Daniel Flynn explains why leaders are learners
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Daniel Flynn is co-founder of Thankyou, a social enterprise that was founded in 2008 and sells consumer products to help end extreme poverty. In 2015 Daniel’s book, Chapter One, became a bestseller and generated $1.4 million in sales in its first month using an unorthodox “pay-what-you-want” model. In his conversation with Adam, Daniel discusses his belief that “leaders are learners”, and how working with a psychologist to come to terms with some of his personal challenges helped him grow into the leader he is today.
Daniel on Twitter: https://twitter.com/danielmflynn
Daniel Flynn: My name’s Daniel Flynn, one of the co-founders of Thankyou. A social enterprise that sells consumer products to help end extreme poverty.
Adam Spencer: When did you first kind of become aware of the startup community or just, do you see entrepreneurship outside of the startup community or do you feel like you are very much in the startup community?
Daniel Flynn: Yeah look, I would say when we begun years ago back in 2008, we were just in our own bubble. We saw a problem, a solution potentially, using business to help solve a social issue. And we just started running after it. So I would say we didn’t really get too involved with different communities, startup community, even the social kind of enterprise community, which turns out at times kind of sits a bit separate.
Daniel Flynn: They’re getting closer and kind of more interwoven, which is cool. But it wasn’t until years later, once Thankyou started getting some momentum. Though, I kind of put my head up and started catching up with different people in different communities and thinking, ah, should have done this earlier, that would’ve been helpful. So that’s our journey. But, I think it’s a growing local and global ecosystem.
Adam Spencer: When you say years later, when you started to kind of put your head up and look around, can you ballpark kind of what year are we talking?
Daniel Flynn: Yeah look, I think I would say probably year three of our journey and maybe mid-year three. I remember one event in particular standing there thinking, huh? Yeah, we should have done this three years ago. And so that was just a memorable moment for me. But we had spoken at events before and sort of, kind of fly in fly out, but not really gone much deeper than that.
Adam Spencer: You’re based in Melbourne, Victoria, right?
Daniel Flynn: Originally. Yeah, originally. We’ve actually now moved up to Queensland.
Adam Spencer: Around 2011 would be when you started to see what’s happening around you in the business kind of scene and landscape. And that was Melbourne at the time, right?
Daniel Flynn: Yeah, correct.
Adam Spencer: From your perspective, what did the ecosystem or landscape look like in terms of community size? What organisations or people kind of were very visible to you as kind of maybe leaders in the space?
Daniel Flynn: Yeah, look, I think back in 2011, from my recollection, we found ourselves spending more time and maybe fitting better in the social enterprise type environment. At the time a group called Social Traders were gathering a lot of people in this space, both interested or really well developed or some businesses much further developed than we were.
Daniel Flynn: And it did feel quite separate to the traditional startup rounds of funding, get investors, let’s go. It did feel different, and some may be good, may be some not good in that. Yeah, that was the feeling I had. I would say we felt probably a little out of place at Thankyou in a traditional kind of startup community, because I mean, simple things like we didn’t as founders have any equity in what we did. And that was a, yeah, it’s a different concept.
Adam Spencer: Yeah, I love how you’ve got a value or a philosophy of lifelong learning back then in the early days and even now, who do you lean on? Who are some people or organisations that you lean on to help either learn from or just help keep going, help in any way?
Daniel Flynn: Yeah look, I remember, I’m sure we’ve all heard leaders are readers. And so then we hear about Bill Gates or so and so and this CEO and 50 books a year or a month, and I’d sort of nod along like yeah, leaders are readers and I’m kind of thinking to myself, readers are readers, some readers are leaders, like I wrestled with it.
Daniel Flynn: And I think a better phrasing for me that I resonate with, because I don’t do 50 books a year. I change like 50 nappies a week at home, but not books a year. I would say, leaders are learners. And sometimes that’s a book, other times it’s a podcast. I would say for me, I have this weird kind of balance between I listen more than people know and I don’t listen. And that speaks to the disruption, let’s go do things differently.
