The Innovation Centre Sunshine Coast is an entrepreneurial hub based at the Sippy Downs campus of USC. Hired to help with marketing and events, the focus of my role quickly changed from task-based operations to a complete innovation overhaul by re-focusing (and re-writing) the marketing strategy to create member-focused deliverables and working with consultants to ensure an inclusive and diverse culture. I also enhanced their digital platforms and live events by creating member-focused content (blog, video, social media, eDM) and in-person interactions with visiting entrepreneurs and specialists who could directly benefit the members.
After the digital re-design project with the Woodford Folk Festival (read the case study here), I wanted to find a role closer to home on the Sunshine Coast. I started working with the Innovation Centre in 2018 in marketing and events. As an entrepreneur, I was excited to be working with other entrepreneurs and learn more about innovation.
Innovation in Regional Queensland
Growing up in the US, I know how serious Americans take entrepreneurialism. My father was a serial entrepreneur who mentored hundreds. But unlike regional Australia, the local, state and federal governments in the US are not directly involved in innovation, but rather through R&D funding and economic development. Innovation is the domain of private companies, entrepreneurs and creatives who once successful, reach out their hands to help others and who partner with government to fund solutions.
In Queensland, the federal, state and regional governments are much more involved in innovation via funding, grants and programs which is great! But they are not being supported by private companies to spur innovation in regional areas. And sadly, many Australian programs are duplicated US tech startup programs applied to all startups (whether or not they are tech focused or not) by people without experience as an entrepreneur (see this article from Australian Financial Review).
The problems at the Innovation Centre were many. First of all, the culture was extremely conservative (innovation and conservatism can’t actually co-exist). Second of all, the Innovation Centre is a part of the University of the Sunshine Coast which unlike progressive universities in the US, is extremely top-heavy and bureaucratic – another hindrance to innovation. Thirdly, leadership had never started any companies, had a background in economic development and was applying US tech startup programs to all member companies at the Innovation Centre. A report had just been completed by the local council and it was pointed out that women did not find the Innovation Centre welcoming which hindered diversity. And lastly many of the “mentors” listed on the website required fee for service which meant they were not really mentors at all, but simply consultants.
The solutions were difficult to get over the line. I did, however, try to change the Centre to the best of my ability with the main focus as the value members received as part of their membership and to increase diversity amongst members. My first goal was to better communicate exactly what the Innovation Centre was offering by adding a blog to the website, re-designing the newsletter, changing the way we communicated events and successes across social media, and clarifying exactly what each membership package included and would cost.
The second goal was to make sure the events we hosted actually benefited the members. I had plans to put a member survey in place, but this never came to fruition as leadership was fearful of feedback. I did, however, make sure that all our events directly benefited members by putting them face-to-face with people who could help their businesses. Instead of just having a consultant or entrepreneur come and speak at an audience, I flipped the script and had our members pitch and receive feedback, guidance and connections. It was a win-win.
My third goal was to make the Innovation Centre innovative and like Brene Brown says, “You cannot have creativity or innovation in a company without vulnerability.” Since leadership viewed leadership through a dictator lens, this created a culture where people were scared to share their ideas or shape how the organisation operated. After having a candid conversation about these issues with leadership, I suggested that we acquire outside advice to steer us toward a different course. Two consultants helped us in two ways: 1. understand our team personalities and communication styles using Myers-Briggs and 2. create marketing and operational goals that directly benefited the team and members, and clearly illustrated how leadership could better communicate goals, objectives and provide feedback to staff.
Biggest takeaways: don’t be afraid to speak up no matter what the cost; conservative cultures prevent innovation; communicating value is key; understanding your customers is vital to success; and it’s not what you know, it’s who you know.