The days after policy hack: #StartupAus, innovation and startups made in Australia

Samuel Pavin
Oct 29, 2015 · 13 min read

“What is a long read when it is about a whole country’s future?”

Policy Hack happened. The posts, articles and interviews are now gone. The first takes from the recent activity suggest that the effort still needs to be structured. There has been a lot of buzz and excitement with a whole startup community happy and eager to push its ideas to the current government but, like for any startup, thinking and planning is crucial.

There have now been some ideas bounced here and there and a beta done. It is now time to sit down for a second and make use of the whiteboard.

This is demonstrated by the simple fact that StartupAus “will now curate the content” of the OurSay posts and compile it with the ideas from the policy hack. A task which should have happened prior to the policy hack, not only to bring value to discussions but also define the “champions” who would be invited to discuss these ideas during the hack.

In this particular case, the thinking will be done after the acting. No time wasted but, at the same time a whole day resulting in standard takeaways and some “niche” ideas.

Overall, the policy hack day has been a great success, bringing members of the ecosystem together and feeding the government with smart input and directions. Well done Wyatt Roy and all! However, sometimes, noise is too much noise and critical items may be overlooked. Or, at least, not mentioned a lot in the variety of posts, tweets, etc. published after this event.

Building on experience and bringing an outside look to the table, here are my main talking points about innovation and startup success for Australia.

Community: Get all together

There is a standard in every country, every ecosystem, competition. Speaking about startups, countries compete with countries. Within countries, cities compete with cities. And within cities, startups compete with each other, accelerators fight for talents — and so do VCs. That is without even mentioning other differences impacting the cohesion of the community.

The government needs to show inclusiveness and truly represent the whole country and all members of the community. Which means bringing the discussion (or debates) to all communities in Australia.

Innovation, overall, is not about tech startups. It is about every single individual with a voice and every single problem which can be identified. Because where there is a problem, there is a fix — and an opportunity to innovate.

The role of the government is to give support to an organisation — which should be StartupAus — to be the body and voice for innovation and startups in Australia. And more;but I will say more in coming chapters.

It is crucial that the government backs the efforts but it should also remain one of the members of the whole ecosystem with entrepreneurship and innovation being at the center.

With StartupAus engaging the whole community, the next move is to structure Australia in order to facilitate local initiatives and the building of local StartupAus communities. All with the goal to gather insight and ideas but also to provide expertise, education and help.

This whole initiatives shall go down to all states, all towns, all actors. As mentioned, not only in the startup world but encompass tech and non-tech populations, students, academics, rural populations, indigenous populations, both women and men, obviously. Although it still seems to need saying.

Innovation and startups are not only about technology. In order to identify needs or solutions, we need to care about all and bring these voices back to StartupAus and the government.

Education

In our modern society, education should be mandatory for all children. Yet, even in so-called civilised countries, literacy and general knowledge figures are declining.

Beyond knowledge and back to entrepreneurship, I saw the one take from the policy hack, mentioned in Startup Smart, being the lemonade stand… . Where are universities mentioned? Where is the true push for entrepreneurship?

Australia is already behind most of the other countries and even implementing the best of measures tomorrow would not drive immediate massive results. This journey will take years and that is assuming the current drive remains.

The immediate starting point, though, should be universities. It is necessary to remember that entrepreneurship is not yet a career option for most of Australia’s youth. Acting now to present entrepreneurship, explain it and define it as an actual career path should be the very first step to take when it comes to education.

Some universities are already doing well when it comes to helping and promoting entrepreneurship beyond innovation (think about the MAP initiative at Melbourne university for example) but there needs to be a more general teaching about entrepreneurship. Not necessarily dedicated studies (a tricky one and certainly a next step) but, at least, an introduction to it in a coordinated and national way.

Also keep in mind that scientists are often the ones who innovate but most have no clue how to build a company and even less how to run it (not everybody is Elon Musk).

The second priority is to make coding mainstream. At all levels of the school system.

From my very own experience, I had the chance to start learning to use a computer at age 9 and even if coding never really was of interest to me at that time, I was at least introduced to it and could find my way around a computer.

Here, no need to re-invent things. Just follow the lead of Queensland, already getting things done when others are merely chit-chatting. Less noise, more action.

Beyond coding and entrepreneurship, schools should be the place where innovation is taught.

How do you teach innovation? By teaching the basics properly. Teach chemistry, physics, sciences but also history, etc. The usual components of education indeed. With the secret sauce of making sense of all of these. Education needs to be smart.

Children are often said to hate maths. I did. Until my very last year of high school came and I was lucky enough to have a teacher who made sense of maths. The same happened when maths were not really maths at primary school where additions, subtractions, were taught using visual representations and real-life contexts.

Context, one of the key words in startups, one of the key words for education.

Innovation is everywhere in traditional education, electricity, man on the moon, etc. All of this just needs to be explained and make sense for kids by being linked to the real world, to today and to the future.

