This isn't a highlights reel: key lessons from founders

- June 15, 2016 4 MIN READ

At Blackbird Ventures’ #TheSunrise conference earlier this month, Canva cofounder Melanie Perkins remarked that press coverage of startup success is often like “watching a highlights reel”. In reality, the startup world is a grind – a rewarding one, but one that requires an immense amount of work.

B.B.E’s partners spent the day at the conference earlier this month, listening to leading Australian founders outline their challenges and thoughts on their early stage journey. We found 5 key themes that resonated for us as venture marketers.

Be agile, or outsource

Mike Cannon-Brookes, cofounder of Atlassian, and Perkins were most adamant on this point, but it was something which resonated throughout every presentation. Cannon-Brookes put it succinctly: “Speed is the single ingredient that will make you win.”

But it isn’t just an ability to move quickly that is key, but to move quickly by understanding data and decisions. Cannon-Brookes told an excellent story: he once wanted to figure out if Google Ads did anything so decided to switched them off for a month, and found out they supported 20 percent of his traffic and conversions.

Moving fast meant understanding how to run controlled experiments, and using the right team to run those experiments across product, marketing and process. Understanding how to interpret customer data and signals meant each and every company that was spoken about was able to adapt and evolve to customer behaviour.

Importantly, they brought in advisors and people to get it right. Being able to move fast wasn’t just making quick decisions – it was having the people in the room who could make sense of the data and the content in front of them.

Hire and fire (early)

Hiring was an obvious factor to bring up, but each founder also spoke about firing and transitioning employees out of the business as well. There were some excellent points around when to hire and fire:

  • Use freelance or external resources if you need a temporary change/something outside of business as usual
  • Hire people to help you run the BAU of a company (and yes, BAU includes developing product features or new products if that’s going to be a core part of what the company does)

Early hires were often technical to ensure product would match user expectations. Perkins spoke extensively about the value of having an early tech person’s involvement, and said finding that person was likely one of the most important stages of growing Canva.

For a lot of early stage ‘get off the ground activity’ there was consensus around the importance of figuring out what worked, and having the right people to figure it out.

Firing was discussed, too. Weeding out bad employees fast and ensuring that the employee relationship was a good fit for culture and measured objectively were clear themes. Most founders speaking felt that if an employee was bad, a number one priority was how to get them out.

Niche first

Every single startup thought about filling a niche first, and identifying smaller markets. Why? Because it helped to drive a network effect – people in that niche would know your product, would talk about it and help drive word of mouth in a tighter, more niche community.

Vinomofo was a great example of this – cultivating members in a tight-knit wine community, and pivoting their revenue streams around them. They marketed all sorts of products to the community they had built around content and found their niche.

Canva, meanwhile, focused on making their product work for social media marketers, who had a need for quick and easy design files. Even Atlassian saw value in focusing in as a bug tracker for developers, before expanding to be a workflow management tool.

Cannon-Brookes again put it well when he said most businesses are about “laddering up”, or taking a small idea in a smaller community and continually driving it to be more ambitious.

We saw similar results when B.B.E launched Bombd late last year, taking Bombd community-first, tackling the Schoolies community and using PR, activation and performance media to reach them. Every startup at the conference identified those tactics as ways to reach tightly knit communities, and the benefits were clear – the closer the community, the better the viral co-efficient.

This was reflected by the founders: when asked about early users, almost every single one cited growing their user-base through PR, highly targeted media and activations. Niche-first products often translated into community-first marketing.

Problems define products

Often you hear someone has a fantastic idea, and a fantastic prototype. But Craig Barratt from Google said most people then forgot about the market – and he’s right. No matter how good your product or idea is, if you don’t have a compelling problem that you’re taking on for people in the market, you’re not going to succeed.

It’s tough to realise that there’s a difference between a great product and a great business, but that’s true of most startups. Loads of people come up with great products every single day, but very few of them come up with great businesses. And that’s limiting in and of itself.

Silicon Valley v Australia

When founders were asked about the cultural difference, the comments were highly revealing in and of themselves. Cannon-Brookes and Perkins both said they found it more difficult to hire and retain competitive talent in Silicon Valley. Barratt made great points about the intellectual benefits of Silicon Valley, and how it pushed you to greater heights, but almost all founders tended to err on the side of engaging with, rather than living in, Silicon Valley.

The fascinating thing here was the cultural differences they mentioned as well. Businesses in Australia, the founders agreed, tended to be more “sustainable”. There was less of a focus on explosive growth figures and more of a focus on being a sustainable business.

Of course, this was a pretty broad generalisation, but it seemed to indicate that Australia was less focused on the hype of a story, and more focused on actually developing the business that sustained the story.

Concluding thoughts

We loved #TheSunrise, and thought it was an excellent reflection of the state of the startup industry in Australia. There’s certainly a lot of optimism in market, thanks largely to the highlights press coverage. But it also drove home some important lessons around building these businesses with speed, capability and culture. Because as we like to say here at B.B.E, “success is a team sport.”

By Tim Evans & Henry Innis of B.B.E, a venture marketing firm involved in funding and taking startups to market in Australia. Find them on LinkedIn here.