Today is Australia Day. I am lucky to be able to call myself Australian. The Aussie government asked me to be featured in a publication and I obliged. Here is the longer version of what got printed
How did you start? Tell us a little about what made you choose this career path, and where you studied.
I come from a family of entrepreneurs. My grandfather escaped famines in China to settle in Malaysia, and with no education built a business that managed to send 9 kids to universities overseas. My father studied in Australia and through fate, managed to build a business in Canberra that changed my family’s fortunes. At the same time, my mother never let a moment go to waste and despite English being a second language I ended up representing Australia at Model United Nations.
This legacy meant that work ethic was instilled in me pretty early – “we may not be the smartest, but we’ll work harder than anyone else” was the sentiment. The other important learning from my childhood years was that most things are games that can be hacked: UAI, competitions, hackathons, and school were all things that could be hacked once you understood the rules.
The most fun game for someone who likes to hack and work hard is startups. I wanted to do something where we get to show up the big guy, show what can be accomplished by a dedicated group of young people. I also generally like doing things that I’m told I can’t do.
Study wise, I studied at Radford College, Canberra then went to UNSW, Sydney. Radford College gave me opportunities pretty hard to get for most folks and expanded my brain beyond pure academics. UNSW allowed me to pursue anything I wanted and gave me space to fail and try new things. Whilst there, I stayed at New College which gave me my best friends to date.
How did your Australian experience (education, training, and upbringing) contribute to your success, and/or your approach to your work?
When I immigrated to Canberra, Australian values were pretty quickly instilled:
1. I have an aversion to authority. I feel like this is taught in our childhood heroes, from our convict roots to Ned Kelly and the Anzacs at Gallipoli. My favourite data point here is the one part of Gallipoli that Aussies were in charge of (our retreat) actually had very few casualties, largely due to the unique inventions which made the Turks think we were still in our trenches. I think this confidence in self results in a great view of the world for startups. Australians have proven time and time again that a small group with counterintuitive or creative thinking can accomplish something a much bigger resourced group cannot.
2. Australians have always had to do a lot with a little. My two favourite examples are that John Flynn came up with a way to cast a “mantle of safety” over Australia to serve the sparsely populated outback with world class medical services. The pedal radio came out of that effort and RFDS became an example for aeromedical services globally. My other favourite example is that 100 light horsemen charged Beersheba and took over a city that a whole British army hadn’t in the preceding months.
This legacy of doing a lot with a little makes for good startup mentality too. To get to our end goal, we have to come up with creative answers in the short term, and think of doing crazy things people with much bigger resources would never touch.
3. My one gripe is that Australian tertiary education is poorly organised for real work. UNSW gave me space to go on exchange, so I went twice. What I quickly learnt was how much more practical the American tertiary educational experience was. They focus very quickly on useful skills and provide the space to create startups quickly.
Australians also suffer from tall poppy syndrome. Failure isn’t celebrated or forgiven (e.g. bankruptcy laws vs America’s) so it’s harder for us to build startups in Australia. The flip side is that those of us who do do startups care even less about others’ opinions – a very valuable trait in startup land. Finally, Australia is a small market, so (like Israel) startups have to think globally from day 1.
What made you take the leap overseas and why Indonesia?
Primarily adventure, but split into personal and business reasons. Personally, my family is from this region (mum from Indonesia). Southeast Asia is Australia’s backyard and I love the food/travel here. Finally, not all Australians are willing to work overseas in a developing market where everything is difficult. My personality is to be roughly happy wherever, so I’m designed to enjoy life on the less trodden path.
From a business perspective, as much as I love Australia, the market is too small to build a billion dollar idea. Southeast Asia presents some of the most exciting opportunities – large, young and tech savvy population that’s undervalued and underserved. This context is a fertile ground to build something new and big.
What were the biggest hurdles in building your business and how did you overcome them?
First problem I had to overcome was rewiring my brain. Until I studied at Berkeley, billion dollar valuations were something you never heard of in Australia. I remember I was discussing my ideas with a venture capitalist who ended up becoming a mentor. He stopped me about 7 minutes in and said “If your idea isn’t worth a billion dollars, don’t talk to me about it”. This paradigm shift was humbling and inspiring. Firstly, it was a reprimand that I was wasting both our times with ideas that were less than that. Secondly, I took it as a huge compliment that he expected that I could come up and execute on billion dollar ideas. Two years in America rewired my brain so that I had the right attitude on startups.
Next is how do you learn to build a company that can grow 30% every month for more than 2 years? We were lucky to make it into YCombinator, the world’s best accelerator that produced companies like Airbnb, Twitch, Reddit and Dropbox. Through that process we got mentors who had made billion dollar businesses, received advice from successful entrepreneurs and backing from some of Silicon Valley’s best. This was quite the foundation to build a startup.
Thirdly, we needed to understand the Indonesian market and context. There’s no other way than moving and soaking in the culture. We didn’t look to change it or judge it – we had to adapt to the local context. Everything from hiring, inspiring, selling and doing deals changes from Silicon Valley to Jakarta. We’ve relied heavily on hiring great people and surrounding ourselves with advisors who can help us navigate.
