Career

Hacker Houses And Superheroes: The Aussie Bitcoin Entrepreneur On Success In Silicon Valley

Following your dreams is far easier said than done, and usually involves tackling the unexpected. And when the unexpected involves hacker houses and a stint as Batman, you know it’s worth it, at least for the stories. We speak to young Aussie, Michael Dunworth, on what he’s learned from putting it all on the line to follow his heart to Silicon Valley – and how he wound up dominating Bitcoin.

Unless you’re one of the few lucky ones who found their dream job at a young age, you, like most of us, have sat at work fantasising about sticking it to the man, quitting what you’re doing and taking the leap to follow your dreams.

But how many of us actually do it? It’s a daunting idea because it usually comes with sacrifices of money and lifestyle, not to mention fear. For some of us, it’s too overwhelming and we’d rather stay within our comfort zone, which, hey, is comfortable. Giving that up would surely be quite the opposite, right?

Take the leap, or risk living with regret

“[A hacker house is] the equivalent of an orphanage with Wi-Fi.”

Michael Dunworth, 30, took the leap anyway. He didn’t have the Hollywood big-bad-boss story; he didn’t even hate his job. But he had a dream he needed to follow and felt it was a now or never situation. The result? The Aussie quit his finance job and now owns SNAPCARD, one of the US’ leading Bitcoin companies.

“Basically, I was 27, no mortgage, girlfriends, kids. A technology startup had always been a dream and goal, and I thought fuck it… Literally if I’m rolling the dice, it should be now, otherwise I’ll be 35 and look back thinking ‘What if?!’ I knew I would kick myself if I got to that point!” Michael says.

Understandably, his family and friends were concerned about this bold move, but his passion and drive were obvious. “People need to do what makes them happy, literally. It’s very cliché, but if you do what you love and enjoy, the money is so insignificant, you’d do it and eat 2 Minute Noodles every night without a care in the world.”

Jump in the deep end

So, as many tech heads do, he moved into what’s known as a ‘hacker house’ in Silicon Valley, which is basically a boarding home for some of the best and upcoming brains in the industry. This is where the bubble really burst for Michael; his Sydney life of ease and comfort had been officially replaced by bunk beds and brainiacs.

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The JJ Chez Hacker House. Image: codingacrossamerica.com

“The Hacker House is literally like something out of a movie. Imagine big rooms emptied out of furniture, and just bunk beds stuffed from wall to wall. It’s literally the equivalent of an orphanage with Wi-Fi,” explains Michael.

It’s normal to question your decision

A couple of weeks in and Michael was experiencing the inevitable moment of questioning his decision. Surrounded by the constant intensity of drive, intelligence and competition from his strangers and roomies, Michael was understandably overwhelmed. So he reached out to a friend for some advice.

“I told [my friend] that mentally I was getting beat up. Feeling a lack of confidence in the decision I’d made. He was reassuring, and just said, ‘Look, if it was easy, everyone would do it. But it isn’t. You know you want this, so just keep your head in the game. Stick it out for at least three months, worst case scenario, you come back and you gave it a shot.’ That was awesome for me, because it’s true,” says Michael.

“Give it a go, and not just ‘a go’ but like, a proper go. Grind to the edge of your comfort zone. Then go a step further.”

Hustle and grind

“If you’re not working on making other people happy, or building something that gives you personal satisfaction, you’re going to end up humping a paycheque.”

It wasn’t long after this that Michael met his now business partner, Ioannis Giannaros, and together they came up with the idea for SNAPCARD. Brilliant idea or not, they needed money to survive, so decided to start up their own hacker house. By paying the monthly rent for the whole house and then renting individual rooms out, Michael and Ioannis were left with about US$2000 a month between them.

They needed more money, but giving up wasn’t an option. “You need to look after the things that interest you. Keep hustling, embrace the grind!” And Michael took a more creative spin on hustling.

When you hit a snag, do something different

A big kid himself, he and his partner started a delivery laundry service, Your Hero Delivery, delivering washing to San Franciscan homes dressed as superheroes – a big hit with the children, and a laugh for the obliging (but secretly totally into it) parents.

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Fighting dirty laundry on the streets. Image supplied.

They didn’t have much to invest into the business but they made the most of what they had, and went around handing out flyers, as well as posting on local San Francisco forums. Then pretty quickly, thanks to selfies with Batman and some emotional blackmail from children, the idea sold itself.

“We wanted to do something totally out of the blue and random. Just like writers get ‘writers block’, we had the same thing in the entrepreneurial mindset. Sometimes doing something totally unrelated is incredibly helpful to find what it is you like,” says Michael.

Get the right team

Your Hero Delivery did surprisingly well and it was the break he needed to enable him to keep slugging away, eventually building a company and a team of people he is proud of. “I work with a team of nine other people who could all get jobs at Facebook or Tesla or Apple in a heartbeat. They’re literally the smartest people around and they’re all on my team. They’re rolling the dice with me, and we’re all working to do something totally awesome and helpful for people all over the world.”

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Part of team SNAPCARD. Image supplied.

And proud he should be: SNAPCARD is growing rapidly. In just eight months, from January to September of 2015, the money they were processing increased from US$100,000 to US$6.5 million dollars. That’s a 6400% difference.

Michael has only one regret – he wishes he’d taken the risk five years earlier – a common theme in many success stories.

It’s a rollercoaster, but you’ve got to try doing what you enjoy

“Forget about all the other BS that people are going to throw at you. Take a chance doing what you really, really, enjoy doing. Enjoy is the key word! If you’re not working on making other people happy, or building something that gives you personal satisfaction, you’re going to end up humping a paycheque, always busting to leave work and dreading to go in. Surely that isn’t an ideal lifestyle?”

Michael doesn’t know what the future holds for him but he is definitely excited to take the ride. “It’s a rollercoaster! All I know is that I’m literally giving it my best shot every day. The future might be a failure with a giant lesson to take away from it, but at the rate at which our team works, I really think we’re all on the path to accomplishing our goals of building an amazing product for millions of people.”

It seems Michael’s decision to follow his dreams not only paid off, but has also given him a great story for the grandchildren. He doesn’t consider himself a success story just yet, but knows that just “getting to the starting line is a story in itself.”


Samantha Stroop is an avid writer, rhymer, traveller and world-class air musician. She has studied in both New York and Sydney and writes across children’s fiction and adult nonfiction. Samantha currently lives abroad, and is working on her first children’s novel. Find her on Twitter @SamanthaStroop