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Saving for the future, every time you spend

Dr Carla Harris (MBA ’16) is helping change the way we save for retirement.

Written by Melissa Clarke

Carla Harris

The CEO and co-founder of tech start-up Longevity App has created an easy way for people to save a little extra for retirement every time they make an everyday purchase, without changing their behaviour or lifestyle or requiring significant upfront investment.

Whenever you make a purchase through the bank cards that are linked to Longevity App, a small amount (for example 1%) on top of the purchase price will go directly into your superannuation account.

So you if spend $100 on groceries at the supermarket, an extra $1 will automatically go into your retirement savings.

Thanks to the wonders of compounding, over the course of your working life these small amounts won’t make much of a dent in your bank balance at the time, but they could have a life-changing impact in your retirement years.

We sat down with Carla to ask about her passions, aspirations and the realities of launching and running a tech company.

Tell us about your role.

Being CEO of a start-up means I cover virtually every role you can imagine within a business. This involves anything from business development to customer research, social media, writing our blog, marketing, finances, admin, applying for grants and funding, reporting to investors, project management – and the list goes on. One thing I don’t do is the tech and development side of things, which sits in the capable hands of my co-founder, Martin Jenkins.

What’s the current state of the superannuation industry, and what does reality look like – or the prospect of retiring comfortably – for most Australians?

Australia has the fourth-largest retirement system in the world, yet most Australians still face their twilight years without enough money to live comfortably upon retirement. The earlier we start to save for retirement, the better – but it’s hard to prioritise, or justify, putting extra in our super when we’re busy travelling, saving for house deposits or going out for smashed avocado on toast.

And to compound matters, the future of work has the potential to amplify the retirement gap. With the ‘gig economy’ on the rise, a workforce is emerging that is increasingly casualised, contract-based or part time. So while people may be working full-time hours, it is increasingly done through working multiple jobs. Thus, employers may be exempt from having to pay the Superannuation Guarantee.

So while Australia has one of the world’s best retirement systems, through wicked problems such as this, we still face the very real issue of people not having enough when it’s needed. The case for women is particularly dire, with average super balances at retirement being $138,000 for women, compared with $293,000 for men – leaving many women in a financially precarious situation and twice as likely to live in poverty.

What inspired you to launch Longevity App?

It was the serendipitous timing of a few things, really. I was about to go on maternity leave for the second time, and I realised that it meant another year out of the workforce, and also another year without any super contributions. A quick back-of-the-envelope calculation showed my personal predicament in terms of not having enough to retire on. Knowing the statistics on women and super, I realised that I didn’t want to be another case study for this situation, and saw a critical need to address the super gap.

At about the same time, I was furiously completing my MBA before I had my second son, when my teammates in the final capstone subject and I saw an incredible opportunity to change how we save for our retirement. So we set up Longevity App as a company, and started looking for ways to build and grow the business.

When my son was four months old, I applied for BlueChilli’s SheStarts accelerator program, which is specifically for female-led tech companies. Over 800 people applied for 10 spots in the accelerator program and early-stage funding, and we were one of the start-ups that received one. The rest is history!

Have you always been entrepreneurial? What have been some of the biggest lessons you've learned and challenges you’ve faced?

I must admit I wouldn’t consider myself to be naturally entrepreneurial. In fact, running a tech start-up is the last place I thought I’d be. I did my MBA to progress my career in the corporate world, and the idea of entrepreneurship was the last thing I wanted to do. Ironically, it was the University of Sydney’s MBA program that gave us the idea behind Longevity App!

Carla Harris with Longevity co-founder, Martin Jenkins

Carla Harris with Longevity co-founder, Martin Jenkins

While I’ve only been in the start-up space for a short amount of time, some of my main observations and learnings include:

There’s a good reason why most startups fail. It’s seriously hard, mentally and emotionally. Because there’s so many reasons why the business might not work out – whether it’s the timing of the market, struggles raising capital or not having the product–market fit quite right – the odds are really against you. You need to look at all the risks and then find ways to de-risk and mitigate to improve your odds.

Following from that, it can take a lot longer to get a product out to market and be earning your first dollar than you might expect. There’s often unforeseen hurdles and complex scenarios to work through. Developing partnerships also takes a lot of time. So make sure you build that into your business as well as your personal finances.

There’s a weird dichotomy in that it’s an incredibly supportive community, but also a really cut-throat one. I’ve been fortunate to have had many people be incredibly generous with their time, support and advice, which in many ways is the difference between making it or not. But not every experience has been a positive one – far from it. Overall, however, it’s a really supportive ecosystem.

