Wayne Gerard says attracting talent into the startup ecosystem is “mission critical”
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Wayne Gerard is co-founder of RedEye, a tech company which manages engineering information for large, complex asset owners such as councils, hospitals, power and water utilities and mining companies. Wayne is also Queensland’s Chief Entrepreneur, a role in which he advises the state government on its startup and innovation strategy. In his conversation with guest host Will Tjo, Wayne discusses what he sees as the government’s role in the startup ecosystem, as well as his belief that attracting talent into the startup ecosystem is “mission critical”.
Wayne on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/waynegerard/
Adam Spencer: Hi, I’m Adam Spencer, and Welcome to Day One, the podcast that spotlights Australian startups, founders, and the organizations 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.
Adam Spencer: You’re listening to a special interview series as part of a documentary W2D1 is producing about the history of the Australian startup ecosystem. This episode was conducted by guest host Will Tjo. On the episode today, we have …
Wayne Gerard: Wayne Gerard. I’m one of the founders and the CEO of RedEye, which is a tech company that we founded in 2012 to manage engineering information for large complex asset owners, or critical infrastructure as it’s commonly referred to. So we manage all the engineering, drawings, documents, photos, media for power utilities, water utilities, mining companies, oil and gas companies, road networks, councils, hospitals, those kind of organizations which are really operating Australia and North America’s critical infrastructure.
Will Tjo: I know from your background, you’re also the chief entrepreneur of Queensland. What do you do there?
Wayne Gerard: Great question. As the chief entrepreneur, I am really representing the startup and innovation ecosystem with the Queensland Government and really helping to drive Queensland Government policy around innovation.
Wayne Gerard: I am also really focused on connecting and amplifying the amazing founders and the amazing technology companies and the amazing innovators that we have in Queensland and trying to help them tell their story, help them connect to clients, help them connect to government and universities and help them connect to investors and really build the ecosystem or enable the ecosystem to flourish here in Queensland.
Will Tjo: It seems that from your experience, you’ve got decades in innovation and entrepreneurship. Why innovation and entrepreneurship? What drew you to it at the beginning?
Wayne Gerard: Great question. I grew up in New South Wales in Gosford. And unlikely story really, went to the army as a young 18 year old, straight out of high school to the Royal Military College at Duntroon and went through 18 months of officer training and learning about leadership and about decision making, about operating under stress and pressure, and then spent nine years as an army officer. And I had some really amazing experiences and opportunities as an army officer.
Wayne Gerard: I guess, deep down inside, I had a couple of attributes or characteristics that I think many entrepreneurs share. One of those is I was always curious. I was always curious about why things are the way they are. And where I saw something that didn’t make sense or it didn’t work, I was always like, “That seems stupid. Surely there’s a better way to do it.” So I had that kind of natural bent to looking to do things better.
Wayne Gerard: And then secondly, I was one of those people that liked to introduce those better ways. And so in the army, I got the opportunity to do a couple of things. I set up a new unit in the army and that was really exciting. And then I moved over, my last role in the army was as the regimental signals officer for the aviation regimen. And I was lucky enough to build the concept demonstrator for the first drone in the army back in 1998.
Wayne Gerard: And then after that I got offered a job at Boeing. So I left the army, went to work for Boeing. And working for Boeing, one of the world’s biggest companies, I had the opportunity to run a really unique facility, the only facility outside of the US that was focused on modeling and simulation, constructive simulation. So really emergent tech at the time.
Wayne Gerard: Did that for a couple years, got headhunted to go to Mincom during the first tech bubble in 2000, 2001, and spent a couple years there. Five years there, and then went out and set up my own consulting company. Decided to set up an engineering company. And it was working on site actually at a client site that we kept on getting given the wrong engineering information.
Wayne Gerard: And so I went looking for a solution to the problem, realized there wasn’t one, realized there was a gap in the market and that we could give control of the customer’s assets back to them, if we introduced a technology solution. And so set about building RedEye.
