The best way to find out what’s involved in starting a business is to ask a founder. In this podcast, we’ve done the asking for you, with two experienced entrepreneurs who are happy to share their secrets to success — and their tips for avoiding failure.
Ben Sze is a Co-Founder at Edrolo, an educational tech company that is creating better outcomes for students. Ben points out several key things that fresh founders should keep an eye on — not least of which is time. There’s a time management practice here that you’ll find invaluable.
David Fastuca is a Co-Founder at Ambisie, a business putting entrepreneurs in front of school students to broaden their horizons. David founded his first business at the age of 14 and it has had many different incarnations since then. He says we live in a lucky country where if all else fails, we can just go get a job — so have a crack at founding your own business.
Disclaimer: Transcripts may contain a few typos. Similar sounding words that can lead to them being deciphered wrongly and hence transcribed likewise.
Serpil Senelmis: For WeTeachMe, this is the Master Series. Where industry professionals share their secrets to business success. I’m Serpel Senelmis from Written and Recorded. As a first time founder myself, I can tell you there is plenty that you need to know before you get your business on the way. In fact, as has been said before, on this podcast, if you knew everything that’s involved in founding a business, you might actually choose not to.
David Fastuca: So we started working on the project. And then we, it was time to get that first payment from the investment. Payment didn’t come. We are like, hmm not good. Months later, payment still didn’t come. So when we kept approaching the guy for payments, he goes on to a business. He’s actually business was taking money and using the money to pay other people see, it was a pain of shit. And Ross just left his job. We still had our services going and we’re pretty stuffed.
Serpil Senelmis: That’s David Fastuca, co-founder of Ambisie. We’ll hear how he got his startup back on track very soon. First up, Ben Sze, co-founder of Edrolo. Ben was working as an investment manager and tutoring high school students, when he saw an opportunity to create an education technology company. So he rounded up a couple of his mates. They all checked in their jobs, and Edrolo was born. Then outlines the key things to focus on as a first-time founder, and provides a masterclass in managing your time.
Ben Sze: So a bit about Edrolo, our mission is to improve education we’re very, very passionate about it. Was starting by building educational resources for high schools in Australia. But that’s not what we’re going to be doing forever. We’ve got very ambitious goals, including going global. We partnered with master teachers to create online courses that are mapped to the syllabus. We’ve also got a lot of form of assessment interactive elements to our appraisal so it’s not just a static watch a video type thing, students get some amazing feedback through that in terms of how they going as well. But one of the most important things that schools love about us is that we provide a lot of pre-populated data for them to actually differentiate their teaching practice without having to populate data in an Excel spreadsheet. And excitingly, we’re actually also, while we are we call ourselves an edtech company, we’re actually printing books. So we’re going back to the future there. We started with three co-founders, myself, Duncan and Jeremy. In 2013. We got into start mate, which is a fantastic program, and that was an enabler for us to actually work full time on Trello and have the guts to leave my full-time jobs. And two years after that, we raised the series A led by entry ventures and Blackbird ventures, and now we’re in over 700 schools, and we’ve got a team of over 80 we love what we’re doing. We’re fun bunch of people. So taking the leap. I recommend that you keep a full time job if you can and moonlight on your startup to get started. It also has a benefit of Don’t having to worry about your cash flow situation, which can be very stressful. We had a period where we weren’t paying ourselves anything. And it was very tough. I guess the downside to that would be, you’re stretched a bit thin, and you don’t learn as fast. But in my experience, I found that doing it that way really helps. You need a support network. There are dark days and bright days in life, when you’re starting a startup and I believe amplified. I feel like you feel things a lot more. And I truly believe that lots of memes have been shared. So please make sure you have a support network there because you are going to have some dark days, and you need to be able to get through him and also some bright days that you want to share amazing things. Next thing is your co-founders really matter. We still working together on Edrolo, we’ve got a fantastic working relationship. But it didn’t just happen. We worked at it. So although we were friends when we initially started, we decided that we would actively work on our relationship which I encourage everyone to do with any important relationship in your life. And we’re seeing the benefits of it. So the way we did that was we actually did regular feedback sessions with each other, really candid sessions. The first ones were pretty tame and easy on each other, but they got a lot more brutal. And now we’re at a stage where we’re literally giving brutal feedback nicely in a live setting. That’s an amazing thing. Next thing is culture. You know, when you’re starting something, you might be just you and your co-founder, maybe two other people, you might have team five, but it’s super, super important. And it actually is like a bacteria culture in a patriot nation, that it starts really small. But that’s the beginning of your culture at your startup. We’ve made the mistake of for example, with people that are no longer working with Edrolo because it wasn’t the right thing for them or us. And they want to write culturally aligned with our values and the way we want to do things, but yet he kind of set the tone for what’s to come. Focus is extremely important. Personally, I have ideas running my head nonstop, and I have to remind myself to be focusing on one thing at a time. Otherwise, if you focus on too much, you’re going to do a bad job across many things as opposed to a good job of one thing. It’s hot. This is really hot, but try and focus You should be embarrassed about your first product in