Leaders

Cyan Ta’eed Stands In The Arena

She's the serial founder making her debut on Australia's Rich List. Here, Cyan Ta'eed talks about her latest venture, impostor syndrome and the power of getting back up again.

By Emily Brooks

Leaders

She's the serial founder making her debut on Australia's Rich List. Here, Cyan Ta'eed talks about her latest venture, impostor syndrome and the power of getting back up again.

By Emily Brooks

When Cyan Ta’eed debuted on The Australian Financial Review’s Rich List this year, no one said a word to her except her best friend. They have been friends since they were seven, and this year, when Ta’eed ranked 94 on the list with her husband and a predicted $974 million worth, her accolade spoke her best friend’s language. She works in finance, you see. She congratulated Ta’eed. Nothing else changed. Not her car, a 10-year-old Golf. Not her day-to-day, running three businesses she has founded in Melbourne. Nothing changed, except her mail. “I started getting a lot of brochures for super yachts and jets, and that’s it,” she said. “But I spend my money on launching chocolate, not on a yacht.” And if that doesn’t sum up Cyan Ta’eed for you, I don’t know what will.

There are three things you should know about Cyan Ta’eed. Firstly, she is the co-founder of Envato, an online marketplace for digital assets ranging from WordPress templates to business card designs which she created in 2006 with her husband at just 26-years-old. Secondly, following the global success of this business, she has founded two more on her own; Hey Tiger, an ethical chocolate brand, and Milkshake; an Instagram website maker. Thirdly and finally, Cyan Ta’eed is terrible at elevator pitches. That’s not an observation. That’s something she openly admits. But there is good reason for Cyan Ta’eed openly admitting she is terrible at elevator pitches. 

Cyan Ta’eed, second from right, and some of her Milkshake team

On Impostor Syndrome And Owning Your Weaknesses

Owning her weaknesses has been the key unlocking Ta’eed from the shackles of impostor syndrome, which hit hard as Envato reached  international acclaim and economic prosperity in a mere two years. “I really started to struggle when Envato started to scale, and there was this feeling of, ‘My goodness, I’m in my late twenties, and I’m managing 50 people, and there are always these things that I don’t know,” the 37-year-old says. “What really turned it for me was facing head on where I was actually really weak. But also where I was really strong. Because when I was really dealing with the impostor syndrome, I wasn’t clear at all where my strengths were. I just wasn’t looking that way at all. I was analyzing critically, and it left me blind. As soon as I looked and went, ‘Oh ok, this is where I’m really strong, this is where my secret sauce is. These are the areas that, my goodness, I am not good here,’ that gave me power. It allowed me to go, alright I can hire. Once I figured out that was the thing I needed to do, I got so much better. That changed the game for me quite honestly. Nobody is good at everything, and for some reason, for years, I felt like I should be.” 

What followed has been a career of experimenting, questioning, problem solving and, when required, facing the fear head on. For every great idea, there have been countless failed ones. For every failed idea, there have been countless learnings. And embracing those learnings have brought Cyan Ta’eed to where she is today. Onto Australia’s Rich List and into a Sydney cafe discussing the power of a t-shirt. 

From T-Shirts To Chocolate To Milkshakes

Four years after the Ta’eed’s established Envato in Melbourne, Emily Weiss, a Vogue fashion assistant-turned-beauty-entrepreneur founded Glossier, a direct-to-consumer beauty company focussed on skincare first, makeup second. Weiss has said countless times, she wanted to create “a brand whose sweatshirt you wanted to wear” and after the company reached unicorn status last year, there is no doubt this brand-first strategy worked. So when Ta’eed decided in 2017 to launch Hey Tiger, an ethical chocolate brand partnering with The Hunger Project to help communities in West Africa, Weiss’ philosophy stuck with her. (Ironically, as she tells me this she is wearing a t-shirt with a tiger on it. Not Hey Tiger, though. Gucci.)

“I knew that was the goal, so we created this packaging which was very brand-first. What ended up happening, organically, was these unboxing experiences. Occasionally, people would be sharing these unboxing experiences [on social media] and talking about the product and talking about the feel of the paper and which design they liked best and all these sorts of things and you’d see these incredible spikes,” Ta’eed says. 

One of those people was Zoë Foster Blake. 

“You know, if you ever want to be the busiest you’ve ever been in your life, be lucky enough to have Zoë Foster Blake do an organic [Instagram] story about your product and how much she loves it,” Ta’eed says, laughing. “I’m sitting there watching these influencers, and I’m thinking to myself, these are some incredible entrepreneurs. They are their own art directors, stylists, photographers, and incredible communicators.” She began speaking to these women about their businesses, from the massive to the micro influencers, and she found they weren’t updating their websites. The general consensus was they worked from their phones. Updating a website was simply too slow, and hardly mobile-friendly. Soon the answer arrived. They needed an Insta website which could be created and updated on their phones. So Cyan Ta’eed did what she does best. She built it. And it now exists as her third major venture, an app called Milkshake. While it will launch later this month, the app already has 15,000 downloads following an Early Access period from June 11. “Milkshake is the marriage almost from what I learned from Envato and what I’ve learned from Hey Tiger, smushed together,” she says. “That’s the technical term.” We both laugh. 

