Student to CEO of Australia’s largest startup community
From first employee to running the business, Fishburners CEO and UTS Business alumna, Pandora Shelley offered her personal insights from eight years at the centre of Sydney’s leading startup community.
In a discussion moderated by UTS Innovation and Entrepreneurship’s Ann Schoefer, Pandora emphasised the lessons and opportunities that awaited students willing to get involved in Sydney’s growing startup ecosystem.
Fishburners provides working space to 800 early-stage startup companies in the heart of Sydney’s CBD, and is a partner with UTS offering student internship placements as part of the UTS Startup Internships program.
“I wish this was around when I was at university. This is such a fantastic opportunity because students don’t have to aspire to be an entrepreneur to find working in a startup valuable. You pick up an array of skills relatable to any career,” Pandora said.
From accidental employee to community champion
Reflecting on her own rise through the Fishburners ranks, the UTS Business alumna recounted accidentally finding herself in the middle of the growing Sydney startup scene while still a student.
“I fell by luck into the world of startups, but the skills I learnt at Fishburners really helped me with my studies at UTS. I learnt how to do more with less and be adaptable, and these are the kind of skills you only get from working in a startup environment,” she said.
Joining as the organisation’s first employee in 2011, Pandora found her role quickly expanding from her original Office Manager remit; taking on additional work in marketing before managing the community’s growing stable of member startups.
Today, she sees a sense of community with its roots in a like-minded membership as integral to the success Fishburners has seen, since its foundation as a community of 30 startups in 2011.
“Community is always number one for us and it comes in different ways: it needs to be in your DNA, in everything you do, and Fishburners was really community-run from day one.”
“It comes from how you design your space and set your expectations, how you get people talking to each other, and, on top of that, it’s the events and programs,” she explained.
The importance of intrapreneurship
While Pandora says she is not a founder herself yet, seeing Fishburners grow has shown her the power of intrapreneurship and the difference internal innovation can make to an organisation.
“Having been there since the beginning and through these amazing growth curves, Fishburners does feel like my startup. The way we run today is also very much like one - we run lean and everything we do is data focused.”
Pandora also emphasized how intrapreneurship is becoming more important in today’s workplaces and encouraged the audience to take up a cause for innovation no matter the career pathway they’ve chosen.
“Whatever role you’re in, you can be an intrapreneur. Being an intrapreneur is being a risk-taker, thinking outside the box and being adaptable. A lot more organisations today are wanting people like that, so don’t be afraid to step up,” she said.
People over ideas
The CEO also shared how working with founders everyday has sharpened her instincts in judging the value of a startup idea, and has encouraged her to look at the person rather than the pitch.
“The idea that people come into Fishburners with is rarely the one they leave with. It’s always better to look at the person than the startup. There are entrepreneurially-minded people whose idea may not be amazing, but if you bring them into a space like Fishburners they’re going to flourish,” she said.
Having seen the most successful startups in the community always having to change and pivot has motivated Pandora to make sure the Fishburners support team is also adaptable and staffed with those who are always ready to learn.
“If you hire people that know everything, they’re not going to stick around. I look to see that they’ve got 80 per cent of the skills and then I want to have that 20 per cent where they don’t, because I know that they can stick around and grow into those roles,” she explained.
As she prepares to step down as CEO, the big question from students was whether she plans to test her expertise in launching her own startup venture?
“It’s definitely a dream of mine to have my own startup. I think the day will definitely come.”