Ashley Baxter discusses how UQ Ventures was invaluable for her startup
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Ashley Baxter is the founder of Monty Compost Co, a clean-tech startup building hardware and software technology for monitoring and managing organic waste recycling. With a passion for environmentalism at its core, Ashley had the idea for Monty Compost Co after learning that composting could be part of the solution for various environmental problems, and that there was little innovation happening in the space. In her conversation with Adam, Ashley discusses how UQ Ventures, a program run out of The University of Queensland, was “invaluable” in getting Monty Compost Co off the ground, as well as her opinion that some people within the startup community could afford to be more humble and less driven by ego.
Monty Compost Co: https://montycompost.co/
UQ Ventures: https://ventures.uq.edu.au/
Ashley on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/baxter-ashley/
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. On the episode today, we have-
Ashley Baxter: Hi, I’m Ashley. I’m the founder of Monty Compost Co. So basically, we’ve developed a hardware and software solution for composting. Monty Monitor is an IOT device that you stick into your household compost and it just pairs with our mobile app, which tells you how to keep your compost healthy, how to make it more engaging, more exciting, and really just bringing a lot of exciting digital, modern technologies to the traditional area of composting. Compost is a really incredible solution to climate change and a lot of environmental impacts of human activity can be mitigated through composting. So, it’s really exciting being able to produce a technology that’s going to help more and more people do it. And I guess, that’s what we’re trying to do with Monty Compost Co.
Adam Spencer: “Making composting exciting.”
Adam Spencer: If that’s not your tagline-
Ashley Baxter: Yeah. I mean, as if it isn’t already exciting enough.
Adam Spencer: If that’s not your tagline, it should be your tagline.
Ashley Baxter: I mean, well, we tried making compost sexy, but then people just got a bit grossed out by that. So, we just axed it.
Adam Spencer: So, welcome to Day One. It’s a podcast that we interview founders and we’d go back to day one to talk about their story and how they got started and how they built their companies. This isn’t that, the series that we’re doing right now, but I’m just curious and I’d love to do a story on Monty Compost. We can’t go too far into that story today, but just out of curiosity, where did the name come from? Monty Compost?
Ashley Baxter: So, I didn’t actually come up with that. That was a design agency that we worked with. So, it comes from Monitor. So-
Adam Spencer: Ah, right.
Ashley Baxter: Monty Monitor. I would come into the studio and I would be geeking out on composting and I’d be like, “Yeah. So, we’re monitoring the total volatile organic compounds,” and really getting nerdy about it. And they were like, “We need to make this a little more accessible to the average person.” So it’s going with that whole Alexa, Siri, smart-home type vibe I guess and that’s really what we’re trying to do is making composting very accessible, very fun like, “Hey Monty, how’s my compost?” kind of thing.
Adam Spencer: So, you’ve studied Bachelor of Computer Science and also Management Information Systems. I’m imagining following that path got you here.
Ashley Baxter: Kind of. Technically, my degree was IT and Business Management, but I did a few majors in there. I actually didn’t really know much about composting when I first started. I’ve always been really environmental since… God, I joined my first environmental club when I was in primary school. But I didn’t actually know anything about composting until 2018 which is when I just came across it in this random book that I was reading and I just got obsessed with it. My two university degrees definitely helped with, I suppose, the business and product execution skills that were required. They helped me kind of understand what I needed to do and create in order to make it happen, if that makes sense.
Adam Spencer: Yeah. Well, I mean, that’s why I brought up the university degree because I wanted to understand how did you arrive at composting as a business? What was so interesting about it to you. You’ve filled us in a bit there with the background and your passion for the environment starting in primary school. So, that’s definitely what it was? That’s where it all started?
Ashley Baxter: Yeah. So, 2018 was my last year in uni and I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do. I had done so many different types of work experience. I had done programming and then project management and everything in between and I still had no idea what I wanted to do, but I knew that it had to be something around the environment and climate change, impact solutions. And so, I was reading about the problems that our agricultural systems face and they’re absolutely huge. For example, artificial fertilizer shortages, soil degradation, and then obviously, the impact of carbon in the atmosphere. And then, one of the solutions that was recommended was compost. Composting food waste into this natural fertilizer that can store carbon, that can replenish nutrients, replace artificial fertilizers.
Adam Spencer: Wow.
Ashley Baxter: I think it was actually my background in environmental action that really stuck this with me because I had never heard about compost. We always hear about electric cars and solar panels and protesting all the fossil fuel industry, but I’d literally never in almost 15 years of activism heard anyone talk about the potential that compost has. And so, I think as well from a business perspective, I was starting to get into startups doing these new projects, exploring opportunities. And there are very few opportunities out there in the business world as big as managing organic waste. There are three billion tons of organic waste out there that could be processed into something valuable. And I think from a commercial perspective, that stuck with me as well. I’m like, “There’s something that can be done there that’s not currently being done.” Yeah, did that answer your question, that rambling?
