“In Silicon Valley, success means something much bigger”: startup specialist Colin Kinner

Colin Kinner

Colin Kinner, entrepreneur coach & startup ecosystem builder

Colin Kinner doesn’t have much patience for the tall poppies of Australia or people who are intellectually dishonest in business. He does, however, have a great deal of time and respect for individuals who take the entrepreneurial plunge and attempt things “nobody else has tried before”. In fact, he’s coached hundreds of aspiring entrepreneurs over the past two decades and otherwise dedicated his career to shaping the nation’s startup ecosystem for the better.

In addition to being the founder and co-facilitator of Startup Onramp, a pre-accelerator for early-stage startups, Kinner is the Program Director for Slingshot’s Horizons (Tourism & Travel) Accelerator, a mission lead for the Startup Catalyst Silicon Valley program, the author of the StartupAUS Crossroads report, a volunteer mentor at River City Labs and the director of consulting firm Spike Innovation. He has also run a tech startup incubator, managed a $10 million seed fund and served on the boards of venture-backed tech companies.

Asked how he finds the time to juggle so many commitments, Kinner replied: “I often ask myself the same question!” He added, “Fortunately, there are 36 hours in the day! No, there’s only a finite number of hours in the day, so I’ve had to try to be very efficient.  That said, not all of the projects I’m working on require big chunks of my time in parallel. Right now, Startup Onramp and Slingshot are my core focuses – I’m dedicating the lion’s share of my time to both”.

The entrepreneur coach and startup ecosystem builder spoke with Dynamic Business about his passion for startups, his vision for Startup Onramp, the number one reason startups fail, the culture of intellectual dishonesty in Australia, his desire to see the nation’s aspiring entrepreneurs level-up their ambitions, and his long-term objective to “get more of the right people doing startups”.

DB: How would you sum up your career in the startup sector?

Kinner: I’ve had the good fortune of working closely with startups and the startup ecosystem as a whole on multiple levels – as a mentor, investor, trainer and ecosystem builder. I couldn’t imagine myself doing anything else.

The common theme throughout my career has been a passion for helping people start and develop high-growth, globally meaningful companies. The internet is an enabler of massively scalable businesses and there are so many opportunities to build businesses in the tech sector.

There’s a culture of tall poppy syndrome in Australia, a palpable sense of ‘let’s set people up to fail’, so I get a real buzz out of seeing people I’ve mentored go on to achieve success.

DB: What sparked your initial interest in startups?

Kinner: My first exposure to startups was probably when I joined UniQuest at the University of Queensland in 1993. At the time, universities were beginning to realise they could create companies based on their research. What really sparked my interest in the startup ecosystem, however, was when I was asked to run the startup investment fund at Imperial College in London. I witnessed companies not just emerging out of research but getting to a point where you could throw serious amounts of money at them.

DB: What’s the elevator pitch for your business Startup Onramp?

Kinner: Startup Onramp is about giving founders the skills they need to do the right things early on. It’s a training and mentoring program for people who are at the start of the startup journey, including those who have ideas for startups but haven’t yet made the leap from being an employee to being a startup founder. What Startup Onramp does is deliver a 12-week program of workshops, mentoring and tailored advice so that startup founders get off to a great start and avoid making predictable and avoidable mistakes.

DB: What distinguishes the business from other startup programs?

Kinner: What makes it unique is the depth of experience that new startup founders are exposed to. The program is delivered by a team who have worked with hundreds of startups and centres on a really robust curriculum based on years of experience. It also gives the participants access to some of Australia’s best startup founders and investors who share learnings from their own startups – things they’ve done well, as well as things that they’ve really screwed up.

There are a lot of startup programs popping up in Australia that sell training, advice or other services to founders. Some are high quality but unfortunately a lot of them are run by people with lots of enthusiasm but not much experience and limited networks.

DB: Which of the startups you’ve mentored are you the most proud of?

Kinner: I’ve worked with so many that it’s hard to name favourites; however, I’m most proud of the founders who’ve taken the plunge and given up their day jobs to start a company that’ll do something nobody else has tried before. A great recent example is Megan Avard, the co-founder and CEO of contract management software company SurePact.

Megan came from a well-paid job in the public sector and had an idea for a startup that she really wanted to pursue. She signed up for Startup Onramp and, at the end of the 12-week program, quit her day job to launch her business. SurePact is now doing extremely well and is signing up customers all round Australia. If I’ve been able to help founders like Megan to take the leap and get their startup off to a solid start then I feel like I’ve done something that matters.

DB: What is the best piece of advice you can offer a founder?

Kinner: ‘Talk to your customers before building a product’. The number one reason startups fail is because they build a product nobody wants. I often say to founders that introspection is NOT the way to figure out whether an idea is good or not.

Startups, at least in the early days, are little more than a set of untested hypotheses. That’s why it’s important for founders to test their hypotheses – and that means talking to customers.

Does the problem you’re seeking to solve exist? Does your product actually solve it? Will customers pay for it? That’s what founders need to find out. Only then should they start building their product.

