HOW TO MAKE IT IN AMERICA three Australians talk stateside success
From east to west coast, these young Aussie expats have made it in America – and want to help you do the same.
Whether it’s sitcom-style politics, seeing firsthand the Fresh Prince opportunity in rags-to-riches stories or those burger chains (Shake Shack for the win), there’s something about the USA that keeps attracting us Aussies. A two-day epic voyage from Sydney to New York? No worries. Nursing a hectic hangover in 45-degree Las Vegas heat? Mate, been there, done that.
However, it’s unlikely that you’ll hop off the plane at LAX with a dream and your cardigan, and become the next Miley Cyrus. You won’t be sent on secondment to Wall Street and become the next Wolf just because you got that Leo haircut and you’ve made a couple of good investments. But with the four Ps (totally a thing) – planning, perseverance, a bit of pay and the help of other people – you really can take the leap and make your dreams come true.
While the following advice from young Aussie expats who’ve made it in America shouldn’t be taken as scripture, a rough roadmap is always handy for a new life. And maybe take it on board before Trump decides to scrap the J1 Visa (available up to two years out of tertiary education, the J1 is usually the entry ticket into the States for foreign young professionals).
The Hollywood hitmaker
At 21-years-old, production manager Cass Gundry, just a small town girl from Kilcoy, leapt into La La Land with her head seriously screwed on.
Gundry’s first taste for television was an internship with CBS News in Washington DC, which she landed while studying at Bond University on the Gold Coast. She then spent a year in a sweet, fresh-out-of-uni gig at MTV in Sydney, before hopping on a plane to LAX and securing jobs on big name shows like Rove LA and Kathy Griffen, to now working for fellow Aussie and top bloke, Jim Jefferies.
She says Hollywood is “all smoke and mirrors” and not what it appears. “People think it’s beautiful, but it’s dusty and dirty, and just isn’t what it seems to be. I love it here though and think it’s an absolutely incredible place.”
“You can go from personal assistant to production coordinator overnight, USD$10.50 an hour, to USD$1000 a week.”
Gundry believes being basic, in the best way possible, drove her to where she is today. She advises young, ambitious Aussies to “not get caught up” in the Hollywood high life when they make the move, putting that idea on the back burner for at least a couple of years, maybe forever. “I was so concerned about money when I arrived and knew I could survive for just over six months. I lived in a hostel for the first eight weeks just because I wanted to try and find a job before accommodation, that’s how my mind worked.”
“I lived in a West Hollywood hostel with 12 girls in one room, mostly aspiring actors from all around the world. While I was there, so many of them booked jobs to be on a plane the next day. You just never know. There are lots of rags-to-riches stories in LA. It’s a high risk, high reward town. You can go from personal assistant to production coordinator overnight, USD$10.50 an hour, to USD$1000 a week. You have to be incredibly determined, don’t get me wrong – but there are so many delusional people here, that you think to yourself; if that person can make it, you never know who can.”
When she moved five years ago, Gundry says it seemed every fifth person in LA wanted to be an actor. Now, she’s noticing a clear shift to the writers’ room, thanks to the likes of Lena Dunham. While Gundry works on the production side, she has some pretty definitive advice for those circling the entertainment industry, unsure what door exactly to knock down.
“Writers are the next actors in Hollywood, for sure. There’s a huge market for writers here right now because of on-demand streaming services and the need for traditional networks to produce more content to compete. In television, the minimum pay for a staff writer on a union show is over USD$2900 a week, and that’s a pretty exciting job prospect for anyone.”
But before you write yourself silly, Gundry reminds of the importance to be real: “It’s a great profession but hard to get into. Either you need to know someone, or like auditions for actors, you have to write samples and send them in. People are reading your work and they don’t know who you are, and you need to get them excited in the first one or two pages. It’s tough because at least with acting you get to be face-to-face with someone, whereas with writers, you don’t get the chance to make that impression.”
“Writers are the next actors in Hollywood, for sure. There’s a huge market for writers here right now because of on-demand streaming services and the need for traditional networks to produce more content to compete.”
In addition to sticking to a shoestring budget in the early days, Gundry says it’s important to pay attention to the cultural differences that could make or break your expat experience. You will be asked what you do for a living. A lot.
“Here, positions are very structured, especially crew-wise. If you look after wardrobe, for example, you can’t touch anything other than wardrobe. In Australia, you have PAs doing the jobs of camera assistants and set designers. We grow up learning to multitask, whereas here, because of the unions, everything is so incredibly structured.”
The New York tastemaker
New Yorkers can say what they like about their ‘cawfee’, and so can we: it’s pretty crap. That was until Aussies like Nick Stone, – with their flat whites and Melbourne beans and teams – came to town. Stone’s business Bluestone Lane is popping up everywhere, from an old church on the Upper East Side, to Bryant Park’s busy sidewalk, and beachside Montauk in The Hamptons.
