Interview with Ren Butler, Founder of Whisky Social

Originally hailing from California, Ren Butler moved to Australia to complete her Masters of Arts at Monash University, majoring in sustainable tourism. A self-described ‘polymath’, Ren has accumulated an eclectic base of skills over the years, with experience in technology, travel, copywriting and even outdoor education.

Ren Butler is the current Entrepreneur in Residence at Blue Chilli, Melbourne, and in her spare time (if any) manages, ‘The Whisky Social’, an organisation for whisky enthusiasts. Recently, Ren spent the week with our Collider Accelerator Program attendees and offered advice on how early stage startups can best shape their business model and create the perfect pitch.

We caught up with Ren for a quick interview about her thoughts on the Australian startup ecosystem and why she believes emerging startups need a good ‘push.’

How are the AU/US startup ecosystems different?

Well, certainly size is the first thing in terms of how the Australian and US ecosystems are different. There are just a lot more people and a lot more capital and much larger markets in the US. Australia, though smaller, is more connected to the rest of the world so it has a much more interesting and advantageous position in terms of its connections to both the US and China as well as the UK. I think that’s a major advantage most people tend to forget.

In terms of culture, what do you think is working well and what is working subpar?

In terms of culture in the Australian ecosystem for startups, and tech startups in particular, I think that historically we’ve had a bit of a rivalry to get over. Colonial history has positioned cities against one another for attention and resources; and we’re at a point where the ecosystems, social networks and markets are all connected. The only way that Australia is going to be taken seriously on the global stage is if we all get along, chip in and truly collaborate.

What is your impression of Brisbane, Queensland?

My impressions of the Queensland startup ecosystem are certainly all favourable. I lived for a short stint in Brisbane 10 years ago and it holds a special place in my heart. I’m really impressed with the hustle I find here, even though it’s a smaller up-and-coming ecosystem compared to Melbourne and Sydney. The people who are here doing great work really recognise how lucky they are to be building their startups in such a beautiful, comfortable place.

That being said, they are using the quiet, calm nature of the Queensland culture to kick ass and take names and get stuff done so it’s refreshing to see that Brisbane is the new kid on the block – though arguably Adelaide could try to take that title as well. People here are doing awesome things and, because of the distance from the existing ecosystems, there’s a lot of creativity. I see a lot more creativity and ingenuity coming out of Brisbane.

Why do you think this Collider Program is so important for the creative tech scene?

I think Collider is such an important program right now to the creative technology scene and the tech startup scene as a whole because, firstly, you say ‘creative technology startup’ and people have no idea what it means. It’s a problem and reason why programs like this are really important to bring everyone together to recognise there is a community and resources to be rallied around creative tech startups.

Moving forward into the next stage of our digital lives and our technological advancement, creativity, design and the arts are so important to business as well as how technology is going to be implemented into business solutions. If we’re leaving the creative techs behind then we’re all losing.

How have the participants gone this week?

The participants this week have been quite impressive. They’re working on a diverse range of problems and have some interesting approaches to their solutions. They’re in the really early stage so I wouldn’t be surprised if I came back for a demo day or to check in with them in another six months and they’ve pivoted their solution to something entirely different.

That being said, they have a really clear grasp of who their target customers are and what kind of questions they need to get out of their target customers. I’ve been really impressed with the diverse range of skills and experience that they bring into the program and it’s been interesting seeing who is coming into the space. Whether it’s to collaborate or to work on their own, they seem to be using the space and the community quite well.

What is it you think you’ve been able to bring to the table?

Questions about myself, that’s always hard! I think I’ve definitely brought a new perspective on what it means to sell in the 21st century. I find a lot of people involved in the creative tech space are not traditional sales people.

But I’m here to be the bearer of good news and say that that’s actually a good thing! Selling from a place of passion for the problem you’re solving and genuinely empathising with the customer is the way to go and the way to turn genuine customers into evangelists and not just people who are bullied into buying your product. So, I think that they’re going to be able to implement the interesting and creative strategies that I’ve thrown at them with mixed results, and from that, learn and double down on what works.

I’m not here to provide answers, I’m just here to throw ideas at them and tell them what sometimes works and they can figure out if it resonates with their market.

What sort of demons have you seen the cohort come to terms with?

A lot of demons needed to be exorcised amongst the team when I threw the concept of using a SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats) analysis tool at the founders. I’ve seen a lot of them be upfront with things like fear of pitching and public speaking as well as other slightly deep seated things.

Definitely, the biggest demon that everyone seems to struggle with, and it’s quite common as a founder, is the not having enough time in the day and prioritising. We’ve been talking a lot about how to set yourself up to have extra tools to give yourself frameworks and a plan to be able to prioritise and understand how to implement all the rich content and relationships they are building through this program. Also to understand what they need to action now versus put on the shelf and action when the time comes. Prioritising is the biggest demon.

What’s the best advice you can give them to push out from here?

Take the opportunity to show up to every event to pitch, get feedback and meet new people. We had the gentleman from Austrade’s launch pad in this afternoon offering to learn a bit about their startups and connect them to people in the European market. There are some amazing opportunities that just need you to show up, have an open mind, know exactly what your short and long term goals are. Just really leverage all the opportunities that the Collider program offers.

You said they ‘don’t need a nudge; they need a big push’; what does this involve?

It refers to the fact that this is an ‘accelerator’ program and not an ‘inch along’ program and it can be overwhelming. Some of them (Collider participants) have to hold down part time or full-time jobs in order to be able to move along on their founder’s journey. They really need to look long and hard at their life and figure out every last little bit of time and energy. It will be crucial to push out old habits and make time and mental energy for solving the problems.

Founder life is not easy, and it’s not fun most of the time. You need to be in it to win it and not because you want to show up for a couple of hours a day and do some fun things.

You need to be doing it every spare minute of the day where you possibly can while still looking after yourself. Founder burnout is real, don’t do that!

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