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Slingshot – Featuring Trent Bagnall & Craig Lambert

Get a list of the one piece of advice from over 15 startup founders interviews.

This episode was made in part by the support of New Economy Media, publisher of new economy news – innovation news without the jargon. Read more at neweconomy.media

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Today you’re going to hear the story of Slingshot featuring Trent Bagnall and Craig Lambert.

Today slingshot is Australia’s number 1 corporate accelerator. Trent told me that Slingshot is really invested in supporting regional and have a strong focus on supporting really early-stage startups. They’ve done 20 investments within the Hunter Valley alone at the time of recording. Which is as he told me, probably more than any other investor in the region, let alone accelerator.

Slingshot has a strong pedigree, they’ve been around about the same time as Startmate, 6 to 8 years. Slingshot is here to stay for the long term.

With that in mind, let’s find out where Slingshot comes from and how they got started, starting with Trent studying at university. Let’s go back to day one, where this story begins…

Transcript

Trent:

The main difference is the point of the word, which is acceleration, right? You can’t accelerate a business without any cash. It’s just not possible. You can mentor the hell out of people, but unless you’re investing for growth and that startup and that founder’s got money to do things, the speed of that growth is slow

Adam: 

Hi, I’m Adam Spencer and welcome to day one, the  show that goes back to the very beginning, to share the stories of incredible Australian startups and the organisations that support them.

Before we begin today, I really want to take a moment to say thank you to our very first patron Brian Hill, thank you Brian for your support in not only helping us tell these stories, but also for your support of regional startups and founders. Thank you. 

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Because of Brian, I’ve rejigged and relaunched, I say relaunch, but it’s really a launch, Welcome to Day One’s Patreon page. If you’re feeling generous and would like to support the show’s mission of creating a platform for regional founders and startups, please feel free to check out the new page at patreon.com/welcometodayone or welcometodayone.com/patreon

Thank you Brian. To moving forward.

Today’s episode was made in part by the support of New Economy Media, publisher of new economy news – innovation news without the jargon. Read more at neweconomy.media

Today you’re going to hear the story of Slingshot featuring Trent Bagnall…

Trent:

My name’s Trent Bagnall, I’m the founder of Slingshot Accelerator. 

Adam:

…And Craig Lambert.

Craig:

My name is Craig Lambert. I’m one of the two founders of Slingshot . 

Adam:

Today slingshot is Australia’s number 1 corporate accelerator. Trent told me that Slingshot is really invested in supporting regional and have a strong focus on supporting really early-stage startups. They’ve done 20 investments within the Hunter Valley alone at the time of recording. Which is as he told me, probably more than any other investor in the region, let alone accelerator.

Slingshot has a strong pedigree, they’ve been around about the same time as Startmate, 6 to 8 years. Slingshot is here to stay for the long term.

Trent:

I think there’d be less than six decent accelerators in Australia that do that, that not only run programs, but invest in the startups, don’t charge the startups, which is important, and are there really to help that startup grow and are really there for a long term, right? 

Adam:

With that in mind, let’s find out where Slingshot comes from and how they got started, starting with Trent studying at university. Let’s go back to day one, where this story begins…

Trent:

I studied environmental science at university. Always had a bit of interest in computing, and business, really. And I actually ended up in a funny graduate trainee program, which ended up with me with this piece of IP. So I was just interested in it, so I found something inside an existing business that I thought there was an opportunity with, really did a lot of customer, old school … well, what is now sort of more lean approaches to customer discovery and customer development, back then, because I had no money, so I had to do it that way. Did a lot of pre-sales, which probably startups don’t do enough of anymore, so basically sell it, then build it. And then just got enough traction to make large global companies pay us to build stuff, really, at the end of the day. And then ended up finding a really interesting niche that there was only a couple of global players in and I think we were the global leader in that space for at least five or six years of that ten year period.

Adam:

That piece of IP within one of Trent’s previous positions is what turned into QMASTOR. 

A business Trent bootstrapped to a public listed company and between listing, surviving an aggressive takeover attempt and then being acquired and exiting the business was a 10 year period. But during his time at QMastor, Trent met his to be business partner, Craig Lambert. 

Trent:

I met him when I was at QMastor, he was the sales and marketing manager for the Jets and the Knights at the time, I was in commodities and ports and mining, so there were a lot of golf days.

