Lucinda Hartley discusses the barriers she overcame when starting out
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Lucinda Hartley is an urban strategist and serial entrepreneur. She is the co-founder of Neighbourlytics, a social analytics platform for neighbourhoods that aims to solve the human data gap for the property sector by providing access to information and insights about urban life. She also co-founded CoDesign Studio, a not-for-profit with the mission of improving social connection and resilience across Australian Communities. In her conversation with Adam, Lucinda discusses how Australia’s startup ecosystem has evolved over the past five years, and some of the barriers she faced when first becoming involved in the ecosystem.
Lucinda’s website: https://www.lucindahartley.com/
CoDesign Studio: https://www.codesignstudio.com.au/
Luncinda Hartley: Hi, my name’s Lucinda. I’m a founding director of Neighbourlytics. We are a social analytics platform for neighbourhoods, that solves the human data gap for the property sector, by providing access to information and insights about urban life, the everyday activity that goes on in neighbourhoods.
Adam Spencer: So before I do ask that question about when did you first get involved. How did you discover the problem for Neighbourlytics? What’s your background, how did you start this company?
Luncinda Hartley: I’ve been an urban designer for 20 years but my interest in cities and neighbourhoods, it sounds cliche, but it actually began during my childhood. I lived in many different countries around the world. I had this experience of many different places and really saw that the neighbourhoods that you live in have this profound impact on how you live your life. And that was a form of great curiosity to me.
Luncinda Hartley: And I became an urban designer because I was interested in being part of a story of how we shape cities and communities and I did that for a number of years, working around the world. I had the opportunity to work with the United Nations on the Sustainable Development Goals for cities. I ran a consultancy with my business partner, Jessica, for a number of years, where we looked at placemaking and activation of cities.
Luncinda Hartley: But across all of those spectrums, we noticed that there was a data gap. When you’re a city maker, the only information that you have access to is about your physical environment, the height of the buildings, the speed of the traffic. But what we all care about is the culture and the lifestyle, and is there a great cafe? Are there places I can go to the park and meet my friends or walk my dog?
Luncinda Hartley: These are the experiences and the moments that make neighbourhoods great. It’s also what makes property development profitable and so we really started to dive into how we could solve that data gap. Traditionally, that might be done manually with things like surveys and we started to explore what kind of technology might be available to us.
Adam Spencer: My partner works for a council, a local council, and it’s a point of frustration for her to see – now I want to get your point of view on this. All of these suburbs that pop up with no trees, zero trees, it’s just house, house, house. What’s your opinion on that?
Luncinda Hartley: Apart from causing a major heat island problem?
Adam Spencer: Yeah, why does that happen though?
Luncinda Hartley: Yeah, I mean, I think we have a long way to go in our planning controls that allow that kind of development. But I think we’ve forgotten to design cities for humans. If you think about it in its most basic way, cities are like zoos for people. But, you wouldn’t design a zoo for an animal by removing it from its habitat. But we kind of do that for people, sometimes, without really thinking about it.
Luncinda Hartley: And a lot of what Neighbourlytics does and certainly the themes that we’re keen to explore, is how do we create human-centered cities? How do we to create places where people want to be? And trees is part of that story. Having great access to shade and comfort is a really important part of that.
Adam Spencer: So let’s jump into the main question here. When did you first get involved in this thing that we call a startup ecosystem?
Luncinda Hartley: I became involved in the startup ecosystem completely by accident, sometime in 2017. I’m not new to business, I’ve run a bunch of companies before but I never really saw myself as a tech founder. In fact, I wasn’t really even interested in that because my brother’s a software engineer and it just looked really boring from the outside. Apologies to all the devs out there.
Luncinda Hartley: And I guess became more and more curious about this problem of how do we create more data and insights to create better cities. At the time I was living in Samoa, in the Pacific. That’s a totally different story, which I won’t go into. But I put in an application to join SheStarts Accelerator, with not more than a back of an envelope idea of like, “I reckon we could use social media and digital data to solve this problem, what do you think?”
Luncinda Hartley: And then to our enormous surprise from 800 applications, we were accepted to join this accelerator and it was this jumpstart and we were suddenly propelled into this startup ecosystem, which I’d really given very little thought to before. I’d given a huge amount of thought to how we solve this problem for the property sector but I hadn’t given much thought to what the startup ecosystem actually was.
Adam Spencer: Right. What do you understand it to be now?
Luncinda Hartley: I think even in the last four or five years, it’s really evolved in lots of ways. I would say that I thought that to be, naively and wrongly, I thought that to be involved in the startup ecosystem you needed to be a full technology person. You need to be a data scientist or a software engineer and that there wasn’t really a place to play for others. But I now see there’s a very broad conversation, of which I’m part of, is that there are people solving really interesting problems.
