Cyan Ta’eed, Co-founder, Envato
Playing the Stock Market
For Cyan Ta’eed, entrepreneurship is a family affair.
“My family are all quite entrepreneurial people,” she says. “I grew up thinking that was a relatively normal thing to do—to work for yourself.” She’s has been doing it for most of her career too.
Early on, Ta’eed started out by creating a jewelry business. “ did not go well, but I learned a lot about what not to do in the process,” she says. Then she transitioned to freelance graphic and web design. But she soon found that providing these services was keeping her tethered to a desk in a way that didn’t feel satisfying.
About 11 years ago, Ta’eed had a heart-to-heart with her new husband Collis—a conversation that would lead to her most successful venture to date.
Together with her husband, her brother-in-law, and a close friend, Ta’eed is the now co-founder of Envato, a vast marketplace for creative assets ranging from stock photography and video to WordPress themes and plugins. Today, the Melbourne-based company employs a team of 300; serves millions of agencies, designers, developers, and small businesses around the world; and has delivered over $500 million in earnings to its community of creators.
In addition to serving as executive director at Envato, Ta’eed is the founder of New Day Box (which distributes resources to women in domestic violence crises), an advocate for diversity in tech, and a highly sought-after speaker. She’s also the mother of two and currently developing an artisanal chocolate business, Hey Tiger, which will double as a social enterprise. Oh, and she’s reportedly worth $184 million.
By all accounts, Ta’eed has it all. Yet her trajectory wasn’t always so glamorous: Envato was founded in her parents’ garage while she and Collis lived in the family basement. Here’s how Ta’eed evolved from basement dweller to entrepreneurial superstar.
‘We Hustled Like Absolute Crazy’
The original idea for Envato arose from a conversation that’s common among newlyweds. “ had just gotten married, and we had one of those ‘what do you want the future to look like’ type of discussions,” she says. “And we had the thought that we wanted to start an online business so that we could travel.”
So the couple started kicking around digital business ideas, and they ended up landing on one that hit very close to home.
“At the time, we were selling stock photography and stock Flash, felt like it was a little bit of a broken system,” Ta’eed says.
People who were making the products got a very small percentage of each sale—sometimes less than 10 percent and never more than 20 percent. Meanwhile, “there was nothing really being done which was geared toward Flash designers,” she says. “It was a very, very nascent market. People understood stock photography, but they didn’t really understand how any other type of stock could be used, nor was being sold at scale.”
“So we decided to start our own little thing,” she says. The couple figured they’d whip up a stock Flash site in a couple of weeks and pursue the venture on the side of their regular work.
“Of course it really didn’t work out that way,” Ta’eed laughs. By the time the duo had completed their first take on the project, it was five months later, they were deep in debt, and they were living in her parents’ basement and working out of their garage. “But we’d created this thing,” Ta’eed says. “This thing to release out into the world.”
The couple had successfully created a Flash marketplace, but their work was far from over.
“We had a job to do, because we needed to teach people why they needed stock Flash in the first place,” Ta’eed says. “And we also needed to let the creators of these items know that they could sell with us, and that we were a good place to sell, and that it was founded by designers and that we cared about them.”
The project quickly drew a small, loyal following, but it took several years to gain serious traction. “It was clear that we had the best interests of the community of creators at heart,” says Ta’eed. “It grew from there. We didn’t take any funding; we bootstrapped it. Little by little, every day we built it up until we hit this point where we could expand.”
Also aiding the company’s growth? Envato was the first to market in several areas of stock (e.g. after-effects video files and stock audio), which made it possible to scale without outside funding.
“When you’re first to market and you’re able to build up a customer base who is used to using you and happy to be using your services, it takes the competitor a huge amount of money and time and effort to start to approach you. If we’d gone into an already saturated market, I can guarantee you that we would have needed funding to do what we’ve done,” Ta’eed says.
More than anything else—even more than talent—Ta’eed believes good old-fashioned grit got the team to where they are today.
“I always feel like talent is a little bit overrated,” she says. “You’ve gotta be really driven, but … a lot of that comes from being genuinely passionate about what you do and just really not willing to give up. Talent is really important, but I don’t think it’s the whole story. We hustled like absolute crazy.”
On the Eve of Disruption
After developing a massive marketplace for creative assets, the Envato team decided to create a subscription service as well.
“There was some concern that we would be eating into ourselves,” Ta’eed says. “We’re kind of disrupting ourselves here. But when it comes down to it, you’d rather disrupt yourself than have someone else disrupt you. I think that’s the big challenge for technology companies—to look at how you can be disrupted and then disrupt yourself first.”
Ta’eed doesn’t just follow this philosophy at Envato. She also applies it to her work outside the company. She’s currently in the process of breaking out of her comfort zone in the digital space, via her soon-to-be-launched artisanal chocolate company, Hey Tiger.
Why disrupt her own work in the creative assets space with chocolate? After all, as Ta’eed freely admits, “Online sales I understand. But physical space? No idea.” Turns out there are several good reasons.
For starters, Ta’eed found herself missing the early stages of creating a startup. “It had been too long since I’d done that— really meaty where I had skin in the game. I was eager to do that again.”
