This post was written by Sage Corps Fellow, Robert Durst, about his time in Australia.
Now back home, thousands of miles and an entire ocean stand between me and what was my home for the past eight weeks. Sitting at the kitchen table, I am in silent disbelief, scrolling through the hundreds of pictures on my computer from my internship in Australia. Back in a world of regularities, normalities, and a comfortable status quo, I cannot believe my Australian adventure is over. It seemed like only yesterday I was awkwardly exchanging words with a few of my future cohort members in the Sydney Airport. So much has changed in the last eight weeks. The final goodbyes at the Urbanest in South Sydney sounded like those of lifelong friends: goodbyes mixed with happiness, tears, and promises of “I will visit you soon.” But just what made this summer (winter) such an incredible experience? My Sage Corps experience can best be summed up in the following two stories.
How Small is a Startup?: My Professional Experience
Within forty-eight hours of landing in Sydney, I was sitting around a large oval table with my eleven other cohort members, Rachel Bernstein, and Linley Scorgie, General Manager of Tech Pilot Fund. Linley was presenting a powerpoint, teaching us the basics of venture capital in a board room on the 27th floor of a building with a sensational view of Circular Quay. Like most of my peers, the two main startups I knew were Facebook and Apple and, for all I knew, the reason for their success was magic. Venture capitalism was a completely new concept to me. After the hour-long meeting, I took in the basics, able to now adequately understand the terms seed funding and Series A and B.
Fast forward six weeks. As a computer science and math major I had spent the last six weeks developing an iOS mobile application, mirroring our already developed Android application for our technology-driven, delivery service startup, Delivery Rocket. Every day consisted of discussions with my two bosses — Brett Higgins, MD and Co-Founder, and Brandon Grenier, CTO and Co-Founder — whom I sat between every day, lunches with Brett, and many hours of coding. My role was usually well defined, but since we were a startup, I was sometimes asked to take on other roles. I often participated in business meetings with Brett and Brandon, one being on that particular day, six weeks after my arrival into Sydney.
On this day, like any other, I am in Tank Stream Labs, a workspace for startups and other companies, and in a meeting room with Brett and Brandon. I am sitting at one end of the table with a notepad out, Brandon is scratching his beard, deep in thought at the other end, and Brett is at the whiteboard, mapping out the future of Delivery Rocket. Eventually, Brandon proposes an idea. Half joking, half serious, he proposes, “why not search for funding in Silicon Valley? I read about an Australian company which raised a few million dollars there?” Laughing, Brett chimes in, “sure, we can add that to our plan,” scribbling on the whiteboard in black marker. I piped up, “I live there; I could definitely look into that.” For the most part, that idea stayed in the meeting room. But, I kept thinking about it from time to time throughout the next couple weeks. Occasionally, I would discuss the Silicon Valley funding idea with Brett, but it did not progress much past being an idea. On the last Thursday before leaving, I shared a table with Brett and Brandon at the Harbour View Hotel, celebrating my accomplishments and the end of the internship. It was a bright sunny day, and the fish and chips and Australian beer made for a fantastic last meal with Delivery Rocket. The topic of conversation jumped from wallaby encounters to Donald Trump. Eventually, I brought up the idea of me pitching and searching for funding in the United States. This time, we had a serious conversation, discussing our strategy, and establishing a meeting for discussion the next day.
Now back in Northern California, I have been in contact with a few local VC’s and startups in the area and have discussed the funding process and the differences between raising funding in America and raising funding in Australia. In a span of ten weeks, I have expanded my role within Delivery Rocket from simply front end coding to helping with funding. But more importantly, I have experienced first hand why people quit corporate and join the startup world. Taking part in business discussions about directional changes, working part time conducting important market research and working a majority of the time coding an application is not a typical corporate job description; it is exhilarating, stressful, exciting, and unique. Not working amidst the obstacles of bureaucracy is certainly also a nice perk. In what would have been months of meetings, decks, research, and many levels of decisions, I asked my boss if I could take on a greater role with Delivery Rocket and look into a new direction for the company and he simply responded “sure, go see what happens.”
At the Top of Mt. Amos: My Exploration of Australia
Unreal. The only word that may describe the view on top of Mt. Amos. My most memorable Australian moment was not the koalas and kangaroos, the Sydney Swans, the Great Barrier Reef, Bondi Beach, the Harbor, or the Ivy. It was, undeniably, summiting Mt. Amos in Freycinet National Park in Tasmania with five other Sage Corps fellows.
The hike up and down was an exhilarating three and a half hour round trip of scaling up slippery rock surfaces, navigating an unclear path, and encountering a few scary slips (I slipped down the side of a rock and nearly took Hannah Westervelt and Melanie Spencer with me). Nevertheless, it was all worth it. The pinnacle of the trip, literally at the top of the mountain, was one of the most sensational experiences of my life. The six of us sat in a circle, enjoying various combinations of peanut butter, Nutella, strawberry jelly, and bread while taking in the view. On top of a rock at the highest point of Mt. Amos, one could see all around himself/herself, 360 degrees of beautiful nature for miles on end. But it was not just the nature that was spectacular; it was the purity. The trees were perfectly green, the sandy beaches a pristine white, the water a clear blue, and the temperature, sixty degrees Fahrenheit and sunny. It felt like being in a photoshopped travel brochure. It was beautiful.
According to these travel brochures, I was supposed to end up on a crowded tour bus and witness packs of wallabies jumping through the Australian Outback. I was then supposed to board a boat and jump into the Pacific Ocean and watch the fish, sea turtles, and Great White Sharks of the Great Barrier Reef. Finally, I was supposed to enjoy a show at the world famous Opera House and take scenic pictures by the Harbor Bridge. I did most of that, but it did not define my Australian experience. Instead, we, Sage Corps Sydney, went off the beaten path. We explored the less popular Central Coast and the lesser known Freycinet National Park. These are the moments I enjoyed the most.
The difference between my internship experience, living abroad for eight weeks, and a two-week vacation can be summed up in two words “cultural immersion.” Throughout my eight week internship, I met Brett’s family, Brett’s friends, picked up Australian slang, and discovered local food delicacies, like Oporto and Salt, Meat, Cheese. I also went to local sporting events, almost learned the rules of Aussie Rules Rugby, and memorized my walk to work through the CBD (Central Business District). From the work week to the weekend excursions, in a short eight weeks, I fell in love with Australia. All in all, working in the Sydney CBD, immersing myself in Australian culture, avoiding the tourist bus, meeting locals, and exploring the backroads of Australia was not simply incredible; it was unreal.