Start-up secrets from UNSW's entrepreneur community

Evan Wong

UNSW is very proud of its thriving and growing community of entrepreneurs, whether it is the wealth of student startups we’ve supported in getting off the ground, or our impressive alumni who have set out on their ventures after graduation. It gives us great pleasure to see them 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 line, including the biggest challenges they faced, the best advice they ever received, and what surprised them most about the startup lifestyle.

Evan Wong, CheckBox.ai

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, Checkbox.ai, 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 are given money, you'll learn how to spend it instead of earn it.

Lily Wu

Lily Wu, Austern International

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 offer 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. 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.

Dror Ben-Naim

Dr Dror Ben-Naim, Smart Sparrow

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 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 do you love most about your work?

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

Ali Green

Ali Green, Pantera Press

An avid reader with a father who penned a novel, Ali learnt 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.

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.

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.

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