Brighte CEO Katherine McConnell: Inside My Founder Journey

By Robyn Foyster Robyn Foyster has been verified by Muck Rack's editorial team
on 3 August 2023

Katherine McConnell is a rare commodity. With the odds stacked against her, Katherine backed herself when she launched the solar power fintech business Brighte – and succeeded.

She courageously left her day job to pursue an ambitious dream to make solar affordable for Aussies and in doing so is making an impact on our planet.

But Brighte was by no means an overnight success. It continually evolved and took both brilliance and what Katherine describes as ‘unshakable belief’ to get where it is today.

Now ten years on, Katherine has one of the fastest growing tech businesses in Australia. She also has the backing of Atlassian co-founder Mike Cannon-Brookes’ Grok Ventures, Kim Jackson and Scott Farquhar’s Skip Capital, and Sydney-based venture capital firm AirTree Ventures.

In essence, she made it into the one percent club of founders – those who managed to take a clever idea and, from scratch and through hard work and tenacity, turn her dream into a successful business. And I dare say the number of female founders who turn their startups into a success would be far less than one percent.

Katherine McConnell
Katherine McConnell said it takes ‘unshakable belief’ to be a successful founder

Katherine features in the four-part series Founders, which was spearheaded by Luke Anear, the CEO and Founder of SafetyCulture and Executive Producer of the show. Founders, such as Canva’s Melanie Perkins and Finder’s Fred Schebesta who feature in the series, make our country great because they inspire you through their defiance and courage to forge ahead and have a go where others fear to tread. Watching these founders share their stories of life at times on the edge where the stakes are high, makes for compulsive viewing.

Recently, I had the pleasure of speaking to Katherine. You can watch the video interview below or read the transcript.

“All Founder episodes are available for rent on Apple TV, Prime Video and Google Play from 1 August.”
All Founder episodes are available for rent on Apple TV, Prime Video and Google Play from 1 August, 2023

Katherine McConnell:

So when I started, in the very beginning, I wanted to make solar affordable for Australians. I wanted to make solar accessible, so I wanted every house to be able to get solar, have a way to pay for it and just make that whole journey really easy for them. There were man parts that stemmed on from that, but that was the heart of it.

Robyn Foyster:

At the time You were working for Macquarie Bank – I noted in the documentary series that we’re all excited to be watching soon, that you said that you didn’t get the promotion that you were looking at and that was another thing that sort of spearheaded you making the jump to being your own boss which is liberating and scary at the same time but you’re very much supported by your husband, weren’t you?

Katherine McConnell:

Absolutely. The Founder Series is so personal. It’s the most personal thing that I’ve done which really helped me deal and address many things that happened along the journey and the point at which I didn’t get the promotion, my husband made me accountable to myself. He said, this is going to be a line in the sand, where from this point on, you can’t make excuses anymore. Particularly to yourself. So I’d been saying, ‘I’ll get it next year!’ And ‘I’m sure they’ll see I’m a great person’ And ‘I’m sure it’s just these 100 things that have just happened that have contributed to me not getting what I deserve’. But it’s as amazing to have my husband Peter holding me accountable and actually saying, you not only can’t do this for you, you can’t do this for the kids. It’s not sending them a good message that you’re accepting second best, and you’re not living the best version of what you can be. So hugely appreciative that he and my family have been such a big part of my journey and in fact they were the ones who really pushed me over the edge and gave me that confidence in myself to take that big leap. 

Robyn Foyster:

Not everyone does that and it is a scary thing to do because you mentioned again, that you took your kids out of private school and that the stakes were really high if it didn’t work. 

Katherine McConnell:

A hundred percent. So when we looked at what life would be like if I stopped working, we absolutely looked at financially; how can we afford it? I’m not going to have a salary for who knows how long, and so how are we going to live on Pete’s salary? We also stopped the gardener, the cleaner, we got very good at doing things at home, and so there were lots of lifestyle changes that we made and they were family discussions and they were really big commitments at the time because if it didn’t go right – yeah I’d get another job, yeah I’d be able to earn a salary, but for a period of time, I would have to pay back the money that I’d spent on trying to start this business. It was real money, it was our money, and it was money that was being redrawn off our home loan. 

Robyn Foyster:

And you don’t always hear about those people who didn’t succeed and I know from having a start up myself, it was a shopping app just before Covid, that was a geo-location based shopping app – and it didn’t work. It cost us personally dearly. But actually there is something about still being – fortune favours the brave, and you do learn so much along the journey. You once said, if you knew what you knew now, you wouldn’t go ahead. A lot of founders say that, but did you really believe that?

Katherine McConnell:

You know, I hate the thought of not being where I am today. I hate the thought of not having left my day job and having stayed there, and the version of me that I would have become. I think if I’d stayed there, I wouldn’t have had the confidence to have done something else, because what I’d done is a combination of my experience and my passion, and everything I know so if it wasn’t this, I don’t think I would have been who I am and where I am and I feel that that moment was a really really lucky moment for me, that the stars aligned. That gives me shivers when I think about – I would hate to not be here today.

