It all began in 2011 when a few young blokes in Brisbane got together to create a campaign to tackle a leading killer of Australians – suicide. This campaign became a fully-fledged non-profit dedicated to creating innovative solutions for mental health.
William Smith-Stubbs is the Co-Founder and Chief Executive Officer of spur:, a strategy and design company focused on social good. Their unique business model allows them to create impactful and brave projects that they believe the world needs through their non-profit, funded by the work through their commercial side.
spur: has recently been awarded a $200,000 Round 9 Ignite Ideas Fund grant for Toucan – a brand new product to help everyone better understand how they’re feeling and how to improve their wellbeing.
We recently spoke with William about spur: and how the Ignite Ideas Fund grant will help commercialise and grow their new product.
What inspired you to start your business?
I almost took my life when I was twelve years old. I had been through a chronic illness, and some disruption to my home life, and fell into a deep depression. I was really lucky to survive that and recover from mental illness – and lucky to find a way to use that experience to help others.
After meeting my co-founders for the non-profit, I fell in love with the opportunity to create change through public health campaigns and projects. But, the work we wanted to do was what nobody else was brave enough to do – which meant a great potential to create new impact, but came with the downside of not being a sure bet for funding.
Having fallen into strategic consulting as a day job, I had also seen how a lot of non-profits struggled with balancing their impact capacity with a lack of funds. So, I eventually convinced one of my non-profit co-founders to start a new company with me, that would take what we learned in designing impactful and engaging solutions and make that profitable. The non-profit would hold equity in this company, meaning as we did good, we’d make profit, and then profits would return to the not-for-profit parent entity to fund our campaigns.
This move opened up our exposure to a range of new partners, collaborators, supporters, and opportunities – including the chance to commercialise one of our earlier projects.
What milestones have been reached?
As a whole, spur: has worked with clients and partners and we’ve tallied up a number of accomplishments, including:
- Increasing foster care applications for Anglicare by 300%
- Designing a LGBTQ+ inclusion framework for whole-of-government operations in Victoria
- Helping redesign emergency interventions for suicide crisis across New South Wales
- Developing an award-winning employee wellbeing strategy for BDO Australia and a landmark set of company values for BDO New Zealand that greatly advance cultural inclusion
- Creating a world-first real-time smartphone survey for mental wellbeing data, with over 13,000 participants, to help institutions better reach those in need
- The inter-generational loneliness project #OLDMATE that generated thousands of hours of connection
- The landmark project Soften the Fck Up that helped Australians better talk about mental illness
And of course, there’s Toucan – the winning proposal for the Ignite Ideas Fund grant. Toucan has been in the works for years, as a tool to help individuals, organisations, and communities, better understand mental wellbeing, its changes, and unique needs. Winning the Ignite Ideas grant is a massive milestone.
What achievements are you most proud of to date?
We started as a small, grass-roots organisation with no funding, few resources, and whatever time we could steal away from our day jobs. We now have a team of permanent – and brilliant – staff that is growing, have been able to work on a range of important projects for communities in Australia and beyond, and have had the pleasure to work with some of the world’s largest non-profits and bodies. That is an incredible achievement.
Alongside this, we’ve been recognised with awards and accolades.
But the achievements that foster the greatest sense of pride are when our work has directly impacted people’s lives. To know that a campaign we produced helped someone seek help rather than suicide, to know that there are children in safe homes because of our input, or even to have been able to give a voice to elders experiencing severe isolation – that makes it all worth it.
At any point in our history we could have gone the way of many small businesses and non-profits, and failed to find the resources to continue. We’ve not only beaten that, but, I think, demonstrated a model for how to create both impact and revenue, and that good ideas and a lot of passion can make big changes.
What are your business goals over the next 12-24 months?
Toucan is our main commercial focus for the coming years, as a very exciting opportunity to develop a product that helps individuals to better understand themselves and their wellbeing, and equips employers, organisations, and communities with the tools to best support everyone based on unique needs.
