Maxine Lee: on life in the startup sector

By Seth Robinson

For years, Maxine Lee worked with the Melbourne Accelerator program, helping startups enter the market. Now, she works as the COO at Skalata Ventures, supporting high growth companies access the knowledge, networks and capital to succeed. In 2020, she's been selected for the Forbes 30 under 30 Finance & Venture Capital cohort.

“Truth be told, I never imagined that this is where my career would end up. Skalata Ventures is an organisation that aligns to my own values and passion. I’m excited about our goal to help exceptional founders build significant and sustainable businesses and I was fortunate to have all the experiences that led to this point.”

Maxine completed her studies at the University of Melbourne, first in the Bachelor of Commerce (focusing on Economics and Marketing) and then in the Master of Management (Accounting). It was a choice of degrees that gave her a solid foundation across business disciplines, and it was through the course of her studies that she connected with her first ‘startup’ role at the Melbourne Accelerator Program (MAP).

Maxine Lee
Maxine Lee, COO at Skalata Ventures

“I discovered MAP while I was studying my masters. A group of friends and I worked on numerous startup projects and we applied for MAP in 2013 with a company we called ‘Fabricate’, that was born out of one of my marketing classes. Truthfully, we had no idea what a startup even was, but we submitted our idea, and made it through to the pitch night. Ultimately, we were unsuccessful, but by going through that process, I met Rohan Workman, who was then the director at MAP. He was looking for a team to grow the program and offered me a role to work with the companies in MAP’s portfolio.”

Maxine started working part-time with MAP while finishing her masters degree, then went full-time upon her graduation.

“It was an exciting time for startups in Melbourne and it was terrific to see MAP take off in such a big way. MAP was the first program of its kind in Melbourne, so all of a sudden there was this new community for founders to access. We had an explosion of interest, from maybe 100 people who attended our programs and events in 2013 to over 10,000 in 2015.”

Maxine spent five years working with MAP before joining Skalata Ventures in the role of COO. It’s a position that draws on her holistic understanding of business, as well as the experience she gained working at MAP.

“Skalata Ventures works with a diverse set of stakeholders including our university partners who have a vital role to play in supporting innovation. On one hand, you have high growth innovative companies who are on the lookout for great talent, and on the other hand, you have highly skilled people at universities. We try to facilitate this knowledge exchange through our program and partnership model”.

“I would encourage university students to soak up as much knowledge as possible and to apply their skills to diverse work and internship opportunities. This was one of the biggest benefits I received through the University of Melbourne and has been particularly helpful when it comes to my role now.”

“There’s a big difference between joining an established company and working with a startup from the ground up. It’s a completely different ballpark. In a startup, you work in an environment where business assumptions can shift daily but ultimately, you work on solving interesting problems and it forces you to be adaptable. For anyone who is doing a business degree, I would encourage them to widen their horizons and consider a high growth company as a part of their work experience portfolio”

Through her work with Skalata Ventures, Maxine is also in a unique position to witness how the emergence of COVID-19 is affecting the startup sector.

“I think the great thing about being a startup is that you are adaptable and you can pivot quickly when change is required. Skalata Ventures recently invested in 6 companies which include a software company which automates the generation of 3D building models, a customizable mobile app for restaurants and cafes to manage direct online ordering and a financial app which provides free credit scores and educational content. We were impressed with how quickly these companies revised and adapted their business plans, protecting and preserving their cashflow in light of the pandemic. I think some of these companies will thrive over the next 12 months despite the challenging business environment.”

“What has been amazing in all of this is seeing how the world has come together to tackle a single problem. Good things can come out of economic downturns and it is these younger startups that will generate jobs, creative ideas and the innovation which will be vital in renewing and revitalizing our economy.”