Additionally, Ta’eed has long wanted to get involved in social enterprise. As a regular speaker, she’s frequently asked to talk about how economies can contend with job loss from automation. “I think the answer that I’ve come to is companies … need to evolve to be supporting communities, not shareholders,” Ta’eed says.
“With Envato, the thing that excites me most is the impact it has on our sellers—there are people out there who can earn a livelihood doing creative work they love. But Envato is still a capitalist business. I thought the answer to what I’d been talking about in terms of business as a source for good is social enterprise.”
So Ta’eed is combining this passion with her longstanding love of chocolate, and the knowledge she gained as an ambassador for The Hunger Project. Through the organization’s work in Africa (particularly Burkina Faso), she observed the cycles of poverty and slavery that entrap so many of the world’s poorest people. She also learned that the cocoa trade is often culpable in these cycles.
At the same time, she observed the trends in high-quality chocolate making currently sweeping the United States.
“It usually takes about three years for food trends to come to Australia from the U.S.,” Ta’eed says. So she figured, “If somebody’s probably gonna do this within the next few years, why don’t I try? And make it a social enterprise under the hood.”
Right now, her small team is developing new chocolate flavors in a studio in north Melbourne. After their launch in late November, they’ll focus on online sales before transitioning into pop-up and fixed retail stores. The exact details of the social enterprise element are still under wraps, but they’ll aim to disrupt cycles of poverty in cocoa farming communities across Africa.
The start of this latest venture is a far cry from the days Ta’eed and her husband spent plotting in her parents’ garage.
“I’m still pretty scrappy, but I’ve got two young children now, and I just can’t any more,” she says. “I need to be there, and I want to be there to spend time with my kids. … I don’t want to give up that time, so that means that I need more help, so that means that I hire more people.”
Working with a larger team from the outset helps with navigating the early stages of a startup—and so does the perspective that comes with Ta’eed’s decade-plus experience with entrepreneurship.
“There’s never gonna be a business story that goes, ‘Oh yeah, it was all roses all the way,’” she says. “ financial pressures and conflicting opinions about the way the business should be going … there’s always big meaty questions that come up. It’s like a roller coaster and you’re just sort of trying to hang on. That’s hard. That’s a challenging ride. It’s amazing. … I wouldn’t give it up for anything. But it’s not easy.”
- Where to look for when hunting for A-grade talent
- How to know whether your new employee is really going to help you grow
- What a highly effective founding team should look like
- How to juggle building multiple products without losing focus
- How Ta’eed disrupts an entire industry
Full Transcript of Podcast with Cyan Ta’eed
Nathan: Hello, guys, and welcome to another episode of the “Foundr Podcast.” My name is Nathan Chan and I am the CEO of Foundr Magazine, and the host of the “Foundr Podcast.” Hope you’re all having a great day, wherever you are around in the world. It’s currently 2:00 a.m. for me, and I’m batching podcast episodes before I go away for a much-needed holiday. It’s gonna be the first holiday I’ve ever taken that’s non-business related where I’m just gonna recharge. Really, really pumped. So yeah, having a bit of time off, which is exciting, and heading away to more sunny pastures out of Australia.
So let’s talk about today’s guest. Her name is Cyan Ta’eed, and she’s another fellow Australian founder and entrepreneur. And her, her husband, her brother-in-law, they have done some incredible stuff in the Melbourne, even Australian tech scene. They’ve bootstrapped $100 million-plus…you know, $100 million annual revenue business…you know, it’s just absolutely crazy. You don’t really hear of many companies growing to that size or scale unless they raise capital, and these guys have done it in a very, very big way with incredible business. I have interviewed Cyan’s husband, Collis, in another earlier episode. And yeah, I get her take on everything, and she’s actually starting a new business as well. So we talk about her starting this new chocolate business. Nothing to do with Envato, totally separate industry, totally separate from the whole business at Envato and just starting it from scratch, you know, learnings. And they also…she also talks to me about subscription models and how they’re disrupting their own, you know, business, creating new products. And yeah, really great conversation.
We learn a lot about how the guys at Envato, how do they get talent? Because Melbourne, don’t get me wrong, there’s a lot of talented people, but it’s not like the States. Like, for example, I’ve, forever, been looking for a CRO person, a conversion rate optimization specialist here in Melbourne. Just can’t seem to find the perfect person to join us for that stuff. So, look, talent is difficult sometimes to find. So yeah, you do have to try and find, you know, really great people with a great attitude and try and train them up as well, and they can grow into things. So that’s one thing I’ve found, and what they’ve done is incredible, you know, to build a company of that scale, tech business with…I said, you know, Melbourne, there is a bit of talent, but not as much if, you know, compared to the States. So great story, great conversation. I really do hope you guys enjoy this one as much as I did speaking with Cyan.
And guys, also, if you are enjoying these episodes, please do take the time to leave us a review. And if you do want to check out the show notes, we are doing show notes now. You can go to foundr.com, F-O-U-N-D-R.com/172. All right, guys, that’s it from me. Now, let’s jump into the show.
