Nicole O’Brien: The startup ecosystem is overwhelmingly positive
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Nicole O’Brien is CEO of Fishburners, a not-for-profit co-working space and community hub for tech startup founders with a rich history of supporting Australian tech companies since its inception in 2011. For over a decade Nicole has also been the Director of Corporate Services for ACON, a community health organisation. In her conversation with Will Tjo, Nicole discusses why her outlook on the Australian startup ecosystem is overwhelmingly positive, and how technology has helped bridge the geographical divide between Australia and the world.
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Nicole O’Brien: I’m Nicole O’Brien and I’m the CEO of Fishburners which is one of Australia’s largest hubs for founders to get their idea off the ground and to grow their new venture.
William Tjo: When would you say that you really started to get involved with this whole startup ecosystem?
Nicole O’Brien: Look, the startup ecosystem is fairly new to me. I have to admit when Fishburners was brought to my attention, I had never heard of them but quickly realized that they were very well known and influential within the startup ecosystem. My experience with startups really had been, you know, I had been involved in creating a couple of small startups within the not for profit sector, but didn’t really acknowledge or refer to them as startups.
Nicole O’Brien: I just thought, really they were getting new ideas, businesses off the ground. But yeah, there’s a flourishing startup ecosystem and, you know, all thanks to Silicon Valley and the impact it’s had on the rest of the world and the unicorns that have come out of there.
Nicole O’Brien: And so a lot of interests by governments and you know, philanthropists and VCs in particular in growing that sector here. And today we’ve got a fairly thriving startup ecosystem that is obviously struggling at the moment under the lockdown as a lot of businesses are but certainly very resilient as we saw from the last lockdown.
William Tjo: Yeah absolutely, so it filtered through because of Silicon Valley and the movement there Australia startups ecosystem started to flourish, as would you say in tandem with the way that the American ecosystem is going?
Nicole O’Brien: Look, I think you’re much smaller population and so obviously it’s all relative. And look, I think, certainly the risk appetite within the investment community is probably not as high as it is in Silicon Valley. But look, having said that there’s a lot of investment money out there and we’ve seen a huge growth in superannuation funds.
Nicole O’Brien: And so I think, there’s definitely a much stronger appetite now for putting some of that money in riskier ventures and also in ventures that are really creating some of those innovations and those new ideas and products and services that we need to drive our economy. So while I’d say it’s obviously on a much, much smaller scale than Silicon Valley.
Nicole O’Brien: I think it’s certainly, we’re growing and developing our startup ecosystem and hopefully learning from some of the mistakes that have been made.
William Tjo: Going towards this idea of you mentioned risk appetite and how Australia’s ecosystem, you know, perhaps might not be as bold or adventurous as the Silicon Valley ecosystem. Would you say as a whole, the community is on the right track?
Nicole O’Brien: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, I think we’re always going to be somewhat limited by the fact that we are in an island nation, and it’s a much smaller population. And so we’re never going to be able to scale home grown, you know, unicorns in the same way that can happen in a country like the US.
Nicole O’Brien: But given, we’re not limited by borders anymore I think, certainly we’ve seen some great growth stories come out of Australia like your Canvas and Atlassians and certainly quite a number of the new FinTech players that are making a, yeah, certainly giving some of those Silicon Valley startups a run for their money that’s for sure.
William Tjo: Yeah, that’s very interesting. So would you say that the biggest limiting factor in Australia is just its isolation and perhaps the population just isn’t big enough to sustain that sort of activity?
Nicole O’Brien: Yeah, absolutely, but I just don’t think that’s probably not, you know, while that might’ve been a barrier once when you were relying on moving physical goods from point A to point B, I think now, technology has enabled the ability to be able to scale beyond those geographic borders.
Nicole O’Brien: And so it’s probably not a limitation anymore. I just think that, we are removed I suppose culturally and socially from the rest of the world, and this lockdown certainly hasn’t helped, but you know, I think it’s technology is the big enabler here. Isn’t it really? And it means that we can transcend those geographical barriers.
Nicole O’Brien: I suppose at the end of the day, it’s being able to get access to some of the talent that we might not have access to here and being able to, you know, get access to those new markets and you know, there are cultural differences from market to market. And so that’s certainly, you know, going to be factored into anyone’s growth plan.
William Tjo: Yeah, definitely. So technology is helping bridging those, what used to be, I guess, gaps and limitations, but you know, now it’s just more about developing our own unique voice.
