The story behind the birth of Bondi Innovation Hub

It is delightful and gratifying that Bondi Innovation Hub will be open tomorrow. It has been a long journey to get here, and while it is a real milestone this is just one step on what we hope will be a far bigger journey for Bondi Innovation Alliance. 

This is a good time to pause a moment and tell the story of how we got here, including the many people behind it.

Prologue: Coming to Bondi

After many years spending a lot of time in Bondi, including living at the top of Bellevue Hill for 6 years before a stretch in Surry Hills, I finally moved full time to Bondi Beach just before Christmas 2015, and almost immediately came to the conclusion that I would spend the rest of my life here.

There is nowhere else on the planet that suits me as well as Bondi. I have travelled extensively and lived in many countries, but in Bondi have a feeling of belonging I will get nowhere else. The combination of an amazing temperate beach and a wonderful community set in a global city is virtually unique globally, and somehow it is a perfect match for me and my personality, able to draw energy from immersing myself in the ocean and the amazing people who live here.

Chapter 1: Bondi visions and community building

Before I moved here I had been running my organisations out of Hub Sydney on William Street and it didn’t make any sense to continue working there. Given there were no coworking spaces in Bondi I started considering setting up a coworking space, probably initially using a popup space to minimise rent. 

In any case I knew that a coworking space had to be founded on community, so I started the Bondi Creative Entrepreneurs Facebook group, and began organising weekly coworking sessions in local cafes, for an afternoon drawing together locals and sometimes people from further afield to work together and connect. 

I was living in Pacific Bondi just as it opened. Dean McEvoy, founder of TechSydney, the organisation intent on building Sydney into a top 10 global innovation ecosystem, introduced me to Steve Muller of 33Bondi, whose offices were at 33 Hall Street. They had some desks available for select people and I started working out of there. 

Steve shared my vision and together we imagined the then-vacant first floor of Pacific Bondi as an innovation space with beach outlook, and began to envisage a business plan to cover the steep rent by building a corporate innovation space integrated with a set of high-growth startups. The seeds of my pitch deck below show the original vision is very similar to what we are doing now.

After a few months I got drawn in to become co-founder and CEO of an ambitious future-focused agency and startup group, so had no time to do anything with the Facebook group for a long time, until I exited the agency to return to my own ventures and started running regular lunch and after-work catchups for the group.

We also ran some great Christmas parties at the Bucket List each year, incorporating the Entrepreneurs & Self-Employed Xmas Party I had previously run for many years in the inner city.

Bondi Creative Entrepreneurs Xmas Party 2018

Chapter 2: Seeing the opportunity

In October 2017 I was invited to speak at the Waverley Business Forum, organised by Waverley Council and Bondi Chamber of Commerce, and I agreed on the proviso I could choose my own topic, which was ‘The Opportunity for Waverley as a Global Entrepreneurial Hub’. Below are my presentation slides.

I laid out my vision for Bondi region to become a world-class innovation centre, with a real focus on becoming a complementary satellite centre to what is happening in inner Sydney. Bondi will of course never be able to host the scale of innovation of central Sydney, but we can tap the amazing people and global brand of Bondi to add to the international innovation presence of Sydney and Australia.

At the event I met Peter Morris, the inspiring acting manager for economic development for Waverley Council. He was lobbying inside Waverley for the Officeworks or Spotlight buildings in Bondi Junction, each of them 4000-5000 square meters, owned by council, with leases coming up for renewal, to be used as an innovation space.

Immediately I began to imagine the possibilities for true economic transformation of the region from an initiative like this, if it were done well. And it was also completely clear to me that this would never happen without active external lobbying and support to drive home the immense potential social and economic value.

Chapter 3: The idea of Bondi Innovation Alliance

Charles Clapshaw, who I had met running the agency, shared a passionate belief in the potential of the talent in Bondi. Together we wrote a Bondi Creative Manifesto, which we actually never shared broadly, but still holds entirely true. You can read it here.

In a conversation in mid 2018 at LeParisGo with my friend Annika Ussel, an urban planner, I came up with the idea of Bondi Innovation Alliance, which would essentially lobby for support for innovation from three levels of government, based on the benefits for transport, carbon emissions, local economy development, culture etc, supported by vested interests such as property developers and local entrepreneurs.

At the time I was trying to hold back from doing too many ventures, as I have been burned from trying that before, so my original intention was to take it as far as creating a vision, see if anyone wanted to take it and run with it, and if not just dropping it. Here is the original vision document, with a lovely design by Annika Ussel. The vision still pretty much holds. 

Originally I imagined getting funding as a not-for-profit and hiring a CEO to run it. The lightbulb moment came for me when an executive at Westfield asked me what was distinctive about this vision for Bondi. My answer was: the extraordinary, world-leading talent that has been drawn to the region. 

As I said that, I realised that there are business models around talent. There could be a range of possible ways the venture could make enough money to support its initiatives. I was still extremely hesitant to set it up, already having too much on my plate, but I couldn’t help myself gradually moving forward. 

