Rohit Bhargava discusses the benefits of reshaping wholesale investor requirements
Rohit Bhargava runs the podcast The Startup Playbook Podcast, where each week he interviews successful entrepreneurs, investors and industry experts. Rohit first entered the startup ecosystem in 2013 when he founded StageLabel, a crowdfunding platform for the fashion industry. Since then he has also had the roles of Community and Events Manager at Startup Victoria, and Startup Business Development Manager at Amazon Web Services Australia & New Zealand. In his conversation with guest host Will Tjo, Rohit discusses how entering the Sydney Startup Weekend competition led to him founding his first company, as well as his belief that reshaping the wholesale investor requirements and tests in Australia would be beneficial to the startup ecosystem.
The Startup Playbook Podcast: https://startupplaybook.co/
Rohit on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/rohbhargava/
Adam Spencer: Hi, I’m Adam Spencer and Welcome to Day One, the podcast that spotlights 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. This episode was conducted by guest host Will Tjo.
Will Tjo: Hi everyone and welcome back to the Australian startup series interviews. Our guest today is Rohit Bhargava. Just a quick note that an audio issue means my side of this conversation sounds a little different than usual.
Will Tjo: Welcome to the show Rohit.
Rohit Bhargava: Thanks Will and great to be here.
Will Tjo: Start us off. Could you tell us a bit about yourself and what you’re currently working on?
Rohit Bhargava: Sure. So a little bit of a background on me, a former founder. So I ran a previous company called Stage Label, which is a crowdfunding for fashion platform and ever since then, I’ve been, sort of, closely connected into the ecosystem, had a couple of different roles, both the Startup Victoria, and more recently with AWS on their startup team, but I’ve since left that to go full time on the podcast, which I’ve been running for the last six years or so, called the Startup Playbook Podcast, and also spending more time investing into companies.
Will Tjo: There’s a lot of things that I’d love to dig in a little bit later in our episode, but to start us off, I’d like to take the audience right back to the beginning. Rohit, would you say that you’ve always been an entrepreneur? Take us back to even university days.
Rohit Bhargava: Yeah. So I guess, even going before that, before university, if I’m being honest, prior to startups, what I actually really wanted to do was play sports professionally. And injuries and probably a lack of talent, stopped that career from going forward, which I’m probably thankful for, in terms of the way that it played out. But growing up, especially coming from an Indian background, entrepreneurship wasn’t really something that we discussed at home. Definitely wasn’t a career path that we either discussed or was even in the realms of kind of thinking that’s what I would spend my life doing.
Rohit Bhargava: And it probably wasn’t until university where I took part in a course called The Young Achievers Australia program where we sort of pull people together to launch a business. It was probably the first time that I did that in a more structured way and that sort of led me into launching some very small businesses while I was at university. But even in high school, I always did a couple of different things, but to be honest, it just took me a very long time to really sort of understand what it was and the opportunity that was there and that I could really sort of build a career out of that.
Will Tjo: Yeah. What about startups lured you in?
Rohit Bhargava: Good question. I mean, I think it’s a combination of things. So one is just the people that it attracts. I think you’ve got to be a certain type of crazy to want to kind of give up the security of jobs and kind of really have big dreams and be willing to sort of give a lot of the safety net, and sometimes even the cultural traditions that you might have, to kind of chase those dreams. So I think that’s one and being in this type of environment and surrounding yourself with other people that are similarly inclined and are really positive and optimistic and really want to try and build the future, I think that’s incredibly an attractive quality and things that sort of make people want to sort of stick around the startup ecosystem.
Rohit Bhargava: But I think also, for me personally, I just, outside of sport, to be honest, I never really saw myself ever doing anything. And once that kind of ended it wasn’t until I started my startup journey, that it was the first thing that got me really, really excited. And yeah, it’s just kind of that having those big dreams, having that ambition, and then trying to make that a reality, I thought was really cool. And like I said, after sport, it was probably the one thing that got me really excited to get out of bed every morning.
Will Tjo: Yeah. That’s amazing. What year was this when you first jumped in?
Rohit Bhargava: I think it was probably around 2012. So I graduated uni at the end of 2011 and I moved to Sydney from Canberra. And I remember that I was working at a full-time job at an engineering company, and very thankful for a great job that I had at that time, but I also knew that it wasn’t something that I kind of envisioned myself doing for the rest of my life. And I started going to a lot of different startup events and I think that kind of really, really hooked me in, but that was probably back in 2012. So 10 years ago now.
