The inside story of the creation of Australia’s tech supergroup: A New York cafe, the ghosts of the past and that photo

For a lot of people TechSydney was a new thing, an organisation that popped up suddenly, claiming to be the panacea for all of the Sydney tech ecosystem’s problems, with little information on how that happened or how it was to be done.

For the founding group and many other supporters it certainly wasn’t a new thing. It was the culmination of years of effort; lessons from years of failed experimentation matched with a renewed sense of purpose and more recent action. Add in some fortuitous timing and there’s now hope we can finally help Sydney reach its potential as a global tech city.

On Monday night TechSydney CEO Dean McEvoy gave a speech to over 200 people at the official launch of the group. In the room, 170 companies were present representing over $11 billion in annual revenue. Crazy.

That speech covered TechSydney’s goals and some thoughts around initial plans for achieving them.

What he didn’t have time to cover, however, is how we got to this point, something which is critical for understanding the context and the culture behind the organisation. If we’re to seek to be a transparent organisation then it’s only fitting that we’re transparent about our genesis as well – so let’s get started.

In the beginning

Many startups have an origin myth but TechSydney only has a simple, truthful beginning: A conversation between two Sydney tech ecosystem members in a cafe in New York City in early 2015.

At that cafe Riley Batchelor and myself – we both regularly visited NYC – discussed how far the NYC tech community had come in such a small amount of time and how Sydney had been trying for much longer with much less success – even taking into account the relative sizes of the cities.

Fast-forward three months and project “BlueCrush” (deliberately the worst code name they could think of) was underway and Riley and I started approaching other members of the Sydney tech community to gather support for a renewed effort.

While many people were keen to be involved, to their surprise many also weren’t. It wasn’t that those people didn’t believe in the end goal. Rather, it was the problems of past, failed, attempts to create similar organisations that had many people thinking this too would be a waste of time.

The ghosts of the past

What were the problems of the past that people were so worried about?

They generally came down to one or more of the following:

  • Lack of a leader with real tech credibility to drive the organisation supported by a board who had a mandate from the community itself to act on its behalf.
  • The funding challenges for these community organisations which either led to organisations being primarily funded by one or two large organisations bringing questions of independence or led to the organisation being run by volunteers who all, eventually, found that other things got in the way.
  • The lack of a clear plan to improve things that moved the rhetoric to action.

All valid, but very solvable, so the first meeting of BlueCrush was organised and run in December last year with a small group of early supporters to see if we could come up with a plan.

Below is a list of the attendees of the first meeting (in alphabetical order):

  • Chris Gilbert – Equitise
  • Dean McEvoy – Icon Park
  • Gen George – Oneshift
  • Ian Gardiner – AWS
  • Johanna Pitman – Committee for Sydney
  • Kath Purkis – Her Fashion Box
  • Kim Heras – 25Fifteen
  • Mark Pesce – Too many things to name but had just led the Education group at PolicyHack
  • Nicole Williamson – Too many things to name but had just led the Diversity group at PolicyHack
  • Riley Batchelor – TidyMe / General Assembly
  • Simon Cant – Reinventure / FinTech Australia
  • Sue Hogan – Innovation Bay

Why these people? Well first of all they were part of the group that had shown support for the idea early on. They also represented a mix of founders of high-growth startups, community organisers who could give us leverage into large groups and people who had recent experience in working with government on policies to support the tech ecosystem. We felt this was a good place to start.

It should be noted that five of the 11 (45%) in attendance at the first meeting ever of TechSydney (one of the 12 members dialed in) were female.

At this meeting the name TechSydney was decided upon (to be more inclusive of the whole ecosystem rather than just startups) and it was also decided that the structure should be an independent, member-based (and funded) organisation with a board that was voted in by those members.

Most importantly, it was decided that if we couldn’t find a way to fund someone to be focused on leading TechSydney full time then we shouldn’t bother continuing.

Little did we know that the solution to the massive “who will lead this?” problem was staring us right in the face.

The leader

As luck would have it during the first meeting of what was to become TechSydney we discussed the work that UTS was trying to do through Piivot – an organisation also focused on a digital creative knowledge hub.

Not long after the first TechSydney meeting, Dean McEvoy was approached by Piivot to take on the CEO role. Dean was clearly an amazing candidate; a proven founder with industry credibility and in-between startups so he was available.

