Why are you most interested in the ed-tech space?
A lot of my interest in the education space comes from personal experience and instilled values. There were three key moments that I observed in my parents’ lives and my own which led me to hold the belief that education can be an incredibly important lever for social and economic mobility:
1. My dad choosing to learn English while working in China back in the early 90s. He was in mining engineering at the time so when his company wanted to send some representatives to Perth, one of the criteria was ‘who here can speak English’? Back then, it wasn’t a common skill in China so it gave him the opportunity to come to Australia for the first time.
2. Once dad and mum had decided to immigrate to Australia, dad figured out one way he could do that was to find a sponsor lecturer at UNSW under whom he could do his PhD. He’s a huge nerd so naturally this was the path he chose. That gave us the opportunity to build a life in Sydney.
3. I struggled in my early years of schooling - I remember doing so poorly in a seventh grade grammar test that I got allocated to a ‘English as a second language’ class. But being surrounded by kids who were really motivated and smart at that age made me realise ‘wow I better get my shit together’. That old saying - ‘you’re the average of five of your friends’ - rings true. If everyone around me at Sydney Girls had ambition and work ethic, it naturally rubbed off on me and led me to all the subsequent opportunities I had in my career.
Thematically then, edtech became a sector I always wanted to be close to in life. The reality is there are still a lot of barriers to great education (e.g. price point, location, teacher resources and time). It’s hard to scale a great learning experience but technology is so clearly an enabler that I want to be able to find founders who share the passion and have the capabilities to bring great education to the masses.
How do you think technology can meaningfully transform the education sector?
I won’t repeat my investment thesis here as I risk boring everyone but for those who are interested, I’ve written two articles around it:
1. Ed-techs haven't transformed the world...yet
2. Thoughts on ed-tech
- co-written with my Square Peg colleague James Tynan who worked for many years at Khan Academy
What is one of your favourite companies that you or Square Peg has invested in and why?
I won’t choose one of my own because it’s like playing favourites with your own children - can’t be doing that haha!
But out of the companies my Square Peg colleagues have invested in, one of my favourites is Neara
. Neara is software sold primarily to utility providers, which models their critical infrastructure from powerlines to phone towers to underground cables. This enables utility providers to drastically improve their ability to maintain those assets and respond swiftly in disaster situations. Recently, they helped Essential Energy to unlock double the network capacity
in NSW’s energy grid with their AI-enabled 3D models. That’s the kind of game changing, inspiring stuff that gets me excited!
Do you see many diverse founders in the ANZ startup ecosystem? How do you think we can improve this situation?
I actually do have stats for this! From a gender perspective, about 30.2% of my meetings with founders are with women founders. That’s a far cry from parity and the funding gap is still enormous - I write a more detailed view on the drivers of that and what can be done in this article ‘Why VC funding for women has been dismal and what we can do about it.’
From race and other dimensions of diversity, I don’t have great visibility into the stats but my sense is it’s even more dire. Top of funnel is a big issue - who are the universe of people that are choosing to become founders in Australia and New Zealand? How do we boost that up in terms of diversity? The probability of success in any chosen field relies on having great peers, wider networks and role models to aspire to. Until we move those systemic needles, it will require a conscious effort from VCs to proactively find and invest in those diverse founders - some great examples of this are LaunchVic’s Alice Anderson Fund
and the investors at Scale
You meet a whole range of individuals and founders as a part of Square Peg. What advice would you give to people who are thinking about starting something (not necessarily a start up), but are unsure?
Don’t be scared to do the unscalable things at the start. True insight comes from spending time really getting to know the users you are trying to serve. If your sole focus is to solve a deep-seated, burning problem for someone (and that problem is generalisable enough to a big audience) - you will get somewhere.
A great startup story I come back to is the early days of Melio Payments
(an Israeli startup last valued at $4B). The founding team wanted to solve accounts payable for small to medium businesses (“SMBs”) who didn’t have a finance function - typically it’s the owner-operator who had to manage cashflow and payments. To understand the needs of that group, they hired a bookkeeper to manually do payments for SMBs over Whatsapp. That unscalable exercise gave them the insights to build an incredibly scalable payment solution. You can listen to the CEO of Melio talk about it here
but the gist is: they learnt more about the workflows of that target user from using the bookkeeper than they ever could have from surveys or questionnaires.