Daniel Flynn: But genuinely in a conversation or if I catch up with a mentor, I’ll take away a lot from that. Or even, not even catching up with a mentor that knows they’re a mentor, but listening to podcasts, reading books, I think Seth Godin as an example, he’s been very formative in my thinking. And I was lucky enough years later to meet him because he bought our book Chapter One and that was a moment I’ll never forget. But even before meeting, it really shaped me.
Daniel Flynn: And so, for me, learning is a pursuit of listening and of research. And sometimes it’s as basic as a good desktop Google research session. And other times it is diving deep into a book or into research, formal research to understand an industry or a market or a problem.
Adam Spencer: You’ve been, was it 12 or 13 years now at Thankyou? During that time, what are some of the biggest gaps you’ve observed in the, just I suppose, business landscape in Australia, if we speak that broadly?
Daniel Flynn: Okay. So broadly two things come to mind and there’s probably many more, but the two that jump out, one is this idea of celebration, true celebration of people and ideas. And I think we say we celebrate, but I think that there’s a weird undertone in the Australian culture where we do tear down. Tall poppy syndrome is like some of the loose terms thrown to it.
Daniel Flynn: I found it very polarsing or just different going to America and getting just a little bit of a window into their startup and business culture. And I was like, wow, you are celebrating, you are wanting everyone to get there. And whereas in Australia, people may say that, but you get the sense of like, if I succeed, maybe that takes away from you succeeding. And that’s not true.
Daniel Flynn: I mean, I think we rise and there’s a great quote, Justine used to share all the time actually and I loved it, “we rise by lifting others.” So I wouldn’t necessarily say Australian cultures have real let’s lift others, let’s rise together. We’re happy with a level of success, but once you pop above it, we’ll critique, we’ll pull it down almost at all cost. So that’s a thought.
Daniel Flynn: And then the other one is I think this idea of social business, it was described early on to us that Australia was 10, 15 years behind the UK in their thinking in social enterprise and their kind of prevalence of it in society and tax law and a whole bunch of other areas that sort of just opened up more and more people getting into the space.
Daniel Flynn: So yeah, that was the feeling we had. Although actually, the CEO of Social Enterprise UK, I was telling him how we’re so behind. He’s like, “well, I love the Thankyou model and that’s not behind. So just keep doing what you’re doing.” And so I would say that there’ve been a few moments where yeah, I wonder if we are as far along as a society in Australia as we should be, and then rather than tackling that problem, heads down, get results. And hopefully in time we rise just by nature of the tide rises when we all, or a few of us, or a lot of us put in the hard yards.
Adam Spencer: Switching gears now to a more positive side. What do you think we are doing as a community really well?
Daniel Flynn: Look, I think the tide has shifted from some of that heaviness I just spoke of, I think we are starting to realise the world is very global and so we need to win on global stages as Australian startups and enterprises. We need to win locally, but we really need to win globally. We have such a small market here.
Daniel Flynn: I’ve been probably the most impressed by the New Zealand startup and social enterprise communities. I think they are just truly caught that idea of to win globally and they are such a small country. But I think that’s starting to work here in Australia. And so we are getting some pretty big high profile examples in Australia that are stacking up on the world stage. And I think it is inspiring more and more people to dream bigger from here.
Adam Spencer: What’s been the biggest change in you internally, between the time of starting this journey 12, 13 years ago to today? Like just either philosophically or business wise.
Daniel Flynn: Yeah. So the biggest change for me in this whole leadership journey in 12 or 13 years, and there’s been a few, like there was a mindset shift from like make money for me and give a bit, right? That was, if I summed up me at 18, it’s like make a lot of money, bunch of success and then do good. And then 19 kicks in an inverse of that. And Thankyou is like, it is just very different. It is like we will spend our time and our effort to see this social mission and idea realised so that’s a shift and that happened early on and it’s been 12, 13 years of that solidified. So that’s cool.
Daniel Flynn: I think personally, in addition to that, my biggest journey has been a self discovery of some of the deep stuff that matters. I would’ve described my greatest fear as the fear of failure, I didn’t want to fail. I didn’t want to mess up as a leader, as an organisation of what is a mission that has this infinite potential, but that’s incongruent with our story, because we take risk all the time and how does that work?
