🌞 Earlywork #56: A Time Before Startups Were Cool
Featuring interviews with Jess Zhang (Growth Ops @ Folklore Ventures), Jon Tse (Founder @ Karst Stone Paper) & Jani Tong (Ops Lead @ Avenue Bank) + David Bragg (Founder @ Frontend Simplified)
Ello ello Earlyworkers!
Furiously keyboarded for your pleasure is Earlywork #56, a cheeky newsletter providing free resources, news, and interviews on the careers of tomorrow for 2.5K+ young Aussies & Kiwis in the tech, startup & social impact landscape.
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💡Weekly Cheeky Tip
It seems like young talent in Australia today has boundless opportunities to work on something meaningful and fulfilling, but this is only a very recent development.
Whether it’s founding a company - or working for a mission-driven startup/scaleup or forward-thinking big tech company - the last decade has seen a proliferation of new local startups, enabled by the growth of venture capital and the support around the startup ecosystem (e.g. R&D grants, tax incentives, accelerators, incubators, co-working spaces, meetups and startup communities).
Before that, these pathways were almost nonexistent.
When we were graduating university just over a decade ago, the tech & startup landscape was unrecognisable compared to what it is today. Each of us has gone on to work in tech, startups and VC, but took quite different pathways to get there:
📚 Jon co-founded Zookal, an edtech startup helping Aussie students rent textbooks, and is now co-founder of Karst Stone Paper, a B Corp creating a more sustainable and productive world through thoughtfully designed products for work and home.
💸 Jess is a former management consultant at Accenture and is now the growth ops manager at Folklore Ventures, a ‘first cheque to forever’ VC that believes in the power of founder vision and the potential of teams right from the start.
So what was it like back then for 3 students wanting to work on emerging tech & business models?
Today, we have the privilege of taking you back in time to 2008 (oh, what a year!)
Australia was at the cusp of an explosion of startup activity and we were about to head into the workforce, right before the GFC hit. Let’s dive in!
Aussie Startups in The GFC Era 📉
📚 Jon: To give some context, when the GFC hit in 2008, Atlassian had not even raised any venture capital (their first cheque was written in 2010 from Accel Partners).
As such, there wasn’t a lot of activity and momentum in the Aussie startup scene since the dot-com boom of the early 2000s, which is really critical to attracting eyeballs, talent and resources towards the sector.
Running your own business was something that was seen as a possibility one day, but only after building your experience, networks and capital from a secure, corporate career path.
From my experience, the young and ambitious Aussies were studying at university and looking to obtain a position in investment banking, management consulting and law. I could not name any student entrepreneurs at that stage.
Furthermore, without any recent big rounds of funding (let alone exits), there didn’t seem to be a clear career path for those interested in the space. Of course, this all changed as the tech sector exploded in the past decade.
🏦 Jani: At that time, we were all part of ASES Australia (Asia Pacific Student Entrepreneurship Society), an organisation some of the Earlywork community today are part of, which has chapters across the world and its parent chapter in Stanford University.
My friends Mark Tayar, Klint Rivett, Mark Srour and I co-founded ASES in Australia in 2007. While on exchange in Shanghai at Fudan University in 2007, I met up with the president of the Shanghai ASES chapter (Milan Zheng) who shared her entrepreneurship experiences and how we could establish the Australian chapter.
2007 was the first year that Macquarie Uni introduced Entrepreneurship as a subject, so it seemed like a good time to establish ASES to connect students who were interested in hearing about experiences from entrepreneurs and VCs on how to set up their own businesses and hear about upcoming trends in the start-up world.
In its first year, membership went from 0 to 1,000 and we were fortunate to invite various speakers like Gordon Bell (Advisor for Bill Gates at Microsoft), Emma Isaacs (CEO of Business Chicks) and Tony Wheeler (Co-founder of Lonely Planet). The appetite for the entrepreneurial world was early but exciting.
