This article puts the case that we should encourage local startups to move overseas and flourish – if they have to…
“Let’s generously give our startups warm winds of support in their sail as they surf other waves of opportunity.”
Perth was abuzz earlier this month as a jam-packed schedule of events featuring tech, talent and tales formed part of West Tech Fest.
Initiated by Curtin University and co-founded by Bill Tai, Larry Lopez, Rohan McDougall and Paula Taylor, West Tech Fest attracts founders, tech leaders and investors from the US, UK, Asia and around Australia for a week- long innovation festival and some of the best kitesurfing conditions on the planet.
One of the highlights of the festival was a keynote presentation delivered by Olivia Humphrey, CEO of Kanopy.
Olivia inspired the audience with her story of grit, passion, vision and strategic decisions to deliver thoughtful film and television to millions of students and library users worldwide.
Kanopy started in a spare room in the Perth beach side suburb of Scarborough in 2008 and made the bold and timely decision five years later to move to San Francisco to scale.
Five years on from that move, and today Kanopy is valued at over $100M and rumour has it that Olivia is planning a move back to Perth. Having such a high performing founder back in our city and contributing to our ecosystem would be of inestimable value.
Olivia Humphrey is one of the many Western Australians whose great ventures were “born in Perth” and moved away to realise their full potential and to deliver global benefit.
Her and Kanopy’s story is undoubtedly a success. And yet, all too often stories about Kanopy, Olivia and other startups or founders such as a Canva, Splend, Simply Wall St, Humm are spoken of in Perth with a tone of disappointment, with pensive reflection on jobs lost, self-doubt about our local capability and opportunities missed.
One may go as far as to say that Perth suffers from a conflicted stance around whether their startups should stay or go.
Why are we conflicted about local founders international success?
Surely our Perth-born startups should be celebrated as they perform admirably on the world stage, just like our sports stars, actors and scientists?
Nationally, the StartupAUS 2018 Crossroads report makes the point that for Australia to reap the benefits of startups, we must:
- Produce large numbers of startups;
- Ensure that some of these startups are going on to achieve significant global growth; and
- Ensure that the most successful startups retain a sufficient connection to Australia so that we are able to benefit from their success.
To remedy this conflicted stance, a different narrative is called for – one aligned with a vision of creating the local conditions to seed the ventures of tomorrow, regardless of where in the global market they grow.
For some startups, success means moving to where their market, capital or talent are to scale successfully. If we are encouraged to think globally from day one that also has implications for thinking globally about the best location to realise those aspirations.
One way to think about it is to imagine Perth as “an incubator state” and those that graduate as our “alumni”.
This narrative moves away from retention ‘for our benefit’ towards graduation ‘for the founders’ benefit’ and becoming more confident in our ecosystem’s attractiveness for new ventures wanting to scale in our own global market.
This is about changing our mindset. It takes no time and costs no money and is something we all can embrace.
With a switch in language, from “loss” and “missed” to “growth”, and “attraction”, an ‘incubator state’ provides an extended ecosystem within which new ventures kick off to a great start.
Whether located here, born here, or abroad, the incubator state’s metric of success is the venture’s continued global growth and benefit. And, yes, perhaps a slice of that success being realised and reinvested in Perth would be an appropriate model to adopt, as is the case for most incubators.
For the culture and structures within our ecosystem to be nurturing for born-global founders and ventures, we need to be clear-eyed about our global position and their global aspirations.
Together, as we look across the seas let’s generously give our startups warm winds of support in their sail to help them surf waves of opportunity.
What does that mean for supporters of startups in WA?
Whether a mentor, politician, investor or incubator, this has implications for how we work with and talk about local startups. Some things to consider are:
- Be mindful of the startup’s success metric (e.g. funding, scale, revenue and successful exit) and not just yours (e.g. local job growth and local spend),
- Help startups think global and deliberately enable choices and relationships beyond those in WA, from the beginning,
- When making a list of “great ventures who’ve left WA” simply change the heading to “WA founders who are now global connections” or “Great WA ventures who were incubated in WA” or “WA ecosystem alumni”.
Ultimately, we want our successful Perth founders to scale big globally and then cycle back into the local startup ecosystem to become angel investors and advisors for the next generation of entrepreneurs.
This is what will deliver economic benefit to the WA state, sustained over the longer-term.
We look forward to catching up with Olivia Humphrey when she is back in town.