and cleantech. 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. It’s sort of like a 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. So I think we do need to do more on just kind of convincing everyone that this is the right thing to do.
Annie Parker: And clearly, the folks like Mike Cannon-Brookes tipping in a decent chunk of dollars to say, I’m showing the way here and I’m going to show my cards, so to speak. New South Wales government’s actually doing a decent job as well on renewable tech within their own influence and areas. But being honest, federal government is dragging its heels. We can certainly do more there.
Will Tjo: Yeah. So would you say it’s just the lack of support, lack of funding, lack of focus?
Annie Parker: I think yes, to all of those things, but I prefer to spin it in the positive, which is just look at the opportunity. We are leaving genuine amounts of incremental dollars for our economy on the table. Why would you do that?
Will Tjo: Yeah. Speaking about the federal government, a lot of founders that I’ve interviewed on this podcast state that one of the biggest challenges that we have is just the four-year cycle. Because our ecosystem is very new, we are very dependent on the whims of policy makers. And so, for example, in the 2015 Turnbull government with NISA, that got introduced, everything went really great, but then ever since then, it’s just been a slow bleed to death. I’d love to get your opinion on this, just generally.
Annie Parker: Well, arguably, NISA, whilst to the tech community was very well received and applauded, the rest of Australia didn’t, and therein lies the problem. We collectively, as a tech community, then clearly need to have done a better job on the storytelling. Why is it important? What will it bring us if we were to have invested better and more consistently? Trust me, don’t get me wrong, I am not the biggest fan of our federal government right now, but equally I think we all need to own our own part of that. And if we haven’t got the narrative right, then we as the experts in our field should take the leadership on that piece to try and fill the gap. We shouldn’t expect politicians to be able to answer everything, and if they’re not from the tech industry, or if they’re not from sort of the commercial side of private sector, why should they know how to sell that story?
Will Tjo: Yeah. So if I’m hearing you right, it was never, I guess, for lack of a better term, it was never the onus on the federal government to completely be able to design policies that worked for us, because they are politicians and we ourselves didn’t really know what we needed. Is that what you’re saying?
Annie Parker: I’m saying we probably did know what we needed, we just didn’t say it in the right way that appealed to the masses. We may have made a good story to… Clearly Malcolm Turnbull got it, but the rest of the electorate didn’t. My point is the importance of storytelling is that you need to bring everyone with you, not just one audience.
Will Tjo: Do you have any unpopular opinions, Annie?
Annie Parker: Gosh, it’s not necessarily an unpopular one as such, but it is more of a… I am really tired. It’s International Women’s Day next week, for the benefit of the listeners, as this is being recorded. I’m tired of looking at the stats on how little funding has gone into women founders. I know that it’s almost zero investment dollars that goes into Indigenous founders. The statistics for founders with a disability is just woeful, it makes you want to cry. So my unpopular opinion is I’m not convinced that the investment community is doing its job hard enough to shift those systemic barriers. I will be the most incredibly happy woman on this planet to help those VCs and investors learn how to do it, and help make those connections.
Annie Parker: I want to be part of the solution so I’m not just sitting here being negative just to sort of have a go at something, but we can’t waste any more time. The statistics that came out of the focal VC report, earlier in the week said we increased by one percentage point in the volume of women-led companies that Australian VC invested in, in the last 12 months. 1%. That’s not good enough. But then if you look at the total volume of dollars, it actually went down. It makes me want to cry.
Will Tjo: Why is that? Why do we do such a terrible job here?
Annie Parker: Oh, here’s the other thing, it’s not just Australia, this is globally. Yeah. So I could be any VC anywhere in the world, probably, with the same stick. There’s loads of different reasons. The first is that women and other underrepresented groups tend to not even get a look in with the first pitch, or ” Can we have a chat with you?” Because a lot of the connections between the VC community and leads is done by, “Here’s one I met the other week,” or “Here’s somebody that I met from my own community, from my own portfolio of startups,” and they’re doing the recommendations. So if those recommendations are coming from other overwhelmingly white male founders, guess who they’re probably going to be recommending? Other white male founders. Then it’s every step of that pathway the majority of VC funds are owned and partnered by men, white men.
