With an interest in business from the age of 14, farm boy Fergus Creese grabbed the bull by the horns through his fascination with commerce, taking him from running a "quite profitable" blue light disco in high school in Launceston to studying commerce, entrepreneurship and innovation at the University of Swinburne.
It was a degree that he eventually finished after quitting three times to start different companies.
Just as he had on the land back in Tasmania, Creese's ventures in Melbourne gave him bruises and scars but he also learned lessons on the path towards his current success - Software as a Service (SaaS) career planning platform My Careers, which now has a sizeable chunk of users across schools, libraries and consumers in Australia, as well as a growing presence in New Zealand, the US, Canada and the UK.
He articulates two guiding principles for his style of entrepreneurship: beneficience - "which means giving back to the world and people" - and commercial scalability.
These two principles can go hand-in-hand to great effect, but one came at the expense of the other for the first of Creese's ventures during his on-and-off university days,
Funded from winning the Swinburne Venture Cup - which he won twice - Creese created City Streat to empower semi-homeless individuals to gain sustainable employment, but the business model involved donating too much cash flow to achieve its potential.
"A lesson I've learned is how critical it is that when you have funds, whether you raise capital or you're using personal money, how diligent you have to be to ensure every penny is being invested in the right way to be able to build revenue as soon as possible," the now 33-year-old tells Business News Australia.
This lesson would be drummed into him again in an unsuccessful Shark Tank pitch for My Careers' predecessor, an app called Find my Future. Creese was told by renowned founder and investor Steve Baxter that "you can't execute this business" without a technology co-founder, and the $200,000 he was quoted to develop the app was "fanciful".
Whilst the idea was praised and the Sharks admired Creese's energy and pitch, the appearance would serve as a wake-up call to the entrepreneur, teary-eyed in Sydney Airport waiting to catch the plane back to Melbourne with his tail between his legs.
The business itself was without direction, just as Creese himself had felt without direction upon graduation despite being given all the best educational opportunities in life.
"I went to a great school, Scotch Oakburn College in Tasmania, and Swinburne University was the first commerce entrepreneurship degree in Australia," he says.
"I still left that degree having no idea what I wanted to do, and I thought if I still don't know, what about the people who haven’t had a great education?
"I wanted to help everyone across Australia at the time to be able to understand their own personal value and the skills that they've acquired across their journeys, and apply that to their futures. So I really created it partly for myself, and certainly for others."
Creese says he started My Careers by "reimagining and reinventing" the way students interact with a diverse range of educational resources in Australia.
"In the past, schools were designed for efficiency and effectiveness, limiting their ability or will to change," he says.
"The resulting business models, which were based on predictable commercial patterns, are unsuited to an era of unpredictability and digital disruption. Today, leading digital enterprises are designed for speed, agility, and adaptability, enabling them to remain relevant and move at a significant pace.
"Secondary education is unique in its power to catalyse social mobility, serving to bridge social, economic, racial, and geographic divides like no other force. Education's greatest platform opportunity is one which connects the student more holistically to their future, capturing rich-data insights throughout students' diverse and unique learning journeys."
He says it took a year to build the technology and for My Careers to get its first five clients.
"We wanted to solve it from the bottom up in education, but we couldn't do that because it's very difficult to get funding from government or government schools," Creese explains.
"So we started at the top end. Our first clients were Caulfield Grammar, Geelong Grammar, and then we broadened our scope to include a diverse range of schools around Australia, some in highly populated Indigenous communities as well, to ensure that the product would work for all young Australians."
"That was critical for us because there are individuals that have had a tough life, and we want to want to draw out things like resilience and grit, which they might have but they don’t understand how they can apply that to the workforce. They are such valuable traits to have."
In contrast, in the "upper echelon" schools he says it's not uncommon for students to be making decisions between medicine and law "based on their ATAR score rather than what their interests, personality, skills, values or co-curricular activities are".
"We wanted to make sure that everyone who uses the platform ends up in rewarding and adaptable futures."
My Careers itself had to be adaptable during the COVID-19 pandemic as getting schools to resign became difficult. The answer? Libraries.
"We decided to go to libraries because it’s a very easy decision for them to make - they don't have to go across a business development manager and principal career advisor, Teaching and Learning, like what you do in school," he says.
"Whereas libraries have a budget season – they have an allocated budget that they have to spend, and only one person has to sign off on that.
"We decided what a great opportunity for us to not only service school students, but also go right through to adulthood as well, so we tailored the product to work from year seven right through to adulthood for those that are looking at career changes, go-back-to-work mums or people who were unhappy in their current jobs."
The company then signed with Sydney-based James Bennett, the largest distributor to public and academic libraries in Australia and New Zealand.
Looking back to the Shark Tank episode, Baxter also told Creese that education sector clients were among the toughest win, and he also espoused the benefits of a lean business model. The young entrepreneur clearly took stock of both these comments, as for a sizeable company he only has five full-time employees and four part-timers, harnessing the skillsets of outsourced agencies for tasks like onboarding and not over-investing in sales.
"Because we’ve used distribution partners, it's meant we haven’t had to have a really strong sales force. The sales cycles for schools are quite difficult. You could put 50 people on and you don't get any more movement than you do if you only have a couple, because they sometimes take a year to decide whether they’re coming on board or not."
With $1.8 million raised since inception, Creese says there are backers who want to 25x or 100x their investments in a business like his, and he now has high ambitions to grow significantly in North America, where the business currently has 60 high-value clients that are resigning every year. He has also been travelling the globe in the hopes of hashing out potential groundbreaking deals with critical players.
"We also launched in Canada and the UK two days after the Melbourne Young Entrepreneur Awards," he says, having won the Digital Disruptor category at the event.
"We're getting a real global spread to make this the number one point for anyone looking at further education in the globe - we'll be in the central source of information for that."
Now, after winning the 2023 Australian Young Entrepreneur Award - Digital Disruptor, Creese is hopeful that a game-changing international deal is around the corner.
The entrepreneur, who was also recently promoted from director to chair of the non-governmental organisation (NGO) Go Girls Foundation which helps women from various backgrounds to improve their lives, finishes the interview with a note on the kind of leadership style he wants to embody.
"I think leadership has been such a strong trait in entrepreneurial ventures that I've learned, and I believe that it's really no longer about that militaristic style of commanding control, instilling pressure or constraining time to maximise human output," he says.
"The business world has seen the evolution of a new breed of company which eliminates the incremental, linear way traditional companies grow, leveraging community, big data, smart learning algorithms and new technology into achieving performance benchmarks leagues above its peers. An exponential organisation must be run by a leader who increases competencies, self-awareness, empathy, purpose, culture, integrity, personal and progression growth but most importantly who people trust, respect and admire.
"I imagine a better world and this starts by better enabling the generations entering the workforce. It is our vision, which makes us unique and our ability to impact, profound."
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