Sam Wong in the early days.

Blackbird: A Calling

Date Published:
September 7, 2017

At Blackbird, we look for founders who are doing their life’s work.

At Blackbird, we look for founders who are doing their life’s work. Founding a startup is closer to a calling than an occupation. We try to learn a founder’s story, to understand who they are and what brought them to where they are today.

I am not a founder of Blackbird. But the work I do for Blackbird is closer to a calling than an occupation. This is the story of what brought me to where I am today, a Partner at Blackbird Ventures.

I: Computamart & Creative

I was born in Perth to migrant parents. My Dad was an engineer in the mining industry. My mum was an unemployable auditor, stubborn, boldly-dressed, with a chronic inability to be punctual. She went to work for herself and started a company distributing PCs and computer games to retailers. The company was called ‘Computamart’. Yes, it was the 80s.

She lugged Commodore Vic-20s around Perth while 8 months pregnant with me, and was back at it full-time three weeks after I was born. My earliest memories are of playing with the computers to the whirr of dot matrix printers churning out invoices in the background.

At some point my Dad decided to quit his job to join Computamart as CEO while my mum became CFO. Shortly after, a Singaporean company called Creative Technologies granted them the Australasian exclusive distributorship for a product called ‘Sound Blaster’.

Most off-the-shelf PCs from the early 90s were not designed for a multimedia experience. In particular, the sound was terrible and you needed a separate sound card for any sort of gaming experience. Creative’s Soundblaster Pro elegantly solved this problem. Within a short time 7 out of 10 sound cards sold globally were Creative Soundblasters.

My parents’ business grew exponentially. We moved to Sydney on short notice to be closer to customers and land an important partnership with Creative. Once we were in Sydney, the scaling continued. We moved the office 3 times in 2 years as we needed more and more space.

If you’ve read Shoe Dog by Phil Knight about importing Onitsuka Tigers in the early years of Nike, then you have a very good sense for what this experience was like for my parents. Every challenge from single supplier risk, navigating a foreign business culture (Singaporeans are up there with the Japanese in their ferociousness), currency hedging, trade credit and even Supreme Court litigation was in there.

By 1999 growth had slowed significantly. Creative failed to create more hits after Soundblaster. My parents’ business had failed to diversify and find other products as lucrative as Sound Blaster to distribute. The company was wound up in the early 2000s and shortly thereafter my parents divorced. It was a poignant lesson on the consequences of failing to see around the curve.

There were many reasons to be grateful — the business had elevated them from the migrant white-collar-but-lower-middle-class into upper-middle class people who could retire at 40. But the ride had been so intense for so long and taken its toll on us all.

II: The Law to LSE

Despite the fact both my parents were strong with numbers, I was always stronger at writing and history. I got good marks so I did Arts/Law because I didn’t know what else to do. I didn’t expect to become a lawyer, but I got a summer clerkship and then a graduate offer at a top tier firm. Six years later I was still there.

I loved the intellectual rigour of the law, and I loved the excitement of being close to deals. The problem was that it always seemed much more interesting on the other side. Deciding which companies to invest in, how to structure the deal, how to adequately balance risk and reward. Those seemed like the most fun problems to be solving.

While I was a lawyer, I dabbled with things on the side. I ran volunteer orgs. I engaged in an insane plan to become fluent in French while working 70 hour weeks in M&A. I became a founding member of an online media startup. It was the online stuff I liked most of all.

At some point I decided that I needed to explore these side projects more fully. I resigned and gave myself one year to replace my salary. I was 27, in the first year of my mortgage. I moved back in with my mother to save money. I got three different jobs and worked 7.5 days a week (7 full days, plus one evening).

One of those jobs was at SurfStitch, a surf e-commerce company based in Mona Vale. I joined to help with SEO, then 3 weeks later took over email marketing, and 3 months later I was running a project to launch e-commerce for all of the Billabong Group brands. A year later I was in France hiring the team to run SurfStitch’s European operations. My time at SurfStitch France was a wonderful ‘CEO apprenticeship’. Plus it put to use all that French that I’d nearly killed myself trying to learn while I was a lawyer.

I made many mistakes. None were fatal. I was proud of the work I had accomplished and many of the early SurfStitch team are still dear friends. But after 3 years of growth, I felt my personal learning had plateaued. I was reporting to the CEO. There was nowhere else for me to go.

I thought about doing an MBA because I wanted to become a founder; I thought there was still more I needed to learn. I sat in on MBA entrepreneurship classes at the London School of Economics. The room was filled with super bright people who were good at talking theory and had no idea about the practice.

I realised that some things you can only learn by doing.

III: Startmate to Blackbird

In 2014, I moved back to Australia and founded CapacityHQ, an on-demand marketplace for legal talent, with my boyfriend. I learned first-hand just how hard marketplaces really are. We got into Startmate 2015, and about halfway through, I realised that I wasn’t interested in running a small business in legal services. We sold the business and used the proceeds to focus on other ideas.

By then we were running out of runway and, in truth, spirit. It was very very hard on my relationship. I started thinking about other options.

I wanted to keep up the rate of learning I had through Startmate. I also wanted to know investors who would back me in my next startup. Then Blackbird co-founder Niki Scevak mentioned that they were looking to hire their first employee and had someone like me in mind for the role.

I had never thought about working in VC before. But I realised that I could hit both my career goals straight in the bullseye with the Head of Operations role, so I accepted.

The last two years at Blackbird have been the most challenging, rewarding and joy-filled of my career. Niki, Rick, Nick, Joel and Oscar are the best colleagues you could hope to find.

In the Blackbird and Startmate community, I have met my people — ambitious dreamers filled with optimism, biased to action and constant learning.

I was raised by two technology entrepreneurs, I worked for founders as a lawyer and then as a startup employee. Eventually I became a founder myself.

I am a true believer in founders.

The importance of our mission — to supercharge Australia’s most ambitious founders — invigorates me every day.

It is a privilege to continue on the journey as a Partner at Blackbird.