Dan Brockwell on start-ups, his experiences and burnouts: PART 2
Not sure why, how and when to join or found a start-up? Join us as we talk to Dan about his view on corporate vs startups, as well as his journey bouncing between the two.
🌞 Earlywork's Chief Meme Officer Dan Brockwell (BusinessOne alumnus 👀)
To you, what are the main differences between working in corporate and start-ups?
For context, I worked at two different start-ups in my first and second years of university. Later, I worked for IBM, Deloitte Digital, Amazon, and Uber, then back to another start-up called Offload, then back to Atlassian. Now, I’m doing my own start-up. I’ve done a bit of back and forth and each has their pros and cons.
One of the strengths of the corporate environment is you have a lot of access to mentors, both in structured and unstructured settings. In a corporate business, you get to meet a lot of different people who are highly intelligent and have a lot of industry experience. Being able to reach out to them for advice on specific things is a huge positive.
Number two is that for a company to get so big, it must have done something right. What was very powerful for me was being able to see these battle-tested frameworks and models of thinking which I could then apply to the way I work. It’s been useful thinking about how Amazon runs its meetings or thinking about how Uber approached sales. There are a lot of these tools and frameworks that you pick up at these leading companies, which you can then go and use in the start-up world.
In start-ups, I've found that my learning rate and level of satisfaction have generally been higher. In start-ups, your role is a lot more general. Because it's such an early-stage company, you have to wear many hats. If you want to learn to see a problem from a lot of different angles and really own something and take a lot of responsibility early in your career, start-ups are undoubtedly super powerful. You'll get thrown something and have a large responsibility just because there's not enough people to manage everything. If you're comfortable with self-learning and activism, start-ups are great in terms of the diversity of work you get exposed to.
I personally want to try and learn as much as I can, as fast as I can, and start-ups are very well suited to that. Because they’re small, they move very quickly. They're also likely to try and evaluate new cutting-edge tools or approaches. Start-ups are by nature a fast-growing business and they tend to be working on quite unsolved problems. You feel that emotionally, you're really solving something that hasn't been well solved in the market. It feels really positive in terms of that level of impact.
Finally, the culture in start-ups tends to be more open and progressive. They attract people who are thinking about the world a little differently. They're excited to work on something they really care about and being around similar people is such a powerful energetic force. Ultimately for me, I realised that the start-up environment was the right fit. But it's definitely something that's quite a personal individual decision. I would encourage students to test out both and see what works for you.
What are three words you would use to describe corporate? And what are three words you'd use to describe start-ups?
Traditional corporates are structured, risk-averse and slow.
Start-ups are scrappy, fast and energetic.
Is there a ‘prime time’ for students to get involved in start-ups?
The prime time is now. If you're a student, you're at one of the lowest risk periods in your life. Most students in Australia are living at home. You're not necessarily paying rent, and most people probably don't have kids or a mortgage. And importantly, in university, it's perfectly socially acceptable to try something out for a few months. If it doesn't work, it doesn't work.
When you're in uni, if you want to go and build your own company one day or want to help lead a start-up, go and try working for one. You could do an internship at a start-up, realise you don't like it and then go do the classic Big Four graduate programme. You're only going to be there for a couple months so if you love it, you can stay. I've had friends who did internships at start-ups and they ended up staying full time. My co-founder Marina interned at Finder, which at the time was fairly smaller, and she ended up becoming a product manager there for three years.
Honestly, I would encourage students to test both corporates and start-ups early on. Try to get as many different experiences as you can in uni. Try a start-up, try a corporate, try out non-profits. The more data points you get, the more informed your decision is going to be around the career path that you choose in terms of the role, company and size.
How did you personally become involved with start-ups?
During high school, I was very lucky to get work experience at Atlassian in Year 10. I didn’t even know what Atlassian was and I'd never coded before. When I went there though, everyone was eating ice cream and wearing orange shoes and I thought, ‘What the hell is this? Is this really like how adults work?’ I was pretty confused but the tech sector seemed cool to me.
I was never really a tech person by nature though and leaned more toward being enterprising. I tried lots of things like freelance logo design, selling second hand things online and even started a few rock bands. I always had a creative streak but I didn't have much literacy of the start-up world until I finished school.
When school ended, I created an app called Friends of Deficits with a few friends where you could track payments in different currencies. We did competitive research though and found out there was already a start-up called Tilt doing it, so I emailed Tilt’s country manager in Australia and did a growth internship with them from the first semester of uni. Later in my second year, I joined another start-up called Table which did restaurant ordering on campus.
