PP10: Annie Parker, CEO of Fishburners
Simon Dell: I’m here with Annie Parker, who is the CEO of Fishburners. For people who don’t know what Fishburners is, Annie, do you want to give us a quick two-minute about what you actually do?
Annie Parker: Fishburners is Australia’s first coworking space. We started in 2011, and our remit is basically to help any person who’s got that crazy ass idea of, “I’ve got this cool concept of how I’m going to change a business or how I’m going to innovate in a certain area. I actually don’t know how to turn it into a business, though, so I need some help on how to start off.” When you start with a new business idea, particularly if it’s something to do with technology and software, Fishburners is that place to start. We’ve got a coworking space in Sydney, one in Brisbane, and one in Shanghai over in China as well. What we do is we house all those amazing founders and try and help them figure out how to turn that crazy idea they’ve had into a business.
Simon Dell: I bet it’s total anarchy there most of the time, isn’t it?
Annie Parker: There’s a healthy balance of anarchy and getting stuff done. You’re going to get a lot of people who’ve got a crazy idea, but a crazy idea doesn’t necessarily attract investors or customers. You have to help them understand how they can turn that into something that they can put in front of a customer or an investor and turn it into a business. Because a crazy idea is one thing, but a business is something else.
Simon Dell: Do you find that the people that walk into the Sydney offices must differ wildly to the people that walk into the Shanghai offices?
Annie Parker: No, they don’t differ at all. I can give you the answer not necessarily from an Australia or a China angle. I’ve been working in the startup space for about seven or eight years now. And whether or not you’re in China, Germany, Ireland, the UK, Australia, every founder who’s starting out has the same problem. That same problem is not just “How do I get my crazy idea out of my brain and turn it into a business?” but “How do I make it so that it becomes a repeatable process such that I can continuously encourage people to pay for my product?”
Whether or not you’re in China, Germany, Israel, the US, or Australia is actually no different whatsoever. I know that it’s interesting to talk about the differences globally between different countries. I’d say 90% of the problems that startups face are the same the world over.
Simon Dell: It’s funny, because one of my second guests was the former editor of marketing magazine, a guy called Peter Roper. He spent a lot of time in China teaching there. He remarked the education system between China and Australia was vastly different. It’s interesting that when they get into that startup phase, that there’s a lot of similarities between the cultures and the problems that they face.
Annie Parker: Pretty much. There’s always going to be differences. Of course there are, no one is going to try and say that no matter where you come from, you’re always going to have exactly the same problems. It’s not a 100% analogy. But the analogy of a startup is that it’s going to be hard because you are creating something new. By the very definition of that, it’s not been done before. Even if it’s not been done before globally, it’s probably not necessarily being done before in the context that the founder is trying to launch it within.
So, if you take our concept of “What I’m doing is new”, by the definition of new, it means there’s no real understanding or process of how to do it. You just have to accept that as founders, you’re all breaching into the unknown. You’re all doing something a little bit differently. There’s no process for that. No one’s got the right answer, so you have to make it up as you go along. As exciting as that is, and as motivating as that is, it’s also quite disconcerting as well because there’s no right answer.
Simon Dell: It’s absolutely terrifying. I’ve started two or three businesses in the last seven or eight years, and I wouldn’t class them as tech startups or anything like that, but it’s terrifying. I look back at it today and I just go, “What was I thinking?” All this stuff I know now that I didn’t know 10 years ago, it’s hard. It really is hard for people.
Annie Parker: Of course it is, and it’s not for everybody, and that’s okay, right? You need to take into account the decision that you’re making as a founder. Whether you’re starting a people agency, or you’re manufacturing something, or whether it’s a tech startup. By the definition of you doing something new, that doesn’t have a rule book and doesn’t have a Bible of how you do whatever it is that you’re about to try and venture out to do, the word venture is an adventure by the definition of the word. So, it’s going to be different; no one has the rule book for it. Be prepared for the unknown and be prepared for it to be hard.
But also be prepared for it to be completely exciting, and overwhelming, and incredibly cool at the same time. You don’t get the incredibly cool and the overwhelming without a bit of heartache.
Simon Dell: We’ll talk a little bit more about that whole mindset and some of the lessons you’ve learned over the past years a little bit later. I just want to take a step back to Manchester University. I have to say, I’ll be completely honest, I’ve never actually had a night out in Manchester. But everybody tells me it’s a big night out.
Annie Parker: Manchester, as a university student, it’s got about five universities within a very short or small catchment area. That’s a lot of students. You are going to have a good time no matter whether or not you’ve planned for it. It’s one of those beautiful cities where it’s really, really cool. It’s a good northern city, lots and lots of Manchester spirit of people just wanting to make sure that you’re okay, and you take care of others. At the same time, you’re in this massive melting pot of cultures and backgrounds. It’s so much fun. I loved it.
Simon Dell: I’m 44, I’m three years probably ahead of you, so what would have been going on in Manchester back then?
Annie Parker: It was the height of the hacienda. Almost on the back end of the hacienda, actually. You’ve got that massive Manchester vibe, crazy kind of brit pop. But at the same time, there was the undercurrent of a huge gay and lesbian scene, huge. If you were a gay or lesbian person going to university, you went to Manchester because of that. It was the place that you would call home. I went, in my first year of uni, I think at least three of the girls came out as gay when they first got there. I loved that. I felt that was amazing that they felt so liberated, that they could finally admit who they were, and what made them comfortable, and what made them who they were.