Luncinda Hartley: That’s why you would have a startup because you want to solve a really interesting problem, not necessarily because you’re great at programming. I now see that there’s a much more nuanced diverse conversation around how we solve problems. But coming into it at the start, it just felt like it played by a totally different set of rules than what I’d been familiar with, even though I had been involved in starting companies several times before.
Adam Spencer: Back in 2017, aside from SheStarts, what else, 2017 was visible to you? How much of the ecosystem could you see? Who were the beacons that you’d looked to, organisation wise also people? Just give me an idea of the community.
Luncinda Hartley: Yeah, I mean, I suppose I was aware of some of the unicorns that had come through, like the Atlassians and the people that you might read about in mainstream media. But I would say I was not very well acquainted with the startup ecosystem. I mean, I was aware of some of the consulting companies, like Thoughtworks and others that I’d come across because I worked in consulting previously.
Luncinda Hartley: But yeah, I would actually say it was relatively opaque to me, only that I saw this stereotype play out in real life of the bros in their t-shirts and playing ping pong. By the way, who wants a ping pong table in their office? No one, that’s so annoying. But I had that vision of what it was like and unfortunately at the start it was like that and I think it’s changing. But I do feel that there is a dominant culture that excludes the wrong sort of people, yeah.
Adam Spencer: What was maybe the biggest win coming out of SheStarts? What was the biggest, most valuable lesson that you got?
Luncinda Hartley: There was a lot of lessons at that time that have been very impactful on our journey. I felt like probably the biggest thing that we got out of SheStarts was having access to a very wide network into the startup ecosystem. So other founders, mentors, we were introduced to a lot of investors. That program got a lot of PR.
Luncinda Hartley: So we got a lot of visibility, perhaps more than we might in our first fledgling year of a startup. And I felt that, that gave us inroads to the ecosystem, which gave us a lot of network and platform to grow through. And many of the founders from that program, we’re still in touch with regularly, they’ve become a real network for us.
Adam Spencer: Fast forwarding to present day. What some of the gaps that you observe? Where could we make the biggest improvements?
Luncinda Hartley: There’s a lot of attention being played at the moment into how we diversify, how we think about startups, what does a startup founder look like? How do we challenge stereotypes in that way? And I know that whether that’s through female focus programs of which there’s quite a lot now and I think starting to really have an impact.
Luncinda Hartley: As well as people of colour and all kinds of other areas of difference that people need to be more inclusive of in the start ecosystem. So there are waves being made in that area that I’m observing, are making a difference. I would also just like to see some of the broader skill sets diversified a little bit, I think a high growth successful company doesn’t have to be fully high tech.
Luncinda Hartley: I think that there are a lot of experts, problem experts, out there who wouldn’t see themselves as startup founders. And I’ve been one of those but I think there are thousands of others who they would actually be brilliant founders but they wouldn’t see the startup ecosystem as accessible to them because they perhaps don’t understand all of the different dynamics of how it works. And that could be because of a gender or racial barrier but it may actually just also be just an acknowledgement of different skill sets and feeling comfortable in different spaces.
Adam Spencer: Yeah. What do you think we’re doing really well in this community? Where do we excel?
Luncinda Hartley: I found my experience is the very early stage, seed, startup, accelerator, community is well covered. There’s an accelerator almost for everything. And while there’s limitations on that because in lots of ways, I think you can’t necessarily accelerate someone. They need to run their own business. But there is a lot of support available for very early stage founders. And that’s, I think, we’ve certainly benefited from that. But then you stop being early stage and it gets a little bit harder.
Adam Spencer: What’s been the biggest surprise to you, you being a, startup founder?
Luncinda Hartley: That I like it.
Adam Spencer: Oh, okay. You didn’t think you were going to like it?
Luncinda Hartley: Well, yeah. I resisted that journey for 10, 15 years because I wasn’t really interested in the ping pong table stereotype. I’m actually serious. I thought that’s not the kind of job I want but you can create whatever you want. And that’s, I think that there is incredibly diverse companies out there doing amazing work. But the thing that really motivated me the most was scale. The problems that we want to solve at Neighbourlytics and that I’m personally interested in solving are huge.
Luncinda Hartley: 80% of the world is going to live in the city by 2050. That means that we essentially need to build as much city in the next 30 years as we’ve ever built to date. And we have this narrow window of opportunity to get it right and create this fantastic environment so people are healthy and happy or essentially to create an awful place where we’re going to spend generations recovering from.
Luncinda Hartley: And so we’re at this sort of precipice. And in our previous business, we were able to solve that one project at a time and create meaningful work but just not anywhere close to the scale of impact that’s needed. So that’s been really motivating.
Adam Spencer: What’s been the biggest challenge in the last, like in the last five years. What’s been the biggest challenge that you’ve had to overcome with Neighbourlytics?