International Inspiration 🌏
💸 Jess: ASES was eye-opening for me and introduced me to a world of interesting and passionate people who cared about making an impact rather than getting a corporate badge.
Adding to Jon’s point, the coveted pathway post-uni for ambitious young people in Australia at that point was to join something “big” or “top tier” - the big 4 accounting firms, the top tier law firms, the top tier consulting firms, or the big 4 retail banks (or Macquarie Bank if you were a bit more adventurous!).
My thought process (and that of many peers) was to join one of these, get a few years of experience then head “in house” for more money and less stress, before finally landing a government role as you head towards retirement.
My “dream” at the time was to become a lawyer at one of the top tier law firms, despite not having any real passion for the law.
What I wanted changed after I attended the Stanford University summit in 2008. Being exposed to ASES delegates and students from Stanford, lecturers from the university and attending company tours in Silicon Valley led to an electrifying and intoxicating buzz of possibility.
Internationally, other students my age were building drone companies in the UK, robots in India and manufacturing companies in China - all in the hopes of making an impact, rather than getting a respectable job at a “top tier” company.
🏦 Jani: ASES global summits were a fantastic opportunity to meet other like-minded students from around the world. Each delegate shared about how entrepreneurship was important in their countries, what events were run at their university, their entrepreneurial journeys and shared about the latest trends in their country.
What was definitely an eye-opener for me was visiting the companies at Silicon Valley (Google, Facebook, IDEO, Yahoo) and how supportive Stanford University lecturers were for their entrepreneurial students (one lecturer provided angel funding to a student!).
Roadblocks to Entering The Startup World 🚧
In those times starting your own company was seen as something you did if you were desperate, or crazy.
Working at a tech startup was also seen as crazy and only respectable if that company was Google, and to do that, you had to actually be a genius.
It was quite disheartening coming back to Australia after everything we had been exposed to at the ASES Summits, and all the kindred spirits we met, to not have a clear pathway or support for pursuing that energy back in Australia.
💸 Jess: I went to Accenture Strategy, then worked in in-house strategy and operations for private equity portfolio companies. It wasn't until 10 years later that I made my way back into startup-land via the Startmate Fellowship program.
🏦 Jani: After coming back from ASES, I started working at Commonwealth Bank (CBA) and stayed there for over 13 years! I was involved with various strategic initiatives at CBA’s Innovation Lab (now x15ventures) including ‘Banking of the Future’, which included cardless cash (an idea from a graduate who didn’t want to carry their wallet while clubbing!). This involvement with the innovation lab led me to take a role as Operations Lead for Avenue Bank, an Aussie fintech startup, in 2021.
Spotting a Paradigm Shift 🤯
📚 Jon: In 2011, Marc Andreessen wrote an op-ed exclaiming that ‘software was eating the world’, and in an increasingly connected and globalised world, it was only a matter of time before this trickled down from the US into other developed economies like Australia.
The beauty of technology is that you can brainstorm ideas for a business or product from anywhere in the world – be it a dorm room or a remote cabin in Tasmania – as long as you've got a decent internet connection.
We’ve seen some monstrous businesses being built all over the world - Spotify was founded in Sweden (which has a population less than half that of Australia) and has a market cap not too far off those of some of Australia’s big four banks - so it truly is more about who is working on stuff, not where they are located.
These days, Web3 is all the rage and we are seeing astronomical amounts of wealth being generated by teenagers without a traditional business plan or even solid customer base or product offering. Where this will all land - I have no idea, but I am very strongly in the belief that it is real, not a fleeting fad, and enormous opportunities will come from this space.
I have also learned (sometimes the hard way) that it is wise to pick the fast-growing, global and scalable industries and related ideas, as long as this is something that interests you.
Startups are about pushing a rock up a steep hill. The way in which you push it up (i.e. business model) and the route you take to get there (i.e. industry) can make a significant difference between how quickly you can get to the top of the hill.