I’m not gay, but I’m massively affiliated to people genuinely embracing what made them who they were. That’s something that, no matter who I am now, being at the age of 41, I can consider that to be a huge tenet to my own personal being. That was a huge part of my first foray into university, it was realizing that people went to uni to figure out who they were or to embrace or have the opportunity to embrace who they might be. It’s that part of it, and then there was this weird extra part for me where I, believe it or not, decided that I would enlist in the British army. It’s a ridiculous thing to go and do.
I’m 5’1″, so I’m not what you would call army build, but I went into what was the Territorial Army. They have this wing or unit within the Territorial Army. It was specifically designed for people that were in university, so potentially going to become future leaders. So, we were trained to the offices.
Simon Dell: I was very aware of… I knew some people at Southampton University who did the air cadets version of the army thing that you were doing, so they were in the Air Force One.
Annie Parker: It’s one of those sorts of things where I had no idea, or no understanding, or even thought process of that’s what I might do while I was at uni. I remember I went into [INAUDIBLE 00:32:34] and wandered around with different folks going, “Join our club!” There was this group of folks who looked totally chill with the world. They’d got lots of photographs behind them on rafting, and white water rafting, and climbing.
And I went over, and I had a chat to them, and they just said, “Oh yeah, we’re part of the office training core.” It’s a part of the Territorial Army, and it’s something that is paid for if you get selected to be part of it. You’ll get a wage and a salary. But at the same time, you’re going to have to do some pretty interesting things like being quite active at weekends and doing some other stuff outside of your course.
And I thought, “That sounds interesting. I’d like to do something that was outside of my course anyway.” And one of the girls I’d bumped into at uni, we both went down and did the Selection Weekend, and it was hardcore. We ended up doing… Can you remember a show called… Gosh, it was one of those ones where at the end of it, they did an assault course.
Simon Dell: Yeah, what was that?
Annie Parker: I can’t remember what it’s called now. And there were loads of quizzes all the way through. So, there’s lots of intellectual quizzes, and all that kind of stuff. And at the end of it, they had to do this hardcore assault course. Well, that assault course was actually the assault course on this army intake. Krypton Factor, that’s it. So anyway, I’ve done the Krypton Factor assault course. And I got to the end of it after doing a 15-mile run over whatever the hell it was.
I was a broken person. I was 19-year-olds going, “I don’t know why I’ve just done this to myself. It’s ridiculous.” And at the end of it, all of these girls and guys who are part of what was the Manchester and Salford Office Training Corps picked me back up, took me to the bar, bought me a pint and said, “This is our club. This is our family.” And I went, “Oh, I think I could like it here.” I was a broken girl, but they looked after me, and they took me under their wing, and they took care of me. And I thought, “I love being part of something bigger. I love being part of something that’s not just about getting a degree. This is doing something a bit different.”
Simon Dell: It’s funny that you then ended up doing, as part of your career later on, a role which involved retention and loyalty. I’m guessing one of the things that you learned from that whole experience is that concept of loyalty, and being in a club, and being in a group of people. Do you think that was intentional? Do you think that was just… It just so happened that’s where you ended up?
Annie Parker: Definitely not intentional. You know that Steve Jobs’ commencement speech that he did with Stanford. I can’t remember how long ago it was now, but one of the summaries of the speech was you can’t connect the dots looking forward. You can only do it looking backwards. I completely agree with that sentiment. Nothing in my career makes sense when you look at it in the moment, looking forward. It only ever makes sense looking backward. Particularly that role, moving back into a commercial role at O2 and looking after retention in the customer base. I’ve never done it before.
I’ve actually been a consultant for Capgemini, and I was advising them on what they needed to do next. One of the guys who ran the team, a wonderful guy called Peter Rampling said to me, “So, you’ve written the advice. Do you feel confident enough to come and deliver it?” And it was that kind of a challenge of what you’re made of. “Where’s your money? Is it in the same version of where your mouth is? Come and help us make it work.” I’m an absolute sucker for, “Thank you for reminding us of what the challenge is. Do you want to show us how you’re going to do it? Do you want to prove to us that it’s possible?” And I’ll go, “Yes. I have this.”
Simon Dell: There seems to be a theme coming through here straightaway.
Annie Parker: I’m quite a simple soul, really. I’m quite easy to read. I can’t help but not want to try and fix something that somebody says is unfixable. At the time with O2, they had a customer churn rate of… And by customer churn, I mean the number of customers that they had signed up to their contract base. It was somewhere close to 30%. So, if you’ve got a contract base, a third of which are leaving you every year, that’s like haemorrhaging people. It’s not good. At the time, Vodafone in the UK were global leaders at about 18%, and everybody was going, “How do we be Vodafone? How do we do that? How can we do that?”
I’d come in as a consultant. And obviously, consultants are always given this pretty horrible thing of, “Well, you sold us a strategy, but can you actually deliver it?” That was the challenge that Peter Rampling gave me. I went, “Alright then, I’ll give it a go.”
Simon Dell: I can imagine O2. Nobody really loves a telco. They all struggle, but how did you address that? When day one, you’re looking at a 30% of your customer base leaving every year, what do you do to tackle something like that?
