StartMate: Failing is success in the startup sector


StartMate: Failing is success in the startup sector

Learning Creates spoke with Cameron Ensor, StartMate's Student Fellowship Associate on learning pathways to employment - how recognising more can enable more young people to thrive.

SmartMate’s fellowship program offers young people a pathway from Uni into the startup industry – with an application process designed to reward those with curiosity, passion and an experience with failure, rather than those who have completed their degree with flawless results.


‘We have had great candidates who actually dropped out of school at year ten, but it’s what they do in their own time, outside of school that interests us the most.’
Cameron explains. ‘With this industry, there are lots of examples of Founders who don’t fit into the mould where you finish school, go to Uni, get the High marks.’

SmartMate sends a message to young people who want to find a way into the startup world when it’s often hard to navigate – especially for those who don’t have the connections or the experience to wordsmith a resume with a clear value proposition.

‘We are looking for young people who show a willingness to go beyond what is set out for them, as well as a demonstration of a reasonable level of ambition in terms of what they want out of life. Are they curious to learn new things? Are they willing to stretch themselves? These are the qualities we look for in a candidate.’

The application process starts with an invitation to young people to ‘tell us about yourself in just 750 words’. But the words are not there to demonstrate how effective a person’s communication skills are. In 750 words SmartMate really just wants to get a feel for the person applying – the whole person.

‘Once we know a bit about you, we ask you to tell us about an initiative you worked on outside of university course work so we can tap into your growth mindset – and what things motivate you.’

Thirdly, SmartMate starts assessing a young person’s skills. ‘For people interested in operations based roles, we ask that you tell us about a time you had to juggle 1000 balls in the air.’

At this stage, applicants are asked to pre-record a 5 minute video describing how they solved a problem or the moment they cracked something. They upload it and it gets reviewed by a panel. If they can tell their story well with detail about the steps they took, and what they learned SmartMate sees this is a great indicator regardless of the outcome.

‘If someone shows their work ethic and resilience, this becomes part of our marking criteria – more so than being able to demonstrate the traditional idea of a successful result.’

Further, Cameron says:

‘When people fail, in this field we see that as a good thing that someone even gave it a crack and have been willing to share that experience. We are looking for people who show a willingness to go beyond what is set out for them, that they show a reasonable level of ambition in terms of what they want out of life.’ 

For skills-based students, SmartMate creates tasks relevant to their discipline. For example, for people in software development, they are given a coding challenge, as it’s hard to assess that ability without a specific task.

When it comes to recognising a person – Smart Mate describes how one area of privilege can lead to more privileges when looking at someone’s list of achievements as a measure. ‘That is why we need alternative ways to look at people – who they really are, what they’ve really done. We want to discover people who have a deep connection to the problem a company is working on. And once we can see that, we would choose that person over someone else with a higher ATAR score or who has completed lots of certificates or degrees.’

When thinking about how more formal recognition approaches could help businesses like SmartMate adopt new ways of recognising learning success, Cameron admits it can be time consuming. If there was a quicker way to measure – that would be great. The only question is how do you quantify someone’s resilience or aptitude to pick up new things, their curiosity, of deep focus around a topic area?

‘If you list and measure the accolades, it’s a quick easy decision for many. They can tick boxes. But it’s a concern for people who have not had more formal accolades and they miss out when they may be the best candidate. If we had a system that was trusted that all employers could use as a way to see more of a person, that would help enormously.’