Stone studied finance while balancing a professional football career, later going on to work as an investment banker, and drives home the importance of transferrable skills. “If you leverage the transferable skills you gain in a professional sporting career such as teamwork, leadership, routine, commitment and honesty, you will do really well in life. I always had the view, even if you were a champion AFL player with a 10-year career, it’s still only a small slither of your life.”
The first Bluestone Lane opened in July 2013. Stone went full-time as CEO in June last year, before then working part-time between that and banking in New York. This year Bluestone Lane will turnover more than USD$10 million, double last year and a solid gain on its USD$500,000 starting capital, bootstrapped and borrowed from family and friends.
“Being bold cannot be overstated either. Coming here and hoping for the best just won’t work; you need to fully commit”.
Stone says he “never even considered opening in Australia”. For Mr Numbers, the 330 million-strong market in the States just added up. “You need to be really organised and planned to make it here. People are time poor; they are more than happy to listen to you, but if you are disorganised and don’t know exactly what you are about, you will quickly lose them.”
“Being bold cannot be overstated either. Coming here and hoping for the best just won’t work; you need to fully commit and set up your entire life. Americans can see if you are one foot in the bed and one foot out.”
And while planning your future life is important, Stone believes planning the perfect back-story before moving abroad isn’t. He has never worked in hospitality or retail: “In this day and age, with access to such freely accessible information, I think people actually overestimate experience. I come from an industry that values experience so highly, but you can now run greater analytics that supersede experience in business, and carry out hypotheses and testing much more efficiently. Our digital age means all the chips are now on the table.”
For the budding entrepreneurs out there, Stone says New Yorkers love a big brand on a big scale. Buy a t-shirt in Times Square to remember that.
“Think of it this way: New York itself, as ‘I Love New York’, is the greatest brand in the world, so naturally other great brands gravitate to the mothership. If you have something validated by New York, you can scale elsewhere. In Australia, there’s hardly two of anything; one owner-operator might own a variety of cafes, but it isn’t cool to call them the same name. New York teaches entrepreneurs that you can still keep it original and fresh and it doesn’t need to be commercial.”
The modern family business
Laura O’Neill recommends marrying an American for a green card. Kidding. But former Melburnian O’Neill did start her business, Van Leeuwen Artisan Ice Cream, with now ex-husband, Ben Van Leeuwen, and his brother, Pete. “Ben was studying in London and I was visiting my brother, and he said ‘why don’t you move to New York with me? I thought, ‘OK’. We got married a year later and launched the business the next day. We started working on our dream as soon as I got here in spring 2007. We’re sort of a wacky family business.”
Van Leeuwen Ice Cream started in the kitchen of their Brooklyn apartment; Van Leeuwen “the mad scientist” and O’Neill the head of operations. “We started with USD$70,000, which is nothing. It’s standard for businesses to start with USD$25 million in the States. Of course, it drives you to be hungrier, especially in New York when comparing yourselves to giants.”
To compete, the couple decided it was best to invest in ingredients, production and sourcing – cocoa butter from as far as Ecuador and turmeric from Jamaica – “because it oversells the marketing”.
“I would recommend doing as much yourself as possible, and if you are true to your values, there’s a chance you will get the attention of marketing and design firms, like we have, who want to help you out for a lower cost.
“We started with USD$70,000, which is nothing… Of course, it drives you to be hungrier, especially in New York when comparing yourselves to giants.”
“We have grown everything on our dime, no second-round investments. We got advice in the beginning from a big name in the industry who said, ‘hold on as long as you can’, because there are a lot of stories in food here where people have been working for years and years without anything and sell so much equity to dilute themselves terribly.”
O’Neill’s other great (general life) advice? Don’t be a snob. “I moved here when I was 25, probably at a point where I thought I was ‘better’ than certain jobs. But the random jobs I took while we were starting out – like being a mystery shopper for vodka and volunteering at film festivals – actually became valuable to starting a career in a new country. I think the E3 Visa is great – if you are in a job you like – otherwise it sounds like a jail sentence because you have 10 days to leave the country after leaving your sponsor employer.”
O’Neill says resist the urge to crumble through twenty-something crises and remember only the tough survive in cities like New York. “We were still in incubator phase with the business when we separated romantically six years ago, so it didn’t really impact. Once I decided I wanted to be here, whether or not the reason I moved here was for Ben, I became my own person. Before, I thought I would maybe go home at some point, but now this is home.”
Lead image: Sidney Bensimon
Laura Daquino is a freelance writer who enjoys the odd contrarian idea or two over a glass of wine or three. But she also means business – and likes getting down to business (writing). Stalk her or talk to her @lauradaquino.