SDS4: Peta Ellis, River City Labs CEO
Simon Dell: I’m extremely lucky to be joined today by an old friend of mine, Peta Ellis, who is currently the CEO of River City Labs. I shan’t explain who River City Labs are. I’m sure she’ll get a chance to do that. So, welcome, Peta.
Peta Ellis: Thank you very much for having me.
Simon Dell: Start off just a little bit about talking about your role and what you’re doing now. There are people listening to this who don’t know who River City Labs are. So, if you could let us know who they are and what you do, that would be fantastic.
Peta Ellis: Sure. I’m currently the CEO of River City Labs, which is a central hub for startup activity based in Brisbane. The company itself is 5 years old. It was originally started out as a smallish 550 sq. m. space in Fortitude Valley founded by Steve Baxter, who is an entrepreneur in Brisbane but also most recently more famous for being one of the Sharks on Shark Tank. He saw a gap in the market to provide the right environment, work space, and home for entrepreneurs in Brisbane back in 2012, which then morphed into being a lot more than that or what it is today, but we’ll talk about the journey of that a little bit later on.
I came on board only a couple of months after they opened. I had a bit of a background in marketing, and PR, and events, and saw an opportunity to bring the business world together with the tech world, and sort of create different collaborative opportunities for a lot of the technical people who are sitting in there running their startups to either learn more and connect with people outside of their environment. I started off as a community manager and marketing person. It has grown significantly in the last few years and now we sit in a great, amazing, beautiful, 1,300 sq. m. space in Start-Up Precinct in Fortitude Valley, the old T.C. Beirne Building.
It’s three levels. We are an anchor tenant in here, so we’re one of 16 different tenants in this building, and we now are a combination space of workspace for entrepreneurs and we are home to three different accelerators. One of those is our flagship accelerator, River City Labs Accelerator which is 6 months long, and then we’re home to two others, Unearthed accelerator and Slingshot accelerator as well, which is focused on tourism, travel, and the hospitality sector.
We also host a range of events all tailored towards startup education, entrepreneur education, and hopefully creating better founders at the end of all of that. That’s a bit of a wrap up.
Simon Dell: And you’re in charge of all of that?
Peta Ellis: It is true, I am, yes.
Simon Dell: There’s a point that you just mentioned in there that sort of brings me back to where you started off from. You originally studied tourism, didn’t you?
Peta Ellis: I know that my LinkedIn profile may say that, Simon, but being a great marketer, it’s all about if I can’t spin up good shit for my own profile, you wouldn’t want me to work on yours. You’ll see on there that it did say deferred, so I certainly didn’t complete anything, but also, I may not have possibly started it either. I suddenly enrolled and I got the ball rolling but…
Simon Dell: So, what you’re saying there’s an element of fluff in your LinkedIn profile?
Peta Ellis: There may be a small extension of the truth, we’ll call it.
Simon Dell: And only early on as well?
Peta Ellis: Yeah, very early on. But back then, you didn’t study stuff online. It was physical. You had to turn out in person or they sent you the workbooks. I was based in Noosa at the time. I was enrolled at Southern Cross University. I chose to be an external student. The course I wanted was down in Lismore, and I either moved to Lismore or I did it remotely, and to do that, they had to send me the coursework remotely, which was literally sending massive six ring binders full of study materials. And knowing my learning style, it’s all impersonal, it doesn’t happen at all. I just got the books and thought, “No, this is not for me.”
Simon Dell: I could imagine your face when those ring binders came through.
Peta Ellis: They came through and I was just like, “You know what? This is not the university life that I thought I was going to be having.” It was still just me in a one-bedroom apartment at Noosa, and that just really didn’t jell.
Simon Dell: I was going to say, the choice of Noosa versus Lismore. No disrespect to anybody who lives in Lismore, but…
Peta Ellis: I did go down there and check it out to just make sure that it was going to be the wrong decision. Anyways, it would’ve been a great course. The attraction for me at the time was part of the course was actually to be based somewhere overseas, working in an international hotel. There was always an interest for me for tourism, and business, and knowing that business — I always thought if you had business schools, you could work anywhere in the world. There was attraction to hotels just because I think pretty much they’re a universal operation. If you learn the skills in one hotel, you could pretty much work around the world, and that was always just a huge driver for me in those early days.
Simon Dell: I guess that takes you to your first job out of university, that itself was a small business, which is obviously where you and I first met all those years ago.
Peta Ellis: Yes, it’s true.
Simon Dell: I’m trying to remember the name of that bar, actually.
Peta Ellis: It was called The Mark. And look, I got that job. I went there. I got it. I was feeling like a failure because I had had some businesses before working there which didn’t go so well. I signed up to a ridiculously long lease as a small, solo startup founder, which it wasn’t called startups back then, you just had businesses. So yes, I signed my life away for a five-year lease on a building that was way too big for my needs. I didn’t have anybody to ask about how to do these things properly so I just went in boot and all and learned the hard way.
To get out of that, I had to go back and get a job, and that job happened to be at that place. I saw an ad for a function and event coordinator. I thought I could do that. But luckily, for me, I met some amazing people there, one of them was you which was great, but also some really good relationships for me started at that time, but I also worked for a great entrepreneur and founder. He was a chef, but he also highlighted for me the power of marketing, which I then learned from him also the power of PR and personal relationships to create influence.
Simon Dell: You learned marketing from a chef?