What do you think is the single most influential factor in your business success?
Work ethic – but not in the normal way. I believe success is roughly some function of luck, work ethic and smarts, i.e. success = f(luck, work ethic, smarts). I have nearly 0 control over luck, except that working harder gives me more rolls of the dice. Smarts can only improve to some asymptote already given to me before I was born. But work ethic I have complete control over. So I optimise for doing the best I can and measuring against that.
Whether I succeed or fail is not entirely in my control nor will it define my happiness. So I focus on working hard and doing things I’m passionate about. In other words “Do something so valuable that even if you fail, the world is better off for you having tried.” If I’ve done the best I can, then I give myself an A no matter the result.
Is there something particular about the Australian character/culture that drives people to search out international experiences and to compete for success in other countries?
Yes, a few things come to mind. Australia is small and we’re off by ourselves in our corner of the world. This builds a curiosity that means we must venture off our island in search of the new. This is our version of the British getting off the island and building a competent navy that explored the world. For those of us who want to build something really big, then we also have to get off the island and find markets big enough for our ambitions.
Second, we’re extremely adaptable. We have this confidence that things will work out and that we’ll be ok and shine in the worst of circumstances. Our history is full of these proud moments and I think the legacy stays. This means we’re well suited to going beyond the obvious routes and can plant our roots in a locale far from home.
Third, Australia is a story of underdogs. We always cheer for them and praise their stories – Eric the Eel is a vivid memory from the 2000 Olympics. Whether cheer or jest (or some combination of the two), we have this spirit to laugh at ourselves, yet really gun for the underdog to succeed. This underdog quality is etched deep in my bones and means that I care little about the odds, I’ll still have a go.
Finally, we’re a bunch of immigrants. We come from other places so there’s no fear to then travel somewhere else. For those of us who’ve adopted Australian values, we get to demonstrate their goodness throughout the globe – and people generally love us for it.
What’s one of your most favourite things about living and working in Indonesia?
In a world of wonderful growth, there are unlimited possibilities. Nothing is quite set in stone and everything is in flux, whether the traffic lanes or the regulations. This beautiful state of flux means that there are great opportunities to design a new world and as a young person define the future of our industries. This is a once in a lifetime opportunity and one I couldn’t miss. We’re proving the statement “Never underestimate the ability of a small group of dedicated people to change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has” (Margaret Mead).
Have you been inspired by the achievements of any particular expat Australians living and working overseas?
These guys don’t know it but the founders of Atlassian were the same degree, scholarship at UNSW and only a few years ahead of me. I saw them grow from a name only known amongst a few friends to being a darling of the tech world. That kind of tenacity and success from similar roots set an inspiring example of what someone in my position can achieve.
What do you know today that you wished you had known when you first started?
At the macro level, there are few things my current self can teach my earlier self. I’m a believer that once I’ve decided something, I don’t look back and I charge. If I’m wrong, I run at full speed into the wall, pivot and run again. I measure myself on internal metrics, so if given the same information, I would have made the same choice that was true to self; the result I’ll deal with as it comes. Nearly nothing is irreversible in startup land.
At a micro level, I would like to know all the mistakes I was going to make so I could have avoided them. Hindsight is 20/20, so I’d happily avoid the small mistakes I could have. Hiring is really difficult and people in interviews are vastly different than people next to you in the trenches every day. We now force everyone to spend at least 1 day working with us before we hire them. It’s a self filtering mechanism and keeps the bar high. It means we lose a lot through our hiring process but higher quality > numbers of people.
What makes you proud to be Australian?
We always bat above our weight category. Whether international politics, gold medal count and founders with successful startups, Australia always outshines on a per capita basis. Pound for pound, we outperform so many other countries across a range of disciplines and this makes me extremely proud. I get to claim this legacy and hopefully extend its reach.
We’re sensible. I know internally that we complain a lot, but we’re a pretty sensible lot when compared to what’s happening overseas. When I read Australian news I find it flattering that we complain about relatively menial issues. One day I was reading about how someone said something nasty about someone else in parliament, all the while in America, they were dealing with yet another mass shooting. We’re structured to care about each other with healthcare, we have some of the world’s best beaches, most people have the ability to live a good life and even as an immigrant, my adopted home adopted me far before I adopted it.
We’re genuinely kind. We may tell you about dropbears, laugh our heads off at your expense, swear more than a sailor, but when we ask “how are you?” we actually want to know. We have far more capacity to think about others more than ourselves (sometimes to our detriment) and are far more giving than many other cultures.
Ultimately, every country I’ve visited (30+) whenever I mention I’m Australian I’m greeted with welcoming smiles and tales of other Australians that have passed through. In Europe, we’re drunkards but the life of the party. In America, we’re the country with strange animals, the Crocodile hunter and an uncanny ability to excel in our fields. In Asia, we’re a great source of income and almost too cheerful in our giving. All in all, these moments are the ones that codify how awesome it is to still call Australia home.