The Leap Stories #19: Cyan Ta’eed

Cyan Ta'eed, founder of Envato.

If you’ve ever ventured into the world of customising a WordPress website (bless you!), you’ve probably tripped over one of Cyan Ta’eed’s business Theme Forest – a website where web designers and developers can sell their WordPress templates to the world.

Until three months ago I had no idea that Theme Forest was an Australian startup. Based in Melbourne. Created by three people in their 20s. Generating hundreds of millions of dollars. Cyan started the business with her husband Collis, and a friend Jun in 2006, and is now one of Australia’s most successful, and completely understated tech startup stories.

Theme Forest is one of the businesses under the Envato brand which now has 1.75 million active buyers all over the world and over 5 million community members, and is home to thousands of talented designers, developers and creators of all kinds, who sell a huge range of digital goods and assets. There’s everything from photographs to project files, sound effects to video templates. Envato is a complete creative eco system – check out Envato Market, Tuts+ and Studio for the whole shebang.

I meet Cyan when we both spoke on a female founders panel a few months back, and I gotta say sitting next to her, I felt completely unworthy. Theme Forest is the 90th most visited website on the ENTIRE WEB!

Cyan’s background is in graphic design. Hearing her story of needing to find a better way to service her design clients while travelling the world, I knew she was classic leap stories material. From bootstrapping the business from a parent’s garage to enabling creatives across the world make a living on the web this is an example of having a crack, building community and staying true to what matters.

In addition to her work at Envato, what I love about Cyan is her vulnerability to ask questions when she doesn’t know the answer, to get more women better represented in tech and her philanthrophic New Day Box venture (more about that below). Enjoy. xx

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Gorgeous Cyan, co-founder of Envato.

What did you want to be when you grew up and why?

I wanted to be a swimwear designer when I was little because that’s what my mum was. Eventually I decided I wanted to be a graphic designer, but that was mostly because I’d been on photoshoots with my dad (he’s a photographer), and the art director’s job looked like a lot of fun.

To be honest, I never had a strong idea of what I wanted to do, but I always liked making lists and organising things.

What did/do you study?

I studied visual communication but only really learned about design once I was doing freelance work. I’m always taking on new projects at Envato so it’s a constant learning curve.

I’m set to do new management training, media training and director training over the next few months. Lots of training!

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What has been your most scary/courageous leap you’ve ever made (preferably in your business/career/life direction)?

I decided to launch a start-up with hardly any savings and very little business experience.

My husband and I, and our close friend, Jun, were all designers, and were all running small design businesses. One day my husband Collis and I took the morning off work to go to the pool. As we swam we ended up having one of those ‘what do you want out of life’ conversations. We both agreed it wasn’t client work, and we both wanted to spend some time travelling before we had children. We also both had a desire to push ourselves and do something a bit crazy, just to see what would happen.

We’d been selling stock photos and Flash files online, and felt like we could do it better. We wanted to make a marketplace for selling creative stock that was run by creatives, for creatives. We had hardly any cash to put into it, and at 24 it never even occurred to us to get a loan or take funding, so we worked on our freelance work during the day, and the business at night and on the weekend.

After six months we were deep in debt, had borrowed money from in-laws, and were living in my parent’s basement, but the first website was live!

Growth was slow at first, but we utilised every guerrilla marketing technique we could and worked 24/7. After two years we could pay our own salaries, so we said goodbye to our freelance clients and went all in. At the same time we sold everything we owned in a garage sale, packed two suitcases and two laptop bags, and flew to Hong Kong.

We spent three months living and working there, then travelled around Canada, the USA, France, and Singapore.

The business grew and grew while we were away, and eventually we decided we were ready to set up camp in Melbourne. We worked in a share office with a few fantastic developers, and it grew from there.

Today we have almost 200 staff in Melbourne and many more working remotely, and we’ve delivered over US$250 million of earnings to the creatives that sell with us.

What were you doing before you made your leap?

I had been running my own small graphic and web design business for a couple of years, and before that I worked in my first real job at a graphic and web design agency for a few months.

