Startup Catalyst Download #2

These posts are a lot more sporadic than I’d hoped, but better late than never?

Whenever you go to a new place, one of the easiest things to talk about and compare is the people, and we met a LOT of people to talk about… So, the second instalment.

Randoms

I couldn’t think of a category for every person, so if they didn’t fit, they belong here.

Unsurprisingly, most people in San Francisco are just like people at home; some are kind, some are polite, some are terrifying to see in a dark street at night… But overall, they’re just people. I won’t get too much into the city itself, that can be another post, but the “random” people, from the cafe staff to the concierge at the hotel, were just as likeable as at home.

On the flip side were the less “random” people who we met throughout our tours and panels at places like Google or Twitter, and various co-working spaces. I’ll be blunt… very few of them left a lasting impression, and some exist only in the notes I took from them. And that’s perfectly fine, not everyone can have a groundbreaking impact.

The most important thing I took away from the random people was that, again, they’re just people. There isn’t some magical fountain of talent that summons technical gods from the ether; they’re regular, hard-working, intelligent people, and their jobs/roles are not unattainable.

The other important takeaway was that every single person is happy to help, whether it’s making a connection, offering advice, or sitting down for coffee. That means if and when you decide to flip up to San Francisco, you can’t possibly be alone.

Founders

We met a LOT of founders, I don’t have enough fingers and toes to count.

Probably most of the founders were from Australia, for two reasons:

  • Ease of access, being from Australia
  • Inspiration, to show us that Aussies can make it too

Seeing so many Australians was both good and bad. Good, because they were basically all of us, a vision into what our “future” could be. Bad, because it often didn’t feel like we’d left Australia. But the bad part isn’t that bad, it just shows again that San Francisco isn’t much different from Australia.

Now, again, most of the founders didn’t leave much of an impression; they were interesting to talk to, had good stories, but they all started to blur together and repeat in the end.

Having said that, here are some of my favourite founders…

David (Nuheara):

  • The Aussiest Aussie you ever did see. David had the most chill, laid back, easygoing personality and he was so much fun to talk to that none of us wanted to leave.
  • He had a lot of great insights into building a hardware startup, which I’ll share in another post, soz.
  • The best thing about him though, was how obviously passionate he was about his company; through our whole conversation you could tell he was doing what he loved, and that’s something I think we all aim for.
  • His best piece of advice: the 20 of us are as good, or better, than people our age in the US. For a bunch of young people wondering if we could ever make it, that was pretty powerful.

John (Boosted Boards):

  • Anyone who lets you play with their toys is obviously going to feature on a “best of” list… Even if you aren’t designed to use them (spoiler: I fell off the skateboard)
  • Another hardware founder with some keen insights (again, another post), but John was just a fun guy, and the kind of founder/boss I’d like to be.
    The Boosted office wasn’t decked out with perks like Facebook or Google, but it had a culture where people wanted to be there:
    - The office has a “miniature” workshop for fixing up boards that employees can use for their own projects
    - Dog. Friendly. Office. (But that was pretty standard in the US)
    - Every month the crew would “hack” something in the office, and motorise it; they had a “Boosted Couch” that you could sit on and control, because… Why not?
  • And some great advice, albeit obvious: build something and sell product (even just ONE) before you look for funding, and charge for your product what people will pay (hint hint: market research)

Rob (ServiceRocket):

  • Another Aussie! Rob was probably the most no-nonsense, straight talking person we met during the mission. He was totally honest and candid with every question, and was just a great guy to talk to.
    Oh, and he introduced us to the weird, somewhat sickening, and delicious concoction that is deep dish pizza, so… Thanks, I guess?
  • Rob’s been around a while and had heaps of stories, some funny, some sad, and was happy to tell it all. I didn’t write many of them down, I guess I was having too much fun…
  • One of the great takeaways from Rob? He hates meetings as much as I do, and he recommended a book that I’ll get around to buying eventually.
  • He also only schedules his mornings, leaving the afternoons free for the million things that randomly pop up, while still making time for his family :)

Why are these people my favourite? The surface answer is they were “fun”, but we met a lot of fun people. Are they my favourites because they were memorable, or vice versa? I guess they’re just the people whose time I enjoyed the most, for whatever reason. But the easiest answer, because they were in no way boring.

Leaders

We met a lot of founders, but we also met a lot of employees; Google, Facebook, Twitter, Xero… The list goes on.

Among those employees, we met leaders. Leaders of teams, leaders in their field, leaders in the direction of their company. Here are some that stuck in my head.