The first question that I ask everyone that comes on is “How did you get your job?”
Cyan: Well, I started out as a graphic designer. I was a graphic designer for a relatively short period of time. Started starting my own businesses quite early on, so Envato was actually my third in this venture, I guess could you say. Before that, I had a small graphic design business, graphic and web design business with Collis which was quite small, and before that, my own very small jewelry business, which did not go well. I learned a lot about what not to do in the process. So I came from…my family are all quite entrepreneurial people. Not big business, but just always in their own stuff. So that sort of, you know, I think I just sort of grew up thinking that that was a relatively normal thing to do, to work for yourself. So I only really worked for someone else for a short period of time before I went out on my own and started freelancing.
And then, we hit this point…my husband, Collis, and I had just gotten married. And we had one of those “What do you want the future to look like?” type discussions. And we talked about the fact that we wanted to start an online business so that we could travel. And at the time, we had been selling stock ourselves, we had been selling stock photography, and a little bit of stock flash. And just generally felt like, at the time, it was a little bit of a broken system. People who were making the products…taking the photos and making the flash to sell got a very, very small percentage of each sale, like, sometimes as little as 10% and probably no more than 20%.
And that really sort of…that bugged us. My dad’s a photographer, and you know, at that time, was really engaged in this thing around, you know, people receiving sort of their fair amount for the work that they do. And obviously, you know, being in the design space, people were conscious of as well.
And we ended up sort of having one of these conversations where we said, “Well, if we started our own dark marketplace for flash?” And you know, and there was nothing really being done which was geared towards flash designers; it was a very, very nascent market. A lot of people understood stock photography, but they really didn’t understand how any other type of stock could be used, nor was it being sold at scale.
So we decided “Let’s just start our own little thing,” and you know, we thought, “Oh, yeah, it’ll take a few weeks, we’ll launch it, and then we could just see how it goes on the side.” And of course, you know, it really didn’t work out that way, and by the time we were done, it was, you know, five months later, we were deeply in debt, we were living in my parents’ basement and working out of their garage. But we’d created this thing, this thing to release out into the world, which was this stock flash marketplace, which we called Flashed In, which, in hindsight, was a terrible name. Because it gives many people the wrong idea when you say you started a website called Flashed In. But it didn’t occur to us at the time. And launched this thing out into the world, and I think because we were in so deep by then, we hustled. We hustled like absolute crazy. And you know, almost sort of 101 grassroots marketing techniques that now, people really consider to be, “Well, of course. You know, that’s the basis of what you do to get the word out online.”
There were quite sort of…you know, not a lot of people were doing that. We had sort of a job to do because we needed to teach people that they needed stock flash in their life to begin with. So you know, for designer , we needed to educate them on that front. And we also needed to let the creators of these items know that they could sell with us, and that we’re a good place to sell, and that was founded by designers, and that we cared about them.
So we…you know, that probably took us, you know, a good couple of years to start to sort of really gain traction. But we got a small loyal following from the very beginning, I think because it was clear that, sort of, we had the best interests of the community of creators at heart, and, you know, it just grew from there. We didn’t take any funding, we bootstrapped it, and little by little, day by day, we just built it up until we hit this point where we could sort of expand, and we were the first to market in a whole bunch of different areas of stock. So we were the first people selling website themes, we were the first people selling After Effects video files. We were the first people probably to sell, you know, stock audio away that, you know, we do it…and in a whole bunch of other spaces. And I think because we were first to market, it ended up being very possible to scale without outside funding. And we were just able to bootstrap it all the way, and do our absolute best to learn so we could level up as the business progressed.
Eleven years later, Envato is a…we’re around a team of about 300. We’re based in Melbourne in the CBD. And actually this evening, we’re having a celebration because we’ve delivered over $500 million of earnings out to our community of creators so far.
Nathan: Wow. That’s incredible. Yeah, so interesting story. There’s a few things I really like about this story, is first of all, I like that you guys are from Melbourne, because that’s where I’m from. And I also like that you guys…are you still bootstrapped to this day?
Cyan: We are, yes. Still bootstrapped.
Nathan: You’re still self-funded, yeah.
Cyan: Yeah, still owned by me, my husband, one of our closest friends, and my brother-in-law. The four of us still.
Nathan: Yeah, wow, that’s an incredible story. And you guys are, like, massive. So yeah, I really like this story. And what I’m really curious around is talent. You know, a lot of…not all startups are, like big…like, startups, you know, nine figure-plus kind of companies, not all of them now are coming out of Silicon Valley. There’s some really, really great ones that are coming from all around the world.
But talent is scarce. And to build a company at this scale that you guys have built, plus also considering the location and also being 100% self-funded without venture funding, what is it that you believe you guys are doing that allows you to do that?
Cyan: I always feel like talent is a little bit…when it comes to the talent of founders, I always feel like talent is a little bit overrated. I think, you know, you’ve got to be really driven by, I think, a lot of that comes from being genuinely passionate about what you do, and just really not willing to give up. And that, to me, you know, I’ve met a lot of founders at this stage of my life, some of whom have gone on to, you know, do absolutely massive things, and some of whom, unfortunately, have not. And I think that a lot of that sort of…I think there’s a lot around grit…grit and determination and hustle. Talent is really important, but I don’t think it’s the whole story. I do think as well that there is an element of luck. Like, like it or not, I’ve had so many people sort of say recently, “Oh, you know, I hate the word ‘luck.’ Luck doesn’t factor into it.”
