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Brisbane’s double vision for startups

Talented and enthusiastic people are the basic units of startups. Put a team of them together and you can end up with the next Uber or SpaceX. Put several such teams together in the same building and you’ve got an enviable co-working space.

That’s certainly the vibe a visitor gets when they enter The Arcade – a co-working space for game developers in Melbourne. The Arcade has been running out of a nondescript building in Southbank for just over two years. There isn’t even a sign above the door, but the list of residents is brighter than any neon. Studios such as Hipster Whale, the creators of Crossy Road, Samurai Punk, who made Screencheat, and League of Geeks, the developers behind Armello, all operate out of The Arcade.

It’s fair to say that a sizable portion of Australia’s game development talent is concentrated under The Arcade’s roof.

But it’s not just game studios that have taken up residence. PR and marketing companies specialising in the games industry are also on hand, along with the office of the Game Developers’ Association of Australia. The space spans two floors and includes both private offices and a hotdesk area, as well as meeting rooms, a pitch room, a kitchen, and – this being a tech office in Melbourne – a professional coffee machine. All in all, it’s an enticing place for game designers, especially those just starting out. Unsurprisingly, there’s a waitlist.

When people in other cities or industries see a successful co-working space like The Arcade, they instantly want one of their own. I’m no different. Walking each floor and seeing people frantically coding, or flocking around a screen to watch a demo, made me wish there was a place like that for startups in Brisbane. After all, this city has empty offices and a thirst for fancy coffee. Hell, we’ve even got our own Southbank. Surely the magic, wherever it springs from, can be replicated.

The trouble with trying to emulate something like The Arcade is that there’s a temptation to think the first step is finding a building. The basic plan looks like this: get some (ideally government-funded) space, maybe get some anchor tenants to commit upfront, fit the place out nicely with a range of rooms and resources, then open the doors and watch the stampede of entrepreneurs.

That strategy can work, but it doesn’t remotely guarantee you’ll end up with the kind of culture and explosion of creativity that The Arcade enjoys. The crucial yet underappreciated fact in The Arcade’s origin story is that it was established from the bottom up, by indie game developers themselves, not from the top down by an act of government or anyone else. The community gave rise to the venue, not the other way around.

This distinction matters because the spirit of camaraderie that’s needed to set up a good co-working space is the same spirit which makes a co-working space such a valuable place to be. The trials and tribulations of creating the space are both an economic barrier to entry and a form of natural selection – those who can’t work together well won’t get far.

I’ve written before about the dangers of trying to establish a technology precinct by fiat, so excitement quickly gave way to concern as I read about Brisbane’s latest plans for a startup hub. The Capital will span three floors of a building on Queen Street Mall and be accessible through the entrance of the old Regent Theatre. Its anchor tenants are local co-working space, Little Tokyo Two, and a branch of Sydney co-working success, Fishburners.

The aim of The Capital is to provide startups with “unprecedented access to capital, expertise, global markets and commercial networks.” If that sounds familiar, it’s because the State Government’s Advance Queensland initiative has a similar vision for its own yet-to-be-named Brisbane startup hub. It’s very unlikely that neither group knew what the other was planning, yet these two levels of government appear not to have coordinated at all in the pursuit of their common goal. They may come from different sides of politics, but a meeting or two with a view to pooling resources would hardly be out of the question.

More worryingly, the sections of the startup community consulted for each project do not seem to overlap much at all. Worse still, the entrepreneurs from each group apparently haven’t discussed the two putative precincts with each other. This doesn’t bode well for the future of two spaces whose success will depend on an environment of openness and collaboration.

But perhaps the outlook isn’t quite so bleak. After all, just getting two levels of government to commit time, money, and space to startups is a victory. And if one hub is good, two hubs must be better. However, Brisbane’s startup ecosystem is already highly fragmented. Our major co-working spaces are each aligned with a different institution or individual and rarely collaborate with one another.

A single hub, backed by the community, might be able to overcome the fragmentation. But two single hubs, backed by different governments and cliques, are much more likely to exacerbate and entrench the fragmentation.

It may not be too late for the two projects to come together, or at least come to an understanding. They could arrange reciprocal membership benefits, or a cohort exchange programme, or even just agree to target different types of businesses. Now the spotlights have been trained on startups, this is our best opportunity – and possibly our only opportunity – to set our ecosystem up effectively.

The best possible result from this situation would be for Brisbane to end up with a cohesive network of venues and resources for startups. But that can only happen if entrepreneurs, investors, mentors, and spaces stop playing schoolyard politics and start working together – now.

Image credit: Chris Betcher/Flickr

About Kit Kriewaldt

Kit Kriewaldt is an entrepreneur and strategic communications specialist. He loves to talk James Bond, cocktails, and psychology - particularly the topics of decision making and consumer behaviour. He is also former Chief Marketing Officer of digital communications platform Liquid State.