Ben Chan - Responsive action
Ben Chan is the Chief Commercial Officer of Envato, where he is head of a 140 person group, responsible for growing Envato’s revenue and customer base. His group comprises of 6 functions: product, engineering, marketing, customer analytics, customer support and UX & Design. Envato is ranked in the top 100 most visited websites in the world, and is the world’s leading online ecosystem for digital content and creatives, where millions of people come everyday to purchase files, hire freelancers, and learn the skills needed to build websites, videos, graphics and more.
Ben is Acting CEO of Envato (350 people) whenever the Founder CEO is on leave.
Prior to Envato, Ben was a Senior Engagement Manager at McKinsey & Company, working throughout Asia, Europe and Australia. Ben was also a Foreign Exchange Trader for Goldman Sachs in New York where he traded on Wall Street during the financial crisis. Ben has Bachelor degrees in Engineering and Actuarial Mathematics from Melbourne University where graduated top of his class in both degrees. Ben also has an MBA from Stanford University where he graduated in the top 10% of his class.
My Story - Ben Chan
I started at Melbourne University. In my under-grad, I had a double degree in Civil Engineering and Commerce. On the Commerce side, I studied actuarial mathematics. Upon graduation, I thought the most important thing for me to do was to have a broad, strong foundation of skills. I thought heavily about whether I should dive into banking or a specific part of the finance world, but I thought management consulting was that good foundation.
I applied to a couple of companies, including McKinsey, interviewed with them, and got in. I made sure to understand whether or not I was going to get that training with them that I was hoping to get. It seemed like it was a good call and I ended up going with McKinsey.
In my early under-grad days, I was always told by my eldest sister, that I should apply for places like McKinsey, BCG, and Bain, because they only accepted the best, and I was quite daunted by that when I was a lot younger. When I was going through university, I realised that I was achieving quite well. I ended up achieving at the top of my class for both engineering and for my commerce degree. So, I felt confident in applying to all those companies. I applied to BCG, Bain, and McKinsey, went through their interviews and got offers from all 3 of them.
McKinsey was the stand-out company for me. I really liked their apprenticeship model. It focused on problem-solving and learning. So, I joined McKinsey and, for 2 ½ years, I consulted across a lot of different industries. From airlines to banking to resources to the military. I started off in Australia, but very quickly moved on to Taiwan and the UK and did projects overseas for an extended period of time. McKinsey was a great opportunity where I got to work from an analytical point of view, work from a relationship point of you, and work from a project management perspective. That put me in a really good position to go forward into the future. I did 2 ½ years there, which is the standard duration for an analyst out of undergrad. It is a standard graduate program and you typically do 2 ½ years to 3 ½ years, depending on what you want to do after that.
A lot of folks in my cohort and the cohorts before me would go on to do an MBA at a school somewhere overseas. I applied for an MBA program at Stanford University in California, got in there, and basically moved to the US for the MBA. Those 2 years were an amazing 2 years. Coming from McKinsey, I thought – because I’d seen a whole range of different industries, I’d seen a couple of different geographies – that I had a lot of knowledge. When I arrived at Stanford, I realised very quickly that I had less than 0.1% of the knowledge I really need. That’s because I had classmates from all over the world in several different industries. I had classmates from the Marines, from the Navy Seals, I had people who were amazing teachers, very strong engineers, hedge funds, et cetera. That was such a strength of the program. 40% of the folks were from countries outside the US, a really broad range.
Something my dad had always instilled in me while I was growing up was to always be as good as I could and one of those things was to try to get into Harvard and Stanford and do an MBA. That was since I was in primary school. So, I really had that idea in my head even before I joined McKinsey, and McKinsey was a great path to get to a Stanford MBA program.
The application process is very hard – I found it very hard. I was doing full-time work at McKinsey, doing 60-70 hours a week in a foreign country. I was applying while I was in Taiwan. It was such a testing time because you had to study for your GMAT (which is an examination) and then write 2 major essays. Mine were around 10 pages each and had gone through 50 different iterations and then you go through an interview process. At Stanford, the class size is only 380 people, which is quite small when you’ve got multiple thousands of applications from all around the world. And, typically, there are only ever about 2 people from Australia.
I am not sure if this is unique, but this is what I did. The thing I focused on ever since high school was making sure I knew what was expected of me. So, in high school examinations, I focused on the questions I was going to be asked in examinations, and I ignored, pretty much, everything else. Academic stuff, I would study be re-doing past years’ exams almost solely. Only when I really needed to understand the first principles would I go to first principles. I think first principles are great, but a purpose is needed for them. That’s my approach.
That extended to university. I was very focused when I needed to be. At Melbourne University I skipped more classes than I attended. More because I didn’t think the classes were going to help me to achieve what I needed to achieve, which was to get great results and to network and to learn about the real world. Instead of going to classes, I would run different clubs. I would go to different networking events, I’d play a lot of sport. I was very targeted and focused, then, 2 weeks before exams, it was 100% focused and everything else in my life disappeared. So, I was very regimented in that way. Ditto at Stanford and at work as well. I focus where I believe I need to focus and I don’t do everything.