But I honestly believe that there is, you know, a massive element of luck in any startup is the market with you. Or is it not? Is a huge competitor gonna come along and squash you suddenly? Or is it not? Like, there’s just so many unknowns and so many variables. So luck definitely has to be with you.
And the fact of the matter is that if we had gone into an already saturated market, I can guarantee you that we would have needed funding in order to do what we’ve done. But because we went into a market with a huge amount of real estate up for grabs, and we just happened to be the first people who grabbed it, when you’re first to market, you know, and you’re able to sort of build up a customer base who are used to using you, who are happy to be using your services, it takes the competitor a huge amount of time and money and effort to start to approach you. So I think that luck definitely does factor into it.
In terms of being able to get really talented people when we were bootstrapped…look, I think for a long time, nobody knew who we were. We were sort of, you know…we were growing fast as a business. But you know, the vast majority of our customer base is in the States. We’re still a 4% Australian customer base to this day. So you know, for a long time, nobody in Australia really cared much. But when it came to sort of finding talented people to work with us, they’d be saying, “I don’t know who you are,” and we couldn’t offer above-market. Because we, you know, like so many startups who have taken funding, have cash burned to get these amazing sort of guns. These people who, you know, can just, you know, can command these incredibly high salaries.
So instead, we would look for people with great potential. People who were entrepreneurial themselves. People who we knew could take the ball and run with it, who could scale quickly, who could scale up what they were doing quickly. And you’d know, “All right. I know where you are right now, but I can see you have the capacity and the potential to be doing something ten time as big in a year’s time.” And for a long time, those were the sort of people that we needed to find. And I think those are the people who are incredibly well-suited to a startup. And I’m actually doing a new startup right now, and that is exactly the sort of person that I’m looking for. You know, somebody who can sort of, you know…right now, they’re in their mid-20s, and they’re just getting started, but you give them a challenge and they just…they think outside the box, they nail it, and you can tell that they’re sort of…that they’re thinking about it as their own business, and they’re taking ownership.
Nathan: You know, that’s really interesting. So you care less about experience, more around “Can this person work it out? Are they a strong problem solver? Can they take ownership”?
Cyan: Certainly in early startup phases. Like, that the size that Envato is now, we’re much more in the phase where we need specialists. We need people who, you know, have a really deep understandig in a specific area, and they’re still entrepreneurial thinkers, they’re still thinking about the big picture, but they have that experience and that knowledge and that depth in a specific area that they can, you know, arrive us and they know, “Okay, I can immediately look at this and see ten ways that I can improve what’s going on here.”
Those are the sorts of people that we look for, and you know, and obviously, we also really look for value fits. That’s incredibly important to us as an organization. Like, it doesn’t matter how great you are at what you do; if you’re an asshole, you don’t get to work at Envato. You know, that’s a reality of it for us as well. And you know, we are a very values-driven organization. So that’s a big deal.
When it comes to the startup side, if I’m doing a startup project, the startup within Envato, you know, I’ve done that many times, or a startup outside of Envato that I’m doing now on the side, you look for somebody with real entrepreneurial skills, who’s more of a generalist and a problem solver, and a collaborative worker.
Nathan: Yeah, no, that makes sense. So I’m curious, I’d love to know more about your new venture that you’re working on, and how you’ve conceived that, and how you’re working on it. But I’d love to know, just talking around Envato, because a lot of people may not know the company Envato, but they would use your marketplace as, like, ThemeForest, GraphicRiver, AudioJungle, CodeCanyon, there’s quite a few. In the early days, what was your…like, how did you divvy up who did what across your brother-in-law, Collis, and a good friend?
Cyan: Well, I think that the people…that we have complementary skill sets, which definitely helps. And you know, I wouldn’t say that, you know, that he’d…that my brother-in-law was always extremely strong on the financial side. So you know, we’d really be diving deep into numbers, looking at trends, those sorts of things, I am much more, you know, interested in marketing, PR, communications, brand positioning, those sorts of areas. Collis is just an incredible…you know, he’s, you know, got this vision of the product, absolutely incredible in that front. And Jun just, you know, our very close friend; he just, you know, organized things. Like, he took support from being, you know, Collis and I e-mailing late into the night, and crediting everyone because, you know, we just didn’t have time to do anything better to making it a sort of a really strong team with a vision and a mission, and sort of scaling.
