Welcome to ‘Female Founders’, the Information Age series profiling 12 women who have grabbed the entrepreneurial reins and ridden into the unpredictability of start-up life.
We talk to the women about their business, entrepreneurship journey and advice they’d give to other women considering starting their own business.
Information Age interviewed all 12 women on the Start-up Catalyst Mission to London this year. Start-up Catalyst runs regular missions for start-ups, investors, and other leaders to some of the world’s top tech hotspots, such as Silicon Valley, Israel, Hong Kong and London. The goal? To transform both the individual and innovation landscape in Australia.
Today we speak with Katrina Donaghy, co-founder of Civic Ledger.
Name: Katrina Donaghy, co-founder
Business: Civic Ledger
Established: 2016 in Brisbane
No. of employees: 3
No. of customers: 3
Information Age: What is your business all about?
Katrina: Civic Ledger works with governments to help them solve complex problems around preparing for a digital future with citizens at the centre of services. We look at, how do we digitise government issued rights permits, licenses. How do we secure registries to verify who has what. Then once they're digitised and rules are actually baked into them, we can take them into new marketplaces for citizens to trade with each other without governments having to operate in those marketplaces.
IA: What problem did you see that you wanted to solve?
Katrina: It went right back to about 2016 which is really early for this technology. I met my co-founder that Lucas Cullen in Brisbane in April 2016 and he's been in this business for some time. Before we actually met, I'd spent 25 years working in government, both on the state government level and local government level, and also water utilities in Queensland. So, I had a fair idea of how government worked and some of the challenges around getting better services out to citizens in an internet era.
I met Lucas and he'd been working on a proof of concept of how to digitise something like basic fishing permit. How do you then hold that as a digital artifact in a wallet in your phone to verify that you are the rightful owner of that permit, that you've met the conditions the government actually put together?
Then, how do you actually utilise that asset without someone challenging you that you're not the rightful owner of that? Or how do you actually not enable that person to counterfeit it or double spend it by creating another version of that and issuing that without government understanding or seeing that happen?
When he presented that to me, I said, "I think we have something here." He said to me, "Do you know if we can actually get this in front of anyone in Queensland government?" At that time, because of my connections, I did.
We went in there, Lucas and I, and we got someone to download the digital wallet. Then we put their mobile phone into the browser which we had built. We pushed that license to his wallet via the Bitcoin blockchain and demonstrated, once the actual asset had arrived into his wallet, he could actually now see that he'd received the fishing permit. He could double click and verify that that had been transferred by the bitcoin blockchain to show that it was now immutable record.
From there, we were contracted by the Queensland government to work on a proof of concept where they wanted to explore that and said, "If we can do that for fishing, what can we actually do with much more complex problems?" They chose community liquor licenses which are really hardcore. We worked with the Queensland government over six weeks to digitise that process and show that we could actually deliver that using blockchain technology.
Now, we’re about to do a water pilot in Australia.
IA: What is the vision for your business?
Katrina: Our vision is to solve some key problems that we're really passionate about and then export the technology globally. When you work with blockchain technology, you're not solving small problems. Blockchain technology solves big, hard problems.
I would like to see that in the future that our technology is agreed to for water trading in Australia, that we have a national consensus around what that protocol will look like and then get that consensus through COAG.
Then, export that technology to the world so other countries can start to democratise water allocations so we can get an agreement on how we're going to share this very finite asset into the future.
That's one of the biggest visions that I have for my company -- to actually solve that problem and to be known that we actually did that. We did that as Australians and did that well and took that to the rest of the world.
IA: How is the Australian market different to others?
Katrina: Australia is very different because we actually just made a decision to put a price on water. We decided because we knew that we had to really had competing interests and we're an arid country, we had to say, "Your water will now cost you this." You find in a lot of countries around the world, you cannot extract water without paying a price for it. If you're going to be a country that's going to say, "We're not going to be putting a price on water," and you've got an entire farming industry that's never paid for water, you can imagine what's going to happen.
This is why blockchain is critically important because it actually sets the governance around how you're going to now engage or manage those markets. It's complex and complicated because you have one regulator -- Queensland works differently to New South Wales, it works differently to Victoria, that works differently to South Australia. They've all got different rules, different jurisdictions, and none of the state government registers are interoperable.
