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  • River City Labs founder Steve Baxter reflects on the lessons and memories of a decade of Brisbane’s innovation hub

River City Labs founder Steve Baxter reflects on the lessons and memories of a decade of Brisbane’s innovation hub

It’s hard to imagine that it’s been 10 years since River City Labs was founded. How far has Australia come in those 10 years.

Looking forward to a quiet chat and a drink to reflect on the 10 years that have passed in Brisbane this week.

River City Labs’ journey over the roughly 7 years I owned it had all the elements of startup.

We had to raise money (my family’s capital, but nevertheless there was a deliberate conversation about funding), then find income, then raise money, constantly change the plan, measure, run and carry on.

lIn the end I left River Labs through a trade sale to the Australian Computer Society (ACS), ACS had a great vision to bring the River City Labs to more cities in an effort to achieve more than .

The RCL team in 2016

I wanted to take the time to list some of the things I learned on that journey and some ‘Best of’ moments, as well as the list of things we accomplished.

I left RCL because I ran out of ideas, the time was right and there were people with fresher ideas than me. It’s great that River City Labs has emerged stronger than ever during the government’s response to COVID over the past two years, certainly a testament to those who are now at the helm, as well as the grassroots community it was in.

The lessons

Just start. I say this often and was recently told it was hackneyed advice…so what! Unless you start just don’t know. RCL started by being careful and doing it anyway, we changed a lot, constantly, we had to do, most of the startups. Unless you start, you will not succeed.

The customer is always right. The only person who gets a valid vote is the one who pulls out their wallet and becomes a customer. Once you do business or do something, you get endless free advice, it’s helpful to listen, but remember who you work for – people who pay you!

You need the skills. Many of my approaches to startups and investments have changed over the years thanks to RCL, but one thing it hasn’t: you need the skills to do what you pitch. Your core team should at least be able to build and deliver version one of your startup without being dead in the water.River City Labs

Try many things. At River City Labs, we’ve tried so many different things, we started thinking we were a coworking space and eventually became a startup clubhouse, a meeting place for people doing something and people wanting to help.

We found out that the fat of the wheels of this action were events, bringing a lot of people together and trying to generate random collisions.

One such clash eventually became the team that is now CohortGo (a financial and other services company to incoming international students, also coincidentally the first member of RCL) formed from a meeting of founders on the floor at RCL, typifying what RCL was about bringing people and knowledge together for better results.

Best memory of the past 10 years

The most energy I’ve ever seen in the Labs was when Prime Minister Turnbull came to visit during an election campaign.

We had hundreds of people crammed into the labs, protesters outside and security inside.

It was memorable to me because earlier that morning one of the Fortitude Valley revelers had evicted their cheeseburger and fries over our front door the night before and it needed to be cleaned…there was hesitation everywhere…I finally did – as boss Are you never too important not to scrub the vomit off the front door!

The other memorable thing was to present Prime Minister Turnbull with a Queensland State of Origin jersey.

Best event in River City Labs

The second startup weekend in 2015 was a great event. Out of that event, 3 companies were formed that went into bigger things – Fun Captcha (now Arkose Labs), a cybersecurity company that has been exceptionally well funded and has great traction ever since; Advvy, an advertising technology company that has now departed, and Amity, a social media company that eventually got funding from global media players but was ultimately unsuccessful.

Back to the beginning 10 years ago

Not only was the weekend a resounding success for everyone involved, but our special guest was Prime Minister Tony Abbot, who spent more time than planned (to the anger of his aides) talking to the teams and really understanding what was happening.

Later in the day at a party conference, he said some particularly insightful things – (words along the lines of) “…that he had just come from an event where Australia’s future was being written by the actions and efforts of entrepreneurs.. .”.

A memory is of him talking to a team that suggested a platform to help journalists in some way, he finally gave the team his card with his personal number (later verified by one of them ) followed by the local head of the Courier Mail in Brisbane to get in touch and contact the team to see how they can help you – that’s networking!

Most impactful visitor

Tyler Crowley (2013). This trip was commissioned by Colin Kinner and Brisbane City Council’s investment attraction branch ‘Brisbane Marketing’. If one person was responsible for changing the way entrepreneurs pitched in Brisbane for the better, it was Tyler. Known for his online show This Week in Startups, this soft-spoken American came to town for a week and had a stunningly positive impact.

Best Program – StartUp Catalyst

This program was born out of the frustration of seeing really good young tech people finish their formal education and then go on to look for a job in a major bank or the public service.

I was frustrated because our young people were as good as anyone else in the world, but their horizons seemed too close – that had to change.

Addressing the crowd in 2015

The first program took 20-year-olds under 21 to Silicon Valley for 2 weeks (not a good idea in hindsight given the legal drinking age in the US, we changed it to 25 for the 2nd mission) and we toured all the tech giants, attended a StartUp Weekend and generally tried to make them out of work at home by showing what others were doing. We needed them to start things, not to do things for others.

StartUp Catalyst was not the original name, the first name was StartUp Ebola!

I wanted to make it clear that I wanted to infect these people with entrepreneurship and that they would come back to infect others.

I’m not sure how the StartUp Ebola t-shirts would have been received at US customs 8 weeks after the Ebola outbreak in the US, so we kept the name on the shelf and used the better name StartUp Catalyst.

StartUp Catalyst has done missions for future technology founders, missions for ecosystem leaders, missions for investors and more. We have gone to the US, England, Europe and Israel. It was a great program that continues to have a positive impact on those who participated.

The numbers

RCL was a great trip, over the 7 years we did quite a bit:

  • 459 entrepreneurs joined RCL before ACS took over;
  • We have hosted more than 480 events open to the public since 2012;
  • Our events have attracted more than 16,000 guests through the doors of RCL;
  • We organized 4 international delegations of similar innovation/tech/startup groups from Papua New Guinea, Malaysia, Israel and Nevada;
  • RiverPitch (the RCL series of investment pitching events) facilitated the introduction of 47 different Startups companies to more than 600 investors in 9 different investment events;
  • We have launched 1 world class accelerator program in collaboration with Telstra/muru-D with 4 cohorts;
  • Our work with youth included: supporting the KidPreneur program; Build My Robot and Lemonade Stand events and mentors for the popular CoderDojo program;
  • Our work with universities has included Griffith, Bond, QUT, UQ and QSQ, who supported their student startup pitch events as sponsors, judges and mentors, as well as giving several lectures and keynotes to their students on entrepreneurship, startups, capital raising and pitching;
  • We supported and hosted 2 Global International Youth Conferences 2014/2015, where over 200 international students took part in a one-week experiential Entrepreneurial trip to Brisbane;
  • We have organized and facilitated 7 Startup Weekend events, each with 100+ participants and a total of 75 companies launched in 54 hours;
  • We have supported Women in the Tech sector by organizing and facilitating 4 Rails Girls and 2 Django Girls events that collectively teach 320 women to code. Our Startup Weekend Women attended more than 90 women who launched 15 companies in one weekend;
  • RCL was home to 12 industry meetup groups that hosted regular monthly events. The combined membership and reach of those groups was over 9,500 people.

That may seem like a lot, but it was never enough. There is a race underway to capture the future of the connected economy around the world and places like RCL will help provide support for those who take risks to win that race.

I wish RCL all the best for the next 10 years and look forward to supporting some of the companies it helps with investment capital in the coming years.


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