January 9th was a big day of us as CompeteShark. It marked the kick off of StartMate 2016, an intense, 5 month accelerator that drops the alumni in Silicon Valley for 2 months to fend for themselves and represent the Australian Startup Ecosystem and prove that Dollarydoo’s aren’t the only thing Australians are famous for.
Backed by Blackbird VC and great Australian founders such as Scott Farquhar and Mike Cannon-Brookes of Atlassian, Startmate brings some of the best mentors in Australia (who have actually done stuff) together to fuel the next batch of promising founders and companies. We’re proud and humbled to be accepted in the programme so we’ll be blogging about our own experience from start to finish.
It All Starts With a Retreat – Day 1
Retreats are relaxing right? Calming things that corporate HR types put together to bring a team together once a year, sing kumbya and dance around the campfire. But then relaxing and startups don’t really go together, and fuck this is Startmate, so that’s never going to be the case. True to that, it was intense. Not just ‘hey we sat around and wrote our hopes and dreams on butchers paper’, but full on, non stop information dumps from some Amazing founders. Hold on, because these people have done shit. Learn, ask questions and try and absorb everything you can.
The list of mentors enlisted to help on this 2 day retreat have such a long list of credentials, it’s not hard to picture all of them in a speaker line up for a startup conference. We had;
- Evan Thornley, founder of Looksmart Australia, Founding director of Getup, former CEO of Betterplace, founder of BetterStart, Victorian Politician. This guy has built more successful companies than I’ve had hot dinners.
- Alan Downie, founder of usability hub, 5 second test and bugherd. Straight up, down the line and absolutely generous with reality.
- Duncan Anderson, founder of Edrolo who are Startmate alumni and a Blackbird company that have raised north of 3 million dollars, and do about 2 million in revenues.
- Rayn Ong, Engineer turned investor via Ong Heng Investments
- Dean McEvoy, started and exited Spreets to Yahoo7 in 10 months for $40m
- Susan Wu, head of Stripe Australia and New Zealand
- Sam McLean, former National Director of Getup
If there was a startup event with this list of speakers, I’d pay good money to go and see it, and so would a thousand other founders across Australia.
Evan Thornley was kind enough to allow us to spend the time on his 600 acre property, Barunah Plains in the depths of Western Victoria.
Flying in to Avalon, we double barrelled the opportunity to use the trip to visit one of our nicest customers in Melbourne. In hindsight we should have thought a little more carefully about the 5 hour trip out from Sydney for a one hour meeting, only to head back for another hour to Avalon to meet the rest of the co-hort so we could travel the final hour to Barunah Plains. Hindsight is a wonderful thing, but the beer tasted good at the end of it and as Dean McEvoy made clear to us over the weekend, you’re not closing deals at every meeting, but you should be incrementally moving forward so that the close gets closer. I think we managed to do that, time will tell. Arriving late on Friday night, meant that beers, then bed was the order of business.
Western Victoria is a pretty amazing piece of Australia, as you experience it, you quickly realise what inspired Dorothea Mackellar to pen My Country. Although she grew up in Gunnedah, I can only imaging the remote sheep stations of NSW are on par with this part of the world. You can’t help but envision a time when this wasn’t dead grass, sheep and wire fences, thoughts rush through my head of how much we’ve gained, but also how much we’ve lost, more on that a little later.
After breakfast, we gathered around the table in the grand dining room. Nine teams, all looking slightly nervous and unsure about what to expect, ourselves included. First up was a talk from Alan Downie. Alan is a straight up guy, every interaction we’ve had one on one with Alan has been no less so. This for me, is extremely refreshing. If something is fucked, Alan will let you know. Alan focused on the growth of Bugherd and did a great job of talking through the mistakes he’s made along the way. We all know this startup journey is a rollercoaster, but while we often talk about the top, Australians rarely talk about the bottoms. Some key takeaways for me were around measurement in your Company. If the numbers aren’t as impressive as you expect, look at your metrics and work out why. it’s no use moving forward if you haven’t resolved these fundamental issues. Some further points that resonated with me around customer engagement:
- Give users the best experience possible as soon as possible, thats as soon as they sign up – minute zero.
- What metric is causing your customers to not engage?
- Are they having trouble adding your widget? Are they not the technical person?
- Work out some key metrics that are causing the customers to NOT convert
- incrementally resolve, test and improve these blockers
- Use AB tests to examine how to resolve these blockers
- Run these tests incrementally to work it out
Next up was Duncan from Edrolo. Let me say this straight up, Duncan is a ball of energy with an incredible amount of knowledge to share, he watches youtube videos at 3x the speed cause who has time for normal human speech patterns. Honestly, I was struggling to keep up with what he was saying most of the time but that says more about me than Duncan. Nonetheless, I did have a few key takeaways from his talk.
- The importance of timekeeping and communication in the business is ultra-important. Don’t waste time over communicating with emails, but ensure everyone is on the same page. Edrolo founders keep minute level logs on their work patterns, determine yourself how important that is to your startup.
