Accepting the offer to join Sage Corps felt like I was going into the deep end. Juggling a few traditional internships, and like most kids, paranoid about the career options after school, the idea of flying halfway around the world seemed insane. As I watched many of my close friends work for various Wall Street and Silicon Valley firms, I could feel myself stressing to remain competitive and unique amongst a sea of perpetually competitive peers. I probably couldn’t exactly place what pushed me through with it, whether it was the lingering wish I had studied abroad, the desire to find a unique resume item, or maybe just a hint of the unknown. Whatever possessed me, I signed on.
I’ve worked at small business and research groups before. I thought I was used to environments with rapidly changing projects, constant communication, and caffeine-induced sprints. I got my startup paired through the program, watched some online lectures to brush up, and hopped on the plane.
Day one on the job I knew I was in for a much different ride than I expected. I was paired with one other Sage Corps Fellow, Jake Miller, and we found the address of the office was completely different than what we were told in the information packet sent not two weeks earlier. The original building was torn down, and the office was now on the other side of the city. In addition to the geographic shift, we were moved from the original company we were supposed to work for to another established startup, Organic Search Technologies. Organic Search Technologies was a predominately search engine optimization and reputation management company. This would have been bizarre enough for a work shift, but Organic Search Technology was in the midst of consulting a new product launch, a new cellphone contacts book app.
Pretty quickly, I realized there was a big difference between working for a startup and functionally starting a new one. The product competencies and requirements seemed to change almost hourly, with sketches constantly being erased and thrown out, coffees and Red Bulls consumed, and the lingering thrill of the hunt that the next iteration would be ‘the one.’ The app lasted a roller coaster week and a half before being scraped altogether, leaving my fellow Sage Corps Fellow and me feeling stranded and a little frustrated. We spent at most a few hours working on some company upkeep for our original startup before we felt things start picking up again.
Our boss, Dave Dinh, at Organic Search Technologies was closely involved with a second startup called Dave’s Deals. Dave’s Deals, through some supply chain hacks and innovations, had found ways to sell and distribute children’s books at a fraction of market rates. The service seemed like an easy sell but suffered from a lack of exposure and online presence. For two technically-educated interns, it seemed like a pretty ideal job.
There was a lot to be learned from the challenge itself. A lot of work went into the data analysis, creating customer profiles, finding out who to target and retarget, and what customers stayed loyal. We found ourselves bouncing between coding frameworks we had only vague familiarities with, analyzing industries we had never heard of and learning about system and operational processes in companies I would never have known existed.
Probably even more interesting than the work itself were the people. Jake and I had managed to work for or with four different companies in about as many weeks. We found ourselves all over Sydney, from the Central Business District to meetups in industrial coffee shops in the middle of nowhere. And through all of this change, the people were even more different. We found ourselves connected with a variety of developers, designers, and entrepreneurs, augmenting the already large network of people Sage Corps introduced us to in orientation and beyond. I was having a meaningful conversation with a startup founder or freelance developer once or twice a day, and if anything, it only showed signs of accelerating as the time went on.
Sydney itself uniquely lent itself to this kind of experience. The startup culture in Australia felt like a startup – an amorphous group of companies without a distinct culture or centralized point yet. There were co-working spaces and meet-ups like anywhere else, but as Jake and I worked with launching products, we felt like we were figuring things out just as fast as the Australian market was. It felt like being in a snapshot of Silicon Valley 5 years prior – not because the ideas weren’t any more or less innovative, but because the idea of ‘startup hub’ in Sydney still felt so novel.
People were incredibly friendly; they wanted to talk about ideas, and, in a generic, sappy way, just seemed so much nicer. We cold-emailed senior developers at companies like Atlassian and AMP and got meaningful responses every time. Maybe people weren’t building the next unicorn product, but people sure liked the thrill of talking about whatever it was they were doing. It only inspired us to go bolder and bolder with the people we reached out to. The first networking event was awkward, but by the end, we were lining up meetings with a seasoned proficiency.
There was a pretty distinct moment when we were most of the way through Australia where Jake and I were sitting on a train between meetings. We had coffee with someone at lunch to talk about our company and were heading to the other side of Sydney to meet with someone else—it was going to be our fifth train in two hours. In a situation I realize would have been likely stressful in an internship back in the states, we found no other way to describe it than the startup ‘buzz’—a sort of high you got when you felt like everything was moving fast and changing faster than you could ever keep up. Even if it sounded like it should have been stressful, we loved it. It didn’t feel so much like work when we felt like we were in the hunt of the next good idea.
We were working some weird hours, the expectations were high, and our career expectations of ourselves were higher still. But around that time something clicked, and we got so much clarity into why this was all happening. Maybe the companies we worked for wouldn’t exist in a few years, but at least the ideas we offered were our own. We were helping steer these companies and products. If being able to walk 5 minutes to a beach hadn’t convinced me Australia was the right place to work, feeling like I had made a meaningful impact in a couple of companies cemented it.
I don’t have the distance from the program to make any sweeping statements that it was ‘life changing’ or ‘the best thing I have ever done for my career.’ But what I can say is that I learned a lot about myself. I felt like I was putting a lot on hold when I left the States to intern abroad. Australia taught me a lot about the connections I had with people, the things I was passionate about, and, most importantly, my attitude towards these situations. I started the program with a question mark, and while I’m certainly not leaving with all of the answers, I can say I am leaving with a lot of new information.