Serina Bird discusses her inspiration from Taiwan’s startup ecosystem
Serina Bird is the author of The Joyful Frugalista, a personal finance guide, and runs online courses on money and finance. She also founded The Joyful Business Club which aims to support women pursue their career goals through mentoring, networking and training, and is the author of The Joyful Startup Guide. In her conversation with Adam, Serina discusses being inspired by witnessing the innovative startup ecosystem in Taiwan, as well as her belief that Australia could massively benefit from an increase of women and non-binary led startups.
The Joyful Frugalista: https://joyfulfrugalista.com/
The Joyful Business Club: https://joyfulbusiness.club/
Serina on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/serinabird/
Adam Spencer: Hi, I’m Adam Spencer. And welcome to Day One, the podcast of spotlight’s Australian startups, founders, and the organizations that empower Australian entrepreneurship. We go back to the beginning to tell a story of Australia’s most inspiring founders and how they built their companies. You’re listening to a special interview series as part of a documentary W2D1 is producing, about the history of the Australian startup ecosystem. On the episode today, we have…
Serina Bird: Hi, my name is Serina Bird. I’m known as The Joyful Frugalista. My other businesses are The Joyful Business Club and The Joyful Fashionista. I guess, how joyful can one be, right?
Serina Bird: People say you should only have one thing and you should just focus. And I’m a break the rules kind of person, and my intuition told me to do this, so I just did it. And it is crazy. It’s totally crazy. It would be much better off focusing on one business, but there you have it.
Adam Spencer: So how many businesses was that? Was that three?
Serina Bird: It’s three, yes.
Adam Spencer: How do you split your time between those three?
Serina Bird: Not in a conscious way. I have been told that I should spend certain times, have certain days that are allocated to do certain things. But it doesn’t really work because you’ll get emails about certain things, you’ll get podcasts, guest interviews, for instance, about certain things.
Adam Spencer: Sorry.
Serina Bird: No… Are very, very welcome. You’ll get all sorts of random things for certain things that aren’t in your day that you’re supposed to be focusing on one business.
Adam Spencer: Yes.
Serina Bird: And while it sounds a bit strange to have three, the core market, which is women and predominantly women, aged 35 and older… I don’t discriminate against younger women or men, by the way. It’s just that’s where my segment is.
Adam Spencer: Yes.
Serina Bird: That is still the same. And there are still the same themes that come across that in terms of supporting and empowering women, sustainability, building abundance, those types of things that go across all three. So it’s not as strange as it might seem.
Adam Spencer: Why did you choose 35 plus?
Serina Bird: Yes. Why did I choose 35 plus? Well, actually really most of the women in my target audience are in their 40s or 50s. But they don’t really identify as being that old. I guess, I myself… And I’m going to be 49 this year. I don’t feel that. I don’t really feel my age defines me per se. But I do think that there is a little bit of a difference in thinking sometimes, a generational difference, between much younger women who are say, at university or just finished, and then other women who’ve gone through life experiences such as having children. Not all women have children of course, but many do. And just life not going to plan, I guess. So I think more women who’ve had the experience of having tried things, whether it’s relationships or businesses or jobs and encountering more difficulties, tend to resonate a little bit more with what I’m doing and my messaging, if that makes sense.
Adam Spencer: Yes.
Serina Bird: But I certainly don’t discriminate against younger women. And I think it is actually really important to have intergenerational relationships.
Adam Spencer: Did you make that word up or is that an actual word? Frugalista?
Serina Bird: It is actually an actual word. It existed before me, but I’ve certainly given a lot more life to it.
Adam Spencer: How did you come up with the name Joyful Frugalista? Am I saying that right?
Serina Bird: Yes, you are indeed. You’re saying it exactly right. Well, actually my publishers came up with the name. So it was derived by Murdoch Books. And when I heard the name, I was actually literally overjoyed. I thought it was fabulous.
Serina Bird: So originally my blog was named Ms. Frugal Ears, which was always a bit difficult to explain. It had a backstory, but it was always a bit difficult to explain. And the working title of my book was Frugal Dare to Millionaire. But the publishers really want to change it, that name, and I just loved it. And I really felt that it encapsulated so much of what I was trying to convey. And they would be like, “Do you mind, would it be okay if you changed your branding and changed your website?” And I’m, “Hell yes, this is fantastic.”
