It’s true: about 75–90% of start-ups will fail (or, in other words, not make it to a trade sale or IPO). In face of these grim odds, it is easy to feel discouraged, and want to throw in the towel when it comes to your own start-up.
But while successes are certainly the exception, and not the rule, that doesn’t mean you couldn’t be one of the few who make it to the top.
To help you keep calm and carry on, here are 5 inspirational start-up founders who are not just stunning successes, but who also do some good in the world.
Ally Watson, Code Like a Girl
When developer Ally Watson first arrived in Melbourne from Scotland in 2015, she started attending tech events and meet-ups, but was soon put off by how male-dominated they were. So she decided to run a networking event of her own, for women. She expected maybe 8 to 10 women would attend – instead, 100 turned up.
This led to free coding workshops, and eventually to the inception of Code Like a Girl, an organisation dedicated to giving girls the tools, knowledge and support they need to be coders, via events, workshops and mentoring. The organisation seeks to redress the gender imbalance in the Australian tech industry, where just 28% of the ICT workforce is female, according to the Australian Computer Society.
“In every situation … you feel you have to constantly prove your competency as a woman,” said Watson in an interview with The Sydney Morning Herald. “I kept thinking how many times I’d wanted to give up, and how many friends I’d seen drop out, how many little girls who ended up maybe going to art school or shooed into something else that was more of a culture fit for them, and I realised that’s not really fair, because the future is technology.”
The workshops have been such a success, that Watson has won awards from the City of Melbourne, the Australian Computer Society and B&T magazine. It’s little wonder, then, that Watson was also named one of Australia’s nine most influential female entrepreneurs of 2017.
Look out for Code Like a Girl events, currently running in Melbourne, Sydney and Adelaide.
Chieh Huang, Boxed
Chieh Huang’s is the quintessential rags-to-riches immigrant story. Huang’s parents had given up their successful careers in Taiwan in order to move to the USA to give their children better opportunities. His dad worked at a flea market; his mum worked at a cashier at a Chinese restaurant. They were poor, but managed to scrape together enough to send Huang to nearby John Hopkins University. After he graduated, Huang went to law school.
But after a stint as a corporate attorney, Huang realised it was not for him. He quit his job to join a start-up called Astro Ape, which made games for iPhones. They eventually sold to gaming giant Zynga for an eight-figure sum.
From there, he went on to launch Boxed in 2013 – out of his parents’ two-car garage in suburban New Jersey. Dubbed “Costco for millennials”, Boxed allows customers to purchase goods in bulk, and have them delivered straight to their door. Boxed made $40,000 in revenue that first year; just three years later, they made over $100 million.
In some ways, Huang is surprisingly frugal for a start-up founder now worth millions. He still flies economy class, and shares hotel rooms with his fellow founders when they travel. The company avoids having expensive parties, and there’s no pool table or ping pong table in sight. But these sorts of perks pale in comparison to those that Huang does provide. He has personally put up about 50% of his net worth to pay for his employees’ children’s undergraduate tuition in full. The company also pays for life-changing events like weddings, paying up to $20,000, depending on how long the employee has been with Boxed.
“[T]his may seem pretty crazy ... you can’t say what line of benefit do you really get for doing all these things, but it shows up elsewhere in terms of increased morale,” says Huang. “[W]e get investors that have pushed against the systems, but what I tell them is that as long as I’m at the helm and our management team is at the helm, 12 times out of 10 we’re going to do the right thing for the employees of the company – it’s a fundamental belief.”
Emma Sinclair, EnterpriseAlumni
The youngest person to ever float a company on the London Stock Exchange, Emma Sinclair always had an entrepreneurial spirit. Her working career began at 16, when she “begged her way” to a job at McDonald’s, and even today the five stars she earned on the job retains place of pride on her bio. After a building a successful car park management firm (yes, really), she went on to co-found EnterpriseAlumni, an alumni and retiree management platform that has been dubbed “Facebook for ex-staff”, allowing organisations to gain the full benefit of their alumni talent pool. Their clients include heavyweights such as HSBC, SAP, Lufthansa, Adidas and Swiss.
