Adatree’s Jill Berry on the highs, lows & lessons in three years of building her consumer data right startup

Three years ago in June 2019, I founded Adatree with my long-time colleague and friend Shane Doolan.

It was the perfect storm of new data sharing regulations being introduced in Australia, our shared vision of the economy-wide global applications for data sharing, our shared experience of building – not one, but two! – highly regulated organisations together, and being a formidable product developer/software engineer duo to execute on that vision.

If I was a betting woman I would’ve bet against myself ever building a company. I never would have imagined it. But in retrospect a successful career as a product developer combined with my genetics as a fourth-generation CEO set me up for a pretty sensible career trajectory.

Doing a quick mental stocktake, we have 13 team members, 45 clients, we’ve won 12 awards, we’ve claimed almost every regulatory first in our arena and we’ll announce a few ‘world firsts’ in the next few weeks.

I don’t think any of this would be possible without the complete commitment from Shane and me, our team, the investors, and our clients. Though I suspect a healthy serving of stubbornness aided us along the way.

In the past three years, there have been an incredible amount of highlights and lowlights. So many unexpected things that have tested our passion, determination, knowledge and ability to react.

When I reflect on this time, these are the key themes:

Highlights 

Building our fantastic, aligned team

The Pareto principle explains how 80% of work is usually done by 20% of performers.

Our perfectly curated, lean, high-performing team are those 20%. We’ve been lucky enough to attract and retain talent who are incredibly skilled, but also aligned on culture and values which is a dealbreaker.

Each team member has been carefully chosen for their ability to deliver on our mission and vision. This extends to our investors too. Our shareholder list reflects similar values: a solution-focused attitude and commitment to success.

This isn’t just a team of leaders in their fields of expertise. This team is more akin to the early 90s Chicago Bulls -– at Adatree we’re all just team members who win and lose together.

Trailblazing

We really are the first purpose-built CDR intermediary, first Open Energy implementation, first automation, first to meet all test requirements with banks. We’re the visionary with the plan to democratise and enable data and we’re the ideal team to deliver on it.

It’s fun to have the first-mover advantage. To do instead of just talk. To implement in hours instead of months. To move past theory into application.

Even launching Australia’s first non-financial use case, COVID Hotspot Alert, was groundbreaking in demonstrating the application of data for good.

Remarkable moments.

There are too many to list, but I’ll try. Signing our first customer.

The Sydney Uni Genesis win. Signing Australia’s largest bank/fintech partnership.

Employee feedback saying ‘this is the best place I’ve worked’. Winning the 2021 Best Open Banking Platform award. Winning some huge RFPs.

These specific moments are etched in our memories, making all the stressful scenarios and testing moments truly worth it.

Building the best offering in market

No one could mistake us for a marketing company pretending to be a tech business. Our product is legit and we simply do what we say were going to do.

The proof is in the pudding. Companies assess our platform against others in market, see our value proposition and choose the Adatree experience time and again.

Before coming on board as our COO, Alex Scriven was working at Equifax as Head of Open Data. From the outside, he could see the value of Adatree, but he was doubly pleased (and probably relieved) to learn that the internals of the company really reflect what we say we do externally.

We have the best product in market, and I’m damn proud of it. We don’t cut any regulatory corners, we’re quite risk averse and are a genuine enabler.

Community

This last highlight was really unexpected for me. From Fintech Australia and the University of Sydney Business School Genesis programs to meeting likeminded female founders and the support at founders who have been in your shoes and learned before – the incredible fintech and tech community in which we’ve embedded ourselves is unlike any other I’ve known.

There is no shortage of people to pull you along on the journey, help navigate the knowledge gaps, support you through challenges and do so without needing to be asked.

Photo: CTO Shane Doolan mapping Adatree’s first technical customer journey, June 2019

Lowlights 

Trailblazing

No, this is not a typo. Trailblazing is both a highlight and a lowlight.

Having to educate the market on what CDR is, exploring applications, constantly needing to clarify the interpretation of a rule or standard with the regulators, having to lodge errors with any companies sharing data incorrectly – those are all tasks that we as trailblazers have to manage (often thanklessly). It is a fact of our reality and something we’ve signed up to.

Ultimately we’d rather be the trailblazer than the last to the party trying to imitate and scrounge for success, but it’s not without its trials.

Vapourware

One of our principles is that we don’t sell what we don’t have. And if it’s coming soon, we’ll say it’s coming soon. The market, however, doesn’t play by those rules.

The number of times we’ll hear ‘XX does that too’ is alarming, especially when we know that XX isn’t supporting it, or that their tech or regulatory offerings are actually lightyears away from being available.

Selling vapourware instead of true software is dishonest and disrespectful to any prospect or client. It also discredits our industry as a whole. In 2022 tech companies should just be better.

While this is one of the most consistent lowlights for me, I’m certain that the market will see these false players in due course.

Multiple instances of economic factors distracting from success

As much as there’s a hypothesis-driven roadmap and clear goals, externalities are a fact of life.

In 3 years, Adatree has experienced the COVID downturn and now we’re facing a second economic downturn. But we still succeed because at our core we’re lean, we’re ruthless about prioritisation and we tend towards conservative from an economic perspective.

I imagine my stress levels and 2022/23 strategy would be wildly different otherwise. You can’t put the toothpaste back in the tube, so we just move forward, focus and deliver.

Disrespectful behaviours

You can figure out from my LinkedIn profile that I’m a young, female CEO who didn’t grow up here.

I believe in a meritocracy, that the most qualified person should win. Sexist, ageist or nationalist comments still happen. Seeing men physically treat women inappropriately at work events makes my skin crawl.

Seeing companies blatantly trying to take advantage of others isn’t okay. It doesn’t make it easier to address it if they’re a prospect or industry peer.

What used to absolutely unnerve me has now just become something I act on through principle – not every customer is a good customer, not every partner is a good partner.

Bad behaviours just lead to Adatree refusing to engage.

Where to from here 

While we do have fortnightly retros and reflect on our challenges and successes, our strategic outlook is strong.

The things that used to really stress me are water off a duck’s back now. The problems with scaling the business are different but the problem solving approach is similar. And ultimately I have the best team, supporters, investors and partners alongside us to succeed.

My high school swim coach used to say that we have to be comfortable with being uncomfortable.

The past 3 years didn’t go as planned, and the next 3 surely won’t either. I’ll just stay focussed on executing our goals and acting with passion, priority, integrity, ethics and purpose.

That’s our North star. And that’s how we’ll win.