Is there something in the water of the Murrumbidgee River? Wagga Wagga, which straddles the river and is located in south-western NSW, has a population of around 54,000, making it the state’s largest inland city, has an active startup scene, a co-working space and an incubator program running in conjunction with Charles Sturt University.
Ask around, however, and it becomes apparent that much of what’s happening in Wagga comes down to one person, Simone Eyles, an entrepreneur and founder of café ordering system 365cups.
“A lot of what has occurred is the result of Simone and her efforts to build this town and bring people together,” said Rhys Bower, co-director of Wagga startup law firm BowerWood.
Mr Bower founded his law firm just under a year ago. He’d done stints in Canberra and the Northern Territory, but decided that Wagga had something about it, and decided to move his young family there and start his business.
A law firm doesn’t seem like a traditional startup, with their usual talk of apps and taking on the likes of Facebook and Google, but Mr Bower said there are principles that can be taken from the startup community that apply to almost every new business, regardless of the field they are operating in.
“We bootstrapped and really stripped the business back to the core of what we wanted to do,” he said. “We didn’t buy unnecessary equipment, and things have just grown organically. That’s what we took from startups, the fact that you can do it on your own.”
This is one of the founding principles for Ms Eyles, who has also bootstrapped a co-work space called Shrimpa.io, in addition to founding the town’s co-working space Working Spaces HQ, and is soon to be a published author, with her book My $5K Start-up.
“I have tried to put what I have learned into the book,” she said. “You can do things on the side, you can bootstrap yourself, you can build a business in a regional area and succeed.”
Her first startup, 365Cups, came about just that way. Born in Sydney, she moved to Wagga for university, found work again in the city, and then decided to relocate back to Wagga with the goal of starting a café. Her roommate at the time was a developer, and they struck on the idea of developing an ordering system for coffee shops. The idea of doing a café fell by the wayside, and the idea for 365Cups took over.
“We were a startup that did not know what a startup was,” she said. “It took a year to make the product in our spare time, and we were hanging out at the local café, and I showed them and they became our first customer. They are still with us.”
There were obstacles. The local bank would not give the business a merchant account, and so they changed the business model from ticket clipping, where they would receive a part of every transaction, to a subscription model. The company now boasts over 150 cafes using its system, many of them in regional and rural areas.
“A lot of clients come to use because they have seen it in action,” she said. “We tried to make coming from Wagga our point of difference. I realised that we could create the networks and co-working spaces here, and that people could build their businesses without needing to go to the city.”
With this in mind, Ms Eyles opened her co-working space, and also began an incubator program in conjunction with Charles Sturt University. This program, known as the Agritech Incubator, has had its first cohort of seven businesses go through, and is set to take on another nine in the near future.
“Our key mission is to activate and support the startup ecosystem across the Riverina,” said Professor John Mawson, project lead for the Agritech Incubator, Charles Sturt University.
The Incubator was established with funding from the NSW Boosting Business Innovation Program, as well as further seed funding from the University. Ms Eyles, and her business partner Di Sommerville, are contracted to run the program through the Working Spaces HQ co-working space.
“The point of the incubator is to take these ideas and see them commercialised,” said Ms Eyles.
Several businesses have come out of the program, including AgriNet, which is commercialising communications products to improve blackspots on farms and provide high quality image data to farmers, as well as Millwoods Apparel, founded by Jane Robertson to design and manufacture high quality, high style children’s footwear.
“Wagga has amazing support, people just want to help you and want you to give it a crack,” said Ms Robertson, whose first product line has just become available on Amazon. “For me it was creating a business that supported a lifestyle, and allowed me to create the shoes for kids that I had always dreamt of but never been able to find.”
The one area where support is lacking in Wagga is council involvement. Both Ms Eyles, and lawyer Mr Bower, said council programs could be better. InnovationAus.com contacted Wagga Council for comment, but no response was available at press time.
“I’m working hard on education and while our mayor gets it there is still a fair way to go. I am all about doing stuff. When I built co -working, I had no funding, so built it myself, and borrowed money,” said Ms Eyles “I knew it would work. It is an asset for our community and I hoped in doing that, we would get more support. It hasn’t been easy.”
Mr Bower agrees. “For innovation to happen, there need to be a hub, and there needs to be support from council, to provide a patron and provide guidance to people who want to build businesses. Wagga has everything going for it, and with some support, we could do so much more.”
InnovationAus.com is kick-starting a series on regional innovation. We welcome any tips or information that will help us bolster our coverage of industry development issues in regional Australia.