Can your swimming instructors swim?

“I’m starting a startup that helps other startups start up.” (Source: The New Yorker)

Over the last seven years I have helped to support startup entrepreneurs working to make two different types of change in the world.

The first group of entrepreneurs are heroic people who work in very poor communities to launch ventures that bring people out of poverty. Following years of work in international affairs and development, first as a military officer and then a humanitarian worker, in 2010 my wife Kaitlin and I launched the Spark* accelerator, which is now run by an incredible team across four countries, and has backed hundreds of super early stage startups and most importantly helped them to massively changed the lives of more than 400,000 people living in poverty.

In the early years of launching Spark* I also met an educator called Dave Faulkner, who had been doing amazing things in Australian schools while I was bouncing around the Middle East, Asia and Africa. With Dave as the education guy and me as the radical collaborator we launched a venture called Education Changemakers (EC) in 2012. Where Spark* backs local entrepreneurs who have a lived experience of the poverty issue they are trying to solve, EC backs teachers to come up with the ideas to change education, both in schools and through helping education entrepreneurs grow their startups. From small beginnings, our brilliant team provided training and support to 25,000 teachers last year and things continue to grow globally which is really exciting.

Over the years it has been amazing to watch the prolific growth of support for entrepreneurs (accelerators alone have grown tenfold over the last decade) and every week it seems that a bank, company, government body or university is opening a free co-working space, accelerator or incubator or a new meet-up or event is being announced. Even at EC and Spark* we are seeing loads of people applying to our accelerators in the hope of getting support to launch… their own accelerator!

I am all for more support for entrepreneurs, but I have one big fear at the moment about what I am seeing. Can all the swimming instructors swim?

Imagine you don’t know how to swim. You walk past a pool and see loads of people paddling around having a great old time. Then a poster takes your eye saying ‘Want to learn how to swim! It’s easy! We have a course starting next week!’. So you sign up, pay your money and then head along to a course the next Tuesday. You sit down and start to listen to a presentation, and watch a few powerpoint slides that give you some pointers on the strokes. Then you see a video of Michael Phelps winning gold at the Olympics. You don’t get to jump in the pool though. When you look at the profile of swimming instructors it turns out they did the same course a year ago, but have never jumped in a pool either. They are more than happy to give you a pat on the back though, let you join their Facebook group and you can walk away with a certificate pronouncing that now, you too are a qualified swimmer.

I think we are seeing a whole bunch of swimming instructors who can’t swim in the startup space right now, and I think entrepreneurs really need to look closely at where they are getting advice from and think carefully about who they are listening to.

And while general entrepreneurial advice is great I think entrepreneurs should be listening to people who have demonstrated success in their sector (nb. I am all for listening to people who have failed, I just personally prefer getting my advice from those who have made mistakes along the way but ultimately succeeded).

So I can keep my metaphors in the swimming pool, imagine you want to be an Olympic level high-diver. You go along to a sporting academy and you get hooked up with a physio (sweet), a nutritionist (handy) and a sports psychologist (awesome). But then they tell you that they don’t have a high diving coach, so you will have the basketball coach looking after you (bummer). You probably wouldn’t be super satisfied, and let’s face it, you probably won’t make it to the Olympics (at least not in high-diving).

So with the ever-growing spread of sector agnostic programs and co-working spaces, I am calling for more sector focused support to help people in specific sectors grow their ventures. Village Capital does this really well, launching focused programs to support ventures working on specific challenges. Y Combinator has even started doing this, launching its own edtech specific program. Some cities are working to become great at fostering one key sector, like Nashville for healthcare.

So we think that Melbourne, Australia has a real shot at being the hotbed of education innovation in the region. The city has some of the nation’s most innovative schools (Templestowe College and Woorana Park to name a few), a whole bunch of globally influential education bodies (like the University of Melbourne and AITSL) and a growing number of awesome startups (Stile, Edrolo and Maths Pathways). To support this we launched EC Labs in 2016 as the first K-12 education focused accelerator in the country. And this year, in partnership with LaunchVic we are launching Edupreneur, Australia’s first conference focused on K-12 education startups, where people can listen to stories and ideas from successful education entrepreneurs, or the investors actually doing deals into education ventures rather than just talking about it and then get their products in front of loads of teachers and school leaders at our bigger Educhange festival. Our friends at Edugrowth are also doing some great stuff nationally to support education ventures. (And if your venture is working to bring people out of poverty either in Australia, Africa or Asia, get in touch with us at Spark*.)

Going niche is harder. You have to think more. Provide real support and real connections. You can’t hide behind big words and acronyms. You need to know your shit. But the service you can provide to the entrepreneurs who need your help, if you are willing to put in the work, is so much more powerful.

So if you are an education entrepreneur, this is an open invite to come and hang out with us and your tribe at Edupreneur (use the code ‘FRIENDS’ for $90 tickets). If you are an entrepreneur in another sector, start demanding more of the generic accelerators and co-working spaces who are asking for your money, or even more worse if you don’t get the help you need, a slice of your company.

Keep doing what you are doing, it matters very much.