Building community one founder at a time

Building community one founder at a time

Last week, Gideon Shalwick, one of our SPARK members, and I went through a visioning exercise based on his recent experience working with several entrepreneurs and founders at a retreat in Bali. This session clarified a few things for me in relation to what we’re trying to achieve here at SPARK BUREAU and my role in making it all happen.  Some of this stuff represented some pretty transformational realisations that I’m now feeling compelled to share.

SPARK BUREAU members are startups. So, what's a startup?



by Zach Johnson

A couple months ago, I wrote a blog post about the differences between startup incubators and accelerators.  Reading it again, I realised that I didn’t address our definition of a startup.   I think it’s largely been asked and answered extensively by others whose experience and opinions I respect but there are still some who may wonder about how we at SPARK BUREAU define startups.  

It’s simple really.  According to Steve Blank, serial entrepreneur, Stanford academic and the guy who literally wrote the book on founding a startup: “A startup is an organization formed to search for a repeatable and scalable business model.” 1

This includes all of the companies we work with here at SPARK BUREAU.  Helping founders find a repeatable and scalable business model is our business.  Many of the tools and the general approach we teach and advocate are based on Blank’s work and on the others who followed including Osterwalder , Reis and Maurya

While it’s important to understand what defines a startup, it’s similarly important to consider when a startup is no longer a startup?  Blank frequently refers to startups as “temporary organizations”.  In an issue of Harvard Business Review from a few years ago, mostly dedicated to startups, Blank wrote: “One of the critical differences is that while existing companies execute a business model, start-ups look for one.”  

How do you know when to shift from looking to executing?  It's mostly for the market and your customers to decide that you’ve gotten it right.  But if it happens, just because you’ve ‘graduated’ and you’re generating recurring revenue, turning a profit, maybe operating in multiple countries and you’re a full-fledged company doesn’t mean you shouldn’t continue to follow the startup principles and think like the same founder with the guts and hustle that got you to where you are.

Bright Sparks gives opportunity to explore the world of virtual reality

Left to right: Mackenzie Reardon, Abbey Van de Vorst, Jacinta O’Shea, Brayden Munro, Kyra Bellamy, Dakota O’Shea

Left to right: Mackenzie Reardon, Abbey Van de Vorst, Jacinta O’Shea, Brayden Munro, Kyra Bellamy, Dakota O’Shea

There’s a fantastic new addition to the already thriving Sunshine Coast entrepreneurial ecosystem!

Council has partnered with Spark Bureau to provide a community driven space where local youngsters will have the opportunity to explore the world of virtual and augmented reality and develop skills for future careers in the technology industry.

Spark Bureau CEO Zach Johnson said virtual reality and live streaming had enormous potential for growth over the next 10 years.

“The Sunshine Coast is a hub for innovation and digital entrepreneurship and here at Spark Bureau we are helping businesses tap into emerging and future markets” Mr Johnson said.

“There are many compelling applications for virtual reality that will continue to evolve at a rapid pace like gaming; training and simulation; immersive educational experiences; art and film; and remote presence for social networking, meetings and medicine.

“So I applaud Sunshine Coast Council for helping to give the local community and particularly our young people access to virtual reality technology and a glimpse into the future. Utilising this technology will help to equip local youngsters with some of vital skills that will help open doors to exciting future careers in technology.”

Pursuing entrepreneurship has proven to be a life-changer for Sunshine Coast teenager and Bright Sparks Lab Virtual Reality Curator Mackenzie Reardon, who also recently launch his startup NEXTi which gives students the opportunity to work in startups.

Mackenzie was also a runner-up in last year’s Sunshine Coast Generation Innovation Challenge and is encouraging all local youngsters with a passion for innovation and entrepreneurship to come on down to Spark Bureau and get familiar with the new virtual reality programs.

“At Bright Spark labs we have a Virtual Reality-ready PC that powers our Virtual Reality headset. We also have live streaming gear here with microphones and high internet speeds to stream to multiple platforms,” he said.

“Our current games range from adventure and action to strategy and Building, multiplayer simulation and education and video and storytelling. The future of VR is looking great with many different applications coming out every day that can solve a lot of real world problems, such as education where the younger generation can now use VR as a new way of learning on a whole new level.

“I will be running a 3D painting competition soon where students will be invited to paint a real live mural on the wall in Bright Spark Labs based on their 3D creation. We hope the students will make this space their own and love entering the world of VR.”

Economic Development Portfolio Councillor Stephen Robinson said council was committed to exploring new, innovative digital technology to drive entrepreneurship and innovation on the Sunshine Coast.