So everybody…you know, everybody could do things that sort of, you know…there was a lot of overlap there. So you know, I have a heavy interest in products. I understand how to scale things, I’m interested in that. But we recognized that each of us, there was an area that was just like, “Okay, you know, you’ve got the person who’s really got this, and I’m there to support you, and I’m giving my input.” And I’m, you know, sometimes, very respectfully, like, arguing my position and my thoughts. But you know, we found our spot quite naturally, and I think we, as co-founders, what’s incredibly important is that you all need to be aligned on this idea that the relationship always comes first. I think that if you’re not with a co-founder who you’re saying, “You know what? I’m willing to compromise for the sake of this relationship,” then when things get tough, it’s going to be…you know, because things will invariably get tough. It’s going to be very, very difficult. And I’d say that, you know, it’s unusual eleven years in to have four co-founders who are still as closely aligned and as close as we are with no messiness, and everybody is still, you know, tight-knit.
You know, we go on family holidays together and stuff like that. And it’s…I think it’s because we did always prioritize our relationship with, you know, with one another first. And we also put the good of the business first beyond, you know, our own sort of personal…what would be advantageous for us, personally.
Nathan: Yeah, I see. And…so you have had some hard times, then?
Cyan: I think…you know, a business is, you know…there’s never gonna be a business story that goes, “Oh, yeah. It was all roses, all the way.” You know, I think financial, you know, pressures, where you might suddenly, you know, have a surprise or the, you know, what you thought was gonna come in for, you know, a period of time doesn’t, or, you know, there’s conflicting opinions about the way the business should be going, or what you should be prioritizing, or whether you should, you know, close something down or keep it going, invest in it more, there’s always sort of, you know, big, meaty questions that come up. And, you know, when you’re fully invested in it as we are…like, you know, my professional life of work basically up until now is Envato. And I’ve got skin in the game, and I care where it goes. And you know, it’s the same for all of us.
So there’s always gonna be periods of time where it’s tricky. There’s, you know, stresses, around, you know, when it’s growing really fast. Envato, you know, people say, “Oh, yeah, Envato’s an overnight success story.” It’s not; it’s eleven years old. But that still feels like a blink of an eye when you’re leveling up from being, you know, a 26-year-old designer who’s only ever managed one person in her life to, you know, having a 300-person team with, you know, millions of dollars going out, you know, to this community of creatives. You know, you’ve got to level up really fast, and there’s a huge amount of stress and pressure about doing it right and taking advantage of the opportunities. And you know, it’s like a roller coaster and you’re just sort of trying to hang on.
So that’s hard. That’s, you know, that’s a challenging ride. It’s amazing; like, I wouldn’t give it up for anything. In terms of a crash course in growing fast and seeing how far you can push yourself, there’s nothing like it. But it’s not easy.
Nathan: Interesting. Another thing that I’m really fascinated around what you guys have done with Envato is there’s a lot of very successful startups and companies. They generally focus on maybe just one product. You guys have kind of…you do have the kind of same kind of service offering…well, different service offerings, but around the same kind of vertical with the marketplace. But you guys have created, you know, a couple of handfuls of marketplaces and other offerings. I’m curious, how are you doing that when focus is so extremely key?
Cyan: I think it’s a bit of a…I think if, you know, a company was trying to do, you know, really diverse things, then that’s when it becomes tricky and you can become unfocused. The fact of the matter is that we’re trying to solve one overarching problem. We want to be a one-stop shop for, you know, your creative needs. So you know, whatever you need for your creative projects, be, you know, be agency, a designer or developer, or a small business, we want to be where you go to get what you need in order to do your creative project.
So as long as we’re headed towards that trajectory and we’re solving that problem for our customers, then it all aligns very closely. There’s still sort of a…there’s still a tension around what we focus on at any given time. Like right now, we’re doing a massive push on Elements, which is our subscription offering. So that’s a, you know, one-stop…sort of you get…you know, everything you might need for your creative projects, they’re under a subscription. That requires, you know, a lot of focus and energy to do it right for the business. Which means that, you know, you’ve got to go, “Okay, we’ve got to push out, you know, what we might be doing for the marketplaces a little bit.” We’ve got teams working on each thing…you know, teams large enough now that there are still people who are focused and have their energy on particular areas that I think, you know, we’re trying to solve one big problem. So it works.
Nathan: Is it difficult, though…it must be extremely difficult having many different products, right? Because certain people are working on certain products…like, do you have crossover between…yeah, between the teams much?
Cyan: So…yeah, definitely. There’s definitely a lot of crossover. Because people who use…you know, people who use the marketplaces will sort of probably want to use Elements. People who, you know, are…people might find Elements or one of the marketplaces via the platform, which is our educational platform. And then they might want to sort of, you know, get something…get something edited or get something made via Studio, which is our sort of…our platform for custom work.
So it all does sort of overlap and interplay, and we’ve realized that having teams that oversee the offering overall…so for instance, one overarching marketing team, you know, one overarching customer group which just owns the Envato customers, and whatever they might do, we found that works far better than people siloed into the products.
Having said that, we still have people who, you know, specialize in specific products because, you know, our products really require people who have a passion for the specific…like, you know, you can’t have generalists running ThemeForest. Because the ThemeForest customers and the ThemeForest sellers, we call them “Authors,” they, you know, require that really boutique specialist knowledge. It needs to be run and sort of…and guided by people who really, really understand that space.