Craig:

So like all good stories, there was a bit of serendipity to it. We met at a sporting function. And just through conversation found out that we had sort of similar but different backgrounds, and both of us were probably, we were  looking for the next thing that we wanted to do.

Adam:

And as you and I both know, that next thing turned out to be Slingshot but at this moment in time, Trent is still at QMastor, what was he going to do once the acquisition process was complete?

Trent:

I’d probably take time off and have a retrospective think about the last 10 years, how could I have sped that up? What mistakes did I make, or improvements? And I actually spent some time in the US, and that’s where I came across the accelerator models, pretty much soon after I left QMastor. And so the exciting thing for me was the ability to be able to make 100 companies quickly or be part of building 100 companies, rather than just building my next one, and that was the exciting bit. And then really having a look at the process about how to build startup companies quickly, so we saw Dropbox and Airbnb come out of the accelerators in the US, so really how did these companies go from zero to a billion dollars in seemingly a couple of years, which they did, really.

And coming across that process, it was coming out of universities like Stanford, it was championed by Silicon Valley, particularly when the rest … if you think about 2013, the economies in US and Australia weren’t doing really well again, it was like, “Oh, we’re going to have another GFC,” and it was a bit stagnant. And really the only part of the US economy that was going well then was Silicon Valley.

Craig:

It was Trent who reached out to me with the idea for Slingshot, and from the very first meeting to creating Slingshot, was a very short period of time.

The first thing that Trent mentioned to me was the process of lean startup and lean methodology, and how he had built a business, pretty much from scratch to exit, but it’d taken him, say seven years to do so. And through the lean startup process, he could see that he could do that in a much-shortened timeframe. So it really, that thinking is embedded in a whole bunch of successful brands that were emerging at the time. These are brands like Airbnb, Uber and the like, and they all came out of Silicon Valley, the San Francisco Bay area.

Adam:

So Trent and Craig jumped on a plane and headed for Silicon Valley.

Craig:

We put ourselves through a lean startup weekend in San Francisco. And then while we were there, we just took the time to go on a fact-finding mission, if you like. See what was happening in that marketplace, and see what we could do to take the best bits out of that and bring it back to Australia, and culturally align it. So it made sense to go where the best of the breed was, and then take the best bits out of that and amend it to the Australian market.

Trent:

Myself and Craig wanted to understand the group of people around an accelerator in Silicon Valley, we couldn’t get any access to them, so we just rocked up on their demo day and pretended that we were on the invite list and walked in and talked to them. And then, by the end of the day, we’d met all the founders and it was great. So it’s just not … if somebody’s telling you no, I just see that as … and we tell our founders there’s beg, borrow but there’s no steal. So that doesn’t give you the right to go way outside the boundary, but you’ve just got to laterally think about the problem and how you might get around that problem.

Adam:

Trent and Craig were in the room and took full advantage of it.

Trent:

We definitely did have conversations with all of them, and the good thing, particularly back then, there was a lot of sharing because it was nascent, it was really early, so people were sharing, trying to help each other out a little bit, paying it forward a bit, which is one of the underlying things that I think is great in the tech area system, a lot of people are going to help, but I just knew that the models as they were wouldn’t work in Australia, so we don’t need to leverage, like all founders do, leverage all the resources that you have and stakeholders and beg and borrow and plead to get help.

Trent:

So we had to think it out; will it work? How could we make it work? How do we do it with no money, at that point, as well? So how do you approach it in stages? How do you bite off little bits at a time? That’s really what we had to think about. You need the vision, you could set the vision, but it’s the execution in how you do that without sending yourself broke is the trick, I think.

We workshopped this thing hard for at least six months, every day, to get it to the point of being able to start. And then, when we started, we didn’t have much, so, like any good entrepreneur, we just had a crack and thought, “We’ll worry about it when it happens.”

And so we just started. After six months we worked out, yeah, it should probably work. And we could have spent another two years thinking about it, but we just thought, “Let’s do it.”

Craig:

So pretty quickly we bought together a cohort of really quite powerful businesses in that region, to help accelerate Slingshot. And that included the university, it included the Herald, and included Sparke Helmore, and included the university. And those four partners in particular, played a really vital role in validating what we were doing, but also to helping us. Sparke Helmore, gave us space and legal advice. PwC, gave us access to our fund partner. The Herald, gave us the marketing clout that we could market the programs, and the university gave us access to talent and credibility as well.

