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Mick Liubinskas: Australia’s startup ecosystem would be stronger with a single city leading it

Mick Liubinskas is the founder of Climate Salad, an organisation that aims to boost climate tech companies in Australia and New Zealand by providing tools, programs and community support. Mick has a long history working within the startup ecosystem both in Australia and overseas, and notably was co-founder of Pollenizer, one of Australia’s first startup incubators. This is a special episode featuring guest host Alan Jones, an investor and veteran of Australia’s startup ecosystem who has supported Australian startups independently and through BlueChilli, Blackbird Ventures, Pollenizer Ventures and Startmate. In the conversation, Mick and Alan compare notes on the early days of Australia’s startup ecosystem, and discuss Mick’s belief that Australia’s startup ecosystem would be stronger with a single city leading as the central hub for startups within the country.

Resources

Climate Salad: https://www.climatesalad.com/

Pollenizer: http://www.pollenizer.com/

Mick on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/mliubinskas/

Transcript

Alan Jones: Hi, I’m Alan Jones and I am today’s guest host for this episode of Welcome to Day One, the podcast for Ozzie founders, startups, and the organizations that support Australian entrepreneurship. And my guest today is Mick Liubinskas. Mick, could you please introduce yourself? 

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Mick Liubinskas: Hi Alan, Mick Liubinskas here. I work in climate technology. I help people who are building climate technology companies grow them to scale. I do that to support the environment, getting to a place of comfort. I run an ecosystem called Climate Salad, and I directly invest in climate tech companies. 

Alan Jones: So, Mick, you and I have known each other for centuries, decades, at least. Do you remember what you were doing and what I was doing when we first met? 

Mick Liubinskas: I think we may have met way back in the Yahoo days. I was already marketing for Virgin Interactive and selling computer games back in the late ’90s when I first started getting into doing HTML. And I think we were doing some ads on the games network with Yahoo Australia. So may have met the first time there, but I think, more importantly, we met when we were trying to build out, you were doing Blue Pulse back when the industry could fit into one room. 

Alan Jones: And it did. And it did. There used to be a thing called Silicon Beach. 

Mick Liubinskas: Drinks. Yeah, exactly. 

Alan Jones: Yeah. Silicon Beach drinks, Thursday nights. And the whole industry in the one room and it started to get a little bit crowded relatively early on, but that was one of the things that made it special, wasn’t it? 

Mick Liubinskas: Exactly. 

Alan Jones: Do you remember the point at which you decided to make a transition? I mean, you were in a marketing role with a game software publisher. Do you remember the decision point where you decided it was time to switch careers to startups? 

Mick Liubinskas: Yeah, so it was partly forced upon me by, Virgin Interactive, moved their office back to London and they gave me six months’ notice. So I just started helping out people building websites. And so I started my own business doing that. And then I built a platform and had a few people invest in it. And I was really, really, really naive. It’s taken me a long, long time to learn the basics in technology. So my path has been really wildly meandering, but I’ve loved it. I loved working in small businesses basically because you get to be a part of that team which is starting something new and you get to touch all parts of the business. And it certainly appeals to my poor attention span. 

Mick Liubinskas: And startups were, you have a big mission, you work really, really hard to try to get something off the ground. You build a new product, get first customers and first revenue and grow these things and it’s wildly risky. And certainly, I’ve had a ton more failures and successes, but I love that part of the journey. I think the biggest change for me, the two big changes was going from corporate to startups. And then the next one was going from a single startup into multiple startups. And that was again, after working at Tangler, Phil Morle and I just started helping out multiple companies and we kind of accidentally started Pollenizer. 

Alan Jones: Before we go into Pollenizer, tell us a little bit about what Tangler was and why did that start in Sydney? Who started it? How did you join? 

Mick Liubinskas: Yeah, so I actually ran marketing for Kazaa, which was kind of a startup, but also my last real pure marketing role. 

Alan Jones: Now we’re going to have to tell the kids at Kazaa was. 

Mick Liubinskas: Exactly. 

Alan Jones: I mean, they can look it up on Wikipedia if we spell it for them, but it’s got way too many A’s, doesn’t it? 

