Podcast Episode 9 - Marketing Lessons with Alex Makin of Syneka Marketing

Marketing guru Alex Makin is the founder and director of award-winning consultancy firm Syneka Marketing and has over 15 years of experience in helping businesses and non-for-profits come up with robust marketing strategies. He is a Certified Practicing Marketer and Fellow of the Australian Marketing Institute and the Governance Institute of Australia. He has been active in the local government, as Councillor and later Mayor of the City of Maroondah.

As an educator and mentor, Alex is involved with the Australian Marketing Institute, Kaplan Business School and RMIT. In addition to knowing more on his achievements, I spoke to Alex about practical tips that startups can follow to work out an effective marketing strategy that achieves results and maximises the return on investment on the marketing spend.

Posted on March 13, 2017 .

Podcast Episode 8 - Stephanie Arrowsmith on social enterprise in Asia

Stephanie Arrowsmith is a social entrepreneur who lives a very rich and purposeful life. Born in Jakarta, Indonesia, Stephanie attended school and university in Perth, Western Australia. She had a passion for travel from a very early age and this saw her head to Europe and the US to continue her studies in public health and intern in the field of social enterprise. Stephanie found the idea of creating sustainable business models to solve humanity's problems to be incredibly fulfilling. Not long after, she returned back to her original home in Jakarta and has been working tirelessly to support and grow social enterprise within Indonesia’s vast and dynamic economy.

Stephanie has recently co-founded Impact Hub Jakarta, that is part of a global chain of co-working spaces built for the purpose of connecting and supporting local social entrepreneurs in order to bring about lasting societal change. She also founded the Vision Strategy Storytelling Company that is aimed at helping entrepreneurs articulate their vision and spread their message to the outside world.

Stephanie shares her insights of the incredible social entrepreneurship space, her travels around the world as a digital nomad and how we Australians can get involved in the booming Indonesian social economy!

Posted on March 13, 2017 .

Silicon Valley Founders Holly Liu and Shruti Shah share their startup stories

On the occasion of International Women’s Day on March 8th, Startup Grind Melbourne hosted two incredible female founders from the San Francisco Bay Area, Holly Liu of Kabam Gaming, and Shruti Shah of Silicon Valley Bank. They were in town as guest speakers for Run the World Tech Formation, a day-long conference focussed on women in tech organised by League of Extraordinary Women founder Sheryl Thai. Both Holly and Shruti have been through the life-changing experience of founding and scaling high-growth tech startups in the hyper-competitive Silicon Valley scene and were all too keen to share their experiences with the Melbourne Startup Grind community. 

Entrepreneurs Hollu Liu (left) and Shruti Shah (right) speaking at Startup Grind Melbourne (Photo credit:  Alyatau Photography)

Entrepreneurs Hollu Liu (left) and Shruti Shah (right) speaking at Startup Grind Melbourne (Photo credit:  Alyatau Photography)

Holly Liu, co-founder and leader of gaming juggernaut Kabam

The Kabam story started with the founding of WaterCooler in 2006 by Holly Liu along with Kevin Chou, Michael Li, and Wayne Chan, initially as a corporate social network. After the initial idea didn’t work out, the team took advantage of Facebook opening up their API to enter the TV show and sports entertainment space. After an initial trivia game literally “melted the servers”, they realised that the game idea was indeed working. By 2009 they had managed to amass over 26 million users across Facebook and raise US $5.5 million in funding to expand the games business. 
In 2009, Holly was involved in leading the design for the immersive Facebook game ‘Kingsdoms of Camelot’ which went on to become one of most successful offerings from the company. Around the same time, Watercooler rebranded themselves as Kabam.
Kabam’s games were trailblazing in the sense that they helped build global communities of gamers through their chat function and also paved the path for virtual currency and microtransactions. Holly oversaw tremendous success and growth at Kabam, with revenues growing from $0 to $360 million in just four years. Additionally, as Head of Human Resources, Holly's team was responsible for Kabam’s global pool of over 800 employees as well as attracting and retaining top talent within a workforce that had experienced 500% growth in 3 years. 
Holly had a partial exit out of Kabam in December 2016 when Netmarble Games, a South Korean company, acquired the Vancouver studio of Kabam for $800 million. Having divested most of their assets in the sale, Holly has taken on the role of Chief Development Officer, helping to expand the gaming business into China through the formation of strategic partnerships with local players. Holly also has much more time on her hands and is finally ready to share ten years worth of experience with entrepreneurs who stand to benefit from her knowledge.