any release that you have actually, we’re not technically gifted. So we were relied in a web design agency to begin with. Now, the underlying content was fantastic. Just didn’t look good. So I’d be embarrassed. I am. Next thing, cash is king. I don’t think we thought enough about this to begin with. And maybe we did inherently, but not purposefully. And I would encourage you to purposely think about it because you don’t want to be caught in a situation where you’re up against a wall and running out of cash. That’s a terrible thing for you and your business and the people in it. A couple of bits of advice, know your ins and outs very well, but also model out different scenarios. And the easiest way to do that is to do three types of scenarios, a base case scenario, which you think what’s your best guess what will happen, do a bull case, which is if everything went well, what would happen and a bear case, which is what if everything bad happens? It really helps with your planning, so cash is king, our reading is I wish I did a lot more of this because it’s better to learn from other people’s mistakes. And make them yourself at Edrolo, we do a monthly book club. So we do a lot of reading at the company. And personally, I get a lot of mine from audiobooks and podcasts and some physical books. Time actually understanding how to spend your time is very, very powerful. I use a tool called Toggl, it’s free, you can use a Google Sheet. But I know day by day, how much time I spent, actually on work. So this excludes lunch breaks, toilet breaks, all that sort of stuff. So I get a sense of how many hours I’m working a day. And if I’m feeling burnt out, maybe it’s because I worked a 13 hour day. But it goes even deeper than that. Depending on how you bucket timesheet, you’ll actually see which sort of areas of the business are sucking up your time. So I know now that email, on average takes between three to five hours of my week. So I need to set aside that time and I can’t do anything about that just a reality. So in this case, as part of my planning process, I said I’d spend two hours on this part of expanding into New South Wales, but I’m not spending close to seven, but I’ve got a live understanding of should I be spending more than two hours On this and in this case, obviously thought should be. So first-order impact of time tracking is that you actually get to see where your time is being spent. Second are consequences, there’s good and bad good is that you can be very critical of disruption. So if an email comes in you think important, but you’re working on something that is more important, you can actually say, actually, no, I’m not going to reply to that email. But I’m not going to reply to that slack message because I need to focus.
Ben Sze: Next thing enables you to reflect on your way, you can actually get to see patterns that told you, for example, how much time I spent in email, and you can plan but the one thing to look out for, you’re focusing on output, and that might detract from the fun you’re having. So just keep that in mind. If you do start tracking your time, have fun while you’re spending time on your startup. So if we track our time, we can actually make a really strong roadmap on how we’re going to spend our time for the next three months. You learn what’s possible to achieve, and you can align that to your goals. I love this quote. If you fail to plan, you plan to fail. It’s so true. You could be spinning wheels on things that mean you nothing to you or your business so easily. So be aware that that can happen. So what we do is within all our teams, an individual contributor send an email to their team with a reflection. So that goes out every week. And at the top of that email, there’s a high-level plan of what they’re trying to achieve. And a plan is actually most beneficial the person writing it, but you will get a lot of benefit out of it. So knowing what you’d need to do at a high level why now I refer back to this to remind myself every day, and then there’s the detailed plan. So what does that break down into and with time allocations on where I’m going to spend the time then we take it a step further in blocking out time in our calendars. This is hidden miss some people do it some people don’t, just depends on how the flow works. But a lot of people do block out time for the things that they say they’re going to do. And that helps you protect your time. By sending this email, we’re actually encouraging vulnerability, which is an amazing thing, because it fosters trust. Now we’re a team of 70 to 80 plus people, it’s just a beautiful thing to see from the sidelines now, all these different people across the business really sharing and offering support and to help each other can be proud of that fact. Initially, we reflect on motivation levels. Now five is average. So anything plus or minus one is we say one standard deviation, plus or minus and then plus or minus two. So, to be a seven, if something’s really going to be going well, to be three, there’s obviously something bad. It’s a good signal to this individual’s manager to talk about in their one on one or their team members to reach out like, Hey, can I help you have a deadline? I can push stuff aside. So motivation and basically why then we reflect on our performance and deep dive into what we’ve learned from the week and try not to make the same mistake into the future. And also think about in the context of the plan we set for ourselves, do we do what we say we do, essentially. And as soon as you write a plan, I should just make this clear. It’s probably defunct but without it, you don’t know where you’re going. So curveballs come up, but at least you’ve got a plan to refer back to decide should I let that curveball actually affect what I said I’ll do this week. We’ve also added a couple of other things where we get people to reflect on their enjoyment, and also the stress levels they’re feeling. So we’ve got a good couple of markers on how people are feeling. So the effects of that is that you actually have clarity around how you can achieve your weekly goals, and therefore your three-month goals. This is what we do at Edrolo. We believe that time is super, super precious. So start tracking your time and actually see where you’re spending your time. You’ll be amazed, you don’t need to do it in a complex way. Just start by bucketing email, admin, just buckets and see where your time’s going and do it for a week or two weeks. But don’t give up. Thank you so much for your time.
