How to Improve Australia’s Innovation Ecosystem
AMA with Redbubble Founder and CEO Martin Hosking.
Samantha Wong At The Sunrise you talked about how Redbubble started out as a copycat of a US business, and then pivotted because no-one in the company wanted to be a “vegan making hamburgers”. Can you talk about what the triggers were for coming to that decision?
Martin Hosking The biggest trigger was our realisation that any startup is brutally hard and risky. You should only undertake it when the mission is truly motivating to you or you simply wont overcome the obstacles along the way. This mission will provide you with the rays of sunshine you need when things are tough and provide a guiding light through the many decisions. In this context being your own customer is often really important. It will help you to make calls which in satisfying you are also likely to be satisfactory to others. If you are not eating the hamburgers you make you will never really know to cook them.
Teresa Engelhard If you were the federal “innovation Minister” what would be your priorities to improve the innovation ecosystem in Australia?
Martin Hosking Three things:
- Nurture the level playing field (avoid this nonsense about focusing on agriculture and mining related industries) which means investing in the fundamentals of basic education and technical education and making sure that all schemes are equally accessible to all startups. And in this regard make sure the focus is on commercial potential/execution not IP or patents. Without this open mindset Australia will never find its Google or Facebook (or indeed Redbubble!).
- Become a world leader in what I call “regulation innovation”. Which means really committing to making sure the regulations are as open and flexible as humanely possible to make innovation thrive. It would, for example, have been impossible for Uber to start in Australia because regulation (and the vested interests that support it) would have crushed it in every state an territory. Similarly with self-drive vehicle and drones now.
- Continue to invest in those things that make Australia a great place to live (our infrastructure, health, education, security, multi-culturalism). We can attract good people to Australia because they want to live here. This is an asset worth nurturing.
Teresa Engelhard You have recruited an executive team at RedBubble with scale-up and silicon valley experience. How important is that for RedBubble’s success and how did you achieve that? What advice do you have for founders in the early growth-stage on how to approach building their executive team?
Martin Hosking No entrepreneur can be better than the team they are working with. If they simply recognise this from the get go they will take team building as their most important priority. In the early day this will mean that you will be working with co-founders and that equity must inevitably be shared. As things move along you have to recruit for passion for the mission. No senior executive has ever joined RB without the mission being their most important reason for being here. Without this passion you cannot get the stability and commitment needed to “bend reality” in the way any successful venture must.
I see early stage companies struggling for 1 of 2 conflicting reasons:
- They recruit “too low” and just take whoever they can get. The result is the team just simply is not able to execute on the task. The answer to this is to go back and deeply think about what would it take to get the people with the right capabilities. It is important to realise that this does not mean recruiting very senior executives (see below) as often young, capable but less rounded or proven people are all you need and may be better for the job in fact. So keeping an open mind and recruiting for raw talent is critical
- They recruit “too high”. This is less common in Australia but you see some over-funded startups putting in place executives (or Board members) that are not hands-on enough or simply create more work than they produce. I am very wary of start-ups in the early stage with “celebrity” boards — no ex-politicians please!
Nick Crocker You seem to have a rich background of experiences to draw from, what’s the most critical thing you’ve learnt to date?
Martin Hosking The single most important thing(s) are:
- Entrepreneurship is the ultimate team sport. If you cannot build and hold together a team you cannot be an entrepreneur. You may be an inventor but you are not a company builder because this can only be done with others.
- Have absolute clarity on a REAL customer problem. No startup can get traction if it is not solving a problem that actually exists. You cannot manufacture the problem you can only identify it. I see too many startups that try to solve problems that are not real or big enough.
Chris Duell What piece of advice that you’ve offered to people who’ve looked up to you are you most proud of, and what piece of advice in hindsight would you take back?
Martin Hosking I am not sure it is a specific piece of advice but people say that I am helpful in giving context for decisions because I come beck to values and mission and try to avoid being reactive or overly-sensitive. Ultimately our time on earth is limited and keeping an eye on the higher purpose (which can only be to do good in the world) is fundamental to not only other’s happiness but also your own.
In hindsight I would take the piece of advice earlier and more deeply! Early in my career I was more anxious and less outward looking. Even now it is a journey of trying not got give into fear, panic, envy, greed and all the other destructive emotions that erode peace of mind and quiet pursuit of purpose.