Startup secrets from UNSW’s entrepreneur community


UNSW is very proud of its thriving and growing community of entrepreneurs, whether it is the wealth of UNSW startups we’ve supported in getting off the ground through our leading Founders Program, or our impressive alumni who have set out on their ventures after graduation. It gives us great pleasure to see them all go from strength to strength with their business endeavours.

We asked some of our innovative alums (and some impressive students!) to share insights of life in the fast lane, including the biggest challenges they faced, the best advice they ever received, and what surprised them most about the startup lifestyle.

Evan was an early-starter, founding his first business (Hero Education) at the age of 17 in his first year of studying Law at UNSW. The joy he felt in creating something of value and watching it grow led to him founding his second business,, straight out of university. With this business, Evan won first place in the 2017 StartCon Pitch Competition.


What has been the biggest challenge of your startup journey?
At the beginning when I was still validating the idea. Nothing was more demotivating than not knowing much about my customers and the problems they were facing. It was the loneliest part of my journey. I overcame this because I had a strong support network and a partner who pushed me to persevere.

What is the most valuable piece of advice you have been given?
Funding is often equated with success, which isn't necessarily the case. Instead, a startup should be run like a business before it is run like a startup. Learn how to make money with very little because if you get given money, you'll learn how to spend it instead of earn it.

What is it about the entrepreneur lifestyle that has surprised you the most?
That you can leave the office at 5pm - it really comes down to the rules you decide to set for yourself, it doesn’t have to be ridiculous. Having said that, there is definitely long hours, but you're working on something you love so it doesn't feel awful.


A participant in UNSW’s Founder10x program, Sarah never meant to be an entrepreneur but fell in love with solving problems. While competing in a hackathon with co-founder Dr Yan Ting Choong, the two loved the idea they came up with. The result was m-Time, a ‘mumscierge’ or ‘dadscierge’ service that provides a nanny, housekeeper and caretaker of the wellbeing of busy mums and dads.

What has been the biggest challenge of your startup journey?
It’s definitely learning how to take better care of myself. I'm an all-or-nothing kind of person so if I care about something I can work non-stop without even realising I'm doing it and end up feeling burnt out.  My co-founder and I have introduced mandatory three days weekends once a month and we have alarms in our phones to remind us to keep each other accountable.

What is the most valuable piece of advice you have been given? 
That there are no right answers, nobody ever really knows what to do, and everyone is just making everything up as they go.

What is it about the entrepreneur lifestyle that has surprised you the most?
The vast majority of people in the space are such kind, open-minded people! Everyone is so willing to do what they can to help; it's a very "pay it forward" mentality which I think is great.

Dr Dror Ben Naim founded online learning company, Smart Sparrow, in 2010 based on his PhD work at UNSW. Smart Sparrow’s courseware is now being used by hundreds of universities, tens of thousands of academics, and hundreds of thousands of students, and has attracted major investment from Uniseed and ACT – the latter being the organisation behind the US’s largest standardised college admissions test.


How did Smart Sparrow get its start?

While I did computer science and physics at UNSW, I knew I could improve the online learning experience. I worked for Professor Mike Gal in his Photonics Lab and had the idea to create an online virtual lab that students could access it from home before coming to the lab to make them better prepared. Mike gave me a break and hired me to work on this concept. Every entrepreneur needs to be given some sort of a chance - that was my chance. 


What is it about the entrepreneur lifestyle that has surprised you the most?

I think nothing is smooth. So maybe the biggest challenge is that everything is a challenge.

And you can end up talking to investors all day long. I didn't see that coming.


What do you love most about your work?

This beautiful feeling of inventing something that's valuable to others.


Modi Song and friend Melissa Lee dreamed of starting a business together since seventh grade. It wasn’t until 2010 that they decided to leave their jobs in corporate finance to bring the concept of custom clothing online. With a shared passion for classic design and quality workmanship, the pair disrupted Australia’s traditional retail by offering stylish, fitted clothing for the modern individual. 


What is the most valuable piece of advice you have been given?
If you want something, be assertive and ask for it. We have been taught that it is almost second nature for men to ask for the things they want whereas women often have the mindset that whatever is on offer is the limit to what is available.

What is it about the entrepreneur lifestyle that has surprised you the most?
While it may seem glamorous to be a “boss-lady”, the pressure of creating a successful company is actually much more daunting than answering to your old boss. What’s surprising is how quickly you learn to grow in your role - starting a business means you now have you do a bunch of things that you’re not qualified to do and you just develop that agility and thick skin to get on with it.

If you could change one thing about your work or industry, what would it be?
Unfortunately, tall poppy syndrome is prevalent within Australian culture, though it has definitely improved since we first began. In a startup company even the smallest wins have been hard earned and as a community we need to share stories of this journey, collaborate, speak up about failures and not try and tear each other down at the cost of innovation.

