Building our startup community — Jess Heffernan from AirTree Ventures

Jess Heffernan is the Operations & Community Manager for AirTree Ventures, one of Australia’s most recognised VC funds. AirTree raised the largest fund in Australia in September 2016, reaching $250m, and have invested in startups such as Canva, Expert360, TidyMe, Glam Corner, The Right Fit and — in their early days — US tech giant eBay. While 30.2% of supporters in Australia focus on fintech and 38.9% on medtech, AirTree tend to be more industry agnostic, covering startups in a wide range of verticals.

Jess’ role is seen as a relatively new concept in Australia, as it’s a position that is more often seen in VC funds overseas, who have been quicker to recognise the importance of fostering community, and the benefits to a VC firm of having a healthy ecosystem in which their companies and their portfolio can thrive. The appearance of the role here goes some way towards showing how Australian startups are maturing and growing. That growth has seen startups look more towards VC funding than ever before; Startup Muster data shows that 44.6% of startups plan to raise $1M-$10M in their next round, with 60% of startups planning to undertake capital raising in Australia over the next 12 months.

AirTree has had a focus on playing a responsible and collaborative role, ensuring that they are involved in the growth of the community as a whole.

AirTree are a major player in the Australian ecosystem, involved in some of the most recognisable names and working with leading founders, organisations and supporters. As a part of that, AirTree has had a focus on playing a responsible and collaborative role, ensuring that they are involved in the growth of the community as a whole. Their ethos is that VCs and startups here actively want to work together, not fall prey to a dog eat dog mentality, and they do try to foster new way of business through collaboration.

AirTree work to help founders outside of just their portfolio, through the events they’re involved with, the content they create and the messaging that they use around innovation, growth and startup success. Among the projects that they’ve undertaken to offer real, practical assistance is building an open source spreadsheet on the national fundraising ecosystem, creating resources and content including the seed stage term sheet and financing documents that will help early stage startups so that founders are better positioned and resourced.

As a firm, they started the successful Founders Meetup in 2017 with an aim to connect startup builders with more of their fellow founders so that they can share learnings, networks and resources with each other. The Meetup has already begun having an impact on the ecosystem, and is an attractive event because AirTree also hold office hours with the fund’s investors prior to the meetup.

For the startups in their portfolio, they have the same healthy and helpful approach, seeing themselves as being, in some regards, almost a services company; for example they have an internal recruiter for their startups on staff who can help foster talent for each company. AirTree startups work with the same support that VC firms provide in the US, including support sourcing deals and making connections.

In their view, VCs are employees of the startups they invest in.

To AirTree, VC is not about shaking hands and making deals. In their view, VCs are employees of the startups they invest in and ensuring that unusual relationship remains strong and lasting is important.

Advice from Jess and AirTree?

Don’t be disheartened by failure, at least some element of it is always going to be inevitable. Don’t isolate yourself, reach out and connect because as a new founder you need to be out meeting people and building relationships.

That last point is particularly relevant here, as Startup Muster data shows that 29.7% of startups have benefited from having greater connections to other startups — which has been one of the drivers of our Connection Feature, which allows Startup Muster participants to find the ideal companies, supporters and investors to build their own relationship with.

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