Startups never know ‘normal’

04/08/2020 - 10:00


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The first in a new series of columns focused on WA tech startup stories, drawing out lessons for business.

SpacetoCo co-founder Daniel McCullen. Photo: Attila Csaszar

Since the very start of COVID-19 restrictions, many of us have been yearning for a time when we could get ‘back to normal’.

Walking around the shops and bars, attending live sports and seeing the traffic on the roads these past few weeks, one might suspect things have indeed returned to normal.

This is dangerous thinking. Not only does it encourage the misinformed view that we have somehow conquered the virus (we haven’t), it suggests that we were interrupted temporarily, and things will now swing back to how they were (we weren’t, and they won’t).

No normal

Having spent more than 20 years in Perth’s startup scene – the first doing my own startup, the second decade advising, writing about and funding them – I’ve learned that ‘normal’ is not something startups deal in.

By their very nature, startups aim to disrupt an existing market. Checking in with some of them during the early weeks of the pandemic, there was an eerie sense of calm.

While an entire business had evaporated for some, most were carrying on as before, while still others (especially those in e-commerce) were busier than ever.

The COVID-19 situation was just another disruptive factor, one of many they have dealt with.

Just a few months later, those hit by plummeting sales seem to have found a way around their problems, having pivoted towards new, emerging opportunities. Being relatively small and nimble, they have been able to respond. It’s what they do.

Local community space-booking platform SpacetoCo is one example. Its whole business model relies on people booking spaces for meetings, events and parties. With those activities cancelled, SpacetoCo set up cul-de-sac concerts, allowed cafes to convert to workspaces (two people at a time) and connected trucks with people wanting fresh food delivered to food drop locations.

“Downtime was also a perfect time to roll-out the system for our local council clients,” co-founder Daniel McCullen said.

“It allowed them to get up and running, set everything up. August should be our best month ever.”

Based in Williams, ASX-listed regenerative food and farming business Wide Open Agriculture grew its online business six-fold in the period March to June.

“We had to pivot our operations into online, [and focus on] small portions with numerous new customers,” managing director Ben Cole told Business News.

“We’ve built new systems and hired new people, plus we are retaining our new online customer base as restaurants come back on stream.

“Key lesson: agility and diversity are essential to deal with crises.” Wide Open Agriculture’s share price has tripled since March.

Spacecubed is at the epicentre of the local startup community. It has run co-working spaces and programs since 2012 and recently launched its own platform.

“Our spaces were hit hard,” founder and managing director Brodie McCulloch said.

“We stayed open, supported our members … programs and events went online.

“It was the hardest I have ever worked, but the team pulled together and partners kept delivering. We’re now more open to a blend of virtual and face to face, and we’ve had great feedback.”

The Spacecubed platform is now being rolled out to other spaces across Western Australia and nationwide.

Pandemic lessons: What we have seen these past few months is a step-change in tech usage and acceptance. The tech was already there (thank goodness), but three things have been highlighted.

1) The world has changed. Get used to it. Don’t try to wind back the clock; the genie is well and truly out of the bottle.

2) We could have had all these benefits before. We could have worked more flexibly – sometimes from home, sometimes the office, and varied our hours. We could have used video conferencing, online shopping, Zoom events, telehealth … all before.

3) Look around you, and experiment with what other technologies are right in front of you that you can use to your benefit right now.

Another lesson might be to look at tech startups and imagine how their flexible, customer-responsive structure can make them so resilient, despite all the slings and arrows they take along the way.

As Charles Darwin discovered more than 150 years ago, those who adapt the best survive, and thrive.

• Charlie Gunningham is founder and principal of Damburst, a digital strategy advisory business.


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