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Entrepreneur Aaron Birkby: ‘startups need more real wins in Australia’

What did it take for Startup Catalyst’s CEO, Aaron Birkby, to edge out both Martin Hosking, the $288 million IPO hero of Redbubble, and startup darling Canva’s Melanie Perkins, bagging the Australian Computer Society’s 2016 Pearcey National Entrepreneur Award last December?

Brisbane-based Birkby, who founded and exited a software company serving six million end-users and is the former Entrepreneur in Residence at the River City Labs (muru-D) accelerator, answers in his typically humble tone: “I’m not sure.”

What he is sure about, though, is that the Australian startup scene urgently needs some more success stories. As Birkby puts it, “there is so much support for startups now – from the private sector to investors and government. The era of excuses is over – we need to see more startups with strong revenue growth going global.”

Given Birkby’s extensive experience, from leading international missions for Startup Catalyst to facilitating over 30 Startup Weekends and hackathons, it’s no surprise he has a lot to say about the startup ecosystem in Australia. Birkby shares some of the lessons he’s learnt from his time in the trenches of the startup scene.

What are some of the biggest mistakes that you see startup founders making in Australia?

The biggest, most common mistake I see is that most founders tend to focus on things that don’t matter, and forget (or ignore) the fundamentals. Founders often make the mistake of spending more time practicing their pitch, or refining their slide deck, or fixated on their product development, than they do out talking to customers and making sales. I see a lot of great tech solutions looking for a problem to solve or a customer to pay for it. I wish more founders spent their time looking for real problems to solve, then focussed on building a business out of it…rather than being distracted with the hamster wheel that is the gamification of startups we sometimes see today.

The second most common problematic trait I see with most founders is that they lack hunger. They give up easily and don’t persevere through adversity. But more than that, it’s a mentality. As soon as a founder mentions their backup plan, I know they won’t succeed, because they’ve already planned their failure exit. If you really want to have a crack, burn your lines of retreat and create an environment where your only option is to push through and make it work.

You say you’ve made “a shitload of mistakes” as an entrepreneur. What are some of the biggest?

I remember saying to a business mentor once that I couldn’t possibly make any more mistakes because I’ve already made them all. He correctly pointed out that no, there are plenty more to be made.

I’d say the two biggest mistakes I’ve made are:

(a) Hiring B-grade staff. We’ve had some awesome staff, but we’ve also been guilty of hiring second- or third-best candidates because we needed people urgently. It’s a big mistake and it affects the entire team like an infection. Lesson: invest in the time and money to find and hire the absolute best team members.

(b) Not seeking professional help with our exit. [My wife and I] decided to sell our business after our first boy was born and at that point we had lost interest in the business and just wanted out. We handled the business sale ourselves, accepted the first buyer. We screwed up how we structured the deal and it cost us a lot financially. Lesson: always seek professional advice.

Which under-the-radar Aussie startups do you think we should keep an eye on?

First, Locata, a privately-owned Australian company based in Canberra and Las Vegas. They have invented a high-precision alternative to GPS which solves huge problems for autonomous vehicles, drones, and indoor location tracking. They have been going for a while, but I only became aware of them recently. They already have big-name customers and growing revenues, but if they successfully complete the production of a chipset for consumer devices then they will likely explode significantly.

Second is Tanked, a startup being created by Brisbane’s Vision6 founder Mat Myers. It has not launched yet but it’s an IoT solution to revolutionise the age-old wine industry. If successful, it should quickly reach a few million in revenue and grow very fast from there. I love it because it’s a big problem, with big customers with a high propensity to pay, and yet a relatively simple tech solution. Plus Mat is driving it, and I rate him incredibly highly.

Third is Shorthand, which is a Brisbane startup now also with an office in New York, which provides a software tool for creating engaging multimedia stories. Their customer base includes giants in the media industry, such as Fairfax, BBC, The Guardian, LinkedIn, and many more. I love it because again it’s a case of big customers with a real problem, but also a great team – the CEO [and TSJ founder] Ricky Robinson is someone I rate very highly.

Are you optimistic about the future?

Australia has a vibrant startup scene, but if we’re going to take a bigger place on the world stage, we need more startups with more real wins in Australia – and more founders hungry enough to make this happen.



About Andrea Martins

Andrea Martins is a startup founder, writer and passionate participant in the Sunshine Coast and Brisbane startup ecosystems. Say hi to her on Twitter at @andreaexpat