From homeless teen to millionaire entrepreneur : ft Harry Sanders, founder of StudioHawk

Updated: May 9






kriti: [00:01:22] Hi, Harry, thank you so much for coming on WhyFI Matter$ today. I'm super interested in your entrepreneurial journey, quite unconventional. So I'm really excited to learn more about that and also about your company. And thank you so much for coming on the podcast today.


harry: [00:01:41] Thank you. Thank you so much for having me on.


Learning more about Harry


kriti: [00:001:42] Before we get started into everything can you tell us a little bit more about your life as a child and also as a teenager?


harry: [00:01:52] Yeah, sure. So I had a pretty normal childhood. I mean, like imagine a lot of childhoods. I didn't really know if my parents were wealthy or not. So I grew up, I missed a few school camps, missed a few things that friends are doing. Didn't really think much of it as a child. As a teenager, it started changing, parents went through divorce and I didn't really have a concrete house. I was always between different places. But it wasn't anything too out of the unusual until I got a I got my first kind of job at 14 that's when it really started shifting and changing.


kriti: [00:02:24] Right.

And , so can you tell us more about this job and you work when you were really young and as I recall from, during my research, you were, you were at this job a lot. So could you tell us about balancing school, but also what you've been able to learn from your job at 14?


harry: [00:02:43] Yeah, a hundred percent.

So I've been doing this SEO thing since I was about 13. I was just learning it on the side, helping dad out with his company at the time. Cause he was in a bit of strife. And at 14 I got picked up by this, this agency that they wanted me to do. To work for them and do this thing called SEO a couple of days a week. And so I started that journey out with them. I started juggling that with school. I had to start. Right. I just didn't tell anyone that I wasn't going to school. So the school would obviously call my parents, my dad didn't care. Mum really wanted me to finish school. But I just kind of juggled it. Just, I guess quite poorly, I'd say I probably, I put all my focus into work and I really didn't put a lot of effort or focus into school. So I finished school with about a 20% attendance rate which the school didn't like too much. They actually wanted to hold me back. But unfortunately for them, I got pretty good grades still anyway, in my exams and everything. And so I made it through. But, my school certainly did not like me nor did my teachers.


kriti: [00:03:46] That's funny!

But I guess had you always wanted to be an entrepreneur, had you always had this sort of mindset or was it something that you developed?


harry: [00:03:56] So did I always want to be an entrepreneur? I don't think so. I think I had those problem solving abilities. Right. I had those skills and that problem solving thing. And when I worked at a company, I didn't like everything that they did and I thought it could be done a lot better and different morally. So that was kind of the driving force for me. And then I kind of happened into starting the business from there.


kriti: [00:04:20] Okay. I see.

And so can you tell us more about your experience as a homeless teenager? This is an experience that I don't think many of my listeners, at least they have not been through this, but. It's definitely shaped who you are. So can you talk more about this and what did you learn from it?


harry: [00:04:40] Yeah, sure.

So when I was 16 or 17, sorry, obviously I was doing all this work at 17. I decided to step away from the agency and I was going to do my own thing. And I had all these grand dreams and visions and all these amazing things I was going to do and how much money I was going to make. I think like everyone, when they start a business and like everyone, when they start a business, 99% of that is dashed.

Right. Straight away you realize, wow, you don't actually make a lot of money unless you have a successful business. So I was struggling and I spent five grand starting the business and everything. And just as that happened, I got kicked out of home. Which is really unfortunate. And I couldn't say if my mum, because she, she didn't have a place either. So I ended up on the streets. So 17 year old guy on the streets. I remember sleeping under a few bridges at the start and then, you know, trying to find shelter. I made some mates while I was on the streets and I started couch surfing of Gumtree ads. So, but yeah, it's a terrible, terrible thing. And you know, that's, what's why I'm so passionate now about youth homelessness and all those foundations and associations around that, just because the mindset you're in is horrendous. You feel like you're stuck in this, this quicksand there's, there's no way of getting out of it. So I would say as horrendous of an experience as it was, it did allow me to build the character into who I am today.

