Visiting the USA with the Startup Catalyst Cohort and having had many colleagues who took part in the first community leaders mission I believed I knew what was coming…I was though, not prepared for the numbing fog that would descend post mission where I think my brain went into ‘safe mode’ to prevent an explosion with the varying conflicting degrees of uncertainty crossed with utter certainty that this mission introduced, a deep breath was required…What follows now is some free flowing thoughts, some ideas, some typed out words, not a lot of order, a little curation…IT IS what I am currently thinking…
ARE WE JUST KIDDING OURSELVES?
Your mission should you accept it… is to develop a startup ecosystem that rivals Silicon Valley. The Tech epicenter which formed over 70 years of incremental innovation across series of technological steps from the first regularly transmitting radio station in 1909, vacuum tube manufacture, Military & Aerospace research through to Integrated Circuits and some of the most early home PC’s. Okay…Get to it! Just remember, it could take you 20 years!
Create a Silicon Valley in Australia, no thanks! Anyway…We probably blew that opportunity back in the early 1970’s. Australia leapt out of the space race starting blocks in 1967 by becoming the third nation in the world to build and launch its own satellite. We could have stayed in the game was it not for successive governments not pioneering, not launching quests as they believed the dollar cost to be too high. Could this have lead to more technology companies pushing boundaries, creating new industries, producing more talented entrepreneurs? It sure as heck probably would have…Fortunately this situation is due to change with the instigation of an Australian Space Agency this year.
What can we do to repair this? These efforts have already started with the Federal Governments initiative through NISA with some tax incentives to encourage Angel Investing, the overdue arrival of Crowd Funding Platforms and the CSIRO backed ON Prime & ON Accelerator Program including the Main Sequence Venture Fund. ON Prime introduces researchers, scientists and university grads the opportunity to test the potential for their research to be applied in a real world, commercial sense through a bootcamp based around helping customer interviews and market demand. The ON Accelerator helps teams that show potential the opportunity to accelerate their road to market. Advance Queensland which is the envy of many other states and off course S.A. making some moves especially in the Defense and Space niche and Victoria having a red hot go at getting things moving. Ok….let’s not forget the big new hub in Sydney. Growing VC firms and numerous accelerator programs, some good, some not as good as others.
WHAT SLOWS US DOWN?
We are truly challenged in Australia with the title ‘Entrepreneur’ it has had a generally negative connotation since it was dirtied in the ‘roaring eighties’ by the likes of Skaife, Bond, Edelsten, Rivkin. We need to celebrate our new entrepreneurs, forget the news headlines of the past and write new definitions for ‘Entrepreneur’
Entrepreneur = a person who starts and manages any enterprise, especially a business, usually with considerable initiative and risk, in the pursuit of a profit. Hint, we need more of these, not the former
Another barrier we face in Australia is the tall poppy syndrome. We just love to tear down the successful and cut them down to size. This can make people fearful to try to get ahead, to rise above for fear of being cut down. This sadly occurs on all levels to. When one from a lower socioeconomic family tries to rise above their status they are often berated by their tribe to pull your head back in for fear of embarrassing the rest of the family, either through failure or worse, by success which calls the rest of the tribe out as failure themselves for not succeeding.
How do we beat this? How do we defeat the tall poppy syndrome.
Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, and fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people will not feel insecure around you. — Marianne Williamson
This syndrome appears to extend to New Zealand and the UK as well. I’m very keen to hear peoples thoughts on how to solve this or is it simply being mentally tough enough to deal with the neigh sayers and the opponents and the critics and commentary?? Thoughts Please, comment, like, share???
Business failures are shamed in Australia with heavy stigma and regulations that really punish and sometimes ban people for extended periods of time from managing companies. This needs to be fixed. The attitude in the USA whilst not perfect is that there is a lot to learn in failure and so long as you do learn you are a better entrepreneur and celebrated for getting back up and giving it another go.
VISITING STARTUP MECCA
4 years ago I discovered a book called ‘Startup Communities: Building an Entrepreneurial Ecosystem in Your City’ by Brad Feld. This became somewhat of a bible for me in what we are creating here in Toowoomba. Like Boulder in Colorado, Toowoomba is around 100,000 people, 250,000 in the greater region, one university, a satellite city to a major centre, (Brisbane & the SE corner, including Ipswich, Gold Coast & Sunshine Coast and for Boulder, its Denver) and has a robust economy, ours built largely on agriculture and resources. Theirs built from the great outdoor lifestyle and the greatest density of tech startups in America, twice as many per capita than San Jose-Sunny Vale California.
Visiting Boulder with the Catalyst Mission was somewhat like going home. Home to a city like I hope Toowoomba could be one day. We share the bare bones, we just need to build up the myriad of parts that make up a whole.
Early days the USA Government moved some defense technology industries to the region and that activity attracted new businesses to startup and boosted the population. With the major infrastructure projects surrounding Toowoomba we have the opportunity to attract early stage technology companies to our region due to economic strength, climate, lifestyle, community but without the ecosystem to support them they will not come or will not stay.
