In this episode of Adelaide Entrepreneurs I interview Stuart Austin from Syndeo.co, an online system which connects learners and organisations. Learners gain experience and organisations find the right people.
Stuart is currently working out of the Majoran Distillery so you can drop in and find him there if you’d like to catch up with him. You can also email him at founders[at]syndeo.co and like the Syndeo page on Facebook.
Nick: Welcome back to Adelaide Entrepreneurs. This is a show where we interview entrepreneurs from Adelaide about what they’ve done, what they are doing and what we can learn from them. My guest for this show is Stuart Austin from Syndeo. Co. Good day Stuart, thank you for joining us.
Stuart: Lovely to be on air and be part of this process with you. It’s fantastic, it’s an honor.
Nick: No worries. Can you explain to us, to get started, what your start-up, Syndeo is?
Stuart: Sure. Syndeo is basically dealing with two significant problems we face. One is that, as a student, if you go through study and learn all these skills and different techniques for solving problems, you’ll come to the industry at the end of that and ask for work, which is a natural progression. So, I do my study and then I ask for work and often, what happens is that, they’ll ask if you’ve got experience and you’ll say no, I don’t have experience, how do I get experience? They’ll say well, you’re gonna have to find somewhere else. So, as a student you’re got stuck.
Some students go back to study, other s drop out completely. Basically there’s a real disconnect between learnt, work and University teaching and industry standards skills set. The other problem is that recruiting people is incredibly difficult and there are lots of systems between organizations and the people I want to recruit, which don’t work that well and I’m sure most of you have experienced this at some time and probably need to do your own projects more often than not as well. So, Syndeo is essentially the system that sits between learners, essentially those people that are studying and organizations that are seeking to find talent and connects them up.
Nick: Cool. That’s a good little introduction to get us started. How can I say is, certainly I can see where the problem is and I’ve been in the same situation of going and looking for work and they say what experience have you had and you say, none and or not very much, just out of Uni. Oh, you know, it’s an experience of chicken and egg thing and definitely there was a problem there. How did you get the idea, was it just something you thought of while you were studying? Was there a specific catalyst for the idea?
Stuart: Sure. My own journey over the last 10 years has been quite involved. I studied five different degrees. I’ve worked in many different industries and I’ve gone through lots of different work and I guess, over that time I realized that there was serious issues with the education system a whole and specifically, this particular issue we’re dealing with now. So, in terms of where I got the idea, my own experience was definitely a catalyst to look into this more thoroughly. This whole problem and I really started to focus on it probably in 2008, I think, was when I really decided that I wanted to do something serious about this problem and then the idea really started to take hold in a serious fashion through 2011 probably but it has come through lots of change in that time.
The other inspiration if you will, for the ideas been talking to pretty well everyone in finding that they’d have problems in similar areas, or the same areas whether they are an organization or a student. So, it’s just so widespread and so unavoidable and so difficult to solve. That’s why I think, we don’t have systems that work because it’s such a tricky problem and you know I like a good problem. I like a bit of challenge.
Nick: So, that leads nicely into my next question which was, how did you know it was a good idea? Was it just from this process of talking to people and saying that they’re also having this problem?
Stuart: How did I know it was a good idea? I remember one time I spoke to a University career guidance person. They were essentially they were always there to help me figure out which courses I wanted to study at Uni when I was doing my Masters in Computer Science and I said to her, look, apparently I’d like to reform the education system and I got this response where she just – I think she pretended she hadn’t heard what I said and went on as though there was nothing and said like that.
I knew it was a good idea when my employment contract was severed as a result of the idea because they saw it as a threat to their internal graduate recruitment system. So, I had a job lined up with quite a big organization and I saw this project as a threat and that really validated the concept but apart from that, it’s been validated by Universities, by students everywhere and by organizations. There’s not really any person that hasn’t thought it was a good idea and I suppose, the biggest thing that told me it’s a good idea was the fact that there’s a real problem and it needs to be solved and it’s a very obvious problems in some ways.
Nick: Absolutely. Can I just drill in on that about the internal career finding systems. This was at University, they have a system for finding jobs for graduates, do they get some sort of benefit from that?
