Under the glare: a startup founder’s story

How do you come up with a disruptive idea while smashing stereotypes and being followed around by a camera? Jessica Christiansen-Franks is finding out.

She’s the co-founder of Neighbourlytics, a social data platform aimed at helping inform decision-makers about a particular neighbourhood, beyond mere demographics.

“There’s a lot of public upset about places being built that just don’t work,” Christiansen-Franks told The Pulse.

“Places like Docklands, Barangaroo have had a lot of investment and a lot of years under development – but they don’t feel like great places that people want to be.”

Borrowing from her 15 years of experience in urban design, she and co-founder Lucinda Hartley thought there had to be a better way of collecting data to help understand the people of an area.

“Decision-makers are using outdated and inadequate information about how to design those communities,” said Christiansen-Franks.

“When you look at social media, it gives you a much more nuanced fingerprint of who people are, what they value, and what they’re talking about.”

After a false start, Christiansen-Franks and co-founder Lucinda Hartley were accepted into SheStarts, a $1 million program (supported by MYOB) aimed at lifting female tech leadership in the startup space.

One of the major aims of the program is to showcase the journey of the founders through a documentary series — as one of the issues which has contributed to inequality in the startup space is that young women and girls simply don’t see themselves as tech startup founders.

However, helping address that perception is something Christiansen-Franks has struggled with.

“Really strange and a bit uncomfortable”

“For me personally, it’s slightly uncomfortable to talk about gender,” said Christiansen-Franks. “I’ve been a female CEO for a couple of years now, and I get sick of it being pointed out that I’m a female.”

To have a documentary series made around her with the explicit aim of starting a conversation about inequality in tech and changing perceptions has been challenging.

“I speak at a lot of conferences and public events, and the number of times young women come up to me and say ‘it’s so great to see a woman in a leadership role’, I’m often confused,” said Christiansen-Franks.

“Of all the things we could be talking about…to then reduce it to ‘you’re a female in this role’…I’ve always been confused and frustrated by that.”

However, she’s accepted the vital role she can play in fostering the next generation of women in tech.

“I’m seeing my role here is to help pave the way for everybody else who is feeling the gender inequality issues and that’s limiting their ability to do the jobs they want,” said Christiansen-Franks.

She’s still pretty weirded out by the cameras and having her personal journey broadcast, however.

“I forget that people are actually watching the documentary. I get people coming up to me, who I don’t know, saying ‘I’ve been watching SheStarts and I came to this talk to hear from you’,” she said.

“That’s really strange and a little bit uncomfortable. People know more about me than I’d normally be willing to share with a stranger.”

One of the more recent things filmed was the decision for Christiansen-Franks and Hartley to split their roles, with the former taking on Neighbourlytics while the latter takes care of their existing business, CoDesign Studio.

Breaking up the band

The latest episode of SheStarts chronicled the decision for Christiansen-Franks to go it alone on Neighbourlytics, something she described as a “difficult conversation”.

Before the move, both women worked on both businesses.

“It became clear that we weren’t doing a good job at either – we’ve really had to divide and conquer.

“It was a difficult conversation because we had to be honest with each other about our own limitations, and honest with ourselves.”

However, Christiansen-Franks said with the support network afforded by the SheStarts program that she still felt she would have enough support to cope.

“You get an incredible ecosystem of advisers, training, support and guidance that the BlueChilli team gives us – and also amazing partners like MYOB that give us guidance as well,” she said.

“We have access to an incredible array of different advice and being able to learn from people who have done it before.”

She said one of the key pieces of advice she had received while in the program validated both her and Lucinda’s choice to split responsibilities.

“Somebody said to me the other day that being busy isn’t a badge of honour, it’s a f***ing waste of your life,” said Christiansen-Franks.

“The whole lean startup model is not about doing everything, but picking the most important things and getting those done.

“Done is better than perfect, and I’m not comfortable with that – I’d rather aim for perfect, but you can’t possibly be successful if you spread yourself too thin.”