Learnings from Startup Catalyst

Written by
Joshua Holmes
Published on
December 14, 2016
Read time

It's been a couple of weeks since I returned from my amazing mission to Silicon Valley thanks to Startup Catalyst and Griffith Sciences.
Now that I've had time to begin my move, finish university, finish work and most importantly reflect, it is crucial I get my learnings out there.

Ferry Building

The learnings that I list below are a mixture of personal ones and more general ones.
I have also put together a number of steps to take from here; these are again both personal in nature and more wide spanning- things that Australia and the community need to do.

I don't claim to know everything. These are things that I've noticed and things that I believe will improve our local startup and tech ecosystem.
This is a long one, so strap in.



Australia isn't America

It was often repeated that what is in the US can't be simulated in Australia. Whether that's due to economic and market forces or more simply because Silicon Valley is simply where it is, the sentiment remains the same.
But we shouldn't take this negatively. We should use this to force ourselves to step out and do something uniquely Australian and not copy others. Certainly see what does and doesn't work elsewhere, but for the most part we should stand on our own two feet and built our own startup ecosystem in conjunction with SV.

Australian culture and cities are perfect

To continue from the last point, we have an amazing culture and beautiful cities. Arguably perfect for a tech and startup ecosystem- places where people want to live and work.
Whilst over in SV, the Australian work ethic (and larkinism) was always held up in awe.
We need to work with industry and government to limit our brilliant minds wanting to leave so we can build our own ecosystem.


We need to be more open

SV is a huge place, thick with competition. But it is also hugely open. Everyone is willing to help each other and work towards a common goal. Favours are dished our generously amongst networks and the same is expected in return.
There is also a clear openness when it comes to ideas and talking about what you're working on. It is the opposite in Australia- people shy away from telling others for fear their idea will be stolen.
Well, guess what? No one cares. And those who do are already working on something of their own. We figured out in software development that open source means better for everyone- it's the same with startup and communities.

We need less red tape

My own political views aside, we need less interference from government. Whilst, as mentioned, we are different from the US, with a more socialist democracy, we should try and limit the amount of regulation surrounding the tech industry.
At the very least, we should be encouraging more investment in the technology and startup space.

Seriously, what the f**k are we waiting for?

We need to, as a country, community and sector, get out there and improve the industry for the betterment of the entire nation.
We are fast coming to the end of our mining boom and that means we need a new economy.
With a population of first adopters, highly educated tech professionals and excellent culture, a startup based economy is perfect for Australia.
We all need to get cracking.

Twitter HQ

Nobody has all the answers

We met with some brilliant minds, and they didn't necessarily have answers to our questions.
One of the best things about being an entrepreneur is building solutions to problems no one has built before.
Whilst people can offer you ideas, leads and thoughts, you won't always have the answer.

I've launched multiple startups and I still don't know what to expect. ~ Orkut Buyukkokten.

Stop the brain drain

Building on what was mentioned about government, we need to work together with industry to stop people wanting to leave Australia.
We certainly shouldn't restrict those that want to travel or expand their horizons to do that, but we should be fostering an environment in which our talent wants to stay.
We can do this by improving working environments, discouraging outsourcing and importation of workers and improving the prospects of startups.
Don't get me wrong, we already have some amazing startups working here, both local and international, but we need to do a better job of promoting that.

Silicon Valley is in a bubble

One of the most commonly repeated themes was that SV is in a bubble, and everything happening here should be taken under this assumption. What that means is we can't simulate SV in its entirety and we should stop trying to do that.
As I've said, what we should be doing is creating our own unique startup environment and fostering that growth in conjunction with other tech hubs around the world.

Silicon Valley is in a bubble. We're different to the rest of the world. ~ Mark Johnson.
WeWork panel

Leisure isn't for startups

If it's a life of leisure you're after and you don't want to work bloody hard, with little money to show for it, you really shouldn't be getting into startups.
It can take up to 8 years to see a return when building your startup, if at all.


In the US, building a network is critical. Using that network is commonplace. Returning the favour and thanking that network is expected.
Australia needs to work on its networking skills, and needs to promote it better within its educational institutions. It should be spoken about more highly, not just be one of the boring additions forced upon people.

50/50 Goal Setting

Facebook had an interesting way of setting goals. They expect employees to set goals so grandiose that 50% of them will not be achieved. This is an excellent way of expanding our thinking and just going for it.
This is something we need more of in Australia.

SV has no shortage of jobs

We heard several times that if you want a job, you'll find it in SV. It was estimated that could happen in as little as two weeks.
The options is there, but as covered, we should be building our own ecosystem to keep our talent.

