If you’re a creative person and you’re looking to build a website, find some art for your project, or music to use in a multimedia production - chances are you’ve found yourself looking for templates or small pieces of pre-made works you can use. And in your journey you’ve likely come across a marketplace like ThemeForrest, AudioJungle, or Graphic River and the company behind those marketplaces is Envato. Collis Ta'eed is the CEO and co-founder of Envato and in this episode shares the story of how Envato bootstrapped their way to global success.
About This Episode
Kris: From Lawson Media - This is Building A Unicorn, the show exploring what it takes to build a big global business. I’m Kristofor Lawson.
Kris: If you’re a creative person and you’re looking to build a website, find some art for your project, or music to use in your multimedia production - chances are you’ve found yourself looking for templates or small pieces of premade works that you can use. And in your journey you’ve likely come across a website like ThemeForrest, AudioJungle, or Graphic River - marketplaces where you can purchase templates or pre-made art to use in your production. And the company behind those marketplaces is Envato.
Kris: Collis Ta'eed is the CEO and co-founder of Envato and although the company is based in Melbourne, Australia - Collis actually grew up in Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea.
Collis Ta'eed: I'm English in the sense that I was born in England. I'm not a particularly English person. I was born in Yorkshire in Doncaster which I've never been to since but people tell me it doesn't have a lot there except for a racetrack and some night clubs and then I grew up in Papua New Guinea in Port Moresby from like age three to 17 when I came here to Australia for university.... Papua New Guinea is an amazing country, very beautiful country. It has, I guess like every country, a lot going on in the sense that it's dealing with a lot of change. When we moved there, it was like 1982 and it'd only been seven years since Australia had left as the sort of colonial governance of the country.
Collis Ta'eed: So it was really changing rapidly and by the time I left... I can remember, at age 16, there'd be curfews at night time so if you were out after 6:00, you'd, I guess, go to prison, which I was like, "Oh, that's normal. There's a curfew on." Later in life, I'm like, "That's not normal. That's a very strange experience." So yeah, it was a very beautiful country but with a lot of change happening and you know some security stuff and some stuff in the sense of just people adjusting to very different ways of life. Like when I was growing up, we had a house mary, is what they would call them. So it's someone who would come in and work in the house and she didn't speak any English. They spoke Motu which is one of the trading languages in Papua New Guinea... My mother could speak fluent Motu and so she and [inaudible], the woman, could communicate but everybody else would sort of sign language things but she could remember when the white man arrived. It was in her living memory that the world had changed and at that... That level of difference and history all in one lifetime is just kind of mind bubbling, really.
Kris: Papua New Guinea is a country with a population of just over 8 million people - although when Collis and his family lived there the population was closer to 5 million. It was a country that had just reached its independence and was now finding it’s own feet. And when his family arrived, his dad took a job as a lecturer, before moving in to business.
Collis Ta'eed: A professor at a university in computer science. So he had a computer science background and this is computer science which is in some ways a little different from the computer science today. I remember him saying one of his early jobs, he wore a lab coat. What you imagine now and you're like, "What's a development team look like?" And by the time he got to Papua New Guinea, he was teaching and then sort of joined the central bank there and eventually was recruited as a managing director, I think was the actual title, for a pretty small little tech company that had the licence to distribute IBM in Papua New Guinea. And that grew under his tenure from like 10, 15 people to a few hundred so yeah he did that.
Collis Ta'eed: And growing up I was always like, "I'm never gonna do that. I'm not gonna do anything to do with computers or business." And then, by… some sort of weird psychological something or other, I've ended up doing something very similar and I suppose when you grow up with somebody... He would always tell us stories about what I've now recognised as business strategy. "Oh, this other company, they're doing this thing. We're gonna change the pricing and we're gonna do that." I suppose, growing up with that sort of background, maybe it must've sunk in at some point.
Collis Ta'eed: My mom was limited in her ability to work in Papua New Guinea because of the way the Visa structure was but she was very proficient in languages but growing up, she already spoke Farsi and some Arabic and when she went to Papua New Guinea, learned Motu and did translations and things like that.
Kris: What was school like? Were you a good student?
Collis Ta'eed: I was a good student. School was nice, actually. Years later, I met my now wife Cyan and we would sort of compare our school experiences and she went to an all girls school in Sydney. Darlinghurst. And I went to what is a… kind of high standard of education… In Papua New Guinea, we had something called a house wind which literally translates to a house of wind and it's basically a ... I suppose you'd think of it as just the roof and some poles from the building because that's like a way to keep cool.
Collis Ta'eed: The wind blows through. My memory of school is sitting in a house wind at lunch time in what was a perpetually warm sort of environment with a very multi-cultural kind of school. We had a school which had some people from Papua New Guinea but also had kids from all around the world. Lots of Africans. Lots of ... We had Americans and heaps of Australians and just people from all over the place and consequently, it had a sort of nice United Nations vibe going on which was good.
Collis Ta'eed: I think towards the end, maybe, I got a little rebellious. One day, I decided to free the mice. The biology class had a snake and they would feed mice to it and I got it into my head that I needed to go free them so I'd get into some trouble doing things like that. There was also... A friend and I decided that we would start bringing soft drinks into the school. That was not a thing you could get at school and Papua New Guinea's not like here. You didn't just wander down to a shop. And so things you could get in school were limited and so we came up with a plan that we would go to the Coke factory. We would buy a whole bunch of soft drinks, we would bring them in, and sell them at lunch time.
Kris: How'd that go?
Collis Ta'eed: It went pretty good. It went especially good when Coke in Papua New Guinea launched a set of cans which had a bonus 30% and we just charged 30% more. Same cost to us and I mean, a lot of the funds we would give to the student councils that'd run our sort of student events and things. But yeah, that was maybe one of my first, I guess, entrepreneurial activities, like trying to figure out how to source Coke. How to sell it, how to price, how to get a freezer, how to like get everything organised at school. And being that... every student was a bit starved of delicious things. It was very successful.
Kris: As Collis completed school and looked at his options for further study he realised the local university just didn’t have that many good courses for him to study outside of tropical medicine. His brother was already living in Sydney, so he decided it was time for a change. So he made the move to Australia where he would have more choices.
Collis Ta'eed: So yeah, I came to Australia and studied maths. That's what I'd signed up to. I was good at maths and I was like ... At that time in life, I had no particular aspirations what I was gonna do. So I was like, "I guess I should just do something I'm good at" so I signed up to maths and on our orientation day, some random guy that I just met was like, "Don't do just maths. You should stick something on it, like what about computer science?" And so, in some sort of last minute thing, I managed to get computer science into my degree and ultimately, that was kind of helpful, I think. Just to give me some foundations for what would later be a career in tech.
