Today Pollenizer turns 5 and it’s been one crazy ride.
We talk a lot about what we’ve done and what we’ve achieved. I got asked last night why we started Pollenizer and it’s a great question and I’d like to share some thoughts on my motivations.
The simplest reason was that I didn’t have a company or job at the time. I was contracting to a few startups a few days per week for not very much so I was open to new opportunities.
In January 2008, Phil, who was also contracting to some startups, emailed me and said “I think there is a bigger opportunity here.” My thoughts at the time, after spending 3 years working with 2 startups in Australia (Zapr and Tangler), was that it’s hard work. There were a few good people around, a few startups, a few events, and a few investors. It was highly fragmented, poorly organised and high risk. There were no real heroes or success stories other than the category winners (Seek, Carsales) and some dot com boomers like Looksmart. Companies like Sitepoint, Atlassian and Campaign Monitor were doing well but it was still early days. Looking at this landscape and thinking that there is opportunity there takes an entrepreneurial spirit.
“An entrepreneur is someone who pursues opportunities beyond their current level of resources.”
Well, that certainly summed us up then. We had no capital (Kazaa didn’t give us a big exit), no brand, no team, no systems and no platform to build on. We had a few startups we were helping, a few contacts and a few people saying “go for it.”
- – Help as many startups as we can, for whatever they can pay us and hope it’s enough to pay the rent.
- – Do whatever we can to help build the ecosystem. Support every event, connect investors, share everything.
- – Take some equity if there is the opportunity and build a portfolio.
- – Help create some wins.
- – Maybe one day (5-10 years) raise some capital to build more companies.
- – Maybe one day create enough useful content and tools to have an impact on the world of startups.
In my books, we’ve massively overachieved. We’ve done it bigger, faster and better than I could have dreamed.
We found lots of startups needed help and we learned so much from helping them. Early companies like 3eep, Lingopal, Linqia, Blurb and others gave us a chance and we worked hard to do our best to help them. I’d like to think we had a big impact, though I know that they didn’t all succeed.
We found a passionate group of others who were also working to grow the ecosystem and did what we could. Elias with Silicon Beach Group. Kim, Lachlan and Bart with weekly drinks, bootcamps and events. Mike and Scott from Atlassian, and Ben and Dave from Campaign Monitor sponsoring events. It took a lot of volunteer work from all these people but it really started taking off and is now so big and active that there are multiple events some nights, multiple incubators, multiple co-working spaces, lots of investors and some great companies coming through.
We took some equity for discounted fees, mostly 1-2%. None of which paid off but it was the start of a portfolio and our learning about caring about increasing value. Mogeneration was our first, real company that we helped co-found from scratch and I’m immensely proud of the role I played. Keith and Tom are succeeding like crazy after 4.5 years and are about to embark on their next phase of growth
We are perhaps best known for Spreets which from idea to exit was 13 months. It took a number of planets aligning for that to happen and we acknowledge the luck, but I think a lot of people massively underestimate the work it takes to create and take advantage of that luck.
- I met Dean 5 years earlier and we kept up our relationship. Getting to know each other and building up trust.
- Dean brought us Booking Angel when it had no money and we put resources into it at a big loss to try and give it the chance of success it deserved. It didn’t make it, but it did make Dean the impressive leader he was.
- Phil and the team worked hard on Booking Angel and despite the failure, Phil gave Dean the time for a bottle of wine and a long chat about other opportunities. That takes a chunk of faith, patience and an understanding that the failure of a task, project or business is not failure of the person. Dean, to his credit, kept his head held high and looking forward, giving him the courage to take another ‘crack at it’.
- Pollenizer had slowly, inch by inch grown a team of people willing to work for low salaries and in the chaos of supporting startups and bigger web clients. Like Clare Hallam, Jon Tyson, Oliver Maruda and Fleur Fletcher who were to be critical for making Spreets a success.
- Pollenizer had built up a good business servicing some bigger clients and had some margin to be able to invest time and team into equity ventures. Spreets was started with no money and we supported the full team for 3 months.