A lot of folks from Stanford went to Goldman Sachs, but, specifically, I wanted to go there for the trading floor. When I applied to the Goldman trading floor, there was a response from their HR saying, “Sorry, the trading floor doesn’t accept Stanford MBA grads.” When I dug into it, it was because Stanford MBA’s had a track-record of being very motivated to move very quickly. So, folks would often leave after 6-12 months. It was a road-block that was presented in front of me. But, I really wanted to go to Goldman-Sachs. They were the best in the class in their field, and, therefore, I didn’t want to take no for an answer.
I hit a couple of different back-channels. I basically applied for a different division. They really wanted me to join on board. Then, one of the managing directors said, “Ben, it sounds like you are more suited for the trading floor rather than this division.” And, I said, “Funny you mentioned that as I completely agree”. So, through those different channels, I got seen by the trading floor, and they accepted me into the summer internship during my MBA time. I think my doggedness and ambition paid off.
Moving into the trading floor, I really wanted to do foreign exchange. To be the Currency Sales Trader. That specific route, again, wasn’t hiring anyone, so I had this road-block where the group that I wanted and the company I wanted weren’t hiring anybody. So, I said, “That’s fine. Do you mind if I just spend 2 weeks with you?” knowing there was no role after that. I spent time with the managing director. I spent time with all the vice-presidents in the group, and at the end of those 2 weeks, they gave me a position. For me, it was about setting myself a goal. Road-blocks will always come up, no doubt, and your standard, official channels shouldn’t be your only channels.
So, I’m in Goldman. I’m having a great time. I love the trading floor – I still do. It was absolute chaos. The amount of shouting and taking trades, taking positions, and working with clients was a real buzz. I liken it to a high-paced action sport – which I am a big fan of. The reason I started to move away from finance - I was talking with my Stanford classmates who had started companies, who were in different companies, working in places all around the world – was that they were making such major impacts in the fields that they do. One classmate and a great friend of mine – Jane Chen – started a non-for-profit called Embrace, which made low-cost incubators for pre-mature babies. She has, literally, saved 150,000 babies’ lives. For me - I was moving money from A to B and taking a clip on it for the company – I wanted to achieve more and make my own little impact in the world. I don’t think I’ll save 150,000 babies’ lives, but I want to do my own little thing.
At that point, I decided I wanted to go back into the business and company world and away from the finance world. Finance is still a big passion of mine, and I still trade for my own portfolio, for my own super fund, on a weekly basis. I’m still active and I love it. So, I wanted to move in the company world. That made me think McKinsey was a good platform to come back to. I still had a lot of learning to do, and McKinsey was great for my very early years and I had decided they would be great for my next set of career years.
Then, my wife and I decided we wanted to start a family in Melbourne. We both grew up in Melbourne. We have family here, and we really just love Melbourne as a place to live. I think New York and Asia and Europe are extremely fun places, but there’s no place like Melbourne for us to grow a family. So, we moved back to Melbourne. I moved back to McKinsey.
I spent another 2 ½ - 3 years at McKinsey working in a whole range of industries again. Banking, mining resources, packaging, retail, telco, and the military across a wide range of geographies. Towards the end of that time, I felt like I’d learnt a lot – and I think if I’d continued at McKinsey, I would have continued learning. McKinsey is an amazing place for learning different skills. However, I thought it was time to jump into the company world as opposed to a consulting world.
Over the 12 months before I left McKinsey, I started talking with different companies. Over 12 months, I received about 12 job offers from different companies. Large companies like Telstra, NAB, ANZ – general manager and director-type positions at those companies all the way to much smaller companies like iSelect, Seek, and Envato. And, I found myself very attracted to the small companies, I felt like I could make a bigger impact on the small companies – and I found myself more and more attracted to tech. Amongst my friends, I’m the early-adopter of technology. I have a new phone every 6-12 months. I install a new app once every week, at least, then I un-install a new app once a week. I overload my phone, so I have to factory re-set it quite often. Envato was this perfect intersection of a commercial role plus a small enough company that I could make an impact, plus, it was growing at an extremely fast rate, and it’s in the technology field. So, it was a perfect combination.
Envato is the leading ecosystem for digital content for freelancers and for designers in general. We’ve got lots of different businesses. One major business we are very well known for is our market place. So, think of us an e-bay for digital content. People come to buy and sell digital content such as website templates, stock photos, stock videos, graphics, and video templates. We’re the leading ecosystem for this. We have more than 7-8 million buyers and every year we have more than 2 million buyers buying at any one time. Our big leadership positions are in website templates, especially WordPress. We’ve recently launched something called Envato Elements a year ago, which is our unlimited subscription-based model. So, basically, for $29 a month, a customer can come and download all of our Envato Elements library, which is like 400,000 items. It’s great value, and it’s especially for freelancers and agencies. We are 400 people large. We’re based in Melbourne, in the CBD, and we’ve also got staff all around the world.
