Startup Opinion

A two-way street: Corporates might not realise it now, but they need startups

Monica Wulff /

Monica Wulff

WeWork Labs manager Monica Wulff. Source: supplied.

Australia has seen 28 years of uninterrupted economic growth, and a large chunk of our public servants and corporate workers have never been through downturns or felt a pressing need to ‘innovate’. Even if they have, it would be a distant memory.

This is important to keep in mind as we look at the recent events in the Australian startup ecosystem, such as the defunding of early-stage support programs, the roll-back of corporate innovation initiatives and the emerging focus on later-stage startups. The success of our technology ecosystem is directly linked to the future success of Australia’s economy, which is why the recent changes in support for early-stage startups has got everyone talking. 

It’s exciting to have more mature startups in our market, and their presence and success have a positive ripple effect that we’re all eager to experience.  However, sidelining our early-stage startups poses a big risk to the possibility of having more later-stage startups in the future.

We’re not just playing ‘startup’.

Early-stage startups have long suffered from a perception issue and have been losing an unwinnable fight against outdated systemic corporate procurement requirements and entertaining false hopes garnered by marketing-led corporate innovation programs.

In regards to perception, let’s remember that at one point, every successful startup was ‘early stage’, even Canva and Atlassian. If Mike Cannon-Brookes or Mel Perkins decided to found another startup, it would be ‘early stage’ at some point. This is a crucial step in the evolution of any business.

This perception that ‘early stage’ means ‘inexperienced’ and ‘likely to fail’ is incorrect. As Startup Muster consistently debunked, few Australian founders are twenty-somethings downing Red Bulls. The majority of our founders have been professionals that have experienced a problem worth solving, and are between 30 and 50 years of age.

I get it, startups are super fun! It’s a crazy, energy-filled environment of excitement, ambition and promise — three things someone at a large corporate may find highly refreshing. But what you’re really witnessing are people building businesses that their livelihoods depend on. 

Don’t mistake our desire for progress as us being idealistic, doe-eyed and dreamers.   

We build products and services to help Australian (and global) businesses, so let us actually try to do it.  We are here to strengthen your existing business, help you to build out adjacent markets and be an avenue for talent via acquisitions.

We may fail, but won’t give up.

While the startup ecosystem is changing before our eyes, the wonderful thing is that we can learn and we can iterate.  I look forward to what the next phase of corporate-startup engagement looks like and hopefully all sides learn from these past experiences and improve upon it.

We want to see a bit less puff and pageantry and a bit more of the following: revision of internal procurement; top-down commitment to solving real issues existing in the business; setting of realistic expectations and timeframes; and pre-agreed upon ‘kill or continue’ milestones.

Locally and abroad, WeWork Labs runs pilots and partnerships so that startups have proof points to take to other prospective customers. It is these kinds of specialised initiatives that give founders a vote of confidence. It is support — or a lack of it — that determines the longevity of early-stage startups.

Being part of a WeWork Labs, I’m exposed to the vast quantity and quality of startup-related activity happening globally. I can confidently say that a healthy and vibrant startup ecosystem in Australia is possible.  We just have to recognise that this is a good thing for everyone and courageously commit to our collective future.

Corporate Australia has a role to play in the entire lifecycle of the technology ecosystem, from proof of concept all the way to acquisition — but underneath it all should be a strategy that has mutually beneficial business outcomes. 

Our tech companies can transform your established institutions — it just takes planning, a bit of bravery and the abolishment of the phrase ‘but this is how we’ve always done it’.

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Monica Wulff

Monica is the manager at WeWork Labs. She is also the co-founder and former chief executive of Startup Muster, which is Australia’s largest survey of the startup ecosystem, and the host of the Digital Love Podcast.