Robyn Foyster:

If it hadn’t worked out, you would have come up with something.

Katherine McConnell:

Now I’m in that mind space, but 8 years ago I wasn’t. So how it’s evolved is now – over the last 5 years – I’ve been in that mind space. I guess Brighte iterates every day – we hit a wall, change in regulation, policy, competitors move – so every day we’re iterating because we have to. So, Brighte’s becoming a different version today than what we were 18 months ago. I think now, definitely it’s clearer, how yo can change and get your way out of things. As long as you’ve got the capital, you feel confident you can find a way.

Robyn Foyster:

How many times have you pivoted?

Katherine McConnell:

I used to hate the word pivoting, now I’m comfortable with it! I use iterating. Too many times to count. Even if we just think about January last year – we were spending, and we were building our business to become a new type of energy provider. We wanted to change the way people paid for and used energy in their homes. In our business, we had set up – and we’re doing a pilot – of a new type of energy retail business. It was going to be so simple. But we turned that off at the start of last year because the pay back was very low, very capital intensive, and we recognised the signs pretty early that the market was changing. Investors were rewarding accelerated pathway to profitability, more payback, lower risks. We did a big pivot – made a lot of changes in people, and strategy. It was the biggest one we’ve done, with a lot of heartache and a lot of consideration, but ultimately we had to make the decision to stop doing that.

Robyn Foyster:

When you’re starting a business there are so many different elements that need to come together to be in a position to iterate or pivot in the right direction.

Someone said to me, you need a brilliant idea but then you also need to right timing, backing, and luck. You also need balls of steel. The courage.

What helped you through?

Katherine McConnell:

I think the elements – you’re absolutely right – timing, luck, essential. Also, it needs to be more than just a problem you identified OR it needs to be more than just a great idea that you had. You’ve got to join the problem with the solution, and also had that domain expertise. Where you don’t have it, you need to bring in a great team around you. That’s surrounded by luck, hard work, and you also have to have an unwavering, unshakeable belief. Times get tough, people doubt you, everyone says no, and you just have to keep going. This unshakeable belief I think is what people say makes Founders crazy. When make others would give up, or let go – the Founder Series does a great job of showing this. It’s interesting because there were many time that I could have given up, but the family had risked so much on it, and I’d risked my reputation – I’d burnt the boat, I decided I’m going to find a way to make this work, and that’s the unshakeable belief.

To watch the full interview, tune in below:

You can find out more about Brighte here:

Founder TV series

Founder is produced by Founder Films, which is the brainchild of Luke Anear, who is a passionate filmmaker and the CEO and Founder of SafetyCulture. 

Luke spearheaded the series as the Executive Producer with an aim to give insight into the unforgiving but ultimately rewarding world of startups and encourage those with a big idea to do the same.

You can take a glimpse below, or watch the series via Apple TV+ and Google Play HERE.

Founder Series – Episode Synopses:

SafetyCulture – Luke Anear

An overnight success is what these companies look like from the outside, but Luke Anear had 18 different jobs or businesses before he started SafetyCulture. The family sacrifices and personal toll are heavy, and in this episode, Luke gives a raw reflection on the lonely, all-consuming journey of a tech founder and what it means to push yourself and everyone you love to the breaking point. This is the garage to global story, from a small garage in North Queensland, SafetyCulture has become the world’s most-used workplace operations platform.

Canva – Melanie Perkins

Melanie Perkins is the greatest female visionary in the world. Together with her boyfriend Cliff Obrecht, two kids from Perth tried to take on some of the biggest companies in the world. This episode shows the unlikely pairing of a perfectionist in Melanie and the boy next door style of Cliff coming together to create the world’s most used design platform. Now with 130 million users worldwide, Canva makes graphic design accessible to everyone, everywhere. But growth comes with a hefty price tag. In this episode, Mel and her co-founders open up about being knocked back by dozens of investors to being the darling of the tech world.

Finder – Fred Schebesta

From tearing apart gadgets as a child to building websites and fencing with Google, Finder co-founder, Fred Schebesta, is an absolute maverick. His radioactive approach to business has always danced the line between creative genius and daring recklessness. His willingness to blow things up makes him an incredible founder, but it hasn’t been without damaging consequences. Fred opens up about his challenges and the identity struggle that comes with being a leader. Can he work out his place in the company – and the world?

Brighte – Katherine McConnell

Would you quit your corporate job with a young family and risk your mortgage on a gut instinct? Katherine McConnell doesn’t fit the mould of your typical tech founder – but that’s exactly what makes her brilliant. At a time when renewable energy was still a niche market, she saw an untapped opportunity. Going head-to-head with the juggernaut that is the fossil-fuel industry, Katherine shares her story, proving it’s not too late in life to save the planet. This episode explores how she started Brighte, and her honest take on if following your gut instinct is actually worth the risk.

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