We need more aussies to #givefirst

I was fortunate enough to visit Boulder Colorado recently as part of my role with Startup Catalyst, and I took away several key insights for the Australian startup ecosystem (nothing like distance to give clarity).

In this post, I want to share just one of those lessons.

Boulder is an incredibly interesting place — a population of just over one hundred thousand people, and yet it has the highest rate of tech-startups per capita of any city in the USA — a full six times higher than the national average. It is also the home to legendary investor Brad Feld, who wrote the book on Startup Communities, with Boulder as the basis of his thesis on how any city can develop a strong startup ecosystem.

Boulder is also home to TechStars, and at the heart of the TechStars culture are some mantras that include “give first” and “founders first”.

More than just catch phrases, these are core fundamental values of their community. But what amazed me the most was the extend to which these values permeated across every individual we met in Boulder and nearby Denver.

Our Startup Catalyst mission cohort with TechStars co-founder David Cohen

A prime example of this mindset in action is Arieann DeFazio, the straight-talking, refreshingly no-bullshit, just-fucking-do-it Executive Director of Spark Boulder — a student-focussed startup hub just off-campus in Boulder. She committed to working as a volunteer at Spark for 5 years because, in her words: “this town gave me my life, so I am giving back to the community”.

Similarly in Denver, the awesome Heather MacKenzie volunteers as the Denver City Lead for SheEO. In a country where only 2.7% of VC funding goes to startups with female founders, SheEO is doing its part to try and solve this problem by raising $1000 from each of 1000 women in 100 days — equating to a $1 million fund (sorry, just incase you couldn’t do the maths) — which then gets invested into 10 female-led startups.

Impressive women working as volunteers to deliver epic shit.

But this #givefirst attitude wasn’t just limited to Colorado, and nor was it limited to just leaders from the American startup communities we met.

In San Francisco, we hosted a dinner with 7 of the aussie ex-pat community who now call Silicon Valley home. Amongst them was Hamish Hawthorn, who has played a critical role in the Australian startup ecosystem in Sydney, including his work at ATP, StartMate, Sydney Angels, and much more.

I watched during the dinner as Hamish frequently moved seats across the two tables of 25+ Australians, and every time he re-seated the first words he uttered to the new group around him were “Hi, I’m Hamish, how can I help?”.

When I’ve talked about this culture difference before, it has often been met with cynicism, and comments that it is actually only superficial. But I strongly disagree. Two weeks after returning home and I am still receiving emails from every member of the TechStars team we met (and some we didn’t event meet), plus Hamish, Heather, and most of the others, all making unsolicited offers to help and support Australian startups.

I do find the same culture in parts of the Australian ecosystem, such as the incredible group of 18 startup community leaders that travelled with me, plus awesome peeps in my home town (Brisbane) like Elaine Stead from Blue Sky Alternative Investments, who despite having one of the busiest work schedules of anyone I know, still seems incapable of ever saying no to a request to mentor or support founders, participate in events, or judge a pitch competition.

And none of this is even touching on the whole need to #giveback to the community post success (my closest example being Steve Baxter for the hundreds of thousands of dollars and several hundred hours of his time he personally gives to startup programs in Brisbane each year).

But I’d love to see more of this #givefirst culture permeating our domestic startup communities.

I spent three years volunteering to try and build an NFP startup hub and community on the Gold Coast — to the point it almost bankrupted my family (well, admittedly that had more to do with a fucked up exit and our national tax system). During that time, a large portion of the community constantly told me I was an idiot for giving my time away for free. But I learnt and gained far more in those 3 years — including new relationships with some incredible human beings — than I ever did in the 7 years I spent at Universities, or the small chunks of my life I spent at PwC, Freehills, and other corporate environments.

So if I could encourage one thing from Boulder, it is to give without the expectation of return. The returns will come, but you have to #givefirst.