Stuart: Universities do have internal job finding systems. The conflict of interest that I’ve found was with an external private company. So, that wasn’t with the University, so it was a full time contract outside of the University but the Universities do have internal graduate recruiting systems and they try to connect industry with students in much the same as Syndeo does.
Nick: That’s interesting. So, I guess a related question to whether you know it’s a good idea or not or how do you know it’s a good idea, are there any competitors out there and I suppose one of the existing competitors in that space would be the – I didn’t see the job, this task mentions that connection. Is your solution going to be competing directly with them as on a different plain and are there any other competitors that are in your space?
Stuart: Absolutely. It’s a very good question. We do have lots of competitors but not directly and what I mean by that is that the recruitment agencies for example, we could technically replace everything that they do in the system but a recruitment agency could actually use the system themselves to find a talent as they wish. So by introducing the system, we’re not completely challenging what they do, we’re saying, we’ve got something that can actually help your job. For recruitment agencies in particular, they’ve got incentives in the wrong areas.
They’re basically incentivize if you will, put more people on their books or give more applicants. So, the more applicants they find, the more money they make, so, they’re less concerned with finding exactly the right person and more concerned with volume, which means the people who are using the recruitment agency doesn’t find who they want, necessarily. In a sense, we are competitive because we want to break down that process and place that control back in the hands of organizations and students directly where the people will actually benefit from each other. So, we are competitive to the recruitment agencies.
We’ve got programs like LinkedIn, 99 Designs, other projects sort of seeding, platforms which are on the periphery of being competitive and there are certain areas that we want to move into but they’re not our primary target market. We are hoping to be able to establish ourselves well before we get into that territory, create platforms, resume’ writing industries and things like that, more direct competition. I think as we develop, we’ll be making lots of friends and lots of enemies, probably but that’s the nature of change and the sort of, problem tackling. We’ll see, there’s certainly lots of people trying to solve parts of the problems we’re doing.
Nick: Absolutely. I mean that makes sense definitely. It’s an interesting thing in an industry with so many different businesses that has touched your business in different ways. They are semi-competitive, overly competitive. But it has lots of challenges and rewards and lots of problems you can solve but…
Stuart: Lots of challenges to trade on.
Nick: Was it interesting? How long have you been working on this project for? So, I guess you had the idea sometime ago, as you mentioned in your introduction section but how long since you got started with developing something?
Stuart: Sure, really since 2009 towards the end of 2009, I was starting to become a lot more serious. At that point, I had no idea what it would turn into, no idea how serious it would become. There was just a really big problem domain that I was starting to jump into. In 2012, at the start of 2012, I pitched this concept at a light start up weekend and started to run a team of eight people. I think approximately eight people over the weekend.
That was really a good experience but we didn’t particularly make any headway with the project itself. I just realized that it was quite complex. So, a serious start to the project would have been at the end of 2009 and then it became much more serious and levelled up if you will in 2012. Half way through 2012, I deferred my Master’s degree and then after the start of 2013, I gave up full time employment, [Inaudible 00:11:17]. So it’s sort of, it’s notched up in seriousness progressively since 2009 to where we are now.
Nick: And what stage would you say the business is at the moment?
Stuart: We’re at the stage of getting people on board, getting people signed up, testing out the system and we’re starting to do a bit of marketing, and get editorial reviews of people as well, which is fantastic. We are currently looking for a set people to come on the team to help us get the system fully rebuilt. So, we did build and design a version of the system towards the end of last year but has often happens with these types of programs, the complexity changes and the problem demands involved, so we’ve had to re-architect the system basically. So, yes at the moment now, we’re about 10 but really we’re at the stage of getting more people on board and taking it further some point down the track, we’ll be probably looking at investments as well probably around mid-year, I’d say, exciting times.
Nick: Definitely, I’m going to sort of stop the progressional run now and will go back to before you start the business. Want to get a bit more idea of what you were doing before and perhaps before you became really, more serious as you [Inaudible 00:12:51] gone over there. What were you doing before you started working on…?
