Bringing creative ideas to market

07 Mar 2017

Author: Charmaine Teoh

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Envato is a multimillion-dollar global business that has not taken a cent of funding since it was founded more than a decade ago. Co-founder Cyan Ta’eed explains how the bootstrapped startup became one of the world’s leading online marketplaces for digital media.
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What do Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and Kanye West have in common? In 2016, all three used an item created for sale on Envato, an Australian company that is one of the world’s leading online marketplaces. Obama and Clinton used audio tracks in campaign ads while West incorporated film footage in the music video for ‘Wolves’ from his album The Life Of Pablo.

Obama, Clinton and West are just three of the two million people who buy an Envato product or service each year, with a purchase made every four seconds. On Envato’s online marketplaces, people can find digital assets including photos, video and audio files, website themes, graphics, code and 3D models; hire freelance designers and web developers; and learn the skills needed to build websites, videos, apps and graphics.

Founded in 2006 by Cyan Ta’eed, her husband Collis and friend Jun Rung, Envato has a worldwide community of seven million buyers and sellers, and customers in 197 countries including 80 per cent of the Fortune 500. The majority of its revenue is derived overseas, earning the company the title of 2016 Australian Exporter of the Year.

At the heart of Envato’s business are the people who create and sell digital assets, and from day one the company has ensured they are fairly compensated. Envato pays sellers a commission of up to 80 per cent of the sale price.
 To date, it has paid more than US$480 million to its community of sellers. Over 80 people have each earned US$1 million – 19 people in 2016 alone. 
Reportedly more profitable than Australian peers Atlassian and Campaign Monitor, Envato’s success is all the more impressive because it was achieved without a cent of external funding.  

Bootstrapping its way to success

Eleven years ago, Ta’eed and her husband were freelance graphic designers who supplemented their incomes by selling photos and Flash stock to agencies. Dissatisfied with the low commissions they received and wanting to sell other types of assets, they decided to develop their own platform.

They thought it would take a few weeks and a few thousand dollars to develop. Instead, it took five months, all their savings and some borrowed money. But it did not cross their minds to source funds from investors.

“The startup system in 2006 was fairly nascent and I can’t remember being conscious that venture capital was an option,” says Ta’eed. “We were also quite inexperienced at building a business and were learning as we grew.”

Later, there were opportunities to source funding but Ta’eed decided it was better to grow more slowly and be modestly profitable. The absence of external investors looking for a quick return also gave Envato the freedom and flexibility to progressively increase the commissions it paid sellers. 

“My father is a photographer and my mother a fashion designer, so I have a strong awareness of creative rights,” says Ta’eed. “Not only is paying a fair price the right thing to do, it makes good business sense – if our creators leave us, we wouldn’t exist.”

Envato founders Collis and Cyan Ta
Envato founders Collis and Cyan Ta'eed at Entrepreneur of the Year in 2015. 

Supporting women entrepreneurs

2015 winner of Australian telecom company Telstra’s Victorian Businesswoman of the Year, Ta’eed is a passionate advocate for women in business. Envato promotes a diverse workplace with flexible working arrangements for women and men, earning Australia’s Coolest Company for Diversity in JobAdvisor’s 2016 poll.

Ta’eed often speaks at tech and entrepreneurial events, acting as a role model and mentor for aspiring businesswomen.
“A lot of women I work with don’t fit the mould of the super confident startup entrepreneur, which is a blessing and a curse,” she says.
“The blessing is they are less showy, far more realistic and just get down to work. Studies show women-led startups are more successful and I think this is a major reason. The downside is there are a lot of skilled, talented women who would like to launch startups but believe they have to wait until they have more knowledge and experience.”

Ta’eed’s advice is to just start and not be afraid of failing. “If you’ve got a glimmer of an idea, start playing with it. Get the idea out in the market in a small way to see if there’s any interest before you start investing serious time and money. The idea might not succeed but you learn from it and move on to the next one.”

Envato’s willingness to experiment is a major reason for its continued success. Early in its life, the company saw a competitor go out of business because it focused on one product.

“That bred in us the need to constantly look for new growth avenues, so we have teams that just work on startup projects and new product development,” says Ta’eed. “With a couple of hundred creative people here, we’re never short of good ideas.”

Cyan Ta
Cyan Ta'eed, co-founder of Envato. 

Building social enterprises

In the competitive world of startups, Ta’eed believes Australians have a unique edge.

“There is a particular brand of hustle that Australians bring,” she says. “In the US, you get a huge amount of hype – ‘we’re the next X, Y, Z’ – and big funding rounds, whereas in Australia we tend to get down to work and solve a problem. 
“I think Australians are also more conscious of the ramifications of the work they do – they want to have a positive impact, not just make a lot of money.”
Ta’eed is excited to see a recent strong interest in social enterprise within the Australian startup sector. “I love the idea that businesses can exist purely to support the community,” she says, adding she is researching an idea for a social enterprise. 

Her long-term vision for Envato is to keep growing while staying true to the company’s core values.

“One of our sellers is disabled and through selling on Envato, bought himself a new wheelchair and van,” says Ta’eed. “I am proud to have created a business that has made people’s lives better because they could earn their livelihood doing something they loved on their own terms. Our plan is to keep doing what we’re doing but to do it better and with more people.”

Find out more about Envato.