Maxine Sherrin discusses the importance of building a community of innovators
Maxine Sherrin is the Program Director of Spark Festival, a not-for-profit festival that aims to grow entrepreneurship in Australia by bringing together people from all corners of the startup world: founders, investors, small/medium enterprises, big corporates and policy makers. Before taking her current role, Maxine co-founded Web Directions in 2004, Australia’s first event for web designers and developers. In her conversation with Adam, Maxine discusses the importance of building and growing a community that celebrates and supports Australian founders and innovators.
Spark Festival: https://sparkfestival.co/
Web Directions: https://webdirections.org/
Maxine Sherrin: Hi, I’m Maxine Sherrin and I’m program director of Spark Festival. Spark Festival is Australia’s largest event for startups, innovators, and entrepreneurs. We started off being a Sydney-based activity in about 2016, but since then, and in particular, thanks to COVID in 2020 we’ve taken a lot of our events online as will happen this year as well.
Maxine Sherrin: And that’s had the massive benefit of being an Australia-wide event, both in terms of the people who present on the Spark Festival program and the most importantly, the people who can tune in and catch all the benefits of this terrific program.
Adam Spencer: Just as a follow-up question to that, you were talking about how much work it is to run it and how many people you’ve got to organize. Why did you do it?
Maxine Sherrin: Why do I do it, that’s an an question. Look, it’s the people you meet along the way, you know, and whether that’s actually the people who are running, like I meet, first of all, I meet a lot of the people who are running programs like accelerators and incubators and co-working spaces and all the other support for the startup ecosystem. And they’re really interesting and passionate about the community as well.
Maxine Sherrin: But I really love a lot of the founders that you meet, even the somewhat crazy young ones, who’ve got all these amazing world changing ideas. Their level of belief and commitment to those ideas, I find extremely inspirational. So that’s why I do it, you know, to help empower those people, give them a platform and also to connect them together. That’s a very rewarding thing to do in and of itself.
Adam Spencer: Was getting involved with Spark Festival your first introduction to the startup world, or had you been involved before that?
Maxine Sherrin: No, not really, meaning I had been involved before, but yeah, it’d been awhile before. So what happened was back in 2004, myself and my co-founder John Allsopp started an event that was called Web Directions. Now Web Directions was Australia’s first event for web designers and developers, which starting in 2004, there was so much untapped demand for this kind of thing.
Maxine Sherrin: So it was almost like instant success basically. And we ran that, John in fact still runs that and it’s changed in all these incredible ways and you know, morphed with the times that it happened. But I was involved in that for about 10 years, I think. And I was actually just jogging my memory before we spoke just now and it was back in 2012, we ran a startup track as part of our conference that year.
Maxine Sherrin: And we had people invite people along like Rebecca Campbell was there and Avis Mulhall spoke. Mike Cannon-Brookes and Leni from SitePoint was there as well. And then we had a couple of internationals as well. We had Derek Powazek and Heather Sham who’d been involved in the early days of Liquor, which was still a big deal at that time. We had the BugHerd guys there, who I was just seeing their conference session that you was the incubator experience because they’d actually been through Y Combinator and come back.
Maxine Sherrin: So yeah, that was my first brush with it but it was interesting because at that time we saw it as being just this, you know, an element of where you might go in your career. If you come from a background of being a web designer or a developer.
Maxine Sherrin: My, how things changed in the next five or six years. So I ended up finishing up at Web Directions in 2014 and I was lucky enough to be in a position to take a turned into an 18 months sabbatical, it was going to be two years. And yeah, at the end of that 18 months, I met someone who introduced me to Alex Scandurra from Stone & Chalk and they just started, they’d done a startup week in the previous year in Sydney in 2015.
Maxine Sherrin: And they wanted to sort of, do their own thing with something like this. And that’s how Spark Festival was born. And I must admit at that time, I knew very little about the Sydney startup scene and I didn’t really think it was such a thing, but as soon as I started investigating, you know, I found out that SydStart been running for a couple of years at that stage. And all that, you know, we’d started our own incubators and accelerators Stone & Chalk was very much a thing by 2015. And yeah, it’s just grown and grown from that time, you know.
