Engaging with the startup community: in conversation with Reece Walker and William McCullough

We got in touch with Reece Walker and William McCullough, two lawyers from McCullough Robertson, to chat about their journeys. We talked about how startups have changed over the last few years, what support has meant to them, Startup Catalyst missions and their impact, as well as ways to get involved in the startup community.

In Conversation with Reece and Will

We had a conversation with Reece and Will and what you’ll see below is a summary of that conversation. We thought we’d briefly introduce them first for some context before launching into the good stuff.

Meet Reece Walker

Reece Walker

Reece Walker is a partner at McCullough Robertson and a director of Startup Catalyst. He is a leading capital markets lawyer and has extensive transactional experience in public and private capital raisings, mergers and acquisitions, and restructures. He has been a supporter of the startup community since before the word startup was in general conversation. If you think he seems pretty great based on that, you should definitely keep reading (and if you want to be really impressed check out this page)

Meet William McCullough

The 2017 Startup Catalyst Europe Mission cohort — Will is second from the right

William McCullough is a senior associate at McCullough Robertson. He specialises in information technology, telecommunications, intellectual property and competition law, and provides advice on privacy and other regulatory compliance issues. He attended 2 of our Startup Catalyst missions to Europe. You can see more about what he does here.

On to it

Now that we’re all introduced, let’s get into it.

Startups aren’t what they used to be

We asked Reece and Will what they think about how startups change and what that means.

Startups aren’t what they used to be: Reece’s take

We were involved in the space early on and we’ve continued that involvement so we’ve been able to see close up how things have changed. I can categorise that change over the last ten years into a couple of themes:

There is a more sophisticated and mature approach

Even though we’re dealing with early stage companies, there is an easier pathway to quickly inform them, quickly educate them, and quickly put them in connection with the right sorts of people that are actually going to drive them forward and move them from startup to scaleup.

There is a lot more shared knowledge

I think that’s where organisations like Startup Catalyst really led the charge. Allowing individuals to go to startup hotspots all over the globe and bring knowledge back here from more mature ecosystems has done a lot for shared knowledge. Startup Catalyst has aligned its mission to regions and types of economies that maximise the learning experience and what we can bring back and inject into the ecosystem.

The number of success stories has also meant that those with the stories have been able to share their knowledge with the communities that they remain a part of, and they do tend to remain a part of them.

Traction for a lot of the startups now is better because they are starting out with a solution in mind rather than just seeing where it goes.

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It’s less about apps and more about solving a problem

Australian startups generally have learnt to play things smarter.

The original concept of a startup in Australia was really “develop an app”. Nowadays, you’re seeing a lot of the startups that are beyond just that kind of develop-an-app mentality; we’re seeing that the traction for a lot of the startups now is better because they are starting out with a solution in mind rather than just seeing where it goes.

Startups aren’t what they used to be: Will’s take

The big thing that I’ve noticed — and I saw this in London as well as seeing it in Australia — is the rise of the scaleup.

Scaleups are also really exciting to work with…they’re starting to get a bit more serious and they need to be treated differently to your earlier stage businesses.

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The rise of the scale up

There’s an entire ecosystem that I would say sits within the broader startup ecosystem: the scaleups.

Scaleups are those slightly more mature businesses, typically your post-seed, pre-series A company. You would call a business a startup when they’re getting to be cash flow positive or at least getting some decent monthly recurring revenue.

They’re also really exciting to work with because maybe they’re getting into their first big commercial contracts, they’ve maybe got their first few employees on board, and they’re starting to get a bit more serious. They need to be treated differently to your earlier stage businesses.

Different support is needed at different stages

When we think of startups, we used to think of those very early stage businesses, possibly pre-seed and really not even at a minimum viable product level.

With those super early startups, often what they need is just a lot of mentoring and a lot of guidance.

Once they’ve reached the scaleup status, there is an expectation to see dollars in, protected Intellectual Property rights and privacy practices put in place. There’s really quite a lot we’ve been able get involved in, as we see businesses move out of that purely incubated phase.

Acorns to oak trees: being part of the journey

We asked Reece and Will what supporting early stage businesses means to them.

Being part of the journey: Reece’s take

We’ve got a phrase that we use: “Acorn to oak tree”. This summarises our ethos which is really about getting in on the ground floor with the startup companies and building those key relationships.