Will Tjo: Yeah. What were some of those events and when you first started, what other support structures or infrastructure did you rely on to get started?
Rohit Bhargava: Good question. So, I mean, in terms of events, the two main ones, I think, were the Silicon Beach drinks that used to take place close to a town hall station in Sydney. And even just going there and sort of meeting this small group. And I think it wasn’t probably more than 15 to 20 people at any one event, but just meeting this kind of small group of people that were really excited and working on something really cool and outside of traditional work was really exciting. But in terms of other events, I think the big thing for me was probably getting involved with Startup Weekend in Sydney for the first time.
Rohit Bhargava: And I remember reading something about a place called Fishburners in the newspaper and I thought that was really strange. And that they were running this competition called Startup Weekend, where you could essentially launch a business from scratch and try and form a team and all of those sort of things. So I signed up me and a friend of mine to the event and, thankfully, we were part of a team that ended up doing quite well. We ended up winning the competition. And then I think ever since then, I got really hooked and I ended up doing a couple of Startup Weekend competitions off the back of that.
Rohit Bhargava: Actually, my startup came up the back of a Startup Weekend competition that I flew down to Melbourne for. Definitely owe a lot to Startup Weekends for the role that it played in my own journey. But yeah, back then, there wasn’t the quantity, the volume, the communities that are sort of active and available now. So I think a large part of that was just trying to find the early people that had really jumped in, even the years before me and trying to sort of learn and absorb from others as much as possible.
Will Tjo: Yeah. I mean, reflecting back on the last 10 years that you’ve been in the ecosystem, and you mentioned at the very beginning that you’re really plugged in, how has the ecosystem grown? Has it been what you expected it to be, for better or worse?
Rohit Bhargava: Good question. I mean, in terms of how it’s grown, I think it’s been absolutely incredible to see almost how quickly it’s grown and how quickly it’s transformed, especially over the last few years of the decade as well. And I think a large part of that is just the compounding nature of all of this. I think that we’re… I remember on the podcast speaking about this five years ago, when we were starting to see a lot of great talent from Australia, who were based in SF, that were starting to move back. There were a lot more sort of mentors that were coming into the space and I think over time, that’s only sort of exponentially grown, which has been great.
Rohit Bhargava: And I think part of this has just been the kind of cyclical nature of this. I don’t think that it’s any one thing that has changed the ecosystem, but I think that things like the success of Canva and the success of a lot of the funds that got in early and backed Canva, has really helped supercharge the growth of the ecosystem. So I don’t know if there’s anything that’s been sort of surprising, aside from just seeing it play out and especially over the last few years, just seeing how quickly things have grown and how much great talent is starting to enter the space, both from the founding side, but also from people that are joining great companies as well.
Will Tjo: When you mentioned, or described the ecosystem as cyclical, was really intriguing. Could you tell me more about that?
Rohit Bhargava: Yeah, actually cyclical probably isn’t the right word for it, but what I meant by that was I think it is a process that you have to go through. And I remember some of the early conversations on the podcast, talking to a lot of great operators that were coming back to Australia from SF or people that had been in the ecosystem for much longer than I had, and talking to them about a lot of these things that we want to see, like more capital in the space, more great companies spinning out, more people being attracted to work within the startup ecosystem. Whether that was something that just took time and you had to let it play out or whether there are particular things that you can do to supercharge it. And I think that there are, but I also believe that part of it is a process and yeah. I guess from my perspective, just seeing that play out, from my own experience over the last 10 years, has just been incredible to see.
Will Tjo: Yeah. So if I’m hearing you right, these sort of things or factors that supercharge the ecosystem, and you mentioned a few there, which was like capital attracting talent and so on, they are things that follow a process, and so it’s more of a natural serendipitous process. Is that what you mean? Like it just occurs naturally without anyone trying to force it to happen.
Rohit Bhargava: I mean, I think that there are definitely things that can help that process. So, I think that there are things that the Queensland government has done, for example, in trying to attract more talent into the ecosystem launch. Vic has run sort of several programs to help launch more angel networks, for example, in Victoria, especially over the last few years. And so, I think that there are things that can help particular areas and I think that a lot of people have spent a lot of time in building programs and building the support infrastructure around that. Which, I think off the back of that, a lot of people benefit. But I think that there are things that you can do to help spur some of those things. But I think that, from my perspective anyways, I think it is just a process and I think it’s been really exciting to see, but I think that you also need to kind of let that process play out to a degree.