Mick Liubinskas: Way too many A’s, and spelled in the old hacker language, but yeah, Kazaa was basically the follow-on from Napster. So Napster allowed you to download music from servers and Kazaa got a bit clever and said, “We can download music from a distributed server.” So basically the index was distributed. So a bit of a precursor to certainly to BitTorrent and certainly a little bit to blockchain and some of the crypto stuff. But I was hired into Kazaa to turn it into basically kind of like Netflix and Spotify. The view was this peer-to-peer distribution of content was massively efficient. Can we use that as a new distribution network? So, that was my vision. So, that was the vision that I was hired to do. 

Mick Liubinskas: We eventually stopped fighting that fight and I went traveling around the world. I came back to Australia, wrote a book on my travels, and started helping companies. And then I met Marty and the team from Tangler, they were growing a chat tool. So they were trying to build, basically, a live chat tool. This was back again, pre-Twitter pre- even Facebook was only really, Facebook was still only for universities at this point, back in 2005. So Tangler, yeah, they asked me to come and join and help them build the product and launch it into the US. We did that for a year, we made a whole bunch of mistakes. This is even pre-Lean and pre-Agile. So we spent a year and a million bucks launching a product to find out that nobody wanted it. I think we had all the elements there, but we didn’t take an Agile, Lean approach, we had an old stealth approach. So yeah, a lot of lessons learned and, yeah, a great group of people. But, yeah, we just didn’t get the approach right and didn’t have the patience to go and build it out. 

Alan Jones: And why do you think we used to do things in a non-Lean way? Why did we take that Waterfall approach back in the day? Was it because that was the only thing that anybody knew how to do? Or was it something that was forced upon us by the technologies that we used? What was that about, do you think? 

Mick Liubinskas: I think it all plays into it again, right back when we started, you literally had to buy servers, and every payment, everything you did, there was no SaaS tools. Starting a SaaS tool company today, you probably buy 20 products, which does half of the heavy lifting. You had to do every single thing yourself, we had to build individual gateways into every single bank. All these things were really, really, really hard. So I think because of that, the technology costs were higher, it took longer. So it was just harder to be lean and agile. 

Alan Jones: Yeah, on the banking front, I remember there was a time when NAB was the only Australian bank that would offer any kind of services to Australian startups, a gateway. And I think they used to make you put down, maybe it was a quarter or a half a million dollar security deposit before they would even start to process credit card transactions. Am I remembering that right? Or something like that. 

Mick Liubinskas: Yeah. There were different levels and depending on what you wanted to do, but it was so manual and clumsy, but that were the foundation times, right? So it was almost impossible, but the technology was actually hard to build. And then the technology got taken off the table to be like, “Well, you can build anything.” And then it became, “Okay. If anyone can build anything, then the hard part is finding something that people want to build, that other people can’t build.” So yeah, the game really, really, really changed. It’s hard, you’ve got to… And it’s still changing, it’s still changing even faster. So I think you have to be completely and utterly, constantly keeping up to speed and learning new skills, which is exciting, but a bit tough. 

Alan Jones: I remember Mark Peche and I were speaking once and he was saying, he thought one of the reasons why Waterfall was the way forward, back in those days, was that you really only got one chance to launch a product because the launch was mainly about the marketing and advertising that you would do for it. And because most consumers, nobody had a smartphone and most consumers were really only on the internet maybe once a day. So you had to reach out to them to promote your brand and your URL on the sides of buses and cinema ads and print ads, you used to advertise startups in print, in the AFR, to try and get people to remember to, “Oh, yes. I must check that URL when I get back to my computer tonight after work.” And so it forced you in a way that you had to make the product as perfect as it could be because if the customer wasn’t surprised and delighted with it, the first time they used it, they would probably never come back. Do you remember it that way? 

Mick Liubinskas: Absolutely. It was completely different. I mean, it’s one of the things we’re facing, I think with climate at the moment is back then it was on the premise of actually getting people online and to your site and liking the product and paying for it. There was just so many things, and actually the early adopters, there were so many challenges and the early adopters were really only the 1%, there wasn’t just the money being spent on B2B SaaS, on consumer eCommerce that we have now. The comfort we have with the technology has taken many, many years, more than 20 years, of course, to get to this point. But it took at least 10 years to get to the base point of comfort. 