Startup Grind host Chris Joannou interviewing Holly and Shruti (Photo credit: Alyatau Photography)

Startup Grind host Chris Joannou interviewing Holly and Shruti (Photo credit: Alyatau Photography)

Shruti Shah, entrepreneur-in-residence at Silicon Valley Bank

Shruti Shah started her professional career as a teacher in the public system but soon realised that her true calling was entrepreneurship. So she joined an edutech focussed VC, New Schools Venture Seed Fund, which funded tech initiatives targeted at low-income schools. Being immersed in the startup environment that emphasised on solving problems through creativity and innovation was the catalyst for her to take the plunge into her own startup Moov Loot, a second-hand furniture marketplace.
What started as a bootstrap project between friends with $15,000 in funding went through the most coveted startup accelerator, YCombinator, raised $22 million in funding and grew into a national network operating at the intersection of technology, warehousing and logistics. Unfortunately, the 200 employee startup had to be wound down in July 2016 as the growth couldn’t be sustained without achieving profitability.  
Shruti’s career has pivoted for the third time after she took up the role of entrepreneur-in-residence at Silicon Valley Bank, an institution that is dedicated to supporting the financial needs of startups in the Bay Area and help the industry succeed. Shruti is a global advocate for the Stripe Atlas Program, which aims to help startups from all over the world incorporate in the United States, open a US bank account (traditionally a hassle for foreign businesses) and also access expert advice on US legal and tax laws.

League of Extraordinary Women Founder Sheryl Thai talking about Run the World Tech Formation (Photo credit: Alyatau Photography)

League of Extraordinary Women Founder Sheryl Thai talking about Run the World Tech Formation (Photo credit: Alyatau Photography)

In addition to their stellar careers, the two founders had some great tips for the emerging Melbourne startup community:
#1 Ideas are great, but it is execution that matters  

Holly is a big proponent of sharing ideas to receive initial feedback and enrich startup ecosystems. All too often, in many ecosystems outside of Silicon Valley people, are too afraid to share their ideas because they are afraid that valuable intellectual property will be stolen. However, at any given time, there are probably a dozen companies working on the same idea, be it the next generation social network or the future of tourist accommodation. However, what differentiates an idea from the next Uber and AirBnB is the commitment, planning and creativity that goes behind the execution of the idea into a viable business.

#2 Adopting a mindset of constant trial and error

For any entrepreneur, Shruti emphasises the importance of getting used to the idea of constantly trying new tactics to see what fits. From her experience with Moov Loot, Shruti believes that small companies face the biggest challenge in trying to integrate technology with the physical infrastructure, as Moov Loot tried with their online furniture marketplace and home delivery model. Sometimes, not having enough focus means that valuable time goes in debating the right strategy without actually trying anything. For her, taking the ‘don’t debate but do’ attitude is the right best strategy to have.

#3 It is important to encourage a karma-driven community

Shruti also speaks about the karma-driven culture of Silicon Valley in which people are willing to ‘pay it forward’ and support newer startups. The best part of her experience at YCombinator was the incredible network of founders and mentors she could access through the program who readily helped her team in the very early days. YC has churned out more than a dozen unicorn startups (that are valued over $US 1 billion), and these teams along with other alumni companies form a very powerful support network that present YC residents companies could tap into and map out their own successful strategies.

