‘We won’t be ignored’: How startups can get innovation back on the political agenda
Monday, May 20, 2019/
The votes are counted, Antony Green has called it, and Australia is looking at a Coalition government for another three years.
In startupland — as far as we could tell from the Twittersphere, at least — the election result caused shock, concern and a little anxiety, as founders faced down the prospect of more anti-tech policy, and a lack of focus on innovation.
But, tomorrow is another day. It may not have been the result some wanted, but if we want to see innovation on the government’s agenda, there are still ways in which we make it happen.
Speaking to StartupSmart, Girl Geek Academy co-founder and chief Sarah Moran notes that, while its the same government, there will be new people working within it.
A lack of focus on innovation and technology in the election campaign may mean there’s room for the industry to have some influence now, she says.
“Because there were so few policies announced before the election, now is the time for us to get on the front foot,” she explains.
“We now get to coordinate with the government to work out what [the policies] should be.”
However, this requires people in the industry to find out who their representatives are, to connect with them, and to “actually get coordinated across all states”, Moran says.
Angel investor and founder of M8 Ventures Alan Jones says it’s a bit early to know exactly where the new government will stand on innovation.
“A lot of cabinet ministers were mostly absent from the election campaign, and so it’s a little hard to tell what, if anything, anyone is thinking about our industry,” Jones notes.
However, he’s not holding out much hope for the innovation minister returning to cabinet.
“What we had before was no ministerial representation for tech, so it’s reasonable to expect that that will continue,” he says.
On the other hand, StartupAus chief executive Alex McCauley suggests Scott Morrison actually has a good track record when it comes to supporting innovation and entrepreneurship.
Morrison was treasurer when the National Innovation and Science Agenda was put in place, he notes, and he “does have some credentials in technology policy”.
While coming into the election there wasn’t much of a conversation about tech policies, there was a conversation “about economic vision and the future prosperity of Australia”, McCauley says.
“New industries and entrepreneurship are going to be a really key part of how Australia remains prosperous.”
According to McCauley, Morrison has a history of supporting startups and entrepreneurship. Since he’s been in power, though, “he hasn’t had much of an opportunity to do anything except build up to this election”, he adds.
“There wasn’t a lot of appetite on either side of politics to talk about technology and startup policy … that doesn’t mean it’s not en economic priority.”
A rebranding exercise
According to Jones, one thing that made the Coalition’s campaign a success was that it was “largely about making people afraid of change”.
The startup space, and the tech space more broadly, is one based almost entirely around change.
“So, I think somehow we need to find a way to portray ourselves as something else,” Jones says.
“I don’t think change is something that Australian people want to hear about right now.”
We need to take a leaf out of the book of other industry groups, and change the focus to the jobs technology provides, he suggests.
“There aren’t tremendously many people employed in industries such as energy or in mining,” Jones observes.
“These are industries that are already at the forefront of automation, and what used to be a manual workforce is being replaced really quickly,” he adds.
“And yet, they have the ear of Australia.”
Going forward, the tech industry can make its voice heard by gaining the support of the voting public. And it will do that by showing how many people it employs, and how important those jobs are to the economy. But this goes beyond startups, to the technology sector as a whole.
“The reason your ATM can spit out money when you need it is because there are hardworking people working on those systems,” Jones says.
On both sides of the election campaign, leaders were constantly seen out and about in high-vis and hard hats, he notes.
“That’s a tiny percentage of the Australian workforce; the Australian workforce is sitting behind computers.”
In the future, it could be more conducive for tech organisations like the Australian Computer Society (ACS) to take the lead here, Jones suggests.
“[They’re] less about supporting tech startup founders and more about representing all of the people who work in tech-related roles across Australian industries.”
McCauley says one way to make an impact at the highest level is to draw upon and highlight what was successful about Turnbull’s innovation agenda.
The government saw that as a way to invest in the space, “and in political terms, that didn’t happen that long ago”, he says.
“The effects of those policies are still flowing through the sector.”
McCauley suggests encouraging the view that this was a platform that helped improve startup growth rates.
“So, the next series of policies in this space can be focused on helping grow the successes … and really support long-term viability of the sector here.”
In the next three years, McCauley predicts Australia could product another five to 10 billion-dollar businesses.
That poses an opportunity for the Prime Minister and other cabinet members “to stand behind some of those successes and say ‘hey, this is a real win for the country’”.
Whose responsibility is it?
If were going to drum up government support for innovation, the tech sector needs to have a voice. In fact, it needs many voices.
Moran notes that state bodies such as Startup Victoria and Tech Sydney have historically coordinated well with state governments.
Now, “they need to coordinate with each other and together present a face to the federal government, alongside StartupAus”, she says.
Although its the national startup advocacy group, when it comes to lobbying for change at a federal level, “StartupAus can’t and shouldn’t be expected to do it alone,” Moran argues.
“We all know resources are thin on the ground,” she adds. “They’re all bootstrapped and lightweight themselves.”
For Moran, it’s time for Australia’s scale-ups to step up and make their voices heard in the conversation, too.
These were once fledgling startups that now have real business clout, and while many leaders boost the ecosystem by investing in others, their role goes beyond that now.
“They pay a shit tonne of tax,” Moran notes.
“Now, we have scale-ups that have business weight in a way we’ve never seen before, it’s time for them to step into that conversation,” she adds.
“There is a responsibility that sits on their shoulders whether they like it or not.”
Jones stresses the importance of getting bigger industry allies on board. When you consider the tech industry as a whole, StartupAus actually serves to represent only a small slice of the workforce, he says.
“StartupAus’s contribution to the dialogue is critical,” Jones says.
“But, to achieve the voter support we need, and hence that government support that we need, it’s probably more down to the large tech employers in Australia, and paying membership-based organisations like ACS.”
And McCauley himself says it’s down to both StartupAus and the wider ecosystem to try to foster change at a federal level.
“We have just got to make sure that we integrate this idea of high-growth entrepreneurship into this government’s economic agenda at a core level.”
At StartupAus, “it’s our job to be in a productive conversation with politicians about the policy aspect”, he explains.
“But there’s also a role for founders and startups themselves to play in telling their stories in a way that has meaning for the economy more broadly,” he adds.
“We can help facilitate that.”
Despite what was a shocking result for most and a disappointing one for many, Moran believes there will still be opportunities for startups to have a voice in the policy conversation.
“We’re still stakeholders,” she says.
Developing the technology industry is in line with the government’s own economic agenda. And it’s an industry that is not going away.
“Tech is something that will be with us for years to come, and the government does have an understanding of that,” Moran says.
“You can’t possibly ignore it … and so startups aren’t to be ignored either.”
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