Mick Liubinskas: And again, I’m asking myself the same questions around climate, even though there’s a lot of people being positive about it, there’s a lot of news, there’s a lot of tech, is the world ready to comfortably spend money that way? Whether it’s government and consumers or business? I think learning those lessons, I always think don’t just learn the individual lesson of, “Hey, it was hard to go and launch a product you had to go and buy ads.” Learn the principle that actually, “What do you have to do to make this work in the current environment?” And ask yourself that question and you’ve always got to go back to first principles because everything changes constantly. 

Alan Jones: Everything changes constantly. And so the next big impact that you had with your co-founder, Phil Morle, on the Australian tech startup ecosystem was Pollenizer. Can you tell us a bit about what Pollenizer was and why you chose to take that step next? 

Mick Liubinskas: Yes. So again, as with a lot of things in my life, I accidentally find myself in them, after Tangler, Phil and I just started, Phil started helping companies out doing CTO work. I started helping out with marketing and product work and we started just referring customers to each other. And then it was like, “You know what, there’s a lot of these companies starting and trying to work out how to build tech products. So let’s just do it together.” And it was really just for the first six months was just Phil and I basically working together and helping companies out. And then one of the companies basically said, “Well I can’t…” And we were charging like $200 a day. So really, really, really low rates, and we just really wanted to learn whatever we could about helping these companies. But we were working with a lot of them and then some of them were like, “Well, yeah, I can’t even pay you $200 a day, but I’ll pay $100 a day and I’ll give you some ESOP.” And so I was like, “Okay, sure. Why not? It’s only Sunday to give up.” 

Mick Liubinskas: So we just started basically then building a portfolio of this bit of equity and some of that started to grow and back then it was really difficult, ESOPs in Australia were kind of taxed badly and people didn’t want to work for startups, it was too risky. So, we said, “Well, what if we can hire engineers into Pollenizer and then put them to work in the startups? And then at least they’ll leave their safe job at the bank to come work for us, and then go and work for startups. So kind of a midway point.” So I think we had some good timing in terms of the shift towards growth in startups, where I think we were challenged was it was so hard to basically just keep the lights on. We had too an expensive core, the accelerator model came a few years after we got started and we were one of the first investors into Startmate and mentored there. 

Mick Liubinskas: But yeah, so I’m really excited about what Pollenizer was able to do in terms of the positive impact on the industry. But we didn’t get to really capture much value because we spent so much time learning about it and creating and investing in the creation of it that we didn’t actually invest in enough good companies. I will, unfortunately, always look at Pollenizer as massively underachieving because even though we had a couple of good companies come through it, we were just a few years ahead. We should have lasted longer and done something different. We few years ahead of the big growth curve and that’s hard to look back on. And to know that we worked hard and we were right there, but we just were a bit early and had the model just a bit wrong. 

Alan Jones: So although you’d do it differently, if you could do it again, there were a couple of great successes that came out of Pollenizer? So do you want to name-drop a couple of people or a couple of companies?

Mick Liubinskas: Yeah. I mean, Spreets was the big one, but again, Spreets, we built and sold it in 13 months and it was more of a client business of Groupon, but it had a great team and a really hungry co-founder in Dean McEvoy, who, again, I think in our benefit, we backed Dean’s previous startup Booking Angel, and we supported him building out some tech and having a swing at it and it didn’t work out. And then we went again with him and that speaks to the resilience required of participating in this space, and also the portfolio required. And fast forward to today, we were co-founders of Lawpath with Dom and the team who are now just doing incredible work and growing great. So we had early successes and slow successes, and that’s the challenge of startups is- 

Alan Jones: Just to make sure you’re not too modest about Spreets too, that was in 13 months built and sold that business to Yahoo for $40 million, which at that time was an incredibly big amount of money. And still, even these days to go from zero to selling a startup for 40 mil would be, a lot of pats on the back for that achievement. 