Nicole O’Brien: Yeah, absolutely.
William Tjo: What do you think makes Australia unique compared to other countries? In terms of the startup ecosystem that we provide.
Nicole O’Brien: Probably I think that there’s a lot of entrepreneurs that didn’t really recognize that they are an entrepreneur. I think while, you know, a lot of the Silicon Valley entrepreneurs have probably come out of particular universities and campuses.
Nicole O’Brien: I think I was seeing a lot of our entrepreneurs are coming out of corporate really, you know, they’ve spent the last 10, 15 years working in corporate sort of day jobs and realised that they’ve got the capacity and the ideas to be able to go out and do things on their own.
Nicole O’Brien: So maybe that’s like, I’m not sure if that’s particularly unique, but Australians, I suppose, yeah, look, I don’t know, we’re such a diverse, multicultural nation, now I’m not sure if there’s a particular unique Australian startup identity. And I know we’ve certainly got a very diverse community at Fishburners. And so I think they’re like most entrepreneurs, they work really, you know, once they’re very doggered and very driven and you know, resilient and focused.
William Tjo: It’s interesting that you mentioned how Australians tend from university, not to really decide that, I’m going to be an entrepreneur and it’s more of that sort of accidental type of journey where maybe they’ve been in industry for 10, 15 years and then saw a gap in the market and decided to execute on that. But the labeling doesn’t seem to really be there.
Nicole O’Brien: No, that’s right, but I think certainly universities are trying to change that. And there’s certainly a much bigger emphasis and focus on nurturing, entrepreneurial mindset and giving students the tools and the skills and the resources to be able to consider that as a pathway, for sure.
William Tjo: Absolutely. Do you have any unpopular opinions about the Australian startup ecosystem?
Nicole O’Brien: No I think, you know, I think that the ecosystem is really, it’s exciting, it’s great, it’s certainly, you know, needs to continue to be supported by government because it doesn’t happen in a vacuum. And so that, yeah, no I think as long as that support continues, my opinions are positive.
William Tjo: Yeah, could you tell us more about what you meant by having more support from the government and what does that look like?
Nicole O’Brien: Well, look the ecosystem needs to be supported. It needs to be nurtured. It needs to be invested in. Most entrepreneurs, unless they’re serial entrepreneur and have exited out of successful companies, bootstrapping.
Nicole O’Brien: And so in those, you know, initial early stages, they need as much support as they can possibly get. Whether if that’s through access to incubation space and resources and learning and all those things that the incubators and the accelerators provide, or whether it’s access to grants and funding to help them bankroll those ideas and getting them off the ground.
Nicole O’Brien: The role of government is really critical in fostering that and, really contributing to the ecosystem because it takes a whole community of ecosystem players to really to raise up a successful startup. And that was from the VCs through to the incubators, the accelerators, the talent yeah, and the funding that’s available to support that.
William Tjo: Yeah absolutely. So it’s just about being intentional about the support, providing a space where startups can actually go to, to grow.
Nicole O’Brien: Yeah, absolutely.
William Tjo: So are there any particular areas aside from that, from government support, that could be better about the Australian ecosystem?
Nicole O’Brien: Look, I think any incentive to encourage people and support them in getting new innovations and new ideas off the ground. I think certainly, you know, the corporate sector has a role obviously to play there and the corporate sector has certainly, is investing in incubating some of its own innovation and startups.
Nicole O’Brien: We’ve seen quite a bit of that for instance, in the FinTech space. Yeah, look, I think, it’s definitely those incentives, there needs to be that encouragement there because it’s a big, it’s a journey, that you need to undertake and anything that’s provided to make that less risky and easier and financially feasible I think is, you know, obviously a really good thing.
William Tjo: And lastly, Nicole, if an entrepreneurial or founder came to you and given all your experience with Fishburners and you know, the mistakes wins and so on, what’s one piece of advice would you want to give them?
Nicole O’Brien: Surround yourself by other smart people. I think, certainly being part of a community of peers and practices, definitely, I think the make or break for so many entrepreneurs. Just having people that have been there before that have got skills that can fill in some of those skills gaps that you might not necessarily have, I think a huge game changer for any entrepreneur. And I think a lot of entrepreneurs would say that’s really what was the big difference for them was finding an amazing co-founder or being surrounded by other really smart people who could support them along the way.