Annie Parker: First thing that you realize very quickly is that there is literally no silver bullet. There’s no one thing you can do to fix it. You have to accept that this is going to be a slog. It’s going to be a couple of years and it’s going to take time. The other thing you need to realize as well is that you’re not meant to have all of the answers by yourself. You need to go out to different parts of the customer experience and figure out where are the most broken points that I can fix quickly or equally. Where are the most simple solutions that I can solve quickly so I can kick a few goals and start getting everybody really motivated to carry on to go and fix the longer-term problems?
What I realized really quickly was that the biggest opportunity sat in the call centre which, not a particularly sexy answer to the question. Everybody’s hoping that you can come up with a marketing solution or a new customer proposition that you can charge them more for less. It’s never going to happen because you’ve got millions and millions of customers. So, you can’t please everybody with one proposition. What you need to do is fix it the other end. So, in this example, I literally camped myself up in the call centre for almost the best part of a year and realized that they were the people that had the opportunity to save the customer before they left.
So, instead of hoping that everything could be fixed by a proposition upfront, I realized that all of this sat with conversation, with speaking to our customers and understanding why they were pissed off or upset and dealing with it. What we found was, actually, our call centre could fix most of the problems, as long as we get them the flexibility. So, we introduced a different system which gave them, depending on the value of the customer… And of course, that’s always got to be implemented because you’ve got to make it financially sensible, but we gave them flex and said, “Here’s your window. You could give them £20 or you could give them £100. That’s your window.”
The closer that you can get it towards a midpoint, the better. But if you need to put £100 in to save your customer, go do it. That empowerment was extraordinary. What we found was that folks in the call centre knew exactly how to save those customers because they spoke to them every day. They understand or they understood what hacked them off. They put a £50 deal in to save them when they needed to, or they put the £100 in when they needed to.
And by giving really smart people who speak to your customers every day the empowerment to save them and give them the flex of that window, we not only saved a chunk more customers, but we are actually more efficient in doing it.
Simon Dell: I had a conversation the last master class I did with a friend of mine. We talked about giving staff the flexibility to make those decisions. We were using Southwest Airlines, and the freedom that they give their flight attendants to spice up the safety routines. Any other airlines, that would scare the crap out of them, giving staff that kind of leeway. But it’s amazing that what happens when you do that and you do it properly, that it can absolutely change your business, as it has done with Southwest Airlines.
Annie Parker: We went from being that 30% haemorrhaging customers, we went down to 11% in three years. We became a global leader on how to deal with supporting customers, and making sure that they got value, and making sure that they didn’t ever get to the point where they wanted to leave in the first place. I was really lucky, by the way. I wasn’t just all about that particular solution. I guess there’s no silver bullet. At the same time, O2 in the UK had exclusivity over the iPhone, which obviously, in Australia, that never happened.
We also had the O2 Arena which got turned from this massive white elephant of the Millennium Dome into one of the world’s best global concert locations. We got tickets that we could give to customers. We did the same with Arsenal football club and the England rugby team. We had all of these different assets that we could give to our customers to say, “Thank you for being with us” or “Thank you for putting up with us when we’ve made a mistake. And we apologize for that, but here’s our contribution towards saying we’re sorry or saying “Thank you for being with us for the last five years.'” And what we found was, often times, it’s not just in the price of the product they’re buying. The value comes from feeling recognized.
Simon Dell: Yeah, it’s spot on. I think that loyalty thing, sometimes, it doesn’t matter what you’re giving them. It doesn’t matter the cost and the price associated with it. It’s just the fact that they feel that someone has paid attention to them and is almost speaking to them directly, as opposed to that they feel that they’re chatting to a brick wall of a brand. So, just to sort of take a step back. The other thing I wanted to touch on was the work that you did with Vodafone. Obviously, I suspect after you moved from Vodafone to O2, even though there was a Capgemini in the middle of that, I bet nobody from Vodafone ever spoke to you again. Was it like that sort of love-hate thing between the two brands?
Annie Parker: A little bit. I remember when I eventually made the right move from Vodafone to O2, everyone’s going from big red to big blue. I went, “They’re actually the same.” You’re right. They’re a different colour, but it’s the same company underneath. Later on down the line, 20 odd years later, my brother works for Vodafone. I’ve got loads of mates that still work for O2. At the end of the day, I think what you’ve got to reconcile with is not one telco against another or anything like that, but more, “What difference did you make whilst you were there?”
Simon Dell: On your Vodafone stuff, you did some work in that new product development. I want to get an understanding of how important you think that is to an average business. Now, obviously, you’re in a startup space, so pretty much everybody, a large amount of people you’re working with is purely new product development. But do you think there’s a place for MPD in every business? Should every business be looking at trying to develop new products?
Annie Parker: Yeah. If you’re not looking at what’s happening in the future, you’re not safeguarding your own existence. I think the second part is, if you want to keep really talented people in your company. Naturally talented people want to be thinking about what’s new and how they can make an influence and an impact on your own industry and business. So, if you’re not careful, then you will lose those great people and you will lose those opportunities to develop your business. There’s some practical consideration of that.