Peta Ellis: Yes, would you believe? I know it sounds crazy.
Simon Dell: You know what? I’ve known a lot of chefs in my time and I would not believe that at all.
Peta Ellis: Yes, I know. But I’ll tell you what, this guy, he had every single media outlet in the palm of his hands. And I just thought, “How the hell is he doing this?” So, working with him, everything was all personal relationships. Forget press releases. We were doing standard email, but it was certainly not like now where it pretty much dominates your entire day and your schedule. It was all personal relationships.
Every time he had something to announce or he wanted to get them to try something new on the menu, he would just invite them in for lunches, and build personal relationships. On the back of that, he had the ability to ask for anything and get ridiculous amounts of coverage, because one, he was just a nice guy. He was extremely real.
He was very open, and shared his personal life, and business life together, which I think in return generated a lot of respect from people. I looked at that and thought, “Wow, this is quite fascinating.” I then was fascinated with the power of PR because that venue, as you know, you went there, it was stuck at the Toombul where there was no units at the time there. The owner was way ahead of his time. If you hadn’t done that 10 years after, it would still be there today.
But there was not the right demographic. They created a beautiful Fortitude Valley or New Farm-style venue out at Toombul which was not ready for it, but he still managed to get all the media there, and host crazy events, and get it filled every time just because he did amazing public relations.
Simon Dell: That’s fascinating, especially from a chef.
Peta Ellis: I know, but he was also a great chef. I think he’d learned it as well that he needed to have those personal relationships. He had a suburban restaurant as well. Again, that was in the back street of a suburb. It had no general food traffic for anyone looking to go and dine but still managed to get booked out every single night because he was just in the media all the time.
Simon Dell: Obviously, that’s a lesson that’s resonated with you since back then. Is that something you still sit there today and go, the importance of relationships, and you talk about that to other people as well?
Peta Ellis: Absolutely. It is the number one thing. On the back of that, that was my number one driver, to go on and do only PR after that because I just saw the value that most people, in all of their marketing efforts, were missing. It was basically spamming everyone the information without any care or concern for who was going to be reading it, or what the journalists actually wanted, but also the personal relationships.
As we know, it’s less important now just because the power of journalism is not the same as it was back then. Before, we only had newspapers, and magazines, and lifestyle magazines to sort of drive patronage in any of those venues. But now, the internet has changed all of that. We have different types of influencers, but again, it’s still all personal relationships. It’s basically the number one focus for any activity that I do, is to make sure that we have — or anyone in our team, or any businesses that I work with or mentor, always goes back to, “Who can you build personal relationships with will create value down the track for your business?” Because that individual, even though whatever role we’re in right now, they will move on to other things and those relationships carry on to those other roles.
Simon Dell: That’s a huge point. I think a lot of people don’t realize that… I used to work with a guy years and years ago when I worked in night clubs. He had a motto. His motto is, “Never miss an opportunity.” By that, he always used to say, “Go and have a coffee with someone. Go and have a drink with them. Spend some time with them. Just talk to them.” Even if there’s nothing that you can gain from them at that point or there’s nothing that you can share with them, I mean, it might sound like it’s a one-way street that you’re trying to gain stuff from them, he would say that somewhere along the line, that relationship may come back and help you out in 1 year, 5 years, 10 years’ time.
Peta Ellis: Absolutely, but you have to do it with the intent that you’re not expecting anything at all, that you don’t expect it to come back but it will be fantastic if it did. But also, it was about trying to be helpful. “Here’s someone who is in a position of influence that they could possibly give you some exposure, but how could you be helpful to them?” Forget about your own agenda. What do they actually look for?
I’ve always tried to be the most helpful person in a sector or space I’m in at the time, to make sure that if they ring me, that they could get something out of me with little fuss and with really fast turnaround. Because then when you did actually want something, they’d be much more willing to help you simply because you already got some credits, or they actually just like you as a human because you genuinely are there to be a resistance, or helpful, or share knowledge somewhere along the line.
Simon Dell: I’m going to go off on a tangent here because I listened to a podcast, Tim Ferriss podcast, who obviously I try and shape this a little bit on what he does. He had a great interview with a guy called Derek Sivers who actually, funnily enough, has now taken a polar opposite approach and says pretty much no to everything now. He felt that he was living in a world where he was saying yes to everything, he was trying to be accommodating to everybody, and it was no longer resonating with him. It wasn’t helping him anymore. Do you think that’s just a different personality type, that you need to adjust yourself to being that super helpful person?
Peta Ellis: For me, it comes down to what stage you’re at in either your own journey, or your role in a business, or stage of a company. I think there’s times where you do. If you’re starting out and you need to build relationships. If you’re trying to raise your own profile to be that voice of expertise in a certain sector, I think you do need to go quite hard at being that most helpful person.
But there are times when you do need to retreat a little bit and you realize, are you getting anything out of all of that activity, and are you spending too much time on stuff that’s not going to get you any return, when you could be investing that time in something more valuable to your organization? For me, personally now, I now weigh up opportunities.
I get emailed all the time, I get phone calls all the time asking me to go to things, to speak on a panel, or to go to this event, or go to that event. For me, I just don’t have the time to go to all of those things as much. I have a massive fear of missing out if I don’t go. I have to just let it go and think, “Okay, is there someone there that I really need to meet, or is there something that I gain from that? Do I need to touch base with someone because I’ve sent them something and it’d be nice to have that personal contact, or do I need to sell something?”
