Ian Gardiner discusses his passion for nurturing startup communities
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Ian Gardiner is an Investment Partner at Jelix Ventures, a firm which invests in early stage tech startups in Australia and New Zealand, and a co-founder of Innovation Bay, which works to create and nurture supportive communities for investors and founders. Originally from Scotland, Ian previously founded and acted as CEO in his own startup, Viocorp, for over a decade, before taking the role of Head of Startups for Amazon Web Service (AWS) Australia and New Zealand where he was responsible for establishing and managing AWS’s relationship with the startup communities in Australia and New Zealand. In his conversation with Adam, he discusses his time with AWS, and how he discovered his passion for growing and nurturing communities.
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Innovation Bay: https://innovationbay.com/
Ian on Twitter: https://twitter.com/rabbieburns
Adam Spencer: Hi, I’m Adam Spencer and Welcome to Day One. The podcast that spotlights Australian startups, founders, and the organisations 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:
Ian Gardiner: Hi, I’m Ian Gardiner. I’m a co-founder at Innovation Bay, and I’m also an investment partner with Jelix Ventures.
Adam Spencer: Can you give us a little bit of explanation around Jelix Ventures and Innovation bay?
Ian Gardiner: The whole thing started when I moved to Australia in 2000. I’m Scottish, you might notice. I came here in 2002. Basically fell into running a startup and I didn’t know anyone, so the founder in me launched Innovation Bay along with Phaedon Stough and it was a community group for startups.
Ian Gardiner: So we were there, I suppose, at the dawn of what you’d call now the ecosystem and I won’t go through the whole career enology, but I spent 12 years running my startup. Then I ran the AWS startup team for four years. And then my wife Andrea, at the time had started Jelix Ventures, investing, and she loved it and I loved it and I wanted to join her and support her in doing that. So I went in with her about three years ago and became an investment partner with Jelix.
Adam Spencer: What prompted the move to Australia?
Ian Gardiner: When you marry an Australian, it’s a given. Also, look, in a slightly more serious, look Scotland’s a great country and I did love living there, but I think a lot of people don’t leave because they don’t have the option. I came here with Andrea and I just saw the lifestyle, the weather, the beaches, I just loved the place.
Ian Gardiner: Yeah and I didn’t marry her because I wanted to come to Australia and I didn’t come to Australia just because we were married, but it was an opportunity. And I think it was just me as a 30 year old in search of a better life and Andrea… and at the time we were having kids. So we’d had one kid and we’d made the other one in Scotland. He was born here and I just thought it was going to be a better lifestyle for all of us coming here.
Adam Spencer: Was it difficult? Because it looks like you started your startup before you moved? I mean, in hindsight, it was crazy because I didn’t know anyone really and I didn’t have a job. And in hindsight that’s just crazy because I had two, well one and a half kids and no job in a brand new city where I didn’t know anyone. It’s kind of, an interesting first morning. I got all off the plane, Andrea carried on, this is in Sydney, she carried on to Melbourne where her parents were, with her youngest and pregnant with the second one. And my job was to find a job and a place to live.
Ian Gardiner: So the first thing I did was, got changed into a suit and I went to interview with John Croll, who is running Media Monitors. He’s now a member of our summit group which is one of the groups that we have for late stage founders. And I’ve known him for 20 years. He’s a great guy. So I got offered a job with him. Not immediately, but almost straight away. The second meeting I had was with Ron McCulloch, who I then started my startup Viocorp with. He was a Scotsman, I kind of knew him. And then my third meeting that morning was with Phaedon Stough, who I then went on to found Innovation Bay with. So it was a pretty productive morning.
Adam Spencer: How old were you when you moved to Australia if you don’t mind me asking?
Ian Gardiner: I’d have been 30, maybe 31.
Adam Spencer: What motivated you to start Innovation Bay?