“There is huge potential for future growth in the application of virtual reality to solve social, economic and environmental issues within society and your council believes it is critically important to invest in initiatives and programs like the Bright Sparks Lab that will fuel an entrepreneurial and innovative environment here on the Sunshine Coast,” Cr Robinson said.

“An important part of providing this new virtual and augmented reality space will be teaching our community and particularly our young people how to make it work for them and we’ll be doing that with Spark Bureau running a program of after school virtual reality workshops and demonstrations.

“Your council is extremely proud to support this and many other initiatives that support and strengthen our entrepreneurial ecosystem like the Mayor’s Telstra Technology Awards, Startup Weekend and Startup Weekend Youth and Coder Dojo.

“By investing in and supporting these programs and initiatives we want to provide our future generations with the opportunities to develop the skills, qualifications and knowledge that will be so important to tapping into the careers of the future.”

The Bright Sparks Lab is free to use and will be open to the public on Wednesday afternoons from 3pm to 6pm.

Why is SPARK BUREAU a not-for-profit?



by Zach Johnson

Did y’all know that SPARK BUREAU is a not-for-profit organisation? Do you care? Should you?

I’ll start by declaring that NFP is a tax designation, not a business model. NFPs should operate as any other business with customers and shareholders using sound practices and good governance. Ultimately, the main distinction between a for-profit company and a NFP is what happens with any money or assets made beyond what’s necessary to cover costs. This profit, or ‘surplus’ in NFP parlance, is redirected back into the business to support activities related to its mission as defined in its constitution and not distributed to owners, directors or other beneficiaries.

In the case of SPARK BUREAU, we exist to support startups. By extension, supporting startups allows us to assist in realising the Sunshine Coast Regional Economic Development Strategy by playing a meaningful role in launching new businesses, creating new jobs in the knowledge economy, establishing high-wage career pathways for Sunshine Coast residents and elevating the reputation of the Sunshine Coast as a leading regional hub of innovation in Australia.

Our constitution states that the objective of SPARK BUREAU is to “support, assist and facilitate the growth and development of startups to achieve quick expansion, capital, knowledge, global opportunities and connections with corporate leaders and investors.”

We do these things by:

  • offering startups a comprehensive and tailored mentoring program which will provide advisory support including but not limited to strategic, technical and investment advice;
  • facilitating opportunities to offer start-ups quick expansion;
  • offering startups the opportunity to source and gain seed capital;
  • endeavouring to provide a state of the art purpose built and adaptable working space for startups; and
  • educating startups in the necessary areas required to support the growth of a startup, including but not limited to personal relations, human relations, business planning, pitch coaching, networking and presentation.

The activities listed above are taken verbatim from our company constitution, approved by our directors before we opened our doors and commenced operations. Do you care? Maybe not. Should you? Well… I think you should. Why? It’s probably important to understand where we’re coming from as an organisation. 100% of everything we do is dedicated to supporting startups and entrepreneurs and 0% of anything beyond covering our costs makes its way into anyone’s pockets.

The federal funds we receive as a pilot of what is now called the Incubator Support Programme go to directly support the above activities. So does the generous support from the Sunshine Coast Council to help bring expert speakers into the region or make virtual reality equipment available to the public (stay tuned for more exciting news about that!). Coworking membership fees and venue hire fees? Guess what? They also go to help provide open and accessible support programs to startups as per our constitution.

So if you’re a paying member of our startup community, you are contributing to the self-propagation of your very own startup community which exists solely to support the Sunshine Coast’s startup community. Cool huh? Do you care now?

Good — me too! A lot.

What is a startup incubator?



by Zach Johnson

So here’s the thing. Sometimes you embrace a name you know isn’t wholly representative of what you’re trying to do in order to increase the understanding and support of the community you’re hoping will embrace what you’re trying to do. This is the case at SPARK BUREAU.

We’re currently running our second incubator intake, comprised of five tech startups. These companies get full-time coworking membership, weekly check-in meetings, monthly milestone reviews, mentoring from our extensive network of successful executives and entrepreneurs, investor introductions, access to workshops and guest speakers and training from experts in lean startup principles, design thinking, agile methodology, digital marketing, funding and IP protection.

Incubators are generally less formally structured offerings of no finite duration. Accelerators are generally more structured programs lasting 3–6 months. Many incubators are housed within and supported by public institutions including local government or universities. Many accelerators are for-profit and provide opportunities for private organisations and individuals to offer seed funding in exchange for equity. Some incubators take startups at the earliest stages — still in ideation, and provide support including, strategy, development and marketing to get those companies to launch. Many accelerators prefer to wait until the startup has demonstrated some “traction” as indicated by things like signups, downloads, subscriptions or contracts.