Coding can be either extremely boring or quite fun. The same goes with everything. Even teaching the lemonade stand can be boring as death for kids.

Education in general needs to focus on the whole picture. Not every kid will be an entrepreneur. Not every kid will be a scientist. But we need kids to get a taste of these, make sense of it and get an introduction to the specialty of people they may work with in the future.

Re-think education like startups and “gamify” it not only to increase interest but also make it a strong foundation for reflection. That is the key.

Funding

A startup, by essence, needs funds. The model itself usually implies losing money before breaking even and generating profit. That is for the 30% of companies which survive.

At the moment, Australia has venture capital firms, accelerators providing some grants, some foreign investors dipping in and even angel investors but the model still needs to grow and be structured.

Seed-funding in particular needs to see an increase in angel investors numbers.

Too many rounds are done by VCs for ridiculous amounts that would usually be covered by angels and the next step of funding growth, usually by VCs or big angel syndicates, gets impaired by that situation.

There is a confusing context at the moment and roles are mixed, not allowing a streamlined path to funding for a growing startup. And not fuelling growth.

This is changing but mostly at the top. Recent super investments and new funds raised tend to cover the later stages of funding for startups with actual results and looking at expanding.

Yet, the early stages are still missing support.

Angel investment is not already everybody’s game. It obviously presents higher risks and far less guarantees on return for investors than, say, real estate.

This is where the government can assist — being R&D tax breaks — by providing incentives for individual investors to take part in funding businesses.

Some European countries offer a tax write-off of 30 to 50% of the investment made for example. And an additional step can be to write off another portion of this investment should the startup fail within 3 years.

As for foreign investments, which are developing little by little, the key to increasing them lies in success and image.

Australia needs to show startup success (and stories are coming up quite often) and broadcast it (see StartupAus again). The country and government also need to show stability and an entrepreneurship-friendly approach as foreign investors are always wary about investing abroad, in a context they do not fully control/master.

Australia needs to show continuity and the same current drive to develop and grow the startup ecosystem.

In this regard, the shadow ministry of Ed Husic proves a step in the right direction by demonstrating a will to keep innovation and startups rolling regardless of which party is in charge.

Corporate involvement

Corporations have a major role to play. In Australia the likes of Optus, Telstra,… have opened a path for others by putting together programs and accelerators.

With banks coming onboard the startup train and other industries showing interest, things are moving in the right direction.

However, there is a need to ensure that the input by corporations not only matches actual needs but also brings value. From a very basic point of view, when companies invest in startups, they are preparing for the future and/or buying innovation. However they can have so many more roles to play and so many other ways to invest in innovation and startups.

Firstly, linking with the schools topic, collaboration between companies and universities must be strongly encouraged. Opportunities do not only lie in research but also business and teachings.

From the education point of view, it is crucial to introduce professionals in the classroom as often as possible. Once again, the point is all about making sense of education by linking it to “real life”.

Collaborations between schools and businesses are a great way to introduce students to their (potential) future. They can also work on real-life projects while corporations can benefit from R&D, innovation developed in university labs or assume a seed investor role for startups created at universities.

Beyond the kickstarting part, corporations have an amazing acceleration power. They can be an early adopter of innovation, providing a strong reference for a young startup, a business partner and a business channel too.

Ideally, corporate involvement with universities should also be neutral. There are more and more cases of collaboration between various players in a same industry, or market, to work on — or develop — projects or accelerate innovation. A project in Paris pictures this type of collaboration where a global campus brings together large corporations (among which competitors) and a pool of different schools (business, engineering, …) all working together. Be it on corporate projects, research or backing actual startup projects built by students.

This creates a mini Silicon Valley where all skills and tools are in the same place.

My point here follows on the previous paragraphs, collaborate and put resources together for the sake of the bigger picture: Australia.

Speaking of Australia, of collaboration for innovation and startups, the key point is: StartupAus.

StartupAus: Innovation and startups, made in Australia

I have spoken about the community, about collaboration and about making sense of silos and small spots over a whole territory.

Australia needs an organisation structuring the whole entrepreneurial community. Australia needs a brand to show the world how innovative the country is. Australia needs more than a Ministry to front the startup world.

StartupAus exists already and it should be fully leveraged as the key player of all things startups in the country and beyond.

I read yesterday a line saying that “La FrenchTech is now a brand recognised everywhere and is contributing to drawing innovation and investments to France”.

StartupAus has the potential to be this kind of vessel for Australian startups and innovation.

I said it, months ago, when meeting local entrepreneurs and members of the startup community, I still strongly believe it is the way to go.

Peter Bradd (StartupAus CEO) has been doing a great job so far. The next step is to get the government support in order to make it a strong national structure.

StartupAus. As a brand, as a community, as the rallying flag and organisation for the whole ecosystem around startups and innovation in Australia.

That is the point here; to put startups and innovation at the very centre and surround them with all the organisations, structures and resources needed for them to grow and succeed.