Ian Gardiner: I think it was a desire to build a community. One of the things that happened and again, list goes back, mostly your listeners will be way too young for all this stuff but, there was a group that was around when I came to Australia called Internet.com and it was awesome. Like Mike Walsh, who some of you might know as a sort of futurist and speaker, he was running it at the time. And they were putting on events at Cafe Sydney, in Sydney. So I turned up kind of fresh off the plane from Scotland and I was going to these incredible events and this beautiful morning and the outdoor deck at Cafe Sydney, overlooking the harbor and the bridge. And I’m like, this is the best, I’m meeting some great people. And then about two months later, it went bust because it was kind of, the whole thing was at the end of the dot com boom.
Ian Gardiner: And then there was no community. So I didn’t really have a group. I wanted to find one, but I couldn’t. So I guess it was the founder in me. It’s like, ” Oh shit, well, I should go and launch one.” And that was kind of the genesis and I’d met Phaedon at the time as well. And I really liked him and we got on well and he was in recruitment and I was in software. But we both had that bond of, loving other people and loving trying to help other people, as well as ourselves, to be honest. I mean it was sort of selfish altruism.
Ian Gardiner: So Innovation Bay came about as a result of that. And the first few events were just, you’d call them meetups now. We met in a bar, you chuck some money in a hat, to cover the catering and we just heard it from a speaker. So people came to hear the speaker, but they also came to meet each other. And so, I built my network and I guess by extension we started building a community just off the back of that. It was scratching our own itch. And it was quite easy to be honest at this at the time.
Adam Spencer: How did that conversation go with Phaedon? What was the idea? So my first office was Home Nightclub in Cockle Bay Wharf and Darling Harbor. And we were sitting around in the bar, overlooking the harbor, beautiful day. And I can’t remember exactly how the conversation went or who initiated it but, the principles behind it were really, we want to meet some great people and bring great people together. So it’s about quality, not quantity. So each of us kind of lobbed 30 names of people that we’d met through the, what I guess you’d call now the ecosystem.
Ian Gardiner: So we ended up with maybe, 70, 80 names and we said let’s invite them and just bring people together. And we kind of had this informal strap line. It’s like, “Well, shall we put it on the website?” And we’re like, “No.” But it was kind of like, you’ll never meet a dickhead at an Innovation Bay event. Because we’d all been to events where you get, some consultant in your face trying to sell you the stuff they’ve got. We didn’t want any of that. We just wanted good people who were running startups or investing money. And we wanted this sort of informal guarantee that you’re not going to meet a dickhead.
Adam Spencer: That should be the tagline.
Ian Gardiner: Well, we had to hope about it. But yeah, it’s kind of hard like, “Well, where’s the bar? How do you define dickhead? Because you have bigger and more sophisticated kind of, you got to think about that stuff. And it’s quite hard to define.
Adam Spencer: Where did that, kind of love of people and love of community come from for you?
Ian Gardiner: Look, it’s a good question. And I actually don’t know. I’ve always been and I think as I’ve got older, I think I’ve recognised what I am and what I’m good at. I’m definitely an extrovert. I get energy from hanging out with people and engaging with them and honestly just trying to help them. And I think I’ve always been like that. But I never recognised that when I was younger.
Ian Gardiner: Look and I think, Phaedon is the same, I mean he gets energy from building the community and pooling good people together. The further into the journey we’ve got, I mean, we’ve started rolling out membership tiers. So the first one we started was called ‘Summit’, which I mentioned, John Croll is part of. And that’s 45 late stage founders.
Ian Gardiner: It’s the most impactful thing we’ve ever done. Because the best thing you can do for founders is to get them to hang out with other founders. Because they’re the ones that understand the journey. I mean, being a startup is a crazy journey. I mean it’s stressful, you’re not probably going to make much money. You might go bust. I mean, it’s just, the highs and lows are extreme.
Ian Gardiner: And nobody really gets it unless you’re a founder. Cause we were founders ourselves, so we understand it and we still are. I mean, we’re kind of at the different end of it and Innovation Bay doesn’t need to raise money and it’s just a great community business, but we see it in others and we really want to help them. And we just love bringing them together and seeing the impact that it’s having on them and their business.
