Karen Lawson GAICD cannot hide her enthusiasm when talking about her latest appointment as chief executive officer (CEO) at corporate start-up accelerator, Slingshot. After spending five months working as Slingshot’s head of innovation for its Scaleup program, Lawson was appointed CEO in August 2016.

Slingshot runs corporate accelerator programs, which bring start-ups and companies together, with a focus on harnessing entrepreneurism and innovation. The company was co-founded in 2012 by Trent Bagnall FAICD and Craig Lambert.

Lawson, who has over a decade of experience in executive roles within Australia’s technology sector, including job marketplace Career One, says the start-up space is completely focused on innovation and the energy of the sector is very exciting.

Introduction to start-ups

Lawson’s first encounter with the company was at an event demo day for accelerators when Slingshot showcased one of its programs. At the time, Lawson was working with Yahoo across its business development platforms.

“There were hundreds of people in the room and the energy was so high. I sat listening to some of the start-up programs, including one about a collaboration with the NRMA, and the energy in the room was amazing.

“I was really humbled and very excited to be around what was happening in this space and I thought it was a really clever model. This was my first introduction to the sector and I remember that ‘wow’ moment of sitting in the audience and being part of that euphoria.”

Lawson says she was so impressed with Slingshot’s business that model she joined the team as a consultant soon after, running the Scaleup program.

“Innovation is a very exciting space. I could see Slingshot’s potential to grow and become international, and I could see the quality of its board and chairman,” she says “Corporates are ready to think harder about innovation. The start-up sector is growing and maturing. If you were trying to do this seven or eight years ago, it would have been very hard.”

Slingshot’s chairman is board veteran, Gary Flowers FAICD, who is also chairperson of the NSW Institute of Sport. Like Lawson, Flowers is excited about the innovation space.

He says that working and partnering with young entrepreneurs and start-ups and, importantly, linking them with larger companies, is a great opportunity for both parties. “What is also inspiring is that these entrepreneurs, who are highly energised, have made this career choice and put their time, energy and dollars into an idea. Many have sacrificed their time in the corporate world to put their efforts into this sector.”

Mutual benefits

Both Lawson and Flowers admit their role on the Slingshot board is a move away from the traditional corporate board culture where most of the focus is on governance and risk. Lawson also says teamwork is incredibly important as Slingshot’s focus is in the corporate innovation space. “The first notable difference is you don’t have hundreds of people that work for you; the organisation is smaller,” says Lawson.

“Team work is incredibly important and keeping a focus on what you’re doing and recognising the limitations of resources is also important, as you don’t have the luxury of time, resources and money that larger corporates offer.”

Another key consideration is that a smaller board challenges its members to approach different situations at hand, says Lawson. “From a board structure perspective, it’s a much smaller team. In a large organisation there is more to work with. Within the board meetings at Slingshot – it’s still the same amount of effort and focus and there is also the realisation of how important governance remains even inside a smaller business.”

Flowers says that their combined experience of having worked on larger corporate boards has proven to be beneficial. “It has given us greater insight into the importance of corporates engaging with start-ups and how this can benefit both, particularly in innovation.”

He adds: “Our corporate background is a bonus. While we are a small organisation, the level of governance is still as important across all aspects of the business, such as planning and budgets, so long as we don’t get caught up in red tape.”

Innovation mindset

Slingshot connects emerging start-ups, scale-ups and companies with leaders and entrepreneurs to accelerate commercial outcomes. To date, 60 start-ups have participated in Slingshot’s programs. The start-ups and scale-ups participating in Slingshot programs have achieved a combined market capitalisation in excess of $60 million and the creation of 98 full time jobs.

Both Flowers and Lawson recognise the importance of having innovation on a board’s agenda. “If you don’t have innovation as a focus, there is a massive risk to your organisation,” says Flowers. “The reality is that the time it takes to create a product and take it to market is rapid, and in some cases can happen overnight.”

Lawson agrees, adding that the scale and speed of eradication is pretty frightening. “Boards are often consumed with risk and governance. We need to change that focus to innovation, or innovation will become one of the biggest risks to boards.”

However, Lawson also acknowledges the impact that organisational size has on innovation. “Innovation will never be as fast in large organisations as among the smaller start-ups. This is why we encourage large companies to work with start-ups and get innovation happening faster.”

Another major issue for all boards is procurement, says Flowers. “We need to understand that boards must be looking for the best opportunities and where there are more opportunities and emerging companies, we need to partner with them.”

He reiterates that marrying companies and start-ups along with a strong focus on innovation is at the heart of Slingshot. “Slingshot was born out of this need, and businesses are crying out for ways to innovate. We have now launched 60 start-ups and it is incumbent on us to monitor, manage, help and assist them on their journey.” Speaking of Lawson, Flowers says their relationship is very much a partnership. “We find the best way to work through issues and we both play an equally important role on this board.”

As with anyone taking on a new role, Lawson admits she had some trepidation, however this was put aside after working alongside Flowers. “Working with Gary has been a real pleasure and the general ease of our relationship has been fantastic.

“I have been really blessed to work with a great chairman,” she adds. “In the past, I’ve witnessed friction among board members and it impacts the dynamics of the board. Gary and I have complementary and different skills, and we have a strong team in Slingshot.”

Lawson adds that Flower’s incredible reputation in the industry is also a bonus. “Mention his name to anyone, and you’ll always get a complimentary comment. He is highly regarded and for me it is a great privilege to work with and learn from him. He is humble and yet has this amazing quality of connectivity with Australian leaders. Oh, and he has great taste in scarves too,” she jokes.

Amused by the compliment, Flowers pipes in and adds that Lawson is a great foodie. “If you’re after a good restaurant or hotel – she is the go to for a great recommendation.”