If you do a cross border trade between Victoria and New South Wales, you've got different state governments trying to reconcile that data because they're not interoperable. We want to basically say, "Let's build on what we've done, and take it to the next generation, to the next platform." Working with Cairns Innovation Centre in Northern Australian and Cairns is great because they're responsible for building out the new markets in Northern Australia.
Now, there's so much water up there, but there's no markets. They want to work with us to say, if we see what blockchain can do around governance, then let's use this technology to build new water markets in Northern Australia, to support investment from Asia into those new markets.
IA: Have you ever wanted to throw the towel in?
Katrina: This is the ride of being an entrepreneur. To make this decision that you're going to go and do this thing called a start-up-- I'm not 20, I'm a 51-year-old woman who's had a career, studied in a good uni, attained a couple of degrees, and had a career.
Every day, you probably know 40% of your day because you've got certain things that you have to go through, but 60% of your day is this crazy land called start-up land. It has its highs and has its lows.
Every day will be a challenge. Yes, you do wake up some days and go, "Why am I doing this? This is crazy." Then again, the freedom that you're given as an entrepreneur to be open and learn and unlearn, learn new knowledges and create new connections, whilst also building a product that you're really proud of, is a gift. This is not for everyone. I think that is something that gets missed when we have this hype around being an entrepreneur or being a start-up.
The reality of running from a start-up to scale up, is very lonely. I think that is something that gets missed and not talked about, that this stuff at the top is extremely lonely because when it comes down to, can you pay wages? Can you keep the lights on? This comes down to you, and what decisions you've made in the past to get to this point.
You've got to have an honest conversation with yourself every day. Will you call it at some point to say, "I gave it a real hot shot, but it's not going to work." You have to have those honest conversations every day and it's hard.
IA: What’s one of your greatest learnings on the entrepreneurship journey?
Katrina: What I know now after two-and-a-half years in this business, in this company, if anyone is reading and contemplating this journey, and they're going to be dealing with things that are not their strength like shareholders appointments, CAP tables, VC funding and equity and all that stuff which is really daunting.
I'm just going to say: get in there. It's going to be uncomfortable but make that your priority. You’ve got to get your head around all that stuff in the first instance. If you don't know how to do it, go and find somebody who's going to help you, mentor yourself through that.
If you don't, it will come back and bite you and it'll bite you hard. Then you're going to have to sit there and unravel everything and understand and then wonder why decisions were made when you weren't actually leaning in and putting your hand up and saying, "I don't quite understand, let's backtrack that."
From a female founder perspective, if any of your readers are contemplating this, that is the most important thing that they must learn about. Absolutely, regardless of whether you're not technical, this is not your comfort zone – get comfortable. You need to have this knowledge for when you go do your raises.
IA: Do you have any plans to raise capital?
Katrina: In 2018, we raised $1 million. That was back because we had secured a position with the Australian government on water. We were only six weeks old when we actually got that opportunity. When we secured intellectual property, that was an open tender on the digital transformation agency website. We beat some large businesses -- and we were a start-up.
We’d like to do another raise as soon as possible. We’re going to need at least $5 million if we want to scale – and scale fast.
One of the crazy things that happens in blockchain land, as soon as you actually make a claim that you've done something with blockchain technology, the world goes stupid.
What we're anticipating is that once we actually start delivering the pilot, the whole world is going to look at us and go. "Woah, this is freaking amazing." We're going to have to move fast.
One problem is that you get copycats. We are known around the world for what we're doing in blockchain technology and water ledger. Then recently, we found out a company in California was replicating us. That's what happens.
Because we've been in the market longer, we've got our credibility, we've got our reputation, but now we need to deliver and execute and then move fast as possible.
We also have invested in patents. Our intellectual property has a patent. Those are the other things that you've got to think about too. Where are you generating your intellectual property and how are you going to protect that?
IA: Who put you on the path to entrepreneurship?
Katrina: I think the path of entrepreneurship starts with curiosity. Whatever you choose later in life, when you find your niche or your passion is something that as a small person that if you actually learn or have a craving for curiosity, that's one of the most important elements for being an entrepreneur, is curiosity and an openness to learning. If you have those elements in you, that sets you up for this crazy thing called entrepreneurship.
In 2003, I went back to university and did a degree in entrepreneurship and venture development. That was pivotal to everything.
Then I started something that didn't work out, went back to life, had kids, and then in 2015, I woke up.
I was ready.
Roulla Yiacoumi travelled on the 2019 Startup Catalyst Mission to London with the Female Founders.