Who you gonna call? How to navigate the WA startup ecosystem

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// Looking to navigate WA’s blossoming early stage tech sector? Here’s some important advice…

Founders, government agencies and foreign visitors are often seeking some sort of ‘guide’ to help them navigate the WA startup ecosystem.

You might consult various media organisations, maps, lists, reports and ask around at incubators, hubs and events. But most people I speak to want or need more: they don’t just want to know ‘what’ or ‘who’ is in the ecosystem, they want to know how to find what they want, and where they fit.

This post tackles that, building on a session I facilitated for the CERI community late last year. The information presented here only covers one part of that session, and doesn’t go into definitions and the sort of customised guidance I was able to offer to individual ventures.

Even though it’s shortened, it feels important to get this out there. Not the least because I’ve seen some very odd behaviour from people who behave like slimy, greedy ghosts. They:

  • want help, but then insist they are so special and nothing is for them;
  • take, but fail to anything give back, let alone pay it forward;
  • misrepresent their situation (stage, focus, finances), so waste time;
  • ask questions but don’t listen, so learn nothing.

Don’t be like that. It doesn’t ‘work’ for you, others, or the ecosystem.

Instead, the way to get what you want, find where you fit, and at the same time grow the ecosystem is to:

  • use what’s already available;
  • clarify your situation;
  • listen to guidance given; and,
  • give back (or pay it forward).

These might sound moralistic, but adopting these behaviours is actually how you get what you want or need.

People like people who are resourceful, clear, coachable and generous. If you behave like this, support will come your way as others will want you to succeed. If you behave ignorantly, are vague, don’t listen or are overly self-concerned, don’t be surprised if you have a hard time navigating ; )

In detail:

Use what’s available – It really is for you

There are good resources and guides in the WA ecosystem. There are at least 130 ‘hubs’ for getting information, including free government services, accelerator programs, spaces that incubate new ventures and meetup groups full of good mentors.

Supporters and service providers recognise that founders already face a tonne of uncertainty about their ventures and shouldn’t also be faced with a lack of clarity about who and what help is out there. To help you is the very reason why many hubs exist, why so many volunteer as mentors and why paid service providers or government workers go ‘above and beyond’.

So use them!

An example: I remember one venture that had good technology, had received some innovation grant funding, was part of the community, but repeatedly didn’t participate in the local pre-accelerator program. They thought it ‘wasn’t for them’ – that they were later-stage, or too early, or different. Years later, they were still unclear about how to approach their pricing, which was covered in the program. It was for them. The ecosystem and events ARE for you. Not all of them, but at least some of them. Use them. And if they are not up to scratch, give feedback or help improve them. But don’t ignore them.

Give and get – help grow the ecosystem

Your, mine and everyone else’s actions and interactions are the ecosystem. You can make it better, so intend that through your actions. The ecosystem will be better off, and you will add more value than you cost.

If you grab and go, consume without contributing, there will be nothing for you or anyone later.

Practically: have a good attitude, aim to create more value, be reasonable in what you expect, at the very least pay for coffee, say thank you at events, share what you learn, give feedback, pass on recommendations and make introductions. We’ll all be the better for it. Your actions are built on the shoulders of those that have come before. And others will take your actions further in years to come.

Be a good citizen of the startup ecosystem!

Clarify your situation: your stage, focus, trajectory and needs.

It’s a fact that you have more questions than answers and know the least, at the start of a new venture.

Entrepreneurship, especially done ‘Lean’, is a process of starting with a list of questions and uncertainty and systematically reducing it. Wanting to get clarity – and reduce uncertainty – is necessary.

This mean continuously, honestly clarifying your stage, location, market, model, vision, capacity, questions and needs. This is essential for you to know where to look, find what you need, and for others to help you.

As an example, before I engage with anyone as a guide, I ask they complete a ‘client fitness’ form. It takes five minutes for them to disclose basic information such as legal structure, staff numbers, mission, what they want, solvency, major risks etc. Having this explicit and shared makes our time in a meeting or on a call so much more productive. While not all mentors or service providers may ask for this information, but it’s really useful context and you can provide it unprompted. This also helps for filtering the Hubs in our database: you can focus on programs that are right for your stage, type, location. Are you a social enterprise, in a regional area, looking to join an accelerator program…? You should be able to reduce the number of options from one hundred and thirty down to half a dozen. They’re the benefits of seeking clarity.

Ask & listen – Humbly admit what you don’t know.

You are trying to navigate the ecosystem because you want something or don’t know something. You also don’t know what you don’t know.

So, when speaking with anyone else in the ecosystem, be upfront and admit what you don’t know. And, really listen, create the possibility that through listening you could really get something and learn something that they already know and you don’t.

Recently with one venture I, as I am sure many mentors, strongly suggested a team go test their proposed services (and underlying assumptions) with actual or potential customers. They ignored the advice – perhaps it was something to do with their ego – didn’t talk to actual users and wasted time and money on something no-one wanted. What’s dumber than admitting not knowing is pretending you do. Admit you don’t know, listen to the answers people provide, go apply what you hear actually learn from yours and other experience.

~~~

I hope this guide is useful for those navigating the ecosystem, and for ‘guides’ (mentors, incubators and others) to refer others to.

Reflecting on the title, perhaps the answer to ‘who you gonna call?’ is:

  1. YOU! you have to take responsibility for your own journey, and
  2. It’s perhaps best focus on how and what are you going to ask? than who.

Andrew empowers teams and leaders to grow beneficial social innovations. He co-founded WA’s first coworking space, has grown several social ventures, is a former Chair of Startup WA and facilitated more than two million dollars of Federal Government co-investment into WA incubators.