I think that pre being on the streets, this business never would have been successful at 17. My driver was money and financial success which is sounds counterproductive, but a terrible driver for a successful business. Successful businesses built on a strong why, and being on the streets, let me see that why, and that why was to kind of invest in, help other people.


kriti: [00:06:29] That's amazing. And I think one thing is that I guess, for people who see like homeless people on the street, it's not like they're there because they did something bad. Getting around that stigma is really important. And I think everything you're saying about how it's like you're in this quicksand or in this rut, applicable to other people, maybe not in as extreme situations as what you were in. But I think, for example, when you're running a business, you might, have a long period of, no success, right. So, how did you sort of take, this grit or this perseverance that you had to build up when you were on the streets and translate that into your business and your entrepreneurial endeavors?


harry: [00:07:20] Yeah.

I think what it, what it showed me is that I could make things work when my back was against the wall. So back against the wall, I had no other jobs. I called up this old agency. I couldn't get my old job back. I just started networking, going to events, meeting people, trying to do anything I could to get business. Right. I did all sorts of things. And, you know, I finally started getting some breakthrough and that was really important just to see some kind of semblance of success. And then once I did that you know, I focused on doing what I do well, which is obviously the SEO piece. And I started getting a lot of referrals and then the next pivotal kind of step that, that hardship gave me was this, this "appreciation of hardships".

So when I found my first ever staff member, Jacob, who's now a general manager and manages, you know, 30 plus staff. He didn't have enough money for rent. Right. And so when I met him, I just knew that someone like that, that I could help, you know, I could play it forward and we could create this great team.

And so even today, one of our questions in our interviews is tell us about a hardship that you've gone through and how you've overcome it.


kriti: [00:08:25] That's really interesting! I was listening to one of your TEDx talk, and you said that these hardships, they build character, or they build resilience. But I played tennis. And one of the biggest things that I think I've learned from tennis is that the hardships and the struggles that happen in tennis, they don't really, they don't necessarily build character, but they show your weaknesses and allow you to problem-solve and either eliminate these weaknesses or make your strengths better than your weaknesses, so, I'm wondering what you think about, I guess that sort of take on hardships?


harry: [00:09:08] Yeah, I think that's a good take on hardship. I always think that, you know, I was so used to winning from 14 to 17. I was revered for what I did in the SEO space. I had, everyone was older than me work with me. People thought of me, some kind of prodigy and then bam, massive failure. And that allowed me to see the gaps. Like you say, the gap in my game and the gaps were that I had all this self worth. It wasn't really needed nor relevant. And so I think realizing that and building on that and going through tough experiences helped me become a more hardened version of myself.


kriti: [00:09:47] So ,sort of like realizing that your self worth isn't tied to how amazing you are in the SEO industry.


harry: [00:09:54] Yeah.


kriti: [00:09:55] I think that's really important for all the listeners, because we definitely like equal success is the same as if you're more successful, you're more worthy and things like that.

So, you were talking about how you kind of develop a little bit of an ego. So how can we as teenagers still make sound decisions without our egos clouding our view.


harry: [00:10:20] Good question. An egos is a really hard part of any business. Let's just as a teenager. I mean someone a lot of the business groups I talk out, we talked about leaving your ego at the door. There's this concept we talk about whenever you come into a meeting or something, because a good 80, I would say a good 60 to 70% of businesses die because of ego right. Ego in terms of what they do who they are, all those kinds of things and just makes them fall apart. So I think without letting your ego cloud your view, you you've really got to think about why, why you want this and what's important. I don't post on social media for instance, I only post about businesses things. And I think a lot of the time when we do and this isn't true for everyone, but a lot of times when we do post on social media, when we have a flash kind of car or a flash dinner or something, we're doing it for ego, right. We're doing it because we want that respect from our peers and appreciation, but really, you know, all that superficial, what really matters is what you think of yourself. And you need to find a way of, you know, having that surety and certainty in yourself without taking it from other people.

