Dan Brockwell on Earlywork, his journey and future plans: PART 1
Updated: Apr 26, 2022
Interested in career intentionality and making a positive impact on the world? Join us as we talk to Dan about Earlywork's founding story, the challenges they faced and their future plans!
🌞 Earlywork's Chief Meme Officer Dan Brockwell (BusinessOne alumnus 👀)
How did Earlywork start, and did you expect it to grow so fast?
"Build the customer before the product"
To give some context to our founding story, I started as a student at UNSW in 2016 and wound up doing a double degree in Marketing/Computer Science. I wanted to build a lot of technical skills for where the world was headed but I was also very interested in the human side of business. Honestly, I was quite lucky during university, being given the opportunity to intern at a start-up and work with BusinessOne as a first-year student to help consult start-ups. Throughout university, I was someone who spent a lot of time on tech and start-up internships specifically, and honestly not too much on grades.
Toward the end of university, I was working at a 10-person start-up called Ofload and had a grad job lined up at Atlassian. A lot of my friends were struggling with the recruiting side, especially because of COVID. They’d ask, “Hey Dan, where do you find tech roles? Where do you find start-up roles? What's product? What's growth?” I started getting these questions so consistently that I had a huge realisation about there being a career literacy gap on campus, especially around future-focused careers.
I originally sent job listings to friends on Facebook Messenger and LinkedIn, but soon realised that the process was inefficient. That prompted me to wonder if there was an easier way to share them.
I ended up putting together a newsletter in September that curated a list of tech and start-up grad jobs and internships in Sydney. It was around 10-20 listings per week. I knew there were a lot of people looking for these sorts of jobs and I wanted to avoid a friend missing out on a role simply because they didn't know it existed. I honestly found it crazy that there were all these amazing opportunities popping out and people didn't know about them.
The newsletter originally started with ten subscribers, but I messaged several hundred of my friends on LinkedIn or Facebook to mention that it existed and that it would be helpful if they were looking for tech jobs. That was how I built my initial subscriber base, but the newsletter started to blow up once I shared it in Facebook discussion groups. That was an early signal that there was an appetite in this space and the potential for something really powerful. Today, it's a community of two and a half thousand young people across Australia and New Zealand. We've got events popping up, we've got a job board, we've got a hiring engine and the newsletter now has a 5000-person subscriber base.
I was surprised by the speed of the newsletter’s growth, but I think I always had big plans for it. My thesis has always been to build the customer before the product. I knew that there was something really powerful in this space around helping young people find meaningful work. I just didn’t know exactly what the product was yet. My first intention was to just start helping people with free content and create a community before providing any services. We’re still in the early days in terms of forming that venture-scalable product. Overall, though, it was pretty intentional early on to build an audience around this problem.
How would you describe the culture that you’re trying to build at Earlywork?
Thinking about the culture of Earlywork’s community, it’s closer to top graduates in the US who build their own start-ups or go work at start-up tech companies. On the other hand, in Australia, the pattern is still that a lot of business-focused graduates and even tech graduates just go to work in traditional areas like banking, consulting, corporate law and professional services.
I’d say the culture we're trying to build at Earlywork is around career intentionality. It's essentially saying that your career is an awesome opportunity for you to make a really positive impact on the world, not just a big salary.
The culture we're trying to develop is one that helps people work on problems that they really care about and feel connected to that sort of problem space. In that culture, there's an optimism, there's a future focus, and there's very much a collaborative energy. We see so many young people helping each other with resumes and interviews, it's much less of a single-player game. We're trying to build a recognition that the best way for young people to get ahead in their careers is by helping the people around them and building awesome relationships with people who have similar values and similar missions.
What are some struggles you’ve had along the way?
"Why help 10 or 20 people at a time when we only have finite time and can help thousands?"
As you know, I started off with a newsletter and originally went, okay, who else gives a sh*t about this problem? I looked across the Sydney landscape and Shawna Herman, who's now my co-founder, was working on a student recruiting agency that helped start-ups hire students. We started doing research together and realised that there was a huge opportunity around helping young people land their first graduate role. Interestingly, we found that the average student valued getting their dream graduate role at an average of $3,000. Some even said $10,000 and $20,000 so we thought holy sh*t, there's a big opportunity here.
However, we didn't want to make it unfair or only accessible to those who already came from privileged backgrounds, so we trialled a model of “No Win, No Fee” career coaching. We tried selling coaching sessions as our product, where we would coach people to help them land jobs. We'd started to build some structure but there was no formal program or upfront deposit. We realised that the lack of structure and lack of deposit meant that people weren't as committed to it. We would help them, they’d find the sessions valuable, but we’d never hear from them again after one or two sessions. We worked on it for a couple of months and just didn't get anywhere with it. I suppose that was the first big failure: thinking that coaching was the way to go and not realising that people struggle to stay committed to that.