I think if I was a leader of any company though, whether it be a small, medium business, or a large, global corporate, if you’re not thinking about new product development, then you are genuinely almost putting your own business into a category of, “I don’t care what happens to it next.” I think I’ve already said: I care about making sure I leave a legacy and making sure that I leave things better than I find them. By definition, new product development, or new people development, or new category development within your own industry, it’s important to be on that axis. Otherwise, you’ve run the risk of your business not being here in 5 or 10 years’ time. That makes me feel sad. I don’t like being on that other side of things, to think that I was a reason why a business didn’t or isn’t here anymore.
Simon Dell: You made another good point just there about that new people development, is it doesn’t necessarily always have to be about creating new products and things like that, but developing new people and bringing new people to the front of your business is equally as important as developing new products. I think sometimes, when you’re in a service-based business, if it’s… I keep picking on accountants in these podcasts. But if you’re in a service-based business, sometimes, it is hard to produce new products, but it’s not hard to be producing new people that can help grow your business.
Annie Parker: Absolutely agree with you. And innovation shouldn’t just come from product or even people. It can come from process. It can come from a slightly different way that you service your customer. Innovation doesn’t have to be big. It doesn’t have to be, “I’m Steve Jobs and I’ve just created the iPod or the iPad.” You know, “I’ve just created a new category of a thing that never existed before.” And all of us are going, “Wow, I’ve got one and I’m glad I have one. I don’t know what I did without it.” I get that. Not everybody can think like that and not everyone should.
But what we’re all capable of doing in every single thing that we do every day is to figure out, “How could I make this a little bit better? How could I make this a bit more efficient or just slightly less painful?” If that’s really what innovation is, it’s actually not the big ticket items. Innovation is what we do every day. How can we make things just that little bit better, a little bit more efficient, a little bit more fun, a little bit more interesting? And if that’s what we can do, just that little bit more every day, then that’s how we get those big steps towards innovation in the future.
We should recognize that most of the big steps forward that we’ve had, certainly in my lifetime and yours, have come from small steps, not the big ones. The small steps are just as relevant.
Simon Dell: It’s funny you say that because, again, when I look through where you’ve been, the roles that you’ve been in, is that none of them seem a massive jump. It doesn’t seem like you’ve let from one industry to another industry. Everything seems to be at a sensible progression of steps to get you to where you are. Is that how you feel looking back on it?
Annie Parker: Like I said, that Steve Jobs speech of looking backwards, the steps were sensible at the time, they weren’t. So, the story goes, when I left working in the marketing space for O2 in the UK, I actually went and climbed Kilimanjaro with my dad, my brother, and five friends.
Simon Dell: Just one weekend? Just went and did that?
Annie Parker: I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life, so I filled it with climbing a mountain. It was perfectly reasonable.
Simon Dell: Fair enough. Totally sensible, yeah.
Annie Parker: Reasonable. So anyway, I went off and I climbed the mountain. It was hard and all those different things. I got to just before the summit of Kilimanjaro, and I realized… By the way, I got horrible altitude sickness. I was throwing up every 30, maybe 40 seconds. It’s horrible. But there was a part of me that just went, “I am not sodding well stopping.”
Simon Dell: There we go. There’s the theme coming through this again from that part.
Annie Parker: “No, I’m not stopping.” So, I carried on. We got to this part where you could see there’s a sign at the top of Kilimanjaro, and it says, “Congratulations. you’ve reached the roof of Africa. It’s 5,495 meters” or whatever it is. And it says it’s a hooray peak, you’ve reached it. And you can see that sign from about 300 meters away. And I saw the sign, and I thought I would get this sort of adrenaline hit of, “I’m going to sprint or maybe walk slightly faster. I’m going to get there.”
And what actually happened was I saw the sign, I sat down, and I sobbed. Absolutely sobbed, because I realized that, in just a few hundred meters time, this thing that had given me my emotional support, the reason why I was getting up in the morning, would be gone, and I had to go back to a job that I didn’t love anymore. And I knew I didn’t love it, and I hadn’t loved it for a long time, but I’d plugged the gap with, “Let’s go climb a mountain.” So, I climbed the mountain, kind of got to the top and realized I was not just done, because I was kind of spent, but I was done. I’d done it and I just couldn’t think about going back to my old job. So, I texted my boss and I quit.
Simon Dell: From the top of the mountain?
Annie Parker: Yeah. Turns out there’s coverage, there’s signal at the top of Kilimanjaro.
Simon Dell: Was it O2 up there?
Annie Parker: No, it was an African telco, of course. But yeah, it was carried by it. And it was a funny moment where I realized, “Jeez, it’s up to me to figure out what I want to do. If I can’t outsource putting a career together and expecting that somebody who is my boss will put the right thing in front of me…” So, I’d quit. I had no idea what I was going to do when I got back. The rest of the story, which I’ve actually not told before, by the way. So, here’s a new one for you.
I got back to the UK. O2 at the time sort of rejected my resignation, which I felt was interesting because it was mine to give, not theirs to accept. Anyway, we got to this point, and there was this one marketing conference where my marketing director at the time was quite formidable. She’s an extraordinary leader. Sally Cowdry I think is now at… I don’t know where she is now. She’s worked for Camelot, so I don’t know where she is now, but she’s a phenomenal marketer. I learned a huge amount from her.