kriti: [00:11:03] Right. That's amazing advice. And I think another thing that you talk about in your TEDx talk is you say that millennials and gen Z, we are in a world where failure is a huge part of our lives. Can you expand more on this?


harry: [00:11:48] Yeah, I think we've actually got a good, because I think failure for the past few years has been spoken about differently. Failure, isn't something that's like,, a bad thing. And like we spoke about earlier failure actually teaches you things. So I think that that's a really good thing to see. I don't always agree with things like fail fast, fail hard, those kinds of mottos that people go with. I'm not in love with those, but I do like the idea of, you know, you can set out and do something and you can fail at it. And that is perfectly okay to do and talk about and think about whereas traditionally, a lot of people would, would cover those failures with masks and would let that eat them inside. Whereas I like to think that we're a lot better at doing that now.


kriti: [00:12:31] Okay. I see. And another thing that you did when you were a teenager, is that you, didn't necessarily like attend school at the time, but you are able to still, you know, acquire skills and acquire knowledge. So, and we see right now in the world, that education is becoming, it's becoming like kind of unhinged, there are different ways to learn. Can you talk more about how you were able to break through this educational system? This box that it puts us in.


harry: [00:13:05] Yeah. So the educational system is obviously hundreds of years old, so it's a very old construct and it's designed to help society function. Everyone think of like a train. Everyone gets on the train, you go through the different stops. You go through uni. And then on the other the other side of that, the government works as hard as possible to make sure that there's a job for you. And that's good for the government because they will earn that money back through tax. If you have a job and it de-risks the whole situation, because you've got people going through into different industries and learning. It is a great system. The problem is it doesn't encourage things to be done differently. It's a train on tracks. So if you have a, you know, a kid like me come through, 20% attendance, all they're thinking the conductor's just thinking, man, this, this is not going well. They're not. They're not on the tracks properly. They're not going to end up at the destination. We need them to, they're going to derail. And we know when people drop out and they don't have anything to do, they don't go to Uni or they don't have a job or anything that it creates severe mental difficulties. If they have trouble establishing workforce crime rates go up. And so that's all they're thinking. That's all they're seeing. They don't see this other option that, okay. Well he's not doing this, but he's starting a business is doing this different thing. And so, traditionally starting a business is not something you would do after school, or really before the age of 50, because it was so capital intensive, knowledge intensive, all these different things. But that's changed a lot or substantially purely off the fact of the internet and the way that people communicate.


kriti: [00:14:40] And you started your business when you were extremely, young. So how are you able to break through? How did you sort of push through this age barrier and these age limitations that traditionally the tech industry, which is your you're kind of in has setup?


harry: [00:14:59] Yeah, I mean a lot of the time it's as simple as not thinking about it. Right? Some of it is, you know as much as it sucks to hear, you've got to act a lot older. If you're an 18 year old walking into a meeting with a board of 30, really more realistic, 40, 50 year olds, you don't come in there. And if they say, Oh, what are you like doing on the weekends? You don't come in and be like, Oh, I like clubbing. I like going to bars and stuff that all they think in their mind is typical 18, 20 year old. If you come in and talk about different things, you know, I was programming, I was doing something then all of a sudden, you're interesting. You're unique. You're not your typical 18, 20 year old. So you have to play into that a little bit. Certainly. I definitely lean into the nerdy side of tech, because I know that side and I know, and I can resonate with people in that field. So I lean into that nerdy side to, they go, Oh, this isn't some partying, you know, 18, 20 year old guy. This is a really nerdy kind of guy that gets this. He's kind of gifted in this area. And that will just cut down all the age barriers. And then all of a sudden you can start using age to your advantage rather than a hindrance. Yeah.


kriti: [00:16:05] Okay. I see now. And like, I guess kind of just exaggerating your passion for like, whatever.