I do a little bit of assessment now rather than just saying yes to all those things just because of time. There’s probably much more valuable time that I can spend doing really important things for this business.
Simon Dell: I’m glad this was considered valuable, so thank you.
Peta Ellis: This is one of those personal relationships that you just think, “You know what…”
Simon Dell: Absolutely, it comes back to haunt you late.
Peta Ellis: Comes around, yeah. I did think, “Where the hell is this podcast going? What’s it going to be about?” But look, I trust you, so I’m going with it.
Simon Dell: It’s funny, something you just touched on there about fear of missing out. I had a similar conversation with a previous guest. It’s funny that people — this is a horrible expression, I was going to say people of our age that joke about millennials and their FOMO, that we still have that same FOMO but it’s just evolved into something else now. It’s evolved into a business FOMO.
Peta Ellis: I know. It’s a bit sad but we are there, so we have to embrace it. Look, I think also because — especially for me, in this space, I was pretty much involved in most things. Now, when I hear about things that I don’t know about, I do have massive fear of missing out. Plus, I’m just a busy body. I’d like to know what everyone’s doing to be on top of it, and I hate to feel like I could possibly be missing out on something.
Simon Dell: Going back to you running your own business, obviously, you did City Publicity, Red Carpets. That was about 12 years in total, those?
Peta Ellis: Yeah, about 15. I started Red Carpet projects first. That’s when I left that hotel group with that amazing chef. I went out on my own and spun up — exactly what I was doing there which is marketing public relations and events in my own company and then took on a bunch of other hospitality venues just because that was the niche I was in and I knew that really well. But then I kicked off City Publicity which was my attempt at digitizing the publicity process which was press release writing and distribution to media outlets with automated lists.
I did try. That was my attempt at a tech startup way ahead of my time. One, I did not have the technology to make the process what it needed to be. It was an MVP of something that should’ve been built out into a full system or process but I did not have that technical ability nor even know what I should be doing there.
And also, my customers were not receptive to it then. I still wanted the very personal touch, and they wanted to know who they could talk to, and they wanted to be able to have those face-to-face meetings. I was trying to avoid the amount of time I spent in meetings, and talking to media personally but also on the behalf of my clients, and then also the amount of meetings I was having with clients, trying to work out what they wanted to do. That’s my attempt to scale but it didn’t really work.
Simon Dell: That’s a tough space as well, the restaurant and hospitality space. Everything I’ve experienced and still experience is that it still hasn’t changed.
Peta Ellis: It is, but look, I had clients. I was more into the retail, property development, real estate. So, I had a lot of different clients. It was just the nature of the business. When people want a publicist, they want a publicist. They want that individual who has influence working for them. They didn’t want to be working through a system. There wasn’t a cut through. There wasn’t the deliverables like the other end. There weren’t the results in the media when it was automated. It was a massive difference when you did it personally. There was a lot more work to be done, but I couldn’t wait, so I ended up ditching that in the end and then I found River City Labs.
Simon Dell: I’m going to put you in a hypothetical situation here. If you decided tomorrow to leave River City Labs and you went to do City Publicity again, what would you do differently this time?
Peta Ellis: It’s such a different space now too, so it’s a bit difficult. I would have a team to start with, not try and do it on my own, and I would collaborate with other people who were doing things that would work and tie in really well with that core business because it was very much a niche vertical. But now with media, social is so heavy and much more influential than anything else. I think that the way that even businesses now deal with influencers to get a lot of traction in the media space, social media space is just a really different ballgame.
As a business, I would definitely get a team together and understand where my strengths are. Because where things tend to fall down before was when I was doing everything and not focusing on the bits which I do really well and just stick to those. If I don’t know something, I have learned that that’s actually okay. I don’t need to know all the bits. I need to know about them, but I certainly don’t need to be the best person to do them. So, I would change that.
Simon Dell: What do you consider your strengths then? If you’re put in that spot and said the two, three things that you personally are really good at.
Peta Ellis: I’m great at the ideation, the strategy, and thinking about the business as a whole and the direction. Where I normally get weighed down is the systems and processes and then executing on all the small little bits. And now, only recently I’ve learnt, because I actually have a team now to work with, that if I can focus on those bits, we just can achieve so much more, much quicker. Whereas if I had to be the person to do the forward planning and then also to execute on every single thing, that’s where it tends to get weighed down. Plus, I get a bit disinterested doing all the small process stuff.
My happy place is sitting in the visionary space, and thinking of all the new ideas, and having the head space to be able to execute on those which is the fun part.
Simon Dell: Obviously, you went from running your own business. I don’t think it’s useful for us to know how you met Steven at the time. What I’m really keen to understand is how you presented yourself. What was your pitch? Because you at the time, I presume it’s a small business, you’re sole trader, and here you are with… I mean, he just exited.
Peta Ellis: He did part networks, he had, yeah, so probably about 6 or 12 months before.
Simon Dell: What was your pitch when you stand in front of him? And more to the point on that: What did you learn from that pitch that other people, you sit there and say that you can do that too, you can stand in front of someone, and pitch a business, and win it?