Will Tjo: That’s very interesting. It seems like a huge interwoven story where one thing led to the next. It started off with the army, you learned all the personal characteristics that you shared with entrepreneurship, then Boeing doing simulation, Mincom, and then your own consultancy.
Wayne Gerard: Yeah. Really, it’s not one of those career paths that you sit down and plan out from day one. And in fact, many of the entrepreneurs I meet today are people that they stumble into entrepreneurship because of their style, their curiosity, their desire to make change, and I think their confidence in themselves to figure it out as they go. And I see those as really important traits and characteristics for entrepreneurs.
Wayne Gerard: Today, lots and lots of entrepreneurs will come up to me and go, “Hey, Wayne, I’ve got this idea.” And over the years, I’ve learnt how to help an emerging entrepreneur. It doesn’t matter what age they are, but help an emerging entrepreneur think about the idea that they’ve got in mind and put it through a set of filters to make sure it is actually the right thing to focus on.
Wayne Gerard: And so for me, really, if an entrepreneur comes up to me and says, “Hang on, I’ve got an idea,” the first thing I ask them is, does your idea solve a problem that a lot of people are willing to pay for, and they’re willing to pay a good amount of money for? There’s got to be a market for it. If the entrepreneur can’t answer that question, then I say, “You probably don’t have the right idea.”
Wayne Gerard: The second question then I ask, is there an 800 pound gorilla that your idea is already their core business? And an example of that would be, do you have an idea for a search engine? And that’s already Google’s core business. Do you have a idea for a new word processor? And that’s already Microsoft’s core business?
Wayne Gerard: Because my advice to entrepreneurs is you want to choose a problem to solve where you’re not going to go head to head with an 800 pound gorilla that’s got billions of dollars that they can throw at the problem, because if it’s their core business, they throw billions of dollars at it every year. And that just makes the barrier to entry so high.
Wayne Gerard: In the case of my business, we have a number of multi-billion dollar competitors, but we compete with their ancillary products and services, not their core business. And when you compete with just another product in their portfolio, they never put the A team on it, and so there is an opportunity to compete and win. And so there’s a really important differentiation there.
Wayne Gerard: And then thirdly, the thing I ask an entrepreneur is, is the problem you’re solving and is the product or innovation that you’re wanting to bring to market, is it relevant in lots of geographies and lots of industries? Because my experience has taught me that you don’t want to be only relevant in one location or in one industry because the cyclical nature of markets, you want to have some resilience and you want to diversify your risk. And so it’s really important for Australian entrepreneurs too, to be born global because of our market size here.
Wayne Gerard: And so they’re the kind of things that I’ve learned over the years to think about when you’re thinking about a new idea.
Will Tjo: Yeah, absolutely. I love that. Regarding that last point, would you say that there is one that’s more important than the other? Say for example, it’s a geography specific startup, but it is involved in many industries, or the other way around.
Wayne Gerard: Yeah, I think it really comes down to market size, total addressable market, because at the end of the day, if you’re going to require funding, the investor market, the investors that want to invest in innovation have so many options. There are so many amazing technology companies out there that they now have the luxury of only funding things that have really large total addressable markets. And if you want to be competitive for funding, then you need to demonstrate that you’ve got a very large total addressable market. And typically that’s built up of lots of geographies and lots of industries.
Will Tjo: It just depends on the addressable market.
Wayne Gerard: Yeah, totally.
Will Tjo: Going back towards the beginning, what did the ecosystem here in Australia look like between that early 2000s period? And would you say that we even had an ecosystem back then?
Wayne Gerard: No. I don’t think we really got a startup ecosystem in Australia until circa 2012. We had, and we do have today some amazing examples of technology companies that were founded in Australia that have gone on to be global success stories. And look in Queensland at TechnologyOne, for example, publicly listed, worth around 2 billion dollars, been going for 30 years, and they were one example. There was TechnologyOne, there was Mincom, there were a bunch of other companies at the same time.
Wayne Gerard: So Australia has this history in building really innovative companies, but they didn’t do it so much as part of a startup ecosystem. I think the language around startups and that kind of born global, raise venture capital, those attributes and characteristics really came into flavor in Australia from 2010.