Mick Liubinskas: It was. And look, the team Dean used to, and Phil was a really big driver of that, but we had Fleur and Oliver from Pollenizer and Jon Tyson, amazing team, we had them ready. I remember someone afterward saying, “You just got lucky.” And I was like, “You just completely utterly disrespected that we backed Dean McEvoy a second time after a failure. That we had built this team up two years in advance and trained them and helped them be in the position so we could be right there. We worked our butts off and got sales, within 30 days, how dare you actually… Sure there was luck, but we did 25 things to give ourselves the chance to be lucky.” And Spreets was fantastic, but it was also such an outlier for us that it hurt us in some ways, in that we were unable to repeat that. We wanted to build innovative technologies; we didn’t want to keep doing client work that can be profitable. And we returned the first fund through Spreets, which was great, but it’s hard. You’ve got to find things you’re really passionate about and find things that the world’s prepared to pay you for. And finding that in an industry that’s just forming in Australia is really, really hard. 

Mick Liubinskas: So I really appreciate, again, Fleur, Oliver, Jon Tyson, Dean who used us, and everyone involved in Lawpath and certainly Phil for backing that and pushing that really hard. But it was people like Clare Hallam who behind the scenes did all the ops work and sold the business brilliantly. But it’s emotionally draining, what I love about being involved in multiple companies is, I try to put my heart into everything and it doesn’t always work out. And back then, I was a bit more resilient, irrepressible. These days it’s like putting my energy into these different things you’ve got to be aware that you’re committing to it wholeheartedly. So sometimes it works out like Spreets, and sometimes it doesn’t work out like we bought, we sold to a public company, it went up and down and now is worth 1 cent. Now the whole company’s been bought, but that’s the thing I started from scratch and could have been great. Maybe should have done something different, it’s yeah, it’s an emotional connection. 

Alan Jones: Definitely an emotional connection. And I think another important thing for people to understand if they want to understand what it was like in the very early days in Australia in the startup industry, was that you said before that you found yourself in the startup industry rather than really consciously choosing it. And you were at a point where you were unemployable on other things. It wasn’t like you went into startups thinking, “Yes, this is going to be a gold mine. This is going to be a money printing factory.” You went into it going, “Shit, maybe this will bail me out.” And I think many of us were in that position. Right? So that first generation were misfits, people that weren’t excelling in other careers and other professions at that time, and this was a last-ditch attempt. Nobody thought, “Oh, yes, I’m going to have a career in the startup industry.” And especially not that I’m going to make hundreds of millions of dollars. 

Alan Jones: Now, there is a bit of a career path, there is a big enough startup ecosystem that you can look forward to 10 or 20 years of working in five or six different startups and learning and growing with each experience. And that’s a fantastic thing. But I think that is one of the different aspects of the startup community today. It is an industry that does exist. 

Mick Liubinskas: Yeah, absolutely. And it’s one of the things we wanted to go and create. Like I’m sitting here at Fishburners right now. And back when we had those drinks at the Grace Hotel, and we were like, “Wow, well, wonder if we can…” Imagine if we just had such a concentration of technology that you walk around and you see what I see today? Like I walked past the Immutable guys today in their t-shirts and hoodies, and I was like, “Man, startup shirt, startup shirts, startup shirt, that’s fantastic.” I just love that there is that career. 

Mick Liubinskas: It is really hard, it goes back again to thinking, to finding what success is to you and for some people and the founders that I really, really respect, it’s, they’ll do the one thing for 20 years and they’ll build that up slow and slowly over time. Jindou from HappyCo who just raised a massive round, when he came into start, I remember he was doing a checklist, his app with his checklist. He’s like, “No, I’m going to build a big business around this.” It’s like, “Really? Wow.” And he’s done it. He’s just done it for what seven, must be 10 years now, nine years. I don’t know. But… 

Alan Jones: 10, certainly 10. 

Mick Liubinskas: I love that commitment. But then I see people like you and I, who struggle to fit into a single company for a long period of time, we’ve done a lot we’ve seen probably a thousand term sheets and we’ve helped companies a lot of ways. And you could define success again in yourself and what you want to get out of it. I love really, really helping people and I put that above commercial and I’ve put that above commercial many, many times. And so I now don’t have a billion dollars in the bank, and not to say I would’ve if I took other paths, but maybe, but I love what I do. And I’m very, very privileged to even have the opportunity to try to do it. But totally unemployable. I ran into Nick Gonios yesterday, we would always laugh about being totally unemployable and we got all these skills and we want to help. And that’s okay, you’ve just got to go find a way to help. And if you can work at that out long term, have a long term alignment with people then that should be fine, so…

Alan Jones: So I want to ask you a little more about Climate Salad, the thing that you’re working on now, and I just want to ask you, you’ve had some kind of come to Jesus moment there, you’ve had some kind of experience or decision that you made where you decided that saving the climate was not only the most important thing for the world but for you personally. Because you’re now one of those annoying friends on Facebook that won’t let any of us get away with our greenwashing. What’s going on? Is that because you’re a dad? Is that because you really want to save the world? What’s going on with Climate Salad? How did you make that decision? 