In Boulder the technology startup ecosystem exists today without major ongoing support of the Government, State or Federal. The various actors in the startup ecosystem know their roles and generally they support each others positions, duplication is minimized. We run a Code School, they run the design centered coworking space, these folk over here are the hacker space, they over there run an accelerator. The general consensus of a majority of the missions participants was that this is unlike the behavior we witness in Australia where many bad actors in the startup ecosystems sell themselves as the solution for all things “Startup” and everybody and his dog is designing their own program for this, that and another “startup” purpose all competing for a slice of the pie rather than collaboratively building a pie factory.
In what is a genuine attempt to stimulate Startup activity in Australia Government funding buckets are being created which having good intentions have disturbingly encouraged almost anyone to re-badge their consultancy or extend their business by adding a new startup department to get at this funding often resulting in multiple duplication of services in many areas, sometimes even including local government, Economic Development Organisations and Universities competing with entrepreneurs and existing businesses diluting effectiveness and wasting money. This is contrary to much of the vibrant Boulder startup ecosystems we witnessed on the Catalyst Mission.
Boulder is a beautiful place to live. And it’s beautiful not because the local council had some you beaut pro-startup policy — but because they had the foresight to plant lots of trees, welcomed a university and federal science labs, bought up lots of parkland, and then stayed disciplined about preserving the beauty they had created. The idea was simple: Make a city a great place to live, and people figure out how to make a living there. Its Startup Ecosystem is driven by Entrepreneurs and VC’s! This too is obtainable for Toowoomba! Toowoomba is a great place to live, Has mountains of outdoor areas we can protect and nurture and is connected to the world via Wellcamp Airport.
Why ENTREPRENEURS should be LEADERS — Enterprise & GOVERNMENT should be FEEDERS
There are two types of thinking involved when it comes to innovation as there there are two types of innovation, Incremental and Disruptive. Incremental innovation requires default thinking, this is what governments & companies need to do to function each and every day, so that the doors stay open, the staff get paid, the widgets get manufactured and the accounts get banked and the shareholders are informed. This is the everyday activity of doing business and it is predictable, measurable and manageable. It is what our Governments do, it’s what our economic development offices do, it’s what big enterprise does. It has finite pathways that seek a winner and they know what needs to be done to win. Incremental Innovation seeks to refine the known and improve the processes. Like adding GPS mapping to your car or a couple of USB ports or iTunes to the stereo, or adding a yellow bin to the rubbish collection…incremental innovation.
Disruptive Innovation however requires new thinking, Pioneering! Questing! Risk taking ventures with no finish line in sight. An infinite number of pathways that simply can’t exist in normal economic development or within everyday companies and Government. To gain certainty when pioneering we need to embrace the fog of uncertainty, and harness the energy of doubt. Whilst business is a game to be won, Innovation is based on PIONEERING, new learning, progression, leadership and an effort to obtain enduring relevance with no finish line. Victory is never declared as we are always seeking the next iteration, pivot, technology step. It’s like removing the driver from Motor Cars, landing your 1st stage rocket back where it took off, removing real estate ownership from Hotels, Putting Fitbits on Machines, Robots in Surgeries, It’s risky! Unknown! Pioneering!
This explains the difficulty we have nationally when traditional economic development gets involved, they revert to default thinking to avoid risks and to meet the specified targets / deliverable. Their systems and procedures are designed to deliver a prescribed outcome, to be winners for their regions so they will correctly, apply funding, using proven programs and models to achieve economic development. This is a needed function. Where the problem lies for our country is when this is done with funding meant for Innovation that requires Pioneering not Economic Development.
WHAT ARE FEEDERS
Feeders are people in the startup community that are situated to help entrepreneurs; they are universities, government, venture capitalists, angel investors, lawyers, accountants, etc. Brad Feld (Techstars) once quoted, “they are the main fabric of the community, but cannot be the leaders.” Feeders help support the entrepreneurs through funding, mentorship, and whatever else they may need to launch an idea or company.
Examples of it going right… Companies or organisations who are looking for innovation, engage with organisations who are already conducting innovation activities and events and implement their programs or co-design a program for the purpose and it goes ahead. For example BOQ & River City Labs, Slingshot have partnered to deliver for corporate customers like Qantas who are looking for innovative ideas, Startup Toowoomba have partnered with TRC to deliver digital literacy programs.
AUSSIE STARTUP COLONIES
Think about this challenge for a moment then! For Innovation driven colonies like River City Labs, Sunshine Coast Innovation Centre, Startup Toowoomba, iLab at UQ , Canvas Coworking, Split Space’s just to name a few, we’re constantly operating in the unknown, we are pioneering, more than that, we are working always with people who are pioneering, looking to disrupt, not using default thinking, continuously iterating, pivoting, It’s little wonder in the first 5–10 years its very difficult to apply much of a measure to the outcomes given that most early stage technology companies who achieve “overnight success” take 7 years to do so and are often founded by entrepreneurs who are on their 2nd or 3rd Startup. Early Stage engagement measures for ecosystems could well involve vanity metrics for the first couple of years…How many people are coming and then how many are having a go at their second startup? Then we’ll see some successes building from there!
