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Start-up trends from across the ditch: A look inside The Startup Grind APAC Conference in Melbourne

Last week, the Melbourne Convention Centre housed The Startup Grind APAC Conference organised by Start-up Grind - the world’s largest independent start-up community -  in partnership with MYOB, and TEG Live. The event, a first for Melbourne and Asia Pacific, nourished the growing ecosystem of start-ups across various industries, who were mainly based in Australia, but also came from further afield. Namely, Canva chief evangelist Guy Kawasaki and entrepreneur in residence for Social Capital Jessica Alter, who spoke alongside numerous other acclaimed business people. Findlay Buchanan swam across the ditch to sit in on the action.

The two day event featured a series of short fireside chats and fervent keynote speeches, of which covered a range of chewy topics: the challenges of starting a business; grappling modern trends; debunking industry myths; enabling diversity in the workplace; building relationships and networks; dealing with failure; among a list of other topics for business larks to digest. The some 4,000 audience members who attended were mostly founders, or soon-to-be founders, who came with a mutual keenness to participate in the start-up community -  build relationships - and learn from their mentors.

The story of success:

Undoubtedly, Kawasaki represented one of these who has worked at the hands of Google and Apple, has published thirteen books, and is currently chief evangelist (a sugary term for brand ambassador) of Australian unicorn Canva. Prior to the event, at an opulent rooftop cafe - Luminaire - he raved about Australia’s surf, the lack of guns, mandatory voting, free regulation on domestic flights, and flat whites; “I love Australia”, he claimed.

Kawasaki remarked the key to unlock innovation - and support the start-up community - was to open up and welcome immigration.

“If you look at Silicon Valley it’s the first, second, and third generation Americans that created these great companies - it’s not those who came across in the Mayflower trust me, they are still drunk at Yale.”

He then confirmed the snide rumours about working with Steve Jobs.

“Everything you have seen read and heard it’s all true. But you have to understand the context. If you asked anybody who worked for him: would you do it again? The answer is an unqualified yes.”

“I am where I am because of Steve Jobs. He was a very difficult person to work for, very demanding, a perfectionist, and often irrational. He wanted a special chair made from Tibet and water had to come from the Himalayas before he would speak.”

“It may take twenty years but as you look back on your life, the boss, the mentor, or the teacher that was the hardest on you and pushed you the most, that made you cry and suffer, that’s the coach or the teacher or the mentor that was best for you. That was what Steve Jobs was for me.”

Interestingly, Kawasaki proceeded to debunk a few myths about Silicon Valley, he denounced the Valley was full of pixie dust, magic, and unicorns - he claimed, “it just makes more experiments than most other regions”.  

“What we do at Silicon Valley is throw a lot of stuff against the wall, some of it sticks, and then we paint the bullseye around it and declare victory.”

Traditionally, the notion of declaring victory isn’t accustomed to New Zealand culture. According to the TRA report of New Zealand’s six cultural codes: ‘Kiwis have little tolerance for arrogance and bragging – showing off makes you unrelatable and will earn you a good dose of tall poppy.’

Furthermore, the report depicts our proliferation of tall poppy syndrome in our dislike of showy sportsmen Jimmy Spithill and Quaid Cooper; and on the other hand, why we love the earnestness of Peter Burling and Richie McCaw. The report suggests we are now willing to take pride in our wins and successes, only when it is earnt.

In a separate interview with Idealog, Kawasaki urged New Zealanders to better show off their stories of success.

“People love proof points. So, the proof point out of Sydney came Atlassian, Canva, and Deputy, it doesn’t prove that Auckland point. But it proves you can be 6,000 miles away from Silicon Valley and build a very successful company.”

Political challenges:

Another elite figure who featured at the Start-Up Grind was Jessica Alter, who is well-known in Silicon Valley circles for her contribution as advisor and mentor at both Extreme Startups and 500 Startups; her time as Entrepreneur in Residence for Social Capital; plus her most recent start-up Tech for Campaigns, which provides tech expertise to Democratic campaigns following the election of Donald Trump.

Alter shared the political linkage between inequality in the workforce and the future of the work.

“I generally believe that civil and social unrest stand in some significant part from a lack of economic opportunity and mobility.”

She points to The U.S as the fourth highest inequality of any OECD country. And claims since the 1990’s it has undergone the greatest increase in income inequality and higher overall levels of inequality than any other G7 nation. Further she states that while unemployment is low, real wages have continually decreased since 2015.

These trends draw parallels to New Zealand, where recent reports show the networth of our countries richest have risen by 20 per cent, and the poorest have stood still.

Alter ties the widened levels of inequality to the prediction that over 400 million workers expected to be displaced by automation by 2030.

“Around the world a significant portion of the middle and low income groups in advanced economies who experience falling income are pessimistic about the future with particularly negative views about immigrants.”

It’s in these figures that Alter aims to home in on the full story of the future of work, and not just glaze over the shifts in technological change, but highlights the practical challenges for those stepping into the future of work.

Alter structures these issues into three pillars, “the first is the most obvious, understanding  where automation will take hold and what will the jobs be, where will AI come into play, and how will we train workers.”

“About 50 percent of people talk about the second pillar, the new systems and tools that will manage the changing face of work, whether it is remote workers or the gig economy - what we have now doesn’t fit and needs to change.”

“But what I realised is that almost no one talks about the future of workers. We have been so focused on work, we haven’t thought about the problems workers are having and what the opportunities are for workers that directly effect their ability to work - problems that affect companies ability to hire and retain talent.”

Asked what industries were most likely to change in the face of changing systems and technologies, Alter says, “There is a term in AI and automation called the three D’s: dirty, dangerous and dull. Where jobs are dirty, dangerous and dull is where you will see automation take hold first. It takes hold first in places where it is necessity. Examples being heavy manufacturing and farming.”

“Manufacturing companies who have adopted automation will tell you the same story: they couldn’t find workers to do the job.”

Another key theme Alter discussed was the need for diversity at all levels of business operations.  She reiterates the importance of immigration and shares how New Zealand could strengthen diversity in our business community.

“You must encourage immigration, not just the act of immigration, but managing how migrants settle and find employment. That is the number one way to encourage diversity. Also, in California we just had a law pass that requires public companies to have at least one woman on the board - that is setting the example for the tech industry.”

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