But perhaps even more impressive is Sinclair’s philanthropic achievements. In 2014, she became UNICEF’s first ever business mentor, helping to teach disadvantaged youths in developing countries business and life skills. Most recently, in October 2017, she conceived and launched a crowdfunding scheme for UNICEF, with the first round focused on funding innovation labs and supporting young entrepreneurs in the Azraq refugee camp in Jordan.
In an interview with The Telegraph, Sinclair had some sobering words of wisdom for aspiring entrepreneurs: “Building a business takes years of persistence and graft. It can be lonely. You will probably miss friends’ birthdays and weddings – I have. You will read emails too often; you will have escalated stress levels and you will probably be very, very tired. Don’t get me wrong; my life has been more interesting than I ever dreamed of. I wouldn’t change it for the world. But the number of late nights, the job role juggling, cash flow struggling and sheer graft involved shouldn’t be underestimated. No business is the result of an overnight success.”
Adam Stone, Speedlancer
Prepare to feel like a huge underachiever. At just 22 years old, Australian Adam Stone has founded a million-dollar business, and now travels the world working as long as his iPhone is operational. “With Speedlancer, there’s a lot we can do with phones and email. When I was travelling, I don’t think I opened my laptop once, and we still managed to do our site launch. We’re a global team, and there’s always someone online, but it gives us flexibility,” he told news.com.au.
The start-up founder’s business, Speedlancer, has been called “the Uber of freelancing”, and promises to deliver high-quality design, writing and marketing in just 4 hours. One of its biggest drawcards is its proprietary AI project managing technology, known as Bundles, which handles logistics and delivery. “Bundles can be described as an artificial project manager which automatically routes tasks to the appropriate freelancers once a given task is approved, meaning full-stack marketing campaigns can be delivered by an entire team … assembled in just a click,” said Stone to The Australian. In 2017, Speedlancer reported having more than 1000 customers, including PwC and RaboBank.
If it makes you feel any better, Stone did start early – at age 12, to be exact. “I started with $50 of pocket money and turned it into six years of profitable business and we had 130,000 paying customers. I grew that all organically,” he said.
So what would he say to other entrepreneurs thinking of founding their own start-up? The key, according to Stone, is to start small: “I’d recommend first-time entrepreneurs to start a lifestyle business, and supplement their salary and work to replacing it, just so they can live,” he said. “My advice would be to outsource everything to give them flexibility so they can decide what they want to do, like travelling, or launching their next big idea to change the world. Then you can dedicate your full energy to your start-up.”
Jane Cay, Birdsnest
The rural town of Cooma, NSW, might seem like an unlikely setting for a thriving online clothing retailer on track to turn over $30 million this year, but it is certainly working for Birdsnest, the brainchild of former IBM e-business consultant turned inspirational start-up founder Jane Cay. “In a regional area, you really have to make the most of the assets you have,” said Cay. “I don’t want to be any bigger, but I realise we have to keep striving to be the best at what we do. If our business can be proof of anything, it’s you can take a crazy idea and make it work.”
And make it work she has, with a relentless focus on customer experience, and a vision that is all about making fashion friendly, fun and empowering for women. Cay has proved that the little things, such as the personalised, handwritten notes that come with every online order, or the introduction of diverse body types in photographs, can make a big difference, with 70% of Birdsnest’s revenue coming from returning customers. Birdsnest also boasts a net promoter score of 91, and has won the Best Online Customer Service Award at the ORIAs (Online Retail Industry Awards) in 2015 and 2016.
Company culture is also highly important to Cay, who currently employs 140 staff, the vast majority of whom are female and from the local area. Many of her employees work flexibly and part-time in order to balance work with other commitments, and all her employees have the option of joining a daily mindfulness and meditation session. “I’m passionate about this community and giving people really interesting careers in a rural location,” she said. Birdsnest took out 4th place in BRW Great Places to Work for over 100 employees in 2017.
“You don't have to be the smartest or the strongest; as long as you keep being adaptable to change and evolving, you can survive and thrive,” said Cay.
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