River City Labs founder Steve Baxter looks back on the lessons and memories of a decade of the Brisbane innovation hub

- July 15, 2022 6 MIN READ
Steve Baxter
It is hard to think it has been 10 years since River City Labs was set up. How far has Australia come in those 10 years.

I look forward to having a quiet chat and drink to reflect on the 10 years that have passed this week in Brisbane.

The River City Labs journey over the 7-or-so years I owned it had all elements of startup.

We had to raise money (my family’s capital but none the less there was a deliberate conversation about the funding), then find revenue, then collect money, constantly change the plan, measure, pivot and keep going.

In the end I exited River Labs through a trade sale to Australian Computer Society (ACS), ACS had an amazing vision to take the River City Labs to more cities in an effort to impact more than.

The RCL team in 2016

I wanted to take time to list the some things I learned on that journey and some of ‘Best of’ moments as well as the list of things we achieved.

I exited RCL because I was out of ideas, the time was right and there were people with fresher ideas than me. It is wonderful that during the government over reaction to COVID over the last two years that River City Labs has come out stronger than ever, surely a testament to those now at the helm as much as the base of the community it found itself planted in.

The lessons

Just start. I say this a lot and was recently told that is was trite advice… so what ! Unless you start just do not know. RCL was started by throwing caution to the wind and doing it anyhow, we changed lots, constantly, we had to, most startups do. Unless you start to you don’t get to succeed.

The customer is always right. The only person who gets a valid say is the one that pulls out their wallet and becomes a customer. Once you are in business or doing anything you will find no end of free advice, it is helpful to listen but just remember who you work for – people paying you !

You need the skills.  Lots of my approaches to startups and investing have changed over the years thanks to RCL but one thing has not – you need the skills to do what you are pitching. Your core founding team needs to be able to build and deliver version one of your startup at the very least, without that you are dead in the water.River City Labs

Try lots of things. At River City Labs we tried so many different things, we started by thinking we were a coworking space and ended up being a club house for startups, a meeting place for people doing and people wanting to help.

We found out that the grease of wheels of this action were events, the brining together of lots of people and try to generate serendipitous collisions.

One of those collisions ended up becoming the team that is now CohortGo (a business in the financial and other services to inbound international students, coincidentally also the first member of RCL) formed from a meeting of founders on the floor at RCL, this typified what RCL was about, bringing together people and knowledge for better outcomes.


Best memory over the last 10 years

The most energy I ever saw in the Labs was when Prime Minister Turnbull visited during an election campaign.

We had hundreds of people crammed into the labs, protestors outside and security inside.

It was memorable for me because earlier that morning one of the Fortitude Valley party goers the night before had expelled their cheese burger and fries all over our front door and it had to be cleaned… there was hesitancy all around… I ended up doing it – as the boss you are never too important not to scrub vomit off the front door !

The other memorable thing was that we got to present Prime Minister Turnbull with a Queensland State of Origin jersey.


Best event at River City Labs

The second startup weekend in 2015 was an amazing event. 3 companies were formed from that event that went on to bigger things – Fun Captcha (now Arkose Labs), a cyber security company that has since been exceptionally well funded and has awesome traction; Advvy, an Advertising tech company now exited and Amity, a social media company that ended up getting funding from global media players whilst not being ultimately successful.

Back at the start 10 years ago

Not only was the weekend a smashing success for all involved but our special guest was Prime Minister Tony Abbot who spent more time than programmed (to the ire of his aides) talking to the teams and truly understanding what was happening.

Later than day at a party conference he said some particularly insightful things – (words to the effect of) “…that he had just come from an event where the future of Australia was being written by the deeds and efforts of entrepreneurs….”.

One memory is of him talking to one team that was proposing a platform to assist journalists in some fashion, he ended up giving the team his card with his personal number (later verified by one of them 😊) and followed through by getting the local head of the Courier Mail in Brisbane to reach out and contact the team to see how they could be of service – now that is networking !


Most impactful visitor 

Tyler Crowley (2013). This trip was arranged at the behest of Colin Kinner and the Brisbane City Council ‘Brisbane Marketing’ investment attraction arm. If one person was responsible for changing, for the better, the way that entrepreneurs in Brisbane pitched, it was Tyler. This softly spoken American, known for his online show This Week in Startups, came to town for a week and had an amazingly positive impact. 


Best program – StartUp Catalyst 

This program was born of the frustration of seeing really good young technical people finish their formal education and then go and get a job in a big bank or the public service.

I was frustrated because our young people were just as good as anybody else in the world but their horizons seemed to be too near – that needed to change.

Addressing the crowd in 2015

The first program took 20 under 21 years olds to Silicon Valley for 2 weeks (in hindsight not a great idea given the legal drinking age in the US, we changed it to 25 for the 2nd mission) and we went on tours of all of the tech giants, attended a StartUp Weekend and in general we tried to make them unemployable back home by showing what others were doing. We needed them starting things, not doing things for others.

StartUp Catalyst was not the original name, its first name was StartUp Ebola !

I wanted to get a point across that I wanted these people infected with entrepreneurship and that they would come back and infect others.

I am not sure how the StartUp Ebola t-shirts would have been received at USA customs 8 weeks after Ebola broke out in the US so we shelved the name and went with the better name of StartUp Catalyst.

StartUp Catalyst has done tech future founder missions, eco system leaders missions, investor missions and more. We have gone to the US, England, Europe and Israel. It has been an amazing program that is still having positive impacts for those that participated.


The numbers

RCL was an amazing journey, over the 7 years we did quite a bit :

  • 459 entrepreneurs became members of RCL prior to ACS taking over;
  • We hosted over 480 Events open to the public since 2012;
  • Our events have attracted over 16,000 guests through the doors at RCL;
  • We hosted 4 International Delegations from similar Innovation/Tech/ Startup groups from Papua New Guinea, Malaysia, Israel and Nevada;
  • RiverPitch (the RCL investment pitching event series) facilitated the introduction of 47 different Startups companies to over 600 investors across 9 different investment events;
  • We launched 1 world class accelerator program in partnership with Telstra/muru-D that ran 4 cohorts;
  • Our work with youth involved: supporting the KidPreneur program ; Build My Robot and Lemonade Stand events and provided mentors for the popular CoderDojo Program;
  • Our work with Universities included Griffith, Bond, QUT, UQ and QSQ, supporting their Student Startup pitch events as Sponsors, Judges and Mentors as well as providing various talks and keynotes to their students on entrepreneurship, startups, capital raising and pitching;
  • We supported and hosted 2 Global International Youth Conferences 2014/2015 seeing over 200 international students participate in a week-long experiential Entrepreneurial trip to Brisbane;
  • We hosted and facilitated 7 Startup Weekend events each with 100+ attendees launching a total of 75 businesses built in 54 hours;
  • We supported Women in the Tech sector by hosting and facilitating 4 Rails Girls and 2 Django Girls events collectively teaching 320 women to code. Our Startup Weekend Women saw over 90 women in attendance launching 15 businesses in one weekend; 
  • RCL was home to 12 industry meetup groups who hosted regular monthly events. The collective membership and reach of those groups was over 9,500 people. 

That might seem like a lot but it was never enough. There is a race on to capture the future of the connected economy around the world and places like RCL will help provide the support to those taking risks to win that race. 

I wish RCL all of the best for the next 10 years and look forward to backing some of the companies it helps with investment capital in future years.