- Our lessons in startups had taught us a lot. We knew that the best way to de-risk a business is to pre-sell the product. We got Dean onto the phone day one and he sold a bunch of vouchers.
- We knew that the smaller and more focused we start with, the faster we will learn, the faster we will get it working and the faster we can get it really growing. We focused just on restaurants, just in Sydney and we built a product so focused that when we first launched we could sell vouchers but couldn’t send them.
- I’d met Chris Hitchen at an event in 2008 and we got on well. Chris was one of the first investors into Mogeneration and my respect for him has grown from there. Chris was asked by a European investor to run a group buying business in Australia but instead he referred him to Spreets. This gave Spreets the capital it needed to grow and use it’s fast learning to beat the bigger companies competing for the space.
- Pollenizer had worked on cultivating relationships with the large web companies in Australia from day one, including Google, Microsoft and Yahoo. We’d meet with them when we could and keep them up to date on what we were doing. It was this relationship with Yahoo!7 that improved our chances of getting interest in a trade sale from them.
- Pollenizer had also cultivated relationships with service providers in Australia, one of which was David Cooper and Damien Tampling from Deloitte. Damien was the guy that worked very hard to get the sale to Yahoo!7 through – and I tell you it wasn’t easy.
So, yep, there was some luck, buckets of it. But we worked crazy hard for many years to turn luck into success and anyone who calls it dumb luck has no idea what they are talking about and are disrespecting all the people I care about who made it happen. I won’t stand for it. We earned it.
We’ve made lots of mistakes, did a bunch of things the wrong way and had 100’s of ideas go nowhere and more than 10 businesses fail. That can feel harsh and tough to live with, but I know hand on heart that we always tried to do our best and our best by people. Every business Pollenizer works on is a partnership. This is a melting pot of emotion, ambition, work, never enough money, stress and failure. If it works, everyone is happy. If it doesn’t work, even with a good attitude to failure, there is disappointment and often anger. Why didn’t it work? Was it someone’s fault? Pollenizer has an approach and we have some lessons but it’s one of 1,000 ways you can start a company and it’s no guarantee to make something work. This has been hard to live through again and again, but it’s part of the game.
The Pollenizer Model
We’ve changed every six months. We are constantly pushing ourselves to make everything better. It’s very hard to live like that, and I appreciate how difficult this makes life for the people we work with but it’s critical to the very survival of Pollenizer.
When we started it was near impossible to get good people to work on Startups. We looked at y-combinator but didn’t feel the model would work here yet. We had to hire the team, pay them OK salaries, try to train and support them as best we could and make it work. 5 years on and the ecosystem has changed massively. Startups are more understood. We’ve had some wins, more champions, the events are working, some good people are working hard at Universities to make startups a career path. You can find great people who are up for the risk.
So we’ve refined the model again. The one thing that has always remained is that we will do a large amount of work on a small amount of businesses and do everything in our power to make it a success.
So many people are responsible for making it happen. I’m especially appreciative of the spouses, boyfriends, girlfriends, partners, friends, mothers and fathers of all the team, founders, investors, board, advisors and service providers who have endured complexity, challenges, changes and chaos.
Phil, my co-founder at Pollenizer, has worked so hard for so long. 5 years is a long time and the sacrifice he has continued to make week in, week out is super human. Work just gets done and I’m humbled by your determination to create.
Clare, our head of finance and operations has been with us almost from the start and is the engine that makes Pollenizer move at pace. She is also the conscience that reminds me of the importance of every person, in every team, in every business, every day. That’s not easy in a fast growing, ever changing industry.
Pierre, our product hero, who has pushed us to be better, spoken his mind and always just got the job done for four and a half years. He left us yesterday, travelling back to the south of France and I can’t tell you how much I’ll miss him
For all the people who have come in and out of Pollenizer over the five years for workshops, projects and businesses. You risked a lot and gave your all and I appreciate it
Amongst all of this I find the audacity in me to dream that Pollenizer will be thriving 10 years from now and will be 10 times bigger.
We’re looking to bring in another batch of technology investors into the ecosystem.