TheTall Poppy Syndrome Is Dead

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It was this, and other personal anecdotes delivered by the players in the Boulder startup community, which mark my first day on the Startup Catalyst Community Leaders Mission.

We were sitting in the boardroom at Techstars HQ, chatting casually with co-founder David Cohen. Freshly returned from a trip down under, he was engaging and constructive, recounting the serendipitous circumstances which led to his angel investment in Uber (at a $4m post-money valuation) and his vision for his firm. It wasn’t so much the concepts we were discussing that made such an impact, rather the context surrounding them. Allow me to explain…

“Celebrate failure” is a mantra of the startup world which is often misunderstood. Professor George Foster explained it best when we visited Stanford University last August on the student-focused Silicon Valley Study Tour: smart failure is to be celebrated. When the downside is affordable and you learn skills or expertise of value to future decision making then a set-back should be seen as an opportunity for growth. But the question remains…. how?

David Cohen recounted the first founder to “fail” in the TechStars Accelerator. The whole team held a wake for him, carrying him prone above their heads down Pearl Street to the sounds of revelry and celebration. The founder took his experience forward into a technical role at local startup Gnip, receiving equity and enjoying an exit in 2014 when Gnip was acquired for $134m by Twitter.

That is celebrating smart failure!

Earlier in the day we gained insight into the inner workings of Galvanize, one of a new breed of education providers targeting perceived deficiencies in the institutionalised public education system. Combining a startup environment with industry-targeted training programs, Galavanize Boulder is a 30,000 square foot facility housing 220 individuals in 75 companies. They additionally run courses pitched as a “finishing school” for tech workers. Their lead product, a $21k 24-week Web Dev program boasting a 91% placement rate at an average starting salary of $77k. The latest cohort of 29 students were completing their first day’s classes as we walked by, absorbing the atmosphere and patting the dogs along the way.

We also visited Spark Boulder, a student-focused coworking space created by CU students who were frustrated that nothing existed on campus (I feel fortunate that my employer is investing heavily in this area). As we look to the future of student entrepreneurship on campus I gained invaluable knowledge of the desires of students, not least the fact that the busiest time at Spark is 9pm-3am!

There was so much more I took in today, and I’ll reflect on my copious notes in the months and years to come. This is just day 1 of the Startup Catalyst mission, a group of 18 leaders of incubators, accelerators, coworking spaces, maker spaces and education providers from across Australia immersing themselves in the Boulder, Denver, San Francisco and Silicon Valley communities in order to learn and connect for the benefit of our local regions. A big shout out to Advance Queensland for funding 10 individuals from regional Queensland on this trip, and to Bond University for supporting this professional development opportunity for me.

Before I sign off on Day One’s reflection I need to explain my headline, that the Tall Poppy Syndrome is dead. We received many gems from our time with David Cohen at Techstars, one of which was an outsider’s view of our own ecosystem. He believes a limiting factor is the Australia-wide proclivity to shy away from acknowledging our own successes.

“I was in Melbourne,” he recalled ” and I saw that 99 Designs traces it roots there. That’s a great company! You should be proud of its success.” He observed that he had heard of the so-called Tall Poppy Syndrome and that we just need to change it. “Act like you want to become!” he challenged.

So here it is.

The Tall Poppy Syndrome is dead.

I’ve seen it. Progressive Aussies are proud of their achievements and use them to inspire others to raise the bar. I hear that some people still believe it exists, but it’s an out-dated view. Modern Australia is in the business of supporting its champions for common good. That is just the way it is.

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