Tech founder harnesses digital platform for a positive social cause

Hitnet is an innovative ‘Communication for Development’ company that builds the smart digital ecosystems needed to reach and engage the most marginalised people.  Hitnet brings information and services to every corner of the world.

Hitnet’s Founder Julie Gibson said Hitnet’s purpose was to co-create a platform for knowledge exchange, to build vibrant included communities.  By 2021, Hitnet aims to be improving the lives of 1 million people daily throughout the world.

“About five years ago the university research program that started Hitnet was coming to an end,” Julie said.

“Its products and services were and still are unique and customers were approaching us to buy what we had developed.  We saw an opportunity to build on what we’d started so we set up an independent business, and soon after became a founding Australian B Corp.”

A couple of months ago, Julie attended a business seminar held by Scale Investors where one of their successful businesses came to present.  The speaker was Deb Noller (2013 Springboard Australia Accelerator Alum) from Switch Automation (read our blog post from Deb here).

Julie said Deb generously and honestly spoke about her journey as a female entrepreneur in the tech world.

“A lot of what she said resonated with me, and she was, like myself, part of the earlier IT wave in Australia as a programmer and Deb suggested I join one of the female entrepreneur networks, like SBE Australia.

I had heard of Springboard but hadn’t considered it thinking that I wasn’t really interested in female only networks and that Hitnet being a social business wouldn't be a good fit.

But when I read more about the upcoming E3 program in Melbourne, I quickly submitted an application.

“I wouldn’t have considered this program if it hadn’t been for Deb’s recommendation, but so far she’s been correct in her assessment in that SBE Australia is a valuable network to be part of.”

We asked Julie exactly what had stood out to her in the E3 program so far…

Feedback

Having outsiders constructively critique me as a business person has been really worthwhile and I’m taking all the feedback on board to fine tune myself and Hitnet.  Each week there is at least one good ‘take away’ that I then incorporate into some part of my business.

Learning from successful female tech founders

I can honestly say that I’ve enjoyed the E3 program a lot more than I had expected to.  One of the benefits for me has been getting to meet and hear from successful female tech founders, most of whom I never knew existed.  The media these days is good at celebrating the success of male-led businesses, and there really needs to be more done to encourage and support women.  These women have negotiated the male dominated terrain of pitching for and receiving investment.  Their success is even more remarkable considering the obstacles they have overcome.

Each week, one of these guest presenters generously share their stories.  I’ve gained many insights from these and am continually reflecting with the day-to-day running of Hitnet.

Fine-tuning the pitch

Getting straight into pitching each week and having to fine tune and condense our messaging into quick, snappy, headlines to get our message across, has been fantastic practice not only for possible investment pitching but also for the many other opportunities to present your business in different situations.

The network

I haven’t been part of a local cohort of business founders, let alone female-led technology startups, learning together before.  Running a business can be lonely and you often wonder whether anyone else has the same challenges that you do.  In the E3 program, everyone is very open and forthcoming in sharing their obstacles and are very supportive and encouraging to each other.

I expect that SBE Australia and the business network they create will stand me in good stead over the long haul, whether Hitnet pitches for investment or not.

In the spirit of community and shared experience, we asked Julie for any words of wisdom she had for other female founders.

Resilience is a big part of running your own business

I like the saying ‘out of every threat comes an opportunity’ so you have to be ready to step up and look for those opportunities when things don’t go as expected.  Over time you do enjoy these creative episodes, and it is amazing what you do manage to achieve when you think that all is lost.

R&D around new technology is really challenging and can take a lot longer and cost more than you expect

Everyone involved has to be committed to be able to think creatively to solve complex problems particularly with the work that Hitnet does to deliver messages to the hardest-to-reach.  We’re breaking down entrenched barriers (social, technological and physical) to reach our audience.  Therefore, this requires unflagging commitment from our designers and developers.

Self-care is essential to being an entrepreneur

It’s like having a baby, you have to look after yourself to be able to nurture and bring up your child.  I’ve invested in some great leadership coaching over the years that has enabled me to set up some regular practices that have helped me through the good and not so good times.

At least once a year I like to do a retreat -  yoga, emotional health or leadership style retreat. It enables you to escape technology and the day-to-day operations and reconnect with who you are, why you are doing what you are doing, and to be able to nourish yourself.  The time out is really precious and pays huge dividends to be able to sustain yourself throughout the year.

Set realistic expectations

Everything takes a lot longer than you expect, and there is no silver bullet to building a successful, sustainable business.

It’s hard work and try not to get swept up by the heady world of startup culture that can be filled with false hope.  Yes, it is exciting how technology can rapidly scale businesses but there needs to be a realistic expectation.

There’s probably never going to be a ‘right time’ to start your own business, but ensure you have good support networks around you that share your vision.

Julie said after many years of working for large companies and research organisations, she really enjoyed the autonomy and flexibility of running her own business.

“The fact that the work that Hitnet does is striving to have a positive social impact is also really important to me. Technology is a powerful enabler and I’m committed to making sure that no one is left behind in the fast-paced global digital economy.”