Stuart: Before I started working on this business, I was looking for work myself particularly the entertainment industry, with concept design and that kind of thing. I was studying various degrees so studying was quite for long. Just before really taking this seriously, I was getting married as well, so, I’m setting up family life. They are all pretty big things and also with my wife, we started a flower business at the end of 2012 also.
So, alongside this project, there’s also been more of a bricks and mortar business. We started selling flowers in Hahndorf, actually. We popped up a little stall and would sell flowers to people on the sidewalk and from that we got weddings and now we’re putting other people on the books and we’re starting to get a website and things like that. So, actually we can move down in the city and get more of a presence there. So, it’ been really good, very exciting and enjoyable.
Nick: And just this, do you perceive it could be a conflict or some problems with trying to run two businesses at the same time? With the flower business and Syndio?
Stuart: Absolutely, yep without a doubt and as a result, I’ve given sort of ownership, and direction of that to my wife Etsy. So, she now runs Austin Bloom and is responsible for all the contracts and the cards and all that sort of thing. I help out with the design side of it. I’d like to do more but the stress level just got way too high so, one business is quite enough or nothing.
Nick: So I guess, as an entrepreneur you saw an opportunity or a problem that needs solving in the flower industry and I guess you couldn’t help yourself getting in there even if you had another business already on the go?
Stuart: Absolutely. To be quite frank, no good flowers in Adelaide, so we decided to do something about that.
Nick: Cool. Another connection that we have just from our listeners fill in there. I’m also from the hills, so, mentions of Hahndorf and mentions of other local things and I think we saw each other on the bus one time. You’re talking to a local, as well as from Adelaide. [Inaudible 00:15:32] different breed definitely. Okay, very interestingly the other business as well, I hadn’t realized that it actually started so recently, as well and that’s ticking along nicely. I guess that would be a good thing for bringing in some revenue to help you build Syndeo as well.
Stuart: Absolutely, absolutely…
Nick: Which is probably somewhere where people would struggle often.
Stuart: Yeah absolutely.
Nick: Alright. How did you, now you’ve got a bit of a team, how did you meet your initial team for this project?
Stuart: Sure. A couple of the fellows that started work, back in 2009, I knew from my days of studying at Uni, one of them had a technical background and one of them was more financial type of fellow. So, through 2012, I had to start up a new kind of team, sort of expanded to eight and then back down to six very quickly after the start-up weekend process and then, we strip the team right back to just three people, which was myself, the technical lead and the financial lead as well. So, we were the, a fellow called Waugh was the technical lead, and James was the financial lead and through 2012, those two were basically the core team with myself and we went through a reasonable amount of development and thinking, trying ideas and all that sort of stuff through 2012. So, Will, I met when during a game development project actually at the University.
He was studying with sand and atmosphere and that time of thing and I was doing visual design. James was a friend of mine from a while back who was interested in helping out, solving the real problems in this area. Now, the team has changed slightly so, we now have [Inaudible 00:17:45] development called Andrew on board. Will is no longer with us and James is helping out in some capacity but less than he was before and the team’s going through a change. So it’s been quite a dynamic process and maybe some of the old members that used to be involved, who come back in some capacity, down the track but not sure. So, that’s the sort of overall in picture of how we met people. I suppose 2012 start-up weekend was the real point where we became an official team, so to speak.
Nick: I’d like to just to drill on a couple of points you mentioned in there. It’s interesting from my perspective and my experience with business it’s so solo. The talks of team and things like that is interesting to me but also important to other people. So, it sounds like it’s really fluid in you had the time before the start-up weekend and then you had more people and then you’ve gone to less and then as you said, it’s changing and it could change some more in the future. Do you have any tips or any sort of experiences from that to make sure you’re keeping all your docs in, like your legal things? Do you have a partnership with Grayman in place or do you have to change that constantly or when you’re bringing on new team members, will they be employed? How does it work?