Adam Spencer: Can you give me that little elevator pitch? I don’t know… How do you do that? Do you do an elevator pitch for each business or do you have one that covers everything?
Serina Bird: Yes. This is a great question, actually, especially when I go to networking events, because most people… It takes a long time for people just to get used to one business, let alone three. So I tend usually to focus on The Joyful Frugalista. So usually I’ll say, “Hi, my name is Serina. I’m also known as the Joyful Frugalista. I’m really passionate about helping people save money and live a joyful life and to have real abundance in their lives.” So I’ll usually say something like that. If I have longer, I might talk about the other two, but it tends to freak people out to be honest. So I tend to just pick one.
Adam Spencer: How did you actually get involved with CBRIN?
Serina Bird: The Canberra Innovation Network? Well, I’ve known about them for a number of years and actually about four years ago now I applied for their GRIFFIN Accelerator program, and it was actually way before The Joyful Frugalista or Ms Frugal Ears. I pitched an idea for fermented foods, such as soy sauce. So an Asian food brand, thinking that I might also do some vegan meat products. I’m not vegan by the way, I just really like vegetarian products. And much to my surprise I got in. And then I was like, “Holy… What on earth am I going to do here?” I’m a single mom with two kids. I did this putting it out to the universe, not expecting I would get in. But what I’d actually done was I had submitted two proposals and I’d been invited to pitch on that one. But the second proposal was actually about developing my blog on personal finances and to take that forward into something more.
Serina Bird: And at the time I think they thought I was crazy, to be honest. It was pre barefoot investor. And no one in Australia was really talking about money or finances. But through that process, they actually paired me with a mentor who was a writer from Hong Kong. So he was a very prolific writer. He had his own digital media assets in Hong Kong. I’m very sad, of course, everything that’s happening in Hong Kong at the moment, and that I guess is partly why he’s here. And through his mentorship, I really lent into my writing. So while I applied for something that wasn’t something I ended up doing, it led me in a whole new direction and that’s been really exciting.
Serina Bird: And then when I left work 18 months ago, I started hanging out at CBRIN a lot more. They have a first Wednesday connect, which is fun. So it’s a networking event. And they also started during COVID having a female founders series. So under the… I guess, inspiration of their chair, Hala… I can never pronounce her surname, but she’s fabulous. And she was really keen to do more for women entrepreneurs. They started this series. And then I started co-working there about one day a week. And to be honest, I’m not always the best coworker. Sometimes I get distracted by loads of washing and other things to do at home. But when I go there, it makes a huge difference.
Serina Bird: And then earlier this year I was successful in receiving a grant through Innovation Connect. So an icon grant. So a significant grant of $17,500 for developing The Joyful Fashionista. And last year I also received an ACT government scholarship to attend an Ideas to Impact course that the Canberra Innovation Network ran.
Adam Spencer: Wow. What were you doing before all of this, before you started down this road?
Serina Bird: What was my career?
Adam Spencer: Yes.
Serina Bird: Well, good question. I was at Commonwealth public service. I was working in the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, mainly specializing in China issues.
Adam Spencer: Wow.
Serina Bird: So to actually say no to all of that was actually a big deal. It was crazy, to be honest.
Adam Spencer: Yes. What made you want to go out and start your own business when you had… I assume it was a pretty good career up until that point?
Serina Bird: Look it was, but I guess the key thing was I didn’t have my own voice. And that’s really it. When you’re part of the bureaucracy, you are serving like public servants serve. You don’t have your own voice and that’s understandable, because you don’t want public servants routinely criticizing the government when they’re told to implement things. By nature, they have to serve. That’s why they’re called public servants. And I had published a book, The Joyful Frugalista, and it was doing quite well. And I was been invited to have more and more media opportunities. And that was becoming a little bit difficult to manage.
Serina Bird: I didn’t just go often do that and disregard work. You have to seek approvals for things to do. I was always very clear about not discussing my work in my writing. I made a very, very conscious decision to differentiate the two. I never talk about my work in the public service, they’re just completely separate things.