Wayne Gerard: Obviously there were some great examples prior to that, and you think about Wotif, as an example, there were definitely innovative companies that took advantage of the first tech bubble. And I would say that from 2010 to 2015, the startup movement really took shape in Australia. And then from 2015 onwards, it’s just continued to accelerate and get bigger and have more energy about it.
Will Tjo: It’s very interesting that you mentioned that 2010, 2012 period, because a lot of other founders and entrepreneurs that I interviewed on this series also point towards that time period where things started to kick off. What were some of the catalysts that drove it in that period?
Wayne Gerard: In Queensland, specifically, a small group of us got together. So starting around 2012, I’d just founded RedEye with a mate of mine named Randall Makin, and Steve Baxter had just come back from the US, from Google, and set up River City Labs, and there was ilab at UQ, and then there was CEA at QUT. And so a group of us just started getting together to try and help each other.
Wayne Gerard: And after a couple of years, we had the Queensland government reach out and say, “Hey, we understand you guys are getting together to build this startup ecosystem. Can we get involved?” They started getting involved and offered to host some meetings.
Wayne Gerard: And then the premier, which was Campbell Newman through his minister for innovation, Ian Walker, they came to us and said, “Hey guys, we’re thinking about purposely investing to accelerate innovation and startups here in Queensland. What ideas and what advice do you have on how we could do that?”
Wayne Gerard: And so by then, we’d formed this startup working group and there were about eight or nine of us on it. And we wrote a positioning paper, which really, if you think about it, we mapped out what would the life cycle of a startup ecosystem look like.
Wayne Gerard: We took inspiration from Brad Feld’s work. We looked at what had happened in a whole bunch of different startup ecosystems that were starting to become prominent globally, Israel, but there were many others in the US as well.
Wayne Gerard: And we put together this map that was here’s all the programs and activities that we need to run at each stage of the development of a startup ecosystem. Start to attract founders, educate founders, attract investors, educate investors, help people scale globally, access to capital, all that kind of stuff.
Wayne Gerard: Anyway, we built this program and when the government changed in 2015, the new premier, Annastacia Palaszczuk was taken on a US trip and visited Josh Lerner in Harvard. And she came back from that going, “I want to really understand the opportunity for startups in Queensland,” and Advance Queensland was launched as an initiative. We basically took the working paper that we’d done, and that became the program that was funded under Advance Queensland.
Wayne Gerard: And so we started with a couple hundred million dollars worth of funding in 2015, and we put together a … What is it called? The Advance Queensland Expert Panel. And they were people from entrepreneurs, people from universities, people representing customers, people representing the investor community and government. And we got together to build really a consciously and focused effort to build the startup ecosystem right across Queensland.
Wayne Gerard: About 2017, we introduced our first chief entrepreneur. That was Mark Sowerby, who had founded Blue Sky. We then went on to have Steve Baxter, and then Leanne Kemp, and now me. And so we’ve had the role of chief entrepreneur. We were really … Queensland was the first place to establish a chief entrepreneur.
Wayne Gerard: And we’re now looking at the next round of Advance Queensland. What are we going to call it? In my role as the chief entrepreneur, I’ve established an innovation advisory council and we’re currently working on a framework with the Queensland Government to look at how we’re going to continue to accelerate Queensland’s innovation and startup ecosystem.
Will Tjo: That’s amazing since that working paper that you delivered about 10 or so years ago, what has been one bigger surprise for you, good or bad, that has evolved about our ecosystem?
Wayne Gerard: Gee, tough question, Will. There’s been lots and lots of surprises. There are two really important things. I think firstly, the ability to attract investment. We’ve seen such a substantial growth in investment and investors and VCs here in Australia over the last 10 years to the point now where we’ve got some really amazing funds doing great work. And I just think about Blackbird and the other guys, they really, really established themselves. And so now there’s access to capital and we are having more and more funds established every year.
Wayne Gerard: I was lucky enough, I hosted a lunch, one of the first things I did as the chief entrepreneur, for all the investors in Queensland. And I literally had a trillion dollars of investment capital sitting around the table at lunch. And so that’s a pretty good indicator of how much has changed.
