What Ive learnt: Cyan Ta'eed

Tuesday, 19 April 2016


    Non-executive directors (NEDs) must be in tune to potential cultural breaches in their organisations. Korn Ferry’s Katie Lahey AM MAICD points out 10 ways to identify if your culture is on track.

    Cyan Ta’eed MAICD has been on an exciting journey from graphic designer to successful tech entrepreneur and 2015 Telstra Victorian Business Woman of the Year. She recently spoke with AICD and shared what she’s learnt about start-up funding, nurturing a diverse business culture, and what it’s like to run “Australia’s Coolest Company for Women”. 

    In 2006 Cyan Ta’eed MAICD and her co-founder (now husband) Collis Ta'eed launched their online business from her parents’ garage. It was, according to Ta’eed, a “clichéd tech company start-up story”, with a desk made of stools, funding troubles, and a fast-paced scramble to secure their place in the market.

    “We really underestimated how much of an investment it would be to get it off the ground,” she says. “We got into a fair bit of debt, maxed out credit cards, borrowed money from our parents, and worked like crazy. The next few years we were just hanging on for dear life and learning as much as we could, trying to understand how to run a business which just kept on growing.”

    Ten years later, their global marketplace for developers and designers has flourished. Envato now has 170 employees in its Melbourne headquarters, and recently the company celebrated a $300 million milestone for seller earnings.

    The company’s five-member board has evolved from its informal beginnings to become the nucleus for Envato’s company culture and the developer of its strategy. And according to Ta’eed, in the tech field you always need to stay one step ahead of the game.

    “For us, innovation is absolutely key. We invest in a great deal of research and development, and that’s because we know that tech always moves so quickly – we’re always looking for the next big high-growth product that we can release. So right now we have three in the pipeline that will be out in the next six months or so. We are constantly experimenting in a lot of different areas,” she says.

    Experimentation and growth has always been a big part of the company’s journey – but also for Ta’eed. She is quick to share the challenges and successes, and is generous with advice for other emerging start-ups and entrepreneurs.

    “I have really tried to grow on the job. I didn’t have anything like this skill set when I started. I had no idea what an HR function looked like or what business intelligence did. I was really green. I really had to learn and figure it out and hire brilliant people, rely on them and learn from them. There are some areas where we’re really strong and some areas where we are still finding our feet, so we rely on each other. We take intelligent risks and when things go wrong we ‘retro-fit’ it, learn from it and move on.”

    Since being announced as the 2015 Telstra Victorian Business Woman of the Year, Ta’eed has been in hot demand on the speaker circuit, emerging as a strong advocate for diversity, workplace flexibility and unconscious bias training – work that helped earn Envato the recent title of “Australia’s Coolest Company for Women”.

    Here Ta’eed shares some the key things she has learnt about building a successful and diverse private enterprise.


    While Envato was “bootstrapped” and never took external funding when it launched in 2006, Ta’eed says that in the current saturated start-up environment, that would probably be a lot harder to do. “As someone on the other side of that now (who invests in other start-ups), personally I think, if you can, it’s better to get investments from other founders when you’re first starting out, rather than big business. Especially founders who have had success in the space that is relevant to your proposed business,” she says.

    “Even though you’ll probably be able to get a smaller sum in terms of investments from successful founder, you’ll also get an understanding of what it’s like to run a successful start-up and hopefully you’ll also get the expertise and the connections and all those other benefits.”


    Envato has seven core company values, such as: “Tell it like it is”, “diverse and inclusive”, “not just the bottom line”, and “when the community succeeds we succeed”. Everyone in the organisation contributed to creating the values – from the board to the receptionist – which is why Ta’eed believes they’ve had such a good buy-in from all employees.

    “People feel like the values are theirs. They really live it and own it – it has been one of our great successes. I was a bit cynical about values when we first started, but they’ve set the culture in a formal way and they really guide people on best practice,” says Ta’eed.

    “We’ve always made it clear that business is not just about making money. We have a profitable business and we’ve been very lucky that our business has grown very fast and has always been very profitable. There are quite a few things we do which do not benefit the bottom line in any way; they’re just the right thing to do. I think that people like that about working here. Hopefully, people feel like working here is more than just about earning a salary but about our own little way of making a positive difference on a broad level.”


    In order to nurture a diverse workplace, Ta’eed says that it is the board and management’s job to think proactively about how they can get diversity in our workforce, support their staff and make sure that they feel included.

    “It’s a long road but at the very least, management should be across unconscious bias, and should at least have ways that they can combat that and be conscious of it, and have discussions around recruitment. They should ask themselves: why are we making these decisions? Are there valid reasons, or is it unconscious bias?” says Ta’eed.

    “What’s important is that everyone feels they are able to contribute and participate in the conversation,” she says. “Envato has been concentrating on this for a couple of years now and we’ve been getting into a really engaged debate on how to progress diversity and inclusion – it’s coming from people all around the business. It’s not minorities talking about minority group issues, it’s the majority talking about minority group issues and being conscious and aware. They’re all tackling it from different angles and they’re at different stages of the journey, but it’s on the agenda. If we can just get there, we’re already ahead of the game.”

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