So, yeah. So I guess overall, what would be your most valuable trait as an entrepreneur?


harry: [00:16:23] I think my most valuable trait is my ability to see potential in other people. When you start a business, it's great to be good at accounting. It's great to be good at SEO and all those things, but the most valuable thing you're going to do is you're going to employ other people, right. And that's going to run the organization and company for you. So yeah, definitely the most valuable thing, the most valuable trait I have is that ability to find people and go this person could be insane. They would fit great in this role. And I could make something out of them. Not only is that great for the business, it's also great for them because they get to realize that potential that they have.


Learning more about the “why” behind StudioHawk.


kriti: [00:16:58] I think that's also a good, like, I guess a way for you, your ego, not to build up because you're acknowledging the power and the strengths and other people. I know all like Bill Gates and Fortune 500 company, all their founders definitely find the right people to hire. So that's, that's really good.

So moving on to your, your business, your company StudioHawk. Can you talk more about your "why" behind creating Studio Hawk?


harry: [00:17:31] Yeah. Sure. So the why behind Studio Hawk initially came because in Australia is a lot of dubious kind of digital marketing companies. It's not a very well documented or done industry, to be honest. So I initially wanted to start something. That was a little bit different. So I had these two core models. When I started, I said, we're not going to do lock-in contracts because I think they're scammy and ridiculous being locked in for 12 or 24 months contract. That's how my dad got in trouble and all these sorts of things such as I'm not doing them. The second thing was, I was really sick of everybody doing everything. Really sick of it. So I said, when I do my company, I'm just going to do SEO. I'm not going to do paid ads. I'm not going to do social media. I'm not going to do websites. I'm going to all this stuff. I'm just going to do this one thing, like a plumber. Right. And so that's the motto that I started out with. So. I went along doing that at the start. But then when I really realized that that "the why" once I, once I got the, to Jacob and that was really there to help and empower other people and bring them along this journey. And that's the reason my, my why today is yes, absolutely to create a better industry and a bit of space for, for the SEO industry, but to have good people and to help people along that way.


kriti: [00:18:47] That's fantastic. And I guess for the listeners out there, can you please explain to us what SEO is? Like what do you do at Studio Hawk ? Like how does it work?


harry: [00:18:59] Yeah. So, so SEO stands for search engine optimization. Whenever you Google something, a bunch of results, come back. The ones at the top that said, ad they're paid, we don't do those, but most of the time, or most people, about 80% of people click on the organic listings below the ads and for a client, one of our clients, his office works for someone like Office Works broadly in the range that might be worth 30 to $40 million a month for them to be at the top of those organic listings. So we get employed by Office Works to help them ensure that they're getting those. positions. And there's all sorts of stuff that's involved in that. I mean, we can talk for another hour, but we built this platform. There's a lot of free stuff in this platform at Hawk Academy. If you Google that, that talks a little bit more about SEO and how to use it.


kriti: [00:19:49] I think, I know a little bit about SEO, but for WhyFI matters like our website through Wix, of course, it's not as nearly as to the caliber of what you do at Studio Hawk, but it's so important. Just to come up when you search. Hey, I want to search for financial literacy and if WhyFI matters, doesn't show up and you have to go to like page three or something. It's definitely important for any business.

But I think like what you were saying, a couple of questions or something to go you're talking about how you focus only on SEO. And this brings me to another thing, a question I had. I was listening to a podcast the other day. And they were talking about a hedgehog mindset or a hedgehog mentality. And it's like an analogy between a hedgehog and a fox. Like normally people would be like, Oh my God, I'm so scared of this fox, but the fox is crafty and many different things they're able to kill, they can run, they're very smart. But then the hedgehog is able to do one thing really, really, really well, which is the, you know, they have their spikes and everything. So I think that's what you do at Studio Hawk. So what do you think about this kind of analogy?