Wayne Gerard: And then the second thing I would say is that COVID’s changed the way that I think every industry and every community operates. And I think the startup community did exactly what every other industry or community did during COVID. Every person put their head down and focused on getting shit done, getting stuff done.
Wayne Gerard: And as we emerge out of COVID, and not taking anything away from the current challenges that we face, but as we emerge out of COVID or into a new norm, we’re seeing quite a desire and excitement about everyone getting back together again, connecting, new events, more events, more face to face, and everyone really wanting to help each other as well.
Wayne Gerard: I’m in the middle of a capital raising at the moment, and on the weekend I reached out to Luke Anear at SafetyCulture and I just asked him a bunch of questions. And Luke’s doing an incredible job growing SafetyCulture. And you think about how willing founders are to just help each other.
Wayne Gerard: Luke jumps on an email, replies back to me straight away. And then over the weekend writes me this really great email sharing a whole bunch of his knowledge and experience. And I think that’s an example of the amazing innovation ecosystem we’ve built here in Australia.
Will Tjo: That’s very interesting. I want to also get your thoughts, because the other day I was listening to Peter Davidson and hearing you talk about all of this investment by the government, the Queensland Government getting involved in 2010, and the premier then pledging to invest in the whole ecosystem, on the role of government in developing our ecosystem. And is it just a case of them providing the funds to get started or what else should government be doing to support, or if anything really?
Wayne Gerard: I think we’ve got a real opportunity to collaborate and work with government, where the government has the relationships and the leverage to be able to encourage other market operators to participate.
Wayne Gerard: If you look at the Indian prime minister, just the other day, he held India’s first national startup day. And by doing that, he’s really signifying globally, and specifically in India, that startups are a key part of the economic recovery and economic growth strategy for his nation.
Wayne Gerard: And so I think about Scott Morrison and our federal leaders, and I look at the opportunity that they have to do something similar. So there’s definitely a role for government at a federal level, and there’s definitely a role for government at a state level.
Wayne Gerard: Now every state’s different obviously and there’s some great examples of where the states are investing, and in fact, every state in Australia has invested in and continues to invest in building their local innovation ecosystems.
Wayne Gerard: I was on the board of StartupAus for a couple of years and now we’ve got the Tech Council, which is the next version of that. Having those guys play a role as advocates and helping to decide policy at a federal level’s a really important role, and shout out to the team that are doing that.
Wayne Gerard: And then at a state level, there’s enormous opportunities. For example, you go on a trade mission with the premier, the access to key decision makers in other countries that you couldn’t do by yourself is incredibly powerful. Or the premier hosts an innovation conference for us and comes and speaks at it. It attracts a whole range of potential customers that startups really want to target. And so there is absolute opportunities.
Wayne Gerard: In a state like Queensland, where we are so large and so geographically dispersed, there’s a really important role for government to play in ensuring that regional Queensland has the same kind of opportunities as the Southeast corner does or the major metropolitan areas do. And so investing in infrastructure, whether that’s broadband infrastructure or co-working spaces, there is definitely opportunities for government to play a role.
Wayne Gerard: And then really importantly, there’s a bit of a saying and the saying is, customers not grants. In order for a startup to truly get traction and become successful, it needs customers. Customers create revenue, customers create that pressure and environment where the startup has to grow and implement appropriate systems and processes, and really learn how to manage customers.
Wayne Gerard: And so our startups need more customers and it’s ideal if we can get government, which is really the largest procurer, purchaser of anything in Australia, if we can get them as to be consciously wanting to become customers of startups, of local startups, then really what they’re doing is helping those local startups to get product market fit, get references and case studies, get testimonials. And that gives them the ability to then scale both nationally and internationally.
Will Tjo: What you mentioned before about creating a distinction with state and federal government piqued my interest because it seems that in Australia, we do have these startup identities and not really a unified national approach on this is what the startup ecosystem should look like. Queensland’s ecosystem looks like this, New South Wales looks like this. Do you think that’s a good or bad thing? Or would you disagree that we do have a national identity?
