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Career Skills & Transitions with Bill Kerr, Founder and CEO at Athyna

career skills & transitions



What’s your career story so far?

My career is very non-typical. I have never worked inside of a startup, nor worked in corporate. I was a tradie for a decade and bought and sold real estate from a really young age. I purchased my first house at 19, second and 21 and third by 22. I was the most successful 22 year old you could ever imagine.

At 23 though, I had a health scare and it totally shifted my priorities. I went from obsessing about real estate, my net worth, financial success, to none of that. I threw it out the window and decided life was short and I wanted to travel the world. I took off as soon as I was well and spent the next half a decade with a backpack on my back travelling to 40-50 countries along the way. In this time I swam with sharks, patted lions, and visited the world’s three biggest waterfalls. I explored jungles, forests, deserts, and more. It was an awesome experience and really shaped who I am today.

After coming back home at 26 or so, I spent a brief stint in the fitness industry and then at 28 I founded my first startup, AdventureFit. AdventureFit was a beautiful idea but a horrible business. The tagline was ‘improving the world through travel, exercise, mindfulness and conversation’. What we actually did was, we took people all around the world on adventure holidays for the wellness community. Picture this - Vietnam with cave exploring, rock-climbing, yoga, mediation, training etc..

We went to Mexico, South Africa, Iceland, you name it. The product was incredible, the experience was second to none but we never really made any money. I probably hung on two years longer than I should have and after about four years we would it up.

All of this led me to Athyna, which is my company today.

So I’ve really gone up and down and around in circles to get where I am today. Now, I am a happy founder & CEO, I invest and mentor at Startmate and I write my newsletter Open Source CEO.

For anyone with a non-typical upbringing or background, I am a pretty good example of ending in a career that you love.



What ingredients were most important early on in your career?


I learned to take big bets from a very early age. Because I bought my first house at 19, it meant that by 20 I was winning and losing on a much larger scale than people around me. I learned what big wins and big losses feel like.

An example of this is the GFC. I had a house I purchased, that I’d worked my ass off renovating, set to go to auction. We had a 5-week advertising period, which is pretty typical for an auction, and during the middle week I decided to go to Vanuatu with my family.

One day on that trip we came home from the beach and the television on every channel was talking about the financial crisis - “stock market crashes, world’s real estate markets in turmoil, the next depression looms” etc etc..

I was set to make $100-150k profit on the sale of that house, and the work I’d done, and I lost $15k. If the GFC hit a month later than it did I’d have been an extra $100k up.


But what I learned was that it doesn’t really matter. If you have a loss, the sun will still rise the next day.


Having this as part of my early life meant I was more willing to take on risks. I remember someone congratulated me for making it 2-years with AdventureFit. I asked why they congratulated me and they said “most companies fail within two years”.

I said “huh, that’s funny, that’s the first time I have thought about failure”. And it was true. Eventually that startup did fail, but I didn’t. I just moved on. The important thing was that I tried.


What is the biggest career transition you’ve made? What helped you to take this step?


The biggest career transition for me was moving from tradie to entrepreneur. ā€‹It’s obviously a huge jump and it never would have happened without a friend of mine, Steve Kennedy.

Steve was a bit older than me, maybe 10 years older. And in around 2012 Steve, for no apparent reason, recommended me for a job I had no business being recommended for. I told him he was crazy and I couldn’t do it and he said - “Yes you can mate. You are the best I know. And you can be great at anything you do”.

It wasn’t that that job he recommended me for was altogether that important, but the opportunity led to a snowball effect of little doors that continued to open for me. None of this would have happened without Steve Kennedy. 



How have you built your own professional toolkit over time?


I am not sure I have a professional toolkit, but one thing I have always relied on is learning. Reading, listening to podcasts, networking with others who have done things I’d like to do.

I am smart, for sure, but I am not experienced and I am probably not as qualified as a lot of other people to be successful.


But I back myself in over anyone I compete with because I think that I will outlearn them over time. If I can consistently work to learn, learn, learn then I will win - or be successful at least in what I do.


Reading for me is a superpower. It shocks me when people who take their career seriously and don’t read as much as they can.



How do you approach learning new skills?


Broadly, I read, but a more defined approach, when it comes to my career, is to learn everything I can about a subject, try to find a mentor in that space and then hire people around me who are specialists in whatever that space may be.

And then try to learn from them. I always try to be really humble and let people know when I don’t know something. As a leader, sometimes you feel like you need to know all the answers … you definitely don’t.


You don’t learn that way and pretending you are the expert in the room damages the ability for the right solution to surface.

You’ll also find that you gain respect, as opposed to losing it, when you are open and tell people you don’t know the answer to something. 



What’s the best career advice you’ve received?


I have two that come to mind actually.


The first is - “You don’t ask, you don’t get”.


It was the one thing that my dad said to me that really stuck with me. I have an optimistic view of the world and humans in general but I also know people are always out to first, serve themselves. So if you don’t aggressively go after what you want in life, or what you think you deserve, the opportunities can just pass you by.

The second piece of advice I got was from our very first ever Head of Culture, Carmela at Athyna. We are a global team with people all over the world and at the time I was obsessing over how we can get people together to create bonds and build the culture. She said something I will never forget and that was -


“Culture is built at the watercooler … culture is how you treat people”.


We have 90% engagement at Athyna and I think it’s in large part because of that. We treat people well. Nothing fancy. We just prioritise our people above all else and it reverberates through the organisation. 



What’s one thing you wish you knew when you first started your career?

I wish I knew what was possible for me. I wish I knew more about startups and technology. I wish I knew that building things would really fire me up as a human being.

I am a creative. So my startups, my newsletter, anything I put my hands on and build … for me they are art. I really wish I had known this and had started earlier. I’m 37 now so I have lots of time left in my career but I feel like I missed the startup.

But hey, if I started earlier, maybe I wouldn’t have learned all the other lessons I had and maybe I would never have travelled. And that would have been a disaster. 



What’s one resource that’s helped you in your journey?

A Song of Ice & Fire. For those who have been living under a rock, it’s the Game of Thrones series. I take a lot from fiction and a lot from ASOIAF in particular. Our values at Athyna and our motto is built around it. Our motto is “What would Ned Stark Do” - in brackets it’s “do the right thing”.

Seriously though, there are incredible tales to be found in fiction stories. The greatest leadership story ever told is the story of Torrhen Stark, the last King of the North. He was the king who was forever known as The King Who Knelt. The TL;DR is that he gave up his crown to save his people knowing that he’d forever go down in history as weak, as a traitor, as craven.

For most he was hated. But for some, and for me, he was a hero. The ultimate selfless act of leadership.

I know you only asked for one, and since I gave you a bit of a strange answer I’d also like to sneak How To Win Friends & Influence People in here. I read it 10 years ago and made a promise to myself to read it once every year for the rest of my life. I want to be clear, I have not done that, but I do love that book. It’s the ultimate guide to being a better human and living a better life. Everyone should read that book at least once.



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