Anyway, we were in this room. And we’re also, at the same time as being at a marketing conference, it’s an Apple announcement day. Now, anybody in telco will tell you that when Apple announce a new hardware, whether it be a handset or a laptop, everybody in the telco industry has to just sit there and go, “How the hell do we support that?” Because they don’t tell you anything in advance. Anyway, we start there going, “Crap. It’s this much money and we didn’t expect it was going to be this expensive.” I remember Sally lent over the table towards me and said, “So, that customer proposition that you’ve been worked on in the last nine months is probably not going to work out now, is it?”
And I remember having this slight, out-of-body experience where my response was, “Over my dead body.” And I realized, at that moment, that I no longer cared what my bosses thought of me. I cared more about doing the right thing. Now, admittedly, as Sally will tell you if she was in the room, I also got a little bit drunk after that and got a bit leery. However, she cut me some slack the following morning and said, “You stuck up for the customer and I thank you for doing that.” But I realized quite quickly after that scenario of… I was quite willing to put my entire career on the line with this particular leader and go, “No. I’m not doing that.”
And it was quite an interesting moment. It was a mix of, I knew that I was no longer personally manifested towards that particular career, but I’d also lost my personal attachment to the customer and the product. I knew I needed to leave. I knew I needed to go. What was quite paramount to me, was I genuinely love work. I love my team. I love what I do. I always did even back then in the telco space. And the fact that I was willing to put my entire career on the line and do something quite so verbally stupid, as to tell a leader, “Over my dead body”, was kind of an interesting moment.
Simon Dell: I can imagine. After that, that took you into the accelerator programs, Wayra and the muru-D programs. That, obviously, somewhere along there, got you to Australia. What on Earth brought you to Australia?
Annie Parker: Honestly, serendipity, total luck. So, after that moment, I had my shouting match. Sally and I apologized the following morning. The following day, I resigned again and said, “Look, this is done. I’m quite obviously a bit of a terrorist and that’s not helpful to everybody, so let’s just call it what it is.” I was leaving, and then Telefonica, who owns O2 in the UK, announced that they were going to launch a startup program. And the guy that was going to go and be the director of it for Europe just also happened to be a person that knew me quite well from O2 as well.
He just said, “Look, you’re leaving anyway. Come work for me for six weeks. If it doesn’t work out, no harm done. If it does, then we can have a conversation.” 18 months later, I was head of operations for the whole of Europe for that entire program for Telefonica. We had seven accelerators across Europe. It was so extraordinary. I loved every second of it. I wasn’t even remotely looking at another job. And a person who was one of the mentors in there, the program in London, said, “Look, a mate of mine’s visiting from overseas. Can you do a tour?”
So, my usual tour is about 15, 20 minutes, and I do a tour around the accelerator. I usually introduce people to one or two startups. So, I did that. At the end of it, I said, “By the way, who are you and what do you do?” And he said, “My name is Rick Ellis and I run all things media for Telstra.” And at which point, I remembered myself that I love Australia deeply and I’d always wanted to work here, particularly Sydney.” And I went, “Okay, that’s interesting. Is there anything particular reason why you’re here?” And he said, “Well, Telstra’s looking at launching something similar. Do you know anybody that might be interested in helping us out?” At which point, I ripped off my metaphorical arm and smacked him around the head and said, “Pick me.” That’s how I ended up. That was a conversation that happened day one. Three weeks later, I came over to Sydney for interviews. Two months after that, I moved. It happened very, very quickly.
Simon Dell: There’s about a thousand questions I have for you throughout that time. I just want to get an understanding of… In that time with Wayra and all the other organizations you’ve been involved with, you see a lot of startups. If a startup walked in front of you today and said, “What’s your advice, Annie? What’s the first things that we need to do?” Are there some things that you just go, there’s boxes that have to be checked before you take a business seriously or a startup seriously?
Annie Parker: Yes, actually. There’s probably three things I look for. The first thing I look for is, what’s your association to the problem that you’re trying to solve? The reason why I mention that is you could get slightly excited about Bitcoin right now, for example, or maybe artificial intelligence, or machine learning. All of those sort of things are quite hot topics in the startup space. But if you don’t care about why you’re trying to solve that problem other than the potential of becoming a million-dollar or a billion-dollar founder, then when it gets hard, you’re probably going to tap out.
As a mentor and investor, I want to invest in people who are in it for the long haul just as much as I am. So, first thing is, how weathered to the problem that you’re trying to solve are you? That can actually come from a… I’ve spent five years in this industry. I’ve seen people banging their heads against this wall for so long. I just want to fix it. Right through to, “A family member or a friend has suffered from cancer” or has a personal affiliation to the problem. It doesn’t always have to be a business person. It can also be a personal reason.
The next thing is, I want to see founders who are flexible enough to accept feedback and humble enough to realize that they don’t know everything whilst have a genuine belligerence of, “Do you know what? I know that’s what you just told me but I’m going to go do it anyway.” That’s a horrible/impossible balance to try and reconcile, because by the definition of it, you don’t know how to tell someone to be belligerent. And also, you can be a belligerent idiot. You can be a belligerent wonderful person, but you can also be the idiot at the same time. So, that one is a hard one to try and navigate through. Most times, it comes down to the emotional intelligence of the founder.
The last one, and this sounds dull as everything that I could possibly tell you in your entire life, but if you can’t run a business, if you can’t figure out how to make sure that your dollars are going to get you from the end of today to the end of tomorrow, or the end of next month, or the end of next year, it doesn’t matter how good your idea is. It just won’t last. You can be the most exciting individual, wonderful leader and founder. But if you can’t turn this into a genuine business, all bets are off. There’s the balance of, “I want you to be weathered to the problem. I want you to be inspiring and also slightly belligerent but humble. I also want you to be able to manage the cash flow.”