Mick Liubinskas: It’s a number of things. Partly it’s the world of technology had moved so far forward, just doing core technology in SaaS to me, wasn’t… I looked and went, yeah, I turned 47 last year. I want to work for another 20, 30 years. And if I do more SaaS marketplace apps I won’t be able to get up and get excited every day. So I wanted to find something new. So I was very, very open for that. And I’d always been a privately annoying environmentalist with a KeepCup very early and going around the house turning lights off and tiny things as a consumer. And then I moved to the US about five years ago and one of the reasons to do that was that I was so deeply entrenched in the Australian tech industry that I was doing 20 to 30, 15-minute calls with entrepreneurs each week for free. And I felt like I was just beholden to it and I was never going to be able to make a change. So one of the reasons to go was to put myself in a tougher, different environment. 

Mick Liubinskas: And that was actually so tough that I was even more unemployable over in the US, but it just so happened that a certain person got elected president in the US. And that person pulled out of the Paris Agreement. And my best mate in the world, Nathan Fabian works for a company called PRI, which basically has spent 12 years trying to convince all the biggest financiers in the world that climate change is real and important. And as you do to mates, we used to play competitive basketball together and I said to him, I sent him a note and said, “Haha, your job just got harder.” And he responded back and said, “Maybe it’s time you got in the game.” And that was one of the best touchés I’ve ever seen. And I was there in the US so I was like, “What the hell can I add to clean tech and sustainability?” And so I went to the a Berkeley University program called Cyclotron Road back then, I think it’s called Activate now. And Singularity University had a sustainability program and Stanford and Y Combinator had a couple of sustainability companies. 

Mick Liubinskas: So I just went to those companies and said, “I’ve got no idea what you do in terms of your tech, but I’ve done a bunch of stuff. Can I help?” And I found out they had the same problems that they just need to build a team, build a product, go get customers, maybe raise capital. And then some of those people said, “Hey, yeah, here’s four or five books to go and read.” So I just read a couple of books and then you can’t unsee it. But once you start thinking about how many, like billions and billions of coffee cups, the reason I scowl at people with, especially with espresso takeaway coffee cups, it’s like, we just are so oblivious to the fact that you throw that away. And there’s no place called away, it’s somewhere else. It just gets taken out of your comfortable life, and then you drive your car around and it pumps carbon into the air and you get food and you don’t eat it. And again, “I’m massively privileged in the world, oh just throw it in the bin, someone else will take it. Who cares?” 

Mick Liubinskas: So once you start reading that, and then you look at all the David Attenborough documentaries, I did spend about three months just going deep in it. And it’s scary, climate anxiety is really real and there’s no guarantees. Hopefully, we save it and it doesn’t get too bad. But you combine that with being a dad of three kids between seven and 11 and of age. And I’m like, “Oh my goodness, they’re not going to grow up.” You want your kids to grow up and have a better environment than you had, a better world, and a better situation, right? And my three kids are going to grow up with more floods, more bush fires, more storms, and rising waters. And it’s no individual’s fault. Although definitely there’s some people who could have helped divert it. But we’ve got the opportunity to go and change it now. So yeah, it’s scary, be careful doing it. But going to read books like Gates’ book and John Doerr’s new book, Size and Scale. I mean, [inaudible] line of it reading and understanding what we’ve done to the environment. 

