1st June, 2018

SheStarts 2018: Why asking for help is smart for startups

One of the linchpins for any new business is recognising what you don’t know. Then, instead of being daunted, ask others for help.

Danielle Owen Whitford faced this knowledge gap when starting Pioneera, designed to help corporate workers deal with stress by predicting it before it happens.

After 20 years of moulding high-performing teams and taking charge of multimillion-dollar transformation projects for insurance giant IAG and others, Owen Whitford saw the effects of stress on her teams and herself.

“I saw a lot of burnout,” Owen Whitford told The Pulse.

“One of the reasons that I left the corporate world was that I was just out of my limit. I didn’t know that, interestingly, until after I had left.”

She said signs of stress within the workplace were subtle. After a while she could predict which team members would soon suffer.

“I started getting emails from people – I noticed in that email chain the same things like, ‘Here we go again’, ‘I don’t want to do this anymore’, ‘Haven’t we done this already?’.

“I just started seeing the same patterns.”

Danielle Owen Whitford


Her curiosity about what drove stress led her to found consultancy Execs With Soul, which helps troubleshoot signs of stress in corporate environments.

Then she saw things in the wider world around language analysis driven by machine learning to help predict those people on the edge of breaking down.

“So I know that there’s a little bit going on in terms of using technology to help mental health. That leads me to all sorts of questions,” said Owen Whitford.

READ: Mapping a new course to social change

Not being a coder, she didn’t know how to build a machine learning–driven chatbot.

For a lot of female founders, curiosity usually melts there.

But Owen Whitford’s curiosity led her to SheStarts.

Making connections

Whitford was privileged compared to other female founders, thanks to her contact book. It grew from her 20 years in the corporate sector.

So, she knew people who knew people who knew about machine learning and AI.

They confirmed that it was technically possible to build out her vision. Owen Whitford also ran into SheStarts lead Nicola Hazell at a Sydney function, who led her to the SheStarts program.

“She was talking about SheStarts and how it was for non-technical female founders, what they were looking for and what she was trying to do in the technology industry,” said Owen Whitford.

One coffee later, Whitford was getting ready for life in the SheStarts incubator.

Uncle Ron and the art of uncertainty

Whitford came to SheStarts with the idea of building a “whingebot” called Uncle Ron (no relation) – an AI chatbot that people could vent their frustrations to. The bot then gives constructive solutions – or just flashes a kitten photo every so often.

Uncle Ron: Pioneera


“Stress is the buildup of adrenaline in the body, and the body is unable to self-regulate,” she said.

“Pioneera gives you a circuit-breaker, and that circuit-breaker will be tailored to the individual.

“For example, I might like a picture of my kids. Uncle Ron may flash up a picture of my kids. That might be enough of a circuit-breaker that allows me take a breath and start to self-regulate.”

She says the process of building a machine learning–driven chatbot from scratch has been mind-twisting as she knows nothing about coding.

For somebody who led teams and developed a consultancy business based on her having all the answers, going to a situation where she had no knowledge was tough.

READ: When you need a nudge to get on track

She talked about her idea to a SheStarts mentor, and the mentor mentioned things like “natural-language processing”, “data integrity” and other things she had no idea about.

“It was the first time I’ve truly realised that I don’t know what I don’t know. I felt ignorant,” said Owen Whitford. “I left the conversation with her quite concerned.”

But the shining piece of advice from that same mentor stuck.

“She said, ‘Good, good. That’s where you should be. Smart people don’t know what they don’t know, and they go and find it,” said Owen Whitford.

While connections and curiosity opened the door, progress came by realising what she didn’t know and finding people who could fill in the gaps.

“I think that what makes SheStarts a game-changer. It provides resources and people who do know what you don’t and encourages you to connect with them,” said Whitford.

Not knowing the finer details is not the obstacle to building something you’re curious about.

Instead, it can spur you on to find the people to help you along the way.