It’s got nothing to do with the weather. Plenty of smart people here so that isn’t it. And it’s not that a nation of convicts, indigenous people and immigrants can’t be resourceful. “Innovation” is the hot word on everyone’s lips and we’re all trying to figure out how to make it happen and wondering why Australia can’t just be more like Silicon Valley.
We spent the last 30 years digging shit out of the ground and now we want an economy driven by science and technology, but the hard truth is that after burning through the nation’s wealth with relatively little investment in the sector, it’s going to take some time. The good news is that we can learn from our brothers and sisters across the Pacific and look at how Community professionals are building Startup ecosystems and how we can fast track a lot of the progress we spent so many years avoiding with our heads buried in mine shafts / quarries / etc.
In the US community professionals started to gain influence around 2010 when most of the big VC firms began to look for competitive advantages and ways to help their founders grow bigger faster. First Round, Spark, Union Square Ventures and others have been responsible for setting the standard. By in large their efforts are focused heavily on community building within their portfolio and helping to solve some of their founders biggest pain points like recruitment, customer acquisition, etc.
As we develop the VC community role in Australia, I think we can learn lots from our US counterparts. However, we’ve also got a different set of problems that need to be addressed, and as Community professionals, we can play a big role both defining what Community means in VC and also in moving the Australian startup ecosystem forward.
The US has a very sophisticated startup ecosystem. It’s been around for decades and is far more developed than ours. As Australian community professionals, we have an opportunity to advance our startup ecosystem by focusing on cultural development, collective knowledge building, network strength and generational learning.
How did we get here?
So why is the ecosystem in the state that it is? To start with, the dot-com bubble nearly wiped out most of the ecosystem in Australia. There aren’t too many people working in tech today that started their careers before 1999 and for those that are around, the landscape was pretty tough from 2000 onwards. If you wanted to build a startup, you generally had to get funding from Silicon Valley and if you wanted to learn from someone who had been there before, you probably had to look outside Australia too. In particular the Venture Capital industry was nearly non existent until about 2010. Because of this we don’t have the same level of generational knowledge built into the ecosystem that the US has, which has had an impact on the overall sophistication of the Australian startup ecosystem.
So as community professionals, what can we do about it?
Generational learning and collective intelligence
Community professionals can do meaningful work that builds upon the collective knowledge in the ecosystem and we can put in place frameworks to hold that knowledge for future generations. In his book Startup Communities, Brad Feld talks about the importance of playing the long game when it comes to community development. He says it’s at least a 30 year commitment before you see true change. One of the key reasons for this is it takes multiple iterations to get it right. Just like a piece of software, you need to build it, test it, iterate and repeat. In community building this cycle is stretched out and it can take years to find out if something is working or not. For this reason community professionals need to use content and programming strategies to encourage an open and inclusive culture that facilitates shared learning and ‘give first’ principles. This will lead to a rich network of mentors who have at once benefited from this open culture and are in a position to give back to the community that helped them. Overtime the effects compound and the future generations benefit from all that have come before them.
One concrete example of this in effect is the Startmate mentor network. Each year it grows bigger and stronger and each year a new flock of Startmate companies benefit from the compounding experience and knowledge of the people who have come before them. The new founders are the beneficiaries of years of lessons hard learned, personal networks built and a collective experience that is invaluable. Once the new flock of founders go through the six month program they immediately become alum and start to feed back in the Mentor Network which compounds and is even stronger for the next batch of companies who come through. Years down the track Startmate alum become mentors, investors and advocates for the program. Through effective content and programming (blog posts, fireside chats, AMAs, video content, The Sunrise Conference) we feed this knowledge back in the startup ecosystem ensuring that those outside the Startmate network benefit, which in turn means the Startmate mentor network becomes stronger.
Particular aspects of Australian culture have also played a significant part in shaping the startup ecosystem. Tall Poppy Syndrome is uniquely Australian and a negative force upon innovation in Australia. The idea that “people of genuine merit are resented, attacked, cut down, or criticised because their talents or achievements elevate them above or distinguish them from their peers” holds truly brave entrepreneurs back. However as community professionals we have an opportunity to help change attitudes and strip tall poppy syndrome out of the Australian startup ecosystem. Cultural change can take decades at the macro level, but we can have an impact on the micro level more rapidly. Community professionals should be focusing on programs that aim to make cultural shifts in the startup ecosystem in Australia, and we can do this in several ways:
Exchange of Influence
Using exchange of influence theory and the commitment curve model, we should be working to identify role models within the ecosystem that embody the cultural values we look to replicate in the ecosystem. This occurs when a community influences the member and in turn, a member influences the community. This effect is compounded as we move people up the commitment curve and become more influential in the community.
One example of this in action can be seen through The Sunrise Conference. We target speakers based on their level of success and structure the content in a way that presents a new image of what a successful entrepreneur looks like, all while trying to remove the power structures that make high-level success seem lofty and unattainable to the green entrepreneur. Community members should at once be able to see themselves in Mike Cannon-Brookes, and at the same time view him as a giant. In the short to medium term, these role models will influence the community and help to define a new standard for Australian entrepreneurs. By celebrating his success and mythologising the Atlassian story we are defining a new way to treat success in our startup community.
Community professionals can use storytelling to connect our community members, create powerful narratives that both explain and define our values, and to broaden the pool of knowledge and raise our collective intelligence. Stories have been a fundamental part of the human experience almost since we developed language. As a tool stories are one of the most powerful emotional levers we have at our disposal. Stories “can also provide a non-intrusive, organic means of producing sustainable cultural change; conveying brands and values; transferring complex tacit knowledge.”
Most community professionals are well versed in storytelling. We have an opportunity to really affect cultural change in the startup ecosystem through deliberate and critical storytelling. Blog posts, AMAs, social activity, events and meetups. All these are mediums at our disposal and by choosing subjects and stories that project and promote a different set of values we can start stripping away some of the cultural traits that are damaging to the startup ecosystem.
At Blackbird we developed a video series early in 2016 that features successful founders talking about their journeys and celebrating their successes. The aim was to hold these people up on pedestals an unashamedly revel in their achievements, while not glossing over the hard aspect of entrepreneurism. We also host weekly AMAs that celebrate successful Australian entrepreneurs and investors and help to propagate the mythology surrounding our founders, while delivering practical advice and takeaways for our audience.
It’s an exciting time to be a Community professional in Australia. There aren’t many of us and the path ahead is not well worn. Which means we have an opportunity do work that has a real impact on Australia and our fledgling “innovation” economy.
These are just some of my ideas, if you have you’re own I’d love to hear from you — @joelconnolly or email@example.com