Adam Spencer: Who was behind SydStart?
Maxine Sherrin: So SydStart became StartCon, so what happened was, that was SydStart was an event that Pete Cooper ran in, I was actually talking to John from Web Directions about this just before we spoke. I think it must’ve been 2013 or 14 that Pete would have done that for the first time.
Maxine Sherrin: And I think he did it every year, including 2015, and then he, I’m not sure what the commercial arrangement was, but he sold it to Matt Barrie from Freelancer. That was when, so the first StartCon was in 2016, the same year as the first Spark Festival in fact.
Adam Spencer: 2012 seems to be the year where a lot of people, you know, references as when things really started to get going. Back in 2004, did you have any idea of the startup, any kind of early musterings I guess of the startup ecosystem?
Maxine Sherrin: I don’t think we really did in 2004. I mean, John and I had actually already had our own, you know, I’m not going to call it a startup, it was an online business in the nineties. We wrote software or shareware as it was called back in those days that you could sell online. And this was software that you use to create, to build web pages basically it was a style sheet editor called Style Master.
Maxine Sherrin: And digging back, I’d say we launched that in about 1998 or something like that. And we were actively selling it online. Our first editions, we were selling them literally sending floppy disks to people in the mail, that’s how old I am. But then we found out, you know, there were things like two cows where you uploaded the limited version of your software and people downloaded it and then it expired after 30 days and hopefully they paid you $30 or whatever it was.
Maxine Sherrin: And we actually had a nice little business doing that by about 2004, but we definitely did not identify as startups. Like we, I guess we saw ourselves as an SME who were very, very indifferent a way, and that’s what we loved about it.
Maxine Sherrin: And that’s also what Web Directions came out of because developing a style sheet editor, we were obviously into like all the massive changes that were happening in web design and development at that time. And we’d got to know so many, you know, I know it sounds weird now, but there were so many sort of rock star developers at that time, and we’d got to know them.
Maxine Sherrin: And they were the people who we got to speak at our conference saying that would get people signing up in their droves to hear from people like Doug Bowman and Dave Shay and Jeffrey Zeldman, who are no longer very famous anymore, but they were dead famous back in 2004 and 2005.
Adam Spencer: So jumping forward to around that 2012 time what did the landscape look like? Were you aware of the community, how big was the community then?
Maxine Sherrin: Yeah look, I was aware of startups being a thing, and that, various of my friends, like I actually knew Cameron Adams from Canva. He’d already actually started a startup out of our Web Directions office that got to a Tech Crunch announcement and then quickly folded sometime after that.
Maxine Sherrin: So, and then I also had some close friends who also worked out of our office who’d started some sort of Minecraft startup back then, and then they’d gone to Y Combinator and moved to San Francisco, but there wasn’t this sense of community, especially not in Sydney. I definitely did see what happened with my mates who moved over to San Francisco and did Y Combinator that suddenly they were like, it was all about the community and the people they were working with.
Maxine Sherrin: And there was a pretty stark difference at that time between your experience in San Francisco and your experience in Sydney there probably still is, but I think Sydney would now have its, or Australia would have its compensations as well.
Adam Spencer: What would be the obvious kind of differences that you would point out between those two experiences is Silicon valley in Australia?
Maxine Sherrin: There just wasn’t really a community at that time. You would’ve been very much on your own, really. How did you even meet other startups? I know there were other accelerator programs that had started, I’m not sure the year, but I know Muru D would have been around for a while then, and I know Remarkable would have been around. Well, I think Remarkable might have started in about 2011, 2012, but they’d been around for quite a long time as well. But even those organizations were relatively separate from each other, they were just off in their own little silo doing their own thing, not necessarily creating this sort of meta community in a way.
Adam Spencer: Just a side question ’cause I know you are very well-connected. Do you know about this idea or whatever that you want to call it of the Aussie Mafia?
Maxine Sherrin: My understanding would be, it’d be a loose network of, you know like Australians like every country, when they go anywhere they form an enclave to an extent, right? It’s like any immigrant community at the end of the day, you find each other, you find those people who’ve got, who share your sense of humor and your worldview.