Stuart: Yeah, absolutely. Good question and very tricky to answer. Basically it’s been quite a difficult process over the legal side of things and keeping people on board, figuring out the involvement different people have. What I have found is that, as the project becomes more serious, the commitment of certain people gets really shown up for what it really is. So, ideas are good because they’re easy to commit to. They’re easy to be involved in and they’re easy to put effort towards but as soon as it becomes seriously commercial, [Inaudible 00:20:01] where things needs to happen that needs to get done and it needs to start taking risks, then the dynamics of the team can really change advice.
I initially wanted to get the legal structure locked down really tight earlier on in the game. So, we knew who everyone who was but in retrospect, if I have done that, now I’ll be regretting it because the roles of everyone has changed so much. So, I think it’s good to get agreements and it’s good to get sort of expectation of duties down in written form, if you can. I didn’t do that up front but I think probably, I’d be reluctant to commit to a legal structure, Nick and equity structure and things like that without having serious commitments from the different people on the team. So, basically, I would wait for someone to be quite invested in the project than invested team mates and taking risks with their own financial situation before I get sort of paper works signed so to speak. There are different ways that you can go back, making things equitable and fair, things like that but at the end of the day, if the projects goes nowhere, everyone’s fine because they learn something that I’d be happy to put to a project and everything was good but if it does go somewhere and there’s money involved, there’s a chance that I can have a piece of the pie.
If things haven’t been clearly defined then, you’re in really deep waters, then you want to get your legal structure done, probably try to the point of serious commercialization because at that point, you’ll know how involved people are, how much they’re willing to give and whether it’s actually real or not for them. It’s still a work in progress for myself. I’m still learning about the best way to do it, so there’s probably no one way. Talk to me, ask questions, you can share advice but don’t be rash for sure. Don’t be rash you know, ask advice from different people and don’t partner with the first person who comes along either. You need to choose your team wisely.
Nick: I think there are some good tips in there for some people who are thinking of starting business with a team or a with multiple people. One other point I wanted to follow-up from your starting-up weekend. I haven’t actually been to any myself. I spoke to Michael Reid, one of the [Audio breaks 00:22:57], and one of my earlier interviews and he sort of raved about it. Interested in hearing your thoughts on some of the after effects or results of something like start-up weekend where you said have some team members who come on almost because you work on your business ideas in the actual event and then you had some sort of teams come on from that. Is that a good way, do you think to find people or do you think it’s better to keep it more self-contained, as the event itself and then sort of carry on with things afterwards?
Stuart: My thoughts would be that start-up weekend is particularly good to try ideas and test things out but not something that you are very serious about. Very serious because you’ll still come out at start-up weekend but that’s the sort of bottom up process, if you will. So, to me what I did took a really serious concept, serious idea which is Syndeo now to the start-up weekend and tried to see if we could get things to work on that but I think – which was good because I met some people that are in similar space who wanted to be involved but they are no longer involved. So, it’s not really good measure of whether someone’s going to come on board or stick with you with regards to a particular project.
However, if you’re trying out ideas and just having fun and connecting with people, you can learn a lot from other people. You can learn a lot from the processes and you can learn a lot from the intensity of the situation alongside the connections with various people in the industry and other people. Yes, you can certainly find talent. You can also find, I’d put on a weary hat when I go to a start-up weekend. I’d just be fairly clear and just be able to see it through, through the ideas and through the people and actually engage and connect in this. There’s actually some goal there to connect with and there’s also some pretty far off ideas as well but it’s all good fun, it’s all part of their weekend. I’d recommend it absolutely, to give it a try if you haven’t before because you’ll realize there are other people that are developing things and doing things that are really entrepreneurial, that kind of thing as well, so you can learn a lot from other people.
Nick: Awesome. Thanks for that. I think I was already fairly convinced for that. It’s always nice to have some extra encouragement. Let’s have a look here at, my next question is about some challenges that you face. We’ve already talked about a few but can you single out only a few challenges that you’ve faced and what you did to overcome those challenges?
Stuart: Yes sure. I think the first problem, one of the most pressing problem or one of the most pressing challenges is financial, so how you actually sustain yourself and your family through the process of developing something. That’s one of the biggest challenges I faced and certainly that’s causing a lot of stress. The reality is, if you have a bit of a buffer and you can actually support yourself well through a couple of years, giving yourself a chance to [Audio breaks 00:26:27], then you’d be in a good position. If you are trying to find work and do other things at the same time and fully invest time into this project you’re running, then your struggle can be done but at some point, you have to make some sacrifices as well.