However - a caveat: don’t just follow a trend because it might make you more ‘successful’. You might be set on creating the world’s first plant-based muffin chain, so if that’s your goal, I would love to see people pursue this too rather than pursuing the trends.
🏦 Jani: To me In 2007, there were 3 early signs that tech & startups were going to be a huge thing in Australia:
1. Companies in Silicon Valley were starting to establish branches in Australia
2. Government grants started increasing for small businesses/research
3. Universities started changing their course curricula to include subjects like entrepreneurship, global trade, etc.
To keep a pulse on the latest trends, reading articles or participating in industry conferences, forums and events help you to learn about what companies are currently focusing on, and a way for you to network with like-minded people.
Don’t get so overwhelmed by everything by wanting to find out and be a subject matter expert on everything. Pick what is of interest to you.
Building Confidence in Choosing a Different Path to Your Peers
The idea of a “career bet” is a bit of a grandiose statement - this attaches a sense of overwhelming risk associated with a certain move with the idea that you either win all or you lose everything.
This is not true. Whatever you decide, know that you can always course correct.
📚 Jon: If what you're doing feels like a big risk to the point where it’s uncomfortable, then it might not be the path for you. But from a founder perspective, a lot of times we will go with our gut and this overwhelming ambition and vision is far more compelling than worrying about the downside.
The downside is always - okay it didn't work, let me try something else or let me get a regular job or let me work at a startup, etc.
Furthermore, if once you start executing and it just doesn’t work, you can course correct (the way in which Twitter pivoted from their original podcasting idea, the way in which Slack pivoted from a gaming app to communication tools, and so on).
Sometimes, there is no emotional safety - you have to risk it for the biscuit and take a bet on yourself in the unknown. In saying that, you can make informed decisions where your chances of success might be more in your favour - e.g. entering booming industries and figuring out where you fit on the way).
Ten years ago, the idea of having a stranger pick you up in their car or even staying a night in a random person's home - was not gonna happen, right?
Very often, most companies start out as something completely different than what they evolve into, and that's why it is all about the team and their ability to learn, grow, evolve and take big calculated risks to see if you can win big.
Having said that, the path to convince the world to jump into a stranger's car / house is made a lot easier with tens and hundreds and even billions of dollars of venture capital.
💸 Jess: No decision is permanent - you can change the course of your career at any point. It’s way too much pressure on a young twenty-something year old to feel like this one decision will change the trajectory of their life.
What I’m really excited about is to see startups getting taken seriously as a career option vs the traditional corporate path but I think the truly great thing now is you have a choice.
If you want corporate, you can go work in corporate and get the great learning experience, huge L&D budgets and networks corporates have to offer.
If you want to work in startups - I don’t need to say anymore, it’s a buffet out there, take your pick of mission driven startups.
I have the following principles:
Address Information Asymmetry - you will always be at an information disadvantage when it comes to interviewing at a company, so…
Do what you can to uncover the real facts so you can make an informed decision.
Who are the founders/leaders in the company and what is their track record (check out their twitter accounts and other social accounts, what do they post about, are they substance or smoke and mirrors?)
Are they people that you admire + respect and could see yourself working with and learning from?
What do others who work there think about the company? Grab a coffee with them! This is easier than ever especially with the access to people being in a community like Earlywork opens you to.
Here’s a great resource on reverse interview/addressing the information asymmetry in hiring process from Reforge
Larger Startups Have Higher Certainty in Growth Trajectory: If you do go into a startup and you’d prefer to have more certainty with your growth trajectory, you can help to reduce your risk by going into a “larger” startup (> 50 people). Make sure in your reverse interview to understand the “levels frameworks” for your role:
Can the company paint a picture for you of what the various stages of growth are for your role?
What does it take to progress through each level?
What roles in other functions could your role potentially grow into?
Be honest with yourself on why you want to take this “career bet”. Your pool of options will look very different depending on your “why”.
Do you genuinely believe in the mission and the problem this company solves?