Peta Ellis: I didn’t know who Steve was so it was probably good that I wasn’t influenced, or put off, or intimidated I suppose by who he was. He didn’t have a large public profile. I’ve always worked for entrepreneurs, so I already understand the mindset. I know what makes people with those types of personalities tick, and they love executors. They love people that can come in and just get stuff done, and I’m very much that person. That’s always a really good fit.
I had a friend who was working at River City Labs, and I heard that there was a job going. I needed to supplement my income for my business. I always trying to exit out of City Publicity but I just didn’t want to drop the ball and the clients that I did have, but I was disheartened by the publicity sector and the business that I had that was just dying, so I needed to cut it off. But I needed to get a job to do that.
I went and applied for the job that was going which was the Community and Event Manager, but I just said, “This is who I am. This is what I can do, but this is what I would like to do.” And then he said, “Great. Come back. Start on Monday.” It was pretty much as simple as that. He was so straightforward, really human, no frills. I went in there and I actually thought I had something to offer, which you’ve experienced when you start businesses and they don’t work out, you’re feeling a bit shit about yourself and think, “Do I actually know anything?”
So I was in that space of like, “I don’t even know if I’ve got any value right now, but I know what I can do so I’ll go and do that part.” And then if I can add value somewhere along the line, then great. That’s the position. I wasn’t in the best place but I certainly can sell myself, so I did, and it worked.
Simon Dell: I guess that point when you walked in the studio in front of him, that’s probably a turning point for you, wasn’t it? I mean, considering where you were and where you are, that’s a…
Peta Ellis: Absolutely, for sure, and you just never know where these things are going to go. For me, it was just a way to supplement my income in a space which I had no idea about. I didn’t even know what a tech startup was. I just knew that I could do stuff in there that I knew like the back of my hand, and I could bring people together.
Simon Dell: Did you walk out of there thinking you’d got it?
Peta Ellis: Yes, straight. It was a no-brainer. It was, “Come back on Monday.” So I was like, great, so I did.
Simon Dell: That’s an amazing… It’s funny how your life can turn on a dime for want of an American expression there.
Peta Ellis: Yeah, absolutely, just like that. And even then, I still never really understood the value of I suppose what I was getting into until I… Because I got involved and then I thought, “Right, startups, what the hell?” So, I started Googling what the whole… I thought about it upscale, so I just went nuts researching, and just looking at different communities, and I focused heavily on America. I read, listened to that many podcasts, and looked at different spaces. I just looked at other really successful spaces in America. I looked to what events they were hosting, understanding what entrepreneurs wanting to learn, started replicating all of those here in Brisbane and just thought, “Right, here’s a list of stuff. We just need to go gangbusters at this.”
There was some nights where five people would come to something and be like, “What the hell? Am I having any impact?” And then the next week, there’d be 150, like, “No, this is working.” There’s so many ups and downs, but I think the key is just consistency. I tried not to get too disheartened when things didn’t quite work out or people didn’t show up because the very next week, somebody would and then I could — you’d get great feedback from somebody, that somebody got something out of one of the interactions. And for me, that was enough to know that there was value being added there and we just needed to keep going.
I always believe that there’d be a… Because we were still educating people on what the startups was. It was a timing thing. And what I did learn was that all of the business experience that I had myself wasn’t wasted and that I actually probably knew a lot more than I thought I did even though I’d come out with my towel between my legs feeling a little bit broken, like I was a bit of a failure in my own businesses. But when I saw the other people coming, kicking off stuff which was pretty average, I did think that maybe my businesses weren’t so bad after all and that maybe I could’ve made something of it had I kept going.
My motto is now, every time I think I’m not having impact or I need to give up, I just need to keep going. I found that I sort of give up a little bit too early.
Simon Dell: I think one of the keywords you said there is something I stress to people, is consistency. That’s in marketing, and business, and your messaging, and your branding, and all of those kind of things is the — If people are expecting to start a blog tomorrow and within three months be considered an influencer in that space, then they’re smoking crack. But if they’re consistent, and they keep going, it might be a year, two years, three years, five years, whatever. But as soon as you relax and drop that determination, that’s when it tends to trail away.
Peta Ellis: Definitely. Look, my brother did the exact same thing. He used to blog about wine. I know it sounds quite simple. “I don’t know if anyone is listening. I don’t know if anyone’s reading this. I don’t know if it’s having any impact whatsoever.” But six months down the track, got noticed by back then two guys who had a podcast called the Coffee Brothers and then spun up a company called Vinomofo, and then ended up getting employed by them, and now is Head of Culture at Vinomofo which is one of the most successful startups.
It’s just consistency, being true to what it is that you’re into, and in your own voice, in your own style, and you never know where some of those things will lead. That’s always a good story.
Simon Dell: Whilst you were doing that in the early stages of River City, was there that kind of Malcolm Gladwell tipping point when you actually went, “You know what? This is going to be big.” Was there a moment where that light bulb went on, or was it just a gradual thing?
Peta Ellis: It was gradual but there was always… For me, the Startup Weekend events where always light bulb moments. They always were confirmation for me that we’re having impact, that people are engaged, they want more out of it. And then when people come back to give more of themselves voluntarily, and I think that was always confirmation for me because that means that they wanted to be there and they could see value in themselves, reinvesting their time, and their skills, and their energy. That was huge confirmation that this is definitely gaining some traction and that it can definitely keep growing and be bigger than just us.