Serina Bird: And then also too, the area I was in had become quite toxic. These things can happen. I think many people who’ve been in the workplace find this, and I think as timelines become tighter and tighter and expectations grow and grow, some people don’t always deal with that so well. And so I was like, “Well, I’m writing about saving money and investing. I’m really close to my financial independence goals. I’m at work, I’m unhappy, and I’m stressed. And I’d always had a real interest in innovation and entrepreneurship.” And I was a person who at the back of my diary would always be scrolling notes about potential business models and things I could do. So I’m like, “Well, you only live once, really.”
Serina Bird: I’m in my late forties, if I wait any longer, there’s opportunities never going to happen again. And by this stage I had remarried and my husband’s in a very stable Commonwealth public service career. He’s reaching the end of his career. He’s retiring earlier than most. It’s a long story. And, we had very, very little debt, the home loan was nearly paid off. So it’s like, well, it’s time.
Adam Spencer: When would you say you really got introduced to this whole world of startups and yes, the opportunities that are out there for founders?
Serina Bird: I think I’ve always been interested. And I guess there was a few experiences. One was serving in Taiwan. I want to be clear here that Australia doesn’t have diplomatic relations with Taiwan, but I was there in an economic and trade role. And Taiwan, for those who know, has a tremendously innovative ecosystem. It’s high tech products are amazing, Think computers like a ACEs and ACER and they do quite some interesting things in virtual reality and a few things. And it was a lot of people returning from Silicon Valley back to Taiwan because of that climate. So I was really interested to see what was happening when I was there.
Serina Bird: And the government also had a strong focus on their creative innovation as well, and recognizing what was happening there. So, in my role, I was seeing a lot of what was happening in and observing that as well. And it was just really, really exciting to be honest. And that interest continued when I came back to Australia.
Adam Spencer: What year was it again that you were accepted to the CBRINs? Was it CBRIN’s program you were accepted to?
Serina Bird: So last year. So 2020, I was on an Idea to Impact program, run by the Canberra Innovation Network, which is basically a lean innovation program, an introduction to different innovation methods. But I’d also been very fortunate. I’m trying to think about five years ago… I think four or five years ago, I was on a pilot Commonwealth APS government program, called 21st Century, I think, run with Australian Future’s Institute, I think, somehow affiliated with La Trobe University. So I was on a 12 week program that was teaching basic design thinking. And that was really exciting as well. Interesting being with a group of public servants who didn’t quite know what to make of the course, but also very exciting.
Adam Spencer: So let’s just say… What’s that… Did you say five years? About five…
Serina Bird: Yes.
Adam Spencer: Five years. Through all of that time, from your perspective, what would you say… Where’s the biggest gaps in this system that we call the Australian startup ecosystem? Are there any areas that you think we could improve on?
Serina Bird: This is gaps for people starting out.
Adam Spencer: Yes. From a founder’s point of view.
Serina Bird: Yes. Look, I think this is a great question. And the thing that I’m really interested about is women and particularly women entrepreneurs and the lack of startup financing. I think the year before last, globally I think it was only 2.7% of women, they’d founders received funding. Last year, it slid to… I can’t remember if it was only 2.2 or 2.3%. And when we’re talking about women of color, it’s even lower, it’s only about 0.2% of total startup funding goes to women of color.
Serina Bird: Now, when you can think that women often make up to three quarters of purchasing decisions, it means that there’s a lot of people buying things whose ideas aren’t being funded in the ecosystem. So it’s, I think a huge gap, and it’s really unfortunate. I think I feel very proud to be part of the Canberra Innovation Network because they’ve made a conscious effort to reduce this gap. And in fact, five of the 10 grantees from Innovation Connect this year were women and female and founders. But that is definitely not the global norm.
Adam Spencer: That’s awesome. Yes, why do you think that is?
Serina Bird: Look, there’s many reasons for this and there’s a lot of research that is around of that. Often women are more comfortable with a small business model. They often don’t even think that they’ve got like a multi billion dollar idea on their hands.
Serina Bird: So they’re looking often for a different model to start with. And if they are looking to grow, they don’t always know how to pitch it in the way that it sounds like the next big sexy unicorn. So they’re more interested about building sustainable businesses, often to help the planet or help their communities. So it doesn’t sound like it’s the next big Amazon or Uber or Facebook. And so it doesn’t grab the attention the same way.
