Malini Sietaram has a stellar global and Silicon Valley track record, including stints as eBay’s Global Head of Content and Social Media Strategy and as Chief Marketing Officer for Finder.com.au.
In late 2019 Malini brought her wealth of experience to Aussie start-up Brighte, a digital-first dedicated provider for solar and home improvement finance, where she is now Chief Revenue and Marketing Officer.
It’s been quite a ride: Brighte has been recognised as the 4th fastest growing company in Deloitte’s Asia Pacific Technology Fast 500 list with a growth rate of 8,881% over the last three years.
Founded by Katherine McConnell in 2015, Brighte has enabled over 2000 solar and home improvement businesses to offer finance to over 100,000 Aussie households.
I was thrilled to invite Malini, who originally hails from the Netherlands, to Commtract’s latest webinar to ask her about life in Silicon Valley, the biggest mistakes marketing and comms contractors can make, and whether working at a start-up really is just like the films.
She had some fantastic tips. Below is my quick take on our chat (you can watch the full video here).
What advice does Malini have for aspiring Australian marketers and comms professionals about what work life is really like in Silicon Valley?
A charming Aussie accent and “she’ll be alright attitude” can go a long way, she says, but be aware that some traits apply more to US tech culture more than they do Down Under. For instance, when Malini moved to Australia, she was quite shocked at how marketers were looking at data.
“I think if you are in comms or marketing you should understand how data and incrementality and experimentation work and how you can experiment with your own content or marketing programmes to see how you can get that incrementality. In Silicon Valley they do that really well.”
They also “aim for scale”, which Malini admits is a lot easier to do in a country of 330 million than it is in a country of 25 million. Nevertheless, thinking big “is a great way to set yourself up for success”.
Silicon Valley companies also “move fast in a very targeted way”. “The prioritisation meetings are really ruthless and it is like, ‘we are only going to do one thing, but we are going to put everything behind it’,” adds Malini, warning that there is very little accommodation for non-core or under-performing projects.
Bright’s ambition is to hire 40 people in the next four months. So how does it cope as a start-up with getting the right people and on–boarding them to meet its growth needs?
It is hard, she admits. Brighte does not yet have the brand recognition and awareness of say a Telstra or an Optus, which creates a double bind because brand awareness builders are precisely the kind of staff she is looking for.
In Brighte’s hyper growth environment the scope of a particular role could change in six short months, so it is looking for a specific type of talent. “I’m not going to lie, it’s super hard to find talent like that and that’s why companies like Commtract come in handy. You can hire some guns for a couple of months who can help you set up the structure and processes that you need as a start–up but cannot afford to hire [as big full time executive positions],” says Malini.
Ultimately, she adds, hiring at a start-up is all about “selling the dream” to potential employees and telling your story as a company. “People do love a challenge and building things. When you find builders, who are willing to build the plane and fly it, you have found your sweet spot.”
Brighte has built a unique company culture but how does it maintain it at the same time as onboarding 40 people in 4 months – and does Malini see the culture shifting as that happens?
She readily admits: “It’s our number one worry at the moment because there is a lot of research that shows once you go over 150 people the culture will change – and we have done a really good job of having this very unique Brighte culture that I haven’t seen anywhere else I’ve worked. We have this healthy paranoia about the culture we care about.”
Brighte’s leadership team spent a full day recently to unpack what its culture and values and identify the key characteristics it wants to find in people. Malini says: “We don’t want the rock stars and the gurus – we want the comeback kids and the people that were really shy and don’t thrive in these big corporate environments but have something to prove.”
She adds: “I hired someone recently who is probably in the last 10 years before retirement and he really wanted to do a start–up gig. He was super–experienced, but no one would give him a chance. We hired him and it’s just amazing how the culture has embraced him, he is just thriving.”
Brighte also gives potential employees a cultural survey kit and questionnaire and has its ‘cultural ambassadors’ interview them to see if the person is a fit. “We don’t want people that are the same but people that can get along,” she says.
So, I have to ask, what is the lifestyle of working in a start–up like, is it really like in the movies, working 24/7 and going hard all the time?
“I watched [the series] Silicon Valley and thought ‘that used to be my life’, says Malini, who nonetheless insist she never actually slept under her desk.
Brighte, she says, is “very different when it comes lifestyle”, which she attributes to its founder Katherine McConnell, a young mum of two very active young boys who created a flexible culture wherein “it is okay if you need to leave at 4pm to pick up your kids from school, or get a Woollies order in before your meeting starts”. Malini says that flexibility is something Australian start-ups do a lot better than American start-ups.
“It’s so hyper competitive in America, people have this constant stress [saying things like], ‘I need to get up at 5am and run a marathon and outperform then do 25 speaking engagements.’ Sometimes it’s okay to relax, to take a nap, to do something that’s really fun because taking that time for yourself and getting inspired by things that are not work actually helps you at your job, that’s where creativity comes from.
“I am a strong believer that happy people create happy products and happy experiences and that will create happy customers… so I have seen the movies, but I think we can do it differently in a nicer, more human, more wholesome way. I am here to prove that it doesn’t have to be like the movies.”
Finally, one of our audience members wanted to know what Malini sees as the three biggest mistakes consultants make working on a project?
She gave us two – and one final tip.
Firstly, says Malini, avoid bringing in a templated approach and saying: “I’ve done this before, I know how to do it,” without understanding the business and its specific markets and needs.
Similarly, acknowledge that sometimes the people hiring you have the will and the skill to do the task themselves, they just don’t have the bandwidth. “Engage with the rest of the company and become part of the team.”
And if you really want to impress: “Come in and set your own KPIs, say ‘these are the deliverables’, create accountability and become more integrated.” If you can be seen as a “sparring partner”, rather than just someone who will tell their hirer how to do it, you will be in great demand.