Will Tjo: Yeah. That’s fair enough. What inspired you to start your own podcast? The Startup Playbook?
Rohit Bhargava: Yeah. Good question. So, six years ago, and it seems a little bit strange now, because now it seems everyone’s got a podcast, but six years ago, off the back of my first startup, I had a lot of founders that were reaching out to me for help and support and guidance. And obviously I had my own experience within my kind of window with Stage Label, but I knew that there were so many other people that I had benefited from and so many other people that were so much more knowledgeable about different areas of business and growth that these founders should be learning from.
Rohit Bhargava: And so the podcast was started initially with my thinking, being that it would just be a directory where I would record conversations with great founders and operators and that whenever I met with a founder, they would just… I could just point them to a particular episode or a particular recording that they would sort of go and find and listen. So the thinking definitely wasn’t, back then, I want to build this big community and this big sort of content resource that will sort of lead to a ton of opportunities or will kind of turn into a business or anything like that. It was very much from a perspective of just trying to solve a problem in something that I wish that it existed.
Rohit Bhargava: And also, at that time as well, it felt to me that there was definitely an inflection point where there was a lot more interest in the startup space. And there were a lot of people that were jumping in trying to mentor and advise companies that had never run businesses before. And the podcast very much kind of started and that’s one thing that I’ve tried to stay very true to over the last six years of the show, is learning from people that have been there and done it, knowing that not everything will be applicable to every founder, obviously every industry and every business is different, but at least you’re hearing from someone that’s been there and done it. And hopefully taking in some of the lessons from some of their own journey that founders can go and apply to their own business.
Will Tjo: Yeah. Sounds like any other startup trying to look for problems and pretty much solving the need that’s there. I’d love to change gears a little bit, Rohit, and talk about the ecosystem as it is today. I’d love to get your perspective. Do you think that we, as an ecosystem, like what are our strengths and weaknesses?
Rohit Bhargava: Good question. What are our strengths and weaknesses? I think one thing that is a strength that has been born a little bit out of the environment that we had operated in for a very long time, without intention, is just the quality of founders that we produce that can do a lot with very little. So I think that having less access to capital, although it puts limitations on a lot of founders. I think that what we’ve seen over the last couple of years, in terms of the incredible businesses that have been built out with super resilient founders that have been able to execute with very little behind them, has shaped an ecosystem and shaped a community where we’ve got some of the world’s best operators that have sort of launched and founded and grown their companies out of Australia.
Rohit Bhargava: In terms of the weaknesses, I mean, it’s probably not anything new, and things are slowly starting to change, but I think one of the things that has always been held against founders in Australia is just the, do we think big enough? From both the ideas that we’re going after, from the way that we sort of think about competition, from the types of businesses that we build, but even from a venture capital perspective. Do we think big enough? Is our ambition on a global level, or is it more from a perspective of trying to win within Australian market, just knowing how isolated we are and knowing that’s kind of the most obvious thing that’s ahead of us.
Rohit Bhargava: But like I said, I think one of the things that’s been most exciting about the ecosystem is just seeing that, I mean, Nikki and the team at Blackbird talk about this and I had Nikki on the podcast recently, but just talking about how it’s been incredibly exciting to see how the level of ambition from Australian founders has kind of changed and evolved and grown over the last few years.
Will Tjo: So this next question is the advice question. If a brand new entrepreneur or founder came to you, given all your mistakes, your wins and your experience, what’s one piece of advice you’d give them to increase their chances of success.
Rohit Bhargava: Well, there’s definitely a lot of mistakes that I would try and guide them away from. But just going back to the previous question, in terms of having the ambition around it, I think that it’s really, really difficult to build a truly global and a successful company without sort of thinking about it from a perspective of, like I said, that the chances are that there are two or three other people around the world that are building or working on something very similar. And so the advice that I would have would be really hone in on what is it that you’re trying to build and what is the biggest impact?
Rohit Bhargava: And always think bigger than what you think is possible. And for me, a big part of that is by just surrounding yourself with the right people or learning from people. I think that there are so many podcasts where you can hear from and learn from other people that even if you don’t have access to those people, in terms of catching up for a coffee or those sorts of things, you can supercharge a lot of your learning and get “mentorship” from just listening to some of the best people on different podcasts or different sort of content streams.