People can literally do this sort of work from anywhere. It’s the beauty of an online business. Because we are a global online business, the vast majority of our revenue is from outside Australia. To have people all around the world – whether here in Melbourne or in different places around the globe – it’s very important to know what’s going on.
So, that’s a bit about Envato. It was founded 11 years ago by our co-founder and CEO, Collis Ta'eed. I joined 4 ½ years ago as Director of Strategy and Business Development. My main remit was to define the strategy for different parts of the business. Over the last 4 ½ years - when I became Director of Strategy, I had a 5-person team – every 1 ¼ years, I received a promotion of some sort. So, after 1 ¼ years, I was promoted from Director of Strategy to Director of Growth and Revenue, and my team grew to 40 people. After 1 ¼ years, I was promoted to Executive General Manager of the customer group, where my group was about 90-100 people, and then, recently I was promoted to Chief Commercial Officer where I am the head of a 140-person group and responsible for the revenue of the company. In the last couple of months, I’ve been acting CEO while my founder CEO takes an extended leave.
The entire Stanford experience and the Stanford community has had a major impact on how I see things and how I make decisions. Moving to Envato – into an environment where I could have a big impact, where Envato was making a big impact on the world that it plays in – was a big driver of mine. As opposed to being in a larger corporate as an established incumbent, for me, the attraction was to be able to make an impact – both for the company and for my own role.
Advice to others
I’ve had lots of mentors along the way. One piece of advice I was very grateful for, from one of my early mentors was, “As you start your career, start by going broad and build that foundation of skills”, which is one of the reasons I chose McKinsey.
Another great piece of advice was, “Don’t jump at the first opportunity”. When I was looking to leave McKinsey and coming to the corporate world, I specifically took my time to find the best role for my own position and I think it’s paid off. Finding Envato has been and an amazing opportunity for me to grow a lot faster than I would have grown in other places.
I have a couple of habits, I’m not sure if they are good or bad, it’s just what I do. One thing is I’m very, very responsive, so, when people email me, I respond within 24 hours. That’s my outlook on life. If someone has taken the time to write me a note, I will write back regardless. I receive multiple LinkedIn messages all the time, probably 5 a day, most of which I am not interested in, but I always write, “Thanks, but not currently interested. I wish you best of luck”. Because, I think it’s just common courtesy and people want to know whether it’s “Yes” or “No”, and it’s appreciated. Even if it’s a cold call, like a LinkedIn in-mail, I’ll respond to it. Everyone that emails me a work will get a response of some sort. Whether it’s an, “I don’t think this is my call” to, “Great question. Give me a couple of days and I’ll give you a response” or, I’ll give a proper response there and then. I keep my inbox below 5, and if it’s above 5, I go a little stir-crazy. It’s probably OCD. I’m not sure if it’s a good or bad thing as I am such a slave to my inbox, but it will get cleared every day.
Another habit that I have is making sure I am on top of results every single day. So, the first thing I do when I come in – it doesn’t matter what role I’ve played, is to look at numbers. Look at the performance of my business. Know what’s happened overnight. Know what’s happened month on month, year on year, to see what the trends are. Don’t be afraid to get into the detail. So, every day, the first 30 minutes is at my desk, looking at the results. It helps me to understand what’s going on, where to focus my time, where to focus my team’s time. It sets off a whole lot of effective actions. On days where there is nothing coming on, that’s great – business as usual.
Books I recommend
My teachers will be very upset with me when I say this, but I’ve never read a book in my life, not even at university. I think this goes back to my early point where I think I graduated at the top of my classes, not because I studied a lot, but because I studied what was needed and I don’t believe books are, for me, the best way to achieve what’s needed.
I’m not so much an activity-based person, I’m an outcomes-based person. I think about the outcome – I wanted to be top of my class, and to be top of my class what did I need to do? And, reading books was, I don’t think, a pre-requisite to that. It was probably a detractor to it because I’m not a very fast reader and reading books would take me a long time.
One of the quotes that I love is from Bruce Lee. He said, “Be like water”. My interpretation of that is, while you are in a specific type of environment, figure out what’s best for that environment. He explains his quote around when water is in a glass, it becomes the glass. When water is in a bottle, it becomes the bottle. So, I applied that as, when I am in an environment like Goldman, there are things that work best at Goldman, so I do those things. When I am at McKinsey there are things that work best for McKinsey, and therefore I do those things. All within reason. All within my values. All within my principles. Anytime it crosses it, that’s a completely different question. But, while it is within those boundaries, it’s all about finding out what is actually best for that environment and then adjusting yourself to that.
As I mentioned, I will respond to LinkedIn messages, so LinkedIn is a great tool that I use. The big thing is, for me, when I’m recruiting, I’m most interested in the passion and also in the raw talent. I don’t mind if there hasn’t been relevant experience. I didn’t have relevant experience before joining Envato, so I don’t take experience as a pre-requisite. I care about raw intelligence. I care about the drive. I care about your motivations.