Peta Ellis on the importance of innovation
Peta Ellis is the founder of EverydayEntrepreneur365.com.au, and an entrepreneur who’d founded 4 companies before 30, and has gone on to spend much of her career in a community building and mentor role. She has supporting hundreds of startup founders and teams in a variety of roles, including as CEO of River City Labs, an Innovation Strategist at The Unconventional Group, Entrepreneur In Residence at Ipswich Girls’ and Junior Grammar School, and as co-founder of Tribe Global. In her conversation with Adam, Peta discusses her time with River City Labs and the importance of innovation.
River City Labs: https://rivercitylabs.acs.org.au/
The Unconventional Group: https://www.theunconventionalgroup.com/
Tribe Global: https://www.wearetribeglobal.com/
Peta Ellis: My name is Peter Ellis and I am somebody who’s been involved in the innovation and startup ecosystem for the past eight years. I am an entrepreneur and have had many businesses since my early twenties and couldn’t possibly imagine to live life any other way. And so what I do now is I’m involved in lots of different projects, including some of my companies as well, but always still very much involved in the ecosystem and the innovation sector on encouraging new people to always get started.
Peta Ellis: Tribe Global is our parent company and we work with teams and organizations and ecosystems with The Unconventional Group and Peak Persona is our program for individuals. So that is our core. That is how Aaron and I came together as co-founders, whilst we were working I was with River City Labs and he was with Startup Catalyst. But we launched Peak Persona on the back of having worked with so many founders and seeing the patterns of when founders burnout. I’m also entrepreneur in residence at QUT and two different schools. So I run programs for parents at school so seeding innovation, ecosystems via community activators like schools.
Adam Spencer: When would you say you, A, really got involved in the ecosystem and B, when would you say it really, kind of, became an ecosystem as we know it today with all the, you know, the terminology and the infrastructure.
Peta Ellis: So I got involved with the innovation ecosystem in 2012. That is when I’d already been running businesses of my own, but I wasn’t even aware of the startup ecosystem. I didn’t know the terminology, a startup. I was a business owner and always started my own things. It wasn’t until I joined River City Labs as a marketing and event coordinator in 2012 that I was introduced to the ecosystem and the startup landscape and even what high growth technology companies looked like and that is where I learnt a lot about it.
Peta Ellis: And that’s where I just started getting involved in my own research what ecosystems looked like overseas. Prior to that, I had no interest whatsoever in looking at what models look like in America, other than my own industry, which was PR they always led the way in marketing and public relations and using social media.
Peta Ellis: So I was an early adopter of taking public relations online and managing people’s profiles in an online capacity in my own business, but still was not involved in the startup ecosystem even when I had my own businesses in the early two thousands.
Adam Spencer: Right, what drew you
Peta Ellis: Okay.
Adam Spencer: the innovation startup, kind of, ecosystem? What do you find so interesting about it that you’ve so much time?
Peta Ellis: Interest in this ecosystem came about for me when I had started a job where I was working, running events and doing some marketing for River City Labs, which was a very small coworking space at the time. I could see the benefit of bringing, say my marketing and business skills into a group of people who predominantly knew tech really well.
Peta Ellis: So I just saw an opportunity to get involved and bring a background of having been in public relations, a lot of events, a lot of networking into a sector to basically tell the stories of the awesome stuff that was being built and created inside a small little 500 square meter co-working space, which was really just tucked away that nobody really knew about.
Peta Ellis: So I just saw an opportunity to tell stories basically. I thought people are creating amazing things. I know how to tell stories. How could I possibly start telling the world what these companies are working on? So it was a very hyper-local focus for me. It wasn’t, I didn’t think globally at the time, I just saw an opportunity to, to tell the stories of people working on really cool things.
Peta Ellis: And there wasn’t a lot of noise around startups at the time. People still would ask what a startup was. We still need to explain entrepreneurship and its role in industry, not just as in a back alley operation where people wearing hoodies were just coding for hours, there was a lot more to it and I enjoyed playing that educator role.
Adam Spencer: I’m just really interested to understand, you know, alongside this fledgling coworking space, that is, or was River City Labs at the time, else did the ecosystem look like in terms of support infrastructure, community?
Peta Ellis: Look in Brisbane, and again, my focus was here because I was here. So we did have, we weren’t the first, there was ilab, the original version of ilab existed in Brisbane. Other than that, we didn’t have any other space. We didn’t have a home for people to go to and find out events. Hence, the reason why I probably had never come across the startup ecosystem, even in my ventures as an entrepreneur, because there wasn’t any.
