To a large majority of Australians, Steve Baxter is the guy on Network Ten’s Shark Tank. Beyond the TV spotlight, however, Mr Baxter has been a driving force behind the development of the country’s tech startup ecosystem since the age of 23, when he launched his first venture.
To name a few of his current roles, the serial entrepreneur is now a founding member of advocacy group StartupAus, founder of Brisbane-based tech hub River City Labs, and mission leader of Startup Catalyst.
Now he has a new role. Mr Baxter is preparing to officially assume the role as Queensland’s chief entrepreneur in October, taking over from Blue Sky Investments founder Mark Sowerby.
It might be another shiny new title that Mr Baxter can add to his lengthy resume, but he told InnovationAus.com it won’t be any different to what he has already been doing: investing in startups and mentoring entrepreneurs.
“It’s an honorary, ceremonial role that Mark Sowerby has done a fantastic role in,” he said.
The proud Queenslander said some of his early plans in the role would be to drive startup support ecosystem across Queensland, particularly in regional parts of the state where there are already several accelerator hubs setup – including in Rockhampton, Mackay, Bundaberg, Cairns and Townsville.
“Queensland is a very special state. More than half live outside of the capital city, so we need to get out to places where people are doing some really cool stuff, and drag those people in those communities to stand, listen, talk and network,” he said.
Having witnessed a fair share of successes and failures over the years, Mr Baxter said there are a few challenges that startups not only in Queensland but Australia continue to face.
While good deal flow might be one of them, the other is building quality entrepreneurs that are willing to fail and try again.
“In essence, I believe we lack very good deal flow. What we lack are really world-leading entrepreneurs who people are prepared to spend money on,” Mr Baxter said.
“We need more people trying. We need to encourage it and the deal flow generation will happen.”
He believes one solution to drive this is to start with education from an early age and to continue the conversation about technology and entrepreneurship right through to university.
Mr Baxter said the real advantage about encouraging entrepreneurship at a young age is that people are typically savvier and are less likely to have financial burdens like a mortgage or children. “We need to encourage lots and lots of people. We’re not encouraging enough yet. We need a hundred times more starting tech startups to get those successes that will reshape the economy of Australia.”
Although educating young people is only one part of that solution; Mr Baxter said the other is educating the older generation, who continue to criticise those entrepreneurship as a career.
“There’s a lot of cringe in old people, who sit there and go: ‘We want someone to cure cancer and address really huge social issues’, which we want to do.
“But why can’t we have Pokemon Go in Australia? Why can’t we have Twitter in Australia? These are amazing well paid jobs …that will give us the Twitters, the Pokemon Gos, which will produce millions that will fund the cure for cancer,” he said.
“Bill Gates is going to cure polio because he became stinking rich, and no government is going to do that. A rich guy is going to cure disease that government has been trying to cure for years.
“What we actually need is more people creating wealth and giving back.”
On the topic of education, Mr Baxter added it’s also a matter of reshaping the education sector so it is willing to “let go” of these young entrepreneurs, rather than seeing them “get sucked internally into the world of academia and work on small problems that don’t matter”.
“We need to educate more young people and get them so thirsty to be commercially successful and let them go,” he said.
In addition to this, Mr Baxter said it’s about changing the attitude of society and not punishing entrepreneurs who fail the first time.
“When an entrepreneur gives it a go, runs into a wall and the company fails, let’s not treat them punitively. They probably have five or six years of golden experience, and their next business is going to be ten times better because they had that failure. Right now we treat them like a bloody criminal, which is crazy.”
As for where he thinks government could make a difference in the startup ecosystem, Mr Baxter said they need to help set the right agendas to create the right entrepreneurial environment. He commended Malcolm Turnbull for having made a start on this, when the National Innovation and Science Agenda was announced.
“Ultimately, we can’t [rely on government]. I do believe there’s a market failure in general in this space, but we’re catching up. If we’re relying on government forever, then it’s just broken. It’s just an excuse for public service to get paid,” he said.
“Right now there is a gap, a market failure, being backfilled by government, which isn’t the role of government. Government needs to get the hell out of the way and let people get on with it.”
At state level, Mr Baxter said the Queensland Government’s Advance Queensland initiative is a good start, as it offers a range of solutions for the startup sector, from co-working spaces to grants, but reiterates it’s only the beginning of what needs to happen.
“We’re trying to fix the problem. There’s no one silver bullet here. We have to fire a silver machine gun to fix these problems. The chronic market failure is that bad in Australia.”
Mr Baxter’s insider’s tip though for any entrepreneur looking to succeed is networking, and doing it with the right people.
“You need to build the biggest, best network that you possibly can. You need to plug into the right people. This is it a pay-it-forward, give-first circle and if you abuse that then people won’t talk to you. If you’re a bad networker then you’re in trouble.
“If you’re a clueless person trying to suck the brain out and not give back, especially in a town as small as Brisbane, you’re going to get found out. People are going to stop talking to you.”