#4 Building a team culture that includes everyone

Both Holly and Shruti have been in charge of human resources in the course of their founder tenures. So they both emphasised the need for a strong company culture that created a sense of ownership, inclusion and empowerment. Holly is a firm believer of the mantra ‘culture is caught and not taught’. Having a firm set of values, taking a long-term view of incentives (such as annual bonuses instead of quarterly bonuses) and trying to lead by example from the C-suite level were some of the strategies Kabam applied in creating a successful and high-performance culture. Similarly, Moov Loot sought to bring together its tech, logistics and warehousing teams through monthly strategy meetings in which everyone had a say in making decisions for the company.  

#5 Do not compromise on your authenticity

As women within the tech industry, which even in 2017 is overwhelmingly male-dominated at the board and executive levels, Holly and Shruti faced the inevitable challenges of sometimes not being heard or taken seriously in their leadership positions. Holly’s East Asian heritage and Shruti’s Indian and Jewish heritage were also aspects of themselves which exposed them to their unfair share of assumptions and stereotypes. Instead of shying away from difficult conversations, both women have been trailblazers in the areas of diversity and inclusion, calling out behaviours, whether it be a board member, colleague or VC that they found did not belong in the 21st-century workplace. While a lot of work remains to be done, they strongly feel that the current movement for authenticity, diversity and inclusion is generating widespread awareness and sowing the seeds for lasting change.

Startup Grind Fireside chat with Holly Liu and Shruti Shah at The Collective Campus, Melbourne  (Photo credit: Alyatau Photography)

Startup Grind Fireside chat with Holly Liu and Shruti Shah at The Collective Campus, Melbourne  (Photo credit: Alyatau Photography)

Lessons in startup community building with Andrew Hyde


As the Victorian entrepreneur-in-residence and champion of startup community building, Andrew Hyde not only loves the Melbourne coffee but is greatly appreciative of the thriving community culture surrounding the city’s startup ecosystem. He sees parallels between Melbourne and his hometown of Boulder, Colorado; a sleepy little town of hundred thousand which has successfully created a multi-billion dollar startup economy largely due to the meaningful narrative that was shaped around Boulder’s high quality of life and close-knit startup scene centred around community events. At the first Startup Grind session of 2017, Andrew narrated his story of founding the Startup Weekend, an event that has now spread to over 162 countries and attracts over 500 thousand participants worldwide. 

Andrew Hyde (right) speaking to Chris Joannou (left) at Startup Grind Melbourne

Andrew Hyde (right) speaking to Chris Joannou (left) at Startup Grind Melbourne

Growing up on a ranch in Oregon, he was instilled with the values of hard work and community from an early age. After a degree in design from college which he completed in record time, he found his job in marketing rather unchallenging. About the same time, the GFC was taking its toll on the United States and many smart and creative people had no other option than to pursue a career in startups. Andrew decided that he could help these newbie entrepreneurs by bringing them together and facilitating exchanges of ideas, skills and knowledge. That was the idea behind the Startup Weekend, a 54-hour weekend startup building boot camp. The Minimum Viable Proposition (MVP) was launched under 5 hours, and 82 people attended the first event a few weeks later. It turned out to be a great success.

Andrew fondly recalls the impression he had of the early participants, “For the very first time they thought that they could be entrepreneurs."

Growth of Startup Weekend and acquisition by Techstars

The growth of Startup Weekend happened rather quickly. While there were other hackathons around, people resonated with the logo, ethics and community of Startup Weekend. In the first six months, Andrew was flying to a new city each week to host the Startup Weekend. With the expansion, also came the cash crunch. For the initial phase, Andrew was putting his own money into the event, and it was a completely free for participants. When that eventually became unsustainable, the very first round of pricing structure involved charging $25 at the door for seven meals and a t-shirt. This was hardly enough to cover the costs and after some hard struggle, Startup Weekend was finally able to receive sponsorship from Google for Entrepreneurs. Andrew had also reached the burnout state after having worked relentlessly on events and was very happy to have Startup Weekend turned into a non-profit and be ultimately acquired acquired by Techstar. Andrew Hyde was Employee #1 at Techstars. Techstar, co-founded by David Cohen, Brad Feld, David Brown, and Jared Polis, ultimately went on to become one of the most prominent startup accelerator and venture capital providers in the world, accepting only 1% of the applications that are submitted to them.
Later on, Andrew also founded the Startup Week that showcases startups, technologies, talks and businesses and has now spread to over 100 cities around the world. Startup Week has also been acquired by Techstars.


