Ex-CIO Rafaela Salzer on making the leap from corporate to startup

In just a few months, Rafaela Salzer left her corporate role as head of IT at Beam Suntory, decided to start her own business, built an online platform and is now preparing to launch in a couple weeks.

The fast moving, ambitious ex-CIO sat down with CIO Australia to discuss her experience in making the leap from corporate life to the high adrenaline startup world.

Salzer has worked 10 years in the IT and business intelligence fields for big companies like British American Tobacco and Woolworths. Her experience in leadership roles spans from IT project management, to BI delivery, senior business analyst and integration manager.

Salzer left her role as regional IT director/CIO at Beam Suntory a few months ago, realising the role was not what she really wanted and to go find her passion in life.

Her startup, Beach Life Australia, was spurred on by her love for the beach, having such a strong first impression of Australia’s beaches when she moved from Austria 12 years ago.

“I fell in love with the Australian beach and beach lifestyle, so my idea is to bring that back to Europe and to other places in the world. It’s also curating original Australian beach brands that hold the same high regard of the beach and the beach lifestyle and bring it all together on one platform,” she says about her business.

Besides inspiring the world about Australian beach lifestyle and to bring the spotlight on local brands, Salzer’s aim is to have an e-commerce/shopping platform and delivery service that is all about convenience for the consumer.

She says many people in Europe – as they don’t have the luxury of having a beach nearby – go to great lengths to prepare for that one time a year they travel to a beach so they can make the most out of it. This is why convenience for the consumer is important for Salzer’s business.

“It’s usually a big exercise and difficult to get everything together for the holiday,” she says. “So I bring it all together on one platform, make it really easy for the consumer to find everything and make it hassle free in regards to the delivery.”

Accelerating work and seeing real progress is what has been the most rewarding part of being in a startup environment, Salzer says. This is refreshing compared to her experience in the corporate world where things tend to move slowly.

“One of the things that annoyed me the most in the corporate world was the bureaucracy and the slowness of decision making,” she says.

“Most organisations have a very stringent process when it comes to new projects. Once you have approved the project, very often it gets delivered the way it was originally approved. However, during the project you quite often learn what was originally approved might not have been the best thing.

“Everyone during the project can see it’s not going to go that well, but yet it is delivered just for the sake of meeting the project master and making everyone happy and then afterwards needs to be changed.

“And it’s almost like all or nothing because the way the budget process works you have to put in your budget a year before things even happen. In today’s world, to plan a year ahead, when it comes to technology, is crazy and not always possible.”

In a startup environment, time is everything and money is precious, so the Agile methodology is a must in order to be sustainable and successful, Salzer says.

But even for corporate environments, companies should be embracing the Agile methodology a lot more to minimise waste and create more flexibility around changing projects and learning along the way, she says.

“Especially CIOs need to be able to really step up to the plate and be gutsy enough to say, ‘This is not going in the right direction, let’s wind back. Yes, the project will be delayed, but we are doing the right thing and the result will be much better’.

“It can be difficult for a CIO to stand in front of the business and have such a gutsy conversation. But at the end of the day, the business or the consumer wins, because they will really get what they wanted.”

Another experience that’s different to the corporate world is going from managing big budgets to learning to do things on a shoestring. Salzer says there’s a change in mindset when managing millions of dollars for large scale technology deployments to thousands of dollars for finding the right tool that will make do.

“When you work for a big company, you don’t deal with such small things like setting up a blog. And for big companies, it is important to get something professional that is not built on say WordPress. It’s both IT, but it’s on two completely different levels.

“So it is understanding how to work with very little, to find ways to work on a shoestring budget.”

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Salzer cautions others that some providers in the market will take advantage of people who don’t have the technical know-how, who get fooled into paying large amounts of money for simple, cheap solutions.

“Even I almost fell into the trap, but luckily I didn’t go for it. I was quoted $2500 to set up a blog when WordPress is virtually free. I’ve been quoted crazy amounts for everything from a logo, to setting up a technical e-commerce platform from scratch.”

She says her background in tech and BI has helped her immensely in setting up her online business, and though her website sells local fashion brands, she sees her technology skills as being more important for her business.

“I have got a high respect for data and a high respect for analytics. And e-commerce or an online business is very much driven by analytics.

“I’ve heard stories from my suppliers that there are a lot of e-commerce businesses where they all have creative backgrounds and they all want to be in fashion, so they are very much focused on the fashion side. The fashion side of it for me is a new learning, and it’s an important part of the business but not the most important.

“It’s trying to understand what the consumer does, analyse who is on the website, what they are doing, creating a sales funnel. That has really helped me.”

Going forward, Salzer wants to collect enough data to build consumer profiles and build recommender systems that suggest tailored products to them.

“If a consumer visits the site regularly, they obviously will have a certain pattern of preferences, and with their consent I would be creating a consumer profile and then suggest products that are relevant.”

In her corporate life, Salzer wore the IT-business hat, having spent most of her career specialising in this area. But in building her own business, she has had to learn to wear all business hats, and quickly brushed up her knowledge across other areas such as marketing, legal, sales, supply chain, and finance.

This has been the biggest challenge so far, she says.

“My learning curve has been extremely steep, so it’s a good thing I’m a very fast learner.

“One of the big things I really valued in corporate life and I miss still is the support you have. For almost any problem you have, there’s someone in the company who can help you. And also you are there to help other people.

“The problem with a startup is and when you are by yourself is you just don’t have that support network anymore.”

Salzer reached out to others in the Fishburners startup co-working space in Sydney for support from other entrepreneurs who have been in the same boat as her before.

“Surround yourself with other lean entrepreneurs, they have been through the same journey so they can help you. They know about the online platforms, they know the processes. It’s really important to build relationships with other businesses and learn from them.

“I’m really grateful for a lot of the help I get from fellow colleagues here at Fishburners and hope to give some of that back as well.”

Salzer also attended conferences and seminars to learn about new areas of the business she has not worked in before, as well as mining the Web for information.

“There is so much information nowadays, if you put the effort in, you can work out any problem you want. In a startup, you work it out. If you are smart enough, and driven and you want to work it out, you can work it out,” she says.

Networking this way is also important for women who want to delve more into the tech entrepreneur field, Salzer says. With the world only having about 18 per cent female startup founders on average, according to the 2015 Global Startup Ecosystem Ranking, it’s important that more women learn to jump at opportunities, she says.

“I was always very good in my corporate life with taking opportunities,” she says, on what has helped her to have a successful career.

Seizing opportunities is crucial to making career progress, as well as taking a chance and stretching for jobs that might not meet every single skill set. An example is Salzer having to learn other business areas quickly, and not letting the mindset of ‘having only worked in IT, always will IT’ stop her from starting her own business.

Looking back at when she first started her business, Salzer says one thing she would have done differently is start it on a part time basis while working in her corporate job and then go full time when some momentum starts to pick up.

"If I had it over again I would have stuck it out for a little longer, spend my evenings and weekends to do some planning and to build up a social profile. My Instagram profile has taken a while to gain traction and I should have started the site much earlier. I would build up a bit of profile online and then start it full time once I saw it was working, so that was the risk I took."

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