Adam Spencer: Back in 2003, even right up to 2010, what was visible to you in terms of this startup ecosystem?
Ian Gardiner: There wasn’t much. I mean that was the real, those were the dark… No, actually I was going to say dark days. That makes it sound, it was like, it was miserable. It wasn’t miserable. It just there was no real activity. There was no venture. I mean there was, Allen & Buckeridge was around, but they were pretty niche in what they were investing in. And there was maybe a couple of others too. But, it wasn’t until about 2011, 2012, 2013, you know, AirTree, Blackbird, Square Peg, One Ventures, they all came in around that time.
Ian Gardiner: But those early days, ecosystem community was not a word that was part of the vernacular. And for me and Phaedon, when we were doing this, it was more about just, I guess scratching our own itch. Like we were tech founders or in the tech community and we wanted to hang out with like-minded people. And that was our way of doing it and we didn’t really think about, what it was or why we were doing it, we just did it because it felt right and it felt good and we enjoyed it.
Adam Spencer: What were founders doing in that 2003 to 2011, 2012, 2013? How were they starting? Where were they getting the money from?
Ian Gardiner: Well, in 2005, we had this guy called Mike Cannon-Brookes, from this little company called Atlassian.
Adam Spencer: Oh yes. That sounds familiar.
Ian Gardiner: So they had started then. I mean it wasn’t exactly the same shape as it is now. I mean the cloud computing, which was probably the biggest change in startups, this happened in that 20 year period. It was all on premises, software and hardware. And I was running a tech business too. And my company was called Viocorp and we were doing, it was a video platform. It was kind of like a corporate YouTube.
Ian Gardiner: So we were building product and deploying it into data centers and just doing all that stuff that you’d now call a sort of B2B SaaS, but remember when Mike turned up, it was… He said, “We’ve got 90 staff and we’ve raised…” We hadn’t raised any money, but he alluded to sort of millions in revenue and I’m like, “This guy seems really good.”
Ian Gardiner: And he was just, this lovely guy and we all know the trajectory since then. So it wasn’t all like Atlasian. Atlasian was there, we were there, it was, you could count on two hands, really the decent software businesses that were around at the time. WiseTech might have been going… I mean, the ones that got through that, because they were the ones that were good because they managed that transition from on premises, just do it yourself, deployment and infrastructure to this new world of the cloud and that was a difficult transition. Because you’re going from, legacy, super expensive, super fiddly and completely inflexible infrastructure to something that you can change at your fingertips in five minutes in your bedroom.
Adam Spencer: A lot of people have pointed to that cloud computing dropping the price dramatically for entry. Not having to spend tens of thousands of dollars on infrastructure. You could just get… was Amazon, AWS around at that point?
Ian Gardiner: Yes and again, as a slightly separate story, but I might as well tell it. I mean, Viocorp, my business did transition to the cloud. And we went through that journey. So we moved from, our own hosted infrastructure to using AWS. And that was around 2013. So I think in 2013 we were actually AWS’ biggest customer, for one or two months. We were super early and we weren’t massive there, I mean, it was probably six figures, but it felt like a lot to us, but for them it probably wasn’t. I know that’s nothing.
Ian Gardiner: But I loved the team, I loved the principles, I loved the product. And then, you know, fast forwarding six months or so, I’d been talking to AWS about potentially coming on as a partner of Innovation Bay or sponsor. And they’re like, “Yeah, we don’t really want to sponsor, but we’re recruiting for a role to basically run the ecosystem or to be head of the startups.” And I’m like, “Well, I don’t really want a job in a corporate, but tell me more.”
Ian Gardiner: And that was the start of it. And that’s how I ended up… I mean, I knew I was going to get it at Viocorp, it was just… I’d been 12 years in by that point. And for most startup founders, 12 years is a long journey. And we hadn’t had a big exit. It was, towards the end it was quite tough. We’d waste quite a lot of money and had flat growth and it was just difficult and I wasn’t enjoying it.
