Deep Dives
min read

Behind the scenes of creating Australia's favourite startup festival

Written by
Gemma Clancy
Published on

The magic of building a startup is how much can be achieved, within such constrained resources. Like a magic show, while the audience is being wowed, one look ‘behind the curtain’ can reveal just a few skilled masterminds using all every tool they have in their box to hack together a miracle.

Last year, we wrote about the humble beginnings of _SOUTHSTART and tracked how it has grown to be the much-loved startup and innovation festival than it is today. It’s come a long way in the last few years, and last year was named the most-loved event of the year by the Startup Muster report. But since 2018, it’s been a consistent team of incredibly hard working and resourceful masterminds creating the magic behind the scenes.

Ahead of the kick off of this year’s epic 2024 program, we took a look behind the curtain on just how a team of five manage to pull off an event that has amassed an audience of thousands, attracting Australia’s leading investors, founders & industry leaders  to ‘little old Adelaide’ each year. 

Speaking with the festival’s co-founder and Director Danielle Seymour, what we uncovered offers lessons abound for startup founders and operators alike, and provides a whole new appreciation for the immense effort that goes into creating this much-loved event.

The core team

Some of the _SOUTHSTART team, joined by some of their 'true fans'.

At the epicentre of _SOUTHSTART's success is its core team, a dynamic blend of creativity and operational prowess. Leading the team are its co-directors Craig Swann and Danielle Seymour, with Craig focusing on the creative aspects and Danielle focusing more on the operational side, while acknowledging the intersectionality and both contributing heavily to the program design and public image of the festival. Their synergy sets the stage for the festival's vision.

The team is rounded out by Amy Marshall , the marketing manager; Base Yates, the partnership manager; and Tiffany Bond, the event producer. Despite their titles, the team and their roles are fluid by necessity; enabling them to collectively tackle the extensive scope of the event within constrained resources.

The support system

_SOUTHSTART's operations are strengthened by a robust support system, made up of freelancers who step in to support with expert skill sets like photography, filming, editing and social media management throughout the height of the festival program.

This year they’ve also established a partnership with The PR Group, which has allowed the team to gain access to their public relations expertise to help promote the festival, in a way  they otherwise would not be able to. These kinds of relationships, built on a foundation of mutual respect and shared vision, are critical for ensuring the festival’s survivability, especially in a precarious economic environment where sponsor commitments and attendee numbers aren’t always guaranteed.

Leveraging the goodwill of volunteers

The festival's spirit is amplified by the goodwill of volunteers, or "Team Human," as Danielle affectionately calls them. Around 30 people are recruited each year, primarily through social media call-outs, with many of the volunteers returning year on year. These volunteers embody the community's heart, offering their time and skills to bring the festival to life. 

Two of _SOUTHSTART's 'Team Human' volunteers, proudly wearing their event-day merch.

“We feel incredibly fortunate to have that amassed good community around our squad and Team Human. We are absolutely reliant on their support for event day delivery” says Danielle.

The retention and nurturing of these volunteers through catch-ups in the lead up to the event week, and appreciation events afterwards, reflect _SOUTHSTART's commitment to valuing and fostering its human capital; a testament to the festival's community-centric ethos. 

However, Danielle also acknowledged that “we’re continuing to work on ways to ensure that the value of goodwill is truly recognised and reimbursed, as this is perhaps one of the biggest causes of burnout amongst community operators and presents a significant opportunity to ensure the sustainability of our growth.”

Picking great partners

Strategic partnerships and sponsorships are pivotal in _SOUTHSTART's sustainability. Danielle and Craig admit that balancing the commercial sponsorship side of delivering the festival, with its values-driven mission, has been one of the hardest elements of building the business, and especially as the festival grows, the team continues to review how different partnerships play their role.

“That's one of the things that we are still grappling with ourselves[...] how do we quantify the value differential between paid partnerships, and in-kind?” said Danielle.

She explained that each organisation they have a relationship with, whether financial or contra, is called a ‘partner’, because they recognise that every partnership has inherent value to offer, which can be tailored to enhance the festival's overall value proposition. In fact, the two types of partners are inextricably linked to one another. While financial partnerships help make the festival possible in terms of covering costs and helping subsidise ticket prices so they are more affordable, contra-partnerships (like that with Overnight Success! 👋) are essential for solidifying the value that these financial sponsors look for, including bringing in industry expertise, building brand credibility and continuing to grow the size and diversity of the _SOUTHSTART community to make it more attractive to the financial supporters.

_SOUTHSTART's 2024 partners.

While the team receives a lot of inbound interest to sponsor _SOUTHSTART each year, there is also the need for a more bespoke approach, based on the specifics of the programming. For example, this year a large portion of the festival will be held in McLaren Vale and the Fleurieu Peninsula, so _SOUTHSTART initiated a strategic partnership with the City of Onkaparinga, which balances the festival’s commercial objectives with its focus on connecting with the community and delivering strategic value.

Finally, Danielle highlighted the critical role of government support.

“I can't overstate the role of government support because there's a lot of risk involved with events. So having a base layer of validation behind the value that we can then leverage to bring other stakeholder buy-in is a huge part of our existence”, she says.

_SOUTHSTART’s support from the South Australian Government was renewed in 2022 for a 3 year contact, spanning 2023 - 2025. 

“Having that multi year contract, versus needing for it to be renewed and renegotiated each year, has ultimately made sure that we can actually treat this as a proper company and as an event that's not questioning whether it's going to exist next year.”