Kris: But despite being a good student at school, Collis says he wasn’t a great student at university. As he approached the end of his degree, he didn’t really know what he wanted to do with his life… so he started thinking about a different career.
Collis Ta'eed: I had a flatmate, a best friend, who'd actually come from Papua New Guinea as well who was a web designer. He'd studied design and I always used to think, "That looks like a lot more fun than what I've been doing" and so I got a bootleg copy of Photoshop and started teaching myself. And then, eventually started learning how to design and… I got a job as a guy who made sandwiches and coffee and then it was in a really quiet store so when nobody was there, I would read magazines about design and just teach myself stuff. And eventually managed to trade that for an actual job as a designer but I had a lot of imposter syndrome. I was really like, "I'm not a real designer. I'm this undercover math guy."
Kris: What kind of stuff were you designing?
Collis Ta'eed: A lot of websites, I guess. And I used to write Photoshop tutorials. Like it's really wrong, really, 'cause I was just barely learning myself. Sometimes I think when you're going on your own learning journey, you start being like, "Oh, I'll teach other people who are in this same sort of space as me." So I would design just anything, really. Posters. Websites. I would learn to do neat little effects and yeah, but I didn't feel like I was an actual designer and so eventually, I went and got a second degree.
Kris: Somewhere during this period of time, you met your wife, Cyan. So tell me about that. When did you guys meet?
Collis Ta'eed: So yeah, I was studying my second degree at UTS, interactive multimedia. I don't remember. A random email came in from the Australian Graphic Designers Association, AGDA, and they were starting a student group, like a student council for student designers and I ... I was like, "I need to meet more girls." I need to break out of my regular social circle so I was like, "I'm just gonna go to this thing and see." If you know me, I'm actually extremely introverted. The idea that I would go to a place where I knew nobody was kind of like a strange thing to do, actually. A bit out of character. And I went along and there was a woman who was kind of leading. She was kind of chairing things and her name was Cyan which is, for anyone who studies designers, the best name ever as it's the name of a colour and she seemed to be all that and I think I immediately kind of hit it off with her a little and asked her out on a date. She said, "No." I asked again, got there eventually.
Kris: So what attracted to her?
Collis Ta'eed: That's an interesting question. I've never been asked that question. Never been asked that on a podcast before. I think what attracted me to Cyan was really that ... I liked that she was confident and that she is a little more like extroverted than I am and was kind of in charge, is how I want to say. I remember rocking up and she seemed to be the leader of the group. Was kind of running the agenda and I just remember thinking that was awesome. I liked a woman who knew what she was about... and she looks great too and all those kinds of things. And over time, I've learned that she's also super kind and honest and all kinds of nice things but the thing that attracted me to her was just straight out confidence.
Kris: Coming up after the break…. Cyan and Collis begin their journey together, both in life, and in business.
Kris: This is Building A Unicorn, I’m Kristofor Lawson.
Kris: After Collis met Cyan it didn’t take that long before things started getting serious. Cyan was still studying when they met and as they were both designers - eventually the question came up of whether they should start freelancing… and also whether they should get married.
Collis Ta'eed: She was the daughter of a freelance photographer so I think it was kind of a natural path for her and we began freelancing. We got married. We got married at ... She was 23, 24, and I was 25, 26. That sort of age. It's so hard to remember now but we got married and we had really just kicked off this kind of freelancing in earnest, maybe six months prior. And having gotten married, we kind of had this, I guess, sort of life conversation. "So what is it you want in life?" Cyan was really like, "I want to travel the world." That was super important to her and I was like, "I'd like to work on something." I feel like that's something ... "I just really want to work on a thing."
Collis Ta'eed: And as freelancers, at that time, we were sort of graphic design freelancers so you would do a lot of needing to see clients where you would show them print samples and you would ... We had the kind of clients that ... We had a client that was like the local government association. It wasn't like a, "No problem, we'll work on someone who's on the other side of the world." We had really in person, physical clients. And so we kind of came to the conclusion that that was probably not the best plan for if you wanted to travel. And so we started kicking around the idea of starting an online company 'cause "how hard could that be and then we could just be wherever the hell we wanted to be and work on it?"
Collis Ta'eed: So yeah, it was around that time that we came up with the idea that we would start a marketplace. I'd been selling some stuff on iStock Photo which was a marketplace for photography, primarily. And so Cyan and I had experiments along with my best friend Jun who's the designer I used to room with who had Photoshop way back when. We would trial really silly things. One day, Jun and I put on suit jackets and took a photo of our hands shaking so it would... Try uploading a stock photo. Business!
Kris: Did anyone buy it?
Collis Ta'eed: They did. It was our bestseller. It was such a cliché photo. And just being who we were, it was such cheap suits as well. Anyhow, I'm sure that photo's somewhere, still out there. But we sort of kicked around the idea of, "What if we started our own marketplace" and maybe we'd specialise more in Flash design which was a thing that was happening at that time and I had sold a bit of Flash and so I kind of knew that people were interested in it. Jun, when he heard about the idea was like, "Yeah, I'd put some money into that and work on it. That sounds like a fun thing."
Collis Ta'eed: And so, one thing led to another and we wrote a ... I wrote what is not a good business plan. I literally ... So I went to a news agent, bought a book about how to write a business plan, followed it for about a third of the way, gave up when I got to the bit about financials, and was just like, "Oh, I'm sure it'll be fine."
Collis Ta'eed: Spent an inordinate amount of time planning all of the stuff that we would put on the website. Stuff that, today in the era of lean startups when they're like, "What is the minimum viable?" This was not the minimum. This was the thing you make when you probably don't know what you're doing. But we had... the thing we did know, I guess, was making online products 'cause we had made websites for other people and so we had some skills and it turns out just enough skills, I think, to actually get something going. We needed a back end developer and so I put a job ad up on Seek and a guy I actually knew wrote, sent me an email, saying, "Pick me, pick me." And I was like, "Oh, Ryan." I haven't seen that guy for a while and so we chatted to him and he pitched us on using a particular developing framework called Ruby and we got started.
Collis Ta'eed: It was initially... I hired him for eight weeks. It was like, "It'll be eight weeks. Eight weeks, we'll build the thing. It'll be finished. We'll start making money. Cyan and I will travel." And that was the plan. It did not turn out that way, of course.
Kris: That fun thing eventually became Envato - but in the early days Collis, Cyan, and Jun were building a site that allowed people to purchase premade templates for Adobe Flash… it was a marketplace app… so they decided to call it Flash Den.