harry: [00:21:07] Yeah, I think it's great. I think that too often, everyone wants to be the master of everything. Right. And it's very, yet it's ingrained to us as people, but the reason society works a reason the world works is because everyone does something really well. Right. And people bring that thing to whatever they do. Some people are really good at drawing. So people draw, some people are really good at filming, so they film, but very, very rarely. Would you find someone that's good at both or good at multiple? And never, would you find someone that's a master of multiple, right. So really. It comes down to, what do you want to be the master of? What do you want to be remembered for? Because people aren't going to remember you for everything. They're going to remember you so full, really one thing.


kriti: [00:21:49] Right. That makes sense. And so I think a lot of the audience are teenagers and social media is a huge part of our lives. So I guess what would be the issue we, well, when I'm on instagram and things, there's a lot of, you know, ads and marketing from influencers and all these people, brands. So what's the issue with just social media marketing.


harry: [00:22:16] Yeah. I mean I don't like social media marketing because I feel like it's manipulative. Right? I know these in these influences. I know these people, I know the companies that run the ads and it very much is just driven at high margin products. So they're cheap to make, incredibly cheap to make selling them to people that will just buy them without doing research. Right. And so it's, I feel like it's often predatory and you know, these influences and stuff just use their, their reach or their bodies or whatever they have going for them to, to go and push that stuff. There's nothing inherently wrong with it. I mean, it can be great for brands, but I just feel like it's not something that I would personally be into.


kriti: [00:22:58] And when you do SEO so you mainly focus, like there's no issue with doing Google and social media and I guess others, right? There's no issue.


harry: [00:23:10] You should be doing multiple. I agree. Yeah, you should definitely be doing multiple ways. Okay.


kriti: [00:23:18] I see. I see. So I guess. Can you tell us a little bit more about where you see studio Hawk, and let's say like the next three to five years,


harry: [00:23:28] Three to five years. That's a really hard question to answer for your studio. It's only been around for like five, six years. I can tell you where we're projected to go. So in five years time, we should have about 60 to 70 people here in Australia. We should have about 30 people in, in London which is insane to think about and probably another 20 over in the US. So that's where we're currently projected, if that ramps up mold and that's great that's very exciting, but that's just where we're projected to be, you know, right now. So. I don't know, I find that very exciting. I want to work on software products. I really want to do more in an education market. I want to teach more people about SEO and get them excited about it. Cause I think it is an extraordinarily exciting industry. But that's where I can see ourselves being in five years time.


kriti: [00:24:16] And I guess sort of the listeners who don't know, I think like an SEO, the more people that you have on the team, the better it is because you can see a lot of different things like that.


harry: [00:24:29] That would make us the largest SEO agency in the world.


kriti: [00:23:09] Oh, really? Wow. That's amazing.

So how were you able to sort of hone your skill of SEO and digital marketing into a business? this tangible thing that you've created?


harry: [00:24:47] Yeah. I mean, I think working for other people is really beneficial for me because I got to see how they would do it and how I might do it differently. In terms of SEO, I think for me, SEO was always something, you know, I loved because it's this mix of creativity and logic and that just blended very nicely for me. So how do I turn it into a skill? I went to businesses and I said, I will make you money out of this thing called SEO. Now I would say, prove it. I would go out and do it. And so, I guess that that kind of happened. And once they started seeing the benefits and returns, they would tell all their friends and then I would end up with a bunch of referrals. And to be honest, it's not very dissimilar to how it currently works. So, yeah.


kriti: [00:25:27] Okay. And I think we were talking a little bit more in the beginning about how you how you kind of need to, to drift away from fame and money and success. But I think a lot of people, when they're like entrepreneurs, they think of, you know, like Elon Musk or whatever, like Bill Gates that fame money and success. And that entrepreneurship is a way for me to get that. But I guess what is, what is the issue and why is it so important to have the right motives, the right why, when you're starting a business.