Annie Parker: You’re going to fund what you know, and equally in the pandemic, the statistics got really difficult for women particularly, and I imagine other underrepresented groups. It’s very hard to find the data because VCs started to kind of go well, instead of doing lots of smaller deals, I’ll do smaller amounts, but I’ll do them bigger. And of course, when you’re doing bigger deals, you want even less risk. So if you want less risk, you’re going to go to, “Well, I want to invest in something that’s probably got a founder at the helm of it who’s got three or four laps around the block, perhaps has got a couple of successes under their belt.” And again, they’re always going to be, in the vast majority, white guys.
Will Tjo: Yeah. That’s consistent with a lot of the things that other founders that I’ve been interviewing have been saying, and how the ecosystem seems to end up being like a boys club at the end of the day. And exacerbated by COVID is that a lot of women ended up taking the lion’s share of home duties at home. So then it just becomes a spiraling problem.
Annie Parker: It does, it really does. And you even think about it taking one quick step back of practical, if I’m a woman wanting to get into technology, let’s leave aside the fact that it might not feel like a particularly welcoming place because it’s full of dudes. The practical side of, if I’ve got a child and I can’t afford to send that kid to daycare, how do I even start?
Will Tjo: Yeah. I’m sure this is a problem that there is no silver bullet. Do you have any suggestions for solutions here?
Annie Parker: Look, and you’re right, there isn’t one silver bullet. It’s a series of small, little, kind of incremental changes that needs to happen all at once or in beautiful orchestration. We do need to see access to childcare. So 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.
Annie Parker: 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. So it’s just, 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.
Will Tjo: I love how this is not supposed to be rocket science, it’s simply removing barriers, improving flexibility, and just making sure that we shine our spotlight to the women-led starters.
Annie Parker: And not just women-led, I do include people with disability, the incredible community of Indigenous founders. There’s so many different groups out here. And the part about this, and this was a mantra from Microsoft actually, and it’s one I’ve stolen because I really love it, which is “How can you ever serve the world if you don’t represent it?” And I might represent women, and women in technology, but that’s where my representation or intersectionality stops. If I want to build a solution that works for a person with a disability or a person from the Indigenous community or a person from the veteran community, how am I supposed to know what that should look like? I need to engage them. I need them to be included in the design. I need them to be included in the testing.
Will Tjo: Yeah.
Annie Parker: I need to employ them.
Will Tjo: Yeah, absolutely. So Annie, what we’re trying to do in this podcast is to document as accurately and historically as possible, the history of our ecosystem, just so that we can inform future decisions. And we’re trying to reach all corners from policy makers, investors, academics, founders themselves. Is there anything that we haven’t spoken today that you want them to hear?
Annie Parker: I do think there’s one point I’d like to make, which is around sort of linking it back to what I talked about earlier around cleantech and climate tech, and then this piece of we need to include different audiences. And here’s my linkage between the two. Indigenous people represent around about 5% of the population globally. And yet they are caretakers of 80% of the world’s most at-risk ecosystems on the planet. And yet they probably have most of the solutions on what we need to do to fix it. So here’s my thing of if we were able to step in and walk with them and help them understand, here’s the possibility of all this digital technology we have, how can we best pull that together and help solve the problem? We have such a lot of important problems to fix and I think nothing is more important than helping to fix the planet. My point is that I think a lot of the solutions actually already exist, we just haven’t gone to the communities who have those answers.
Will Tjo: Yeah. If only we applied the same level of customer… With any startup, you interview the customer to understand the public, then we applied that same level of meticulous researching into this area as well.
Annie Parker: Exactly.
Will Tjo: Lastly, Annie, if a brand new founder came to you, given all your experience, your wins and your mistakes, what would you tell them to increase their chances of success?
Annie Parker: Just start. Do it now and then ask for help. There’s too many founders that I see who wait to try and make it you’re sort of 85% ready or 90% ready, or in some cases, 100% ready. Don’t bother with that nonsense, just get it out of the door in front of some either potential customers or actual customers and start generating the feedback. And do not be shy. Ask for the help that you think you need. 99.% percent of the time, you’ll get it.
Will Tjo: It’s been an absolute pleasure having you on the show today, Annie. Thank you so much.
Annie Parker: You’re very welcome.
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.