That’s partly the entrepreneurial way and I think if you’re passionate enough about what you’re doing and the enjoyment that it brings you, then financial concern is the [Inaudible 00:26:54] better ways to get through then. How do I overcome that? Just in dreams and drugs, yes, ongoing process. So it would be nice one day to look back on this and say well, that was a good learning experience. So, that was the first challenge. The second challenge outside is the chicken and egg challenge that we’ve had with this whole project. So, it goes something like this, do we build the system first or do we get investments or do we find people or do we market first or, to get people on board, we need a system working or we need a marketing plan. To get a marketing plan, we need money, how do we get money?
Well, we need investors and investors want people on board the system. So, how do we get people on board the system? So those sorts of problems are kind of routine challenges for start-ups and I think one of my mentors, he said look, at the end of the day, your passion is one of the most important things and you just have to fail forwards. So, you fail at one thing and then you fail at another thing, fail, fail, fail, fail and eventually you find the right thing to do and that’s [Inaudible 00:28:12] work if you just try lots of things, talk to lots of people and eventually find the right way. So, challenge number three was changing the team.
So, I’ve alluded to that before. If you hadn’t been through the process of changing a team or been responsible for other people, it can be a quite stressful thing because you’re responsible for other people, emotional issues come into it, things can turn personal. Just normal everyday parring, firing of people if you will, except with start-ups, that’s really hard to find because there’s rarely money but the same principles apply. So, I found quite challenging, I’ve had to grow a lot through that, dealing with people, so, prepare to learn.
Nick: Cool. Thanks for sharing those challenges and certainly the money one is something that I’m sure lots of people struggle with or everybody and the team one as well, certain types of businesses. I got a couple of questions left before we wrap up and I wanted to touch on marketing. You mentioned that a few times throughout the interview so far and you’re just in the early stages now trying to get some initial users and things. What kind of marketing strategies, let’s put it this way, how did you sort of decided on your marketing strategies and what kind of, are your initial thoughts on marketing for your project.
Stuart: Talking to people is really important. So, face to face contact, personalized contact and really spreading the idea and getting as many people interested as possible, is, I would say the first port of call because they are also your first easy testing device, if you will. So, I started talking to people years ago on that network and now, coming to fruition with this project but I’m mutually speaking to people about this, made contact with four years ago, talking now about thing that I was talking about then and some of it makes sense. So, in terms of marketing and outreach, talk to people and talk to lots of people and eventually you’ll have it drivel down to the people that you need and what you’re doing.
Nick: Did you do that in a targeted way, like going specifically to places where you knew the target market were or was it more general like going to networking events and finding people that way?
Stuart: It was reasonably targeted. To be honest it’s, obviously much more targeted now where Syndeo now is driving a lot of the focus but back then, I was sort of talking to anyone and everyone that I could and not everyone was worth talking to, so to speak, but that was still valuable because that helped me refine who I needed to talk to and things like that. So, networking events are good but I would say that targeting specific people is really important. So, for instance Syndeo is targeting the heads of the ICT departments at Universities, which is a very specific demographic and there’s maybe three people in that position.
So you need to drool down and figure out why you’re targeting people on what they get from conversation and how you go from there. Word of mouth, I think networking through other people is really important. It does take time to find the right people for sure and especially in Adelaide. If you’re an Adelaide entrepreneur, then you’ve got to really walk the walk and get your idea out there, so it just takes time.
Nick: Awesome. When you sort of, once you get rolling, do you have some plans if you don’t mind sharing that, marketing down the road. I’d assume once you got going, you’d want to take this Australia wide or maybe even worldwide eventually. Do you have some ideas on how you might fill that expansion from a marketing perspective?