Mick Liubinskas: All the growth. It feels free, right, you feel you throw it in the ocean, the ocean is so big, how could you possibly fill it up? And there’s a billion people, actually, one of the best ones I heard, because my dad’s like, “Fill the kettle up fully and boil it all the time. Just have it boiling.” And I’m like, “No, no, it’s a waste.” He says, “Oh, come on. It’s just such a tiny thing.” And someone quantified it and worked out that the amount of boiling that happens every day is just incredible, literally billions and billions of times water is boiled. And it just adds up and you just feel how can one person’s contribution matter? And of course, it doesn’t, it’s so small, but there are billions of us now, there’s a billion people doing a thousand things a day bad for the environment. That is a hundred trillion negative things a day, so yeah, [crosstalk] 

Alan Jones: Yeah, that’s got to add up. 

Mick Liubinskas: It does add up. And the beauty of it is though, we can change it by just changing the little things we do every day. And it’s not that hard. I’m not some amazing hero. It’s like, “Carry a KeepCup. Just get the bus, walk a bit more.” The same trillion things can be turned into positives. 

Alan Jones: I get it. That’s really cool, Mick, really cool. You’ve always been a goal guy. I remember visiting your house at Woolloomooloo 20 years ago and you had a whiteboard up on the wall and you and Karen both had your goals and there were daily goals, there were weekly goals. Then there were quarterly, and I think you had long-term goals as well. With Climate Salad specifically, what’s probably your biggest near-term goal? And then what’s your big, hairy, audacious goal for the future? 

Mick Liubinskas: Yeah. Thank you. So it’s hard, again, with the reflections on Pollenizer and seeing some amazing venture funds out there. My reflection on that is, try to get the model right. So it’s easy for me to start things and Climate Salad definitely just got started as a blog and has morphed into a big potential impact on the ecosystem. But I do really want to get the model right. And so I’m trying really, really hard to keep entrepreneurs, building climate tech companies at the center of Climate Salad so it doesn’t pollute with other elements. And that’s been great. So the short-term and the long-term goals are quite linked. And the way that I believe that Climate Salad can have an impact on these companies is to help them get customers as a priority. So customers solve most of the problems with startups. If you get customers, you get revenue, you get proof points, you get momentum, you get more customers. And so that’s our focus. 

Mick Liubinskas: And so we’ve been working with great people like Stefan Knight from AWS and other growth specialists. And it’s like, “If we can help these climate tech companies, help them get their business model right, get them new customers.” And especially for Australian companies, get customers in big markets. So Australia’s a big country, but it’s a small market. Not many companies can reach scale purely in Australia, though some can, especially in climate. So, that’s been the focus. So my goal last year at SOUTHSTART was to help a hundred climate tech companies over a year, just help them somehow. That was pretty vague. My goal for the next year is to help a hundred climate tech companies get a new customers. So, that’s the goal. 

Mick Liubinskas: And the goal for 2030, my hairy, audacious goal is to help a thousand climate tech companies, a hundred a year, seems like we should be able to do it 10 more over the next 10 years. The other way we help is also trying to help them get team members and capital, but the primary focus is on customers. So, yeah, that’s what I’m working towards. I do have a very, very big follow-on goal, which is Climate Salad needs to get to sustainability and financial sustainability because at the moment, it’s me working my butt off with amazing support from Charlotte Connell and some advisors. So I’m trying to find partners and sponsors at the moment. Companies who are prepared to help us grow Climate Salad and government grants; I think should support us as well. But for members, it’s $100 a year. We’re trying to keep it very small but committed. 

Alan Jones: I’m a member, you’ve got me. 

Mick Liubinskas: Yay. 

Alan Jones: Yay. 

Mick Liubinskas: Thanks, mate. 

Alan Jones: Hey, so we’re a little over 10:00 AM and I still actually have all of the questions still to ask you. Can we extend our interview a little bit longer? 

Mick Liubinskas: Go for it, mate. Let’s, yeah, go for it. Absolutely. 

Alan Jones: All right, cool. So now we’re going to go through the questions that we ask every one of our guests. What do you see as the biggest gaps in the startup ecosystem in Australia today? 

Mick Liubinskas: The biggest gap in the Australian startup ecosystem I still think is actually the export focus. So we still solve problems around you, and the problem with Australia again is that often leads to a small market. I look at New Zealand and they very rarely build for New Zealand, they’re much more likely to be global because they’re forced to. Whereas in Australia, we don’t have great exporting skills. So I think that’s probably the biggest unlock. And a combined to that is actually we produce some amazing IP in research and technology, but we are not commercially driven to build that into a business. They’re the two elements that I think we would love to keep developing. 

