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The last week of October was always going to be frantic. Not only was this scheduled as the launch of Australia’s first ever Startup Week, Sydney conference series, it was bookended on Monday by the Telstra Digital Summit and on Thursday/Friday by SydStart – Australia’s largest startup conference. Peppered in-between were dozens of smaller meetings, workshops, events, opportunities and catchups. And work, always work.

SydStart, bigger than ever

This year’s SydStart was a big conference. Really big. Cramming 2000 people into the Sydney Town Hall, it felt like it had doubled in size (it probably has). At this scale, it’s no easy feat to find and connect with other attendees. In fact, it wasn’t until drinks at the end of day 1 that I found many of the people I had hoped to see during the event. And no wonder. Not only were the main sessions well attended, there was a hackathon running downstairs, pitches from the StartupBus program down the hall, sponsored talks in the exhibition space and plenty of people, ideas and opportunities around every nook and cranny.

And in case that wasn’t enough, businessman, Mark Bouris and Uber joined forces to launch UberPitch at SydStart – where Uber users with a startup idea have the opportunity to do a 7 minute pitch to “industry leading judges” in the back of an Uber. There certainly was a heightened buzz around the event.

Blasting through the startup keynotes

The lightning fast, 20 minute format used at the Telstra Digital Summit kept a heavy schedule rocking along. But this was not the case at SydStart. Some talks were shorter, some longer; there were no panel sessions or opportunities for discussion and feedback, and the day long agenda seemed to meander from topic to topic. The chatty, laid back startup-style somehow felt out of place on the Sydney Town Hall main stage – and the event suffered for not having a strong MC anchoring the proceedings and driving audience engagement. Yet despite this, there was plenty of value in the event and some great talks.

Lord Mayor, Clover Moore’s welcome speech was short and to the point. She touched on the Tech Startups Action Plan and the vibrant energy of the city. Reiterating the City’s commitment to startups through the speech, it was certainly a surprise to learn at the end of the conference that next years’ event would be held in Melbourne, with the event renamed StartCon.

Startup Weekend founder, Andrew Hyde set an unexpected tone with his keynote kickoff. Speaking passionately about the power of communities, he explained the important steps required to create a global movement, encouraged startup founders to focus on core values, and to give before getting.

Envato’s Cyan Ta’eed followed up with a gritty talk on the challenges of innovating even on the back of significant success. Founded in 2006, Envato now boasts over 5 million members and recently announced that it has paid over $300 million to its global community of designers and developers. But Cyan’s talk was not of massive success, but of the need to continually test, learn and iterate – explaining that the recently launched Envato Photos platform followed a familiar startup methodology yet still kept the team on edge for weeks before the first customers signed up.

The rapid fire founder of Freelancer, Matt Barrie, peppered the audience with insights garnered from years of deal making. He urged founders to remember that it’s best not to take money from venture capitalists, but then if you do, then to read the fine print in every clause and every detail in every contract.

Learning and education is a hot property at present. Grok Learning’s Nicky Ringland explained the declining rates of high school students choosing computing subjects and talked us through her startups early successes. Their focus on creating a compelling and engaging teaching experience garnered nods from around the room – but with a national curriculum now in place, code clubs being launched on an ongoing basis and a range of similar initiatives, I’m wondering whether we are seeing a mini bubble about to burst.

We clicked into full market mode, with the ASX’s business development manager, Rory Cunningham explaining the time frames, approaches and changes in thinking required to take a privately held startup into the public market. This seemed like a great talk that might have been better served to a select audience as a master class.

After lunch, Yellow Brick Road’s Mark Bouris stepped up the energy and storytelling. Sharing his Wizard Home Loans story, lessons from direct dealings with Kerry Packer, and the need to keep your eye on the business fundamentals, Mark also launched the Uber Pitch and dared the audience to get involved.

In the same vein as Matt Barrie, Christopher Koch, gave the audience a crash course in valuations in public markets. Balancing deep knowledge with great communication, he helped bring life to the story of market numbers in a way that I have never heard before. Well worth following up on the recordings if possible.

Jane Lu, founder of ShowPo delivered an interesting mix of story and power-packed insight. From the early mis-starts with her business (partnership challenges, faking it until you make it and more) to the stories of consolidating success with a small team, Jane is certainly not the average tech entrepreneur. And while claiming the Twitter handle “@theLazyCEO”, Jane strikes me as anything but lazy.

It was Pete Cooper’s understated talk that underlined the whole day for me. The original founder of the SydStart conference, he has helped forge a community of often disparate startup, technology and business interests. With an almost throw away line, Pete announced that he was “stepping back” to concentrate on his own business interests. But this decision marks a significant change in the ecosystem that will take time to work through.

The ever energetic, “Mr Focus”, Mick Liubinskas, powered the audience through the late afternoon, with exhautations and challenges galore. Prowling the stage like a an escaped showring panther stalking its unsuspecting prey, Mick challenged the founders in the audience to remain focused on their business goals while also going global.

Indulging in some drone geekery towards the end of the day with Goran Stefkovski, was fun and informative, but slightly off topic. After a heavy afternoon focusing on the business of startups, this talk took us back into the world of the passionate technologist – with some amazing videos of real world drone racing and surprising stats and challenges ahead for this emerging industry.

And the final session, featuring KimDotCom saw the Town Hall packed to capacity. Beamed into the conference via Skype, he talked briefly on the development of Meganet – a blockchain encoded internet that will be impossible to snoop. It was a slighly disappointing talk, but rounded out the event ahead of time.

Wrap-up

As an event, SydStart has grown from strength to strength. Riding the wave of startup popularity, it has now become a significant conference in its own right – and needs to improve its programming to grow its local and international reputation. I would suggest:

  • Professionally managing registration: The bane of any conference organiser’s existence is ticketing and registration. Major work needs to be done here – after all, it’s the first touch point for attendees and should be professional, slick and smooth.
  • Curating the show, not just the talks: There were no forums on the main stage during the day and no Q&A opportunities. The end-to-end experience suffered as a result
  • Dispensing with uneven talks: More attention must be given to the quality of the speakers and the subject matter of the talks.
  • Professional MCs for the win: A good MC will keep the event running to time. A great MC will transform the experience of the event. It’s time to invest in making this event not just a “startup event” but a “worldclass event”, and this is one of the ways to accelerate this.

It will be interesting to see how the move to Melbourne and the rebranding to StartCon plays out. With the considerable focus on making Sydney a hub for all things startup, this shift has the potential to undermine the momentum that has been built. But then, for an industry that talks up disruption, maybe this is the best possible outcome. Roll on 2016.