Sam Kothari

Building and advising startups to achieve their growth ambitions
Startup advisor

What are you doing now? 

I’m currently working on becoming a portfolio entrepreneur. I help startups and businesses with advice on how to position themselves for growth, by sharing some of my prior experiences at Airwallex, Seek and my own startups. 

How did you get here?

I started my journey as a small business owner, creating Australia’s first student-run high school lecturing company, Connect Education (it’s still around today!).

I then moved into management consulting at Kearney to learn how ‘the real world’ works. The decision to leave ‘being my own boss’ was driven primarily by the desire to understand how large corporations operate. I had very limited exposure to the breadth of business challenges that exist in the world, and working in an education company only exposed me to a small subset of problems.

After my stint in corporate consulting, I decided to take a risk again to start my own business – an ice cream shop called Scroll Ice Cream which was popular on Instagram for a couple of years. I then moved into restaurants and started Poked, a Hawaiian poke bowl chain. 

Hospitality is a tough business; very low margins, high competition, and it’s difficult to build a defensible moat. It was then I realised I wanted to build businesses with more interesting upside, and so I took the plunge and started my tech journey at Seek to learn about digital products and marketplaces. 

From there, I joined Airwallex as employee #3 in the commercial team, and helped scale the business over three years.

How did you make the decision to take your last role?

I wanted to optimise for learning. I make most of my career decisions based on how much I think I’m going to learn from the role or opportunity. I had confidence that Airwallex had a good product, the team was strong and it had a compelling mission. But I also knew that coming in early, I’d be exposed to a range of problems and a breadth of learning that is hard to find in other roles.

How did you make the decision to leave your last role?

I loved my three years at Airwallex. I loved the people, the problems we solved, our clients, our mission. It was tough to walk away. But I also realised over time that I am most comfortable and excited by early stage problems - the zero to one journey. Airwallex had moved from startup, to scale up, to a fairly large, pre-IPO tech business. I was eager to jump into something new again.

What was your last role?

I was the Head of Growth at Airwallex, looking after our P&L for the ANZ region. I managed our marketing, sales, partnerships and strategy teams. We were tasked with growing our brand presence in the ANZ region. 

What do you love about your last role?

  • The scope of the challenge. It was enormous. We had a handful of customers in Australia when I joined, and a huge ambition. Figuring out how we were going to chart a course to scale was super fun. 
  • The people. I got to hire and work with an incredible team. Airwallex provided so many individuals with opportunities to turbocharge their careers, and that was incredibly special.
  • The mission. I’ve been a small business owner myself. More innovation is needed to support entrepreneurs, and I loved that Airwallex could play a small role in helping them succeed. 

What do you find challenging about your last role? 

The complex global nature of the company. Airwallex is truly global: customers, product, team . That meant any change we made in Australia or tweaks to the product required a lot of thought. How would this impact our regulatory responsibilities? How does this help or hinder different regions? That often meant our speed wasn’t as fast as it could be in other industries. 

What advice would you give someone deciding what they should do? 

  • Go early - start today. If you think you’ll like startups, then join one today and actually find out what it’s really like. There’s nothing like the real thing, and you might as well get more data points early in your career. If you want to start your own business, here’s the link to register an ABN. Get going and figure out if this sparks joy. 
  • Optimise for learning. Careers these days are quite long. There’s so much out there to learn, explore and uncover. Early on, put yourself in roles or positions where you’ll be uncomfortable and forced to learn quickly. That might mean picking a project that requires you to code, or a role in a function you’ve never worked in. You never know when those lessons and insights will pay dividends.

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