Particularly in the wake of the pandemic, we’ve all experienced a traumatic, anxiety-inducing event that has made mental health and wellbeing even more important – and in demand for new support.
Over the next year, we’re excited to properly roll out Toucan to our first customers, including both commercial companies, government bodies, and community organisations. We’ll then be releasing a free version for individuals to access so that everyone, anywhere, can have tailored insight on their own mood and wellbeing.
The nature of Toucan also allows us to share powerful insights on trends and patterns in greater society and we’re excited – much like our history of supporting researchers and public health networks – to share this information with those who can do more good.
How will use your Ignite Ideas funding?
Our Ignite Ideas funding is being put to launching our Toucan app to market. Toucan is a tool for individuals to understand their own mental wellbeing and use resources to manage and improve it – while giving communities, employers, and groups more insight into how to help.
The funding will allow us to launch a robust marketing campaign that will include a content of useful resources for wellbeing, share tips and tricks for group wellbeing, and welcome our first customers with a focus on ensuring their experience is the best it can be.
How will this funding assist your business to grow and/or create jobs?
We have a lot to do! And this means we’ll be hiring a few new roles to help support our marketing, content, customer service, and business development activities.
Creating jobs is a privilege and responsibility – and one we’re always excited to participate in.
Long term, as Toucan grows, we will be hiring multiple new roles across technology, design, behavioural science, and more.
Why would you recommend applying for Advance Queensland programs, such as the Ignite Ideas Fund?
Yes! The honest truth is – it’s tough. This was our second time applying, and only came back for another go upon some encouragement to give it another crack. Looking back at our previous application we were able to see where we didn’t quite hit the mark or explained ourselves properly. It also gave us a good amount of time to work on our product and make sure we were ready.
But we’re so glad we did.
The statistics are clear – government support has a huge role to play in the success of startups. I’m personally really proud of the work that Queensland has done in supporting the tech and startup ecosystem and investing in being the Smart State. These sorts of grants give life to ideas that have huge potential.
If any, what other support have you received from Advance Queensland or the Queensland Government?
I’d like to give a particular expression of gratitude to the Digital Capability Team in Queensland Government, which was established to help uplift the digital capability of government. This included establishing a preferred supplier panel of companies – which we were accepted onto. They made a particular effort to include small business like ourselves, and through this panel we were engaged to train several hundred Queensland Government staff in human centred design.
Giving work to small business is important. It protects jobs and invests in the intellectual property of Queensland business and expertise. In fact, several pieces of work we were awarded through this panel helped us get through the beginnings of the pandemic.
The best support government can give small business is to give them business.
Why is it important to support Queensland businesses, innovators and entrepreneurs?
I’m Brisbane born and bred, and very much in love with my city. My wife is from Far North Queensland – together we’ve seen a lot this state has to offer, and how unique it is.
Some years ago I was the Digital Brisbane Ambassador to Berlin, and while attending the G20 Young Entrepreneurs Conference, was able to visit the local startup ecosystem and report back. What I realised is how well positioned we are to be a hub of innovation.
We are almost five times the size of Japan, yet have a million less people than Berlin. That spread of people across vast distances requires – and supports – a lot of innovative thinking. We have the opportunity to be known not just for amazing beaches and climate, but also incredible business ideas and technology.
The more we invest in Queensland-based small business, innovations, and entrepreneurs, we can bring more talent, create more jobs and have a better shot at solving some of the world’s biggest challenges.
What’s your advice for other entrepreneurs and businesses starting out on their innovation journey?
Mission makes magic.
It isn’t all that hard to come up with an idea to make money. It is a bit harder to come up with an idea that makes money and makes the world truly better. And I don’t mean just an app that makes ordering coffee faster.
But, if you can find something that does both – that has true purpose for people or planet and is profitable – then you’re onto gold. Because not only is that likely to be in huge demand, but it’s amazing the support you’ll get.
And in business, you need a lot of support.
As to how you find that idea? Pay attention to what you pay attention to.