Trent:

We announced the first cohort, we didn’t know who would come, that was it. And do you know what? We still do that. When we run a cohort you don’t know how many people are going to apply, you don’t know if it’s going to work, and quite often myself and Craig, we’ll sort of sit down at the end of each cohort and go, “Gee, that worked again.” So that’s just how … I think that’s how a lot of entrepreneurs work.

Adam:

Slingshot has been going for about 7 years or so, it had support from the University, the Newcastle Herald, PWC and Spark Helmore, but it wasn’t just those 4. Slingshot had received a lot of support, like every business does, support from people that you just don’t hear about. Support from people behind the curtain, let’s  go back, 7 years ago. 

Craig:

I’d say this is in 2013, maybe 2012. And we were lucky that the university had recently appointed Kevin Hall. Kevin, he is an innovator and he’d experienced what an innovation culture in a city was like, in his experience in Canada. So we made a good connection with Kevin. And I’d say Carol McMillan actually was really, really generous to us as well. Not only with her time, but also to do with her support.

So we were lucky there, and we were lucky that on the other part, as I mentioned, you can get access to the key decision-makers in Newcastle, much easier than you can in say, metro area. So we’re able to access those people in what we were doing. And Trent and I, I believe, we bought credibility in our work histories to the fore, so I think we’re a fairly low risk for them as well. We didn’t really want too much, and then we just had to work hard to deliver. And once again, I think we did a good job of that.

Adam:

They’ve done a great job with something like 480 founders and 160 companies part of the Alumni that have come out of programs that Slingshot has partnered with corporates like NRMA, Caltex and HCF to deliver, But Slingshot wasn’t always a corporate accelerator and the plan wasn’t to become a corporate accelerator.

Craig:

So the initial idea wasn’t really about corporates. The initial idea was raising a small venture fund, which we did pretty quickly once again with PwC’s help, through an introduction to Artesian Capital. So we had a $10 million investment fund and the idea was really to use the accelerator to make, or to give us a pipeline of high-quality investments.

But along the way, because our profile was growing and because we were embedded in PwC’s offices, and they had a lot of corporate clients, who wanted to start to understand what innovation and disruption, and what that was going to mean to them. Yeah, we were going out, we were talking to a lot of corporates just about the process of innovation and the process of lean methodology, and how you parade ideas, how you turn ideas into minimum viable products for testing.

And we did quite a bit of that, but none of those engagements were longterm and none of those engagements were really significant enough to influence change in the corporates. And I remember clearly, NRMA came to us and wanted us to do a similar thing and we dissuaded them from doing that, and encouraged them actually, to do something on a large scale, which is run their own accelerator.

We would create a brand on their behalf. We would go into their executive team, and we’d work with them and identify themes, or areas of their business they wanted to improve. We would turn those themes into how we recruited, and really, the Slingshot model was born out of that. Once we got early success within NRMA, we started to be approached by other corporate clients and then really the journey began.

Adam:

And so the Slingshot we know today was born. But hang on a second. Before I wrap up this story, I really wanted to know how they decided on the name Slingshot. 

Craig:

That is a good question actually. So I’d suggest in all the things we put time and effort into, coming up with the name Slingshot, was something that we really wanted to get right. We were in Newcastle at the time, we engaged several Newcastle agencies to come up with a name for us. I think we engaged three, and no one really nailed it. No one really nailed it. And Trent will laugh, I’ll take credit for the name Slingshot. He had the idea for the business   but I came up with the name Slingshot.

We wanted something that was practical, something that people would remember. Something that certainly reflected what we did, and Slingshot, was all of those things. So I think as soon as we settled to… And a Slingshot, it’s very Australian. I think we both grew up running around, riding our BMX bikes around the bush with slingshots in the back of our pants.

So it just kind of made sense for us. Even though we went through this quite rigid, quite formal, quite structured process to come up with a name, it just really just came to me at the end of that process. So, that’s how it was born.

Adam:

Talking about riding BMX bikes around in the bush, both Craig and Trent have a desire to support regional, which is a big reason why I wanted to tell their story.

