Every story has a beginning, middle and end. For some getting started is the hardest part but for Cyan Ta’eed it’s where she thrives. An accomplished entrepreneur, Cyan’s foresight to create businesses we need before we even know we need them is almost telepathic. She started tech marketplace, Envato, alongside her husband Collis in 2006 outside from her parents’ garage, which has since globally grown to include over 600 staff. In March 2018, she turned the key to her start-up ignition again when she launched social enterprise Hey Tiger, an ethical chocolate company which supports communities in West Africa through its sales and one where every bar is lovingly handmade in Melbourne’s Cremorne. And in July this year, Cyan got her third start-up off the ground, another tech enterprise, Milkshake, which allows users to build their very own customised website in five minutes straight off their phone. Impressed? We don’t blame you.
Cyan’s resolve to get things done is to do what you can today. If you’re thinking about starting your own thing, whatever it is, Cyan says don’t plan to do it in five years, instead start taking small steps now, which will lead to greater strides in the future. She also told us a lot of other insightful things when we recently chatted to this impressive CEO at home with a few bites of chocolate in-between.
Let’s start at the very beginning! How do you think your upbringing has shaped your career and entrepreneurial efforts?
Both my parents worked for themselves and it felt very natural to me at a young age to create and build your own thing, which I now look back on as an incredible blessing. My dad always drilled into me if you’re going to do something be the best you possibly can and I learned this firsthand watching him work on shoots as a photographer.
As a young adult how did you navigate what it was you wanted to focus on in your career?
Before I landed in tech, I briefly considered becoming an opera singer. I really enjoyed singing but wasn’t passionate enough. I remember my dad sitting me down and saying: “If you wouldn’t be able to sleep or eat if you don’t sing become an opera singer. But if you can take it or leave it then do something else, because you will sacrifice too much and never be able to compete with those who just want it more than you.” It was really good advice because I think we often do the things we are naturally good at instead of things that make us happy. I’d always been a visual person and ended up pursuing graphic design, and following university was fortunate to land a job at a respected agency.
At what point did you realise you wanted to work for yourself and eventually start Envato with your husband Collis in 2006?
After three months in my design job I decided I wanted to work for myself, and moved into freelancing as a graphic designer. I started taking on more and more clients and around this time my husband Collis finished his job at a web design agency. We thought let’s combine forces and work together. Things were going well and we hired an employee but we wanted more from the business. We’d just finished reading The 4-Hour Workweek and were really inspired. We decided to create an online business that was a marketplace for designers and developers that was creator-centric as opposed to customer-centric because we thought there was a big imbalance in the industry, where the vast majority of creators were only earning 10% of every sale. We wanted to sell items we’d like to buy and sell as designers, and give a higher percentage of each sale to the authors (the people that were creating them). This was the beginning of Envato.
Through Envato, you’ve been able to offer a lot of opportunities to women and the marginalised in the tech industry – why is it important that you use your position to benefit others?
I think when it comes down to it, I won a bit of the lottery of life. There are a huge amount of people who had just as good an idea or are just as driven or worked just as hard and the market just wasn’t there for them. There’s an old model in business that success is measured by profit going out to its shareholders. I think it’s quite a destructive model that is responsible for a lot of the bad that goes on in the world. I feel if I’ve been given the responsibility and privilege of having a business of this size I need to make sure we’re trying to do good with that. We don’t get it right all the time, but there’s so much opportunity to make things better and someone needs to experiment and give it a crack, and that’s the role we play.
What is it about start-up culture that motivates you?
It’s an intensely creative process where you get to create this thing that didn’t exist before and put it out in the world and hope people like it.
And can you tell us how you harnessed your start-up knowledge to create social enterprise Hey Tiger?
I knew the concept of a social enterprise was something I found really fascinating. With Hey Tiger I wanted to create an organisation that exists for people to do great work and also create a positive impact. We do this with chocolate and by supporting local communities in Ghana through The Hunger Project. I hope if we do this right, we can inspire others entering the business to think about social enterprise as a way to make things better, instead of just making money.
You’ve made a career predominantly in tech, so how did chocolate come into the mix?
I wanted to do something completely different, out of tech and geared towards women. I kept coming back to chocolate because the type I wanted didn’t exist, it felt like everything was branded for my children or parents and in-laws. I started experimenting and making my own with unusual flavour profiles and decided there was something to this idea worth exploring.
But instead of just starting a straightforward chocolate business you turned this idea into a social enterprise – how do you feel the two fit together?
I thought it was a worthy idea for a social enterprise. I was already supporting The Hunger Project and remember going to a dinner where the CEO was talking about some of the holistic programs they run and the work being done in Burkina Faso, the third poorest country in the world, to help communities reach self-reliance on their own terms and thought this was an interesting, empowering and effective concept. That night I also learned children were being taken away from their families to work on cocoa farms. It was so messed up to me that we get so much joy from eating chocolate while it is doing some serious damage. I started looking into it more, here was this complex social problem within a multi-billion dollar industry. I thought I’d create my own thing, it sounds basic, but I had this really great product idea and there’s a very real problem that needs to be addressed, and decided to merge them together and start Hey Tiger, to try and make a change in the cocoa industry
A few months ago, you launched your third start-up Milkshake, can you tell us a little bit about this and the service it offers?
Milkshake is basically a really, intuitive web builder that you can build via an app that goes straight onto Instagram. It takes around five minutes to make, is beautifully designed and you can alter it on the fly. People are using it as their Instagram link in bio and to create and manage their own website easily themselves.
What’s the best single advice you can give to a woman wanting to launch her own start up?
Sometimes you hear women say in 5 years time they’re going to quit their job and start something. But I always say do whatever you can to start something now, it doesn’t have to be THE thing but just make something within the parameters you can and put it out in the world. A lot of times people imagine there’s this myth of the entrepreneur, that it was an overnight success, but what I find actually happens is you’ve got people trying out ideas, falling over and scraping their knees, and getting back up and plugging away. Every time you put something out there, you learn and get better.
How would you best describe your work uniform?
I don’t dress like a classic CEO but I did realise early on that if you want to be treated like a CEO you need to dress like one. I was young when Envato started to scale and as a woman, I knew I needed to look like the most senior person in the room but on my own terms. I tend to go for a polished look with trench coats, dresses and colourful patterns.
And how would you describe Gorman to a friend?
It’s incredibly colourful, graphic and brave. It has it’s own perspective and is never going to be vanilla.