Why the startup ecosystem needs more non-technical entrepreneurs, not stereotypes
To draw more talented non-technical entrepreneurs, including women, into the world of startups, BlueChilli is eschewing the Silicon Valley stereotype of founders being hoodie-wearing coders and using language that promotes inclusivity, according to co-founder and CEO, Sebastien Eckersley-Maslin.
Ahead of his appearance at the Global Mobile Internet Conference in Sydney (5-6 December), where he’ll participate in a panel discussion – ‘Global Tech Trends: The Rise of the Mobile Economy’ (5 December) – the 2013 E&Y Entrepreneur of the Year spoke to Dynamic Business about the leading accelerator/incubator, including its focus on technologies that are “one or two evolutions behind the bleeding edge” and championing “well-rounded” entrepreneurs.
DB: What are the tech trends that excite you at BlueChilli’s helm?
Eckersley-Maslin: To provide some context, it helps to understand how BlueChilli works. We invest in non-technical entrepreneurs with great ideas. We’re looking for people who are CEOs, not CTOs, but who understand the application of a technology in within an industry they’re familiar with. For this reason, the trends I tend to get excited by are those that are one or two evolutions behind the bleeding edge. By that point, a technology is firmly established and sufficient numbers of people are not only applying it in their own industries, they’re also identifying unique, novel ways of applying it in new and emerging fields.
Right now, a crazy number of entrepreneurs are coming to us with ideas around cryptocurrency and blockchain – I don’t just mean Bitcoin, I mean the application of the distributed ledger. Although this technology has existed for around a decade, it’s only now with the recent spike in its popularity that people are considering how it could apply in their industry or field.
Another tech trend we’re excited by at BlueChilli is the application of artificial intelligence and machine learning – as distinct concepts. With machine learning we’re seeing people understanding the concept of using a large number of human operators to train a system, which can then be run more efficiently through an algorithm. With AI, we’re seeing the emergence of ideas arising from application of self-learning algorithms across a range of areas from online grocery shopping through to online pet care. Again, AI and machine learning have been around for a while – I mean, I studied neural networks at university nearly two decades ago – but they’ve only now been embedded in the collective psyche long enough for people to start seeing the applications in their own fields.
DB: What motivates you to work with non-technical entrepreneurs?
Eckersley-Maslin: It’s very easy for engineers, including myself, to add another feature or build another project; however, we’re less comfortable with going out and talking to customers. The Lean Startup methodology is designed to encourage engineers to step outside of their environment, talk to customers and iterate based on that. People from a marketing or leadership background already inherently know to put the customer first and although they can’t build, they look at everything more critically.
Our view is that a whole class of incredibly brilliant entrepreneurs are being underrepresented in the ecosystem because its fricking hard for them to find technical talent. That’s where we come in. We want to work with entrepreneurs who know how to unlock a corporate relationship or understand that their unique IP isn’t necessary an algorithm they developed in their bedroom, it’s something – a connection or process or way of working – that they alone identified due to their unique experience or background.
By virtue of focusing on non-technical entrepreneurs, who make up more than 90% of the founder population, our program is one of the most inclusive in the world in terms of gender, ethnicity, background and region. In this way, we’ve broken with the stereotype of a venture-backed founder being a hoodie-wearing coder who went to Stanford.
DB: How is inclusivity being achieved through your SheStarts program?
Eckersley-Maslin: As with all of BlueChilli’s programs, the purpose of SheStarts – which runs every quarter – is to identify talented people with compelling ideas that address some of society’s great problems and remove the barriers to entrepreneurship. We do so by helping them build their technology, assemble the right team, find customers (through our corporate relationships) and unlock traction, and access capital. The difference with SheStarts is that we’re applying our model to address the underrepresentation of women entrepreneurs in the tech startup ecosystem due to the prevailing founder stereotypes.
With SheStarts, we’ve been very deliberate – in terms of our language, imagery, social media and promotions – to NOT say we’re looking for women entrepreneurs or women tech startup founders. Instead, we’ve put the call out for ambitious women who want to solve a problem, tackle a challenge and work with others. By subtly rewriting the narrative in this way, we’ve been able to reach a broader group of individuals. This has been important because many of the women in the first and second SheStarts cohorts didn’t consider themselves to be entrepreneurs or part of the startup ecosystem.
DB: What motivated the BlueChilli team to launch the SheStarts program?
Eckersley-Maslin: A few years ago, there was a report into Australia’s accelerators that included statistics on the gender make-up of their startup portfolio. Although something like 20% of our founders were women, which was double the next best accelerator in terms of gender diversity, we realised this still wasn’t good enough and resolved to make a conscious effort to doing something. The amazing Nicola Hazell, who is now the program director for SheStarts, helped us take BlueChilli’s philosophy and model and apply it to women entrepreneurs and developed a documentary series around the participants to help inspire other women to start businesses. Our aim has been to grow the pool of talent female entrepreneurs and, selfishly, invest in the best ten. A strong desire to be inclusive and broad has been integral to our organisation since day one.
DB: What qualities do you look for in the entrepreneurs you back?
Eckersley-Maslin: Ultimately, we’re investing in ideas-stage companies, so we don’t have any metrics or numbers or bank balances to go on. Literally, if you can get your idea on napkin, you’re at the right stage for us – we want to get you right at the start because we believe that’s when can give you the most value and have the biggest impact. Of course, we don’t just look at the idea.
A person who is interested in participating one of our programs must first complete an online application, requiring them to clearly articulate their idea and answer questions designed to reveal key entrepreneur traits as determined by the Bell-Mason Diagnostic – for instance, tenacity, grit, charisma, coachability, emotional intelligence, product understanding the ability to relate to others and leadership skills. The logic underpinning this is that successful entrepreneurs are well-rounded, rather than being very good at just one specific thing, and can engage employees, customers, shareholders and investors in their vision.
From this information, we’re able to identify the top 100 applicants out of several hundred or even a thousand. The top 100 are then reviewed by a panel, which assess them against key criteria – namely, is the product technically possible, do we have the technical capability to build it, is it something investors are likely to invest in and does the person have the right skills and background to drive the business. Off the back of that process, we invite 20 to 30 applicants to participate in a three-week practical boot camp, where they work on their pitch deck and the key criteria. At the end of the boot camp, they pitch to a panel of judges and we then make an offer of investment to the top ten participants.
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Guest speakers include:
- Stephen William Hawking (GMIC Exclusive Video Message), Physicist
- Ari Klinger, Founder and Investor at Right Click Capital
- Sophie Gilder, Head of Blockchain at Commonwealth Bank of Australia
- Annika Barton, Senior Investment Advisor, Austrade
- Debra Richards, CEO, Ausfilm