Luncinda Hartley: Because we’re such a unique product in the market, we’ve had a lot of customers, even from the very beginning, even before we really had an MVP, we had people wanting to pay for it and that’s a really exciting position to be in. But there’s been lots of challenges about how we think about growth in that model. I would say one of our biggest challenges has been finding the right team and finding the right team at the right time.
Luncinda Hartley: Recruitments, it is really hard, it’s also really expensive. And if you don’t get the right people, it can have such a huge impact on your business, particularly when you’re small. So finding a CTO, which we have and we have a brilliant CTO and that’s been fantastic but it really took us a long time and held back a lot of our product development while we were waiting for that. And similarly, as we’re looking to scale again now, just thinking about where are we going to find the right people from at the right time is a big challenge in some ways.
Adam Spencer: Yeah. What advice would you give yourself before you went down this road?
Luncinda Hartley: I would give myself the advice to think so much bigger than I was able to at the time, really. I think while I had a very big vision for solving problems in the world, I was, I would say quite blinkered with the methods and tools that I had available to me to solve them. And now that I can see that I can see just almost infinite possibility and opportunity of how we would continue to grow and continue to scale and continue to solve these really important problems.
Adam Spencer: Is that the same advice you would give to a, if you were to be a mentor, for a up and coming founder, is that the same advice you would give them?
Luncinda Hartley: I would give them that advice but through the lens that everyone has their own monkeys on their shoulders, I guess. And sometimes that’s about a mindset shift and really backing and believing in yourself. And so I would certainly give that advice to any founder but I would also encourage people to get started.
Luncinda Hartley: I think it’s very easy to have ideas brewing in the back of your mind for years and not necessarily putting them into action but you can only learn once you start. It’s like you can’t steer a parked car. And so that would be the advice that I gave to anyone, is to start moving and that’s the way you’ll learn. You’ll never be able to learn those things hypothetically without actually doing it.
Adam Spencer: Yeah. That’s a great audio snippet, by the way, you can’t steer a parked car. I want to just give you a few minutes to talk about something that’s top of mind, something that you’re constantly thinking about but through the lens of, we’re trying to create a documentary here that will tell the entire history of the Australian startup ecosystem. We want people from all corners of the ecosystem to listen to this story, do you have a message for them? What would you want to tell people?
Luncinda Hartley: I feel like we have a huge opportunity here in Australia and to be based here in Australia. And one of the narratives that I would completely challenge, particularly in a post COVID environment, is that you would need to be based elsewhere in the world to run a successful technology company, whether that’s in the Silicon Valley or Silicon Circle in London or other places.
Luncinda Hartley: Now that’s great, it’s fantastic to be close to market, close to networks, close to talent but in a post COVID world, I would challenge whether that’s necessarily the case. And can we think bigger about how we solve problems as an ecosystem and actually see that talent can come from anywhere and that the Australian ecosystem is a really great place to run a global company from?
Adam Spencer: Is there anything that I didn’t ask that you want to talk about?
Luncinda Hartley: I’m conscious with what story you want to tell, I guess but yeah, I mean, some of the challenges I think I’ve found coming into the startup ecosystem, later career, is a lack of trust by investors and not our current investors who are brilliant but a lack of trust by a lot of others in the ecosystem that we’re the ones to solve this problem. And that’s partly a gender thing, it’s partly that perhaps I don’t use the right buzzword, even though I know how to solve it but might not use exactly the right language or not interested in wearing t-shirts and playing ping pong, I don’t know.
Luncinda Hartley: Those very subtle barriers make life very tiring, actually. Because I do feel like I spend quite a lot of time stating my case as to why I should be listened to before I say what I want to say, rather than just being listened to because we should listen to people and that’s just, I find that exhausting. But it’s actually getting less and less, I think as we have more success and runs on the board that we can point to but I feel like that’s a challenge.
Adam Spencer: Yeah. I want to tell the truth. That’s the story I want to tell. So feel free to share anything.
Luncinda Hartley: Yeah. Well I think in our first 18 months of running Neighbourlytics the kinds of questions that we had from people in the industry was like, “Did your dad have help you start your business? Did your husband help you start your business? How’s your little project going?” Like, “Oh, my company that employs 10 people at that stage.” So those were the, judgments that people made at face value without listening. And I think we’ve all got a huge opportunity to listen and learn from each other.
Luncinda Hartley: I do find my perception on the startup ecosystem coming into it perhaps a little bit objectively, having had careers in lots of different directions previously is there can be a bit of a myopic ecosystem where everyone’s very inward looking and just patting themselves on the back and rather than looking outwards to the world.
Luncinda Hartley: And I think there’s a lot to be learnt from other sectors. I think there’s a lot to be learnt from other cultures and other places and that we all have so much to gain by that breadth of learning. But if we’re all just in our huddle congratulating ourselves for being amazing, we don’t get that depth of experience.