We always knew we’d be one player, but there’s a whole massive ecosystem and we’re just one small part of it, but it needed to stem from somewhere. And as you know, they just need someone to lead, they need someone to kick something off, and then people join in. It was nice to be, I suppose, part of that. We’re definitely not the first. I’ve been pulled up on this many times, going, “There’s lots of activity before River City Labs.” I’m not saying there wasn’t. There is, and there always was, and there’s great people doing amazing things. We were just one part of a big puzzle.
Simon Dell: I think you guys are the first to get noticed.
Peta Ellis: We made a lot of noise.
Simon Dell: I’m saying that from an objective point of view. There was a lot of noise. The media suddenly started to take it, pay attention. And to all of the people that were at it before, credit to them, but I think it was you guys that really went, “This is a real thing.”
Peta Ellis: We made a point of it. We banged onto the media so hard all the time to say, “This is happening.” And same with government, and council, and corporates. We invited them in at every single opportunity that was worthwhile coming to, to just keep saying, “Hey, this is happening. This is happening. This is what’s happening here. You need to understand it and see it for yourself.” We didn’t just send documents, or papers, or research, or studies. We got them involved and invited them down all the time. Again, it comes back to that personal relationship thing.
A lot of people I’ve met back then, it was — it’s really important to go and have a coffee or a beer with somebody just to get to know them as a person, as human. So, next time you see them, you can ask about their family, and then all of a sudden ask them to come to an event and judge on a panel or whatever it might be. It is super valuable.
Simon Dell: I just want to talk now just a little bit about you as the personal brand. Because sometimes, you often find people in a position like yourself that that brand, your personal brand, the Peta brand, the River City CEO brand is different to what it is in private. How much of you, the real you, is there in that CEO role?
Peta Ellis: That’s a really good question. It’s a hard one. As far as work, I have different ways that I get my brain to be activated. I have a really big job to do at work, and then I have a really big job to do at home. I do certain things to get my brain focused on one or the other. But as far as personality traits, it’s definitely you’re getting Peta at home, and you’re getting Peta at work, it’s very much the same.
What I have consciously tried to do, especially this year, is be a little bit more human and personable at work, probably a bit more vulnerable, let people into my life a bit more to understand me as a person. I think because before, I’ve made an effort to keep private life quite separate to work life. But what I have learned is people resonate with that personal story a little bit more, so I’m trying to be a bit more open and real in the work environment, because I find it goes much better than I thought it did.
Simon Dell: It comes back to that point about building relationships with people. It’s easier to build relationships with people where you know their history, and you know their past, and there’s a strong… You can build a quicker and stronger trust bond between people if you open up a bit more.
Peta Ellis: Yeah. And look, I think also because I’ve been a parent for 10 years now. And in that time, I’ve also been building this career and business. A regional perception for me was don’t appear to be weak, or affected by personal life, because then people can’t think you can do your job properly. So, I did keep it quiet separate in that regard, because I thought it would be a disadvantage to be seen to be doing all this stuff at home, because I didn’t believe that people thought you could do your job properly if you had a lot of all that other stuff going on.
But what I am learning now is that a lot of people take inspiration from, I suppose, how I structure my personal life to be able to come in to work and execute as a CEO, “I’m going to get stuff done.” So, I’m trying to bring a bit more of those personal insights in how I manage all of that. What I’m finding is, especially a lot of other women in this space, like to be guided or know what other people do to make it work because they can learn from that. That was a huge lesson for me.
Simon Dell: Do you ever still sort of have the panic moment where you go, “Shit, what am I doing here? How did I get here? What happened?”
Peta Ellis: No. I don’t think that but I do think, “Shit, am I the best person for this job?” Because when you’ve been around for a while, I got introduced — Mark Selby, bless him, is an amazing guy. He’s done amazing things in his own personal life, in his business life, and then also most recently is a chief entrepreneur.
He introduced me on a panel as, “This is Peta. She’s part of the furniture at RCL.” And in that moment, I was literally going to go back to Steven and resign because I thought, “Fuck it. Am I really just part of the furniture or am I adding value?” I had to deal with my own brain that day and work out where my value might be, that hopefully it was more than being part of the…
Simon Dell: He obviously probably didn’t mean it in that way.
Peta Ellis: No, absolutely.
Simon Dell: But it’s that perception, isn’t it?
Peta Ellis: Yeah, perception. And you know, I haven’t been a CEO before. There are some really amazing good CEOs out there in the world, and I often think, “Okay, is one was to come in, what would they do differently?” Yes, I do know every single aspect to the business from the ground up because I’ve been in all the different roles, but I’m learning. And I hate being shit at something, so I will do my best to keep getting better and better.
I just take different types of advice, and I get different advices, and learn more, and I’ve got a lot better at asking questions, and understanding that if I don’t know something, it doesn’t mean that that’s bad. It just means that I need to learn it and get better at it. I’ve gotten better at that sort of thing. Up skilling, I think, is a huge part of it. In terms of personal growth, it’s been massive.
Simon Dell: Putting this in context, about 18 months ago, probably 2 years ago, I sat down and had this realization that whilst I’ve done a lot in terms of building an agency, and a team, and all those kind of things, I hadn’t learned anything. I’d simply function to the needs and the requirements that the business needed me to function at. I hadn’t, as a person, grown and all those kind of things. And so, actively perhaps in the last 12 months, especially more so in the 6 months, I’ve made much more of a concerted effort to try to learn. How do you learn? How do you develop yourself? Because as a CEO, it can be quite a lonely position.