Rahul (Atlassian):

  • We visited Atlassian on day 1 of Catalyst, and it set the bar real high. The workspace, the culture, the people, the food, all great. One of the highlights for me though (and perhaps just for me), was Rahul.
    A genuine human being who enjoys his job, and loved talking with us, Rahul is the only person I actively sought to see outside the program.
  • On day 1 I was shitting myself (see post #1 about Imposter Syndrome), and Rahul just felt like the kind of person I could relate to and talk with, so I asked if he was free for coffee. True to the spirit of helping out, he made time for me.
  • I had the tiniest sliver of a plan in meeting with him, but not much; the main reason for meeting him was just that he was a great person. A few minutes into meeting, he asked “so what can I do for you?” and I just threw my hands up and said something like “I have no idea what I’m doing, here or in general”. So we just talked. We talked about Atlassian, he asked what I did back home, gave me some suggestions, but mostly it was just a friendly conversation. He even asked me for my advice on a presentation he was giving, which was cool.
  • Did I gain any knowledge out of it? Maybe not, I’m still working on it. Was it worthwhile? Absolutely. We met a few days into the mission, when the self-doubt and worry was still high, and it was nice to just sit and talk with someone about it.
    And I’m pretty sure if I asked for his help/advice again, he’d be more than happy to give it. A person like that is way more valuable than anything I may have gained in the conversation.

Aubrey (Atlassian):

  • A crowd favourite, Aubrey is Atlassian’s Global Head of Diversity & Inclusion, and she is an absolute rockstar. In today’s climate, diversity in all its forms is a touchy subject, but Aubrey managed to navigate every question effortlessly.
  • The main difference was that Aubrey approached diversity empirically, rationally, and with science; it’s difficult to argue (or create an argument) when there are cold hard stats staring you in the face.
  • Aubrey probably deserves a whole post of her own (oh wait, here’s one) but one key message I took was “fix the pipeline”: A lot of candidates (women, people of colour, etc.) will self-select themselves out of a job application, so Aubrey’s work was in fixing the application pipeline, the root cause of the diversity problem. By getting a more diverse pool of applicants, and making no changes to who/why they hired, Atlassian naturally hired 57% women in one intake.
  • I am pretty certain that every one of us came out of that conversation with new insights into diversity and inclusion, and I hope I can apply them whenever I’m leading a team/company.

Joel (Facebook, do I really need to put the link here?):

  • Team Leader Pete had been hyping up this session since the start of the mission. We all thought we were getting another talk on <X Company> by <Y Employee>, with the exception that Joel was way more engaging/fun/informative than everyone else; why else would last year’s cohort have been with him for “7 hours”?
  • Well we were wrong. The overwhelming feeling coming out was “What just happened?”
  • Joel started our conversation with the usual introductions, except this time we were asked to say “what keeps us up at night”. Joel definitely deserves his own post, but let’s just say none of us realised that question was a precursor to several hours of raw, personal, soul-searching conversation.
  • Unfortunately our conversation was cut short (Joel had a meeting with Zuckerberg the next day, nothing major), so it was kind of left unfinished, but Joel had planted enough of a seed that we went to the local Maccas and kept talking.

Family

This post wouldn’t be complete without the Catalyst crew. I can honestly say that the best thing I got from the mission was the relationship I now share with 21 phenomenal human beings.

Back home in Melbourne, I have the absolute best friends you can possibly ask for; we hang out together, go out dancing, they’re incredibly supportive, and we have the weirdest and greatest conversations. It wasn’t until I went on the Catalyst Mission that I realised something… I felt alone.

I’m not exactly a “normal” graduate; most of my friends from uni graduated and got jobs, and two years on I’m still figuring out what the hell I’m doing, but I don’t regret that at all.

Instead, I kind of accidentally fell into the startup world, and slowly decided this was the kind of work I wanted to be doing. I wanted to be making new things, solving big problems for people, making an impact, and do it all on my own terms.

That in itself made me “different”, but it’s not that big a deal, is it? Startups might not be mainstream, but people still get it. I could talk about my startup(s) with friends and family and get varying degrees of interest/understanding. But even among my startup friends and community, I’m still “different”… I just didn’t realise it.

It’s not because I work in startups. It’s not even because I don’t have a “plan”. It’s because when I say I want to make an impact, I want to make the biggest god damn impact possible. Not Melbourne, not even Australia; I want to change the world. And it wasn’t until Catalyst that I realised that made me feel alone.

Until I was on this crazy ride with 19 young Australians with big dreams, I didn’t realise that no one else around me “thought the same” as me. Until I found a group of people with the skills and drive to make those huge ambitions a reality, I didn’t realise I needed that group in the first place.

And that has probably created the biggest change since coming home. The realisation that I dream big. The realisation that my goals, and drive, and ambition are “different”, and that some people won’t “get it”. That no matter how much I discuss and explain, my friends and family might not get it either. And the realisation that that’s okay.

I didn’t realise that before Catalyst, I felt alone because I didn’t have people around with big, crazy, overly ambitious dreams like me. But because of Catalyst, now I have a big, crazy, overly ambitious family I can turn to whenever I need.

Summary

Fun fact: in the entire Catalyst mission, we met one person in a suit. I cannot describe how refreshing that was, I hate this “suit culture”… Anyway.

I’ve probably not done justice to a lot of people on the mission, and my sieve of a memory has probably forgotten more useful information than it’s retained, but it will hopefully come back as I continue reviewing my notes.

All I can say is that each of us got a lot from the people we met. To every person we met, thank you for being a part of the craziest 10 days ever and for giving up your time for us.

Until the next post!

The Future Founders 2017 Family (minus Jack, who was off adventuring)