Not a Startup Guy, In a Startup World

A couple of years ago I got into startups. Not as a participant but as an observer. It was interesting to look at the systems at play in that space, to learn the dynamics and the culture and to try and interrogate how and why certain ideas seemed to dominate that world. It was definitely a curiosity for me, to try and work out why people were so into startups, why the solution to everything seemed to be start-ups and that there were vast sums of money available thanks to venture capital.

Then I decided to peek inside.

I led a design workshop at what was supposed to be a hackathon, it’s what you do when 60 non-technical people give up a Saturday for what is a good cause. It wasn’t what I expected, but I pulled together my experiences and knowledge to create a workshop aimed at getting people to invent, refine and design a solution. I took what I knew of startup world as well as a decade in education to fashion something that resembled what I’d seen and heard. It wasn’t your traditional hackathon – something I had to come up with on the fly to help out a group of well meaning people.

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Leading a design workshop at Hack4Good

My first involvement with the established space of startups was the AgriHack event in 2017. A “proper” hackathon run by real startup people, they had a process and a method for how this all works and they delivered. It was a local event that aimed to connect farmers and those interested in tech and innovation. It was an interesting two days, and personally I got a lot out of it. Despite living in a regional town, I’d never had much experience with farming or the agriculture sector. The day opened up a new opportunity – AgTech – something Id never really considered. I’d been immersed in EdTech for close to decade at that point and figured I had it worked out pretty well. In comparison – AgTech is a green field, and something I’ve picked up over the last 2 years is that while agriculture is incredibly industrialised it isn’t digitised.

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Our team for AgriHack 2017 

During the event I was approached by Australian Wool Innovation who were offering local people the chance to take a course in entrepreneurship at Adelaide University as part of their eChallenge program. I encouraged a friend to come and do it with me after a few sessions discussing apps and developing our own. So we did a course. We learnt some of the processes and procedures that startups tend to utilise. I started to see the value in some of it, how you can use the process to generate, refine and develop your ideas quickly. We learnt to pitch, and that pitch helped us make it through the final component of the course – a pitch competition, with real prize money at the end. We didn’t win, but we came second. We were invited back to do the business development side of the course and we said yes. We also enrolled in an incubator course locally. Both of these helped us refine our idea more, to get our message clearer, and again, to get our pitch tight and to the point. We had a fantastic mentor through this process who really helped us refine what the hell we were. doing. And at the end of the year we walked away with another set of prize money and a novelty check.

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Ben & I with our novelty check for real money 

Last year I took the decision to drop down to a four day working week. Mainly because my wife resumed full time work, but also I wanted to see where startup world might take us. I said yes to everything, every offer to compete, to pitch, to present, to chat and some of that paid off. I learnt a lot, but never quite got the wins like we had before. We always seemed to fall just short. Sometimes it was us not being as prepared, often it seemed there were politics at play, other agendas. But I kept going. Kept applying with fingers crossed that something would work out. We had plenty of success getting ourselves out there, discussing our ideas, and building prototypes and concepts. But we never succeeded in securing the funds to give us the time to go to the next level. There’s plenty of funding available out there, but often it’s got a lot of strings attached, a lot of specificity around who can access it.

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On the giant stage with the giant screen at Hybrid World Adelaide

I had a really eye opening conversation around the middle of the year with a guy in the “scene”. There were no filters, just plain speaking – which in startup world is very rare. We talked about the money – where it comes from and where it goes. We discussed the “eco-system” that’s been set up and who benefits from that. We discussed a lot of the intricacies of startup world, which as a new comer I had no idea. It was eye opening.

Nothing really panned out in 2018. Our idea, while solid and which solves a very real problem, doesn’t fit the funding criteria, especially for VC. Our application for a research grant didn’t come through either. We just didn’t seem to get the pay off from our efforts like in 2017, and while disheartening it’s not the end of the road. At the same time we explored and discovered a lot in the land of startups. We learnt about the systems and structures and cultures that exist. We learnt about ourselves too, what we’re capable of, our strengths and importantly, weaknesses.

So 2019? Well I’m dropping down to 3 days a week at work this year. A lot of that decision is about pursuing these other interests, and trying to make myself more available. We’ve set up our company 26fifty, and are starting to plan out what we can do moving into the future. We’re still plugging away at Kelpie and Chickon, but we’re working on them in a way that suits us and what we can realistically do. Some of that is by developing complimentary apps and tech, something that can be shared and reused later. There isn’t the drive for speed, instead we need to make something more sustainable. We’re looking for people looking to innovate and want to bring in some expertise to help them out. I’m thinking of developing a few courses and workshops to offer, especially around digital literacy. I’m also keen to get exercise my design skills and help pass on some of the knowledge I’ve picked up so far. Startup Starter is a package to help those starting on this journey and equip them with the fundamentals to get started and sell themselves. We’re also keen to offer services to farmers to help navigate the AgTech space and will be exploring the idea of the Techgronomy this year.

There’s one more thing happening very soon that I’d like to share… but there’s a media embargo, so I can’t say anything. I’ll do that in the next post – and a few coming up.

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