Peta Ellis: It wasn’t publicized. It wasn’t open to the public. It was, you had to know someone who knew someone to get involved if you know what I mean? So there wasn’t any accelerator programs running or any other awareness. The universities weren’t active, ilab was active. And then later on became attached to UQ. So that was the only formal structure and organization that was promoting anything in the space. River City Labs was definitely one of the first coworking spaces where it was a home as anybody who wanted to rent a desk or come to an event, find out some information.
Peta Ellis: And it was at the stage where there were a lot of more meetup groups kicking off. Meetup was very big in terms of finding out what you were interested in topic of discussion, personal interests, business interests, networking opportunities. We hosted most of those. So we pretty much opened our doors and offered our space to anybody who wanted to have a meetup around the topic of startups, innovation, and entrepreneurship, so that we could become that central location for all of the activity.
Peta Ellis: So, no, it was definitely not a financially viable move to do that, but it was, it was more of a commitment to grow the community around a common interest and be that support network for those who are having a go by offering mentors, information, resources, facilities, and a community.
Adam Spencer: What do you think were the major contributing factors, what was the catalyst to, you know, kick off this startup ecosystem?
Peta Ellis: So I think momentum brought us a lot of attention. We were continuously moving. We continuously had activity. A lot of people would say that was just noise for the sake of making noise, but I do believe you have to be consistent with an end goal of bringing awareness.
Peta Ellis: Our aim was always to have enough activity that we ended up getting some really clever people through to build some clever things. And then we’d have better stories to tell opposed to continuously telling stories about things that were really grassroots and look to be honest, 8 years on now, there are some amazing stories that definitely grew out of those really early stage grassroots level of activity.
Peta Ellis: I do think the biggest catalyst we had was a startup weekend. It was the first one that Queensland had ever hosted in 2012. It was a concept that I think Sydney might’ve had one or two maybe and maybe Melbourne one, but no other states had had one. Queensland hadn’t had one. So we hosted the first one, which really did put a stamp on what that formula looked like in terms of people coming together to solve problems out off the back of that teams are formed and ventures could really be created.
Peta Ellis: There was possibly a future. Team formation was a real thing. It drew the attention of investors becoming aware of these younger companies, solving some interesting problems. So I think it gave us the marketing power. It gave us more stories to tell every time I looked at an opportunity with an event to host or program to run.
Peta Ellis: My lens was always what stories can we tell on the back of that? Where is it going to get us in terms of the framing and the education? Are we doing something new? I was always seeking out or any event that hadn’t been done before we were going to do it simply because people were hungry for new experiences and new ways to come together.
Peta Ellis: And I do believe we learn the most when we do things we haven’t done before. So we hosted startup weekends. We did various hackathons, tied into different industries or sectors. I brought the Lean Startup Machine Event, which came to Brisbane. Again, it was another American concept, but again, it was an event where you had to unlock a certain level of people before the event could run, which made the community work hard to encourage other people to sign up, to register for this event.
Peta Ellis: So it activated the community in the sense that if they really wanted this event to happen, they had to invite, say five other people, two other people, I can’t remember what the numbers were, but it did become something less us preaching needed to happen and getting the community engaged. And providing that space for people to host their own meetups. We would put on the pizza and drinks and they hosted the event and it enabled and empowered more members of the community to come together and do things that mattered to them.
Adam Spencer: What are some of the biggest differences or key learnings that you drew out of external ecosystems that you’ve brought that thinking back to Australia?
Peta Ellis: For me, it was the level of activity we were operating at probably 1% of where we needed to be in terms of the level of engagement that needed to be happening, First of all, we needed to get people involved. We needed to, we needed more. So I knew I had come from the business landscape business world, operating with corporate clients, industry clients had no idea about this whole other sector, which moves very fast, is very powered by tech. Has a lot of smart people just didn’t have the attention and awareness.
Peta Ellis: So I knew we needed more people to be getting involved. So we needed to fill the front end of the funnel with a lot different types of people. Then we also needed to have the programs to support people, to go through the journey, whether it be accelerators, pre-accelerators, any other format, which would educate people on some actual proven techniques and formulas with the support.
Peta Ellis: Then we also needed to have companies that were of a stage that could be invested in. So we had capital around. It also needed to be the piece where we had active investors who knew what they were doing in this space, not just traditional industries, knew what to look for and could work with those companies to help grow them as well, and then have since successes out of those so it could tell the stories all over again, to draw new people in at every single stage.
Peta Ellis: That was apparent to me in all of the places that I looked at, I was very involved in the co-working movement was very closely following what America was doing in terms of the coworking spaces, what they offered.
Peta Ellis: I was part of the coworking unconference, which I went to Melbourne and met a lot of other coworking operators all around Australia and globally who came to Melbourne for that global conference. And for them to share what programs they ran what their space offered and what their focus was and how they actually were a viable business cause it’s quite a difficult business to make work.