Wayne Gerard: No, I agree with you, we don’t have a national identity. The Tech Council of Australia is really leading the charge on creating national collaboration or opportunities to collaborate. I don’t see it as an issue and I’ll explain why.
Wayne Gerard: I think every organization needs its own identity. That helps that organization to differentiate itself and stand out with its customers, stand out with its investors, stand out from its competitors, et cetera. I feel the same with each individual state’s startup ecosystem.
Wayne Gerard: I don’t think you can actually make a startup ecosystem. You can’t force this stuff. Really, founders are going to do what founders do and it’s about creating an environment where collaboration happens, where opportunities for those synchronistic conversations and sharing of experience and potential customer relationships or potential partnership relationships, it’s about creating that kind of environment. And I think all the states are doing that their way. And really there aren’t that many ways to do those things.
Wayne Gerard: And there was and there will be again, more and more major startup events that attract people from different states together. And when you get those different startups and different stakeholders coming from state to state and collaborating together, that builds that national fabric, those national relationships that creates those cross-border collaborations.
Wayne Gerard: And so I feel like sometimes we overemphasize the need to have a national identity and we over emphasize the need for everything to be the same. I feel like just getting on and getting it done in our own area and then being open and willing to share is probably the best approach.
Will Tjo: I know what you mean. And I like what you said about you can’t force this stuff and every entrepreneur and founder in the ecosystem is doing their own thing and doing things that benefit them most. And if that means that it creates different identities then yeah, so be it, right?
Wayne Gerard: Yeah, definitely.
Will Tjo: Going back towards the ecosystem, what would you say are the critiques compared to some other geographies like Silicon Valley or Israel? What could we still be doing better?
Wayne Gerard: I’m a huge believer in my own business in RedEye of constantly improving the way we operate. And I think it’s the same thing in an innovation ecosystem, there’s always room for improvement. One of the initiatives that I’m driving as chief entrepreneur in Queensland is to really focus on getting customers and government more engaged in the ecosystem, so to become more of a participant in the ecosystem over the next couple of years. I want to unlock the large corporates in Australia and get them to see the benefits and want to partner with startups.
Wayne Gerard: So we talk a lot about don’t procure, partner. So don’t buy from a startup, but partner with a startup and go on a journey. And if we can unlock government as a customer and unlock Australia’s large corporates as customers and get them to partner with local startups, then what we’re doing is creating that more revenue for those startups, customers, not grants. And so I see that as a real opportunity.
Wayne Gerard: The other thing I think that’s a real opportunity is each ecosystem develops an identity and gets known for something and different ecosystems have natural competitive advantages, natural strengths, just like different economies do. And I think in Australia, there’s an opportunity to continue to better refine what are our natural strengths and what are our natural competitive advantages.
Wayne Gerard: And for example, in Queensland, we have a stack of startups, innovators, tech companies, whatever word you want to use that focused on more of the business to business kind of opportunities, focused in agritech, focused in health tech and biomedical science and devices and things like that, where if you go to Sydney, you’ve got a lot of fintechs and you’ve got a lot of solutions like Atlassian focused on servicing the IT community, and so on and so forth.
Wayne Gerard: So I think that as our ecosystem in Australia matures over the next couple of years, we’re going to see each of the ecosystems find their own differentiation, their own value proposition. And I think that will be really helpful because then if you’re a founder, you can look around and go, “Well, if I want to do a fintech, for example, maybe the best place for me is in Sydney,” or, “If I want to do a solution for government, maybe the best place is in Brisbane,” or, “If I want to do agritech maybe the best place is in Toowoomba, for example, or Gladstone or Mackay or whatever it is.”
Will Tjo: Would you say to an extent that these geographical boundaries won’t matter so much with the rise of work from home and virtual working, that these pockets and identities-
Wayne Gerard: It’s a really great point, Will. We’re definitely seeing a number of the world’s leading innovative tech companies attracting staff wherever they’re located. Look Atlassian’s policies on recruiting staff wherever they are. So we’re definitely going to see this spread of people working all over the place.