Designing & curating the program

The process of designing and curating the _SOUTHSTART program is a nuanced blend of reflection, collaboration, and innovation. Following each event, the team does a comprehensive review, analysing attendee surveys, event transcripts, stakeholder and speaker feedback and looking at the measurable outcomes to shape the next year's thematic focus and strategic direction.

From this evaluation process the team asks themselves, “what do we need to do to get better?” and these conclusions feed into a scaffold of what the ideal experience would look like for the next event. This forms the basis of an initial skeleton of the event program, ready for Danielle and Craig to bring together their operational and conceptual perspectives, to ensure the program's content is both engaging and executable. 

The selection of topics and speakers is dynamic, incorporating an Expression of Interest (EOI) phase, ongoing industry monitoring, and consultations with trusted community members. This approach allows _SOUTHSTART to remain responsive to emerging trends and feedback, refining the program for several months, right up until the event's commencement.

“I wish it was a simple answer to say ‘we do this and then we do that and then we do this’. The reality is we are having multiple conversations in parallel. We are reading news items each day. We are grouping individuals that we believe would offer a great voice to a topic…while continuing to get feedback on those decisions”, says Danielle about the fluid and holistic nature of the program curation.

Perhaps one of the most impressive aspects of the _SOUTHSTART programming is how highly curated it is, as opposed to a more ‘satellite’ style approach where various contributors run their own sessions with some light support from event organisers. Danielle admitted that this is something the team is constantly grappling with, because managing so many stakeholders and crafting their hundreds of inputs with such a hands-on approach, is incredibly challenging, albeit rewarding!

Adding to the complexity of this highly curated style, Danielle explained that she knows the team has to be acutely aware of occasionally stepping back to avoid too much of their own bias around what a “good session” looks like, limiting the inclusive nature of the festival’s design.

 “We have to let go of our perspectives …suggest what could be a good framework, but then be absolutely open and want to mould that based on [others’] input”, she says.

A peek inside Danielle’s calendar, just weeks out from the 2024 event. One word: hectic!

The ethos & strategy

The ethos of _SOUTHSTART, as it manifests across the brand’s tone of voice, is very distinctive, deeply considered, and yet remarkably consistent. Danielle explained that this is very much a collective effort, with the whole team contributing to communicating as the _SOUTHSTART brand in the public domain. But the very context-rich nature of the festival’s messaging does pose some challenges when it comes to scaling operations into the future, without the reliance on Danielle or Craig to “jump in” and write copy for social posts and the like sporadically.

The essence of _SOUTHSTART lies in its commitment to creating a space where individuals can not just come to learn and make connections for the benefit of their professional goals, but where they can also connect, reflect, and engage beyond their professional personas. This "supper party ethos," a concept of Craig’s, fosters a human-centred approach, allowing participants to explore innovation and entrepreneurship while being true to themselves.

An intimate dinner party hosted by _SOUTHSTART.

“I think if we can create a space for a moment of time that can make people feel like they don't have to be so concrete; “this is my working hat, and this is my personal hat” [and rather] this is just who I am, just as a human… I think that's part of our role at _SOUTHSTART.”

2024 - the best _SOUTHSTART yet?

Reflecting on the journey since 2018, _SOUTHSTART has evolved from a more traditional conference to an immersive, human-centred festival experience, with a strong focus on integrating hospitality alongside the content delivery and structured conversation aspects of the program. 

For example, the team heard from 2023 attendee feedback that one of their favourite parts of the event was the evening street party where, at the end of a full day of presentations and panels, participants were encouraged to just casually connect with one another whilst enjoying food, drink, and Adelaide’s iconic friendly hospitality. This year, a bigger and better version of this format will be brought to life at the Laneway event, which will transform the CBD’s bustling Gilbert Place “into an electrifying fusion of Adelaide's most electric sounds and savours…for an evening of relaxation and creativity.”

The street party on Adelaide's Peel Street, at _SOUTHSTART 2018

They’ve also experienced the benefits and downsides of delivering a more segmented attendee experience, with 2023 attendees at one point needing to commit to a specific ‘stream’ of events within the larger program (e.g. for Angel investors, scaleups and earlier stage startups).

Reflecting on this decision, Danielle explained, “the strategic intent behind those [streams] was to amass a critical value proposition for those segments of the community. And it's paid off this year, because there's been a lot of conversion within those audiences. But what it also did was create a bit of a fractured experience, because…we had all these other stakeholders (for example VCs) that weren't explicitly being communicated about. So this year we very much consolidated the programming and messaging to “You're coming to _SOUTHSTART, it is an experience that spans from the 5th to the 7th of March.”

While the program is still segmented to somewhat by audience, the team has focused on keeping everyone in the one location and, as much as possible, providing attendees with the ability to “choose their own adventure” without limitations based on their professional role or background. While some might see it as a minor detail, Danielle emphasised that this is actually quite a fundamental shift; one that clearly aligns more closely with the core ethos of the organisation which focuses on “everyone walking through the doors equally”.

According to Danielle, the team is constantly questioning the status quo and making “1% incremental changes” to their approach, based on reflection and evaluation. As any seasoned founder, builder or creator would know, it’s the cumulative impact of these small changes that leads to unmatched excellence in any field.

Subscribe to newsletter

Subscribe to receive the latest start-up news in your inbox every week.

By clicking Subscribe you're confirming that you agree with our Privacy Policy & Terms of Use.