Festival photo.

Sunrise Island Reflections: Part 1

Date Published:
December 2, 2018

A reflection on the Sunrise Island startup conference.

On Sept 12, 2018, Cockatoo Island in Sydney harbour was transformed into Sunrise Island. We built a place for founders and Australia’s startup community to come together and share in an experience designed to inspire and excite the wild heart in all of us.

Our manifesto was simple:

  • Create a startup movement in Australia.
  • Fill our audience with inspiration and wonder.
  • Enable them to learn and overcome obstacles
  • Construct a space where people can meet their next co-founder, investor, employer, friend.
  • Support and grow the Australian startup community

The Night Before Sunrise

The journey started the evening before the conference. We called this event The Night Before Sunrise. Our mission was to invite some of the most interesting and inspiring people we could find to camp on Cockatoo Island. We asked for openness, trust and bravery. 150 guests arrived by boat and were welcomed by The High Priestess of Sunrise Island and her disciples. They were escorted through a tunnel, under rock and earth to the campsite, where guests were shown to their tents.

At their tents Travellers were met with two beers and a note: “These gifts are not for you, they are for your tent neighbours. Go introduce yourself and offer these to them.”

We asked only two things of the campers:

  1. Everyone was to prepare 1 joke, 1 story and 1 offering. The offering could be tangible (a toothbrush, a torch) or intangible (a piece of advice, a song).
  2. For the duration of the evening, campers were not allowed to use their given names. They were only allowed to call each other ‘Travellers’.

Travellers spent the night breaking bread, sharing stories and offerings. The evening was unstructured except for a poker tournament hosted by Blackbird’s Niki Scevak.

The next morning Travellers awoke to a beautiful sunrise over the Island. Campers prepared themselves for the day with coffee and yoga. The peaceful cries of the nesting Seagulls providing a soundtrack (turns out September is nesting season and Seagulls are particularly aggressive and loud!).

Sunrise Island

By 9 AM nearly 1,000 more people had arrived on Cockatoo Island and been transported underground by the High Priestess to the main conference area. The audience was made up of founders, investors, startup operators, 150 high school students, and around 100 university students.

The content program on Sunrise Island was a metaphor for the founder journey:

Part 1: The light bulb moment. Inspiration, wonder, energy and excitement. Our first two speakers were chosen to excite our audience, to get them thinking long term and bigger than they ever had before. Sam Sicilia (CIO of Hostplus) and Laurie Yoler (Zoox board member, founding board member of Tesla) opened the day.

Part 2: The reality check. When the excitement comes crashing into the real world and you realise there are obstacles in your way. You need to learn crazy fast and figure out how to do things you’ve never done before. We designed a series of over 40 x 30-minute workshops with Zambesi. These were tactical and very specific. The intention was to help our audience learn fast and solve problems.

Startmate and AWS put together over 120 1:1 mentoring sessions. Anyone could sign up to get advice or help solving a challenge they were facing. We matched them up with mentors capable of helping them.

Part 3: Just get started. So often we see founders with great ideas who fail to realise that execution is everything. This series of founder talks and panels were meant to inspire the audience to stop talking about it and start doing it. We featured some of the best operators in the country including Cliff Obrecht from Canva, Rory San Miguel of Propeller, Tobi Pearce from Sweat, Natalie Nguyen from Hyper Anna and Katherine McConnell of Brighte.

The whole event was then closed up with a warehouse-style party complete with local craft beer, a cabaret performance, a funk-ish band and some suitably weird costumes.

Sunrise Alpha

Google sponsored 150 high school students to come along and soak it all up. We created a content program just for them which included a panel discussion with some founders not far out of university and a ‘Future You Jam’ which saw audience participants offering advice to the students.

Artwork and design

The artists we chose normally do work for film and music. I used to work with We Buy Your Kids when I managed bands. We ended up with animals that we imagined would have evolved on Sunrise Island to be weirder, more wonderful versions of their mainland counterparts. We used other symbols and iconography which represented the Sunrise Island nation.

Arrival ceremony

All guests were taken through an arrival ceremony and procession through a long and dark tunnel. We used performances, light, colour and music. The aim was to create a threshold for our audience to cross — a liminal space between the real world and Sunrise Island. The use of mystery and performance helped to set expectations for the day ahead.

Garden Lab

Pseudoscientists in lab coats running gene splicing workshops. Travellers could take an old toy truck, remove its wheels and attach some wings from a toy transformer.

Costumed performers

We used these to create a sense of fun and play. The aim was to loosen the audience up and make them more available to their fellow travellers.

Cockatoo Island

The act of creating a company is the act of creating the world as you believe it should be. The inspiration for Sunrise Island was micronations and crazy misfits who declare sovereignty in their backyard, an old oil rig or wherever else they feel they can lay claim. They are symbolic of the founders who vividly imagine a different future and who are relentless in their pursuit of it.

We wanted to create a space where our audience could feel free “from the positions assigned law, custom, convention, and ceremony”. A place where they could be free to learn, to engage, to imagine. By holding Sunrise on an island, off mainland Sydney, our Travellers would be able to forget just for a day all of the responsibility and pressure they feel in their everyday lives. And by doing so be more open to learning and sharing in an experience.

You can’t do any of this inside a normal conference centre, with great wifi and Ubers at the ready.

What was the point?

The point of Sunrise Island wasn’t to create just another tech conference. Sure, we used elements and programming typical of a conference such as keynotes, workshops, lanyards. But these were trojan horses built in the hopes of gaining access to our Travellers hearts. We wanted to create a meaningful shared experience, one that sticks with our audience and influences them to do great things in the world.

We believe Australians are capable of immense things and Sunrise Island was our attempt to unleash the wild heart in all of us.