Startup News & Analysis

Why Aaron Birkby is stepping back from running Startup Weekend events: “I’m not really Tony Robbins-ing it right now”

Dominic Powell /

Startup community advocate and chief executive of Startup Catalyst Aaron Birkby has announced he will be stepping back from being one of Australia’s main facilitators of Startup Weekend events, having run over 40 since 2012.

Speaking to StartupSmart, Birkby further discussed what he outlined in a recent blog post, saying while he’s enjoyed his six-year journey doing Startup Weekends – startup pitching and development-fests that run internationally – he found wasn’t gaining the same experience out of it as he used to in the early days.

“In 2012 I went to one of the first Startup Weekends down in Melbourne and fell in love with the format, and became committed to running one on the Gold Coast,” the Brisbane-based entrepreneur said.

“A facilitator was supposed to fly over, but the Tuesday before we only had 14 people signed up, so they called and said it wasn’t going to happen. I was determined to go ahead with it, and spent three days learning how to facilitate the event.”

“By that Friday we had 120 people signed up. Apparently, it’s a unique trait of Queenslanders to sign up to things at the last minute.”

But despite saying the events are “phenomenally valuable”, the startup advocate began to slowly realise at recent Weekends he was turning on autopilot while running them, and was no longer gaining anything personally from the experience.

“I was up on stage one Friday night and talking to the audience, and I had this moment where I realised I had no idea what I’d been saying for the last few hours. My brain was elsewhere,” he says.

“Firstly, this made me worry about what the hell I had just been saying, and secondly, was I delivering the best value to the audience?”

“I’m not really Tony Robbins-ing it right now.”

Birkby’s efforts with local Startup Weekends have been focused on shifting the experience for startup founders towards upskilling themselves personally, moving the focus from just a learning event to more of an “emotional journey”.

He’s trying to create more impact on startup founders as individuals, and this will continue to be his focus as he begins his next venture. he says.

A new focus on founders’ mental health

After hearing about a startup founder who banned himself from taking a warm shower until his business was cashflow positive, Birkby realised startup founders were in need of mentoring and guidance on their mental and physical health.

“That founder hasn’t had a warm shower in six and a half years, and each morning he was putting himself in a negative mental state,” Birkby says.

These stories, along with a “confluence” of other experiences, lead Birkby to team up with River City Labs chief Peta Ellis to start Peak Persona, a side hustle project that focuses of upskilling founders to take control of their physical and mental health.

The program has been running for just six weeks, and is already through its third cohort of 25 founders. Birkby says they’ve received an amazing response. 

“The inspiration for Peak Persona came from when I was delivering training for facilitators, and I would tell them how I’m naturally introverted, and walk them through the things I would do to put myself in an extraverted state,” he says.

“There was much more interest in that content than I expected, and many of them asked for a program focused around that.”

Constant pressure to ‘crush it’ leads to founder burnout

The issue of founders burning out is one Birkby says he’s seen often in his work and is part of the reason for him establishing Peak Persona.

“What we noticed is that founders always have to present that they’re crushing it and ready for global domination, or they’re not going to get investment,” he says.

“This leads to a hell of a lot of pressure to always ‘be on’, and other issues like impostor syndrome.”

He doesn’t think his experience with Startup Weekends was burnout per se, saying instead it came down to him not getting as much out of running the events as he had before. He says for founders, knowing when to give up on an idea or project should be based on having explored all options available, otherwise, you’re likely to regret not trying that “one last thing.”

Birkby will continue to facilitate Weekends in future that challenge or excite him, and has suggested a number of other facilitators who he thinks would be great at running the events. For future ones, he’s keen to see more niche focuses on specific verticals, along with ones held in regional towns.

As a final note, Birkby urges founders to step outside of their comfort zones and if they have plans to launch globally, get serious about them. 

“Get on a plane this year, go to the markets you want to launch in and actually understand them,” he says.

“Explore the world, and bring back new perspectives you can integrate into your startup.”

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Dominic Powell

Dominic Powell is the lead reporter at StartupSmart.

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