by Jennifer O'Brien

Aussie startup scene ‘spaghetti-on-the-wall’: SBE chair Topaz Conway

Jan 31, 2018
CareersGovernment ITInnovation

Calling the current state of the Australian startup and innovation scene the ‘flavour of the month,” veteran entrepreneur, director and angel investor, Topaz Conway, said business people – particularly women – need to be wary of the ‘fly-by-night’ atmosphere.

That being said, Conway is inspired by the level of enthusiasm and momentum being generated at the moment in this space and wants to encourage women to jump on board, but also cautions them to ‘do their homework.’

“There are so many more options for women to get help to grow their companies, or to even just start a company, but really do your homework and be careful because there’s a lot of people wanting to capitalise on the entrepreneurial movement that is happening in Australia. The pendulum has gone the other direction: from nothing to a ‘spaghetti on the wall’ kind of movement in the last six years,” she told CIO Australia.

Conway, who works with early stage companies on commercialisation strategies and investment, is currently the chair of SBE Australia, which aims to help women ‘take the fear out of’ starting and growing a business.

Founded in 2012, SBE Australia is a not-for-profit organisation dedicated to supporting women-led tech companies grow and scale their businesses.

The organisation is looking for female entrepreneurs to join its Springboard Enterprises Australia Accelerator program as the 2017 alumnus joins the SBE Australia board.

Springboard alumnae include artificial intelligence company, Flamingo; career management platform, PlanDo; and mentoring startup, Mentorloop. Noga Edelstein is the alumnus who recently joined the SBE Australia board. She is theco-founder of home-services marketplace, UrbanYou.

Conway said the startup market in Australia is “a mixed bag,” warning women to stand up and take note.

“Many people are trying to capitalise on it because it is clearly a market, a developing market here. With that obviously comes a mixed bag. There are a lot of things on offer, and some are better than others,” she said.

“The government has its program, which companies can tap into at the federal level, which is all good. We have the RD tax incentive, which is great, and they are working on the angel investment structure, which is good.

“So things are heading in the right direction. But everybody certainly recognises that it is a flavour of the month phenomena and it will essentially trickle into a ‘quality versus quantity’ scenario over the next few years.”

Springboard into action

With applications for the accelerator program now open – and accepted up until February 23 – Conway said the goal is to help women overcome some key challenges they face when starting a business.

Battling “the fear of the unknown” and a general lack of confidence in overall abilities – particularly when it comes to ideas about money and handling risk – are worthy pursuits.

“Women don’t think big enough. When thinking about building a company, they are very conservative. They don’t’ want to overstate or overestimate. They want to keep it manageable, so that whole concept of scale scares them. And that’s what Springboard is for – to get them over the fear, and also to then provide the tools and the network in order to make that a more manageable process,” she said.

“We all know capital raising is a part of that. Again, getting over the hurdles with taking on capital is hard. We are raised to be conservative when it comes to money, and making sure we don’t spend other people’s money. It is an ethical moral we are all raised with. And that limits our vision, our ability to put other people’s money at risk, which is what you have to do to scale a company. There is risk involved and you just have to be okay with that.”

Helping to alleviate some of the pain points, Conway said the accelerator program gives up to 10 emerging, high-growth companies – with a woman or women in senior leadership positions – the opportunity to tap into a global suite of entrepreneurs, investors and top-tier business development experts to help grow their businesses.

Conway said there are 45 alumnae that have performed far above the Australian norm in the program’s six years of operation.

“With 85 per cent successfully raising capital post-program, we have seen $180 million go to these women-led companies, had two ASX listings, and three acquisitions. We know without a doubt that when women are adequately funded and have access to supportive networks they perform well. In fact they outperform. Our program creates an environment that builds confidence, knowledge and connections that is life changing for women entrepreneurs and their businesses.”

Mentor and role model

Reflecting on her career in IT, Conway said her passion for the industry has been built on top of her international experience traversing a number of industries including biotech, hi-tech, ecommerce and services.

Her key strengths include growing businesses, generating revenue, deal negotiations, and guiding companies through growth/change, team building and ‘customer’ focus.

Conway has been around the tech scene since 2000 in Seattle, U.S., at the peak and then fall of the dotcom era – and managed to find a wealth of support, despite being a woman in a typically male dominated scene.

“In Seattle in those days there were a lot of women going into the role of biotech, and bioengineering companies, which was quite unusual – and quite unique to Seattle,” she said.

“But when I came back to Australia in 2008 after a number of years I found that things in Australia were quite woeful when it came to the startup scene, the innovation scene, women in seniority and in business. So I was quite taken aback. Because I had had such support in Seattle, I was really convinced that I had to do something to change that dynamic.”

Indeed, her opportunity to shake things up arose in 2012 with the founding of SBE Australia and the Springboard program that year.

“In 2012, there was nothing for women in the innovation or technology space,” she said, explaining the goal of Springboard was to empower women to innovate and market their ideas.

“Our goal was to really to help women who were largely interested in tech, or using technology, to solve a problem, but would only get it so far and then not have the confidence or the knowledge of ‘how do I actually grow this thing and turn it into something globally relevant?’”

Looking back over the years, and the many women who’ve come onboard, Conway said she’s inspired by the ‘grittiness’ of the Australian business woman.

“Australian women tend to have been through the trenches and they have done a lot of things the hard way. They haven’t had a lot of money because of the lack of resources, but they have a great level of maturity. I think we have a lot to be proud of, and the women that are doing it, have done it in spite of everything around them. They have come out a lot smarter, have a lot more street smarts and are a lot tougher about business.”

Asked what advice she can give to women looking to take the next step in their entrepreneurial career, Conway said to take more risks.

“There are a lot of women who are in corporate situations, and working in tech especially, and who maybe don’t have the life or the future they had hoped – so the advice to them is to take a chance.

“If you really believe you have something to offer in your field, to do something meaningful or be able to solve a big global problem, and you have the skills to make that happen, then do it. The world needs solutions to all kinds of things.”