That’s when we thought, why help 10 or 20 people at a time when we only have finite time and can help thousands? That's why we launched a digital community. Some of our failures came even before we launched the Slack community, when we first tried to do it on LinkedIn. There actually used to be a LinkedIn group and while there was some engagement, I think people felt a bit intimidated posting there. It's one big forum effectively whereas in Slack, we've got lots of different channels and private messages. Eventually, we decided to scrap the LinkedIn group and just launch a dedicated community in Slack to connect the people who were reading our newsletter.
The first few months were super hard though. We tried to launch a bunch of channels before they had any activity. And then they kind of went nowhere. They didn't form organically. It was only about two months later when we just started noticing that people would respond to other people without us doing anything. I remember saying to John and Marina, my other co-founders, that this was the inflection point for Earlywork. I remember this very distinct feeling two months in, where it just felt like it was working. It wasn't a specific number but more that there was a feeling in the community of holy sh*t, something's starting to happen.
What start-up, company or person has inspired you the most?
Hmm, I would say there’s two that come to mind. At a pragmatic level, very specific to Earlywork, there's a newsletter called Remote Students in the US which curated resources and jobs. The founders later turned into a start-up called Ladder, who are now trying to build a next-generation LinkedIn in the US. They were one of the earliest players in the ecosystem which was really cool. They were definitely an early inspiration for me.
Now looking more broadly at the way myself and the team think about careers, a huge inspiration was the philosopher Toby Ord who is one of the world's leading experts on existential risk. He's built an amazing careers blog called 80,000 Hours where he discusses what the best way for someone to make a positive impact is when they have 80,000 hours in their career. He's tried to build a rigorous system of recommendations and resources around high-impact careers. Looking at his lens and looking at the power of how his content has changed the way people think about what a career is all about has been a big inspiration for me.
What type of people are you looking for to join Earlywork, in terms of both the community and employees?
For the Earlywork broader community, our demographic is built around three key dimensions and we welcome everyone who is interested to join the community!
People who are based in Australia or New Zealand.
People who are curious or passionate about tech start-ups and social impact. Our community is full of people who have curiosity about where the world of business and tech is heading and how we can use it as a force for good.
People who are early-career professionals, inclusive of university students and people in the first 5 years of their career. Whether you're a first-year student just starting out or a final-year student looking for a grad job, we’re perfectly happy to have you in the community. Let’s say you just started your grad program or went into corporate instead of a tech start-up - you'd still be a good fit for Earlywork, if tech start-ups are something that you do want to explore.
In terms of what type of people we are looking for to join the Earlywork team, I would say there are four key pillars that we look for in potential employees.
People with high aptitude. They need to be sharp, strategic and analytical thinkers.
People with a strong sense of ethics and values. We're working in a problem space where we have a chance to level the playing field to help everyone to access some awesome careers. So, someone who comes into it with a focus on ensuring that we're chasing the long tail of students, not just the top 1%, is super important.
People who are proactive. I would bias quite heavily towards candidates who've already done their own start-up or done a side hustle. I look for candidates who have shown a willingness to create their own things, lead their own things or start their own things. Our junior employees are not just people to give small tasks to which they come back to report on. Anyone that comes into Earlywork, I would hope, has the chance to build something on their own within the Earlywork brand.
People who really care about the problem. We're looking for people who are super passionate about the Careers and Education space and are as pissed off about this pain point as us. There are so many awesome careers out there but so many people don't know how to get them. We would love people who care about levelling the playing field and helping people to learn from each other.
What are the next steps for both Earlywork and yourself?
"Cultivating the most lovable community we can"
What's top of mind for us right now is focusing on the community fundamentals. Over the next month, we will be doing community research, talking to community members, and understanding the flow of how people find out about Earlywork. What are the first impressions? What that makes them feel comfortable contributing? What do they want out of the community? Understanding where people get value from Earlywork and where things are is still confusing. User research right now is the most important piece.
In the long run, we hope to build and launch community chapters with a mix of digital and physical community across the world. For the time being though, it's Australia and New Zealand. We're absolutely focused on that. Our number one priority is building the rails and the system to create a hyper engaged community. Number two is long-term community infrastructure. It's thinking about as we scale from 10 to 200 to 30000 users, how do we go about adding another piece around Slack or transitioning from Slack to a custom community forum?
Ultimately, our focus right now is not monetization. Our focus right now is cultivating the most lovable community we can.
Interested in Earlywork? Find out more about their mission and what they do here. In our next newsletter, join us as we continue our interview 🌟 with Dan, looking into how he became interested in start-ups and his advice for those interested in this exciting space!
Interviewers & Editors: Alex Loke, Alyssa Liem, Jason Yu, Lynne Jiang