- Keep your customers fucking happy, acquisition, retention is all important, but in a business like Edrolo, you churn and burn once a year in the education buying cycle so make sure your customers are happy otherwise your once a year churn could kill you. The same applies for any SaaS business, its just the cycles are usually shorter. Churn in yearly plans can kill you just as easily.
- If something isn’t working and scaling as big and fast as you expect it to, then kill it. Remember you want to be a billion dollar company, don’t fuck around and persist with a feature, market or product that isn’t taking you in that direction. Duncan was kind enough to share some inside information around Edrolo’s approach – that alone is something you wouldn’t get unless you were a Startmate company.
- Don’t underestimate the scale of your market. Edrolo’s case was specifically around gaining traction in the local education industry. It clearly made sense for them to look at the US and Asia to scale and grow quickly, however it soon became apparent to them that the size and scale of the local market was much larger than they had originally expected and they can in fact build a significant business by focusing on that. 27 employees and 2 million a year later in revenues goes to show that the number don’t lie.
Dean McEvoy had a chat to us about Customer Development haring his experience with Spreets of course, then Iconpark and now his latest foray into assisting the startup ecosystem as a whole in Sydney. We’ve spoken to Dean about CompeteShark a number of times and he’s always been generous with his time and connections. We have no doubt that this helped us in a huge way to get into Startmate, for that we’re truly blessed to have connected. Dean talked us through his experience in selling which is something that resonates incredibly well with us right now. Our whole Startmate adventure is focused around how we create traction, selling is obviously the key part of that. Dean has some great advice around marketing techniques, hacks and strategies to get in front of the right people. A few things resonated with me in Dean’s talk.
- Find your “ikigai” – a Japanese term for your “reason for being”. For us at Competeshark, this makes sense retrospectively, but if you’re just starting the ideation phase of your startup, your success is hidden inside your ikigai – go find it.
- Do business incrementally, you won’t close a deal at the first meeting, however always make sure that you move forward by asking for something small. If you are cold calling outbound, then ask for an email “I’d love to show you some competitor insights that your competitors already have, can I email them to you?”. If you are trying to make an enterprise sale, then perhaps asking for advise is a good approach, this for us at least has been a good way to generate interest and trials – we know we need to do more of this at the enterprise level.
- In the early days of Spreets, it was Dean who was making the outbound marketing calls. This later lead to sales team and flowcharts of how to sell to various verticals but clearly the importance of the founders doing this in the early days is obvious. Many of our customers are corporate clients, we feel like we can do a better job of outbound connections to these types of customers. We’ll definitely be hitting up Dean for more advice.
Day One ended with Dean’s talk and we went off to work on our pitches, meet the other founders and chill out for an hour or two by the pool. Later that night we met Evan, who shared the incredible history of Barunah Plains and explained his motivation for buying a sheep station stemmed from that sense of homesickness that most Aussie expats feel at some point – most of us however aren’t in a position to buy a sheep station. As Evan humbly but enthusiastically explains, we were sitting at the birthplace of Aristocracy in Australia, Barunah Plains and much of Australia at the time was built on the Sheep’s back, it was however at the time it started, the birthplace of innovation and entrepreneurship in Australia. In the 1800’s the Scottish settlers created Barunah Plains and much of the surrounding towns, the area reminded them of the rolling hills of Scotland. According to Evan, Scotland was one of the first countries to understand and unlock the power of mass education of their population. The rest of the world really needed the industrial revolution to work this out. Scots that had been educated, quickly realised that in order to make money at the time, you needed land and there was no way they were going to find that in their native country. Moving to Western Victoria, they saw the potential of the “unclaimed” land they saw before them. They squatted illegally and eventually took the land, they risked everything like any true entrepreneur today on the promise of something bigger. They took a risk on running Sheep that they didn’t see in their native Scotland based on hunch that the world will start demanding a finer type of wool. So they chose Merino’s from Spain and in the late 1800’s they made Australia the richest country in the world per-capita. We now see this as old money and the aristocracy, but these were Australia’s first Entrepreneurs. They built Australia’s Economy just like the Atlassian boys are doing today. Unfortunately we know that those plains they saw in front of them were not un-inhabitted or unclaimed, we have a tragic history of mistreatment of the first Australians, unfortunately most of it happened in this part of Australia. Hopefully today tech companies are in a better place and understand their social responsibility outside of profit.
The evening was rounded out by a delicious 5 course Vegan (at least for me and one other founder) meal by the two hat Gladioli based out of Inverleigh that kindly came out to the property to expand our gastronomic horizons.
Don’t forget to read our Part 2 which includes:
- Fundraising by Rayn Ong
- Term Sheet Negotiation, fundraising and corporate Governance by Evan Thornley
- Strategic alliances and Corporate Partnerships by Evan Thornley
- PR and Press Management by Sam Mclean
- Company Culture by Evan Thornley
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Co-founder of CompeteShark and passionate about making sense of competitive environments. Missed intel on competitor moves one too many times so decided to build a solution. Spends a lot of time writing code behind the scenes but writes the odd blog post when CompeteShark unearths something interesting.