Maxine Sherrin: And you know, you help each other out and I don’t have personal experience of it, but it doesn’t surprise me at all that there would be such a thing as an Aussie Mafia in San Francisco. And I’m sure it is, it’s actually a very useful thing, especially if you can get into it when you first arrived there to sort of find your way around, meet the right people and all that kind of stuff.
Adam Spencer: What are some of the biggest gaps that you’ve seen like over time and maybe even today?
Maxine Sherrin: It’s a cliche early stage investment in startups. In Australia, like the money’s just not there. And we haven’t yet developed that virtuous cycle that they might have in other places, whereby you’ve got people who are the early employees of startups that go on to become incredibly successful.
Maxine Sherrin: The dream being to IPO and then those people exit from that IPO with bucket loads of cash and perhaps more importantly, they have that experience of having been on the team of a very early stage, high growth business. And so these people are perfectly placed first of all, to invest their money that they’ve made in up and coming startups, but also to invest that incredible expertise and experience that they’ve gained in these up and coming startups.
Maxine Sherrin: And I don’t really understand deeply the reason why, but it just hasn’t started happening here in Australia. I’m not saying it doesn’t happen at all, obviously, because there will be plenty of examples of it happening, but it’s not happening at scale yet. That’s what I see as one of the big gaps here.
Adam Spencer: Switching gears a bit to be a little more positive, what do you think we’re doing as a community really well and what do you think makes the Australian ecosystem unique?
Maxine Sherrin: Yeah okay, I think we’re pretty good as a community, in a sense, you know, like it always warms my heart, how much people are willing to get behind Spark Festival, for example. And that is at the end of the day, a community building exercise. So I think we are really good at that. We’re good at setting aside our competitiveness to a degree, and then working on something that is going to, you know, that rising tide that’s going to lift all the boats.
Maxine Sherrin: That would be one of the main things I would see. And it probably does make us a little bit unique. Maybe it’s got to do with our size in a way that it, this size of ecosystem, you gotta be like that.
Adam Spencer: Do you think we’re on the right track and if not what do you think we need to improve on?
Maxine Sherrin: Gosh, first of all, we did more money in the system as discussed as previously. What else do we need to improve on? That’s a hard one in a way. You know, it’s easy to say we need more support from the government. But what does that support, what form does that support actually take?
Maxine Sherrin: Because I’m not sure that throwing cash at accelerators and incubators is the right way to go about that which is what has been done in the past. I think maybe it’s two pronged. One is this whole procurement thing from government. I do believe in the power of that.
Maxine Sherrin: If the, and you know, there’s a lot of work being done on that, both at state and federal government at the moment. So that could be a really big change for lots of startups and SMEs looking to provide goods and services to government. I did have another one on the edge of my brain just then, what was it that government could do?
Adam Spencer: I’ll ask you this and maybe that will come back to you. Just out of curiosity, this isn’t a question I have written down, but do you have a vision for where you’d like to see Spark Fest in the next 10 years? What’s the ultimate goal of Spark Fest?
Maxine Sherrin: Yeah, totally. The ultimate goal of Spark Fest, you know, how in Sydney we have Sydney Festival, which is arts and culture. We have Vivid, which is light, music and ideas. I’d like to see Spark Festival on an equal footing with that. As the festival of innovation and entrepreneurship, new businesses for the 21st century, you know, kind of celebration of the new economy, but I’d also like it to be an Australia wide thing, that’s just as big in Brisbane as it is in Sydney, Melbourne, Perth, Adelaide, and everywhere. So it’s something that everyone feels they’ve got an involvement in and in terms of what it actually looks like?
Maxine Sherrin: My dream would be that Spark Festival could look a lot like South by Southwest in Austin, which I’m not really sure if you’re familiar with that event, but it’s massive, and it’s such a, an incredible sort of coming together of all the different tribes who are involved in what they call interactive, which I don’t know what that even means anymore.