Dean went and interviewed with Piivot but rather than taking on the role as advertised, convinced the team from UTS that a fully independent organisation was needed to garner the support of the full technology ecosystem. UTS agreed to fund Dean as a consultant to get TechSydney to the point of independence from them – an astonishingly generous action by the university.

As part of this agreement there was no “deal” prioritising or favouring UTS if TechSydney was created. Only a realisation that they were to benefit from a bigger and better local tech ecosystem and that they along with the other universities would have a place to direct their students who want to be entrepreneurs or work for high growth technology companies.

Dean brought the proposal back to the initial group and we jumped on it. What was potentially the biggest problem we were going to face was about to disappear.

Maybe we could do it this time.

Process, process, process

With Dean now on board and leading things day to day a small working group of people dedicated to getting TechSydney off the ground, including Mick Liubinskas whose experience at the forefront of efforts in the past was invaluable, formed to focus on process.

This mattered because the whole point of TechSydney initially was to create the processes and structures from which the best plan could be formed and iterated upon.

We could have created a small working group and come up with plans that suited our various agendas; but the decentralised, agenda-driven, environment of the past was part of the reason why Sydney had failed to come together as an ecosystem and reach its potential.

Of course, in the end the elected board and appointed CEO would determine the path forward for TechSydney but we needed to start with something.

So, in true startup-style, Dean started on customer development.

Over the course of a month, Dean met with over 100 startup founders, technical and non-technical, to ask them what the biggest challenges they faced as Sydney-based startups were and what could be done to improve things.

This speaks to the core of the TechSydney philosophy: Without founders there are no tech companies. Without tech companies there are no employees, investors, support organisations or government policies. Therefore a founder-first approach – not to the exclusion of all other parts of the ecosystem but in support of them – is critical.

Out of those meetings came some core ideas for action that were then taken into smaller, interactive group sessions of 20-30 people where the ideas were tested.

The last of those was the now infamous meeting of larger startup founders and local CEOs of international tech companies with a HQ in Sydney. At that meeting there was only one female in the 22 people in attendance (as opposed to ~40% in previous meetings) and a photo taken on the day was used in a press release announcing TechSydney.

TechSydney group

There are a number of things that we could point to for this happening but the simple truth is we could have, and should have, done better. Since then Nicole Williamson has agreed to chair a working group on diversity to make sure we learn from those lessons and do better in future.

The funding question

With the goal being for TechSydney to be self-supportive if it was to succeed, the question of who would fund it was always one that needed to be answered ASAP.

The easy way to do it would have been to go cap in hand to large corporates with promises of exclusivity to get them to fund it. The approach has worked elsewhere and, in a business and political environment where “innovation” is at the top of the hype-cycle, it would have been easier than ever to do. This wouldn’t have been right, though.

The independence of TechSydney has always been critical.

As is buy-in from the people we’re trying to support. As such, the funding path had to be two-fold; some of the money would come from larger supporters with absolutely no promise of exclusivity. The remainder would have to come from our member-base. That would be the first true test of whether they really saw value in what we were doing.

One interesting thing to note is that the first large organisations we spoke to who offered to support TechSydney with funding all said that they would be involved provided the members of TechSydney were also significant financial supporters and that TechSydney was properly funded in order to have the resources and runway to achieve its goals.

That left us with a lot of work to do so we set out to find a large group of startups who were well known enough, and who would have enough money, to support TechSydney to get social-proof and momentum for our fund-raising.

This leads us to Monday’s launch event.

The launch

Monday’s event was just that, an event. A one-off occasion that was, as Matt Beeche from Startup Daily rightly recognised:

“About getting 200 of the fastest-growing tech startups in the room..and getting their buy-in and commitment to support the organisation. And that is not anecdotal support either, it is about cash. Specifically, it was about getting the 200 (mostly) founders at the dinner to purchase company memberships, being exemplars to the next group of Sydney-based tech companies.”

As it stands today, Monday night’s event is looking like a major success but it was just another step in a very, very long journey towards making Sydney a top global tech city.

What happens next will follow on from what’s happened so far – listening, planning, acting, learning – edging closer to the goal of making Sydney what it always should have been. What we always knew it could. But to do that we need your support.

In two weeks time we will launch a public crowd-funding campaign. It will be open to everyone who wants to support and participate in TechSydney, with different tiers of membership that will provide a number of benefits including, perhaps most valuably, a vote towards who the leadership of TechSydney will be.

It’s been a long time coming but finally it looks like there may be light at the end of the tunnel.

We are TechSydney. Are you?

This piece was first published on LinkedIn.

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