Who have been the biggest 3 – 5 influences in your life, in terms of your career and doing work?

My father, John Marmaras, is a very successful corporate photographer and probably my biggest influence.

Growing up I saw him liaising with clients, managing shoots, and loving what he did every day. He taught me about art and design, and his passion for both made me want to find something I was just as passionate about.

He also always told me I could do anything, and is still totally sympathetic and supportive of whatever I have going on.

When he was younger he was a photojournalist for Time and Forbes, and travelled all over the world meeting different people and having all sorts of experiences.

I think he taught me to point and shoot for a ‘big life’.

My best friend Natalie Tam taught me what confidence looks like. She gets stuff done and stands her ground, while being warm, approachable and incredibly likeable. She tells you what you need to hear, rather than what you want to hear, because she cares. As cheesy as it sounds, Nat taught me how to be a ‘business woman’.

My husband Collis is my co-founder at Envato and the company’s CEO. Collis is my biggest advocate and supporter. He always encourages me to do the things I’m excited about (even if I’m doubtful).

He’s also an equal partner raising our children. I can have a challenging, fulfilling career because he believes children are the responsibility of both parents.

From Collis I learned that a truly confident and capable person isn’t afraid to look stupid. Watching him I had an important revelation: my life shouldn’t be about looking smart. It should be about being smart.

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What did you have in place before you made the leap?

Not much. The big thing I did have was the support of my parents – I knew if it was a flop we could continue living in their basement for as long as we needed while we got ourselves back on track.

We also maintained our freelance clients until the business was financially viable, so we could fall back on that if we needed to.

What was your defining ‘I can’t do this anymore’ moment that lead you to the leap?

I was conscious that if I didn’t do something different, nothing would change. There was nothing wrong with my life – it was lovely -but it wasn’t as outrageous as I wanted it to be. I wanted to see how far I could go.

How did/do you overcome/work with the fear that comes with leaping? How do you decide to choose courage?

I had circumstances on my side, which made a leap easier than it might otherwise have been.

Having said that, I was fearful of failure, and unless I consciously choose to disregard it, I’m still inclined to reject challenges because I’m fearful I’ll fail or look stupid. Classic imposter syndrome that I think most of us have at some level.

The only way I’ve been able to get around my imposter syndrome is to create two rules for myself that I force myself to follow.

They are:

1) If I don’t know, I always ask, even if I think it makes me look stupid.
2) I will take on any challenge offered to me and try not to worry about failure.

Following them has led to experiences and mini-leaps I would never have otherwise taken.

I did a talk on this subject a while ago that you can listen to here. That in itself was a bit of a leap – it’s terrifying to stand in front of 100 people and tell them that deep down you worry you’re a fraud. But it was tremendously liberating as well.

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What other leaps have you made in the past?

I left my first job as a graphic designer after three months to freelance full time, then started a graphic and web design business.

I started an initiative called New Day Box that delivers homemade gift boxes to women in domestic violence crisis accommodation over Christmas. We’ve delivered over 4000 boxes to women in Victoria in the last two years.

What leaps didn’t work out? What did you do about it?

I started a jewellery business (and I use the term ‘business’ very loosely) in my early 20s that was a complete flop. Nobody was interested and I had a huge amount of handmade stock that I ended up giving away. Luckily I didn’t have many financial responsibilities so could lean on my parents while I got back on my feet.

There have been plenty of other times I’ve tried something risky and it hasn’t worked out.

All you can do is lick your wounds, take it easy for a little while and remember it isn’t a reflection on you as a person. I try to remind myself when things go wrong that if life is about having a lot of different experiences and learning from them, even the big failures lead to more knowledge and experience. That doesn’t stop you from feeling like crap at the time though.

Potato chips, TV and fluffy blankets definitely help in the aftermath.

What are you most fearful of? How do you deal with it?

Aside from those big life fears we all have – people we love getting sick, natural disasters, accidents, the zombie apocalypse – I have a solid case of imposter syndrome. So I’m afraid people will find out I’m not actually smart, accomplished or capable.