So we had a reel, probably, about a year ago now, which was designed to sort of…to solve that problem. So you got the specialists, but you also got the people who were sort of, you know, had that overarching vision for how they could support the…I guess the customers through the whole process, and that worked really well. We’re in a much stronger position because of it.
Nathan: Yeah, that’s interesting, yeah. Because, yeah, I was always really curious around that. Like, whether you have, you know…like, for ThemeForest, you have your own team where you’ve got marketing, you’ve got product just on ThemeForest, and support just on ThemeForest. Or you’ve kind of got that kind of dispersed…but it sounds like the dispersed you found works…and then some specialists on certain products.
Cyan: Yeah, that’s exactly right. Yeah, that seems to be the strongest makeup for us at this point in the life of the business. It didn’t used to be that way, but that’s what works well now.
Nathan: Gotcha. And in regards to, like, your leadership team, they would help with all…like, every single product, right?
Cyan: Yes, that’s right.
Nathan: Yep, okay.
Cyan: Yes. So there’s nobody…there’s not a sort of…we call it the “Nav Team” rather than the “Exec Team.” But on the Nav Team, there’s no sort of a…there’s not, like, a ThemeForest person, and a…you know, there is actually, you know, somebody whose sort of purpose is around Elements, specifically. But because that’s a real drive to the business and it’s really important that someone, you know, really owns that. But they’re sort of…you know, ahead of…there are more heads of areas as opposed to heads of products, generally speaking.
Nathan: Yeah, no, that makes sense. I think it’s really smart what you guys are doing with that Envato Elements product. I see a lot of companies nowadays…if they do have a lot of content or a lot of assets, they tend to look, if they can, to bundle it all together into a subscription. So you can sell the one-offs. But it is kind of a no…you do try to…do kind of have a little bit more of a push for that subscription recurring revenue-based predictability in the business.
I’m curious around what kind of experiences we can draw from you guys trying to…kind of, I guess you’ve built up this massive network of assets, a tremendous amount, and then looking to bundle that and kind of have that subscription service offering as well. What challenges have you faced, and…yeah, I’m really curious around experience you can share there.
Cyan: Look, we’re still in the learning phase. So you know, we’re still sort of figuring out things like, you know, what offering is good enough that we don’t experience churn, or we minimize churn. You know, we’re still sort of in that phase “How do we sort of help people understand how broad the offering is on Elements? What else do we bring in to ensure that people, really, you know, are getting everything that they need from us?”
So for instance, you know, we recently totally revamped our photography offering, and actually went the direction of having less but better, rather than more. Because we took the task of, you know, going for, you know, a huge amount of volume. Which, you know, I think served some purpose. But we realized that, actually, a stronger, more curated offering served our customer better.
We’re still sort of trying to figure out those sort of…you know, those sort of things to really make it a great offering. But look, the thing is I think what’s been really interesting is the concern…the team overall, there was some concern…you know, and board level as well, that we would be eating into ourselves by creating a subscription when we had, you know, really robust marketplaces. But in fact, that hasn’t happened. What’s happened is that the subscription offering has sort of…is sitting on top of the sort of…of the existing sort of level of marketplace sales.
So that’s been absolutely fascinating to see. Because we sort of expected that it would eat into somewhat, because we thought, “Well, we’re kind of disrupting ourselves here.” But when it comes down to it, you’d rather disrupt yourself than have someone else disrupt you. And I think that’s the big challenge, especially for technology companies, to ensure that you’re looking at how you can be disrupted, and then disrupt yourselves first.
Nathan: Yeah, and even potentially…not always, but if you can kind of disrupt your own business model, or cannibalize it if you have to, because that’s…that’s how you stay relevant or stay ahead of the game.
Cyan: Exactly. If you can see that there’s an inevitable competitor who’s going to come along and be able to offer something you’re not offering, I think a lot of businesses stick their head in the sand and go, “Oh, well, we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.” I personally think it’s a much smarter route to go, “All right. You know, let’s do this first.” Because we always want to be at the top of, you know, our particular space, on top of this game. And if this looks like it’s gonna be a more compelling offering, then let’s do that.
Nathan: Yeah, no, I love that. Okay, well, let’s switch gears and talk about your new company. With how much you guys got going on now, why did you decide to do that?
Cyan: I think I…you know, what I’m doing now at Envato and what I did in the early days at Envato are two very, very different things. You know, it’s really fascinating, the stage that Envato is right now, and the challenges that we sort of…that we deal with and the problems that we’re trying to solve. And I feel like I’ve had to level up and grow a huge amount in order to be able to sort of stay on top of that.
Having said that, what I really found exciting, the early days of Envato and what I generally find really exciting about the early days of the startup is making. You know, it’s so creative, it’s so sort of fast-moving. You’ve got to solve all these meaty problems. You’re sort of…it’s tangible, it’s in your hands from the ground, and I love that. And you’ve also got a really high degree of control, and I find that really exciting, really interesting.
And I think I was eager to do that again. I realized that it had been too long since I had done that. Because I had done some other things whilst…you know, in Envato and, you know, a couple of little things outside of Envato. But again, nothing really meaty where I had sort of skin in the game. And I think I also, you know, I get asked a lot, you know, about…I think because, you know, there’s not that many women tech founders, I get asked to speak at a lot of stuff. And when I do, you know, quite often, this question comes up about, “Well, you know, how are we going to contend with inevitable job loss from automation?”
