We recently learned that the original Australian tech startup incubator Pollenizer is closing down. This hit me hard because I was an investor in Pollenizer and worked there on and off for a few years in the early days. But it hit me harder because Pollenizer was such a huge influence on the direction of the Australian tech startup industry over so many years.

Me, circa 2009, with hair, wearing a collared shirt and working with Pollenizer startups.

I was at Pollenizer in 2008 because at the time there really was nowhere else to be. Pollenizer wasn’t just the best place, it was just about the only place. There were no coworking spaces or accelerator programs in 2008, and as far as I know, Pollenizer was the only thing in Australia that you’d recognise today as a startup incubator.

Back then, Eric Ries was speaking about his ‘lean startup methodology’ but wasn’t keynoting at conferences yet (his seminal The Lean Startup wasn’t published until 2011). Even the mighty Atlassian was still two years from raising its first VC round. The community was so small, when co-founders Phil Morle and Mick Liubinskas put everything on black and committed to doing something totally new, the community were drawn in by their energy, focus and ambition.

Phil Morle

Phil Morle briefing investors in the converted garage which was the ground floor of Pollenizer’s second office in May 2013. Phil is wearing the “Hack, Hustle & FLearn” t-shirt which became a local industry catchphrase.

The tiny handful of people there in the beginning were mostly part of a new generation of tech startups labelled “Web 2.0” for devising solutions to customer problems using web applications built using web services, APIs and mashups, making products which were more connected, real-time and useful than before. We were among the first to pioneer the rapid iteration we all take for granted today — shipping minimally-viable products to get customer feedback which might help us develop a valuable solution to a widespread problem.

It’s hard to express how radically different a Web 2.0 startup was to the startups which came before but perhaps the starkest contrast was in how possible it became to build a startup in Australia if you were building a Web 2.0 startup. The combination of new tools, new methodologies and business models cut the capital requirement to bring a product to market from millions of dollars to something a couple of friends could probably scrape together among friends, family and colleagues.

And scrape it together they did.

Like the startups it built, Pollenizer pivoted many times in search of the most viable business model, best markets and most accessible capital. Pivots were an opportunity for everybody to reconsider their relationship with Pollenizer, and as a result Pollenizer grew the local industry by regularly re-seeding the industry with great people with more experience and skills than when they joined.

When I moved on from Pollenizer it was because a pivot had changed the company from working with startups on a part-fee, part-equity basis to working for equity only. That left open a niche to help startups with product development on a fee-for-service basis and I co-founded The New Agency with Tony Burrett (later acquired by BlueChilli).

Many of the team contracting for The New Agency had also worked at Pollenizer but the influence didn’t stop there. I’m a member of a Facebook group for ex-Pollenizer people and it has 63 members!

I would love it if someone took the time to design a network map of ‘What Pollenizer People Did Next’ because when I think of how many other companies Pollenizer’s employees, portfolio founders, startup employees, investors and advisors have gone on to create, it’s been a huge influence on the industry. (I’d be happy to collaborate with someone on that by the way).

It would have been great if more of the startup community had invested in Pollenizer the way I did but another thing which has changed since 2008 has been Australia’s understanding of angel investing in the tech sector. I learned so much about angel investing from the other early investors in Pollenizer. Pollenizer built and helped sell Spreets, the first Aussie Web 2.0 startup to get an exit and at roughly $40M still a significant deal even today.  The portfolio of other startups Pollenizer has built will continue to live on and they shouldn’t be  materially affected by Pollenizer closing down (so I’m still bullish about seeing a return on them!)

Thanks more to their pivots than ours, Pollenizer and BlueChilli became very different businesses over the years, with Pollenizer focusing on providing professional development within large, established organisations to help them adopt innovation methodology and practices.

BlueChilli continues to grow as a startup studio, still providing the product development services for the majority of the 100+ startups in our portfolio who’ve passed through our 156 Accelerator, backed by the BlueChilli Venture Fund and partnering with corporate customers and brands to run accelerator programs that address some of the world’s biggest problems.

In this time we’ve met regularly with Phil (and Mick who went on to do so much at Muru-D) and although there’s always been a friendly competitive tension, it’s always been an opportunity to collaborate and share about what’s working and what’s not, to introduce each other to great people and offer to help by speaking at an event, contributing to a blog post or meeting with a founder. Being a competitor to Pollenizer has never been about seeing each other as enemies, rather as different solutions to some of the same industry problems.

We’ve been Service A and Service B in an unusually long-running A/B test. While Pollenizer’s core experiment has ultimately failed to validate, Pollenizer leaves the market bigger and stronger than it would have been without it.

David Ryan’s Medium post on Australian tech’s ‘tall poppy’ syndrome puts it better than I ever could. Pollenizer was definitely the brass section. Here’s to play, and the value of playing together.