Finding inspiration through travel and writing

To escape the pressures of the high-octane startup world in which he had pushed himself to the very limit, Hyde has taken extended breaks travelling the world and has been living as a minimalist travel blogger for quite some time. He gave up most of his worldly possessions and apparently manages to live on just 15 items, something that attracts its fair share of controversy as well as curiosity. His stories of adventures to 79 countries are well documented on his blog and also inspired his book ‘This Book is about Travel’ that went on to become Number 1 on Amazon. 


Melbourne is a modern and beautiful city offering a very high quality of life to entrepreneurs

Melbourne is a modern and beautiful city offering a very high quality of life to entrepreneurs

So, what can the Melbourne startup scene take away from Andrew Hyde’s experiences in community building?


#1 Creating a narrative around an ecosystem’s key strengths

Andrew observes that Melbourne today is what the New York tech scene used to be ten years ago. Melbourne is a modern and world-class city filled with incredibly creative and well-travelled people as well as a fantastic community culture within and outside the startup scene. Entrepreneurs from all across the globe value the high quality of life and human capital that Melbourne has to offer and many would be highly willing to relocate and set up companies in the city. This should be central to the narrative we create in pitching our city to the world. 


#2 Valuing the philosophy of giving back

Startup Weekend, Techstars and the entire Boulder startup community have the philosophy of ‘giving back’ firmly ingrained in their DNA. It is about creating a supportive environment in which newer players feel included and can tap into the experience and mentorship of older veterans. Making mentoring and early stage support readily available to new entrepreneurs is a fantastic way for any city to rejuvenate their economy. Boulder has proven this very successfully through its ingenious startup economy and Melbourne needs follow the same route.


#3 Inclusiveness of the startup community

For a community to attract diverse talent from all cross sections of the society, inclusion and openness need to be at the very heart of how people engage with one another. This means events need to cater to people of all ages, cultures, genders and socioeconomic groups and organisers need to have the patience to learn and grow from feedback. Research has consistently proven that diverse organisations are more innovative and resilient and if you are into startups, you just can’t just miss out on innovation and survive.


#4 Focus on goals

Whether it is a community or an individual start-up, a razor sharp focus on goals and planning a clear path towards them is a mindset that needs to be adopted from the very beginning. Startups and startup communities tend to be creative melting pots with relaxed and often radical ways of thinking. This is very well and good and is the chief driver of innovation. However, not having discipline and governance can easily reduce entrepreneurial communities into dysfunctional congregations that create no real value for anyone!


Melbourne, for now, has a lot to cheer about. Surveys and reports place us among the most dynamic places in the world to start a tech or creative business. With the United States potentially moving towards more protectionist business policies, Melbourne with its openness, community as well as government startup incentives like LaunchVic is very likely to emerge as a top launchpad for startups looking to benefit from the huge Asian market on our doorstep.


Posted on February 4, 2017 .

Jennifer Fein shares an expat's guide to the Aussie startup scene

After eight years of experiencing the intensity of life that is New York, Jennifer Fein decided it was time to settle for a more moderate pace in the world’s most livable city, Melbourne. Not long after, she also made the decision to trade her ‘safe’ corporate career in digital marketing and product development and follow her passion for creating a software tool specially made for travel planning, a space she has had a love affair with for many years. Thus began her journey with YouLi in the unchartered waters of the Melbourne startup scene.