And I think the answer that I have come to is, you know, I think companies need to become…they need to evolve to be supporting communities, not just supporting shareholders. So I think, you know, right now…you know, I think a lot of companies have gotten on board with this concept that business can be a force for good. But you know, at Envato, you know, we’re very much a business with purpose, and very, very engaged in that. And honestly, the thing that excites me the most about Envato is the impact that it has on our community of sellers. Like, even beyond the product, what excites me is, you know, that there are people out there who, you know, can earn a livelihood doing creative work that they love, and it doesn’t matter where they are, what they look like, when they can work. What matters is their talent and their drive and their entrepreneurialism, and they can sort of create a life that they sort of, you know, that suits them and is meaningful for them. And I love that about what we do at Envato. But Envato is still a, you know, a capitalist business. It’s still, you know, a capitalist business, and when it comes down to it, I felt like the logical conclusion to the concept I was talking about around business being a force of good is a social enterprise.
And so, I started kind of looking around for a concept that I could play with, which was a social enterprise under the hood, which felt like a capitalist business, but it operated under the hood like a social enterprise. Pair that with I’ve had a…you know…this is always the bit where people go, “Oh, really?” Because now, I go off very far away from tech. But I’ve always had quite a passion for chocolate, and I’ve made chocolate a lot in my spare time, which is a weird thing to do, but it’s…you know, a hobby of mine, kind of a bit of a chocolate obsessive. And I started to support an organization…I became an ambassador for the Hunger Project that does a lot of work in Africa, and in particular, we started supporting a project in Burkina Faso, which is the third-poorest country in the world, which is bordered by Ghana and the Ivory Coast.
And I was talking to the CEO of the Hunger Project about, you know, what happened in Burkino Fasa. And they were saying, well, one of the big issues that they have is that, effectively, slavers come from over the border of Ghana and the Ivory Coast, and offer to buy the children of these families who, you know, are living in absolute poverty, have no aspect of family planning. So you know, often have many, many children, and these children are effectively starving. And they’ll say, “Listen, we’ll buy your oldest. They’ll come and work for us in the cocoa plantations. You’ll know that they’ll be fed. And then, you know, you’ll have enough money to feed your children for a few more months.”
And so, you’ve got this awful sort of, you know, cycle happening. And then I started to sort of investigate what it actually looks like for the farming communities. And you know, some of them, some farming communities, it’s working well, it’s very ethically run. But the cocoa traders are all…it’s actually an incredibly dirty business. And I started to think, “Jeez, this is really sort of broken.”
Now, pair that with, you know, there’s some really interesting trends in chocolate-making coming out of the States, some third wave chocolate-making that we’re really not seeing here in Australia yet with really sort of, you know, incredibly high-quality chocolate. Chocolate bars with, you know, inclusions that feel like they’ve been made by, you know, chefs…so sort of, you know, fig and blue cheese dark chocolate, which is just absolutely incredible, or try a chili cinnamon caramel milk chocolate, or, you know, lychee and mint and green tea white chocolate. We’re just not really seeing it in Australia, and if it does come, it’s got a massively long shelf life, and it’s just not where it should be.
And I thought, “Well, usually, it takes about three years for food trends to come to Australia from the U.S. Somebody’s probably gonna do this within the next few years. Why don’t I try it?” And to make it a social enterprise under the hood.
So yes, it’s called Hey Tiger, and it’s launching in November. And I’m, as you can probably tell, very, very excited about it. I have no idea how it’s gonna go because it’s a startup and there’s so much I don’t know. But I think it could be really interesting, and yeah, I’m excited about it.
Nathan: Yeah, no, that’s awesome. And I really…I think it’s awesome to have that element of social good as part of it. So kind of like Tom Shue’s model, yours would be a good example, maybe?
Cyan: Yes, yes, something like that. Yeah, exactly. So I think, you know, we’re not going to probably…the market probably won’t be focused on the social enterprise element. It will just be focused on it being, you know, really delicious, innovative chocolate.
I think, you know, “like” as sort of…you know, for gelato? That’s the chocolate, that’s what we’re shooting for. So yeah, we’re in the…we’ve got a studio in North Melbourne where we’re developing all these flavors, they’re being tested at the moment. We’re working on getting the branding just right. We’re wanting to launch with a big PR push. Focus on online sales and gifting with pop-ups to begin with, and then eventually, hopefully, its own store. But there’s just so much I still don’t know about retail space. Like, I know nothing about retail space. So I’m trying to learn by, you know, by doing some pop-ups, and getting ahead around what that looks like. Online sales, I understand. But physical space? No idea.
So this is fascinating because there’s just so much I don’t know aobut this space. Like, physical inventory. How do you do that? Yeah, it’s really fun to have, you know, some meaty stuff that I’m trying to wrap my head around again.