harry: [00:26:04] Sure. So money is the most fleeting thing you'll ever come across. If you chase money, you'll never find it. It's just too often, I've seen this in my journey, meeting people. I meet, you know, hundreds of hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of some of the most successful businesses all around the world, I've met up with, you know, all sorts of amazing people. And the one thing they all have in common is that these people aren't doing it to chase money. Because you'll never feel fulfilled. If you chase money, not only will you never feel fulfilled, you'll never get the money. And it's a, it's a funny thing. If you set out to be the next Bill Gates or something like that. Bill Gates, didn't start out to be the next Bill Gates. Bill Gates thought he had a gap in the operating system market. Created windows, windows was wildly successful and he used that success to build other things and get more successful. So Bill Gates, it was never about the money. I mean, you just need to look at all the philanth, philanthropic stuff he does today to see that he had a really strong why, and for him it was to make technology better and then it evolved into make the human race better, once he had enough time and resources So anything you really do, you need to think about why am I doing this? Because I guarantee you in those first year, the first two years of business, and you want to it getting money. I think we made about, you know I think I cleared maybe four grand profit in my first year, after all the expenses and everything.That's not a livable amount of money. Right. And so if your, why is the money and you make that money, you're thinking know crap, but then fast forward five years after that we're doing, you know, $6 million a year. So it's a massive gap and a massive jump. And if you're doing it for the money, you probably given up off that first year, whereas you know, you might've been holding it for six years. If you had a strong why?


Take home lessons from Harry


kriti: [00:27:47] Yeah. You can stay with it.

So you said that your, your best your most valuable trait as an entrepreneur is you're able to lead people. So what is your advice? For guiding or leading a group of people, whether it be in school and a business at home, what's your advice?


harry: [00:28:09] I do a lot of stuff around leadership that I teach the team. I would say the best thing you can do is leading by example. Everyone's heard that, but it is true. A good leader, you know, just the bare minimum basic bench line of a good leader is I lead by example. If you can't do that, you have not got what it takes. You need to understand what your team's doing. Another thing that I would say is a good leader is the first in battle. Right. If you're thinking like a wall later, isn't that the back, like the general commanding the troops, the leader is at the front charging the lines with everyone else. That being a leader actually sucks. Right? It is the hardest job you can do because you know, you do all the bad jobs. You don't get any of the credit. You share that credit with other people. You need to be the first to fall on your sword and admit when you've made mistakes. These are the benchmarks of a great leader, a great leader will do all those things. They will admit their mistakes. A good leader will, you know make mistakes, but not take ownership for them. You know, there's so much differences, but yeah, if you want to lead, be prepared to deal with the worst jobs.


kriti: [00:29:15] Hmm. That's interesting. I feel like there's this kind of connotation that leaders are, I need to be the leader. It's the best thing in the world. I'll get all the power and everything. There's some more to it.

So what has been your proudest moment, but also what has been your most challenging moment?


harry: [00:29:33] For most challenging moment was probably that first night under a bridge, which is a bag of my stuff of like, what the hell have I gotten myself into? What do I do? Like, do I just give up, like, do I stick it to, you know, those people and just like end up miserable, just and just do that. Or what do I do? That was probably the most challenging moment. Really? The, that was like the crossroads of what am I going to do? I think my proudest moment. And I've had so many proud moments, sweet, to be perfectly honest, so many proud moments, edit have to be something involving the team. Probably last year we won the award for the best agency in Australia, which is great because you've got agencies. 20, 30 years are senior with a lot more staff, a lot more things, but little old lass was the one that won it. And that made me so proud because. I was just proud of each and every single person that we picked up and selected and grown into this role. And I think the whole team was proud too, to get that distinction. And it was really just a testament to to everything we've done and the people that have come along that journey. That's what makes me proud.


kriti: [00:30:43] So, WhyFI Matters is we talk a lot about financial literacy on the podcast. So how can financial literacy help a business operate?