Daniel Flynn: And so risk is inherently built into our history and some pretty deep work with an amazing counselor, psychologist, who I reckon session one, he knew I wasn’t coming back. Between us, I wasn’t, I was just doing one thing, no was ever going to know about this session. It’s just a once off. And he said, “Daniel, I don’t think you have a fear of failure and I don’t usually jump to it this quick, but I think you have a fear of rejection. You’re afraid that people might reject you.” And man, he unpacked it.
Daniel Flynn: And I started crying, I didn’t stop crying the whole way back to the office. My next meeting, my assistant who knew about the meeting, she’s like, “your eyes Daniel.” And we learned not to book that session during business hours. And it took years to kind of unpack this subtle, quiet thing on the inside of me.
Daniel Flynn: But turns out the stuff on the inside as a leader, while that can either play out beautifully into the ideas that you make or the teams you lead or it can play out super ugly. I had a mix of both. I would say that for me though, the discovery of that and working through of, oh man, imagine the freedom of not caring with respect, but not caring what others actually think about you and my name, Daniel, the actual meaning, I always thought it was really heavy, if anyone’s ever Googled their name meaning, but my name meaning was like, god is your judge.
Daniel Flynn: I was like, dang, that’s so heavy. And then this whole journey of going deep, I realised, wow, here’s another way to say that, you are not my judge, that audience is not my judge. No one is. Like it’s, that whole idea of living your life to an audience of one versus everyone else. To me, it became great freedom. And now we innovate better, our ideas are bolder and failure just doesn’t keep me up at night like it used to, or certainly the fear of it.
Adam Spencer: So my mission or my goal is definitely not solve the problem of extreme poverty, it’s not as large as that. That kind of mission is both inspiring and a great reason to get up in the morning to do the work you do. But on the flip side of that, does it ever get you down how big the problem is and can you solve it? Can you fix it?
Daniel Flynn: Any good, big problem, big vision, this is the tension, and there are many and extreme poverty is one of them. It’s actually one that most people, there is a little bit of an eye roll because it’s like, oh, hasn’t there always been poverty. And there has, but extreme poverty was, I mean, three decades ago, it was over 2 billion people. And then it’s come down, down, down, now it’s at 736 million. And so the world is progressing to a literal zero number.
Daniel Flynn: Like it is more than most realise there’s progress. It’s going to take more and more ideas, more and more contributors, we’re one of them, we’re not the only one. And then the pandemic hit and actually those numbers for the first time in decades went backwards. There are estimates of upwards of 150 million or more people going back into extreme poverty. And so we’re going backwards on the idea that really we should be going forwards on.
Daniel Flynn: I don’t know, like some days it’s super intense hearing the stories and the hard reality, and it is so much easier to switch off. But for me in that sort of intensity, they are hard moments, but they’re also the moments that breed innovation and ideas and this sort of fire. One of the most confronting things to experience is spending time in communities who are living in extreme poverty. And then going back through an airport that has the super bright light, luxury goods, luxury perfumes, that extreme hot water, cold water. One is the world I kind of grew up in, I suppose, and the other isn’t.
Daniel Flynn: And to find that they’re often so close to each other, super confronting. And I have walked away from some of those moments being like, yeah, it’s all too much. And others being like, man, let’s blow this whole industry up. Like, how do we take over airports? How do we rethink this? This has got to serve that. And so, it’s tension and some days it’s hard to hold tension and other days it’s a remarkable thing and it’s where ideas and innovation come from.
Adam Spencer: Do you have an unpopular opinion about the Australian startup ecosystem that you just firmly believe to be true, either a direction we should go or a direction we’re going and we shouldn’t be that no one else seems to be on the same page with you about?
Daniel Flynn: Oh look, I don’t think I’m that good to have an opinion that no one else is on the same page about. I’m not that smart, but I have some probably unpopular views that I’ve heard shared by others around the world. I had this great opportunity to speak in America, Gary Vee was speaking at the same day and room and stage. And he got up and ripped into the startup community as this sort of overinflated, chasing of valuations and a false fake economy. He riffed like he does.
Daniel Flynn: And I sat there going, I’ve been thinking this for so long, because at Thankyou we never talk about revenue publicly. You got to understand that in our world, we talk about profit and profit distributed because a consumer buys into Thankyou because they’re like, the money goes right and it makes a difference.