The start-up community is bringing their innovation game in spades, but I often wonder whether the corporate world – many of whom claim to be desperate to innovate – are ready to play ball. I sense there’s still a lot of work to be done to integrate the two.

You’ve got a PhD in environmental science and an MBA under your belt. How have your experiences helped you get to where you are today?

Looking back, my background in science has helped me out in so many ways that I would never have envisioned back in those undergrad days standing around a Bunsen burner! For example, things that are seemingly ‘second nature’ for me – like being able to decipher good and bad information/data/ conclusions – are in fact probably not second nature but a product of years of training in rigorous scientific methodology and statistical analysis that means I now do it automatically. Being able to know good from bad information in the business world is fundamentally important!

I can be a pretty determined hustler and, upon reflection, my science career helped with that too. I remember as a postdoctoral fellow when I was trying to find field sites along river banks, my only option was to literally drive up to a farmer’s property and knock on the door to see if they’d let me set up a long-term field site along their creek. I reckon you had about a minute to win them over, and most of the time I did. Learning the art of negotiation and influencing – which is effectively what I was doing out there in the paddock – is definitely one of the most important skills you can have when virtually everything you do at this stage of a start-up, whether working on a corporate partnership or hustling for your first customer, is about negotiating.

My MBA has also afforded me an incredible wealth of business skills, experience and networks across so many areas relevant to a start-up – from marketing to financial and growth strategies and leadership.

As CEO of a tech company, have you found not having a background in engineering/IT a limitation?

Not really. Firstly, my technical co-founder Martin is handling the development side of the technology, and that’s such an asset. They say a start-up ‘dream team’ should have a hacker, a hustler and a hipster, so not everyone needs to be able to code.

Secondly, having swapped industries and careers a few times, jumping into a new area and knowledge base is not too uncomfortable for me. I’m comfortable with being uncomfortable, because if I’m not then I’m bored.

Carla with her husband, Tom, and two sons, Charlie and Frankie

Carla with her husband, Tom, and two sons, Charlie and Frankie

How do you balance everything? Mother of two, fresh out of your MBA and running a tech company – is there a secret recipe to success?

I guess I’m fortunate (or really nerdy) in that I enjoy studying and learning, and find that I also really love the company of those around me in these environments. So I had a great time doing my MBA, from both a social and a learning perspective. I made some amazing friends and connections during the program, as is the case in SheStarts too.

Taking time away from the family, whether it be for study or overnight work trips, also gives my husband the opportunity to be the parent in charge for chunks of time. That’s incredibly important for his relationship with the boys, and to really ‘get’ what it’s like being the primary carer – something all parents should take turns at doing!

My only ‘secret recipe’ to success is that it takes two to tango. I have a fully involved husband who has long recognised it’s 2017. We split the cooking, the cleaning and the childcare virtually down the middle.

Without an ‘all hands on deck’ approach at home, it would be a much different picture. Oh, and follow a roster religiously.

How do you remain innovative, informed and ahead of industry trends?

Always keep your eye on what’s going on in other industries – even things that are seemingly unrelated – as you never know when something happening in one industry can be applied to another. Looking at what’s going on overseas, as well as getting out and talking to people from all walks of life, is really important too.

What do you believe are some of the most important attributes for leaders today?

There’s probably lots, but I think that emotional intelligence and building a culture of openness and transparency is vital. Your team will pretty much always know when you’re up to something, so better to bring your team along for the ride and build their loyalty. Those kinds of experiences will also filter down to your brand too, and a loyal customer is the best kind.

What’s your advice for emerging leaders – particularly women interested in breaking into the male-dominated tech sector?

Women in leadership positions (or lack of) is an issue across all sectors and industries, not just the tech industry, so it’s important to recognise that. Basically, if you’re a woman in a leadership role across any industry, you’ll likely be in the minority. Fortunately, within the tech sector – as is also the case across many others – there has been a significant and concerted effort to tackle that head on.

BlueChilli’s SheStarts program is an excellent example of a program that is shifting the dial. Many other incubators are also starting to implement similar initiatives, which is great to see.

In terms of advice, I think that the way you approach it is a really personal one, so what works for me might not work for another. As much as I am certainly aware of my gender in this industry, I try not to make a big deal about it and to just get on with the job.

Definitely equip yourself with a suite of tools to work around biases, both conscious and unconscious, but if you dwell on your differences too much you run the risk of getting too hung up on them and losing focus of what should be your main priorities.

When you do get free time, how do you like to spend it?

Hahaha. That’s a good one!