 

The Myth Of The Big Idea And The Power Of Getting Started

It may come as a surprise but not everything has worked for Ta’eed. In fact, she says there have been a huge amount of ideas that didn’t work. Envato was her third business, and she has launched 15 to 20 different ideas along the way, most of which, have not worked. “I’ve gotten quite good at having clear success metrics at the start and if [the product] doesn’t meet it, I shut it down and keep on going. It’s very, very easy to get emotionally involved in what you are doing, but I’ve learned it’s not necessarily a reflection on me if it doesn’t come together. It just means that it’s just not good enough and you’ve got to shut it down before the next thing,” she says. “I’ve learned to fail well, yes. More efficiently and more speedily.”

In the age of the startup era, founders have become the new rockstars and, as a result, everyone is waiting for their big idea. Ideas, though, are easy to come across. Execution is the tough part. With this in mind, the woman who launched a multi-million dollar company in her parent’s garage does not encourage people to quit their jobs to launch their big ideas. Start small, she says, and see where it takes you. “I am many, many start-ups in. It’s like going to the gym and building up the muscle. You learn every time,” she says. “So anytime anybody says to me, ‘Oh, well one day I’m going to quit my job and finally do a start up,’ I tend to say, ‘Look, why don’t you just start making stuff and putting it out into the world. You can do that, and see what happens and learn’. Because the pressure – the financial, reputational and personal pressure – of going, ‘Alright, all my ducks are in a row. For the first time in my life, I’m going to launch a product and put it out into the world, and everything is riding on this’; this pressure is unbelievable… I think the idea that one day you’re going to do it rather than just going, ‘This is a part of who I am. I make stuff, I fiddle around, I put stuff out there, and I see how it goes.’ I think you can start doing that at any time.”

Cyan’s Ta’eed’s latest venture (Instagram @go.milkshake) has 15,000 downloads and it hasn’t yet launched.

Daring Greatly, From Matriarch To Matriarch

It was never really a question whether Ta’eed would start her own business. It was only a matter of time. She was brought up in a tight-knit family of small business owners, so she never had the indication that “it wasn’t the normal thing to do”. But it is the spirit of her great-grandmother, the matriarch of the family, who remains the consistent force backing Cyan Ta’eed today. 

Lavina Purdy was a single mother living through the Great Depression with two daughters and somehow managed to open up a small deli. From there she opened up a boarding house, then a cookie factory, before eventually becoming one of the most successful builders in Queensland. “At a time when that was just unheard of, this woman in heels, in her eighties, was carrying bags of cement over her shoulder up to the builders and they were all listening to her with rapt attention,” Ta’eed says. “She always said, ‘I’ve built houses for the wives. All the male builders build houses for the husbands, but it’s not the husbands. They are the ones paying, but they’re not the ones choosing the houses.’ So she found the differentiation point, and she was incredibly savvy and intelligent. This force of nature, and she ran with it.”

While her great-grandmother passed away at 97, when Ta’eed was in her late teens, one of her rings was left in Ta’eed’s hands. “Realistically with start-ups and businesses, you are trying to solve hard problems every day, and if I need to kind of bolster myself up or I feel a crack on the knuckles from life, I will wear her ring, and I’ll think, ‘Lavina wouldn’t have let this intimidate her’. The world kind of bent to her will.”

 

“I’ve learned to fail well, yes. More efficiently and more speedily.”

 

Some would say Cyan Ta’eed has the Lavina factor. She has three businesses, two children, and a co-founder in a husband. She has done it her way. While most people like to keep their personal life and work life separate, Ta’eed has had no trouble blending the two. “Everyone thought that it was nuts. But for Collis and I, we both we had relationships prior to getting together where the person said, ‘Can you just give me a little bit of space? You are too intense.’ Then we met each other, and we were both equally intense, and it worked out,” she says. “One of the most loveliest things in my life has been working with my husband. It honestly is, but also we are so obsessed with our work that if we didn’t, I don’t think either of us would have seen each other…. It never occurred to me not to be really all in, and for me, more is more. If I love you, you are never going to get rid of me.”

The other great love of Cyan Ta’eed’s life is a good quote. When I ask for her favourite, she responds with three. The last being the famous ‘man in the arena’ quote from Theodore Roosevelt:  

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

As she sits in front of me at a bustling cafe in Sydney, after working her way out from her parents’ garage, after working through her impostor syndrome to employ more than 635 people, after starting three businesses which have helped everyone from the struggling creative to the poor in West Africa, Cyan Ta’eed smiles. “I find that quote helpful,” she says. “I am a person that tends to care a lot about what people think. I’m a people-oriented person, and so sometimes when things don’t go well, it’s nice to remember. I’m just going to keep on getting up.”