Serpil Senelmis: Well, that’s an elaborate way to manage your time. I’ve been tracking my time and it’s very revealing and only slightly alarming. Great idea, thanks, Ben. Next up strap yourself in for the wild experiences of first-time founder David Fastuca.
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Serpil Senelmis: Thanks Ed Guy, David Fastuca is the co-founder of Ambisie. A business that puts entrepreneurs in front of school students to broaden their horizons. David was an early starting founder, setting up his first design business at the age of 14. Since then, he has reinvented his business several times over and learned many lessons along the way. David says the only thing we have to be as founders is failure. And if that happens, well, we’re lucky enough to live in a country where you can just go and get a job.
David Fastuca: Started when I was 14, I was in high school, and I just loved design. So any minute I had, I was designing things for friends and family. I was taking on little jobs on the side. And I thought I’d start a business. I thought I’ll just go get a logo, business cards. I’ve got a business until I spoke with my cousin Ross, who I’ve been working with for the last 18 years together is like, please don’t do it because you just got business cards and you infringe on someone else’s name that you just made up at that time to Ross’s three years older than me, and he was doing the first multimedia design course in Australia. So we decided to put our skills together, I was the design guy, and Ross was the front end code guy. So after school on weekends, we’d go to his parent’s house kitchen table. And we’ll do work for friends and family. And we did that for about five or six years until I went to university and continued on with our little business, the name change from the first name, you can allow those could cause design cousins, great branding. And so we slowly build up the company. And we got to a stage where we start to take things a bit more seriously. So I finished university, Ross at that stage and got a job in IT. And we’re still working together. And I made friends with another graphic designer who couldn’t do any of the online work. So he gave that all to us. And that was enough to pay myself full time and to do that as a full-time gig. And then we had an opportunity to join this group and they’re in education. The whole idea was to join with these guys and to have the opportunity to grow with them. And that would give us exposure to thousands of people within the education space, things start to grow a bit more. And then we had an idea of getting to a product. At that stage, we’re still doing the services web design, Freelancer came onto the market. So they start to cut into a lot of the sort of level of work that we’ll get into people that were able to get it done a lot cheaper. So Ross, and I wanted to build a product and build a product team. And we had an idea to build something in, in education. And we pitched it to a friend of ours at that time, who was seemingly quite successful himself. And he loved the idea and he said, Yep, I would invest. I’ll give you half a mil. And we’re like, perfect, great luck. We’ll think I was 19 at the stage. So like, this is easy. Ross quit his job. So we started working on the project. And then we it was time to get our first payment from the investment payment didn’t come. And we’re like this not good. month later. payments through income. So when we kept approaching the guy for payment, he got done for embezzlement. He’s actually business was taking money and using the money to pay other people. So he wasn’t paying that shit. And Ross just left his job. We still had our services side going. And we’re pretty stuffed because we’re like, Well, that was just enough to keep me going. And we’ll just set they one day just in shock. And we’re like, hindsight kicking, we should have asked for money at the start. And we will young will so excited that this is opportunity. And it was just all came crashing down.
Wayne Lewis: Was that the closest point that you came to maybe calling it a day at that point?