Adam Spencer: I don’t remember what my question was, but that was amazing. You clearly are passionate about what you’re doing and that’s very important. Back in 2018, so that’s when you started, and you’ve studied at UQ, so that’s where the UQ Ventures connection is.
Ashley Baxter: Yeah.
Adam Spencer: How helpful were they in getting started down this path?
Ashley Baxter: Indescribably. No one in my family’s ever started a business. So, UQ Ventures is basically like this. They’ve got a whole host of different startup related programs, work exchanges with startups, or just seminars and workshops and things like that and it’s all offered free to UQ students. But I didn’t know anything about it before 2018 and I didn’t know anything about entrepreneurship, to be honest, either. No one in my family’s ever started a business. It never crossed my mind in my entire life that I would start a business. Nine to five jobs, that’s what I was going to do. That’s what I thought I was made for. But then, I guess doing all these other work experiences and finding how incompatible I was personally with them really helped, I suppose, steer me towards exploring new opportunities.
Ashley Baxter: And that put me into the UQ Venture space I just heard about it from someone. Literally from my first session in one of their series on Intro to Startup or Startups 101, whatever it’s called, literally from that first session, I was like, “This is the space I want to be in.” And that was in 2018 in my last year of uni when I was meant to be finding a grad program at one of the big four consultancy firms. That’s what my degree said I should be doing. But instead, I was going to these startup workshops and doing all these horrible unpaid internships. And so, I think that’s really what drew me into the space. I’ve never been able to connect with any other role that I’ve been part of like I have with a startup. And then like I said, I just read that book on composting and the two meshed and then everything worked out and kicked off in 2019. And now, I’ve got a compost startup.
Adam Spencer: That is awesome.
Ashley Baxter: Wouldn’t have guessed it. If my high school self asked me, “Oh, what are you going to be doing when you’re 25?” They would not have thought compost startup at all.
Adam Spencer: What’s been the biggest lesson that you’ve learned so far?
Ashley Baxter: Oh my God, there’s so many. You’re going to have to narrow it down. There’s just… Ugh, I’m trying to think. From specifically startups?
Adam Spencer: Yeah. Either mentally or even technically, what’s been something that could have broken you that you’ve overcome?
Ashley Baxter: I suppose this is a generalization, but I do truly believe that there… I’ve seen so many people burn out or just give up on what they’re doing and it hasn’t been necessarily because it’s failed or because it’s been a bad idea. I think I’ve realized that if you’re not passionate, and it’s such an overused word, but if you’re not just so driven and passionate and aligned with the purpose of your startup, then I just think that most people don’t have the stamina to keep it going. There have been so many times that I’ve been like, “This is too much work. This is too much stress.” It’s literally physically just drained me so much sometimes, the pressure and the stress. And I know that if I didn’t know that action on climate change was my life purpose, I probably wouldn’t be able to keep going.
Ashley Baxter: Obviously, it depends and that’s a bit of a generalization, but for me, it’s been the fact that I am working on something 24,7 that is so alive. I’ve got nowhere else to go. This is it for me. And it’s like even when it’s draining and even when it’s exhausting, I’m still fulfilling that life purpose and passion. And that is what helps me get through it as opposed to just doing a startup for, I hate to say it, but the fame and fortune, which is what it’s become. I think there’s a lot of theatrics and media now around startups that make it like, “Oh, it’s the cool thing to do!” “Oh, awesome, edgy billionaires.” But I think at the end of the day, to me, a startup is it’s always just going to be so hard and so much work and so much stress and so much pressure. And it’s going to be really hard to get through all that unless you’re doing it for a reason beyond those two things.
Adam Spencer: Yeah. Talking about how hard the journey is, aside from UQ Ventures, who else, people or organizations, that have been around you that you could lean on for support?
Ashley Baxter: Well, UQ Ventures for one, they are unbelievably helpful and they’ve continued to help me throughout my journey. So I got some funding initially from them, and then I also did one of their accelerated programs. But that was in mid-2019 that I finished that up and ever since then, two years on, they’ve still been supporting, making connections, always there for help. So, shout out to UQ Ventures. They’re an incredible program and the people running it have done so well. And I’ve definitely found that throughout my journey, these sorts of hubs, I guess, where you have lots of people in startups who know the struggle, they’re much more willing to help out because they know that they wouldn’t have made it there without the people who’ve helped them.
Ashley Baxter: So, I think that’s a really strong attitude throughout the startup ecosystem in general is just everyone’s helping everyone rather than maybe corporate environments where it’s a little bit dog-eat-dog. So many people have gotten help in running a startup or working at a startup that they know that they want to help other people and keep that going. I suppose the second big place specifically that we’ve got help, one of our investors, ACAC Innovation, they’re a family office based in Brisbane and they’ve invested in over 30 really early-stage startups. They’ve got a co-working space in Brisbane that any of their portfolio companies can work at. And having this co-working space, the mentors and investors just upstairs, has been an unbelievable support throughout this early stage of growing the company. It’s helped us avoid mostly some of the really stupid mistakes.
