Working in a Silicon Valley startup is on many a founders’ wishlist – but Aylin Ahmet made it happen. After leaving the corporate world and gaining startup experience as a product manager in both Melbourne and Sydney she has spent the last three and a half years in San Francisco before being drawn back to our great Melburnian coffee.  

We caught up with her at Pausefest to find out how did she was able to get there in the first place – and what Australian founders can learn from the global startup mecca.

“I always knew that at some point I would end up in Silicon Valley” says Ahmet. “It’s such a thriving ecosystem. There’s so many opportunities, and entrepreneurs really excited about changing the world.”

Earlier in her career Ahmet was working for a traditional corporate company but frustrated by the slower pace of change.  

Startups gave her the ability to work on ideas and get them to market quickly – but there was definitely an unexpected learning curve.

“Nothing really prepares you for that corporate move into startup… you learn very quickly how to adapt. You’re filling gaps every day, depending on what the business needs. One day I might be working really closely with design, and the next I might be the QA manager testing out experiences [and] working really closely with engineering. You quickly learn how to adapt, based on gaps, in what the company needs.”

Despite the challenges, she quickly found the positives. “It’s really nimble. For me, the first startup that I worked at, it was the awareness that I really enjoyed that kind of environment. It was quite thrilling.”

After six years of working in both Melbourne and Sydney startups, Ahmet and her husband knew it was time to break into Silicon Valley. “We literally quit our jobs, got on a plane, [and arrived] on a tourist visa. I don’t know if we should say that! But then [we] found work very quickly.”

What was it like to suddenly be in the heart of the startup world?  

“It was exciting, being in an environment where they’re really excited about taking on big companies, and excited on taking on big risk. That was one big difference that I noticed from the Australian ecosystem at the time. They were definitely a little bit more risk averse. Australia [is] still is a very young ecosystem, compared to what we see in Silicon Valley.”

On the ground how does the Australian ecosystem compare?

“I think it’s good to have some idea of where we want to go as a community, as an ecosystem, but it’s hard to compare. It’s not really apples and apples. The Silicon Valley ecosystem has been around for many decades. It had the right number of entrepreneurs and VCs, and the whole spectrum, that really helped make that community thrive.

“Especially coming back now to Melbourne, it’s been great to hear more about what the government in Victoria are doing to foster the tech community, and give back to the community to help create an environment that makes Aussie startups and Victorian startups thrive.”

Ahmet also sees a lot of positive change compared to when she left almost four years ago.

“It definitely feels like it’s more mature. Even in these last couple weeks I’ve been meeting with startups of various sizes, and it’s been great hearing stories of successful startups exiting, or just growing really fast, and have a very clear strategy for how they want to grow and continue to exit. There’s a lot more fresh blood, and new people around, so it’s exciting.”

Ahmet says we need to hold onto what makes us unique and not get caught up trying to act like how we think a US startup would behave.

“Melburnians have a uniqueness about them that’s quite humbling, and that hopefully sticks. I really appreciate the humbleness in the Australian way – a little bit more down to earth and charismatic.

“Let’s not lose that because I think that’s one of our strongest qualities. I was seeing startups pitching [today] and you can really gauge how passionate they are. It’s tone, it’s emotion, it’s words, but all that really is Australian, and I think that’s our unique contribution back.”

After three and a half years in the US Ahmet and her husband again knew the time was right to return home to be close to family – and the baristas who she swears spike the coffee with ‘magic’ which you just can’t replicate.  

She’s on the lookout for new opportunities, and has been surprised by the interesting ideas in both startups and corporate.

“I’m excited to explore the fast growing startups here – but I’m also eager to meet with larger organizations, who are exploring new technology and how new technology is going to disrupt their industries. A lot of big banks and institutions have [initiatives like] NAB Labs that are exploring new business models. I’m excited to meet with interesting people who are solving problems that are making an impact in the world – but really keeping it open. Which is exciting, I think, to not necessarily know exactly what I’m waiting for. ”

And if there’s one thing she’s learned from almost ten years in the startup ecosystem, it’s to be ok with the unknown.  

“Working in startups teaches you to be a lot more comfortable with ambiguity, and change.  It takes a willingness to learn, to be okay with change, to deal with ambiguity and uncertainty reasonably well. And that is the right attitude to have in a startup environment.”

Any words of advice for Australian startups with their eye on Silicon Valley?

“It’s important to understand the reasoning for why you would want to expand to San Francisco. A lot of startups here would move for a talent, but there’s talent around the world.

“If there truly is that market opportunity, and they feel like they need to be embedded within that community, then go for it. Spend time there. Network like crazy. Go to every sort of meetup possible.  And be open to options and possibilities, because I think the best thing about Silicon Valley technology is everywhere. It’s where you least expect it.”

“It’s a great place to be. It’s high energy. It’s a little crazy, in its own way, but it’s really fun. I’ve got no regrets moving there, and coming back.”

You can follow Aylin on Twitter @AylinAhmet

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