Nathan: Yeah, no, that’s awesome. I definitely feel your excitement on this project. Because yeah, I’ve done the similar thing. With Foundr, we’ve been all digital products. And now within the company, we’re still starting to produce a lot of physical products, and then also, I’m helping my girlfriend with the physical product as well. And it’s really fun just doing something different out of digital.
Cyan: Yeah, there’s something about the physical product you hold in your hand. And I think…because for Envato, for so long, you talk…people say, “What do you do?” at parties, and you start to explain it to them, and you can just see the moment their eyes glaze over. Like, “I have no idea what you’re talking about. What are digital goods?”
So to be actually be able to say “Ah, it’s chocolate. And this is what it looks like. Isn’t it beautiful?” And they go, “Ah, I get that.” That is really fun.
Nathan: Yeah, listen… There’s something fun about physical products. I’m really enjoying playing around with those as well. And you can use the skills that you’ve learnt from online to really grow fast, I believe, as well. That’s what I’m finding as well.
Cyan: Yes. What sort of thing are you making?
Nathan: For Foundr, you know, we produce digital products like, you know, magazines, courses, blog content, memberships, etc. But then, you know, we’re starting to print the magazines now. And then we also did, like, a physical coffee table book that we crowd-funded via Kickstarter.
Cyan: Oh, cool.
Nathan: And then for my girlfriend, we’re creating health-based products, so the brand is called Healthish, healthish.com. And the first product is a time-marked water bottle. It’s beautifully designed. So I’ve used kind of my passion for design and put that into it, and then helped with the marketing stuff, and it was Emily’s idea, and yeah, it’s doing really well. It’s only been out for a couple of months, and yeah.
Cyan: I’m gonna check it out. That sounds great.
Nathan: Yeah, check it out. I think you’ll want one. It’s a good viral-type product.
Cyan: Great. I’m gonna go check it out as soon as we get off this call.
Nathan: So it’s Healthish, yeah, Health, I-S-H.com.
Cyan: Got it. Yep. Great. Very exciting.
Nathan: Awesome. We have to work towards wrapping up, and a couple last questions, because I know you’ve got to go in a couple minutes. A couple last questions. One, which I’m curious around, are you as scrappy as you were with Envato with this new business?
Cyan: Short answer is no, and I think a lot of…I’m still pretty scrappy. But I think…I’ve got two young children now, and I just can’t spend…you know with Envato, I worked absolutely constantly, like, just constantly. And I just can’t do that anymore. I need to sort of, you know, be there, and I want to be there to spend time with my kids. So you know, I was thinking about this last Sunday. You know, I was like, “Oh, I probably should be working,” but I ended up spending, you know, like, three hours playing Uno with my children. And I don’t want to give up that time. So that means that I need more help, which means that I hire more people.
So you know, I think if it was the…if this was my first startup, I definitely wouldn’t move…hire anybody yet. And at this stage, we haven’t launched, and I’ve got three people, and I’m seriously considering hiring another. So it’s way less scrappy. Like, okay, not scrappy at all. But it’s amazing how much developing a physical product costs. Like, I had been so surprised by that. As opposed to just making something on the internet and putting it up there. That is, you know, that is…it’s so much easier to do that on your own; to actually make a physical product, that’s, like, hard.
Nathan: I know what you mean. There’s pros and cons of both, right?
Cyan: Yes. There absolutely is, yeah. But it’s been a learning experience, it really has.
Nathan: Awesome. Well, look, last question, Cyan, this has been a great conversation. Where’s the best place people can find out more about yourself and your work?
Cyan: So I have…I mean, you know, you can check out envato.com if you just want to see what all our different products are. That’s E-N-V-A-T-O.com. For me, look, the only social media I really enjoy using is Instagram, and that’s just, you know, @cyan.taeed. And you know, I generally talk a lot about what I’m working on. And I also do regular sort of, I guess, a video diary thing that goes up on Instagram stories where I talk about sort of the business stuff I’m thinking about at the moment and the problems I’m trying to solve. Because what I kept hearing from people was “I really want to know how Hey Tiger’s going from sort of a business development point of view.” So I try and be really transparent on there. So that’s sort of…so I do that.
And then, yeah, there’s a mailing list. If you go to Hey Tiger…heytiger.com.au, you can join a mailing list where soon we’ll be sending out sort of a bit of an e-mail newsletter about what’s going on with that. But not like a product in our newsletter, but like a “This is the business stuff that we’re trying to grapple with. This is how we’re growing. This is what we’re sort of dealing with.” And I’m trying to be really transparent with that because I feel like it’s just…I don’t know. I think it’s useful. I always find it really useful when I can see sort of under the hood about, you know, what our business is dealing with. It sort of provokes my thinking as a sort of a…as a businessperson as well. So I’m trying to do that.
Nathan: Awesome. Well, look, thank you so much for your time. This has been an awesome interview and conversation, and I just really appreciate it.
Cyan: Thank you, Nathan. It was really fun talking to you.
Key Resources From Our Interview With Cyan Ta’eed
- Checkout Envato
- Follow Cyan Ta’eed on Twitter
- Follow Cyan Ta’eed on Instagram
- Connect with Cyan Ta’eed on Linkedin