In September 2019 I finally took the step to incorporate Bondi Innovation Alliance as a Pty Ltd company. The only real reason to set up as a not-for-profit is that it is easier to get some grants and financial support, but admin costs are higher and the structure is highly constraining. I wanted to make it a vehicle we could experiment with in creating and sharing value.

Many people I spoke to about the idea thought that it was about setting up a space. I always said no, I have no interest in setting up a space, there’s too much management attention and risk involved, I don’t want to do it but I want to support anyone who wants to do that.

Zoe Sentirmai from the local community came on board to set the platform for our design and social media and get the initiative started. A few months later Bondi Innovation Alliance hosted the Entrepreneurs Xmas Party in Bondi Junction, with 200 people attending, giving us a very public kickoff.

Chapter 4: Launching the community website

At the beginning of 2020 our plans were to build a community website and a monthly event series. Then COVID hit, and for a while all my attention was taken reinventing my business, since the vast majority of my revenue had come from getting on airplanes and speaking. However in background mode I worked on the Bondi Innovation Alliance website concept and architecture. 

Julia Nunez, who was beginning to work on a coworking space in Bondi Beach, reached out to me as founder of Bondi Creative Entrepreneurs, and we discovered we shared a common belief in the potential Bondi and potential of community. I engaged her to help do the front-end design of the Bondi Innovation Alliance website and some work for my other companies. 

I have been studying online communities since the 1990s, and I know that especially in these days of pervasive social media that it’s very hard to get people to sign up to a new platform. Getting beta users to seed the community so that newcomers see something other than a blank space is critical, but I was disappointed how hard it was to get people to engage initially. 

I persevered and we eventually launched the website to the public in September 2020 with enough people not to be embarrassing, and it gradually grew.

At this point I had spent around $8,000 on the initial branding, website development and other activities, with zero ongoing revenue. I knew it couldn’t continue without being financially sustainable, and while there were long-term possibilities after the community had grown, I started to think about running events as a way to support the organisation.

Chapter 5: The genesis of Bondi Innovation Hub

I had by this time had the good fortune to gather an amazing Advisory Board for Bondi Innovation, incredibly experienced people who shared my vision for the innovation potential of Bondi. I hosted an inaugural Advisory Board lunch in early December 2020 to get their input on the vision. Below is the deck I shared with the Advisory Board before the launch, laying out the current state and our strategic options.

At the lunch Steve Muller said that his business was moving out of 33 Hall St. I immediately thought, wow, what an incredible space and opportunity.  Despite my strong reluctance to set up a physical space, there was an extraordinary confluence of factors that made me feel I couldn’t turn down the possibility of what this could become. 

By this time Charles Clapshaw and I were planning two new ventures which would strongly benefit from having a good office space, so they could pay part of the rent. Charles was able and willing to take the lead on logistics in transforming the space from what it was to being a great innovation hub. And I knew Julia Nunezwas available and enthusiastic about the idea. There is no way the Hub could happen without me being able to delegate essentially all of the day-to-day running of the space to the right person.  

I thought hard about it. The monthly costs would be $17,000 minimum and it was entirely unproven, so there was substantial financial downside for me, and I am certainly not a wealthy person. However the potential upside, not only of the Hub but also how it would enable my other ventures, made it impossible to turn down. 

Two weeks after hearing about the space being available I’d agreed to take on the lease for a 9 month period to see if it worked, with an option to renew for 3 years. 

Chapter 6: The making of the Hub

The original plan was for the lease to commence 1 February, however the construction noise for the new Bondi Beach Post Office below us was potentially prohibitive, so we set a date of 1 March to open, giving us one month access to the place beforehand to get it ready. 

Below are some videos and photos of the journey of Charles, Julia and I making it happen, from throwing out the junk left behind in the space to cleaning, knocking down walls, painting, and making it ready for our Residents and initial events.

Emptying the space
Breaking walls

It is important to acknowledge that the Hub would absolutely not have been possible without Charles’ ability to lead the transformation and his massive personal effort. We have managed to do a very creditable refurbishment of the space on what was necessarily a shoestring budget.

We were also fortunate that a refugee advocate neighbour asked me if I needed a painter, introducing me to Ali Alikhani of Happy Brush, an Iranian filmmaker who after a tortuous path to Australia has become a house painter here, who with his colleague Baha supported us in the massive painting job required. I recommend Ali if you need any house painting, I can provide his contact details.

Chapter 7: The potential for innovation in Bondi

Bondi Innovation Hub is now launched, and it has been quite a journey. But this is, I would hope, just the first step in something that becomes far bigger. 

What is the potential for innovation in Bondi? 

No-one I have asked this question has thought that it is anything other than massive. How we bring that potential to fruition is another question, and one we will work on as hard as we can.

Our Core Principles are all about creating value for the Bondi innovation community, through the community’s participation.

My hope is that we soon need more space, and we have the justification to establish other spaces in Bondi Beach and Bondi Junction to help grow innovation, supported by local, state and federal government, as what we are aiming to do is so aligned with their visions. 

Please, engage with us, support us, come with us on the journey. It promises to be exciting, fun and hopefully immensely rewarding for the community and all involved.

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