Collis Ta'eed: Yes, it was called Flash Den. Quite an unfortunate name, really. So we sold Flash. I wanted it to be called Flash Fox just 'cause I thought foxes were cool and I had this little logo idea for a fox tail. We saw a lawyer so I had enough sense to go, "Oh, we should go see a lawyer about trademarks and stuff" and he was like, "Oh, fox is very litigious. You probably shouldn't use fox." Don't know why he didn't point out that Flash was the trademark of a product we were selling. We had to learn that later but yeah, I'd already designed the little fox tail. I was like, "Oh, we'll just go with where foxes live. It'll be a den." But I kind of recall going to a bank one time and the bank teller being like, "What kind of website is this?" 'Cause it sounded really like an adult website. But a very unsavoury adult website.
Kris: Flash Den, yeah.
Collis Ta'eed: But yeah, so we ran with that name. We launched it and it just took a bit longer than we had expected.
Kris: Around this time in the mid-2000s, Adobe Flash was the backbone of many websites. If you’re old enough you’ll remember seeing a rise in these animated, interactive sites… and because Flash was such a popular thing, the templates on Flash Den started getting real traction as soon as they launched. But actually getting to that point took a little longer than the eight weeks they had planned
Collis Ta'eed: Yeah, it's funny that looking back now, I realise that, "Wow, they were immediately interested.” At the time, so we ended up working on it for six months, not the eight weeks I'd originally envisioned and by the time we got there and ... Maybe this is true for other creators as well. By the time we launched, it's like I imagined everybody else in the world had been on the same six month journey of thinking it wasn't gonna happen and then it came together and then we launched and so I think I imagined on day one they'd all show up ready to spend, being excited that we'd made this thing. But, of course, the reality is nobody had heard of anything of this product.
Collis Ta'eed: So on day one, we did actually get some traffic and we made a sale on the first 24 hours to someone somewhere in the world. I had no idea where. And I remember being bummed out that, "$10, that's all we got." But now, looking back, I'm like, "Wow, someone got out there wallet on the very first day. That's actually, like, a really good sign." And given we had no presence, no marketing, no... All we did was we had this strategy that we would try to appear in places that designers went so it was a marketplace for people who were into Flash design which, as you say, was really big back then. And so we designed the site so that it would be featured in design galleries and so that brought some of that early traffic. And so yeah, it picked up pretty quick, actually, in retrospect.
Kris: The site launched in August of 2006… with that one, $10 sale… but by the end of 2006 they were make $1000 a week.
Collis Ta'eed: Our part of that was like a half and then there was five of us. So it wasn't exactly like, "Wow, we can actually eat from this" but it was growing quite quickly and...
Kris: How were you getting the word out?
Collis Ta'eed: So we did a lot of guerrilla marketing tactics. We would just try anything. I was of the opinion that we should try absolutely every single thing we could think of. We had no money but we had time. I was early 20s, mid 20s, and no children and not a lot of responsibilities and I had a proclivity to just work endlessly and so I would just go, "Oh, let's try getting into design galleries. We'll try to go onto forums." We tried buying some really cheap ads. Advertising was a little bit cheaper back then. There was just less competition. I tried to get onto social media. I've been kicked off all sorts of social media platforms in my years for various spam type tactics that I've tried.
Collis Ta'eed: I would try like content marketing. We would try networking, actually going to leave comments on other people's sites. A bunch of stuff I've probably forgotten now as well… I would create little campaigns. Like after we had a few items on the site, I created a show room out of them and then we used that to get into more galleries. We gave away a whole bunch of free credits to try to simulate real customer interest so that sellers... 'Cause this is a two-sided marketplace we're talking about. So that sellers would get excited and then put more stuff. But ultimately, the tactic that worked the best for us was just developing an organic search profile. And it's sort of inherent to marketplaces. Digital marketplaces naturally favour lots and lots of content, lots and lots of content from lots and lots of people, and those people naturally put in different keywords into the things they're selling.
Collis Ta'eed: And you're gonna get picked up by organic search quite well. So that really, I think, was the engine that drove things. But yeah, in terms of just hard starting the business, it was like we just do whatever we can think of and see if it'll stick.
Kris: The interesting thing about marketplaces is to be successful at them you generally need a lot of products to sell. And in the early days Collis, Jun, and Cyan were having to create all of that content themselves.
Collis Ta'eed: So we did need to pick one of the two sides of the marketplace and the natural one is that sale side. How do you put some content in there so that customers are interested? And the content for us, we started with four categories. Flash, video, audio, and fonts, and really, it was all about the Flash bit. The other three categories were pretty limited. Audio was mostly sound effects. Jun, my best friend, went around with a little handheld mic and just recorded weird sounds. Clicks and pats and taps and what have you and they would be used for buttons or swooshes or whatnot. Flash had a lot more animation in it so that was kind of relevant. But the actual Flash stuff, I made quit a bit of the early stuff. It wasn't particularly good. It was alright though and that was enough to launch on day one and then…
Collis Ta'eed: So we had a little bit of money. So we had...between the three of us, we had close to $30,000 that we put into the business during that time. We put in a lot more hours and we used to tally our hours so that later, eventually, the business could pay us back in some way. But we had a little bit of money and we needed to use it judiciously. We used quite a bit on the developer. We used a bit on seeding content so we would pay a few people to incentivize them to upload stuff or to create stuff that we didn't naturally know how to make.
Kris: So this was all cash that you had available to put into the business or were you just sort of leveraging your credit cards?
Collis Ta'eed: It was whatever we could manage. There went all of our savings and then a bit of Jun's savings and then credit cards and then, like I said, the whole time we kept freelancing and we, being, I guess, mid 20s, didn't have a particularly like highbrow lifestyle or anything. And so we would just really minimise our normal expenditures and put in any money we could. We ended up getting kicked out of our house and we went and lived with her parents and that helped. Basically, whatever we could do, we did, which, I think, is I guess pretty typical. The thing is now, you look back and you feel like, "Oh yeah, that was a great investment." At the time, especially close to launch when I wasn't sure we would actually launch, it felt really like, "God, we're just wasting everything we have here. We're gonna be those people who just burned all their savings and then ended up with nothing."
Collis Ta'eed: And having just gotten married, I guess I was already in the mindset of, "Wow, I should be trying to prepare for the future in some way." So yeah, it was a bit scary at the time in that sense.