I was also interested in consulting and joined BusinessOne, and was lucky enough to work on a start-up project! The idea of early-stage businesses and how they find customers was fascinating. I was curious: how do you grow it? How do you change your strategy? I last served as VP Operations of BusinessOne and essentially led the client recruitment to bring on a ton of start-up-specific clients. There’s not many consultancies on campus which specifically focus on start-ups, and for me, that’s what exposed me first-hand to the opportunity to work with a start-up in the earliest stages of growth, sales and marketing. It gave me a peek inside the engine room of a start-up before I even started my own.
Those two were probably the most formative experiences in uni around my entrepreneurial streak. Throughout university, I'd say I was still tinkering a lot. Even if it's not start-ups, it could be starting or leading university societies which gives you a similar experience where you can create new programmes. There are lots of ways to flex your entrepreneurial muscle without necessarily starting a business.
What advice would you give to someone who wants to get involved with or start their own start-ups?
"Follow your curiosity"
Firstly, try out a lot of different problem spaces and roles so that you understand what you vibe with best in terms of skill set and what problems you really give a sh*t about. That's going to help you find the right thing to work on. Most people can start a start-up, but it makes it much easier when you're deeply curious about the problem. Follow your curiosity and don’t worry too much about what your peers are doing. If you're really curious about something, go deeper on it because usually other people are curious about it too. That’s where opportunity lies.
Joining a start-up
"Make the job listing"
In terms of joining a start-up, the number one piece of advice I have is this: don't wait for the job listing, make the job listing. Then go and reach out to others about it. It doesn't hurt to send a cold LinkedIn DM or cold email, and a lot of them won't work. And that's fine. When you're a student, you don't have much experience yet. But what you do have is attitude and enthusiasm, and that's your competitive advantage. If you want a start-up job, go reach out to a lot of them. I've probably cold-reached out to over 500 start-ups in my career.
Founding a start-up
"Dont think about starting a unicorn"
Number one piece of advice for founding a start-up: don’t think about starting a unicorn. Instead, think this: wow, this problem really pisses me off. What can I do about it? You can start with a no-code tool, you can start with content, you can start with events, you can start with a community. There are lots of things that you can do that aren't like building a tech product or building a revenue-generating business that can still add a lot of value. Ultimately, focus less on ‘I want to build a start-up’ and focus more on ‘I want to solve a problem.’
Step back and ask your 20-year-old self, what are the problems that I can see myself dedicating 40-60 hours a week to? People spend so much of their waking hours on work, so you’re fortunate enough to be able to work on a problem that you really care about. It takes time to find that and it's okay not to get it right straight away. I personally had lots of missteps like changing degrees multiple times and trying internships I disliked.
You don’t have to have everything sorted out now. As long as you're moving towards the person you want to become, building relationships with good people, cultivating your skills and learning more about the problems you care about, that’s everything. Be comfortable with trying new things and putting things out there because that's the best way to learn.
To wrap up our interview series with you, how do you personally deal with multiple commitments? Have you experienced burnout, and what advice would you give to students experiencing this?
"Be clear about what are your tier zero priorities, your non-negotiables"
Burnout is a personal issue that I’ve battled several times. When I was in university, I was trying new societies and start-up internships on top of full-time uni. That’s alongside family, friends, relationships, exercise, and everything else.
The most important thing to understand is that you can't do everything. Also, it's okay to give up things. It's okay to say no. It's important to be clear about what are your tier zero priorities, your non-negotiables, your tier one, and then your tier two.
Tier zero is the basics. I want to exercise, sleep well, see my partner, and spend time with friends. Beyond that, I want to ensure that I'm giving a lot of time to Earlywork. Outside of that, I’m involved with angel investing and mentoring work.
Being comfortable saying no is such a valuable skill. The more you do it, the better you get at it. I really struggle because I want to do everything. But it's more a question of what do you have to do now, and what can you do later?
Be intentional. If you get multiple awesome opportunities, just pick one to start and ensure you're doing that well before you do others. In the past, I tended to think that you need to do a lot of things when in reality I would have enjoyed things more if I just stuck to the top 1-3 activities.
"Set 'no work' times"
With burnout, it’s almost important to set ‘no work’ times. I don't allow meetings on Friday evening or weekend evenings; they’re reserved for solo and social time. Timeboxing is powerful as well because there are only so many things you can do in a day. If your calendar is running out of space to put things in, you’re probably doing too many things. Be ruthless and don’t be afraid to drop something.
Aside from that? I'm still working out the whole work-life balance thing. I'm someone who likes to work hard, even on weekends. I'm always thinking about Earlywork and tinkering. But I would say as well, it's important to block out dedicated time for other things. Remember to be kind to yourself.
Interviewers & Editors: Alex Loke, Alyssa Liem, Jason Yu, Lynne Jiang
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