Simon Dell: You’ve probably picked my three personal problems from the past six or seven years. I think number three is such a vital one, one that I’ve seen.
Annie Parker: It’s a killer.
Simon Dell: Some people who come to — I’ve met with ideas and have got no idea… And one of the things I often say is, you don’t necessarily have to run it to be able to understand how to run a business. But you then you have to have the humility or the acceptance of hiring someone or working with someone who can do it for you.
Because if you’re no good with that sort of side of things, understanding cash flow and those, you need to have people with you that are good at those kind of things. I beat myself up about that all the time for the past seven or eight years, because those are things that I should’ve picked up.
Annie Parker: It’s the part of it that isn’t most exciting. It’s not making the vision become bigger and better. It’s dull, right? Filing your taxes every year, it’s fucking dull. No one wants to do it, but it has to be done. Because if you don’t do it, then you don’t get to go and do the next big thing. I get it. I understand that it’s literally the thing that you would never want to do in a million years. But if you don’t do it, then you don’t get to do the next big thing. I think a lot of founders get quite the old magpie syndrome of, “Oh, it’s the new shiny thing over there. I want to go and do that next.”
You have to earn the right to go and do that. You don’t go and do it because it’s the next shiny thing. You earn the right to do it. I think if I could give any advice to any particularly young founder right now, it would be: Earn the right to do what you want to do. Don’t expect it to come on a silver platter. There’s no entitlement in this industry. You have to earn the right. So, if that means you’re doing a couple years or six months of interning in somebody else’s company, maybe in a vision that you don’t necessarily completely align with in the long haul, but you’re going to learn a crap ton of stuff that you can apply to your own idea, go do that. There’s no bad thing by learning those skills, and somebody else’s idea, and somebody else’s business, so that you can actually turn those skills to your own. We’ll need to cut our teeth on something. You’re not going to be an expert from day one. So, go learn the skills and bring it back.
Simon Dell: There’s learnings there for people who’ve been running businesses for 20 years. I think, again, you talk about that point number three, is that you’ve got to understand how your business makes money. I work with a guy who consults in the restaurant space. He’s consulted with restaurants that he’s walked into. The restaurant has literally made no money for 15 to 20 years. And by no money, I mean it’s broken even every year. So, everybody gets paid their salary, and the owners get paid their salary for working in the business, but it’s never gone beyond that. I think whether it’s day one in a business or it’s 15 years, if you can sit there and go, “Hold on a second, I need to understand how we go from breaking even for the past 15 years to year number 16 making 15% profit.”
It’s such a key lesson for businesses that sit there and don’t understand the numbers, at least have somebody explain the numbers to you so that you comprehend it, at least on the surface.
Annie Parker: The other thing is understanding on the surface, but understanding the trends. So, what are your levers? If you do X and it goes down 20%, you do Y and it goes up 20%, obviously, do more Y. The part of that that also is really interesting is: What are the different experiments that you’re making along the way so that you can understand if I do A, B, and C, and it ends up with X, Y and Z, at least I know that if I need to make a tiny bit more profit, then I know selling more desserts in the restaurant is where I go, or selling dessert wine is where I go. Just knowing what your levers are as a business owner is so important.
Simon Dell: The funny thing with the restaurant business, it’s often those levers are just things like starting the staff, or a couple of the members of the staff an hour later, or getting them to finish an hour early, or things like that. And adding those levers and pulling those levers makes huge amounts of difference. And then when you look at that compared to other businesses, you go, “Well, what could you offshore? What could you send overseas and get done for $6/hour that you might be paying $30/hour for here? I was going to say it’s not rocket science, but I know for some people, some business owners, it feels like it’s rocket science.
Annie Parker: What you’ve just described, though, is you’re breaking things down to smaller problems than the largest one at the top. If the big number, and going back to my O2 days, my constant challenge was save £50 million. My balance sheet, the customer base at the time is £700 million. So, £50 million out of £700 million sounds easy, right? It’s not, by the way. It’s actually really hard. But what you do is, you clip £5 here and another £5 there, and it all adds up. I never got to £50 million. I always got to about 28 or 30. And I’d go, “If you want the 50, I can give you that, but here’s the consequence.”
What I understood was what my levers were. I understood if I went too far, what the consequence would be of pushing it. So, I would maybe… I could save you the £50 million, but here’s what the costs will be next year because we’ll have had a 5% extra churn rate, which will mean that the balance sheet next year is down by £15 million in revenue. You have to be, as a leader of a business, completely on top of all of your numbers so you can articulate, “Here’s the reason why we can’t go any further, because the impact of what we’re trying to do is going to have a much bigger impact on the business in years two, three, and four.” As a leader, what your job, really, is to make sure that the people who are really making the decisions have all of the facts.
Simon Dell: I’m going to put you on the spot here now, because one of the things I like to, I would say I like to hear makes me sound like some sort of sadist, but times when you’ve done something, or you failed at something, or it hasn’t gone according to plan, something that you look back on and go, “Crap, I could’ve done that a lot better.” Is there anything that stands out to you in that career path?