Stuart: Yes absolutely. In the very near future, we’re going to get some editorial articles, in particular Adelaide magazine. I won’t say what right now but that would be sort of an exclusive exposure on what we’re doing and also our predicted launch dates and once we’ve launched the system later this year, as in a fully working system everyone can interact with, we’ll be running serious press releases and print campaigns and over the next few months we’re going to develop robust online strategies as well, which involves a development blog, Twitter, Facebook, Google, all those sorts of platforms. We might be even going to put the project on change.org and see if we can really draw traffic.
Nick: What’s change.org?
Stuart: Change.org is a system or a platform where you can put up projects of political or social economic nature or if there are issues that you see and you want get people to sign petitions and be involved and then use that as a leverage to make a change. So, check it out, that’s change.org. So, if we can get exposure and people onboard that way, that will be really good as well because we can then use those numbers and signatures to basically talk to other people and say look, we are serious. So, for kick starter, we’ve thought about connecting with and on marketing, yes it’s a work in progress, lots of talking to people at the moment. I want to do more and more viral marketing eventually as well, some ways for people to suggest projects and to be involved with friends and things like that. When we hit that point, we’ll be really starting to move.
Nick: Awesome. Obviously, you’re in the early days at the moment. Getting out there, I’m sure the marketing strategy will change as you realize what works, what doesn’t work and going back to what you said before about failing forward, I think that makes sense within the marketing strategy as well. Just sort of figuring it out as you go along and learning.
That almost pretty much bring us to the end of our interview. Is there any advice that maybe you can leave us with for Adelaide entrepreneurs, some general advice that might be able to help them along the way on their journey?
Stuart: Absolutely Nick. I would love to. So, Adelaide’s a tough nut right? Adelaide’s really tough nut to crack. I actually went and lived up in Queensland because I was so sick of Adelaide and how difficult it was to get work and find opportunities that I left and once I left, I realized that Adelaide has actually arrived. So, I came back and then just started getting really serious, so it’s good that I did. So, seed funding for entrepreneurial [Inaudible 00:36:31] just get enough money to do the really basic stuff and get off the ground, so, that’s quite hard to come by in Adelaide. So, that’s one barrier that you’ll hit. So advice, this is my advice to you Adelaide entrepreneurs, passion, we win the game, so if you’ve got a good idea, basically everything’s been thought of already but if you stick with an idea for long enough and you get to know your problem domain long enough, you’ll eventually come up with something that’s unique but you have to be passionate enough to really stick at it.
So, there’s sort of no easy way to quit games in this game and it’s just like any other business, you have to put in a hard yard to find the goal, whatever that is. Your idea might really change but that’s okay, you’ve got to be prepared for that. I think being prepared to let go of ideas is important as well. If, quite clearly there’s no market in need of your idea, then move on to something else. There’s no point in pursuing it. I heard this story where, on two separate instances, two different groups developed a product in the manufacturing area for about $10M each research, research money and they hadn’t done any market research, so, they hadn’t actually validated this product. So, $20M has just busted on research and they hadn’t actually seen whatever there was a need for. You don’t want to be in that position, just don’t go there. Be prepared to go through really tough times. We question everything, it can be quite lonely and I think just having trust and faith, you’ll find the right people is really important. There’s a few sharks out there, so put on your hats of awareness and wear them at all times. I would say, one of the biggest things for an entrepreneurial type of pursuits is that advice and opinions are bound.
Everyone will have an idea or opinion about what you need to do and your job is to be strong enough and smart enough to know which advice to take, how to take it and how to stay truth to the problem you’re solving. Be prepared to learn a lot and to learn about yourself as well. I think it’s certainly, I would say, one piece of advice is, it’s not about the money. So if you’re being entrepreneurial and just trying to get an idea off the ground just to make money, it won’t go anywhere. So, you have to find more than finances and [Inaudible 00:39:34] basically but I’m sure you already know that, so any other thoughts?
Nick: I think that’s a good chunk of advice to leave my listeners with all the other advice you mention throughout the interview so there’s lots there.
Thanks a lot for coming on and doing this interview with me. It’s been really interesting picking your brain.
Stuart: Absolutely, a pleasure and I’ve really enjoyed it.
Nick: And good luck with the launch and the roll out and the business going forward.
Stuart: Absolutely, thank you. I’ll keep you updated.