After completing Bachelor of Commerce majoring in Accounting and Business Law & Taxation, Steve spent 11 years at Macquarie Bank as an accountant before starting his own venture. With his well-trained eye for good value, he started iFlyFlat to help travellers collect frequent flyer points for a cheap chance at upgrading. The business won the Australasian Bootstrap Startup Company of the year award at Startcon 2017.


What do you love most about working in a startup?

Being an entrepreneur allows you to do things that the usual systems don’t. Corporates have many boundaries so you can’t quickly get down to the problem and fix it. You learn so much more in a shorter stretch of time than in the large organisation too.


What is the most valuable advice you've ever been given?

It's not meant to be easy. If it was easy then everyone would do it. You will come across hard times, but at the end of the day, you've spent your life on your own idea. You're not trying to make someone else's idea work.


What is it about the entrepreneur lifestyle that has surprised you the most?

That different people are driven by different things. Some are quite rational, and understand the numbers, but others are driven by completely different things like emotion or competition, and that surprised me. To get them to understand what you deliver, you have to find out what they care about and align with that.


An avid reader with a father who penned a novel, Ali learned it was increasingly difficult for debut authors to find publishers or literary agents. In 2008, utilising her psychology and business studies from UNSW, she sought to fill that void and champion new Australian writing with her own social purpose publishing company.


How did your startup journey begin?

It didn’t happen overnight. I spent about a year of talking to everyone in Australia and overseas – from publishers to agents to printers to distributors and designers - I came to the conclusion that with a growing aversion to risk, particularly during the GFC, Australia was not investing enough in writing. We needed a fresh approach in order to have the significant impact on culture that we wanted. 


What has been the biggest challenge of your startup journey?
To promote wholly new authors, we required good in-store visibility in traditional retailers so that readers could easily find them, and that was a huge challenge. We had to flip the perception of a debut author on its head so that retailers would be willing to dedicate shelf space to these talented writers we were identifying. This took time, as with all relationship building.

What is the most valuable piece of advice you have been given?
It takes a village, and usually that’s right. Building a team of the right people is hugely important and I’ve found that that comes down not just to experience and skill but culture and office fit. In our employment contracts, we have a nice guy policy, which all staff must agree to.

Having attained his PhD on Material Science and Engineering at UNSW, as well as being a Harvard Fellow, Reza soon discovered the startup life was for him. He embraced his own dislike of routine chores like washing the car by creating WipeHero, an environmentally friendly mobile car washing service, selected as Startcon's 2017 Startup of the Year.


How did you realise the startup life was for you?

I had quite a good resume, but got rejected from over 300 job applications in a six-month period. I soon realised that I was in a different mindset from other applicants. I wanted to make a strong impact in a short amount of time and was willing to sacrifice everything to get there. At that point I realized I couldn’t work for anyone else, so I pivoted and started my own business.


What has been the biggest challenge of your startup journey?

To become more focused on others rather than myself. I soon realised it’s not all about me and I need to shift my focus to the people who are dedicating their life and career to be on this journey with me. It also takes a lot of persistence to achieve what you think is easily achievable. 


What is the best advice you were ever given?

Most people you get advice from don't actually know the answers and so one if the best pieces of advice I have received is don't listen to everyone's advice. 


Lily’s first venture into entrepreneurship was born out of necessity at the age of 16. Faced with her family’s dire financial situation, she began her own online shoe selling business. Her friends became her distributors throughout the Sydney high school network, and before she was 18 Lily had made $500,000 in profit. At 19, she founded the multi award-winning Austern International, which runs three-week Career Bootcamps around the globe to develop entrepreneurial mindsets. 


What drove you to create these programs? 

In my first year at UNSW, I was fortunate enough to be chosen as a cadet at a global accounting firm. I thought it could give me good work experience but more importantly, it was about the social prestige of the name. Needless to say, I ended up hating it because it was everything I was not. I hated being micromanaged, the lack of creativity and the bureaucratic structure. This made me realise that the skills I learned from my degree could be actively applied elsewhere. 


What is it about the entrepreneur lifestyle that has surprised you the most?

I actually manage to get a lot of sleep (8 hours+). I hate that people in startup circles idolise lack of sleep like it’s a badge of honour. It’s all about priority and time management.


If you could change one thing about your work, what would it be?

In the startup space, it’s easy to get caught up in vanity metrics where the people with the most investment funding become the most lauded, or the companies with the most noise and PR are deemed successful, and you’re constantly comparing yourself to others. I’m really happy that the UNSW startup community at the MCIC has been so incredibly supportive of students, they’ve assisted me countless times when I’ve felt lost or needing help.


Do you have a vision for a new business you’d like to turn into a reality? Are you bursting with great ideas, but lack the skills or networks to grow them? The UNSW Founders Program is here to support and inspire entrepreneurial minds, providing entrepreneurs at all stages of their startup journey with the skills and contacts needed to succeed. We also encourage our successful entrepreneurs to share their insights through guest presentations and mentoring. If you’d like to get involved, contact us today.