Annie Parker: Hell yeah. Earlier this year, I stood on a stage, on the 1st of December literally this time last year, in Barangaroo here in Sydney and said, “I’m going to launch a new startup hub and it’s going to be the best thing ever” and all this sort of stuff. About four months after I announced it, I had to then do a mea culpa and go, “Oops. It’s not going to happen.” I actually got on the front cover of the AFR with that statement in December last year, December a year later, and it didn’t happen. It’s a very public failure.
Simon Dell: What did you learn from that? What have you done differently? Just not said it?
Annie Parker: No. I wouldn’t have done a damn thing differently if I’m honest. At least I put front and centre what I really wanted to do. It didn’t work out, and it’s not because I’m not a good person or I’m a complete full and it all disintegrated because I didn’t manage it well. But life happens, and choices happen around you, and you can’t always be in control of everything. But I’m also quite pragmatic. I recognized that when another option came along, which in the end, New South Wales government decided to sponsor a startup hub instead. And I went, “You know what? That’s a great answer.”
So, I’m not going to try and spend the next four years of my life to try and make mine better or different. I’m just going to go, “Fine. Great idea. I’ll stop what I’m doing.” Whilst it might be publicly humiliating to confess that I failed at something inside of six months of launching it, but the right answer is that founders are still being helped, and that there’s still going to be a home for startups in Sydney. I just focused on the greater good. I did this blog post earlier this year in June or July going, “I failed and I feel publicly humiliated, but at least I tried.”
The interesting response I got from that was, “No, you did try, and well done for that.” On the majority of what I saw and what I read from the post, the majority of the sentiment was, “Yeah, you gave it a good go. What’s wrong with that?” And it was kind of interesting, because I felt really personally I’d failed. But when I shared that with the wider public and with folks from the startup ecosystem, everybody’s like, “It’s all good. Carry on.”
And what you realize when something feels like a personal failure or something that you’re going to have to doffer your cap out for the next five years going, “I’m really sorry”, you realize quite quickly that no one cares. It’s your own thing that you’re carrying. It’s no one else’s.
Simon Dell: Yeah. I made a lot of mistakes in the past eight, nine years. I actually wrote a blog post about it as well. It’s quite healing to sit there and go, “You know what? Here’s all the things that I’ve done wrong, and here’s what I’ve learned from them.” You wouldn’t have changed. I mean, I probably would’ve changed a few things, but it’s quite a good process to get that out, and accept what happened, and learn and grow from it.
Annie Parker: Absolutely. And I think in quite a lot of cases with that kind of ‘I did something and it didn’t quite work out the way I planned’, it’s actually yours. It’s no one else’s. There’s no external body that’s doing a critique on what you did and what you didn’t do for the most part. Unless you’re in government, then that’s all better off. But in this scenario, if you’re doing something that’s helping people and it didn’t quite work out, and your intentions are quite true and clear at the beginning, literally nobody has a problem with that.
I think as long as you start from a good place of trying to help… I’m trying to do these that might make things better for founders and for the ecosystem, you can’t really fail. Even if you do, you can’t really because everybody recognizes that you were doing it for the right reasons from the get go.
Simon Dell: If you’re in the US, that failure is normally a badge of pride.
Annie Parker: Well, it’s not really failure, is it? Because failure, in that sense, is something didn’t quite work out and I’ve learned from it. And I think any other country in the world still struggles, or most countries in the world struggle, with things not quite working out perfectly. We just assume and businesses need to get much better at the idea that we don’t have all the answers. And particularly in this day and age where everything is changing at such a rapid pace, nobody can predict the future anymore and nobody should expect that.
Not in a particular part of history where the step changes are small and incremental. The step changes are massive. So, we have to accept that we can’t predict what that looks like. Some of us might, every now and again, that prediction right. But for the most part, we’re going to get it wrong, and that’s okay.
Simon Dell: We’re going to have to wind this up, because you and I could probably talk about anything in this space for a couple of hours.
Annie Parker: I think we could.
Simon Dell: But I’m going to wind up with my last three questions. I want to understand brands that excite you, that get you interested. Trust me, we’ve had everything here from big, international, global brands, to toilet paper.
Annie Parker: Well, I think I know what the toilet paper one is. I think that’s going to be Who Gives a Crap?
Simon Dell: No. It didn’t start off as that, but we’ve had a couple of people that have picked toilet paper that they quite like. One of them was Who Gives a Crap?
Annie Parker: I get associated with companies that have a purpose. I want to work with people who want to change the world, even if the changing of the world is just in a small way. My favourite one at the moment is a company that I’ve just ordered toothbrushes from, and the toothbrushes are made from wood, balsa wood, or bamboo. The bristles are made from another renewable substance. So, why should toothbrushes always be made of plastic? We throw them away. They become something that goes and sits in the ocean for goodness knows how long, but my current toothbrushes don’t. They degrade and become part of the Earth from which they were originally made.
My personal association with anything like that is, we should be, as consumers, much better at choosing things that we know solve the problem that we need to at the time whilst not buggering up the planet that we live on. It seems sensible. When I say it like that, you just giggled a little bit because it’s obvious, right? But how many times do you go into a coffee shop and you still use the disposable cup? How many times do you go in and you go, “You know what? I’ve got five minutes of my life. I can have that coffee in a normal coffee cup, and I can drink it, and then I’ll give it back to them, and they can wash it, and it can be used by the next person.”
