Sunrise Aotearoa is a startup festival thrown by Blackbird where start ups across NZ and AU come together for creativity and inspiration

Spotlight On: Joel Connolly, Sunrise Aotearoa Edition

Date Published:
August 23, 2023

At Sunrise, it's all about learning new things, finding inspiration, exploring your creativity and hearing stories from our most impressive founders.

This week we dive deep with Blackbird's creative Director Joel Connolly on the meaning behind sunrise, and what to expect aside from the speakers.

This adventure called Sunrise – six years strong in Australia and three in New Zealand – is a magic we love sharing, and we're at a point where we can try and bottle that magic here, to give you a real sense of what you're in for. 

This year's Sunrise Aotearoa feels electric. With the New Zealand ecosystem, as Sam Wong puts it, "exponentially exploding," we're in a thrilling moment where accelerated opportunities are being created, new founders are popping up like toast every morning, and the hunt for excellent startup talent is more intense than the Matilda's Vs. France in the FFIA world cup. 

New Zealand is not just punching above its weight; it's in a class of its own. And this year's Sunrise feels particularly special. While we've always called Sunrise a love letter to our founders, it feels like this year, we've pulled out all the stops to make our love letter to New Zealand the kind of over-the-top, early-stage dating, grand romantic gesture that really shows how excited we are for the rising ambition in Aotearoa.

So, ready to dive into the kaleidoscope of creativity, curiosity, and maybe even a bit of chaos? Sunrise is calling, and we can't wait to share it with you.

Blackbird: What makes Sunrise Aotearoa magic? 

Joel C: The experience is all about connections and inspiration. We put a lot of effort into ensuring our audience can meet new people. You might need advice on your startup idea. You might want to raise money. Maybe you just came back from the US, and have some lessons to share. We facilitate this through a mobile app that uses AI to help you find new people. The last time we ran Sunrise in Auckland, we facilitated over 400 meetings and had 4000+ messages sent between attendees. This app is fully optional, but if you’re down to meet new people, we’ve got you covered.

We also break bread together at big communal tables. This year we've extended our catering options and we're putting more effort into helping you to share ideas, make new friends and get inspired all while sharing a bite to eat.

Melanie Perkins gives an opening keynote, Sunrise Sydney 2022.
Blackbird: Who is Sunrise for?

Joel C: The curious. There will be many founders and people working at Startups in the audience, but you don’t have to be in tech to come along. If you’re curious about the world and you think you might want to do something epic, Sunrise is for you. If you want to work at a startup, Sunrise is for you. If you want to invest in startups, Sunrise is for you. If you just want to learn from interesting and creative people, Sunrise is for you.

Blackbird: What's the best way for someone to make the most out of Sunrise?

Joel C: We start the day with early, so make sure you arrive at 8am.

Come ready to participate in whatever feels right for you. Come with an open mind and be prepared to learn.

Invite some friends! Things like this are always more fun when you’re with co-curious people.

A week or two out from the event, we’ll invite you to download Brella, our event app, which includes the event program, information on speakers and more. Download the app, fill in your profile, and if you’re up for meeting some new and interesting people, start setting up meetings.

Sunrise is an epic journey, and a meaningful experience for people who come along. Bring your whole self, be ready to learn, and most importantly, have a bunch of fun. It might be the start of your next chapter.

Joel Connolly, Creative Director at Blackbird & Patty Roberts Co-Founder of The Tides
Blackbird: Why is this year's Sunrise Aotearoa so special?

Joel C: From a practical standpoint, this is the biggest Sunrise Aotearoa festival we've ever hosted, and we've picked a brand new venue for it: Shed 10 in Auckland. This year, for the first time in NZ, we have two stages. Our main stage, of course, and our special in-the-round stage. The latter's a real treat with speakers in the middle of the room and the audience seated all around. It's where we'll provoke discussion, explore creativity, and host practical sessions to meet the needs of founders, operators, and curious folks.

But there's more to this year than logistics. On a more metaphysical level, it feels like a monumental moment for New Zealand. It's reminiscent of where Australia was in 2018, right when the ecosystem was erupting with potential. Those who were around at the time could feel the electricity, the magic, and the sense that we were on the brink of something enormous (and we were!). Aotearoa feels the same this year. We're on the verge of an explosion in creativity, innovation, and success. NZ has been gearing up for a few years, and now it feels like we're bursting onto the global arena.

In-the-rounds stage at Sunrise Sydney 2022
We asked Joel and Rick to take a walk down memory lane, and share some of their Sunrise moments and heres what they shared:

Joel Connolly's Spotlight On: Sunrise

A past sunrise talk you loved?

Last year Melanie Perkins gave our opening keynote. It was such a huge honour to get her and I would have been happy if she just twirled around on stage for 30 minutes. But of course she is brilliant and she gave a whole talk on imagination and the importance of dreaming and vision. These are things I'm personally very passionate about and it was so amazing having her share her ideas with our community. Oh, and she put my actual photo up on a slide. I couldn't believe it.

A past sunrise memory that will never leave you?

Sunrise Island -  in 2018 I decided it would be a great idea to make life really hard and throw Sunrise on Cockatoo Island. As an events manager, you try to think of every possible thing that might impact your event. What's the weather going to be like? What happens if a person walks this way instead of that way? What do I do if my headline speaker gets sick? In 2018 I missed one really big thing, and it was hilarious all week. It was Seagull mating season, and the birds on Cockatoo Island are exceptionally loud and aggressive. All week our guests were being bullied by these birds, and I think we had to turn the volume up on all the stages just so the audience could hear our speakers above those goddamn birds. Live free like a seagull, that's my new motto.

A memory from your first ever Sunrise that makes you laugh?

My first Sunrise was in 2016 and I was stage manager, site manager, catering contact, sponsor liaison, plus just about every other role. I'm a bit fuzzy on the day because I was so manic, but I do have fond memories of travelling to a props warehouse in Rozelle and picking up all the things I thought a mad scientist would have in their garage. We were building a stage set and the idea was to build a garage and I found some weird theatre people to help me build it. I have fond memories of pulling through lots of pieces of junk to find some treasures.

Rick Baker's Spotlight on: Sunrise

A past sunrise talk you loved?

I love recalling the 2016 Sunrise with Mike Cannon-Brookes. He stepped on stage, candidly discussing the lessons he'd learned (and relearned) over the years. Approachable and vulnerable, he showed that anyone could become a founder, saying, "The Atlassian journey … $10,000, two uni kids, it all got a little crazy … the lessons that I keep learning, from 2004 that I probably relearned in 2006, re-learnt in '08, and kicked myself for in 2012 … And they are really, really hard..." And let's not forget that stage setting, with the toolshed in the background. Brilliant!

A past sunrise memory that will never leave you?

Last year, standing in the foyer of Carriageworks and seeing more than a thousand people connecting, chatting, being enthusiastic and most of all with a smile on their face!

A memory from your first ever Sunrise that makes you laugh?

Niki and I sitting in a pub in Townsville - we’d just been to the SafetyCulture board meeting, and making the call to do Sunrise at Carriageworks with capacity of 800 people instead of another venue that fit 150 people! It seemed like a crazy task at the time and the first Sunrise was largely off the cuff! But that’s part of what made it awesome.