If you want a job here, you’ll have it in two weeks. Uber wanted to hire 2,000 developers this year. ~ Greg Russell.
Dropbox view

Expand your horizons

We should be thinking bigger than our backyard. There is so much out there to learn, grow and improve ourselves and our startup.
A few times we were told having a presence where your customers are is crucial. And given the population difference between Australia and the US, thinking broadly and internationally simply makes sense.

When you look at the market size and economy versus Australia, launching in the US just makes sense. ~ Elias Bizannes.

Building a Startup

Hire right the first time

Your team is the most important asset. These words were repeated perhaps the most of anything.
You should hire slowly and ensure you get the best. They must fit with your culture, mission, values and be capable of working within your team or alone.
You should also let go quickly if it's not working out.
Once you have a great team, get out of the way and let them work.

Be careful with VCs

Even the VCs told us to be careful around VCs. Once you accept money from them, you are linked to their needs and hunt for profit.
You should do your best to search for other ways to fund your company. And remember- if your customers love your product and it's growing, the money will find you.

Customers before anything else

As mentioned above, with customers and traction comes funding. And that means you have a product and a solution to a problem.
So you need to focus on your customers above everything else. Focus your product and solution to your key customers so you can achieve this.

Find a WTF moment

This is a good one. Find a moment in your solution that makes your customers ask how they ever did it any different. That moment when you say to yourself 'WTF!'.
Think Uber over taxis and Amazon 1 hour delivery over normal postage.

NASA Ames Research Park

It's all about culture

Having a fantastic culture and values and ensuring that permeates your business and product is key to hiring fantastic people.
It was a common theme from every company we saw- they lived and breathed their culture. It's what kept top talent, pushed their product further and ensured the customer was central to everything.

Stop adding features and focus

Instead of adding numerous features to your product hunting for customers, focus on the core solution and ensure that meets and exceeds your customer's expectations.
Having five customers in Australia may mean there are 50,000 in the US. Find them.

Be the product

Don't build solutions assuming it's what the customer wants. Research and find the right one.
A good way of doing this is being the product manually.
For example, Uber started as a bunch of people taking text messages and ringing drivers around SF to organise the pickup.
Facebook's trending news stories was people up until recently.

Be the product. ~ Mick Liubinskas.

Build a solution to a problem

This one is simple. Don't be a solution searching for a problem. Ensure you have properly researched your market.

Muir Woods

Where to from here


Embrace failure, lose the tall poppy syndrome

Australia has some fantastic ideals and ethics. On the flip side, we have the worst culture when it comes to seeing others achieve or fail.
We need to stop pulling people down when the build awesome stuff or achieve beyond expectations. We should be encouraging them and working to help them go farther.
On the same note, for those that fail, we should be congratulating them and learning from it along with them.

Government needs to put its money where its mouth is

I've covered a few points about government already. But by far the biggest thing they need to do is put their money where their mouth is.
What I mean by this, is if you're spruiking the age of innovation and ideas, $1 billion spread thin across multiple industries won't go far.
Queensland is spending half of this on their own Advance Queensland initiative.

But it's also not all about money. As I brought up prior, we also need to encourage employment in the tech and startup sector and reduce the amount of regulation to support this.

Industry needs to change its culture

I brought this up in some other learnings, but we need to change our industry culture. Whether it's around accepting failure, pushing further, praising winners or improving workplaces.
Culture is massive in every office we visited. It is absolutely crucial in building a startup.

Santa Cruz
Australia needs to expand its thinking

We need to think outside our borders, outside our industry, outside our government. We can be a great tech hub and create an enviable startup environment.
It doesn't have to rival SV, London, Singapore or Tel Aviv, but it can be in the same league as them. We should all work together to make this up, using the best of what we have to make it awesome.

Improve education and jobs

We need to teach our younger generations to be entrepreneurs, how the startup ecosystem works, how to code and how venture capital works. This was recently raised in the Crossroads report.
We should also be working to increase our younger people getting jobs in tech and startup industries, not outsourcing or bringing in others.

Change your views on networking

As I brought up above, our network environment and education needs to be improved and people need to work with their networks more.

Be more open

Again, as above, Australian's need to open source our thoughts, ideas, work and businesses to improve each other.


Long term goal setting- 50/50

I'll be working on setting some real goals for myself. I want to make some crazy ones so that I aim higher than I have before and put myself into situations I wouldn't usually. Whilst I don't expect to realise 50% of them, I need to improve myself.

Just go do something

I'm going to put myself out there and get cracking on something. I will be building something I've always wanted over my break during Christmas and will continue to improve my networks, knowledge and career prospects as I move to Melbourne.

Boosted Board

If you would like to interview or book me to talk about my experiences and thoughts, please reach out at hello@mydomain.
I will be working in the Melbourne area soon and can go to other places with enough notice or via the web.

Headshot of Josh in black and white

Joshua Holmes

Josh is a product design leader based in Melbourne, Australia.
He has been working in the design space for 7 years across various industries.