Peta Ellis: As a community activator, that was my community of people to go to. Then I needed to still go back and activate people in our local area and have the local government, and then federal government tie in, buy in opportunity in terms of support, maybe some grants, maybe some funding for programs they weren’t established yet.
Peta Ellis: None of that was in existence. We then had enough of us to get together and form something called a startup working group in Queensland who were passionate people who knew we needed to lobby the government to have some support in different formats. And that’s what started was the start of Advance Queensland.
Adam Spencer: What stories do you think we need to be telling today?
Peta Ellis: Do you know what? It’s the same story we need to be telling the entire way through. And that is what’s involved in the journey. How it looks different for everybody. Every entrepreneur’s journey is going to be different depending on what company they are or how old the person is, where they started it from.
Peta Ellis: Are they doing this as a side hussle or do they do it as a full-time thing? Did they have a team of five? Are they one person? Because we still suffer a little bit from that poster child of the entrepreneur, what they look like, what they should look like, how they’re supposed to operate. Do they raise capital?
Peta Ellis: Don’t they raise capital? Where do they, do they run it from their home office? Do they do it in a coworking space? What does it look like? There is no one answer. There’s enough of them now for us to all know that it’s a very individual journey. Yes, there are some commonalities. Yes, there is a formula that works, doesn’t work. Some people follow it, some people don’t.
Peta Ellis: But I think we have, I think we’ve tended to focus at the moment because we’re seeing success. We’re seeing companies go, we’re seeing more companies move through and become really solid global tech relevant companies who are shifting the dial and some of them are becoming unicorns out of Australia, which is amazing. Because we can actually say that and we’ve seen them from the start. We know what journey they went through. All very different.
Peta Ellis: The storytelling piece is just needs to be consistent. It needs to be not focused on selling anything and really highlighting the uniqueness of every single company and every single founder that goes through this journey because they are so unique.
Peta Ellis: And if we really do want more people to start and consider the option of perhaps leading something or creating change or having an impact in whatever form that looks like. Then we need to highlight and shine a light on all the different areas on what entrepreneurship and innovation looks like, because it is very, very different.
Peta Ellis: We’re doing better. There are various avenues. I think social media has helped everybody to have their own voice, we encourage the build in public method, which means you know, talk to people as you going along and share as you’re building, whatever it is. I think there is probably still a gap on what goes on and this is where my interest is in and Aaron’s interest is in Peak Persona because we know what goes on in founder’s heads.
Peta Ellis: We know all the self-talk, good, bad or otherwise, and we know where the doubts and fears come from. And I think sharing of that journey would really help unlock a lot of people thinking and empower them to know that, you know what, some people are just generally really positive.
Peta Ellis: Some people really struggle and do it anyway. And there’s different ways that you can tackle and deal with yourself and become really highly self-aware so that you can completely weaponize yourself into being something quite powerful to be able to go and have an impact in a company or an organization or into an ecosystem.
Peta Ellis: It doesn’t always need to be the end result of starting a company as a founder. I do believe getting involved in the ecosystem is an opportunity for us to play the game in lots of different spaces, lots of different ways, not everyone’s cut out to be the founder, but they could definitely play an instrumental role in another company or be a change maker within a large organization.
Adam Spencer: What do you think as a community, either in Brisbane or nationally, do you think we’re doing really, really well?
Peta Ellis: I think we have done programs really well. I think we’ve had a lot of them. And when I say that, I mean, accelerators, I do believe every state had lots of accelerators at one point, I think that’s dropped off. I do also have think that’s to do with the global pandemic, meaning that people showing up to programs was not conducive to how the format would run. You can definitely do them online.
Peta Ellis: So I think I’m not sure if the drop off is because of that. Or there was also a lot of talk around, are they really helpful? Do the biggest companies who have the most success, were they ever part of an accelerator or you’re best to do it on your own?
Peta Ellis: I think we gave a lot of different formats a go. I think there is always room to do new things. I think we have picked up our game in terms of investment. There is a lot of VC funds now, I think you can pick any type of investment vehicle that’s suited to your own company, core beliefs and a match with a investor that has that.
Peta Ellis: Whereas before it was pretty much, you had to go with whoever had the money, whether you believed in their values and they believed in yours, it didn’t really matter. I think there’s more options for capital. I do believe we’ve picked up a bit of momentum there and that’s been based off having seen some successes and those stories coming out that this isn’t just a fad and it’s a definitely a viable industry worth getting involved in. I do believe we’ve done that well.