Collis Ta'eed: Very stressful. I mean in general, the entire process of everything to do with Envato... I have a tendency of looking back and remembering all the stress. There was lots of fun bits too but maybe it's just my personality but I dislike looking at photos of anything to do with work during that time. And when I say during that time, I mean the entire decade 'cause I just remember, "Oh, that was near that time that thing happened" or "that thing happened." I think that when you look back at probably anything that's been successful, certainly when I look back at the business which has been successful, it's really easy to imagine you always knew it was gonna be successful but instead, in reality, at least for me, I spent the whole time thinking, "At any moment now, this whole thing's gonna like collapse in a heap. It's a bit of a house of cards"
Collis Ta'eed: Even when we had stuff, even when we're growing, even when we're profitable. I was perpetually fearful that, "Oh, around the next corner will be some sort of like financial disaster and next thing you know, I'll be laying people off." So I look back with definitely feelings of stress and in those early, especially that first year of so, I remember at night time, I would try to go... Going to sleep and doing this, I guess, anxiety thing of counting money. Being like, "Okay, there's that much in that savings account and there's the credit card is not due for this much time. If I just get that thing and that invoice I collect ... " It's just horrible.
Kris: How did you decide on responsibility and who was doing what? How did you split that up?
Collis Ta'eed: I think responsibilities felt reasonably natural. For a lot of it, I was doing all the design and front end and had a sort of natural interest in market and Cyan was a natural project manager. Jun, at first, was actually not an operator. He was just like, "I'll put of money in. I have a bit of savings and I'll put that in." And then in a little while, we were like, "Actually, we need someone to go deal with bank tellers who think we're running an adult website and we need somebody to actually manage support." And he quickly got sucked into the business.
Collis Ta'eed: And Cyan would just kind of make sure things were running, ensure that our freelance business didn't fall over while we were doing this 'cause we were effectively running two jobs, two businesses. We kept freelancing for maybe a year and a half 'cause there's no way that a new startup was gonna actually foot the bill. So it was just a period of a lot of work, really.
Kris: Did you ever feel like giving up?
Collis Ta'eed: I felt like giving up a little close to the actual launch, around like month five. Our developer had gone AWOL for a little bit. He moved back to Melbourne 'cause he was from Melbourne which is a long story about how we eventually actually ended up here. But he went AWOL. The site wasn't finished. We burned through most of our money and it was starting to look like... Maybe this was just a really bad idea. We were living with Cyan's parents and around then, I did, I have to say, I felt like giving up... Once we launched, literally on the day of launch, I went off and registered more domain names to make more market places.
Collis Ta'eed: So by that point, I think I was starting to get excited again and once we actually saw money coming in, by December when we were seeing that $1,000 a week, I think, at that point, I was like, "This is an actual thing." It's not a big stretch of the imagination to imagine it paying our salaries. And that was our early aspiration, was just, "Let's make a thing that can pay our salary and we don't need to be in a particular place to work on it." So it wasn’t like... there was no point in time where we sat down and went, "Imagine if in the future, we have hundreds of people working for us." It was not like that. It was just a, "What if we could get to that point just over there?"
Kris: Seeing the money roll in allowed Cyan and Collis to really think about their dream of travelling the world whilst having their business cover the expenses… and in 2008, just a year and a half after starting the company, they packed up their things and started travelling, leaving Collis’ brother to run the business.
Collis Ta'eed: Cyan and I had a little garage sale, got rid of all of our stuff. It wasn't a lot of stuff. By that point, we had managed to move out of Cyan's parents' house though. So we had a bit of stuff and we had two suitcases and that was all we kept with stuff in them, obviously. We left the country, went to Hong Kong and then to Canada and France and just a bunch of... It wasn't a very well planned trip. For a year, we travelled, and during that time, I'd managed to convince my brother, my older brother, Vaheed, who had moved to Australia before me to join... He'd just finished his PHD in Physics and was…
Collis Ta'eed: It turned out there's this thing in academia where if you want to be taken really seriously, you need to leave the country and work in another country first, which is kind of strange, really. So he was like, "I guess I need to leave and go do some post-doctorate stuff, somewhere in the UK or the US or what have you." And I don't think he was especially excited about it and so we convinced him to join our capitalist business and leave the world of academics behind. And then, of course, Cyan and I left the country and were like, "Oh, by the way, you're in charge."
Collis Ta'eed: And so around that time, we needed a second developer and our first one, who'd moved back to Melbourne already, was like, "I know somebody" and so Vaheed moved down to Melbourne and set up our office here. And after a year of travelling, I remember getting a phone call. We were in Paris at the time and he was like, "You really need to come back. There's seven people working here now and you've never met any of them and this is getting a little weird." And so we came back to Australia and just moved to Melbourne.
Kris: If the idea of two company founders jetting off around the world sounds a little unusual... That’s because it is. In the early days of the business, Collis and Cyan just wanted to build something that would allow them the freedom to travel… and that desire meant that they were much more open to hiring remote workers and building a company that could operate no matter where they were.
Collis Ta'eed: Yeah, it was a bit weird, actually, that we were not there. We also, by that point, had remote staff as well though. So very early on, being a business that was started by people who wanted to travel, it didn't occur to me that you're not supposed to just start hiring people anywhere and so I would hire people to... The developers, I got into my head they should all be together, the software developers. But like when we needed someone to run a site or to review content, we would just hire from our own forums. We had little forums going that had a nascent little community and we would hire people, and so they would just be all over the place.
Kris: During this time the company started expanding into other verticals. They were making enough cash that Collis and Cyan could stop freelancing.. But Collis being someone who hates to be bored - started using his newfound time to write blog posts about Photoshop.
Collis Ta'eed: ...after we started the first marketplace, there was a time period where it had started to... It was still a lot of work but I was no longer freelancing and all of a sudden, I was like, "Oh, I have more time" and so I just started making new things. So yeah, I got into my head that we would... Like those home renovation shows where they buy a house and then they fix it up and sell it. I was like, "Yeah, we should do that but for websites with our skills. We could buy dumpster files of websites, fix them up, and sell them. It'll be awesome."
Collis Ta'eed: I bought one. Let Cyan know, who was like, "Oh man, what are you doing? Why have you just blown $1,400 on this thing?" It really wasn't awesome. It was this little Photoshop tutorial site and the Photoshop tutorials were terrible and the name wasn't very good. Yeah, I fixed it up and when I say "fixed it up", I mean in the end I deleted everything and just started a brand new site on a domain name I never... And still to this day don't like. Turned out I wasn't very good at it. Aside from that part of not being good at it, I also wasn't good at letting go. Once I'd made it and... I think 'cause there wasn't many Photoshop tutorials around at that time, it got picked up on the Reddit of its day, a site called Digg. And a few other places and traffic started coming in.
Collis Ta'eed: And so that became a thing and to this day, we still run that site. It's now called Tuts Plus and has millions of people visit it every month. At that time, it was me writing tutorials until I decided I couldn't write tutorials anymore so I put up an ad, saying, "Looking for other people's right tutorials" and hired somebody in Florida, I think. Was the first guy to sort of take over but meanwhile, Cyan and I, with our depth of not doing a very good job as freelancers, decided to start a site called FreelanceSwitch to teach people how to be freelancers. Then one day, 'cause I'd gotten into blogging, I was like, "Blogging could be a thing that people do for social good" and so we started a site called Blog Action DAy where on one day a year, we would get blogs all around the world to post on a particular topic and so [that became stupidly ... The day I chose was the day of our wedding anniversary.