DB: What about yourself – what is the advice you live by?

Kinner: I am a big believer in calling it the way it is. I think there’s a cultural phenomenon in Australia where we tend to be too polite and not call out the elephant in the room.

In Israel, people tend to call out a BS statement within 30 seconds of hearing it. By comparison, in Australia people are much more inclined to nod politely in meetings, then walk out of the room thinking “that was BS” but saying nothing. I’ve found this in some of my dealings with governments and universities – they’re bureaucratic organisations at the best of times and often people will do and say things they believe are in keeping with the ethos of whoever is at the top of the organisation, rather than saying “that’s not right, let me tell you why”.

It’s really about intellectual honesty. If objectively the reality is x, let’s say it’s x, and not pretend that it’s something else just because it’s polite or it avoids an awkward conversation.

DB: What has been a defining experience in your startup career?

Kinner: One of the most interesting experiences for me has been spending time in Silicon Valley on multiple occasions, most recently with Startup Catalyst. It’s an immersion program that takes groups of young startup founders and immerses them in the Silicon Valley startup ecosystem for ten days. I worked with Australian investor Steve Baxter to create the first Silicon Valley mission and I’ve been the mission lead for a number of the Silicon Valley emerging entrepreneur programs.

What became clear to me, from my time in Silicon Valley, was the cultural difference between that part of the US and Australia. It’s really quite profound. The local startup founders we encountered in San Francisco and the Bay Area aspire to build billion dollar companies. Conversely, the Australian founders we took with us hadn’t really decided what they wanted to do. They either hadn’t defined what success looked like or their motivation was creating a company that allowed them to work for themselves rather than having to get a job with a large company and sit in a cubicle all day. In Silicon Valley, success means something a whole lot bigger.

Although Australia has made some huge strides in the last few years, we still need to level-up, both in terms of our ambitions (we need to reach higher) and the intensity with which we build companies.

DB: What is your assessment of Australia’s startup landscape?

Kinner: Having worked with StartupAUS as the author of their annual Crossroads report, it’s great to see that over the past two to three years, Australia has reached an inflection point in terms of understanding the importance of startups. Federal and state governments have realised that supporting the growth of startups is no longer optional, it’s the way the world’s going and we need to be a part of it. Success stories like Atlassian have had an impact on the thinking and I think we’ll see a continued mind shift around support for startups.

While the Australian startup ecosystem is in better shape than it’s ever been and it is trending in the right direction, I’m still impatient. Having looked at the growth of startup ecosystems in other countries I think there’s room to do more, to grow the startup scene a lot faster.

DB: What would accelerate the growth of the startup ecosystem?

Kinner: The creation of further startup hubs, such as the forthcoming Sydney Startup Hub, which boasts 17,000 square metres. These are facilities that house large numbers of startups in multiple co-working spaces, accelerators and other programs all under one roof. I work out of River City Labs, which is Brisbane’s leading startup co-working space and an anchor tenant in The Precinct, the major startup hub in Brisbane. I’ve also advised on large startup hub projects in other cities, and I think there’s a huge benefit in bringing the main players in any city’s startup ecosystem together and giving the ecosystem a centre of gravity.

DB: Should Australia focus on building startups in a particular industry?   

Kinner: Generally speaking, I’m not a fan (particularly from a government point of view) of focusing on a particular industry. The reason being is that it is too easy to treat industries as broad buckets such as FinTech or CleanTech or AgTech or CreativeTech. If you look at where we have international competitiveness, it’s not in those sorts of broad bucket industries, it’s in more granular areas – for example, microwave antenna design for marine applications. Being a global leader in something as niche as that doesn’t necessarily mean we’re a global leader in electronics.

DB: Are there any big projects you have lined up in the short term?

Kinner: I’m in the process of building a licensable element of Startup Onramp so that it can be delivered in startup hubs nationally. I’ve had a quite a few co-working spaces and economic development agencies say ‘Hey, that sounds really useful, could we run it where we are?” To facilitate that, we’re doing some trainer-to-trainer activities towards the end of the year so organisations can have one or maybe even a couple of facilitators upskilled in the delivery of the content. Then, we will make the content available to them to run a version of the program wherever they are.

DB: And what about the long-term? What do you have planned?

Kinner: Expanding Startup Onramp – that’ll happen over a number of years. There is a big opportunity to get more of the right people doing startups. I’ve always been motivated to work on things that are impactful, and this is an area where there’s potential for a lot of impact. If you look at the Crossroads report, there’s plenty of data to suggest we’re not punching at our weight in terms of the number of startups we’re producing in Australia.

Anecdotally, I’d add that we’re often getting the wrong people to do startups, which means we’re missing out on getting people who’ve got deep domain knowledge. That’s a big focus for Startup Onramp – on-boarding people with deep domain knowledge but who’ve probably started on their career. They’re often the most valuable startup founders but it can be difficult to get them to make the courageous leap into something a lot less predictable.