Do you think that this will make you lots of money?
Do you think this will fast track your career?
Ultimately, whether you take a career bet or go with a more well-trodden path, it really doesn’t matter what decision you make, as long as you make sure to check in with yourself regularly
“Is this work that I’m interested in, that makes me feel like I’m alive and which is truly allowing me to do my best work?”
If the answer is no, then explore and keep trying things. If you don’t check in with yourself, human nature is to always go down the path of comfort or least resistance.
🏦 Jani: Even though I was at CBA for over 13 years, I was in a number of different roles that enabled me the opportunity to have exposure to other areas of the bank, leading me in the direction I wanted to head.
Each role you take should allow you the opportunity to continuously learn, be challenged and help build your skill base.
In a way, the CBA Innovation Lab enabled a safe, stable environment for me to explore more in the startup world.
While building out the Operations team at Avenue, I do have a few observations for finding the right candidate:
Be clear about your career aspirations when taking the “career bet”.
You need to have a good understanding of what you are looking for in a job.
If you are unsure yourself, it will be obvious to your interviewer in the way you answer their questions.
I use a job matrix that helps me to rank the job of choice without the emotional attachment, based on what is important for me when looking at a job opportunity.
It’s been useful as I remember one time the job that I thought would be ranked 1st ended up being ranked 5th after taking into account my job criteria.
Good attitude and having resilience is key!
I’ll admit that the startup world is not smooth sailing and will definitely be a rollercoaster ride!
There will be many times where what is in your job description is not necessarily the role you’ll always be doing and you may have multiple hats on at the same time.
I’d rather hire the candidate with the right attitude/culture fit than a candidate with a perfect resume but the wrong attitude.
Check out Angela Lee Duckworth’s TED talk “Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance” for a great deep dive on this concept.
Be clear about what you are looking for in an organisation.
I think a lot of people apply to startups as it seems to be the latest craze but still want all the perks that they have in the corporate world.
Unfortunately a smaller start-up may not have the L&D budget that you would have at a corporate to get a MBA qualification.
However the on-the-job experience will trump that qualification.
Keep on Earlyworkin’ 🧡
Jani, Jon and Jess
🌏 Earlywork Community
🐝 The Buzz
What’s been happening in the community?
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Monthly #investing Meetups: Register to pitch and listen to emerging trends and investment opportunities across public and private markets with other Earlyworkers.
Graduate Theory Podcast Appearance: Catch our Co-Founder and Chief Meme Officer Dan chatting to community member James Fricker, from Graduate Theory, on the power of personal branding, how to get started as a content creator, startup vs corporate roles, finding hidden job opportunities, & more.
📚 Trending Topics
Our favourite reads and resources being discussed in the Earlywork community:
Bessemer’s Anti-Portfolio, an honest showcase of amazing startups that iconic Silicon Valley VC Bessemer Partners passed on investing in.
No longer an outcast, bitcoin has succumbed to the cold, hard truth of finance, a Sydney Morning Herald article featuring community member Abhi Maran talking through the changing market appetite for crypto investing.
The History of the Australian Startup Ecosystem, a new podcast by Day One documenting the origin stories of our local startup success.
The Earth Is Hiring: An inspirational commencement speech from the University of Portland in 2009 by environmentalist, entrepreneur, and activist Paul Walken.
Wanna be the first to know about the latest ecosystem stories and resources?
1️⃣ 🕐 💪 One Minute Hustle
We are back once again with One Minute Hustle, a bite-sized interview with an emerging Australian young startup founder or operator.
This week, let’s get inside the noggin of a young community creator who went from not knowing how to code to landing a six figure engineering job at Canva without a degree…
David Bragg, Founder @ Frontend Simplified
👀 Check out the interview with a snazzy new format on LinkedIn here
Keen to share your story, or know a young startup founder or operator we should feature next?
Share your deets below or send this link to them, and we’ll get in touch!
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Ciao for now,