Chopping down tech’s Tall Poppy Syndrome in Australia

“It’s done — we don’t do that anymore”.

We’re sitting at the River City Labs co-working space and accelerator in Brisbane city, Australia. The voice is Aaron Birkby on the topic of Australia’s infamous ability to knock down anyone considered to be “too big for their boots”. What we call tall poppy syndrome.

Aaron is the CEO of Startup Catalyst, a program that began as a youth mission to Silicon Valley and has now expanded as a community-wide program exposing Australian change-makers to tech hubs around the world. With the express purpose of catalysing the growth of the local ecosystem.

Which is going well — except for that pesky tall poppy syndrome.

Aaron is telling a story of a conversation with TechStars cofounder David Cohen. His advice for curing our cultural appetite for tearing down our talent was simply to signal that it’s done. It’s over. We don’t do that anymore. That’s not our brand.

It’s a great idea. And this week it seems we get our first chance to do just that.

Disclaimers and cultural acknowledgement

Before we get into that, let’s just say that this isn’t an essay on the roots and relative merits of tall poppy syndrome. Or if it exists at all. I’m sure there are opinions.

My opinion is that we can affect change within the communities that we most identify with — and certainly that we effect all communities that we interact with at any level. So let’s change this one for the better.

Jumping aboard a spaceship

Barely a week after discussing the tall poppy syndrome with Aaron and other community leaders like Chad Renado of Firestation 101, I see an an example rocketing through my Twitter and Facebook feeds.

If you’re in any way at all following the Australian startup ecosystem, you will A) know of Paul Bennetts or B) have seen the impact that the beta launch of Spaceship’s technology-focused superannuation fund has created.

I’ve only spoken to Paul very briefly in his time at AirTree Ventures. I had raised a seed round for my company and asked my network for referrals for investors to meet for potential future rounds — placing a “first dot” for future conversations to connect.

Paul was one of those quick chats and certainly one of the positive referrals. Fast forward a year and I can’t turn around without seeing Spaceship. Literally — I’m writing this from the Fishburners co-working space in Sydney and there’s Spaceship stickers all over the desk next to mine.

Spaceship is also all over the media. Surely the ecosystem would be excited about an Australian investor crossing the table to launch a tech-oriented super fund to shake up the country’s finance sector and… oh hang on…

I actually spent five minutes making an Australian version of the “NOPE” cat. What am I doing with my life?

In come the poppy hunters

Needless to say, the wave of excitement about Spaceship created a wave of attention. Which is a way of saying that Spaceship enjoyed it’s first wave of criticism. Including some very public tweets calling bullshit on their onboarding metrics.

The exchange was short and ultimately resolved, but in the meantime inspired reactions such as this…

Bonus points for using the best emoji of all time… 🤔

And also this…

Let’s make Australian tech great again! Tall poppy is sad!

Any number of motivational quotes or links to articles about the compound effects of community building apply here. But at this level it’s even simpler than that.

We can’t talk about catalysing our ecosystem at scale and becoming a leading nation of innovators if we can’t even tolerate each other’s early progress. Maybe we need a “no bitching in beta” rule?

Regional rocket ships

The odd thing is that Spaceship is exactly the kind of regional rocket ship we actually want (and maybe even need) to be successful. As much as I love Atlassian and Steve Baxter and Freelancer and Canva I probably don’t need another ten years of them being the only brands boomeranging around the Australian tech conversation.

What bothers me the most about tall poppy syndrome in our industry is that startup success isn’t a birthday cake. You don’t get less if the other kid gets more. Startup success is an orchestra. Beautiful things happen when we play well together.

We need to acknowledge and then shift away from the emotionally insecure states that causes the vast majority of criticisms within the startup community. I’ve been there too — it’s overwhelmingly hard to do what we’re all doing after all.

But exactly because it is so hard is exactly why we need to reject the zero sum game mentality and move even a small step towards a more authentic appreciation of the compound effect of community success.

And you can start right now. Keeping with the theme of the five minute favour, why not take a moment to share something positive about the ecosystem? Consider it a personal experiment to write about, tweet about, or even send a private note to somebody or some company in the community.

What will it be?


Thanks for reading. I’ve set myself a personal challenge of writing and publishing daily for the month of March. Partly as an exercise in lean writing and partly to explore the impact of contributing these quick and raw narratives. This was day six’s post — what did you think?