Collis Ta'eed: It was actually the day after but it depends on time zones and later, we were in time zones where it was the actual day of our anniversary but we ran that for a few years. Every year. And this was... like the White House blog participated, the United Nations, one of their subgroups got involved.
Kris: As the company launched their second marketplace, it became clear that it was time for a change of name. FlashDen would become a thing of the past… so they started searching for a new name for the company, one which could sit above all the marketplaces they were creating and not lock them in to producing content about Flash.
Collis Ta'eed: We started to realise, well, we needed some way to refer to all these things and we wanted to have a little drop down that tells you you could switch sites and stuff. We needed a name. I had the idea that... well Ii's all these marketplaces we were starting had this weird convention of an animal and a place an animal lives until we discovered that a lot of animals live in holes and are like swamps and things. GifHole didn't seem like a very good ... Probably ran with our tradition of unsavoury names but it didn't seem like a great brand name. But before we came to that realisation, we'd already knocked out AudioJungle and VideoHive and what have you.
Collis Ta'eed: So I was like, "Oh, these animals. Maybe they live in a garden. We'll call it Eden." We tried to trademark it, discovered that was quite difficult to do, and so went to a site called Brand Bucket that just sells made up names. And we found Envato.com.
Kris: Your business was growing fairly rapidly, even as you were travelling in terms of the value that was coming into the business. How did you sort of manage that growth in the site?
Collis Ta'eed: Yeah, so things did spiral up quickly. The... When we hit that first thousand dollars a week mark back in December, 2006, I remember sending an email to the whole team, saying, "You know what? This time next year, we're gonna get to $19,000" and it was because $19,000 times 52 weeks was $1,000,000 a year so I was like, "That's our goal." And one year later, we literally got to like $19,500 a week or something like that anyhow and I was like, "Wow, evidently it was my email." So I sent another email with another over the top growth target. Turned out it was not my email. It was just organic growth 'cause my next one, I was way off, but it does give you a sense of how fast things were growing. ‘Cause that was a 20 fold increase. The next year, it was a five fold increase and then with the loss and large numbers, the percentage year and year would slowly reduce but a lot of growth kept coming because we kept launching into new verticals and sites.
Collis Ta'eed: We launched it to Wordpress, the marketplace, which grew super quickly and there was sufficient depth, I guess, in the marketplaces that growth was quite sustaining for quite some years. In terms of how we managed it, there was a lot of hiring. We started to lean on my dad for general business advice. So around 2008 when Cyan and I were travelling, the GFC happened and having in mind that we trade in USD so all the transactions on our marketplaces are all American dollars and we were in Australia. And so we were doing some dumb things, like we would get USD. We would then transact it back into a bank account in Australia in Australian. And of course, our liability, the thing we owed people on the other side, was still in USD. And when currency started going cray cray during that period, it turned out that, "Oh, FX is a thing. You can make some really bad decisions".
Collis Ta'eed: And around that time, I remember being like, "Dad, I think we might need a little bit of advice on some basic things" and so he helped us find an accountant and start to just think about the business a little bit more, with a bit more structure. That helped a bit but honestly, a lot of the history, when I look back, was just a period of constantly having a fire somewhere and realising, "Oh, well we're going to have to like solve for that."
Collis Ta'eed: "Oh wow, we need to get new licences and all this legal work. Maybe we need to hire a lawyer." It wasn't like a plan. It wasn't like a... There was no cheat sheet going, "Okay, well, at this point, then you're gonna have to do x, y, z." It was just constantly trying to figure out stuff which is, I think, part of why I look back and think, "Wow, that was a stressful period" although there's no easy years even though, when you look at the business metrics like the revenue growth or what have you, then it seems like, "Well, must've been lots of easy years" in some ways. 'Cause things were growing often quite organically but being inside and being completely inexperienced? We were all like kind of novices at business. It was just constantly being challenged. Like you were perpetually pushed past your limit of things you knew.
Kris: Coming up after the break - Envato continues to rise… but a tech-giant sends them a cease and desist.
Kris: Welcome back to Building A Unicorn - I’m Kristofor Lawson.
Kris: Around 2009 - Envato is on a roll. They’ve got lots of users, plenty of cash coming in, and they’re now starting to sort out some of the business side of things, like trademarks. They were still running marketplaces like FlashDen and wanted to protect the value that they’d built… so they went through the trademarking process, and it was at this stage that they ran into a big problem… Adobe.
Collis Ta'eed: We got into our heads that we needed to trademark our name. We hadn't done it yet and so we applied for a trademark on Flash Den. And now, there's a lot of things that actually, since the company's gotten bigger, I've come to appreciate a bit more so now this seems like, "Of course this was gonna happen" but at the time, it just flew right over my head that this might happen. But Adobe decided, "We can't let you trademark our trademark, that doesn't make any sense.” and so they would've told their lawyers who would've sent their council. "Hey, go take care of this." Now, knowing what I know, it's kind of typical for legal council to go, "Well, we gotta go in really strong and make sure that they have the fear of God put into them."
Collis Ta'eed: So they dropped this whole plan. And so that's where we go. We got a letter which was, "Your children will belong to us if you don't... " Not literally, in case anyone from Adobe's listening, don't stress. But yeah, enough to really panic me and at that time, with the lack of experience... I laugh about it now but at that time it was kind of scary. We're like, "whoa, there's this multibillion dollar company and they've sent a letter of demands saying that they need access to all of our financials and all kinds of stuff and maybe they're gonna use that to explain that we have been misusing their trademark"
Collis Ta'eed: So we changed the name of Flash Den. We completely changed the name of our main breadwinner. Changed its URL and everything. And it was okay. As it was, Flash was starting to come down and website themes for Wordpress were really going up so it turned out okay but it was quite terrifying. There was lots of moments of, like as they say, confusion. I look back now and think, "oh, I misunderstood big companies." There was a time we just started Flash Den and we wanted to get into audio next and our competitor, iStock Photo, which I actually had experience with, had suddenly announced they were gonna launch into audio and so we're like, "Oh no, this big company, they're gonna get there first."
