The startup world is by nature, collaborative. An ecosystem filled with people offering to mentor, advise and fund even when there is initially nothing in it for them. This ‘pay it forward’ mentality is what’s driving the growth of Australia’s startup ecosystem and was instrumental in enabling my co-founder and I to get JESI off the ground.
In just two years, we’ve scaled JESI into an international platform that keeps workers safe across any industry and country, and also as a technology that can be implemented to create holistic workplace management solutions. Nonetheless, founding and operating a sustainable startup from rural North Queensland has presented some interesting challenges along the way.
So what more can Australia do to support its aspiring regional entrepreneurs?
Startup vs traditional business culture
Professional services in regional areas, like legal or accounting, can often treat startups like a traditional business and send them down a path that’s not scalable, or can’t get them to market fast. This is simply due to a lack of local startup experience. Startups would be much better served by ensuring they have first validated their idea and market, or even have a minimum viable product (MVP) in place to avoid spending thousands on structures and documents if the business never even gets past step one.
Due to this, most entrepreneurs find themselves heading to the bright lights of the closest metropolitan city – in our case Brisbane – to access the startup scene, start building relationships and source funding. Basically, seeking out people who have ‘done this before’.
Building local resources is the first step to enabling local innovation and helping it prosper. Part of my own ‘pay it forward’ initiative was to co-found Townsville’s first innovation centre – INQ – to bring startup knowledge to Townsville and provide an access point for entrepreneurs to be around likeminded people. If an INQ was here five years ago, we would have saved a lot of time, money and heartache – or at least had a wider support network.
Untapped talent pool
With the development of corporate structures, regional areas have lost a lot of decision making ability. We see amazing startup initiatives happening with many big corporations in the cities – yet when you try and leverage these with the same brand in the regionals, it can sometimes be difficult to get a hearing.
Regional areas, by default, have to be innovative since they are remote and sometimes politically disadvantaged. If we need to do something different, we can’t wait for the cities.
Take JESI, for example. Coming from a regional background, we often found ourselves concerned about our friends and family’s safety when working and travelling remotely. This community-need formed the basis of JESI’s journey management solution – where workers can input their travel itinerary with check-in points into their smart device. Employers are then immediately notified should a check-in not occur and quick action can take place.
This isolation has created a hotbed of entrepreneurial activity that is largely untapped by Australia’s key organisations. Indeed, if they branched out their initiatives to these rural areas, where competition is limited, they could literally monopolise the talent pool since they wouldn’t be competing with other programs and incubators.
Despite small numbers, the talent pool is actually very good quality and you’re not competing with many other startups to secure employment. Staff retention too, is often better, because local talent is not always on the lookout for another opportunity. Many entrepreneurs want to stay local to avoid uprooting their family, and because many enjoy the glorious work/life balance rural Australia offers.
When it comes to diversity, there is a high 40-plus age market that has amazing worldly business experience who would rather self-fund a startup based on their own experience than begin a job hunt. Support for this market needs to be looked into as there is a huge wealth of talent that will essentially help build more jobs in the community and tackle local unemployment.
Local business support
The greatest thing holding regional startups back is the ability to get customers, which is one of the main reasons we had to tap into the Brisbane market. This could be supported better by local councils and big business, who could be pilots and early beta testers for local products.
If these players made a small five to 10 per cent pledge to encourage local and regional innovation, this would help the community by providing more jobs, as well as help businesses validate products.
For example, when validating our product, we quickly saw huge scale potential with the JESI software, which helped us solve a larger problem in the market than just keeping our regional workers safe.
With the workforce becoming more globalised and mobile, our technology can be used by all industries who have transient employees – and more recently, as a best of breed technology to integrate into existing workplace management platforms to create Internet of Everything (IoE) whole-solutions.
The speed of decision making in large corporates needs to be quicker for procurement processes. People on the ground, the users, are wanting access to these products. The only way this can be fixed is through having an innovation focus that tests and trials products, enabling users to quickly access and support the growth of Australian regional startups.
Finally, another small way regional business leaders or community leaders can help drive innovation is by simply asking: “How can I help?”.
Regions have so many traditional entrepreneurs and we need to have them more engaged, and not just pile everything into the bucket of, “I don’t get tech… or this startup stuff”. A network connection made, or a learning experience shared may just make the difference for Australia’s regional innovators.
Joe Hoolahan is cofounder and CEO of JESI, a mobile workforce solution that supports the safe movement of workers; tracking and reporting time, date, transport type, local trips or travelling nationally or international.