Peta Ellis: In this one, I don’t feel lonely at all because I’ve got a great team, and work very closely with them, and I work with our affiliate companies, and they have CEOs, and we talk a lot and learn a lot from each other, so I don’t feel alone. But in terms of improvement, I think for me, it’s on a daily basis, because there’s lots of stuff that I don’t know, so I may get a point to go and up skill in those areas.
I also looked to other people in certain roles that I admire or aspire to be more like, and I then stalk them, work out what the hell they are doing, what impact they’re having, why. So, I’m quite interested in other people who have impact and are great leaders. That fascinates me and I just always am trying to be more effective.
And so, for me, my driver is of people and transformation. “How can I help other people?” So, I love working with my own team, and understanding what makes them tick, and how can I help them personally become better at whatever it is they want to be better at.
Simon Dell: Who’s the last person you learned something from? You say you stalk people. Who have you met recently, and you can’t say Steven because you’ve known him for a while, that you’ve suddenly gone, “Wow, that’s somebody I could learn something from.” Somebody that’s impressed you?
Peta Ellis: Annie Parker from Fishburners. She’s current CEO of Fishburners, was previous founder of muru-D. She’s always doing amazing things. She just has an ability to stand. Like, she brings her personal brand in whatever company she’s with and she just stands up for stuff. I love that.
And I think, “What do I actually stand for?” It makes me look at my own self, and to learn different ways that people can influence people, lead better teams, or execute on bigger projects. So yeah, she’s a good one for me, and we’re good friends, and we touch base, which is really nice. She’s always doing amazing things.
Simon Dell: Who would you like to meet? Who do you sit there and go, “If I could have lunch with them tomorrow”, who would that be?
Peta Ellis: I do love Jamie Oliver, always have. I’m not sure if it’s just cliché or what, but it’s just the influence globally that that guy has had is phenomenal. And he’s the only person I look at and he’s not a dickhead celebrity. If you watch him, I don’t know if he acts well or what, but he gets that excited every single time he cooks a meal and thinks it’s the best thing he’s ever tasted. And I just think, “That is so authentic.” You know. I do love him, and he’s had huge impact, and has changed whole nations on how they look at food. It’s like a massive huge influence.
Simon Dell: There’s a great point there, is that if you take that passion, enthusiasm with everything that you do…
Peta Ellis: Yeah, but he’s had it since he was like a teenager chef, and that has never changed. He just took a whole bunch of people with him and had impact. So, yes, people have impact…
Simon Dell: It’s hard to stay at that level.
Peta Ellis: It is, and he has stayed there and he’s still doing it. That’s what gets me. So yeah, massive respect for him and admiration.
Simon Dell: What do you do to chill out or stay focused in terms of exercise? What helps you recharge?
Peta Ellis: I’m speaking to this recently with someone else here in River City Labs because we focus with entrepreneurs, trying to get them at peak performance, it’s like working with athletes. So, how do you get in the right frame of mind and personal set of being to be able to perform? In my head, every day that I step foot in here, I need to perform, I need to have my game face on, and I need to be ready to go for the moment the lift opens on level three.
Regardless of whatever else is going on at home, and sometimes that can be a lot, I need to walk in here and perform every single day. I don’t have enough time in the day to fuck it up. I have to literally walk in and go. So for me, my alarm goes off at 3:50 every morning. I go to the gym. I get up. The reason I do that is not because I’m just crazy in saying…
Simon Dell: So, you’re going to the gym at 3:50?
Peta Ellis: 3:50 because I go to the gym, I’ve got between 4:00 and 5:00 a.m. That’s my only window.
Simon Dell: That’s dedication.
Peta Ellis: Because for me, I have to be physically fit to get my head to be in the right frame of mind. It just makes me feel super positive and pumped every single day. Love it. But I got sick of making excuses that I don’t have time, or toddler’s waking up, or whatever it is. So, I’ve worked out. He wakes up at 5:00, so I have to go to the gym, and my husband goes to work super early, so I also don’t have the luxury of backup of any people at home. I’ve got to leave my kids somewhere.
So, I work out then I can go between 4:00 and 5:00 a.m., and I’m back for 5:00. My husband goes to work and then I do the morning shift with the kids, get everyone fed breakfast to school, then I come in here. I spend the day in here, and then when I go home, I switch hats and then it’s on for the next few hours. Literally, from the moment I walk in the door, it’s like homework, and dinner, and bed, or talk to the kids, or whatever it might be. And then when I go to bed, then I think about myself again and maybe get ready for the night or do some more work. That’s pretty much how it works. If I’m not physically in peak performance, I don’t think I could get through that entire day.
Simon Dell: I mean, I’ve got one 18-month now and that’s been a revelation.
Peta Ellis: And you know how busy it is, right? And preparation is the other thing I do. I have a whole family to run, and he runs more so. I like to make sure everyone’s fed really well. Sunday is my prep day. I do all the meals for the week. I get the kids’ lunches ready for the week. It’s super organized. Everyone knows what’s happening so that on any given day, whoever is at home with the kids, whether it’s myself, my husband, or one of our babysitters, or my parents, they know what the meal is for the day, where it is, so I can just run.