Serina Bird: And then it’s often the way they pitch too. Women tend to talk about their passion for their business and how it’s going to help other people rather than the traction and the numbers. And then often when they’re pitching to a group of investors, most of the investors are male.
Serina Bird: So there’s that unconscious bias where people tend to look for, to invest in who they trust. And when they’re looking for that, they’re looking at people who are like themselves. So they’re often looking at a younger person of themselves that they can mentor. And when women come up with these ideas and they’re talking about their passion for a project, something that’s going to support often other women, the male investors just don’t get where they’re coming from.
Adam Spencer: Yes. We’ll circle back to that in a second. But just for a change of pace, what do you think as a community or as an ecosystem we’re doing really, really well at? Where do our strengths lie from what you’ve seen?
Serina Bird: Well, I’m going to speak specifically to the Canberra ecosystem because this is a place I know well, and I would say that it’s highly collaborative. I’m always really impressed when, the networking events that I go to, how willing people are to meet up with you and follow through and to help and to guide others on the way. And I think people who are really passionate about startups and innovation, they’re willing to do that. They’re willing to find ways that they can work collaboratively with others.
Adam Spencer: Have you ever been exposed to any other regional… Not necessarily regional, but other ecosystems other than the Canberra one?
Serina Bird: A little bit to the Sydney ecosystem, not a lot. At one point I was looking to have a business partner who was based in Sydney. Unfortunately, that partnership didn’t work out, but she was based in Sydney. And so it gave me a little bit of an insight. And I think it’s scarier in a way, because it’s a bigger city. Bigger city, bright lights. I know we’re all probably not meeting in person as much as previously, but it is a little bit more daunting than say the community that I’m in that’s a little bit smaller.
Adam Spencer: Do you have what I’ve just been calling an unpopular opinion? Is there something that you just wholeheartedly believe to be true as it relates to these ecosystems, but that no one else seems to be on the same page with you about?
Serina Bird: I regularly have unpopular decisions. I regularly have my own decisions. And I guess the big one is around competitors. And then the other really big one is around finding and defining the problem. It seems almost to become a standard mantra that the only way you can have a good product is that when you’re solving a problem. Why does everything have to be defined in terms of negativity and scarcity? Why can’t we define it in terms of abundance, in terms of coming up with something that makes people feel good? It’s not necessarily solving a problem. Facebook didn’t solve a problem. We didn’t need it before we had it, but now we’ve got it, most people use it. Or maybe it did solve a problem of communication, but we didn’t perceive it to be a problem before it was around.
Adam Spencer: You know that there’s a saying that… Henry Ford. That if I asked people what they wanted, they would’ve said a faster horse.
Serina Bird: Yes… Yes. And competitors is another one too. I feel sometimes there’s way too much time spent in the early part of a business, looking at what the competitor is doing and either trying to differentiate or make yourself different. Now I’m not suggesting at all that people steal ideas from competitors, but rather I think at some point you just need to put blinkers on because if you’re looking… Particularly for women who often have really high levels of imposter syndrome, if you spend so much time looking at your competitors, you’ll freak yourself out and you’ll never do anything.
Serina Bird: So particularly when I was writing my book, I just went la la la la la, hands over ears. I don’t want to know what anyone else is writing about or doing. I’m just going to do my own thing and then I’ll read their other work.
Adam Spencer: Yes. Well, that’s the point, the reason why you said you… I think you probably wrote your book before you left your public service sector. But the reason why you left was because you wanted your own voice.
Serina Bird: Yes.
Adam Spencer: And what’s the point in writing something. You want to express your voice, not reframe or reword someone else’s voice.
Serina Bird: Well, exactly. Because otherwise it’ll just be like someone else’s voice. And let’s look at the personal finance space as an example. There’s so many writers in that genre now. And often we are saying the same thing, which is save more money, invest conservatively. But there’s so many ways to say that. And you’ll often resonate with a voice that sounds similar to your own lived experiences because there’ll be something in that that really resonates for you. So therefore we need more diversity in the writing on those topics.
Adam Spencer: Just out of curiosity, I don’t think I asked this question, but why personal finance? Why are you so interested in that?