Five minutes of your life has just saved the planet a few more inches of resource. My brands that I love are the ones where we realize, that if we just take five more seconds of the choice of my consumership, that the world is a tiny bit better. It goes back to the same thing that we were talking about earlier. Diversity, and inclusion, and things like that, they don’t get fixed by one tiny thing; they get fixed by lots and lots of small things done repetitively. Fixing the world is going to take an awful lot of work, so let’s do it lots and lots of small steps at a time.
So, go find brands like the Who Gives a Craps of this world where you can buy toilet roll that is completely recyclable, and made from renewable resources, the same as the toothbrush I just mentioned. If you can go and find any number of hundreds of them online, go do that.
Simon Dell: What was the toothbrush you were recommending there?
Annie Parker: Do you know what? I actually can’t remember the name of it right off the top of my head. Whilst we carry on talking, though, I’m going to go upstairs and remind myself. What were your other two questions?
Simon Dell: If you tell me afterwards, what we’ll do is we’ll put it in the show notes. If anybody wants to look it up, we can… Or even better, we’ll share it on our Instagram as well. Not that we have thousands of people on Instagram, but we’ll do it as a personal recommendation from you on the Instagram.
Annie Parker: Awesome.
Simon Dell: Last two questions. What’s next for you? Where are you going in 2018? What’s going to be big for you? No need to promise things that don’t happen in six months here.
Annie Parker: 2018 for me is not something new. 2018 for me is a continuation of one of the themes that we started this year around diversity and inclusion. We started this year with the same-sex marriage debate and supporting LGBTI community with Fishburners. We changed our logo. We adopted the rainbow. I thought, “Gosh, that’s a really nice thing to do and it’s going to be a simple thing.” But a couple other things that happened on the back of it were really quite surprising. So, the first thing was, the amount of LGBTI community that were already in Fishburners just were massively moved, and found me out, and cried on my shoulder, or gave me a massive hug going, “Thank you. Thank you for doing that. Thank you for making us finally feel welcome.”
My question back was, “Did you not feel welcome before? I didn’t think that Fishburners or anywhere else in the startup community, really, in Australia was openly anti what you were doing.” He said, “No. It was more that you did it and you openly did it without asking. You openly did this for us, and now we feel included because you said our names.” That was, “Wow, I had no idea.” Whilst I’m a woman in the tech community, so I’m a version of a minority, but I’m still a white woman in the tech community, so I’m still in a position of privilege in comparison to other groups.
Sometimes, that is a real smack in the face, when you realize that the privilege that you’re born with, you often don’t remember how much it makes a difference. I’ve taken that lesson quite a bit of a smack in the face. There’s a lot to do. Whether you’re from the LGBTI community, we have very much more to continue making them feel included, whether it’s a person of colour, an indigenous Australian… There’s so many more things to do for us to make sure that we have genuine diversity within our community. That’s not just a 2018 issue. I think that’s going to become a piece of work to do for the next five years. Certainly a big thing for next year, though.
I think the next thing is: How do we capitalize on the fact that we’ve now got great innovation hubs in Brisbane? We’re about to have this big Startup Hub launch here in Sydney early next year. How do we use that as a kicking off point? If I look at examples of Tel Aviv and London. When Shoreditch happened, and when Tel Aviv first started bubbling under as being a really great tech innovation system a good 15 years ago, it wasn’t just they built a hub and their job was done. They built a hub and then they kicked on. I think Australia’s got a big kicking on thing to do in the next couple years’ time.
It’s great that Brisbane’s got the precinct, and the capitol building, and the CBD. It’s great that Sydney’s going to have the Startup Hub launching in Wynward at the beginning of next year. That’s just two or three locations in two cities. That’s not enough. We need to keep going. And of course, startups need a place to grow to. Even if you’re starting in the precinct or the capital building in Brisbane or over here down at Wynward and Sydney, still need a place to grow to who’s going to help you be your first customer or help become your first significant investor. All of those sort of things need to grow at the same pace, and I just hope that the Australian government is ready to grow at the same pace as the ecosystem is. I think that’s going to be a bit of a challenge.
Simon Dell: Final question. If anybody’s got questions for you, or they want to get in contact, they want to just ask you a question about business and startups, where’s the best place for them to find you? And for God’s sake, don’t give out your phone number.
Annie Parker: My DMs are open on Twitter. That’s probably the best place to find me. So, @annie_parker. Have at it on Twitter. Come have a chat with me. You can try and link in with me on LinkedIn. I look at that sometimes, but the best place is Twitter.
Simon Dell: Thank you very, very much for your time. It’s some fantastic insights there. I think anybody listening to that should get at least three or four really good gems of things that they could apply to their business. It’s all business. It’s not just startups that I think could learn from all of that.
Annie Parker: I started as a managing consultant, ended up in marketing a telco, and have now ended up in what I think is the best place for me and most exciting place. But I could never have predicted that from my degree to where I am now 20-odd years later. Nobody knows what your path might be. There is no common sense structure to a career anymore. If you want to go and do something, just find a way to go do it. You will be surprised at how much you can achieve by just taking that first step.
Simon Dell: Once again, thank you very much. It’s been an absolute pleasure.
Annie Parker: My pleasure as well.
For more transcriptions of the Simon Dell Show click here: Marketing Podcasts.