Ian Gardiner: So it was just perfect timing. And, they wanted to build out the startup ecosystem. They weren’t quite sure how to do it. And I think they saw in me, someone who was connected, passionate and I guess technically capable or technically capable enough. That makes me sound like I’m good at tech. I’m not. I’m a good generalist, but I understand tech.
Ian Gardiner: And it was just a great match. And I love that role because it really was about building the ecosystem, but doing it from a position of, I knew that we were doing good, because if you get a cloud platform like AWS in the hands of startups, you can transform the way that they think and operate and can deploy.
Ian Gardiner: And our stock tool, was to give them free credits. It was kind of like just giving them the entry level drug to get them on the hard stuff. And it was a great way of doing it. That wouldn’t be media approved, by the way. I was a media spokesperson at Amazon, I would have been called on for that. So don’t quote me on it. But look, loved the company and what we tried to do and how we did it and the impact, I think that that had really catapulted. And it was just at the time when the ecosystem was starting to boom. So it was just a great four years for me in the ecosystem.
Adam Spencer: What do you think prompted or was the catalyst for the rise of the Blackbirds and AirTrees and Square Pegs. Like, from no real specialists in the investment field in startups to having this new generation, new wave come through.
Ian Gardiner: I think it was a combination of talent within the ecosystem, like great startups coming through. Like your Atlassians and your Canvas and your WiseTechs and your… I don’t have a list of all the ones that were around then, but it was pretty obvious that if you had a great idea and you had enough money and talent to build out, you could do really well. So, that’s the first thing.
Ian Gardiner: The second thing is, the talent within that investment field. So when you think of, Daniel Pettry with Craig Blair, came out with Netus and they’d done a great job. And Paul Bassat just made a bunch of money with Seek and wanted to deploy that. And, they’d been playing around as a sort of syndicate.
Ian Gardiner: So a lot of people had been dabbling. I mean, that’s probably the wrong word and they wouldn’t like me using that but, they hadn’t really launched their fund per se. And it was kind of the same story with Jelix like we had to invest as a syndicate before we could actually go out and raise a fund.
Ian Gardiner: When you’re building an ecosystem, you can’t just… It’s not a prepacked, 3D printed house. I mean, you got to build the foundations and put the bricks in and then the rooms and then plumbing and it’s just, there’s lots of different things that go into it. So, it just took a little time for that startup talent and individual talent within the VC community to come together. And that was where that perfect storm came in sort of 2012, 2013, 2014.
Adam Spencer: What made you want to get into the investment VC space?
Ian Gardiner: I think I realised in my time at Amazon, that I was better with a portfolio approach and maybe it goes back to the way that I am and I like lots of multiple people and seeing the landscape from a bit of a distance, but being able to dip in and help when I can. Rather than being a founder and when you’re a founder, you are down the rabbit hole. And that’s appropriate. I mean, if it’s your life’s work and you need to change the world in that particular area, you have to be down the rabbit hole. But you know, it’s your blinker. You don’t see things beyond that. It’s your product, your team, your customers, your investors. And it’s kind of hard to see that wider ecosystem. And I loved doing that when I was at Amazon. Andrea, my wife had also like shared that passion.
Ian Gardiner: I think 2014 was the first time that she did her first investment, which actually came from an Innovation Bay event that we saw them at. And we didn’t know what we were doing. And we learned on the tools and she loved it. And then I loved seeing her and supporting her as she did it. And then it just became apparent that, maybe that would make sense to help you and eventually raise a fund and just head down that path. But that was a different story. I mean, it’s a really difficult thing to do to go from scratch, with no experience, to having a proper ESV-CLP venture fund behind you. That was a really tough journey.
Adam Spencer: What does Jelix mean?
Ian Gardiner: So our kids, our two boys are called Jasper and Felix.
Adam Spencer: Uh-huh, right.
Ian Gardiner: And I used to tell stories to them at night when they were little about Fasper and Jelix. And Jelix was a cooler name than Fasper. So poor old Fasper has not had to look in yet.