Collis Ta'eed: And so we completely hustled, launched an audio marketplace in six weeks or something, and it took them a year and a half or two years and I remember being like, "I just don't understand. They're so big, they have so much resources. Why did it take them so long?" Now we're big, I'm like, "Oh, I get it, actually. Getting a large ship to do anything, it's not the same as when you're just in a little dinghy and you're like 'turn left' and you just turn left." When you're in a giant ship, sometimes actually corralling everybody and doing things to the standard you want to do them. It's actually quite time consuming and there's a lot of those kinds of lessons, I think, that…When you're small and you often fear the big companies and you imagine them to be more on the ball and more ready to throw all their resources behind things but when you're actually working in them... And we're no large company by any stretch of the imagination, but when you're getting a bit bigger, you realise that there's a lot more going on and you're a lot more likely to want to protect value, not just go and chase new value. And your operations are a bit slower and you have to convince people to do stuff. You can't just be like, "We're doing this now." I often think ... When I speak to newer founders who are in an environment which has got sort of a big incumbent that they shouldn't worry as much as they probably are about those big incumbents.
Kris: When I first saw Collis speak about Envato it was back in 2010 at a ProBlogger event in Melbourne. At the time they had less than 10 employees… and I was personally blown away by the progress they’d made with such a small team. It was already a place that was inspiring creative people around the world. But fast forward 8 years and the company now has more than 500 staff. They’re growing rapidly and the best part is, unlike other companies you hear about in tech and on this show, who raise a lot of cash to scale… Envato is privately owned, and they’ve never taken on outside investment to fuel that growth.
Kris: You've been a company that has been bootstrapped from day one. Did you ever consider taking on outside capital or were you just determined that, "We're gonna make this on our own?"
Collis Ta'eed: We have indeed been bootstrapped since day one and to this day so new debt and new investment. And I think there was times where I would ... 'Cause we would get emails all the time from big VCs and PEs and other acronyms. People with lots of money. And they are super nice... Super nice people always very helpful and ... 'Cause I think their industry is a relationship building one and so there was times where I was like curious as to how does this all work. Even to this day, when I meet founders who take an investment, I find it very curious. Like, "what's it like having investors and a board and how does... What do they decide? Are they nice? Are they mean? Are they..." And so I have natural curiosity but so much curiosity as to actually do it.
Collis Ta'eed: I think we were fortunate enough not to need to take money and I like control. And I enjoyed that we could control our destiny and not necessarily have external forces saying, "You need to be this size" or "You must take this decision. " Early on, we watched our competitor, iStock Photo, worsen the rates for their contributors. Out of every dollar, their community, their contributors would get less over time and we were in the position where we could go the opposite direction and it was very important to me that we could still do that because the easiest way to make money when you're a large sort of platform or marketplace is to just... When you have that much momentum, it's much harder for the many to act in unison.
Collis Ta'eed: And so you end up having a lot of flexibility to increase your prices and fees and I was always a bit worried that if we had... It's probably an unjustified worry, but I was always worried that if we had investors, we'd maybe have people acting in for different motivations, more just straight out financial motivations. As it is, I have a shareholding group who's super chilled out and is like, "Wow, this has turned out way better than any of us expected. Great." As opposed to a group where like, "This isn't the 10x that we were expecting and you need to move harder." Instead, we can still push harder as a company but it's for reasons that are mission motivated or purpose led. Like we want to do a better job for our user base and our staff and our stakeholders, not necessarily just to achieve a particular financial return.
Kris: What's been the most challenging thing that you've had to learn whilst building a team? 'Cause it's a lot different running a 10 person company to running a 100 person company.
Collis Ta'eed: Yeah. It really is. At that sort of 10 person company size, I often felt like we were a product team… and that was something I sort of understood. The different roles and actually creating something. Once you start getting bigger and that 100 person size, maybe even a bit before that, you begin having roles who aren't... They're not makers. They're kind of helping lead and shepherd and steward things and that's quite different once you start introducing those layers. At this point, there's multiple types of roles that are far from the customer frontline. There are roles that are strategy or analysts or roles with are almost sort of meta roles. And I think going from that, moving from those two worlds was quite challenging for me. There's this long period of time where I used to think I was being unproductive unless I was creating.
Collis Ta'eed: So like If I wasn't designing, if I was doing something like email or helping unblock other people, this is like, "This is a waste of time. The only true productivity is creation" and I had to get out of that mindset and start to understand that, "Hey, my job actually is email and communication and meetings." Being an introvert, meetings used to stress me out. Actually having to spend time chatting to people, I feel kind of stressed. The very first time I came to Melbourne and met... There was a team of seven people and I spent the day with them and it was so stressful that at the end of the day, I had a huge migraine, couldn't get on my flight home. It was just too much people. At this point, with hundreds of people, I've sort of beaten that down. Probably if you get seasick and you just spend a year on a boat, you probably get over it eventually. I've managed to beat down that part of myself.
Collis Ta'eed: But I think there's an adjustment to lots of human contact, I want to say, and an adjustment to what is productivity. And then, I think, as we grew to that sort of size where we started bringing in more executives, I think there was another big adjustment where... And this is not necessarily the same for every founder. Lots of them have worked in places but I haven't had a real experience working in a company with more than like 10 staff. So I didn't know what an HR team was, for instance. People... [I was] interviewing somebody, and they were like, "So my KPI's blah blah" and I was like, "What's a KPI? I don't know this phrase." And that would happen all the time. They'd be like, "So what's the product manager do?" I'm like, "I don't know what a product manager is."
Collis Ta'eed: They're like, "Oh, do you have producers or business analysts?" I was like, "I don't know what any of these you're talking about are" and so there was this time period where ... What I found challenging was actually just ... I started assuming everyone else would know better. So we would start to hire senior people and I had this real attitude and mindset of, "Well, you're the executive senior experienced person. I guess I should just start listening to you." And it was a weird, awkward dynamic because people want leadership so first of all, when the leader's like, "I don't know", like "what am I doing?" I just had this whole other bout of basically imposter syndrome for this period of time. And I don't think it worked very well.
Collis Ta'eed: A, I think you do need to trust yourself, B, you have to be open to learning. I think it's bad if you're like, "I know everything" but I do think you also need to have some belief in your own insights and views and confidence that you're gonna try to make things in a certain way. But also, I think that was one part of it and then the other part was having to learn so much in such a short period of time about a lot of different areas I guess of business. In some ways, founding a company, especially one that scales, is like a very expensive, long MBA I suppose. You end up experiencing a bit of everything. I used to use job interviews as a time when I would learn a lot about different functions. So when I came to hire an HR manager, I would ask every candidate questions that helped me understand HR more.