Alan Jones: Do you have thoughts on how we might be able to fix that or improve it? 

Mick Liubinskas: Looking much harder in COVID, the way we did it with Pollenizer, muru-D and Startmate was just get people on planes, the amount of times I’ve taken people, massively reluctantly to the US and then have them two weeks later be like, “Oh my goodness, why didn’t I come here earlier?” So, that is harder to do without being able to… I haven’t been to the US for two years now. And that’s negative, right? Because it helps you go and get to that much, significantly bigger market. And for climate tech, Europe is massive, because it’s significantly more advanced, Asia is a big opportunity for Australia given the proximity. But get getting on a plane, I think, solves a big part of that. 

Mick Liubinskas: And there are Australian programs, federal, and state levels, which you can offset your costs. But again, if you can’t just get on a plane because of COVID that doesn’t really help that. But what we do have now, I think to your other point is we have people who’ve done it with tons of people, whether it through Atlassian, Canva, Airwallex, and others who have built products in Australia and sold them internationally. So we do now have more than a hundred people who’ve been through that process. So, that is definitely a positive. On the commercialization side it’s the pressure, how do we create pressure on the ecosystem so that there’s a burning platform to commercialize the research?

Alan Jones: Mm-hmm [affirmative]. So you touched before on you think that Australia’s a great market for R&D. What else do you think as an ecosystem that we do well? That we do differently? That we do better than other markets? 

Mick Liubinskas: Certainly one of the good ones is because of lack of capital we build businesses that survive downturns and we build organic growth businesses in the valley, it’s so much easier to raise so much more money that they can get addicted to capital. So, I think building, we do that well, it’s just building fundamentally good businesses that grow slowly over time. And if we can keep that, I think, that’s quite good. So I think that’s quite strong. I think when we get it right in terms of the combination, we have strong engineering capabilities. And when that does come packaged with really good commercial entrepreneurship and that’s what you get from someone like Jindou at HappyCo, and Christian from Sicona and Alex and Rory from Cecil. But I think that is a great fit. So yeah, there’s definitely those skills. Yeah. And if we have our humility and household together, that’s a great combo. 

Alan Jones: Cool. So next is the A16Z question. The one that they like to ask people when they’re interviewing them for roles at the fund, tell me one unpopular opinion you have about the startup ecosystem? Something that you believe about the Australian startup ecosystem that is not commonly held that other people would disagree with? 

Mick Liubinskas: Oh, about the Australian startup ecosystem. Yeah. I’ve been trying to think about this one. I’m still a big believer in concentration. I think Australia will not progress internationally on the list of top countries until one city wins over other cities. I have wonderful friends and colleagues and there’s amazing businesses that have come out of Brisbane, Hobart, Perth, Adelaide, Melbourne, Sydney, Newcastle, Wollongong, et cetera, but until one city becomes massively dominant, I think we will still be fragmented. 

Alan Jones: Okay. Well, I’m rooting for Hobart and my very good friends down at [inaudible] 

Mick Liubinskas: I’d be totally in for Hobart, and the second point is with climate change, it’s going to be much warmer and nicer than in Hobart. So that’s a good call. Look, I live in Sydney and Sydney has some momentum, but I don’t care where it is. I want to move there, right? I don’t want the pressure to be like, “I should move there because that’s where it’s happening.” But at the moment… And again, I don’t know, combined with the… I know Niki Scevak from Blackbird has a… You can start the menu around, I think that’s true, but I think there are benefits of a strong village and we definitely don’t have that yet. 

Alan Jones: Yeah. This is the people who go to Fishburners every day and open their laptop and work on their laptop and then go home. And then there are other people who go along to all the meetups Friday night pitch events, hang out in the kitchen and meet new people. And it’s those people who have less trouble finding team members, finding co-founders, right? It really helps to be a village sometimes. 

Mick Liubinskas: I think it does, there’s no doubt there’s a bunch of amazing entrepreneurs who’ve sat in garages and never met anybody and just built a good company. But I think the village does help with various stages and for a number of people. And maybe it’s just because I’m a massive extrovert, but yep. 