Adam Spencer: So what happened, do you think in between kind of 2010 to present, like what has been some of the big movements from your perspective that have kicked things up a notch in the startup world?
Ian Gardiner: There’s few things. I mean one is the shining star successes. Atlassian, Canva, Afterpay, Airwallex, I mean, the list goes on. I mean, I can’t remember the number. There’s probably a dozen unicorns now across Australia and that’s not mentioning the ones that went on and listed, like Seek and Real Estate. You know, so there is so much great talent that’s coming through. And I think people are looking at that and going, “That’s pretty cool.” And it would be good to go and join that. Or get involved in it in some way, or invest in it.
Ian Gardiner: So all of this, there’s no one thing Adam has pulled this together. It’s just been this confluence of talent. Cloud computing has definitely helped money come into the sector. But I think the number one thing is just the examples, the shining star talent that’s come through and people want to emulate. Who doesn’t want to be Mel and Cliff? I mean, like they are rock stars.
Adam Spencer: Yeah.
Ian Gardiner: Scott and Mike, I mean, you just have to say the names and it’s like, you know who they are, you respect them, you know just, I mean I know them all and they’re just, they’re lovely people and they’re just down to Earth and yes, they’re worth billions of dollars, but in pretty much all cases, they’re going to give most of it away. They’ve got more money than they can ever spend. And I love to see them doing good with that.
Adam Spencer: Talking about present day, what are some of the challenges or gaps that the ecosystem faces?
Ian Gardiner: I don’t know, some gaps are, self harm almost and some gaps are just geographic and this is a tough continent. I mean, we’re at the back end of the world in a funny timezone, it’s tough to get here. We’ve been shut off to the world for the best part of two years and sure Zoom has helped, but it’s pretty hard to, roll out your overseas expansion and hire a bunch of staff overseas when you’re stuck in Zoom.
Ian Gardiner: What are the challenges… I’m not going to blame government, the ecosystem is doing well and it is definitely doing better than ever. And it is going up. I don’t know whether I believe in these startup rankings. I’m pretty competitive as most investors and founders are. So you do want to look around the world and say, “Well, how are we doing versus the other places, so are we doing relatively better?”
Ian Gardiner: I think we have improved over the last few years. And I think we have gone up in the rankings, like Sydney was 25 or something in the world rankings. And the other cities are just, they’ve been around longer and they’re they’ve got more money and more talent. I sometimes think we should just stop up, shut up a little bit, stop winging. Don’t look over our shoulder, but just focus on what we’ve got and how we can do better. And I think that’s certainly the attitude that we’ve taken. Is like, we live here. Like we’ve made a choice to live here. So lean in, stop winging, if you don’t like living here because you think Silicon Valley is better then, bugger off back to Silicon Valley. It’s like, if you’re going to be here, lean in, stop winging, let’s get on with it.
Adam Spencer: they come up with those rankings? What are the criteria?
Ian Gardiner: It’s talent, it’s connectedness, it’s money, I don’t know. I’ve never been involved in trying to pull these rankings together. I mean, they feel on the face of it and just looking at it and thinking about it not too deeply, about right. You would think London and New York and Boston, would be better than Sydney for launching and running a startup and being able to find talent, expertise and great investors and a massive market at your door step. I mean, all of that stuff plays into it.
Ian Gardiner: And we just don’t have all of that yet. It’s getting better and as some of these success stories that we’ve talked about, I mean, all the big funds like, Blackbird, AirTree, Square Peg, they are all invested in Canva. I mean, Blackbird’s first fund is going to be one of the best performing funds ever. And mostly that’s a result of Canva. I mean, it is unbelievable. And I saw a point for me because they asked me to invest and I didn’t have any money.
Adam Spencer: I think I heard that. I think I heard that on an interview. You did.
Ian Gardiner: Maybe I wouldn’t about it too much, but look like I did invest in Startmate and that, first thing I can say Start Mate batch were really good. But, I didn’t have enough to invest in their fund unfortunately.
