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It’s time to rethink our idea of the early-stage start-up

by Adrian Tan and Monica Wulff

· startup,smallbusiness,founders

Adrian Tan Kay Hee

Originally written for Inside Small Business Australia

In recent years, the early-stage start-up has become synonymous with idealistic and inexperienced 20-somethings downing red bull and free pizza. Yet start-up founders are more diverse than often portrayed, and research has found that they are commonly professionals between 30 and 50 years of age that have experienced a problem worth solving.

Adrian Tan Kay Hee and Monica Wulff WeWork Labs

Adrian Tan and Monica Wulff

Changing Perceptions

Fact is, early-stage start-ups have long experienced a perception problem. And, while writing off the burgeoning entrepreneur as a starry-eyed but ultimately misguided dreamer can seem relatively harmless, it’s important to realise the risk that this misconception poses for our start-up ecosystems, and the devastating effects it can have on entrepreneurship and innovation in an increasingly fragmented region.

Looking at recent events in Australia’s start-up ecosystem, such as the lessening of early-stage venture capital deals, hampering government policies, the roll-back of corporate innovation initiatives and the emerging focus on later-stage start-ups, it is clear that our innovation landscape is at the precipice of change. The effects of this are already evident on the global stage, with 2019’s Global Startup Ecosystem Report seeing Sydney drop six places compared to 2017, from 17th place to 23rd. Melbourne didn’t make it onto the top-30 table at all.

What this movement shows is what a lack of support for early-stage start-ups can do for stunting the growth of our vital innovation hubs. This is particularly problematic in a global marketplace where organisations are increasingly asked to compete on a global scale from day one. With more than 60 per cent of early-stage businesses likely to stop operating within the first three years of their start-up journey, ensuring that our entrepreneurs are supported in their path to scale is more important than ever to the growth of an innovative world-class economy.

Early stage is crucial

In order to do this, the first step is to reframe our idea of what being “early-stage” means.

Let’s remember that at one point, every successful start-up was “early-stage”, even Canva, Airtasker and Atlassian. Being “early-stage” is a crucial and necessary step to the evolution of any business.

Understandably, being a part of a start-up is exciting. It’s an energy-filled environment full of ambition and promise. But underneath the exhilaration of building something new and disruptive is the courage to tackle a problem and challenge the status quo. A start-up is also a product of people giving their time and resources to build something that their livelihoods depend on.

Expanding Horizons

Being part of WeWork Labs, we are exposed to the vast quantity and quality of startup-related activity happening globally and have been fortunate to be able to support the growth of numerous start-ups, and even enterprises looking to innovate like a start-up, across APAC. A trend that we are seeing is that start-ups are increasingly global from day one – whether it’s solving global problems, servicing a global customer base or collaborating with suppliers and development teams in other countries.

Support networks, such as ours, allow companies to meet this trend head-on, providing entrepreneurs with access to resources, insights and a global community to move beyond roadblocks like tricky cultural nuances, confusing local regulations and access to capital.

Developing a vibrant and globally connected start-up ecosystem is possible. More than that, it is crucial for the growth of a forward-thinking economy.

As the start-up landscape continues to change before our eyes, the great thing is that we can adapt and we can iterate. But in order to begin nourishing our ecosystems in this time of flux,we need to start by recognising the role that these companies play in courageously committing to our collective future.

Adrian Tan, Head of Labs – Pacific, WeWork and

Monica Wulff, Labs Manager – Sydney, WeWork

Adrian Tan Kay Hee