Maxine Sherrin: But you know, it really brings that city to life, right? Like, all the bars and restaurants get involved in hosting events and all the local businesses run their own sideshow events, as well as this. The conference talks themselves are a bit of a, they’re the bit that people don’t even bother to go and see, it’s all just about being there at that time, and I do believe we have the capacity to do something like that for ourselves in Australia. We just need someone to get behind it a little bit.
Adam Spencer: What role does, in general, festivals play? Like how do festivals help move the needle?
Maxine Sherrin: Yeah, no it’s always a really valid question. Two prongs in a way, one, sounds like the more boring one, but it’s an opportunity for people to share knowledge, in that way that, you know, is different. You can watch a million YouTube videos, you can read a million articles on Y Combinator, but there’s something very valuable about hearing the story of someone who you can really relate to who you can go up and ask a few questions of afterwards.
Maxine Sherrin: And then secondly, and it ties to that is just that networking thing. Like the connections that get made. Spark’s a little bit different in a way, firstly, it is obviously in the audience that you go along to something like that. And you talk to someone who sits next to you. You talk to someone who presented and then next minute you’re working on something together.
Maxine Sherrin: But because Spark has so many people involved in it as well in terms of delivering the program and I create all these opportunities for those people to connect it’s quite incredible the number of people who’ve met through Spark Festival and then I find out about it years afterwards that they’ve gone on and, you know, oh so-and-so, you know, she’s my mentor that I met through your programming meetups, or, they met co-founders or investors and all sorts of stuff that sort of has a life of its own outside what I understand, which is a really nice thing.
Adam Spencer: I want to ask you the advice question, if a brand new founder come to you tomorrow, what one piece of advice would you tell them? What would you say that would slightly increase their chances of success?
Maxine Sherrin: Well, I’m going to say this will massively increase their chances of success. Couple of things, first of all, I’m sure that everyone will answer this question in the same way. And I also hope that everyone actually listens to this question. It’s just that thing of focusing on your customer.
Maxine Sherrin: Finding your customer and focusing on them, forgetting about your solution that you might’ve come up with. that starts off as this great idea, but instead a relentless passion for identifying your customer and identifying their needs and serving those needs. So that’s the only way basically. And sadly, it’s surprisingly rare and it’s easy to lose touch with it as well I get it.
Adam Spencer: What do you think defines a startup ecosystem and part two to that is, what do you think defines it as a particularly strong ecosystem?
Maxine Sherrin: Ah, I guess it, to me, it’s something like a collection of organisations who are supporting startups. And what makes an ecosystem is that there is connectivity between those organisations, right? So they’re not operating fully independently, and without knowledge of each other, in fact, they know about each other, so they can, just to give the most trivial example, like when someone comes along to your accelerator and they’re not right for you, you don’t just say to them, go away.
Maxine Sherrin: You say, have you considered these guys here and in a network system, you can do that. Whereas when people aren’t finding out about each other, then you don’t have that knowledge, that startup probably doesn’t have that knowledge. And they’re six months behind before they finally find out that this might be a really good idea for them.
Adam Spencer: And then the last question I have is not really a question so much as this interview will be used as part of a documentary that we’re putting together about the history of the Australian startup ecosystem. Like we hope this is going to be listened to by founders, people that run accelerator programs and any other programs, government, VCs, angels, every actor that is in the ecosystem, we hope listens to this. What would you want them to hear? What’s a really important thing that you would want to be part of the series that they would hear and take away?
Maxine Sherrin: I’d ask them to keep on focusing on giving back to that community on some level, or even to use the Brad Feld expression, which is to give first, right? It’s something I’ve, many people, I’m not the only one, but I’m passionate about creating that give first culture in Australia and the give first culture is just that idea that you give with no expectation of reward.
Maxine Sherrin: Like obviously you don’t give everything, Brad’s actually really good at explaining what it means that, even if it means you set aside half a day of your week, and that’s the day that you will spend 15 minutes with any random person who wants to come and ask you questions for example, but you do that with no mercenary expectation that something is going to come from it. So yeah, that would be it to just develop and keep that give first mentality here in Australia.