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March 29, 2022 at 11:28 PM
by Louisa Hua
jono earlywork.jpg

A conversation with Earlywork’s co-founder Jono to delve deeper into how his interest in the startup space bloomed into a greenhouse for future careers in the industry.

Jono Herman is one of the co-founders of Earlywork. He studied a Bachelor of Commerce and Information Systems at UNSW as he embarked on his startup journey.

Tell me more about yourself! What is your background and what you're focusing on right now?

I’m a psychology dropout turned startup operator and now founder. Growing up, I was interested in the psychology of the workplace and behavioural economics. I had the idea that I was going to become an organisational psychologist, but after speaking to a few people in the industry who informed me that I was going to need seven years of studying, including doing my master's and honours and everything to be able to do that role or do a general business degree and do a similar role.

So, I decided to get back to the business side of things and started doing a degree in Commerce and Information system at UNSW. Work-wise, I had experience across a bunch of startups, typically pre-revenue ones that are still at their super early stage, working directly with the founders and I found that to be a really great way to accelerate my career.

It wasn’t planned; the nature of being involved in an early-stage startup is that you get to do everything across the board: marketing, sales, operations.

It was a very interesting way to learn a whole bunch of things in a short amount of time. As time went on and the opportunities got more serious. I worked for Rocket Internet, which is a German VC that builds startup brands. They have built a number of big consumer brands here including The Iconic and HelloFresh in Australia. It was a lot of fun seeing how early-stage startups can grow without being constrained on resources and operate with a little bit more strategy and direction.

Then I spent a bit of time working in VC at Bailador Technology Investments (ASX: BTI). It is very exciting, especially for young people, to be on the building side of things as an operator but the ideas associated with venture capital are very interesting, and it was definitely a career ambition I had in life.

On the side, in terms of extracurricular activities, I had always been involved in the startup ecosystem.

I worked with TBV early in the days when I was working with Startup Link, a startup society at UNSW. From there, I found out that a lot of young people are interested in startups and career opportunities. Startup Link, working alongside TBV, is a medium that helped bridge the two.

In November 2020, I teamed up with Dan Brockwell to work on Earlywork, a project that I’m now proud to call my full-time work that is home for young people, creating the careers of tomorrow.

Earlywork aims to create career resources that help young people navigate their startup journey since it is typically not as straightforward as traditional career options.

Earlywork carries such a meaningful purpose. What were the initial motivations for starting it?

Fundamentally, the problem we’re trying to tackle is: how do we help young people build their careers.

When you think about how long we spend at work, you think about how in some cases, you spend more time with your colleagues than you spend with your family and friends.

A lot of people go to work feeling unmotivated, working on problems they find unchallenging. So, how do we help young people find meaningful careers and get the best returns from their careers?

We, all the founders of Earlywork, had meaningful experiences in tech, startups and social impact, which we define as the Careers of Tomorrow.

When you think about traditional career options like consulting and banking, there are a lot of career resources available to help people navigate with mentors and guides on how interviews are constructed. In the tech startup landscape, things are a lot more opaque; there is a lot of information constrained in the dark corners of the internet (like Whirpool).

I think by creating visibility on the roles out there, we’ll be able to create a long-term effect on people who are considering careers in those areas.

There are internships and grad positions available, and these companies may not have the resources to advertise those roles on campuses; we are the conduit between young people and these startups and tech companies in terms of making these careers more transparent and visible.

You have been in the start-up space for a while now. What are the challenges you see in the space that may obstruct people?

What I’ve thought about the most is jobs — that first job in tech and startups. But we have come a very long way in the past couple of years I’ve been involved, noting that we still have a very long way to go.

For example, when you think about becoming a product manager, there are no courses, at least not in any Australian universities right now that teaches you the ins and outs of it.

However, on the other side, a lot of startups advertise a lot of entry-level product manager roles that already requires two to three years of experience — so, where do young people get the fundamental experience?

Sure, there are some things you can do; you can do extracurricular programs. But I think that a lot of these startups and tech companies have the responsibility to roll out more grassroots programs for people to get that first step in the door.

We need to grow the next generation of talents in the ecosystem.

From what I’ve seen to date, a lot of product managers jump between big startups like Canva to Atlassian, but that doesn’t necessarily help the ecosystem at large. Every time you do that, it’s a plus one for one company and minus one for another company.

In order to take the next step for the ecosystem more broadly, we need to roll out scalable programs that are all about helping young people make that transition to startup and breed the next generation of product managers.

That’s definitely a conversation we have with startups here at Earlywork but there is a long way to go.

How do you work around difficulties?

From my side, things like writing don’t come naturally to me. I can talk but expressing my thoughts in a more distilled form isn’t something as easy. I’ve always stood by putting stuff on the page, both metaphorically and literally, it may sound terrible, but once you have something to work with, it’ll be easier to refine it and make it more coherent.

This one is particularly conducive with tech and startups, but when you encounter a challenge, the best thing to do is to start, press go, and take action.

Once you take the first leap, it’s uncomfortable, but then you can refine it. A lot of people go to superiors and mentors with the question: How do I get started? It is actually a lot easier for someone to get back to you with feedback than tell you what to do to get started.

After engaging in the startup space, what are the expectations and ambitions you have for it?

I first got into the world of startups around 2017 with Startup Link, broadly getting internships and part-time opportunities. There was Canva and Atlassian, but beyond that, there weren’t any major Australian startups. What we’ve seen in the past couple of years is an explosion of startups and startup funding all over the world, particularly in Australia.

Startups are slowly gaining more market share in huge markets from banking and insurance to pet food. Some of these really big companies like Canva and Atlassian are still growing at 30%, 40%, 50% year on year.

It’s incredible. It’s not slowing down by any means, and it’s growing at more velocity.

Lastly, what are the most important things you believe students who are interested in the startup space should know?

I think it’s a fantastic way to accelerate your learning across different things. It’s incredibly hands-on and practical, and particularly in startups where you work super closely with customers, you gain a raw experience where you build a rich skillset.

It’s very different to being in big companies where you are seven, eight degrees away from the customers. It forces you to be a lot more considerate and deliberate with what you do. Particularly with early-stage startups, you can get into so many different things.

Being able to contribute to things you live and breathe makes it a very meaningful journey.

Someone once told me that an intern at an early-stage startup could consider themselves contributing to a founder’s to-do list.

There’s a never-ending list of to-dos, you tick them off one by one, and you find yourself venturing into all these interesting places, working on customer feedback and product roadmaps all the way to coordinating hiring interviews and everything in between.