Because as soon as there’s a gap, and it can be a window of half an hour, everything can go to shit if it’s not right. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not like military standards where it’s bang bang bang and no one’s got room for a bit of free time. It’s not like that. But for my own sanity, I have to have it that well-planned because I’ve only got a small window to go and shop as well. So, I’ve got to know what I need to get it sorted, what’s coming up for the kids that week. So that when I walk in here, I know that all of that’s sorted and I can focus 100% on work at the time that I’m here.
Simon Dell: That’s sensational. Again, the role that you’re in, and what you’re doing at home, and balancing all that is awesome. There’s so many people, and I certainly don’t want it to sound sexist in any way. There’s so many people, male and female, who would never be able to even get their head around that kind of thing.
Peta Ellis: I love a challenge. For me, it’s just another job. So, I’m like, “Right, how can I make this week best?” But don’t get me wrong, there’s weeks where things just do not work. Something doesn’t work, or something’s on on the weekend, and then if I don’t get to prep, then it’s all just ad hoc during the week and you just have to make it up as you go. But the ideal week is when it’s forward planned, everyone knows what’s going on, and they should work. But everyone with a family knows that best case scenario and you just have to adapt and shift when it doesn’t work out.
Simon Dell: We’re coming to the end but there’s a couple of things I want to ask you in terms of summing this up. You’ve given us some really good advice throughout in terms of how you do things, and lessons you’ve learned. But if you sat down and you had a sat up or any business, and let’s not keep talking about startups because lots of businesses out there being run for 20 years that still need help, what are your three key pieces of advice to people who run businesses and own businesses?
Peta Ellis: Customers is always the biggest thing and the customer’s feedback. Are your customers happy? What do they actually want, and are you delivering that? Are you the best person to be delivering that? I don’t think you’d be surprised, but a lot of people would be surprised that they don’t talk to their customers. Especially if this business has been around for a while, they just assume that their customer is happy, and they keep delivering the same sort of service and not working with them to constantly iterate products, and come out with better versions, or get feedback from them, make them feel included on the journey.
I think that is one thing that the traditional business world can learn from the startup world, is that startups base everything around customer feedback. And if they don’t, then they sort of don’t have a business at all. Whereas traditional businesses that may have existed for a while may have lost a bit of touch. Not everyone, but some do for sure. In that, they could lose some customers but also be wiped out by someone who does come in with a more fresh or younger product, or something that’s more technically savvy, or completely disrupt their whole sector.
So, yes. Customers, absolutely number one, and that comes from I’m talking running a cafe to a huge organization. The customers are at the forefront every single time. And staff culture, internal culture is massive. If you don’t have happy people who understand what the company exists for, what their boss even likes, or does, or why they’re even in business, then you can’t expect the staff to be on board with any of the internal culture or focus. I think transparency is massive. The more you talk about why it is you’re doing what you’re doing, what makes you tick, then you can understand what makes them tick and help them to achieve their own personal goals.
I’m huge on enabling staff to follow whatever it is. So even in here, I’d love any of the staff that work with me to have this as a platform to launch their next thing. I know that I’m not going to have them forever. But if they can learn something while they’re here or perhaps go out on their own and they’ve acquired some skills along the way, that for me is huge success culturally.
Simon Dell: Final couple of questions then. I’ve asked this to everyone: brands that you like. Again, I’ll put this in context because you can’t say River City Labs. It only has to be one, but what I’m interested is something that you buy on a regular basis, something that you always gravitate to, that you’re obviously impressed with. I think with the brand, it’s something that you feel comfortable with that you know that the quality is going to be there, or the level of consistency, we’ve spoken about that earlier on, it’s always going to be there, something that you look at and just go, “That’s what I would aspire too from a brand perspective.”
Peta Ellis: I know I’m going to think of 20 of them when I finish this talk, but I think the brand that does really well at the moment is the Thankyou brand. I’ve got a kid in nappies, so I buy Thankyou nappy.
Simon Dell: Is that the guy that started out with the Thankyou water?
Peta Ellis: Yes. It’s a social enterprise model. Nappies are a bit cheap. You feel bad, landfill, cloth nappies, disposable, I’ve used the whole thing. But if I’m going to go down the root of having disposable nappies, I want to have something, I want to make sure I’m helping someone somewhere. So, they dedicate, I don’t actually know the actual breakdown of what they donate back to their charity. I just knowing that something’s going somewhere opposed to Huggies, which is going wherever it goes to with Huggies and all the other brands. And also just better materials, and ethically-sourced, and looking after people who make them, those sort of things are super important in today’s day and age.
I will not support any of the bigger brands like Johnson & Johnson and Huggies just because I know that they’re shit, and they don’t treat their people right, their toxic chemicals, and all that sort of stuff. I love the Flannerys brand. I’m not sure if it’s just Queensland or Australia, but they started off a really small health food store, but now they are, I think, will be quite a large independent supermarket chain just with, again, supporting other brands that are doing everything for the right reasons.
Yes, it’s more expensive, but we just need more people creating more opportunities like that to enable smaller brands to showcase their products, but also just to eat better, and use less chemicals, and all that sort of stuff. I feed on that sort of stuff, so I love what they’re doing.
Simon Dell: But you must’ve been in a Whole Foods. I remember walking into Whole Foods for the first time 10 years ago.