David Fastuca: Oh, no. There’s about 20 times after that. So at this, they just went, look, we’re still young, we’ll live in at home and we’re like, we’ll split everything that we’re doing at this stage and we’ll boot it back up. And we did. So we built it back up our server-side of the business we started taking on bigger paid jobs. And then the iPhone came out and the app goldrush so we had an idea for an app. Throughout those years we had other crazy ideas, we started a clothing brand, failed. We started in e‑commerce sort of brand, this is before Amazon before Shopify, and we went down all the Bridge Road to all the Brick and Mortar stores and we’re saying, we’ll put your store online and people can buy your stuff, and you can ship it out to them. We got laughed at everyone. So I think the takeaway from that is timing. It was a great idea and we didn’t persist with it. And like idiots could be an Amazon, because like the time was too early for that sort of thing. So there were a few things like that, that just started up and failed. Friends of ours ran a nightclub in Moonee Ponds in the west of Melbourne and did really well. And then an opportunity came up for a larger space and we’re friends with them and we became really good at marketing and brand and they approached us to join them in this new bar. And we thought nightclub, we young this is could be cool, but we thought the intention was through that it won’t be too much work and we’ll get a lot of cash, and we can hire people for the engineering effort to build the apps, the ideas that we had. And that was another stupid mistake. We learned some great things. But we ended up working two full-time jobs. We go from nine to five, Monday to Friday in our web design marketing business, to then nightclub owners, Thursday, Friday, Saturday. So we’re doing like 90 hundred-hour weeks. The first six months were amazing of the bar, things were working. It was a cash cow. We’re about to start hiring. And then almost like good old Game of Thrones, winter came.
Wayne Lewis: Hahaha
David Fastuca: We were doing so well that the local competition in the area weren’t too happy. So, look that’s another whole story, the nightclub scene is something that’s you know, is a unique field. And I was at that stage about to get married. And we’re going to start a family and I will just be an absentee father and I just was hating life. And we got real depressed some nights where we have like, the bar was licensed for 800 and we had about 1800 events. Some nights so breaking rules as you do in those early days, two nights where I kid you not we had like five people come through. I was at the door some nights and my now wife was at the door and my cousin and his fiance, very family business, break your heart, but we took it very personally. So it came to a moment where we’re doing these stupid hours weren’t getting much money. Things were falling apart because Ross got distracted because he had to and he was dealing before the nightclub stuff, spinning Mondays and Tuesdays at the police station because of incidents that were happening at the bar. And then I was there trying to keep the business alive and souls mental.
Wayne Lewis: So was that a catalyst for focusing on something more true to your heart at that point?
David Fastuca: That was a reset moment. I’ll never forget the chat we had and we looked at each other and we’re like, we’re gonna give this another crack. Or are we just gonna go get full-time jobs, work half as much and probably earn more? What was the worst-case scenario in anything that we do? We’re like, what is the worst that can happen? And we are very fortunate here in this beautiful country, we can easily take a chance. And if all fails you can go back and get a job, until we experience other cultures and other countries, we are so lucky that we can do that and do that relatively easily. So they take a chance to go and pursue a passion to pursue a dream. It’s a privilege that we all have. If we don’t do that, if we don’t take that chance, then it’s like, why are we living for to help someone else’s life? Like if you’ve got a dream, you’ve got a burning desire, we can all take that chance because the worst-case scenario ain’t that bad. So we sat down and we and we had that chat with each other. And we’re like, let’s give it another crack. We went to an event, and we met these two guys who do an anti-energy drink. So it’s like a relaxing drink called ESC calm in a can. Two awesome guys sat next to them we hit it off. So they will bring in this product in market. The first and Australia was big in the US. They had investment to produce the products, quite a cost a lot of money to bring something like that out. But they don’t have any money for the marketing for the branding for the digital side. So at that stage, we had a bit of spare time as will rebuild the business. And we said, well, if we put a few days to this project, rather than charging, you will take $1 a can everything we sell online, they loved it, because it’s like, well, it’s a win-win for them, they get a business and online thing, and we get an opportunity to potentially make more money than what we’re gonna charge them. Little did we know that they told their investor that these two crazy leads were going to put in all their time for potentially selling the drinks online and making some money back. He loved it. He’s like, these guys are putting skin in the game, little did we know that they were getting quotes for 100 grand hundred 50 grand to bring their business online. So instantly that investor wanted to meet with us. We connected really well. And look Ross and I always had the belief that we could do anything. We just need the opportunity. We didn’t have the network. We didn’t have the people around us at that stage, entrepreneurship wasn’t even really a word back then it was just like we did businesses because our family, our dads started businesses, so we thought that that was what you did. But entrepreneurship and all that sort of rage now word. I don’t think we even heard it back then. So we met with this guy, we connected instantly, and he worked out of this mansion in St. Kilda. It was like your first sort of CO working space, but it was just the businesses that he was involved with. So he invited us over and he said, look, move in here, rent-free, and we’ll see what happens. I like you guys. I like you back yourselves. You’ve got great work ethic, and let’s see what happens. And then that was the moment that changed a lot of things for Ross and I, because that’s when opportunities start to happen. And that was where Locomote was born out of in that stage.
Wayne Lewis: What was then your main focus at that time? Did you have to really fine-tune what you were working on at that time?