Collis Ta'eed: "So what do you think's important in your work week? Oh, so that's what they seem to do." There was just a lot of times where I was ... Someone would say, like I remember getting some advice that you should hire an HR manager. I was like, "Okay" but I didn't know why. It wasn't like a conclusion that I'd come to. I'd sort of been informed that this was an important step at this time and so just start to explore. So yeah, I think, in sort of summary, there was just... If you've not had that experience of larger firms or companies and seen these kinds of things, then I think the key difference from going from that small size to a larger one is just that things don't scale in a linear way. It's not that when you're at 10 people, you add one more and one more and it stays the same. It's just got one more person. There's time points when you suddenly go, "Now we need a manager" and eventually you need managers or managers. Then trying to communicate things is harder and yeah...
Kris: How did you guys know how fast to grow your team?
Collis Ta'eed: I think we often want to grow faster so hiring was actually a natural throttle in many ways. It was difficult to find good people who wanted to... especially at the beginning, we had not much for a brand name so it was hard to find really awesome people who were like, "Yeah, sure." I remember the first time we tried to hire a lawyer and... I didn't used to wear shoes all the time in the office and I remember interviewing this awesome lawyer and I was sitting there without shoes on and after this, we made the job offer and she said "no" and I was like, "I really thought she was gonna say yes. Maybe I need to start wearing shoes" which is the mundane, idiotic thing to realise. But I think we were not especially good at hiring in those early days so that was a natural throttle.
Collis Ta'eed: We didn't have that much money to pay as well so being bootstrapped, we didn't have huge salaries or things like that. So that throttled a little bit. And then I think also, again, being bootstrapped, we were always very mindful of being profitable. I think when you are in the mindset of having investment, you have a very different mindset to growth but if you're bootstrapped, then you're like, "Well, we must make profit or literally, I have to start letting people go." There's no such thing as, "Oh, we're just gonna run it in losses for a while." And so that, I think, also meant that we'd kind of try to scale up according to the needs of the day. "Wow, we really seem to need a manager for this group of people who are a little bereft of management but also, we can only afford this much" or "this many people."
Kris: One of the big challenges with any startup is attracting staff. Envato is now a big company that has amazing offices, and offers perks like the ability to work remotely and travel the world for up to 3 months a year. But not every startup is cashed up and can afford to pay huge salaries in those early days, and for a long time Envato was no different. So how can you actually bring in the best talent if you can’t afford to pay them the same the same as they’d get somewhere else?
Collis Ta'eed: I think in any time of a company's life, you attract different types of people. So there's the type of person who wants to work at a five person business is much different generally to the one who wants to work at a 500 person business. I think we, in those early, early days, then we attracted people who just liked the idea of making. We had a lot of developers and we made sure we had a very developer friendly culture. So I think we might not have had the best salary but we actually valued what they were doing and it was like a kind of no fuss environment. Dev managers, at that time, set out a lot of good cultural norms for developers and I think that helped a lot. As we started to get to the size when we wanted to recruit people who were... like when we went to hire our first general council. We wanted a lawyer, we wanted someone who was senior. That was a time when we had to convince someone and turns out, wearing shoes was an important part of convincing someone that they should join a business like ours.
Collis Ta'eed: I think what we kind of lent to was, if you wanted to do something that was a bit more meaningful, where you had more impact, where the business was run in a sort of values oriented way because we were always big on values. Then Envato was like a place for you. Ultimately, our first general council had just come from Lonely Planet which was a founder led company and had a great set of values and she was looking for another digital business with that kind of vibe. So there was a little bit of matchmaking... Not matchmaking, just finding the right fit. People who didn't care that the office was kind of chaotic and wasn't very high end. And we were a little cheap on things. There was cables everywhere 'cause Vaheed, my brother, used to do the cabling. I can remember he used to also be in charge of the bins and he had this technique of getting into the bin to stomp it down to get more room. So you'd be busy working away with my brother next to you, stomping on a bin, so it wasn't this high brow environment and if that's like what... A bit of casualness and down to Earth vibe appeal to you, then you'd be like, "Yeah, this seems great." And if you came in for your interview and that put you off, you'd be like, "Yeah, maybe not. I think I might go down the road to something a bit more corporate."
Kris: You said earlier that you sort of struggled with this thought that maybe if something went wrong or whatever, the whole company would sort of collapse. Was there a point in time where you realised, "No, actually, this is going to be something that is really big and really meaningful?"
Collis Ta'eed: I don't think there ever was a specific point, if that makes sense. Literally every year, even to... Maybe not to this day. I guess there must have been so point. I would fear for, "Maybe this isn't going to work much longer." We're a seasonal business but you wouldn't really think of it but there's seasonality in things like how people buy and make websites and same with videos and so at different times of year, have different kinds of highs. But in particular, the Northern summer, which is our winter down here in Melbourne, is like a not good sales time. And that happens to be also when we write our budgets for the year. It's like bleak outside and so more or less, every single year between the months of late April and July, I start to get bummed out about, "Oh, maybe this is it. I don't know if it's really gonna work out." That happened for a lot of years.
Collis Ta'eed: I think when we probably only moved to our current offices, we were… 60 people here in Melbourne. And we moved into this big space and we could afford it and we were profitable. That was probably the time that I started to think, "Wow, this seems like we've got some... the business has some legs."
Kris: The other interesting thing about Collis and Cyan is that they’re part of the Bahá'í religion which sort of takes this holistic view about all the different types of religions that exist in the world. It champions things like equality and universal peace, and there's a lot of similarities in terms of the way they have built the culture of their company.
Collis Ta'eed: I think that founders of companies are sometimes a patient zero for culture so you have the beginning of some new virus and every new person you add, they kind of get that thing and then mutates a little bit and it changes over time and with more people. But ultimately, you can trace a lot of aspects of businesses back to their commencement in good and bad ways. I see stuff like, "Why did we do that?" It's probably to do with this set of decisions that I remember making that has led us to this. So I think there's a little bit which is just a bi-product of who you are and as Bahá'ís we have certain views about the world. Humanity is not a thing that you can think of in individuals. It's like a whole. You can't separate parts of the world and be like, "Well, it doesn't really matter what's happening over there because over here, we're fine." Bahá'ís have this view or conception that humanity is interlinked.
Collis Ta'eed: It's a very deep rooted belief that humanity's interlinked and that people have rights to things and should be treated well and we should be concerned with the equality of races and religions and of genders and all those kinds of things. I think that sort of stuff naturally bleeds in. If you believe things, then you're gonna act in accordance with them. So I think that's a big part of it but also, there was a point in time where we tried to articulate specific company values. And it was 'cause I had seen the ones from Atlassian. One day, I was looking for HR software of all things and I put out a Tweet saying, "Does anyone know any good HR software?" And this guy wrote to me and was like, "Yeah, I'm actually working on a startup that makes software for HR and can I come in and chat to you?"