Adam Spencer: Have you had much exposure to other ecosystems around the world?
Ian Gardiner: Yeah, that was one of the great things about the AWS team. We would get together as a global team twice a year and talk about best practice, what’s going on elsewhere. We’d meet some of the ecosystem that’d bring them in. So, we went to London, New York, Tokyo, Seattle, San Francisco. Yeah and we’d have a great time doing it. I mean, we’d go out, we’d have a few drinks, we’d go to karaoke bar. I mean, it was a lot of fun, but we also learned a huge amount, built great network and discovered what was going on across the world.
Adam Spencer: Is there anything that you think makes Australia unique? Do we have any competitive advantages when it comes to starting a startup here?
Ian Gardiner: I mean the big advantage to living here is the lifestyle. I mean, I think lifestyle is pretty unbeatable compared to just about anywhere else. Yes, housing’s expensive, but it’s not as bad as San Francisco. Yeah, do we have real competitive advantages? No, probably not. I don’t think there’s one thing. I mean, like we’ve got great talent, but so does many other places and we have money, but so do other places. I don’t think anything that we’ve got would be ranked the number one in the world beyond lifestyle. say unfortunately, but I mean, that’s the reality and that’s what we’ve got to lean in and that we’re all in this ecosystem fixing. And it is getting better. Across the board, every metric is getting better.
Adam Spencer: Do you have any unpopular opinions about the ecosystem?
Ian Gardiner: I mean maybe the piece around government policy, I mean, you get a lot of people winging the government should do more. The Visa regime is not great. And I don’t think that’s necessarily, there are some things that we could do better but the R&D tax has been great. The ESV-CLP structures, a fundraiser and a VC now has been great. And there are … Things could be better. And I would love us not to be digging out the ground and selling to the Chinese as a … And the Indians and whoever as an economic, imperative. we should be leading in tech and focusing on renewables and all the rest of
Ian Gardiner: But overall, as I think Mike Karen Brook said this, a great founder is not going to get out of bed, trying to solve a problem that is irritating them. And then you want to change the world and say, “Oh, I’m not going to do it today because government regulations don’t suggest I do it.” You’re going to change the world. You’re going to change the world. With or without government.
Adam Spencer: I want to ask you the advice question. What one piece of advice would you tell a new founder even if it was just one.
Ian Gardiner: Passion trump’s logic and what I mean by that is that, if you think too hard about whether you should do a startup, you will never do it because it makes no sense on almost any level. But, if it’s something that you feel you have to do and you want to change the world and if you’re thinking about the money and how much you might make, you’re probably doing it wrong. You’ve got to … It’s got to come from that passion perspective and you just got to want to do it. And yeah, again, if you think hard, you just won’t do it.
Adam Spencer: This last question, is not really a question. Keeping in mind that I’m trying to put together here, a documentary that will hopefully as honestly as possible and all encompassing as possible, tell the history of the Australian startup ecosystem, I want people from all corners of the ecosystem to hear the story. Do you have a message for them? Like either founders, investors, academics, policy makers, any one of those or all of them, what do they need to hear from Ian?
Ian Gardiner: I mean, it’s a unique ecosystem because, I think it’s more collaborative than just about any other ecosystem. And again, going back to the point about Innovation Bay, there’s no real dickheads in the ecosystem. And part of that is a self fulfillment. Like if you’re a dickhead, you are not going to get people to work for you or invest in you or buy your product. Therefore, you are a bad founder.
Ian Gardiner: So it just means that the good founders and the good investors and the same for investors, because you got to find people who want to take your money and you’re going to find people who want to give you their money to invest. So you need to be a non-dickhead. So you just end up with this ecosystem, the top end that is filled with these great people, who want to help each other and the ecosystem. And that’s what I love about it. And that’s why I think both Phaedon and I and the whole Jelix team and we just love building and helping to contribute to that overall ecosystem and community. It’s a great place to be.
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.