It seemed like the perfect coup. On the steps of the Sydney Town Hall, Freelancer chief executive Matt Barrie and Victorian minister for innovation Philip Daladakis gleefully announced that Melbourne had poached Australia’s biggest startup festival from right under the nose of its cross-town rival.
The deal seemed simple, with the state government to provide SydStart with $1 million in funding over five years to bring the conference to Melbourne from 2016 and rebrand it to StartCon.
But it all quickly fell apart.
Earlier this year it became apparent that StartCon would be staying put in Sydney for this year, a set-back that at the time was blamed on the prolonged process of incorporating the Victorian government’s $60 million independent startup body LaunchVic.
But a few weeks ago Dalidakis revealed that the entire deal had fallen through and the government would not be providing any funding to StartCon, instead backing three diversity-focused tech conferences.
It was believed this was due to StartCon, which is organised by Freelancer, refusing to agree to diversity metrics for the conference.
At the time, Barrie told StartupSmart the 2016 StartCon featured a diverse list of speakers, but didn’t deny the accusation.
“We have a huge line-up of female speakers,” Barrie said.
“It’s not 50-50, the tech industry isn’t 50-50.”
But now the Freelancer chief and outspoken Australian tech entrepreneur has hit back at the Victorian government, claiming this is a “manufactured excuse” to cover for nearly a year of failed negotiations.
In a post on the StartCon blog, Barrie says that the claim that the government deal fell through due to diversity issues has “damaged the reputation” of the conference.
“This is a complete fabrication and nothing more than minister Dalidakis trying to hide his inability to follow through on his commitment to bring StartCon to Melbourne,” Barrie writes.
“We have not had a single conversation with anyone from the Victorian government, or LaunchVic, about gender diversity.”
Instead, Barrie blames the deal falling through on a slow-moving government department that he says continually changed the conditions of the funding.
“The reason StartCon didn’t go to Melbourne this year is is because Philip Dalidakis and his team couldn’t deliver on what they agreed upon in a signed letter,” he says.
“The minister and his team tried to re-trade on multiple points including marketing support, and his department were unable to turn around a basic sponsorship agreement in five months despite repeated prodding, to the point of absurdity.”
To accompany this, Barrie has released a five-month-long trail of emails between StartCon organisers and the innovation department, beginning with an original sponsorship agreement of $200,000 per year for five years, which then changed to a 6000 word-long grant application.
Finally in May, then-chief executive of LaunchVic Pradeep Phillip sent a letter in the post to Barrie asking for StartCon to ensure 50-50 gender representation at the conference, down to the guests and keynote speakers.
“Nobody from the Victorian government had ever mentioned anything about any diversity requirements up until this point in time,” Barrie says.
“There was no such mention about diversity in any of the muddled drafts of their 26-page, 6000-word grant agreement.”
Instead, he claims that this was done by the state government as “arse covering” following a freedom of information request by the opposition for all communication between Dalidakis and StartCon.
“It’s hard enough building a startup in Australia, let alone a startup conference that is working hard to attract great international speakers to this country,” Barrie writes.
“[Dalidakis] has damaged the reputation of the conference, which has been the highlight of the year for many Australian startups over the last six years.”
Barrie goes on to say that StartCon is being “used as a diversity punching bag”. The latest controversy follows the conference receiving heavy criticism last year after revealing a first round of speakers that were entirely male.
StartupSmart contacted the minister’s office but they declined to add any further comment. Earlier, Dalidakis merely said that the final deal couldn’t be reached.
“We’ve not been able to finalise that deal with Matt Barrie,” Daldiakis said.
“I wish him and Freelancer all the best.”
Barrie’s long blog post concludes with a reference to the Victorian government recently enticing $33 billion tech giant Cognizant to establish an innovation hub in Melbourne.
“I hope they have a better experience than we did working with his office,” he says.
This article was first published by StartupSmart.