This initiative, though, if empowered by the government, needs to be backed by all, starting with Australia’s most prominent entrepreneurs. This is where I would want to see Mike Cannon-Brookes, Steve Barrie, Melanie Perkins and others, leading the way because entrepreneurs, not the government, not the investors, know what entrepreneurs need to innovate and thrive.

With one organisation heading the development of innovation and startups, Australia would not only bring structure to its ecosystem but, as mentioned earlier, a brand too.

One topic of policy hack was landing pads. This is something we had had a chat about on Twitter a few weeks earlier and it does make sense but the point is not to copy New Zealand by having an Aussie pad at San Francisco only.

Silicon Valley matters but so do other locations and other countries.

There needs to be a plan put in place to have a presence in the USA, sure, but also in Europe and Asia which, as a side note, are growing markets.

The StartupAus flag must also be flown through the presence of international ambassadors and strategies to attend major tech events; not only to promote Australia but Australia’s top startups and technology. If Lithuania can purchase space and bring a dozen startups to TechCrunch Disrupt, Australia should be able to do so too. Rock the CES or SXSW and the whole world will notice.

Dave McClure (500 Startups) mentioned the fact that startups “suck at marketing”.

Reflecting on this, the point made applies to the whole ecosystem too. However good the technology, environment or funding, it still needs to be noticed to succeed, draw talents and investments.

Communication has to be highlighted in the development plan. Not only on the international stage but at country level. The recent push from the government has put innovation and startups in the spotlight.

Yet, entrepreneurship and innovation need to become a topic for all. From kids defining their study path to current employees, corporate players or remote communities.

Innovation and Getting Things Done

Australia has the perfect setting for innovation.

It is a young country where traditional industries still play a massive role. The same traditional industries that are bound for disruption or, at least, offer great foundations for innovation.

Farming still has not changed much although chips, smart systems, drones and solar power could improve the industry dramatically. The needs (e.g. the expertise) are here. Only solutions are needed.

Just think solar power with solar roads for example, technologies for shark attacks prevention, the use of robotics for mining, smart cities infrastructures to relieve the main cities, etc.

Australia is even more advanced than some other countries for contactless payments for instance (pay wave is more developed than in France) and could keep building in this direction with mobile payments and making mobiles a universal payment and ID tool (see the recent piece about passports in the cloud).

These are just basic examples but also the foundation for growing the country as a whole.

It is a massive opportunity to bring together individuals and organisations at every level of the society.

Innovating in the farming industry would involve farmers — and touch regional communities — universities and businesses for a start. With my main point here being “regional”. Disrupting traditional industries done well would involve people from the industry. Hence bringing innovation and entrepreneurship to regional areas.

These are very basic examples but it starts with one thing, just don’t be French ;) Something does not work, don’t complain, find a fix.

To end this whole post with a few last items, here are a few additional things to review or consider.

entors. Mentorship for startups is crucial. Yet, mentors can also make or break a startup. There is a need to rely on local mentors but the whole community should also work on vetting the good and bad ones.

Self-proclaimed mentors or experts are everywhere in the startup world yet not all of them provide value. Not to mention that a “mentor” asking a few hundred dollars from startups for an “advisory” session should only be teaching one lesson : do not burn cash over shiny/useless objects.

Beyond Australia, StartupAus should work (and get the means to) on bringing in some foreign entrepreneurs and mentors to bring different visions and experiences to the local ecosystem.

eave the hype aside. I mentioned it quickly in the community chapter but the recent debate(s) between Sydney and Melbourne about who is the coolest (or which city rocks in fact) made no sense. What should Brisbane, Adelaide, Perth, Tasmania and all the others say then?

If startups (or members of the ecosystem) take time to argue about such topic instead of hustling and trying to succeed then they are missing the whole point of even starting a business.

Create your own Harbour Bridge logo if you want, as long as it is sitting under the StartupAus flag.

usiness is for all — and all regions. Regional Australia is feeling the burn. CBDs are losing businesses, factories are closing and the new generation moving towards the main cities just for the sake of getting the jobs where they are.

However, beyond leveraging innovation via universities (when available) and disruption of industries, why not give regional Australia an added push by reviewing the tax systems and create a more favourable environment for businesses.

One way to boost business for regional Australia and indigenous communities too could be to create tax havens allowing the creation of new businesses — and even maybe revive manufacturing.

China, as an example, is proving less and less competitive, even for clothing. Could an answer not be to facilitate “local” manufacturing for Australian companies setting up shop in areas currently in dire need of jobs?

Going a little further on these ideas, one topic from policy hack did sound interesting, the NEIS. However, the exact content remains to be seen.

In the end, beyond policy hack, the success of innovation and startups in Australia lies with people. There have been a few great steps forward taken by the government and members of the ecosystem but now the real job starts: getting shit done!

… the right way.

Samuel Pavin

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samuelpavin.com - Brand strategist. Tech / Startups / Marketing and Social Media. Founding Member @IbmGE, Marketing Lead @uq_ilab - Growing @AT_Translations