Alan Jones: So do you think that we get back to solving the problem when the lockdown is over, when the pandemic’s gone away, I guess, we can set that on the long-term goals. In the meantime, is there something that we could be doing better as a community? 

Mick Liubinskas: Where it’s come from, I’m still blown away. I really, really wanted to be blown away when I came back from the US in Australia and I was just, it’s a tiny little thing, but walking past and seeing startup t-shirts just constantly. And not just Atlassian, Camber, I think that’s fantastic. I think, what do we need to do? I mean, I’d love to find a way to get more people investing in startups and the sophisticated investor rules make that hard. A big shout out to Cheryl Mack of Aussie Angels, who I think, is doing an amazing job of bringing in a new group of investors. And that is something, and I know she’s working with a number of people on trying to expand that out and it’s just crazy to think that we, what do we spend a billion dollars on the Melbourne Cup, but you can’t invest into a climate tech startup that you believe in. So, yeah. 

Alan Jones: Yeah, absolutely agree there. A hard, yes, from me. So let’s finish up with the advice question. So if a new wannabe founder or entrepreneur comes to you, what’s the most important piece of advice that you’d want to make sure you give every single person that you meet the first time you meet them that might help increase their chances of success? 

Mick Liubinskas: So I’m a big believer in, I’m well known, but I’m certainly not a massive success. I’ve done a lot of things. The thing I try to get all mentors to do in all programs in Climate Salad is to ask questions rather than give advice. And so I’ll flip that around and say, what question do I ask people? And by far, the biggest one is, “Are you committed to solving this problem?” There are startup programs and hackathons where you might meet a team and have an idea. And on Sunday you fall in love and want to start a startup, but are you prepared to do 10 years to solve this? And would you solve it even for meant no financial return? That’s the biggest thing I think, is the long-term commitment. 

Mick Liubinskas: It’s one of the things I really got with the Ripe Robotics team that I invested in last year. When someone’s like, “Why don’t you raise more money?” It’s like, “We don’t need more money. We’re going to do it slower. We’re just going to do this slowly. And I don’t care if it takes 10 years, we’re going to solve this problem. We’re going to help the world harvest fruit better.” They’re just so committed to solving it that I believe they’re going to get through it. So that’s my main thing. Because once you have that commitment, you’ll get through almost anything. So that’s the first one. 

Alan Jones: Very cool. Thank you, Mick. And one more question, just to wrap up what new development in the startup industry are you most excited about? That might be a technology or a trend or a sector? 

Mick Liubinskas: Well, certainly climate, I think the climate tech as a sector itself, combining clean tech, sustainability, circular economy, energy resources, materials. The fact that we now have capital coming to this space, we have this amazing opportunity to turn this IP and resources into just actual, real, real businesses is incredible. And such a broad range, so Olympia from Goterra, Yasmin from World’s Biggest Garage Sale, again, Alex and Rory from Cecil and others, they’re just… This is really exciting because it’s no longer about philanthropy and environmentalists and save the whales. It’s actually good business, which I think is really, really important, it has to fit into the current model otherwise we just won’t solve it. 

Mick Liubinskas: So, that is really exciting. But last year, I think we had good momentum, but it was just a formation year. I think what we really need to see this year is significant progress at all levels. We need R&D turned into products. We need products turned to customers, customers getting to scale. Companies like V2 and [inaudible] and Fable, we need those foods to be normal and just get to scale. So, excited about where climate tech’s going to go this year. 

Alan Jones: Very cool. Everyone, listeners at home or on your walk or your run, I hope this has been an inspiring conversation today. I’ve been your guest host Alan Jones, and I’ve been talking today with Mick Liubinskas, startup industry stalwart there from the very beginning of the startup industry. Happened to find himself in startups and made a career and made a huge difference in the Australian startup ecosystem. You can find out more from him at Climate Salad, Mick, what’s the URL again? 

Mick Liubinskas: Yeah, climatesalad.com, drop in, become a member help climate tech companies grow. And Alan, thanks for your work mate. Love to chat to you. 

Adam Spencer: I hope you enjoyed that interview. More interviews are on the way. Follow the podcast wherever you’re listening right now, and stay tuned for more interviews with many, many more amazing people from the Australian startup ecosystem. Thanks for listening and see you next time.

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Credits

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  • Will Tjo
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