Daniel Flynn: So think about this, we run a startup that’s grown big and scaled, it’s been profitable every year, it’s given every year, which means cash like stability going out of the business off to projects. But our focus on profitability versus celebrating revenue has led to a very, very profitable business that has grown. And last year we, I mean, this was a crazy year, but we were able to give over 10 million dollars in our profits away to our projects around the world, but we never talk revenue.
Daniel Flynn: And I hear so many startups, they’re like revenue bragging. And I’m thinking, yeah, I’m sitting on a panel and talking profit and they’re talking revenue. And I’m thinking like, yeah, we could talk revenue too and it would be a bigger number, but we’re focusing on a very important number. And I’m not saying revenue is not important, it is a measure of success. But I wonder if some of the old school measures of success in a business actually stay true, ring true and should have more focus. I would say a profitable business early on is critical.
Adam Spencer: You’ve probably been asked this a million times, but if a brand new founder or entrepreneur came to you tomorrow, you could just tell them one thing that would help them. What would you tell them?
Daniel Flynn: Play the long game. This takes longer than you want it to, but that’s okay. Play the long game. And that means that the decisions you make have to be long game decisions, not short. And I think we’ve got a society rigged, a social media machine rigged around like, instant and yeah, I think few and far between are the organisations that are being built to last, but they’re there and some have always been there, but it comes from a different way of thinking and it’s play the long game.
Daniel Flynn: I’ve got a book sitting on my desk from a partner of ours, great creative digital agency. And they sent me this notebook saying, 10 seconds, 10 minutes, 10 hours, 10 days, 10 weeks, 10 months, 10 years. What would you do in 10? And it’s a really interesting way to break down that quote even further and start to plan in tens.
Adam Spencer: I love that. So this is the big question. And it’s not really a question, but just keeping in mind that this interview is to serve a larger documentary and this documentary is going to be the history of this Australian startup ecosystem.
Adam Spencer: And I think that’s an important story to tell so we can better understand where we came from to help inform where we’re going. And I want founders, investors, policy makers, academics, everyone from all over the Australian startup ecosystem to hear this story, keeping in mind that they’re going to be listening to this. What needs to be in the conversation?
Daniel Flynn: I think the conversation needs to be about the long game and I think that so much of what I’ve heard in startup land and communities at times is about exit, building to exit.
Daniel Flynn: Someone asked me once, what’s your exit at Thankyou? I was like, oh, well we’ll finish up the job. We don’t get paid a dollar more or less. We have no equity in Thankyou, the organisation we’ve founded and that’s our model, this all for purpose and mission. It’s helped us make really interesting decisions, decisions that if we had a short game in mind, we would never have made.
Daniel Flynn: And the truth is they won’t pay off for years or decades. Some have started to, others I believe will. But I think we should be having a conversation around the long game and yes, there are some examples of really incredible and successful examples of visionary leaders who had a long game and told investors and told people, “Hey, forget short term profit, forget early exits and just, we’re going to play a long game and we’re going to change how the world works.” And I think for the better, that’s the goal.
Daniel Flynn: So, maybe it’s popular, maybe it’s unpopular. I think it’s visionary, I think it’s aspirational and I think it’s really hard because it means at times you put the mission or the idea before self and you make decisions that are based on the world or our society changing, versus you quickly benefiting.
Adam Spencer: Let’s say you solve global extreme poverty, you’ve finished, you achieved, that mission is done. Would you do next?
Daniel Flynn: We really believe in Thankyou as a bridge between our world’s two extremes, extreme consumerism and extreme poverty, and many have asked what happens when extreme poverty doesn’t exist. And hopefully Thankyou’s been a huge contributor in that.
Daniel Flynn: Well, I think that for us, Thankyou is an idea that should live on well beyond its founders and its team that run it now. And my hope is that it would always chase the gap, probably the impossible gaps and hard to close gaps, but the gaps between those that have and those that don’t, and it’s a simple way to sum up a very, very complex reality. But yeah, I think Thankyou will have its work cut out for it for as long as people are buying and consuming and the world has problems that need solving.