Adam Spencer: What do you think, if there’s one area that we could improve on and we may have already, you touched on this tangentially, but I’d like what comes to mind in terms of the biggest area for improvement?
Peta Ellis: I think we could do a lot more we have a huge percentage of our population in Australia who are small to medium enterprises. So there are a lot of people in business. There are a lot of people in small business. There are a lot of people in businesses that could definitely benefit from thinking more innovatively or combining some of the operations with some new technology.
Peta Ellis: I think the two worlds coming together could be quite powerful. I think we very much have an us and them. We even have, you know, different sections of government and ministers for small business, different rulings. There’s a reason for all of that, but I do believe we could empower and up-skill and share a lot of what we do in the innovation ecosystem with small business community, because they already have what a lot of startups don’t have and that’s customers.
Peta Ellis: They have customers. But how can we supercharge those businesses with maybe tweaking, thinking, perception, mindset, tech? I’m not sure, but I do know that there are probably a lot of businesses that are operating in the medium space that could definitely grow if they wanted to. Some people are very happy with lifestyle business, but I feel we haven’t bridged that gap very well.
Adam Spencer: You know, given your role and what you do, you probably have brand new founders coming to you all the time, but what one piece of advice would you give them if you could just tell them one thing?
Peta Ellis: So I always say, just start and then the other ones keep going, because it’s usually when someone’s sitting on the fence, they’re not really sure what to do. So that’s the just start answer. And when it gets hard my answer is to keep going because I mean, I speak to a lots of people who have ideas.
Peta Ellis: And I can give my advice on what I think is going to be good, not good, what I’ve seen before, but essentially if somebody really wants to do something, they’re going to do it anyway. And they’re only going to really learn if it’s viable or not, if they did it.
Peta Ellis: So the only answer you’re going to get is evidence-based. So if you go ahead and do it, then you will have your answers there. And also if it gets hard and you push on, like the keep going advice means you’re either going to find out that it’s worthwhile or find out that it’s not. The only way that the individual is going to be satisfied with an answer as if they feel it themselves.
Peta Ellis: Taking advice from somebody who’s not in it is going to be different and difficult to come to some sort of resolution down the track if you took advice from somebody which you didn’t really want to do I think you’ve just got to seek out your own path.
Adam Spencer: Why is the startup/innovation ecosystem – why do you think it’s so important to Australia and Australia’s future?
Peta Ellis: So I think if anything, we can’t not innovate, whether it’s a buzzword or not, we have been innovating forever. That’s just, that’s what business is. You create things, there are opportunities that are presented or problems are discovered and then we come up with solutions for them.
Peta Ellis: We just now have words and an industry that represents that evolution. And it is basic evolution. We need to keep evolving through into our future. And this is just a way to do that. There’s lots of other ways to do it, but essentially with technology, it enables us to do that faster, more efficiently, more in a smarter way.
Peta Ellis: Tech is so smart that we will be you know, out executed but it. It’s moving so rapidly. So we need to get smarter to know how to best work with it and understand it and empower ourselves.
Adam Spencer: The last question that I have for you isn’t, it’s not really a question, I want to just give these last few minutes, like just open the floor up for you. What do you think needs to go into this series? What can I not leave out that is absolutely essential for people to hear.
Peta Ellis: I think you need to go, so pre the startup phase what were people doing previously? So before startup, before the startup ecosystem and the words and the terminology and the industry really came into vogue. What were people doing before? Because we’re not new, right? So this isn’t new people have been in business for a long time.
Peta Ellis: Entrepreneurs have been around for a really long time. I think it would be remiss of you to not include what people have done. And what people did do before there was an ecosystem to support them because that there lies all the answers on what it takes to make something work. They’re the ones who did it on their own without the grants, without the program was out, without the support, without the coworking spaces.
Peta Ellis: So if anything, you know, they did it the harder way they had to forge their own path and which enabled us to then come afterwards and look at what people did before. So I think going back pre ecosystem days would be a really nice way to frame the story.
Adam Spencer: If I want to tell the history, when do I, where’s the cutoff point? When do I stop?
Peta Ellis: Well, you know what? I think it just depends on what type of businesses it is. I mean, I always think back to, I mean, having grown up in Brisbane, I know that Expo 88 was obviously a turning point for Brisbane because a large global event came, it transformed the city because we had to it’s like, we just got announced to have the Olympics in 2032.Peta Ellis: So of course we’re going to build for 10 years now for this global event. And if who knows what will happen to Brisbane after that. But I know that Expo 88 was the same sort of thing that really, it was the first time after that, that we had alfresco dining and people got to dine outside on, in restaurants that was didn’t even exist before the cafe culture in Brisbane didn’t even exist.