Get in at the beginning

It’s fairly rewarding: it’s an exciting journey to be on with these businesses as they grow, it’s exciting to see them progress through the different stages. There are a lot of different things they’re looking for and we involve different lawyers around the firm and bring in other professional advisers as well to meet those requirements at different times.

Sometimes the flow on work that we get is…through those broader relationships that we’ve forged in the ecosystem.

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There are direct and indirect benefits

Some of the companies that we’ve been involved in have gone on towards ASX listings or significant M&A deals. Sometimes the flow on work that we get is direct and sometimes it’s through those broader relationships that we’ve forged in the ecosystem.

Being part of someone else’s success story is a reward in itself

It’s those success stories (the listings and the acquisitions) that can help feed more success. Because we’ve been long time participants in the ecosystem we’ve had the opportunity to be part of some of those success stories which is tremendously rewarding. There are a lot of mature companies around the place and we do act for a number of those. But, from our perspective, the real interest factor for a lot of us is to actually see things grow. It’s always an exciting thing to be a part of that story and share in the success of these startups.

Being part of the journey: Will’s take

Support does have returns

An example is a SaaS based business that I’ve been looking after for a couple of years. They did some very small domestic work early on and we provided some early stage templates for them. We also did some hand holding to get them through those first commercial negotiations because they were negotiating with big companies quite early on.

Now they’re expanding internationally, so we’re helping them with some structuring, we’re doing fundraising for them, and we’re overhauling all their agreements to MSAs that can be used for multiple engagements — that’s good bread and butter work for us. What this means is that we can see good return quite early on in some cases.

Make an “investment” decision

In other cases, sometimes these businesses don’t make it and we have to factor that in when we’re making our decision as to the nature of the support we provide.

Where we get involved early on with startups, we look at them very carefully and — Reece and I chat about this from time to time — you sort of have to make your own investment decision.

Look at the people who have invested in them. Look at the people who are providing mentoring support to them in the ecosystem. Take a view based on that as to whether you give some mentorship or whether you offer more substantial support.

It’s difficult for any business to make ends meet when you’re supporting startups early on and sometimes you can do it but it’s not highly profitable work early on.

For us it’s part of the reason we get up and come into work.

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There is a bigger why

I might be helping out a business with commercial technology or privacy and they might call up with a really obscure employment question or real estate question or something that wouldn’t sit within my field. It’s fun to be a part of a big firm and just pick up the phone to one of my colleagues within McCullough Robertson and be able to say to that business: yes, we can answer this question for you — it won’t be me but we actually have the expertise to do that.

Other big firms might perceive this kind of work as being a loss leader but for us it’s part of the reason we get up and come into work.

Getting involved in the startup community

Reece and McCullough Robertson have been involved in the community for a long time. We asked for his thoughts on ways to get involved, for those who are interested.

In some ways, it can seem a difficult ecosystem to access because some of the participants know each other really well, it moves on at quite a fast pace, and there are lots of different events.

What do you want to achieve?

I think each organisation has to work out what they’re trying to achieve out of it and then tailor their approach to suit. Once you know what you’re trying to achieve, you can look at what events you’re going to try and access and which organisations you’re going to try and engage with. You can then figure out how you’re going to go about doing that.

Get on a board

In my case, for instance, being a director of Startup Catalyst is both a great contribution to be able to share skills. Contribution to boards and organisations has also been a great learning experience and a great networking experience.

Sponsor an organisation

Another form of support is being a sponsor of particular organisations. McCullough Robertson is a sponsor of both Startup Catalyst and River City Labs and various other organisations in the ecosystem.

Attend events

With events, you really have to think:

  • What is the right fit?
  • What am I going to learn from it?

There are a lot of events on and some of them will have more relevance than others. You’ll meet different sorts of people and it’s not until you try, that you work out what really works.

My suggestion is to go along to a few things. Typically they’re not that expensive in terms of what the corporate world is used to, in fact a lot of them are actually free events. You’re just really investing a little bit of time.

Head on a Startup Catalyst mission or nominate a team member to

There are a range of different missions now. Some of them are aimed at the founders and entrepreneurs, like the annual San Francisco trip, whereas some of the more recent ones have been aimed at investors in the ecosystem or they’ve been trade missions to a particular geography on a particular theme, like the Israel mission for agtech startups.

For these, it’s about connecting in the right way and sending the right people.