Peta Ellis: Exactly, and you look at what we’ve got here in Australia, you just think, “Why?” Especially when we have access to so much amazing stuff. I really hope that the Flannerys brand really goes gangbusters in the future or someone similar like that to push… I don’t why Coles and Woolies is so big, still. As far as consumable stuff, I really love the Oroton brand. I always have something about it. The quality I don’t think I’ve ever been disappointed when I’ve had something there, from wallets to handbags.
Simon Dell: Considering you’ve got those three at the top of your head, that’s pretty good. So last question, obviously, you’ve only just become CEO but that’s a fairly recent sort of graduation. There’s obviously a lot of work for you to still do at River City, but what’s next for you? Where do you see yourself going to in the next 5 to 10 years?
Peta Ellis: It’s 12 months I’ve been back or maybe a bit more, it was June of last year, and I came back with the sole purpose to get this facility up and running because it was something I felt was unfinished when I left. I’m on maternity leave and I wanted to come in and mail it because I had such a big vision for what I wanted it to be. So now that we’re in here, we filled it out really well. We’ve got amazing programs. For me, the next step is, “How do we remain relevant beyond the space, beyond this one facility, and have greater impact into the ecosystem and also the whole sector?”
I think we’ve got a massive responsibility to founders and entrepreneurs to keep delivering value, and connections, and quality content for them. I would love to expand what we do here at River City Labs into other regions, and other locations, and not so much setting up the facilities but work with other organizations who are everywhere else. We’ve got a lot to offer in the type of programs that we run in here. We’ve had some amazing results. The quality of them is really high. We focus on getting the right people to facilitate those programs. So, I would love to expand that more so that River City Labs has a broader reach more than just here in the Brisbane CBD.
Simon Dell: You’re off to London soon, aren’t you?
Peta Ellis: Yes. I’m taking a group of 15 female founders to London, which will be amazing. I was there in June for London Tech Week on one of the Startup Catalyst trips, and I’m taking another group of just women. The reason for that is we don’t have as many female founders in the ecosystem as we like. But also, there’s amazing women in business. There are a lot of people with small businesses, but we want to shift their thinking to understand that they have everything that they need right now to be creating globally-relevant companies. They just need to think bigger.
And by taking them and dropping them into the centre of one of the largest startup ecosystem, you can’t not unthink or unsee what you see over there. When you come back, you can’t go back in and just keep working on your small business. You have to do bigger and you have to do better things. It’s more like cultural transformation. It’s really life changing experience. So, I’m really looking forward to sharing that with all the women that come along.
Simon Dell: That’s going to be a trip and a half, isn’t it?
Peta Ellis: I know. The last one I went on, it was mixed. So, all women, I think already, it’s different because they ask so many questions, they’re super organized. The feel of it’s different already in just the application process, and selection, and preplanning. Plus, we’re connecting with some amazing women over there too. There’s amazing VCs, amazing entrepreneurs in London. The UK government are rolling out the red carpet for us on so many occasions. It’s going to be quite significant for the women that come. I’m super keen to understand. I want to see what they’re doing in six months’ time on the back of getting back from that trip.
Simon Dell: If people want to see that, are you going to document that trip?
Peta Ellis: I’ll be writing some stuff while away, but the women will be encouraged to. Part of the mandate of Startup Catalyst is to give back and share their learnings into the ecosystem upon return, whatever format that is best for them. I’m also…
Simon Dell: I think we’re going to need an Instagram hashtag for all of the women going.
Peta Ellis: There will be, yeah, to track us. I know what it was like. Most of the days are so jam packed. The intention is to break people, not in a bad way, but just to mentally breakdown how they think by pushing them to limits. The program itself is exhaustive on purpose so that people don’t have time to go to their computer, and slip into normal mode, and answer emails. When we do go out, have a wine at the end of the day, they get to debrief and process everything they saw during the day. That’s where the magic happens.
Simon Dell: Well, extremely jealous that you’re going to get to go to London, probably not so jealous about what the weather’s going to be like by the time you get there.
Peta Ellis: Oh, no. It’s going to be different from June, but I will take a jacket and and hope for the best.
Simon Dell: I went back in August, and within about three days, suddenly realized why I left there. And that was supposed to be a hot summer. It’s still fantastic.
Peta Ellis: I’ll come back into the heat of December.
Simon Dell: If people want to talk to you, find you, what’s the best way of tracking you down or stalking you?
Peta Ellis: I’m on Twitter, which is @ellispeta. I am on email and at River City Labs every single day. If people want to drop in, they can do that. But sending me an email to book a time if they actually want to have a chat is the best way. But if you want to just say hey, Twitter is also great. Same with Instagram. You’ll get spammed with little pics of my wife and kids on there as well, so just be prepared that that happens.
Simon Dell: Children spam, baby spam.
Peta Ellis: Yeah, children spam and beach. I love going to the coast and I spam people with my life down there.
Simon Dell: It has been absolutely fantastic. It’s been way too long since you and I had a long conversation like this. It was as interesting, perhaps 10 times more interesting than I already anticipated it would be. I just want to say thank you for your comments, your ideas, the stories, and absolutely everything. I hope you have a fantastic time in London.
Peta Ellis: Thank you.
Simon Dell: Thank you once again for your time.
Peta Ellis: No, thank you. It has been good. Every time I do one of these chats, especially this one, I’m not sure, maybe because you know me from way back then, I do actually learn more about myself. So, thank you for that. I do enjoy revisiting some of those old eras of my journey.
Simon Dell: Thank you.
Peta Ellis: Alright, thanks.