Paving the Way for Women in Tech
14 December 2016 at 8:52 am
Cyan Ta’eed co-founded Envato in her parents garage 10 years ago. It has since become a multi-million dollar global marketplace for developers and designers, and Ta’eed a shining light for female entrepreneurs.
Envato is a “creative ecosystem” where millions of members buy and sell digital stock, including themes, graphics, video, audio, photography and 3D models.
Ta’eed, who was formerly a graphic designer, wanted to create a platform where artists and creative professionals could make a fair and sustainable living.
Ta’eed, who has received accolades including the 2015 Telstra Victorian Business Woman of the Year and the Westpac 100 Women of Influence, has become an advocate for women in tech.
She also setup New Day Box, which distributes care packages to women living in crisis accommodation in Victoria.
In this month’s Executive Insight, Ta’eed talks about empowering artists, the progress made by women in tech and how one email unintentionally spiralled into an initiative that supports thousands.
Why did you set up Envato?
My husband and I co-founded Envato and we were both designers… and at that time, 10 years ago, not a great deal of stock was being sold. And the people who were selling it were only giving the people who made the stock about 10 to 15 per cent of each sale.
As a designer and the daughter of a photographer, I felt that was fundamentally a little bit wrong. I didn’t feel comfortable with that. So we decided to start a marketplace where the sellers would earn the majority of the sale of each of their items. It really started out as simply as that. We just wanted to be a competitor, we assumed we’d be quite small, but a competitor that was thinking about the sellers as opposed to just the customers.
And from there it rolled out and we suddenly realised there were people who were earning their livelihoods, they quit their job and they were earning more money selling stock with us than they had been at their prior full-time role. And we started hearing these lovely stories of people saying, “I was able to quit my job and now I’m a full-time carer for my child while I work whenever I want to” or “I was able to go and live out in the country and have the lifestyle I wanted with my family and I can earn money online” or “I was able to move out of my parents’ basement and buy my own place”.
And you had people who suddenly had this choice and possibility, and where they lived didn’t matter, when they could work didn’t really matter. What mattered was their talent. All they needed was their talent and an internet connection and a computer, and they could earn a living doing work that they love.
What challenges did you face in the tech start-up environment?
We started Envato quite young, and [it] was one of those things where you don’t know quite how hard it’s going to be at the time. We assumed it was going to take a few weeks to build it and it would cost a few grand and it would be this thing we ran on the site. But it took a lot longer than we thought.
We were running a graphic and web design agency, a really small one, which we’d called Good Creative. The whole idea was that we’d take on paying clients but 25 per cent of our time would be pro bono work, and we… found we had to very quickly finish those pro bono clients and just start trying to earn as much money as possible to try to pay for the build of this website.
We didn’t really have a day or an evening off for probably about six months to make it work. But the good news is we actually managed to bootstrap it. We didn’t need to get any outside investors in, which was such an incredible blessing because it’s meant we’ve been able to make a lot of decisions along the way which may have negatively affected the bottom line short-term… but we’re good for the business long-term… because ethically we felt like we wanted to do that.
We raised the percentage our sellers were getting at each sale about four times, as we could do it financially. So they’d go from earning 40 per cent to 55 per cent to 60 per cent to 80 per cent over the course of about five years. There’s no way we would have been able to do that if we’d had external funding because that would have meant external investors who would have said, “Wait a minute, where’s my return here?”
Did you imagine Envato would grow to be as large or successful as it is today?
No. We had absolutely no idea. We were hopeful that it would maybe support us financially, but we had no idea that it would grow to the extent that it did. And it grew quite quickly. It took a while for it to take, but once it actually took, it grew quite fast, and it was more a matter of struggling to keep up with it and take advantage of that organic growth that was happening.
You’ve been recognised as a female leader, as the Business Enterprise winner in the 100 Women of Influence and the 2015 Telstra Victorian Business Women of the Year, and Envato was named Job Advisor’s Coolest Company For Women in that same year. What’s your experience as a woman in the tech industry?
I think my experience was fairly atypical to a woman’s usual experience in tech. Maybe not so much anymore, but certainly 10 years ago when I started, [although] we never went out for external funding, we never took the VC [venture capital] fundraising route, I know it’s very challenging for female founders to gain the same level of credibility that male founders seem to have just by default, the unconscious bias or whatever it might be. The market doesn’t fund female entrepreneurs as easily as they fund male entrepreneurs, despite the fact that quite a few studies have found female entrepreneurs outperform male entrepreneurs quite significantly.
I never had that experience because I never went out to market. I had little hints of that experience every now and then. Occasionally you realise in some spaces in the tech industry it’s actually quite a masculine environment and often times I’ve been quite surprised by that, especially in the VC world. But as I’m founder of a bootstrapped business that’s been successful I’m not beholden to that, so it’s very easy for me to look at it and go “uh, that’s not great”, but not actually have to experience it directly myself.
And I have to say also there are a huge amount of people in the tech space, in the VC space who are trying to diversify on a bunch of levels. They are trying to focus on diversity and inclusion, and are doing some great work. It’s headed in the right direction I think, which is exciting.
Do you think there needs to be more avenues or encouragement for women to get into the tech industry?