SPARK BUREAU is both of these things and neither of these things at the same time. We are a not-for-profit. Technically, this is a tax designation rather than a business model. Specifically, we established SPARK BUREAU to be aligned with our regional economic development strategy and are very much about helping create and attract more digital technology companies that represent higher wage employment opportunities thereby lifting the economic base of the Sunshine Coast.

We’re also dedicated to helping foster and support our community of creatives, technologists, marketers and business people in aid of developing a stronger pool of resources from which our tech entrepreneurs — and indeed established companies — can draw to enhance efficiencies, further innovation, and increase our regional competitive advantage.

Ultimately, we’re less about nailing the exact marketing term or finding the most highly refined monetisation strategy than iterating to find what works for our local tech startups, our region and our partners. We will continue to iterate and use our unique model to expand our offering to those outside of our immediate geography and attract startups at various stages to start and grow their tech business on the Sunshine Coast.

For more in the differences between incubators and accelerators:

This article was originally posted on Medium

Bots, beacons & dirty laundry: Spark Bureau's second incubator cohort


An Uber-­like laundry service, chatbots for cities, and beacon technology marketing are among the tech start­ups chosen for Spark Bureau’s second incubator cohort. After Spark Bureau’s inaugural cohort completed in May, the Sunshine Coast incubator has just announced the five local, innovative, tech start­ups taking part in the August cohort. 

Zach Johnson, Spark Bureau’s co­founder and CEO, was thrilled at the quality of applicants for the incubator’s second intake.

“We had twenty­five applications, of which we chose five tech start­ups to be included in the August intake. Our tech expertise, and the fact we are a non­for­profit, community focused organisation gives us a unique place in the startup ecosystem here on the Sunshine Coast,” said Johnson.

The chosen five:

1. Xandra Labs

Xandra Labs is one of the first companies in the world to be developing personalities and dialogue for brands to engage their users in Facebook Messenger. The design­led tech startup is currently working on urban and community development projects.

2. ChilliDocs

ChilliDocs is a cloud­based service that can significantly improve the productivity of document production and management tasks by automatically generating documents from templates. These documents can be distributed via multiple channels such as email, DropBox Google Drive and one­touch post.

3. SafeSmartPickUp

SafeSmartPickUp is a technology platform to improve traffic flow at school pick­ups.

4. Epicuest

Epicuest is an omni­channel platform integrating beacon technology with marketing, loyalty and social media solutions for bricks and mortar businesses.

5. Lifestyle Laundry

Lifestyle Laundry is a service built on a unique technology platform that taps into home­based laundries to pick up, wash, fold and return your laundry within 24 hours.

The companies will receive full­time coworking membership, weekly check­in meetings, monthly milestone reviews, mentoring from an extensive network of successful executives and entrepreneurs, investor introductions, access to workshops and guest speakers and training from experts in lean startup principles, design thinking, agile methodology, digital marketing, funding and IP protection.

Brian Keayes, a co­founder of fintech startup Promis , and inaugural cohort graduate reiterated Spark Bureau’s success.

“The calibre of coaches and material in Spark’s incubator program is definitely on par with conferences I’ve been to in the United States and with major companies I’ve been involved with in Melbourne. It’s exciting to see programs like this in regional Queensland and I look forward to hearing about the success of the second cohort,” said Keayes. 

Solving the problem of solving problems

by Zach Johnson

This past Sunday I found myself in the very good company of a group of spirited entrepreneurs, hackers and designers. Startup Weekend Sunshine Coast 2016  brought together 13 teams over 54 hours and, for the fourth time, I got to experience the energy, enthusiasm and exhaustion of groups of strangers in a confined space under enormous (mostly fabricated) pressure. Their task was to take an idea pitched on Friday and demonstrate how they’ve gone through the necessary steps to explain how they are solving a specific problem and, ideally creating a viable business in the process. My role on the judging panel afforded me a necessarily critical view of these businesses and an opportunity to reflect on the process of problem solving.

Full disclosure: I’m not a massive fan of the Startup Weekend model — at least not as a place to start a business. The spectacle obfuscates the gravitas of the process and thrusts strangers together through a perverse combination of speed dating and self-promotion into an intimate dance that, for many, will end in disillusion. And while that may just be the point, billing of the event tends to focus on launching a startup in a weekend. But what it really offers is an opportunity to experience the process of some of the things it takes to launch a startup and, most specifically, how to figure out of you’re genuinely solving a problem or if you’ve just got a solution looking for a problem. This is a really important question to ask, and answer. The best teams I saw this weekend, spent time on this question and that time spent was reflected in their pitch.