Wayne Gerard: This morning, for example, I was having a conversation with my own exec team talking about our benefits program and our flexible working relationships. And we’re thinking about how do we let our staff literally, if they want to work, say they wanted to work from Bali for three months, as long as they can and as long as they’re available, then is that an advantage?
Wayne Gerard: I think COVID’s definitely going to, I think it has actually changed the way that we, as an industry think about employing people. And I think people in our industry definitely have high expectations around work-life balance, the ability to work remotely and those kind of things.
Will Tjo: Yeah, absolutely. So Wayne, the thing that we’re trying to do here at the podcast is to make sure that everyone from the four corners of the ecosystem hears this message, it’s investors, policy makers, founders, students. Is there anything that we haven’t covered here today that all of them need to hear from you?
Wayne Gerard: Yeah, talent attraction, attracting talent into the innovation, the startup, the scale up ecosystem here in Australia is absolutely mission critical for the success of this industry. Our industry, the innovation industry, the technology industry, the startup industry, whatever you want to call it really is one of the largest jobs growth industries in Australia.
Wayne Gerard: Our companies grow faster, we employ more people, we create typically higher paying jobs than a number of other industries, and we’re very sustainable. And so from an ESG perspective, the potential to build really high value, long term companies that can have a great social impact is what we’re building.
Wayne Gerard: And so from a government and a policy position, I think policy makers need to really get behind the innovation ecosystem. From a corporate perspective, it just makes so much sense to partner with local startups, to see how local startups can help them innovate, help these large companies to innovate, remain competitive, remain relevant, to transform themselves.
Wayne Gerard: And then from a talent attraction perspective, I think about all the people that are out in industry today and the opportunity they have to come and work in a startup or come and work in an innovative company. There really is a role for everyone in the Australian startup innovation ecosystem.
Wayne Gerard: We’re going to see a lot of innovation introduced into Australia that is going to really enhance the way the Australian economy works. I just think about, for example, my own business, we’ve literally got people who used to sell cars. We’ve got people who worked at David Jones. We’ve got people from the mining industry, the oil and gas industry, the water industry, the power industry. We’ve got people from all different walks of life in my company.
Wayne Gerard: And importantly, we’ve also got lots and lots of amazingly talented, new Australians or migrants. And there’s such a rich migrant community in Australia that I sometimes feel like those people don’t know how to plug in. And I look at the skills and the passion and the energy of those people and I think that truly is an untapped market for Australian startups and innovators.
Wayne Gerard: So in Queensland, on our innovation advisory council, we’ve specifically got a person who comes from that community, who’s making sure that those people in the migrant community who want to get access to the startup community, want to learn more and want to work out if there’s a role for them, we’re trying to create those bridges, those relationships and unlock opportunities for them because they’re an equally important part of our community.
Will Tjo: That’s amazing. And lastly, Wayne, I know we talked about this briefly at the beginning. If a new entrepreneur came to you and given all your mistakes and experience, what’s one piece of advice you’d give them to increase their chances of success?
Wayne Gerard: I’ve got a saying at RedEye, which is do it, document it, improve it, and reuse it. So really the principle there is just start doing what you know, and then make sure you document it and make sure you improve it.
Wayne Gerard: I think a lot of startups and founders, a lot of potential founders want to try and get as many things perfect as they can before they start. And in my experience, when I think about starting RedEye, we didn’t know anything. I went to Silicon Valley for my first time in 2012, literally didn’t even know what a pitch deck was. And my plan was to walk up and down Sand Hill Road.
Wayne Gerard: And so the startup ecosystem has come such a long way since then, and now there are so many people out there that can help you. So just start, get along to a local startup activity or event, search for startups online and listen to a webinar and then start to build some networks, because from that, you will really have an opportunity to connect with the ecosystem, learn from others and have a crack.
Will Tjo: Thanks so much for being a guest today, Wayne.
Wayne Gerard: Great to be here, Will. And I think the podcast you guys are doing is awesome. So if anyone needs to reach out to me, they can connect with me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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.