Ready to Launch is a simple step-by-step guide to creating a startup in Australia (Image: supplied)

Ready to Launch is a simple step-by-step guide to creating a startup in Australia (Image: supplied)

Jen finds her way through ‘Ready to Launch’

As a newcomer to Australia and a first-time founder, she quickly realised the need for honest and unbiased advice and mentoring if she had any hope of success in the risky game of startups. Jen was lucky enough to find serial tech entrepreneur Paul Boxer, a highly successful founder of several hitech defense startups, the largest being Sentient Vision Systems. Paul and Jen had many conversations on setting up a startup in Australia, a place that is different to the US in its resource constraints and also in the somewhat risk-averse way of doing business. On top of that, Jen had to navigate the unique ways in which financial, legal and governmental systems worked in this country.   

Amidst all the conversations they had about creating an Aussie startup,  Jen and Paul realised how these conversations could help many others in a similar position. So they wrote up a short, sharp and incredibly useful book that specifically addresses the question of how to launch a successful startup from Down Under. Ready to Launch is written in a very simple language and does an excellent job at fleshing out the complex set of personal, financial and commercial challenges that a new founder needs to navigate past before their idea can morph into a functioning and profitable business. I have read this book and would personally recommend it to anyone looking to quickly find out if they are indeed ready to get started. And if yes, Ready to Launch also spells out the practical steps to be taken to receive funding, set up an office, hire employees, negotiate agreements and many such other things that a new business needs to get done.

Jen’s words of wisdom for first timers

Having been on the startup roller-coaster ride for over a year, Jen also has some words of wisdom for fellow founders:

Advice: On the topic of seeking advice, Jen says. “Go out there, listen to all people and ignore all of them.” She is very much about following one’s own path and trying something that feels right for the individual. Although it is a good idea to remain sensible, a startup is very much a creative venture and not everyone’s painting is going to look the same. That is fine!

Co-founders: After careful consideration, Jen has decided to go solo. For her, “it depends on what is your truth.” Each person has their individual preferences and working styles and being yourself is an essential ingredient of success.

Decision-making: ‘Ready to launch’ does talk a bit about decision-making as a founder. Jen explains, “Founders need to find clarity in themselves. Do you feel confident about making your own decisions or do you need help through conversations?” Decision-making style can heavily influence whether someone needs a co-founder or not.

Realistic expectations: While success should rightfully be everyone’s goal, Jen believes that it is worthwhile to reflect on the grit and perseverance that is needed to get there. “Successful people do find their niche; but not on their first attempt. It's a painful process. The difference between successful and unsuccessful people is that the successful ones are willing to fail continually until they succeed.”

Founder of Youli Travel Jennifer Fein took inspiration out of her own destination wedding in Jordan (Image: supplied)

Founder of Youli Travel Jennifer Fein took inspiration out of her own destination wedding in Jordan (Image: supplied)

Jen’s travel startup YouLi

Jen’s startup idea for YouLi is inspired by many adventures as a digital nomad around the world that ultimately led to a dream wedding in Jordan. Jen and her husband Adam have previously planned many trips with friends and family spread all over the world and know all too well how tedious the process can be, with endless email trails and complex spreadsheets that need to track everyone’s itinerary, schedules and bookings. For more and more people opting for destination weddings, this can be a needless hassle. Although there are great platforms such as Tripadvisor, Expedia and AirBnB that have made trip planning much easier, there is yet to be a good travel planning and management tool that simplifies the process and brings everything together. This is what Jen is hoping to change through her visually appealing and customised software technology.

As a person who very much treads her own path, Jen has spent most of the early phase of development of YouLi in getting to know her customer instead of hunting around for VC funding. That has enabled her to retain greater control of her company, and Jen hopes that the intensive customer research that has gone into the product in the early days will create value for the end user. YouLi platform is currently open to early adopters on a tiered fee structure, with usage being completely free for trips involving six travellers or less. In return for discounted usage costs, YouLi is hoping to gather as much customer insights as possible and build from that in a true Lean Startup fashion.

Jen is a highly organised founder who has managed to merge her passion, experience and discipline into a product that appeals to a very niche market of high-spending, experience-driven millennials. So we can hope that great things are ahead for this founder and her startup venture.

If you would like to learn more about Jen’s startup YouLi, check out youli.travel. To obtain a copy of Ready to Launch head to Booktopia.

Posted on January 18, 2017 .