Rewind 1 month…Cue up a 747 and 20 intrepid fellow explorers setting out on a quest to Silicon Valley in search of the Holy Grail in the form of a recipe for successful startup ecosystems. What we really found was a profound bond between the diverse members of the mission. A big opportunity to share our own journeys up until now, our ideas for the future, and a bond that extends beyond the mission to continue to share the good, the bad, and the ugly. Some of the Government types now understand the problems faced by the entrepreneurs who are trying to lead these ecosystems and some of us entrepreneurs now understand the challenges that the Govies have. It gave us the opportunity to speak out about many challenges experienced on this journey and to share experiences we may have previously kept quiet.
Be assured that if you are found to be a bad actor in the Startup Ecosystem then this will be known across the nation, as Catalyst is national. Screw with the crew and you’re going to find yourself behind the eight ball. #Givefirst #Entrepreneursfirst #juststart #bethechange #diversity #respect and you will be welcomed. We always invite wanna be participants to take part in our events, attend and give first to find out whether they’re the real deal for supporting the ecosystem or a wanna be actor in it for the dash for cash scattering business cards and false dreams.
MY PLAN FOR SILICON DOWNS
(the name’s an inside joke, those who know will get it)
Develop a strategy to attract early stage technology companies to Toowoomba.
Encourage Entrepreneurs to lead…Engage an startup hardened regional chief entrepreneur. Not want-a-preneurs, Consultants, Managers or MBA’s who have never lead an actual Startup.
Help Government to understand their role of creating empowering policy rather than leading and how to identify the bad actors
Keep developing our grassroots events and activities and encourage participation that could grow into ideas that turn into companies with a little support and belief.
Encourage a strategy to ensure that Toowoomba maintains it’s LIVABILITY! This helps attract talent and retain people.
Lifestyle and the quality of the Schools can be leveraged to get and keep net population to Toowoomba.
Ensure the NBN is solid and High Speed Internet (Higher than Average) is readily available in the Toowoomba region
The Pulse Data Centre and Technology Park are great initiatives that can be leveraged to create Startups, These Startups can spin out of the Companies that locate themselves in Toowoomba attracted by the offerings of a Technology Park. Startups will then base themselves here if the rest of the Startup Ecosystem (Pie Factory) has developed, alongside the time line of the Technology Park or they will move to places like Brisbane, Sydney or overseas support required for Early Stage Technology Companies (Startups).
Feed the existing Ecosystem and help them do more and support more entrepreneurs to be able to give back into the Startup Ecosystem. Entrepreneur in Residence programs. Involve us in the regional discussions regarding ARIP and build the Pie Factory rather than giving out slices of pie. That means collaborate with those already doing stuff in the region and empower them to do more, to grow, to build a better pie factory instead of slicing up the pie.
Create a supply of software developers, Software engineers, Developers (full stack), Engineers. Start a Toowoomba version of Galvanize or the Holberton School and produce the talent required to populate early stage Technology Companies. Galvanize or Holberton School take you from newbie to Full stack developer in 6 months learning only what you need to know in the most modern languages. Start small and scale as demand grows. We just need to solve the chicken and egg thing here.
Encourage the Development of a solid and well educated Angel Network with regular events and meetups that support and encourage more Angels to enter the market. Deal flow is always a problem in early days and patience is required and encouragement from Angels needed to see deal flow increase over time.
Encourage the University to engage outside of the silo that they exist within and help them develop their in house Ignition Programs to a high standard of events and activities. Traditional metrics to measure outcomes from the Ignition program are not likely to apply if Pioneering is occuring.
Encourage enterprise to invest in innovation events that can help trigger innovation internally and externally (intrapreneurs and spin-outs)
There are opportunities to leverage the experience that Startup Toowoomba have gained through their running of 7 Startup Weekends and 8 Startup Bootcamps and tens of dozens of other Startup events and assist them move to the next stage which is running some incubator programs by backing them.
Locally we need to get a higher profile in the general population to discover the back yard silos of innovation that is going on out there unaware of the support they will encounter if they engaged in the local Startup Ecosystem. We need to get better at telling stories.
And NO, regarding this articles title… We are not kidding ourselves…we are building real startup communities. It just takes a little bit longer than we’d all like it to but it is happening.
When someone approaches you with an idea that’s outside the box, a bit whacky, maybe even a little crazy…give it a moment, it might just be huge!
A special thank you to Startup Catalyst and the Queensland Government for in this case doing a sterling job as a feeder and sending entrepreneurs and community leaders overseas to learn from the worlds best entrepreneurs and community leaders. We are excited for the future of Innovation in our region.