Tall Poppy Syndrome hinders startup success in Australia, AWS reports

John Kearney, Head of Startups for ANZ at AWS

Amazon Web Services (AWS) released the “How startups create a culture of possibilities” report. Prepared by research consulting firm Lonergan Research, the report reveals that Australia’s startup ecosystem is moving beyond perks like ping pong tables and office kegs, with nearly nine in 10 (86%) leaders surveyed agreeing that a strong organisational culture and an intentional focus on work-life balance are at the heart of successful businesses.

The report highlights a happier and more resilient workforce as the leading outcome of a thriving startup’s culture, with the vast majority stating that it plays an important role in their ability to grow (86%), attract talent (85%) and secure investment (85%).

Underscoring this, the research data also shows that as Australia’s startup ecosystem matures, startup leaders and their teams recognise that “grind culture” – or, a mentality that expects and encourages long hours and team availability beyond a standard work day – is not a sustainable way to run a startup for long-term growth and success.

What were the findings of the research?

In addition, tapping into the expertise and deep experience from more than 500 founders, leading investors, advisors, and startup ecosystem influencers, the Amazon Web Services research report explores the critical ingredients for, and outcomes of Australian startup culture. It aims to provide guidance to current and aspiring founders on how to build a thriving and productive company culture from day one – as well as what to watch out for.

Perks passing their peak

“Work perks” are often synonymous with startup culture, with ping pong tables and paid lunches routinely featuring in “best places to work” lists. But the research indicates a move beyond these mainstays of team motivation, with “work-life balance initiatives” listed as the most common (47%) factor critical for building a flourishing organisational culture.

Craig Cowdrey, co-founder and CEO of Sonder

This finding is affirmed by Craig Cowdrey, co-founder and CEO of workplace wellbeing startup, Sonder, who says that workers have grown skeptical of these perks, especially when they are prioritised over more meaningful benefits. “So much of that has been recognised as not particularly relevant or determinative in an employee’s choice. A lot of them think that it’s just to keep them working in the office longer,” Craig Cowdrey said.

Impact on founders’ mental health: tall poppy and imposter syndromes

The study also shines a light on the common pressures and dynamics impacting the mental health and wellbeing of founders, and outlines how some startup leaders are managing those personal challenges, and providing guidance for future founders to learn from.

Two thirds of startup leaders (66%) surveyed believe tall poppy syndrome – a cultural attitude that resents, disapproves of, or condemns success – is alive and well within the startup community, with most respondents experiencing it personally (80%).

According to leaders, this can manifest as an aversion to risk (46%), stunted career development (45%), and weakened mental and emotional wellbeing (43%). But the most common source of tall poppy syndrome is social media, with almost half stating it as the primary source (46%), and sentiment from Corporate Australia (35%) and media (34%).

Imposter syndrome is another key concern for the mental wellbeing of founders, with more than three quarters (77%) of startup leaders feeling it. Managing those feelings can be a challenge, but according to the research, the most common strategies include focusing on building resilience (28%) or taking time to celebrate success (27%).

But some do not manage it positively. A quarter (26%) mask it and a fifth (21%) manage it by working until they burn out. Nearly the same number (19%) indicate that they would like help managing the mental wellbeing challenges that many founders experience.

Grappling with grind culture

Despite the clear recognition that strong culture leads to a startup team’s happiness and better business outcomes, the study shows that the Aussie startup ecosystem is still navigating negative facets like grind culture, with the majority (93%) acknowledging that it exists. The study indicates it is typically driven by internal performance pressures (45%), perfectionism to ensure success (43%), and competition from other startups (42%).

Dr Ben Hurst, Founder and CEO of HotDoc

To move away from this, startups are beginning to take steps to minimise “the grind,” with some intentionally embedding self-care as a company value. Dr Ben Hurst, Founder and CEO of patient engagement platform HotDoc, works hard to instill this in his business, and says that striving towards balance and self-care is critical for wellbeing in a startup.

HotDoc’s values include “Take ownership,” “Always be empathetic,” and “Speak up,” which are designed to encourage members to look after themselves and each other. “You are doing the wrong thing if you are working in a way that is not self-sustaining,” said Hurst.

What were AWS’ thoughts on the survey findings?

John Kearney, Head of Startups, ANZ, AWS, said the report intends to provide practical knowledge, expert guidance, and lessons from established founders, to support Australia’s future founders to prioritise building a strong culture in their own startups from the very beginning.  “Full of insights and real-world experience collected through ecosystem research, this report highlights the many attributes that make startups so inspiring to us.”

“They seize opportunities and solve problems in innovative ways, they question societal norms and question the status quo, and they help solve some of the biggest challenges of our time by using technology to build the future. But all of this is only possible if a startup has established a strong culture that encourages experimentation and testing of ideas, quick decision making, and learning from mistakes,” John Kearney further commented.

“That’s the cultural foundation that AWS is built on, too – that’s why, for over 15 years, we’ve helped more startups launch, build, and succeed than any other cloud provider, offering the tech tools, mentorship, and technical support to enable founders to bring their ambitious, world-changing ideas to life.  While cloud computing has removed many of the barriers to entry for entrepreneurs, launching and growing a startup isn’t an easy journey.”

“But the rewards can be great – for founders, the people who work for them, and society at large – so we are keen to encourage future founders to follow this path. By highlighting the achievements and the importance of culture in supporting their vision, we hope to not only accelerate their success, but to inspire the next generation to prove what’s possible.”

How is AWS supporting the global startup eco-system?

Are you inspired to give your business idea a go? Amazon Web Services (AWS) is here to help future founders take that first step, with a range of programs and initiatives to support startups. At the earliest stages, the AWS Activate program provides qualified startups with a range of benefits, including AWS credits, technical support, and training.

Hundreds of thousands of startups around the world have benefitted from the program since 2013, and in the past two years alone, AWS has provided more than $2bn in Activate credits to help early-stage startups launch their businesses and accelerate their growth.

With this help, startups are using scalable, reliable, and secure cloud services like compute, storage, database, analytics, Internet of Things (IoT), machine learning, and many others from AWS to scale their businesses. To join AWS Activate, visit the AWS website.