Collis Ta'eed: His name was Didier Elzinga and he was starting a business called Culture Amp which has since become this big company. I showed up and he talked to me about culture and what they were doing and it was really fun conversation but one of the things that I remember him showing me was Atlassian's values 'cause he was on their foundation board. And I was like, "That seems really good. We should totally do that" and so we spent time talking about what things we valued and trying to articulate them which was a really helpful exercise. At Envato we have values that I, in my head, mentally translate into Bahá'í values and kind of, I think, humanity values, I want to say.
Collis Ta'eed: We have a value added of "Tell it like it is" which, in my mind, is basically truthfulness. And then we have one of "fair go" which, in my mind, is justice. And I think those are universal virtues and universal traits people value and I would just think, "Well, how do we translate into a practical day to day version of this?" And one which maybe feels more Envato. But ultimately, there's definitely an aspect of my beliefs but also, I think, Envato's grown with different executives and different leaders in the business. Then… as they say, culture isn't from one person. It sort of mutates and changes as more people join and so there's a bit of everybody who's worked at Envato in our culture at this point.
Kris: Envato has seen a lot of change over its time and in late 2016 the dynamics at the top of the company also changed. Cyan decided that it was time for her to step away from the day-to-day operations of the business after a health scare. Collis says it’s something she’d been thinking about for a while, and that decision gave her the opportunity to build something new - a chocolate company called Hey Tiger. It was the first time in more than a decade that Collis and Cyan had worked apart, all their creative effort had been on Envato, and Collis says it took some adjustment.
Collis Ta'eed: It kind of sucks in some ways I think. There's some bits which are nicer. Like when we would work together, one problem we would have is that we were not very good at reassuring each other. When you've had a hard day at work, you go home, you see your partner, and maybe you complain about, "This thing happened and that happened and I think I botched that and I've got this worry." And when your partner does something completely different, they're A, only half as interested 'cause they're like, "Yeah, I kind of remember those names. Who's that person again?" And then B, you're much better at reassuring. "This really doesn't matter. I promise you, this is gonna feel okay."
Collis Ta'eed: When you're working together though, you've got a real chance of being like, "Holy crap, you did what? What do you mean that thing's got that problem?" And so that's definitely gotten better and now we are better at reassuring each other. I think, for me, I am also ... It's been enjoyable seeing her tackle a new industry, a new market, as she has built a chocolate company that doesn't... It doesn't exactly do this but it kind of has a very distinct female targeting in their brand and the people who buy their chocolate and observing that has been kind of inspirational. I'm like, "Ah, okay. These are some of the ways you might target that market."
Collis Ta'eed: And so now at Envato, we're working on a new product which is targeting Instagram users to make websites from their phone. And I'm like, "Hey, I think, actually, we can give this a twist towards targeting that sort of female demographic as the primary user." So I think in some senses, working in separate ways just means there's also more going on and there's more opportunity to learn from each other.
Kris: As you've grown the company, what has been the biggest moment of learning that you've had as a leader?
Collis Ta'eed: I think, for me, the thing that probably stands out is the realisation that I needed to back myself a little bit more. I think I just had moments where I had crisis of confidence. Somewhat legitimate. Sometimes I'm like, "Oh yeah, I really was a bit of a dumbass back then." But also, there was other aspects of me that I think, "Well, I probably should've given myself a bit more credence in my own views" which I think... Maybe it's part of any journey of maturation where there's a point in time where you start to realise that you can do this thing and that it needs a certain level of confidence.
Collis Ta'eed: I sometimes think about driving. You know when you're driving and like if you're not a confident driver, sometimes, actually, the worst thing that happens is people don't do things quick enough. They're trying to change land and they're a bit too hesitant and actually, it's almost safer if you're a little more decisive and I think it's been the same with leadership. I think you don't want to be... If you're not good at it yet, you shouldn't just recklessly drive right out. But as you get a little bit better, you start to realise that a bit of decisiveness actually is a key aspect of leadership.
Collis Ta'eed: Being okay being wrong. Being humble about it. Being open to learning. All those things are, I think, also key things and those things maybe came a little more naturally. I am okay admitting that I don't know everything. I think I was more... I had more problems admitting that maybe I didn't know some things.
Kris: You mentioned that you had a bit of imposter syndrome, et cetera. So you still get that feeling of imposter syndrome now that you're the CEO of a big 500 plus person company and how have you dealt with that?
Collis Ta'eed: I’ve definitely gotten better on the imposter syndrome thing. My dad always used to say, "Wait till you're in your 40s. That's when you'll be really productive. At that point, all the lessons have mounted up but you've still got plenty of energy to do stuff" and I am 39, turning 40 this year, so I'm like, "Awesome. Next year, it begins!"
Collis Ta'eed: Up until now, I don't know what I've been doing, but next year it starts. I think maybe I'm showing a bit of my age in the sense that I am starting to feel a little more confident in my own skin and feeling a bit better about things I am good at and things I'm not good at and I think time certainly helps. And I guess objective success has certainly helped. There's been moments where I've thought, "This isn't too bad." Especially at times where I've stepped away for a little while so there was a time where I took three months off and I left my COO in charge and I returned and was like, "This is actually a pretty well run place."
Collis Ta'eed: Sometimes when your face is right in things, you stop being able to see the forest for the trees. So just taking a step back and returning and thinking, "Actually, by any objective ruler, this is going well." And it can't ... It's been going well for long enough that it can't be a fluke so maybe there is a little bit of... I should take a bit more confidence in it. Now though, I worry maybe I'm gonna become over confident and be like, "I'm 40 now, I can do anything.”
Kris: So when you look at the business that you've created. You and Cyan. And your third co-founder. When you look at what you've created, how do you feel?
Collis Ta'eed: I think I... When I look at the business today, it's impossible not to feel some pride that this thing has become a thing. I also always kind of try to check myself on... I think it's a bit easy in sort of start up culture to be like, "We're gonna change the world" or like, "Look at what we've done." When I often think, as a platform, we support creators around the world to earn a living through our marketplaces and what have you. And it's tempting to think, "Well they couldn't earn a living otherwise." But that's not true. They're all super talented people. They would've been okay.
Collis Ta'eed: So what I try to pride myself on is that maybe we've done a slightly better job than would've happened if it wasn't for us. Maybe if we hadn't started this business, someone else probably would've 'cause I think opportunities get taken and needs get served but maybe they would've done a slightly shoddier job or been a little bit more money-faced about it. Maybe not established a company that was quite as values oriented. So I think the thing that I take pride on is not so much that, "Wow, look, we built a really big company." 'Cause on some level, that's just a thing that's happened but I take more pride in the fact that I think maybe we've done a good job of it.
Collis Ta'eed: The choices we've made during that time have led to a particular variation of this outcome that I can take some pride in.
Kris: Thanks to Collis for speaking with me for this story.