Serina Bird: Yes, great question. Well, I was always on the frugal spectrum anyway. And I was always one of those people who would wear op shop suits to work and not tell people and look like I had more money than I did in terms of what I was spending. So I was always doing that. And my ex-husband and I, we together amassed 10 properties that we had together. But outwardly we looked pretty normal, I’d wear tracksuits to the local shopping center on weekends. We didn’t live a high life and he actually didn’t earn a lot of money, so I was the main income earner. Sadly, that marriage didn’t go too well, and in the end I took out a domestic violence order. In fact, two… I was awarded two, as I left and suddenly was single with two young children.
Serina Bird: Now we had a lot of assets, but we also had a lot of debts. So if you can imagine how scary it might be separating knowing you were the main income earner, having the highest childcare rates in Australia, that you had to pay for yourself, plus service 10 mortgages. It’s pretty scary stuff.
Adam Spencer: Jesus…
Serina Bird: But I knew that I could do all of that because I had the faith that I was good with money. And I knew that we could make sacrifices and I could make really cheap meals and we would find a way through, and we did. But it also occurred to me that for a lot of people, they didn’t have that confidence with their money, particularly women… Particularly women get themselves into relationships or jobs that really don’t serve them because they really are scared of the money. It’s often real issues as well, but it’s often the fear of the money.
Serina Bird: So my message has always been about financial resilience. It’s not just amassing a lot of money. It’s being able to feel confident that you will adjust to whatever life throws at you and to have that mindset of abundance. And I couldn’t have predicted the pandemic and the bush fires and the mouse plague and everything else, but I guess I try and write about practical things rather than saying, “Oh, that’s too bad. That’s really hard to say, okay yes, but how can we cook a meal that’s going to be really cheap? How can you save money on your electricity and other things? How can you find things?”
Adam Spencer: I only have one or two more questions. This one I like to ask everybody. If a brand new founder came to you tomorrow, what one thing would you tell them? Or if you were to give yourself advice five years ago, what would you say that would slightly increase your chances of success?
Serina Bird: I actually probably ask them a question. I’d ask them why. I have new founders coming to me all the time through The Joyful Business Club. And I’m writing at the moment about how to start a startup. But, it’s your why that’s going to carry you through, not because you think you should be in business or you should have a startup. It’s… Deep down inside everyone has a why.
Adam Spencer: The last question I have is not really a question per se, it’s a… I just want to open the floor up to you, to talk about something that you just are really passionate about, something that you think the Australian startup community needs to hear. And so something that needs to go into this series.
Serina Bird: Oh, I’m so passionate about so many things. I don’t even quite know where to start, but I think, while the startup community is trying to be out of the box, sometimes they do create their own boxes. We’re always looking for the next best thing of a business model that already is. And we’re often looking for tech because we know that tech is performed well or we are looking for clean energy because we know clean energy is performing well, or we look for existing models. So I think it’s really important to be open minded about those things that you don’t quite understand or quite foresee. And don’t just dismiss them because they haven’t been proven yet. And just to keep that positivity because if you’re talking to someone and they’ve got this idea and then you are a bit disparaging, it can kill this next best amazing thing. It might just be totally utterly bonkers, you never know. But it might be the next best amazing thing you’ve never heard of.
Adam Spencer: I actually just thought of one more question.
Serina Bird: Fabulous.
Adam Spencer: We might have covered it near the beginning, but because you’ve been with CBRIN, you’ve been involved with those guys and they’ve been helpful, how have they been helpful? How helpful have they been?
Serina Bird: Well, they’ve been helpful with money. But more than that, they’re just so friendly. It’s just such a welcoming space. They really wanted me to co-work there because they have a particular gender issue where they have a lot of guys who work on tech and sit there and do coding all day. And they really wanted to have a conscious effort to close that gender gap a little bit. But I just find them just really friendly and open minded. And especially when you’re doing something that’s a little bit different. It’s beyond your comprehension of your immediate family or your friends, your former work colleagues. And it’s just nice to be in a supportive environment where they just don’t think you’re weird.
Adam Spencer: Yes. Yes, I get that.
Serina Bird: I thought you might.
Adam Spencer: Thanks, Serina. Thank you so much for your time.
Serina Bird: Thank you.
Adam Spencer: I hope you enjoyed that interview. More interviews are on the way. Follow the podcast wherever you’re listening right now. Stay tuned for more interviews with many, many more amazing people, from the Australian startup ecosystem. Thanks for listening and see you next time.