There’s no point for an organisation in signing up to this without being very considered about why you’re sending someone and who you’re sending. I think a huge part of the success for us is to have nominated someone like Will who:

  • has a genuine interest in the area;
  • is able to immerse himself in the mission; and
  • has a giving mentality

If you contribute and if you give, people will give back to you and see that as a genuine connection.

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Final thoughts

For us it’s been a longer term involvement and we have seen the rewards from that.

You can’t go into any part of the ecosystem with an attitude of just taking out. If you contribute and if you give, people will give back to you and see that as a genuine connection. You’ve got to actually put in before you’ll get out.

The Startup Catalyst effect

Will has been on two Startup Catalyst missions to London. London is home to over 70 startup accelerators and tech hubs. Startup Catalyst takes individuals over to expose them to this thriving ecosystem. We asked Will about the impact of the missions and his thoughts on how the UK had changed in recent years.

The unexpected impacts

I think when Reece pressed the button on me going on the London trips there was no real expectation. I knew it would help me in my establishment in Australia. There was also the aspect of getting to know some of the Australian businesses that were also on the trip.

But coming out of it, it’s had both a professional and personal impact on me.

The introduction that Reece made for me to Aaron (CEO of Startup Catalyst) and the two trips that I’ve done with the Catalyst mission to London have really enabled me — as someone coming in from the UK to a whole new area — to form lots of contacts with people with whom I speak quite a similar language and enabled me to personally take my career forwards in quite a cool way.

I now regularly receive introductions from other people (catalyst alumni) introducing me to their contacts which is absolutely fantastic. Many of those introductions have gone on to be good working relationships for me as well.

It’s pretty awesome to work with people who have been referred to you by word of mouth. It’s really really rewarding. I’m not saying that we give people better service, but you sure as hell give people the best service you can when it’s been referred to you by word of mouth. There have been some really material engagements, not just in relation to the startup or scaleup community but actually some sizeable corporate work as well.

The bigger story

Before relocating to Australia a few years ago, I was based in the UK where I used to do a lot of corporate VC work and, in doing so, I got quite heavily involved in the tech community and got a real flavour for some of the stuff that was up and coming.

It was good to be back in London and see how the UK startup ecosystem has matured since I was working there. It was also great to discuss with Aaron what’s going to be the next steps for the Australian ecosystem to mature in a similar way, talk about how we can be part of that and how we can shortcut the process to get a more sophisticated startup ecosystem in Australia. I guess this is part of the whole purpose of Startup Catalyst. It’s really cool to be on board with that and discuss what’s next for Australia, what’s next for Queensland.

See a debrief on the 2017 Europe Mission here.

About McCullough Robertson

McCullough Robertson Lawyers are a 90 years young organisation who have contributed to the startup community in a number of ways. We thank them for being an ongoing supporter and we acknowledge Reece Walker for his immense contribution as a director on our board.

Intermission: Why we’re doing this

Over the coming weeks and months, we’ll be posting pieces like this to showcase how incredible business leaders have found their way into the startup community, what their involvement looks like, and what it’s done for them and their organisations.

We suggest that you:

  1. Subscribe
  2. Learn more about becoming part of the startup movement and get oriented and intentional with your approach to the startup ecosystem
  3. Get in touch with us if you would like to talk about giving back in a way that builds your business

If you love what we do and want to help, the easiest way to support Startup Catalyst is by contributing to the Future Founders mission. If your organisation is interested in sponsoring a future founder (or a few), please take a look at our scholarship program or get in touch.

Get involved

We take groups of youths, startups, investors, corporates, and innovation leaders to international startup hotspots with the goal of transforming the startup and innovation landscape in Australia.

If you are interested in heading on a future mission, check out the upcoming program here.

All profits from the London mission mentioned contribute to funding our annual Future Founders Mission, where we take 20 high-achieving, technically savvy youths (18–29) on a sponsored two-week mission to Silicon Valley to expose, infect, and inspire them to be Australia’s next generation of future globally successful tech entrepreneurs.

The easiest way to support what we do is contributing to the Future Founders mission directly. If your organisation is interested in sponsoring a future founder (or a few), take a look at our scholarship program or get in touch.

Like what you’re reading? Tweet us!

Startup Catalyst: @catalyst_au
William McCullough: @willjeffmcc
McCullough Robertson: @mcrlaw

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