I deal with it by following my little rules, and trying not to care too much about what others think.

Every now and then I have a little freakout, and I know I can talk to my husband or my parents and they’ll remind me that, in all probability, none of us will care about any of this in six months time.

I became quite sick after the birth of my second child, and in a weird way that gave me a lot of perspective around what is and isn’t worth being scared of. I wasted so much time when I was younger worrying about failing or looking stupid. There’s nothing like almost dying to make you realise what counts.

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How would you rate your level of happiness about making your leap?
1 being sad, 10 being rad.

10! I’ve had so many amazing experiences and opportunities because we launched Envato. I also feel like I can now make a bigger difference in the world – be that by advocating for diversity in tech, running the business the way I feel it should be run, or my capacity to support worthy causes.

What’s the biggest upside to making the leap?

I learn and am challenged all the time. In the early days of running your own business, when something needs doing there’s only you to do it! So I’ve had a go at so many different things. It’s made me a lot more comfortable taking on anything.

I also get the chance to run a business the way I think it should be run, and (hopefully) positively impact the working lives of a few hundred people.

If I’m passionate that there should be more job share programs for men and women to spend more time with their families, I can make that happen at Envato.

If someone comes to me and says “you know what, there are no LGBTQI tech groups in Melbourne”, I can give them the support and resources they need to make one.

I feel incredibly lucky that I can help the people in our team and our wider community leave things better than than before.

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What’s the biggest downside to making the leap? And how do you get through it?

The downside for me is being very busy and the stress of existing outside my comfort zone. Both stem from saying yes to new and difficult things.

The business doesn’t stop when we go on holidays, so you have to be okay with getting work calls or having to check things on holidays.

I work with amazing people though, so there’s a lot less of that than there used to be.

What might be your next leap?

I’ve often thought that when the time is right I’d like to take three months off from the day-to-day business and do something completely physical.

I’ve never really challenged myself physically in any significant way, and I have now heard two stories of entrepreneurs taking time off work to focus exclusively on becoming champion dancers (Robelen Bajar and Tim Ferris).

It’d be an interesting experiment to see how good I could get at something like surfing or yoga.

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What are your favourite words to live by?

I have two quotes that stick with me:

“Never grow a wishbone, daughter, where your backbone ought to be.”
– Clementine Paddleford

“The cure for anything is salt water – sweat, tears, or the sea.”
Karen von Blixen-Finecke

Who do you admire who also made the leap?

My Envato co-founder, Jun Rung, decided he needed a change after eight years of working like a maniac at Envato (and for many years before).

This guy works hard and had been working more than full time since he was in his early teens helping his parents run their store in Port Moresby.

Jun and his wife put everything in storage and drove around Australia camping for six months while he decided what to do next. He’s now an apprentice builder.

I admire how he’s been making big decisions and jumping in; finding what makes him and his family happy. He’s also the nicest guy in the world, and he and his wife and kids are family to us.

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A piece of advice for someone with an itch to leap?

It’s such a cliché phrase, but a true one: when you look back on your life, you’ll regret the things you didn’t do more than the things you did.

You don’t want to look back and regret not trying something that was important to you.

I’d also say that sometimes people seem to think they need to plan out their whole life before they make a big change. Sometimes the journey is about a balance of uncertainty and possibility, which can lead to things you never anticipated.

Right now I’m:

Hearing: the BBC4 Infinite Monkey Cage podcast (a really great panel radio show about science)
Eating: Homemade chicken and lentil soup
Drinking: Sparkling water and decaf coffee (boring I know!)
Reading: Two gigantic folders for some Board of Directors training and Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot for pure escapism
Loving: Hawaii! We just got back from a family holiday there and it’s paradise

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This is a classic story of solving a problem, starting small, being agile, staying humble and taking continuous leaps. And with the right team and great timing, big things can grow.

Onward! Kylie x

PS. For more reading check out some articles by Cyan:
Time to disrupt the male-dominated tech culture
How I learned to stop worrying and love asking questions

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