David Fastuca: Because we’ve been burned in the past, our focus was still split. So Locomote was a corporate travel platform. So businesses, when they need to travel interstate or internationally would use a platform like ours, to get approvals and to book the trips, think of it like webjet, but for corporates at that stage, it was still very early, we hadn’t really proven the model. All we really did was a pitch deck. And we started to get some sales in before we learned a code, but even still, then Ross and I were hesitant to let go of all the work that we’d built on the side. So the thing was in 2011-12, that summer if you visited locomote.com you’d see branding, websites, marketing, corporate travel software, you know, so the split was there when we change and when we really focus was probably when we started to hire engineers into the company to focus on Locomote. And then we just went, you know, we can’t do this, no more splitting our focus because I was running that while Ross was focusing on the product side and I was doing all the design work for the product side. So we thought, you know, here’s our chance with an opportunity we said four years ago, we want to work in a product And build a team around that and try and build a global business out of it. Here’s our opportunity. Let’s take a gamble. So what will we end up doing is cutting loose of all these other clients who have been with us since we were 14 some of them. And that was a big moment because it was a big decision to make because once you cut them and sell them off to someone else, you can go back to that. But that was the moment we’ll be focused on the software product.
Wayne Lewis: So can you talk a little bit about where you are today, your day to day activities?
David Fastuca: Sure. So we exited Locomote in August of this year, and then just went straight into a new business. It happened over a period of time. A friend of ours, the co-founder of Ambisie, Liz. Approached us in January with an idea and she’d been running project Gen Z, who is a social enterprise. And what they do is they run programs within schools and teach students life skills and entrepreneurship. And then once a year, she’ll get 20 entrepreneurs from Australia and business owners and takes them to Cambodia and we go to the Sunrise Village which is a youth village and we would share our stories, our skill sets, and then over the last three days run and print this challenge, like the TV show. And what she found should be done for four years now was that the storytelling part when we got up and when we shared our story that had a lot of impact on the students, it gave them motivation, inspiration. But the issue was been in event-based type business, it was hard to scale. So when she approached us, and I was mortified to get some ideas on how she could build something in a technology way, because she knew that was our experience, on how to have more scale in that. And we got kids, I got three Ross has got two, it’s something that sort of struck a chord with us. And as we spoke to more, more people, if I keep saying like, I wish I had something in school that gave me more exposure to different careers and shared more stories, because when you’re a young person, you don’t have a network like we do now. And even now we struggle to build big networks. So it’s like how could we put that on tap for a young person when they’re studying from grade six. So the idea sort of similar way. And then it turned into what it is now in Ambisie and Ambisie’s the South African word for ambition. And what we’re trying to do with Ambisie’s connect students with local talents, but not just local people from all over the world where they share their stories. They share what their education life was like, they share what their journey was, like from school to get into the career and now to help inspire them to motivate them. So now you’ve combined that passion. And we’re delivering that in a video model that schools can subscribe to and share with their students.
Wayne Lewis: And just a little bit about time management. So now, are you able to manage your time more effectively? Can you talk a little bit about work-life balance view and what that looks like?
David Fastuca: So jealous after looking at Ben’s process, and how strict that is. At the moment now, in the early days, you’re wearing so many hats. We’re very fortunate that we got three very capable founders with very different skill sets. So now we’re dividing and conquering in each different area. There’s a lot of trust between us three, we’ve known each other for a long time, especially Ross and I. So now we’re just trying to start set ourselves like a sort of weekly sort of goals. We touch base every week as to what we’re doing who needs help, but it’s still at the moment finding your feet. Because we it’s those early days, we still don’t know the right sort of growth model yet what’s gonna work, but a lot of trial and error, but we’re accepting of that. I’ll be patient, probably not. It’s a hard thing to be patient, but we just know that this is part of the journey. We’re giving ourselves a good timeline to get to where we want to get to, and we’re just trying to get as fast as we can.
Wayne Lewis: So guys can we have a round of applause for David Fastuca of Ambisie.
Serpil Senelmis: Wow, David’s bound to life sounds a bit like a roller coaster, though, it does sound like the ups are outnumbering the downs, which is good news. Thanks, David. And thank you, Ben. Next time on Master Series, we’ll wrap up the year with the intriguing phrase, “If I had known then what I know now”. As I said at the beginning of this episode, several of our speakers have said if they knew what was involved in setting up a business and may have kept their day jobs, well hear from a couple of founders who regret nothing about starting up, but they might have some good advice for their former selves. Until then, I’m Serpil Senelmis from Written and Recorded and for WeTeachMe, this is the Master’s Series.
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