For others, a massive opportunity was missed to demonstrate a reasonable grasp on the problem to be solved by understanding existing alternatives and especially the competitive landscape. Several teams pitched ideas that were already being addressed in a near-identical manner by established solutions. This is arguably forgivable on the Friday night pitch but to spend the next two days building a product that is not sufficiently differentiated from multiple competitors is unacceptable. Addressing this is probably a task for the Startup Weekend organisation to either: help set clearer expectations of participants to create rather than copy and/or; focus less on the outcome and more on the process. In other words, if your idea isn’t actually going solve a problem in a weekend you can absolutely start to learn the process of solving problems in a weekend.

After all, the best entrepreneurs are nothing if not exceptionally creative problem solvers.

This article was originally posted on Medium

Words are the new code



by Zach Johnson

I wrote my first line of code just shy of 20 years ago. I wasn’t especially early to the game of computing by anyone’s definition but I was ready with a small set of skills in 1997 when the first dot com boom boomed. At that time I knew enough to meaningfully contribute to some pretty ground-breaking stuff and saw the launch and growth (and, in some cases, the subsequent crash) of some very cool products, projects and companies. Through formal classroom instruction, a stack of O’Reilly books and, I gained sufficient chops to write some decent code but never really got much beyond scripting and into the realm of engineering software.

Fast forward to 2016 — several jobs, companies, countries and continents later and I’m still arguably capable of writing some very mediocre code. The difference now, however, is that my marginal skills combined with a plethora of platforms, services, libraries, utilities and SaaS products can produce some remarkable results approaching commercial grade software. This was really driven home for me by recent experience dabbling with Slack integrations and bots in particular. Products like Botkit represent near layman-level starting point to do some incredibly interesting things via a set of tools that also allow non-developers to build things relatively easily — the Slack API.

Early experimentation with these tools and with other products like Squarespace have led me to the conclusion that words are the new code. Not for everyone of course. For software engineers code is king (duh!) but for the average startup founder, businesses can be launched, ideas validated, product market fit tested and traction gained using some very sophisticated tools, none of which require the writing of any code. Which leaves words.

Customer experience, of both brand and product have mostly been via the written word for ages and today, with the exciting resurgence/emergence of the Conversational UI, words are the most important element of many products and, in fact, for some such as Clara Labsx.aiHowdyAssistOperator and others, words are the product.

We’re not all capable of creating our very own Jarvis as a side project but many of us are more than capable of serving up compelling functionality in the interfaces we’re already using and focusing on the text-based interaction we have with our customers and colleagues. Combine this with the power of content marketing to generate buzz and you can launch products faster and with less money today then ever before. What does this mean for today’s digital entrepreneurs faced with creating an MVP without a technical cofounder? If you want to attract customers more quickly while delivering deeper engagement, use your words.

Incubating Relationships



by Zach Johnson

Of all the various elements involved in the design and creation of a startup incubator program the one piece I failed to properly predict was how to handle interpersonal relationships across the cohort. I’ve been managing people for over 25 years, but the dynamics between staff and manager are very different to those between a single advisor and 9 individual companies. As a manager you have a duty-of-care for your staff and the authority to address personal development within the context of professional development. Incubators, on the other hand, (and coworking spaces) have a duty-of-care to provide a safe and welcoming work environment but not really the authority to highlight, initiate or mediate discussions amongst members and founders related to how they treat and interact with each other. This is certainly an interesting challenge and one that represents a learning opportunity for all involved.

We’ve recently had an ‘air-clearing’ session between some of our founders, the result of which will be determined by changes in behaviours over time. While we won’t know if this session achieved its desired outcome right away, the process of voicing delicate issues in a group setting is a valuable experience in itself. We are all adults and business leaders with different backgrounds, experiences and perspectives. We don’t all have to like each other. For that matter, founders in an incubator don’t necessarily have to even respect each other (we certainly can’t make them) but, for those of us who run these programs, we should absolutely expect and demand that they behave respectfully towards one another.

My biggest takeaway from this recent episode is that we need to do a better job of setting expectations around a code-of-conduct from the outset and provide opportunities for personal development as part of our program. We owe it to our coworking community to foster a positive energy in our space and we owe it to the entrepreneurial community to produce alumni who can not only navigate the considerable challenges of launching a startup but who can also navigate the sometimes more treacherous landscape of dealing with people.