Rohit Bhargava: But I would say just really try and surround yourself with the right people. And I think that there’s so much that can be gained and learned from advice from people that have been there and done it. So even if they are not in the same industry or not in the same vertical, the chances… Like a lot of the challenges that companies that scale experience are very similar across the board. And someone who’s at least been there and done it can help you look around the corner, around things, or help you bypass some of those things or help you work around things before you even get there. And I think that’s incredibly helpful.
Will Tjo: Yeah. I know we’ve mentioned a few throughout the episode, but who are some of those, I guess, mentors or people that you would look up to within our ecosystem?
Rohit Bhargava: I mean, there’s 160 of them on the Startup Playbook Podcast. Talking about mentorship in general, I think, there is so much that you can learn from so many people, but true mentorship really comes from the connection that you have with that particular individual. And so, there have been incredibly important people in my journey that, at various times in various stages, depending on things that I’ve been working on, that have helped me. So people like Mike Casey, who was running grad connection at the first time. When I talk about Startup Weekends, he was one of the people that really leaned in.
Rohit Bhargava: Phil Bosor, who was one of the co-founders and CEO of LifeX, was one of the mentors and advisors at startup weekend when I launched Stage Label and just gave me incredible advice and time and resources at the very start of my journey. Most recently, people like Rachel Newman from Flying Fox Ventures, really helped open up a lot of opportunities for me and has just been incredibly helpful, plus so many other people that have made time. But I think with any of those people, I haven’t ever had to formally ask them to be a mentor. They’ve just been people that, for whatever reason, we’ve connected at the right time. And a lot of that has been, hopefully, a two way relationship to some extent, but obviously knowing that there’s a lot there.
Rohit Bhargava: There are these people that have incredibly busy lives, but for whatever reason, we’re willing to sort of make time around that. And again, I think that’s where I know there’s a ton of mentorship programs that have really great intent with what they’re trying to create, but I think that those things are just very, very difficult to manufacture. And so you can try and do that, like incredibly useful in terms of doing that, but it’s such a personal relationship that I think you just have to find people that you sort of connect with and vice versa. And it just kind of organically happens off the back of that. But if you can find people that they can help you, it’ll help you so much on your journey.
Will Tjo: Yeah. I like the words that you used to describe it. It’s like an organic thing, rather than being manufactured. So this last question right here is, as you know, we’re trying to document as historically and accurately as possible, the history of our ecosystem. Just so that we could look to the future and we’re aiming to reach all corners from founders, academics, investors, and policy makers. Is there anything that we haven’t discussed today that is always top of mind for you, that you would want them to hear?
Rohit Bhargava: Yeah, so I mean, one of the things that we’ve sort of touched on at various points of this interview has been just the access to capital. And I think one of the biggest sort of limitations and barriers has been the wholesale investor requirements that are in place for people to be able to invest in. Invest through funds or even invest through syndicates and those sorts of things. I think that it does play an important role in terms of having criteria to prevent people that aren’t in startups and aren’t in technology, that don’t have access to deal flow and can’t compare deals for them to actually protect themself and all those sort of things.
Rohit Bhargava: But I think at the same time, there are so many people that don’t quite meet the requirements, that do have expertise in this area and would actually be incredible investors and have an incredible opportunity to both support companies, but also impact their own lives in a financial outcome. That the current way that those wholesale investor tests are currently done or measured, don’t quite meet. And so I think if there’s one thing that we’re not… There’s a lot that we can work on. There’s a lot that we can get right, as an ecosystem. But I think one thing that would be really helpful is reshaping what the wholesale investor requirements and tests look like.
Rohit Bhargava: To be less based on, do you earn more than $250K over a two year period or have more than, I think it’s two or $2.5 million in assets, to actually being more skill and expertise based and knowledge around this area. But there are people much smarter and much closer to that than me, that are probably working on that. But that’s one thing that I think would really help in opening up more opportunities for people, both on the startup side, in terms of them being able to go back to building great companies, rather than spending all of their time raising capital. And also, open up a lot of opportunities for people as well that are part of the space and want to actively invest, but currently aren’t able to do so in the way that they would like.
Will Tjo: Yeah, it’s been so good having you on the show. Thank you so much for your time, Rohit.
Rohit Bhargava: My pleasure. Thanks so much for having me.
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.