Adam Spencer: Since 2018 to now, what are some of the biggest gaps you’ve observed?
Ashley Baxter: The biggest gaps?
Adam Spencer: Yeah. What some areas that we could improve on as a community?
Ashley Baxter: I think people need to be more humble. I think that we’re not too bad in Brisbane, and maybe that’s just by merit of the [brissie] culture, but I think something that really just bugs me about the startup ecosystem is the egos attached to it. And it’s definitely not everyone, but I think a small percentage of the people and companies in the space that have either done really well or have really just gotten a lot of attention, they tend to just project a lot of ego and arrogance. And that starts to rub off on other people and it makes the day-to-day life of a startup seem different to what it is. The big events and stuff and the TEDx talks and the panels and the $10 million raisers, all of those things are great to hear about on the news and things like that, but at the end of the day, most of your time running a startup or being part of the startup ecosystem is just working really hard.
Ashley Baxter: We never really see all the shit stuff. And I would know shit. I work at a compost company. No one ever really talks about the really hard stuff behind startups. Everyone wants to gas up all the big accomplishments. And so, I think reminding ourselves and being really honest with ourselves about the challenges that are faced, not just the wins, but also all the losses and all the journey in itself, that would be really helpful in, I suppose, just making a more positive community and making it feel less competitive, making it more supportive, bringing in people who may feel a bit off-put by the egos in the community. Like I said, it’s definitely not as bad here as say in, for example, America, where you’ve got that really hyper-competitive startup culture. But I think that’s one area that we could just make sure that we’re keeping an eye on and that everyone is supporting everyone and that we’re not just trying to out-compete, I guess, in the business wins, if that makes sense.
Adam Spencer: Yeah. Maybe, drawing on some of those, the hard slog that is startup life, either what would you tell yourself back in 2018 or what would you tell a brand new founder or entrepreneur that came to you tomorrow? What one piece of advice would you give them?
Ashley Baxter: Don’t do [inaudible] , no. Not don’t do it.
Adam Spencer: Don’t do it.
Ashley Baxter: Don’t do it unless it’s important enough. I don’t have any regrets. I think sometimes, my mind is like, “I wish I was just living on an abandoned, isolated island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean with no responsibilities or internet or emails.” Sometimes, I go through my head occasionally, but I think what always draws me back to doing it is the fact that what we’re working on is one of the few areas in the world where there just isn’t a lot of innovation happening. There isn’t that much going on in organic waste recycling as there needs to be. And what we’re doing is really quite a world first.
Ashley Baxter: So as hard as it is, if I told my 18-year-old… Not my 18. If I told my 2018 self how hard it was, if I just told all about the difficulties, none of the rewards, I don’t think I would’ve done it. But the reasons for doing it, for me, they’re important enough. So I would say to someone, “Just be sure that what you’re doing is something that can get you through your darkest days.” It’s a tough one. There are so many things I want to tell 2018 me. I’ll stick with just that one. Do it for the right reasons I think.
Adam Spencer: The last question isn’t really a question. Keeping in mind that this is going to be A, a documentary that tells the entire history of the Australian startup ecosystem, and B, an interview series where we want other founders, we want investors, policy makers, academics, all sorts of people from this startup ecosystem to hear these stories, keeping in mind that they’re the audience, what would you want to tell them? What’s top of mind for you? What’s a conversation that we need to be having in this space, maybe that we aren’t having?
Ashley Baxter: Hmm, there’s something that should be so incredible about a startup. I feel that the word startup and all its various similar words like innovation and entrepreneurialism and all of that, I think startups have something really magical about them that’s been probably a little bit overused. When you call a bank innovative, that’s probably not the right application of it. There is something truly so incredible about a group of one, two, three people just getting in a room and coming up with an incredible solution to something that’s never being done, that really wouldn’t be able to be accomplished by some behemoth company, that I think is just so unique. Compared to the earlier days of particularly technology startups in the ’80s and ’90s, when they were doing just such cool, incredible things with this technology, really solving big problems, I feel like so many startups I see now, they’re just like, “Oh, whether Uber for this,” “Whether Airbnb for this.”
Ashley Baxter: They’re not really trying to do something unique and innovative. They’re just trying to make money or get more market share or something like that. We’re facing so many huge, global problems that are going to have ridiculously horrific ramifications. Climate change is going to kill and displace millions of people and we’re going to see that in our lifetime. Just looking at the pandemic crisis and all the fallout from that, whether it’s social or economic, these are big problems. And so, I think that to all the people in the startup community, we have something really incredible in our agility, in our creativity, in our intelligence in solving these big problems. Don’t get caught up in whatever just the latest trend is to make money and get the highest valuation. I think we should be using the magic of startups to make things that are magical, not just make money.
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.