Trent:

I started my business out of regional, I think that’s the key thing. I think, when you’re trying to build a global business, there’s no reason you need to be in the city, right? So, if you’re trying to attack global markets, it doesn’t really matter where you are. The good thing about the regions is resources are easy to get, so that’s cheap rents, better people, less competition in terms of just marketing and PR and all the things, and the oxygen, I think, that startups need. You get better mentors as well because there’s a lot of great people in the regions, that want to help regional founders as well, so if you go to Silicon Valley you’re probably one of 300 companies doing exactly the same thing in Silicon Valley on that day. If you’re in a regional center, you’re probably the only one, and that does help, and there’s no reason why you can’t attack those markets from here and get big enough. And sure, go overseas or move to the markets where you need to, but I think the regions are a great place to start, and as we both know, there’s some great founders that have built great businesses in the Hunter already, so there’s no real reason why anybody else can’t do it.

 

Adam:

So have a go as Trent and Craig did. Shake loose that typical Australian tall poppy syndrome. Don’t just think you could do it, but then don’t do it because you’re afraid you might fail or whatever the reason is.

Trent:

Do you know what? From my experience, Australians don’t do that. They think it will probably work, but they don’t do it. So, particularly in the startup space, they think, “Yeah, one day I’ll get round to doing that.” 

Adam: 

So if you’ve got an idea for a startup but think you’ll get around to it one day maybe the Slingshot accelerator is the thing you’ve been looking for.

Trent:

The good thing about accelerators is, once they’re in, you’re stuck, you have to do it, and I think people want that. I used to tell people a long time ago about, “You should join the program because I’ll be able to kill your dream in 12 weeks.” They might have been thinking about this idea for two years or five years, come in and Slingshot will kill it in 12 weeks, you’ll never have to think about it ever again, and there’s a bit of incentive in that as well.

Adam:

Thank you for listening to the story of Slingshot. I hope you enjoyed it. Everything that was mentioned in the episode today is on the show notes page on welcometodayone.com/slingshot

To wrap up this story, I’d like to leave you with advice from Trent Bagnall and Craig Lambert. Two very successful guys who have been there and done it. 

Trent:

It’s that advice that I mentioned before; get some insights about your customer and the market that none of your competitors have. That’s the key thing. Is don’t build copycats, don’t do it cheaper, chewier, faster, just understand that customer problem better than your competitors, I think that’s the key. If you can’t, you might not be the founder to solve that particular problem at that particular point in time, but if you do have that insight that you believe nobody else  has, then I think that’s the key to being successful.

I would say our top 20 founders all have that skill, that they didn’t look at it from a market, outside in, most of them came through it and examined the market, had a deep understanding before they even brought it to us in the first place.

Craig:

If there’s a trait that I see from founders that leads to success, it’s resilience. The ability to be able to deal with the tough times and get through it. The confidence and conviction in their ability to be able to deliver.

But they’ve got to have a sound business model. Without a sound business model, you’re not going to generate customers and revenue, therefore you’re not going to put cash in the business to be able to grow it, and you’re not going to be able to attract investment. So founders have got to have resilience. They’ve got to have a business model that makes sense.

They’ve got to also not try to come up with anything that compete against the big four. We see a lot of ideas pitched to us that Google, Facebook, Microsoft and the likes are already doing. So you’ve got to find a niche that no one else is doing.

You know what? You’ve got to have a really good sense of practicality about you as well, and realism. A lot of founders will go into this thinking, it’s easy to raise capital, it’s easy to open an office in San Francisco, it’s easy to do that. It’s really not. So resilience, good business model, a good practical mindset, and doing something that’s unique enough that one of these larger businesses can’t come along very quickly and just crush you.

Adam:

If you enjoyed this story, please consider subscribing to the podcast and rating the show at ratedayone.com.

And if you really loved the show, then I invite you to help us continue to tell these stories and supporting Australian Startups by pledging your support at Patreon. You can do that by going to welcometodayone.com/patreon.

Thank you for giving this episode of Welcome to Day One your attention. This story was created by me, Adam Spencer.

Interviews conducted by me, Adam Spencer.

A big thank you to Trent and Craig for taking the time to be involved.

The script was written by me, Adam Spencer.

Music by Lee Rosevere, full attribution on our website welcometodayone.com.

This episode was produced and edited by me. Adam Spencer

Thank you and see you next time!

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Resources mentioned

Credits

A big thank you to Slingshot, Trent Bagnall & Craig Lambert for taking the time out of their busy schedules to be involved in this episode of Welcome to Day One. 

Music Credits

Music by Lee Rosevere.

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