Until recently there’s been a lot of companies whose environment was just not conducive to anybody with additional responsibilities outside of their working lives. For better or for worse it’s often women [affected]. Women were not experiencing a receptive environment when they got into tech. A lot of them would leave within the first 10 years, generally speaking, when women decide to have children, which is one of the reasons why we have diversity and inclusion. And we have flexibility, because we realise flexibility is really pivotal, not just for working mothers, but for human beings. Human beings need flexibility, they need to be home for a Wednesday, they need to take care of their parents one day.
It was very monocultural. For example, there’s an organisation that brings developers together, and one day they were chatting about the fact that they never had any women come to the event, this was about seven years ago. I was speaking to a couple of organisers and I said, “What’s the event?” and they said, “What we do is, a bunch of us get together and we go out into the woods and we camp out and we get really drunk.” I said, “Do you think women would probably want to go to that?” and they said “Oh my goodness, it’s really not a good idea is it?” And they changed it, they’re actually doing some really, really inclusive stuff now. They’ve turned it around and made it an incredible environment not just for women but for the LGBTI community.
There’s been this really pivotal shift in the last seven years but I don’t think the perception of tech has really caught up. In terms of entrepreneurship… there’s a lot of [women], and they’re out there and they’re doing amazing stuff. So from where I sit, there’s a huge amount to be encouraged by in terms of the sheer number of women who are getting into the tech space and considering themselves tech founders. I see a huge amount of movement, and I think these female tech founders are going to become more mainstream as time goes on, and I think when there’s more examples out there of other women doing it, I think it leads the way for women who are maybe interested in this space.
You also set up New Day Box, which sends boxes of skincare and cosmetics to women in crisis accommodation. What drew you to that issue?
Back in 2013 I was seven months pregnant with my second child and I saw a little article… about this outfit out of Canada, this group of women, I think sisters, and they’d put together this community of women and they made shoeboxes filled with skincare and cosmetics for women in homeless shelters.
At Envato we’d been discussing having a family violence policy at work… and I’d been doing some research about the prevalence of family violence in Australia and I’d been really, really alarmed by that. And I thought maybe we could do something like this for women in family violence crisis accommodation at Christmas time.
I just quickly, without thinking about it too much, rattled off an email to two family violence crisis accommodation services, and said, “Would there be any interest in something like this, is this something that would be useful?” And one of them sent my contact details and the email out to pretty much every crisis worker in the state, as I understand it, and I spent the next three days on the phone just getting phone call after phone call from all these incredible women who’ve spent their lives helping women escape family violence. And they all said “Christmas is one of our busiest times of year.” There’s a lot of family pressures, oftentimes family violence comes to a head.
Phone call after phone call I was hearing the same thing… and I said, “Yes, I’ll absolutely get you these boxes, we’ll make it work.” So at the end of these three days I calculated that I’d need about 500 boxes in order to fill all these commitments I’d made to these women. And I initially had in mind maybe 25 to 50 boxes. I think we had a team of 150 people at that point, and I thought, “There’s no way we’re going to be able to do this.”
Luckily we all sit in an open floor plan at Envato, and the area I was in happened to be near the HR team and legal team, and there was about six really amazing women… and they said, “Let’s do it together, we’ll make it work, we’ll put it out to our networks and off we go.”
And we did that. We put it out on Facebook and put up a website and said this is what we’re doing, just drop your box off to the office. And it just got shared… and before you know it we had a couple of thousand boxes streaming into the office. And in the meantime we partnered with Safe Steps, who are Victoria’s first response service… and very luckily for us Safe Steps said we’ll distribute the boxes. Distributing the boxes is a tricky process because a lot of these crisis accommodations, their location has to remain confidential. So at the end of that first year… we had enough boxes for Christmas and enough boxes for Mother’s Day. So we continued to do it every year.
What impact has New Day Box had?
We get these letters back from the women who receive them sometimes, which is amazing considering how much they’re contending with at the time. But it’s wonderful for us, and one in particular, I always remember it, she said, “I was feeling like giving up and going home, and I got a box and in it it had Chanel perfume and every morning I put that Chanel perfume on and I remind myself that there’s someone out there who thinks I can do this, and I keep going.”
You can think skincare and cosmetics is all a bit superficial, and it is, but the fact of the matter is it’s not about the gift. It’s about a woman who has absolutely nothing because some really terrible things have happened to her and she deserves a gift and she deserves to be reminded she’s doing an amazing job and there are people out there who really admire her courage. So that’s why we do it.
And it’s really good fun… a lot of the Envato staff and a lot of their friends and family all get involved. It’s a nice gentle way for us to bring the topic of family violence up in a corporate environment, which can be a surprisingly tricky thing to do.
How did New Day Box help Envato deal with family violence?
I have to say what was really so surprising for me was, when we first started this project, the sheer number of people at Envato, in a team of 150 there was easily a good dozen, who had direct experience with family violence who were comfortable with talking about it to me. It had come up and we had this really unusual circumstance of people gathering together and saying, “I want to be involved in this because I was in crisis accommodation when I was younger” or “I was in an abusive relationship when I was younger” or “I just escaped an abusive relationship”.
It opens that topic up, and for me it was shocking how immediate it was, I’d never had a friend who’d opened up to me that they’d experienced family violence, and I’ve never experienced family violence, and it’s very easy to feel it’s far away… and the fact is that once you open that door it’s happening to people all around you, there’s just not a safe space to talk about it and really share that. So in terms of creating a safe space in Envato and hopefully the other organisations that participate, I think it’s very effective at doing that.