Graduated from Swinburne with a Bachelor of Multimedia and is Co-founder and Director, Creative Services of digital agency August

Zoë Warne’s entrepreneurial spirit surfaced early on. From the age of six, she door-knocked neighbours every Saturday morning, selling her mother’s home-baked bread, quickly realising she had a captive market for promoting her own greeting cards.

‘I loved painting and I’d make dozens of cards in the lead up to Valentine’s Day and Christmas and stick them in the bread basket among the warm crusty loaves,’ she says. ‘Even if I sold just one or two cards, it meant more spending money at the lolly shop — but I also set aside some to invest back into buying more art supplies.’

Zoë Warne

Starting out at Swinburne

Those formative lessons in planning and reinvestment proved invaluable when Zoë co-founded digital agency August in 2005. It’s now considered one of Australia’s top digital media specialists, employing about 30 people to help clients with strategy, web development, branding and online marketing. Zoë founded August at age 23, just one year after finishing her multimedia degree at Swinburne. 

"I had incredible lecturers … who made a huge difference to how engaged we were with the material we were studying."

She had toyed with the idea of doing a fine arts degree, but felt herself drawn towards technology’s seemingly limitless potential for design, impact and reach. ‘I asked people I respected in design and business where they’d recommend and they told me Swinburne had a strong reputation in communications and graphic design,’ she says. Swinburne’s then new Bachelor of Multimedia seemed to have been tailor-made.

‘I had incredible lecturers, such as (media and telecommunications expert) Professor Trevor Barr, who made a huge difference to how engaged we were with the material we were studying,’ Zoë says. She was also excited by how many lecturers were working professionals in their field. ‘One of my lecturers, Tim Kentley-Klay, is now running a ground-breaking robotics company (Zoox) in the US, working on autonomous car projects — pretty awesome stuff,’ she says.

Invaluable experience in industry

Throughout her degree, Zoë sought out real-life business experiences. She set up a graphic and web design business, Boardwalk Enterprises, when she finished school, to help fund her university studies. It was a division of her step-father’s consulting company and he made her a director so she could learn the ropes. ‘I learnt a lot about administration, bookkeeping and all the unsexy side of business from a young age, which set me up well for later,’ she says.

In the last year of her course, she jumped at the chance to do a real-world client project, developing a website for a professional photographers’ association that included a searchable database of all its members. Even then, she knew the importance of having the right team, and quickly paired up with fellow student and software development guru Matt Agar (who became August’s first employee and remains its technical director). 

"My year in industry was a critical factor in my future success."

‘The final-year project required a student from each of the multimedia ‘streams’ and I still remember knowing Matt was a gun technical whiz and the best in his stream. I walked over to him right after they announced it and said ‘So, do you need someone from the media/design stream? Want it to be me?”.’

Perhaps the biggest boost to Zoë’s future career came from a year-long work placement as part of Swinburne’s industry-based learning program. She wanted to work for an innovative gaming company in one of the first government-funded start-up incubators in Melbourne, but it wasn’t part of the program. The persuasive Zoë persisted, however, and managed to bring the company on board so she could do her work placement with them. ‘It was fantastic; I was exposed to so much within the business, and saw what was required in terms of effort and commitment to get a new idea and business off the ground,’ she says. ‘My year in industry was a critical factor in my future success.’

Founding August

Zoë also learned plenty from her next job, at a Melbourne-based search engine optimisation company. ‘I wanted to experience what it was like working for someone else, besides working on my own design projects and waitressing for Mum’s catering company,’ she says. ‘I learned more about how to run a business and what I wanted to do in my own business, as well as what not to do.’ But a year of working for someone else was enough. 

"It was something Swinburne instilled in me from the get-go — a can-do attitude, the idea that anything is possible."

Zoë met Daniel Banik that year and the couple combined their complementary skill sets to found August, initially developing websites for companies then broadening out into more full-service brand and marketing strategy. ‘I wanted to just start working on larger projects and gain more experience straight away — why wait? I knew I would get better by doing,’ says Zoë, who credits her Swinburne course with giving her the confidence to have a go. ‘It was something Swinburne instilled in me from the get-go — a can-do attitude, the idea that anything is possible.’

Fast-forward to 2017 and Zoë and Daniel, although no longer a couple, still run August together. The organisation has about 100 local and overseas clients and full-time staff in the UK and Canada, as well as Sydney, Brisbane and its Melbourne head office, in Richmond. Recent clients include Guide Dogs Victoria, Mercy Health, the Australian National Academy of Music and the State Library of Victoria. The agency has won several design awards, including for its work on Melbourne’s iconic Flinders Street Station, as well as a sustainability award from the United Nations for the Schools Water Efficiency Program.

Expanding the business and giving back to the industry

Zoë, now August’s Director of Creative Services, relocated to Toronto in 2016 to set up the company’s first Canadian office and work on one of the company’s biggest projects, redeveloping more than 40 websites for Engineers Without Borders Canada. Already, she has given much back to her alma mater and the industry. Right from the start, August has hired Swinburne students through the work placement program and several of those students have joined the agency in permanent roles once they’ve graduated. ‘It’s one of the best decisions we made,’ Zoë says. ‘It’s a great source of talent and we get just as much out of it as the students.’

She also mentors start-up founders in Australia and Canada and is an active participant in SheEO, a Canadian organisation that funds women-led ventures. She was the volunteer program director for several years for V21, Victoria’s leading digital summit at the time, and she often speaks about digital topics such as ‘Making Data Beautiful’, at conferences and on ABC radio and other media outlets.

"As I learnt at Swinburne, anything is possible if you set your mind to it…"

Zoë’s active role in the digital industry — plus the relative novelty of being a female tech company founder — means she has a high profile in Australia and, increasingly, in Canada. It helps, too, that she started so young and was picked as one of Australia’s top 30 entrepreneurs under 30 by Anthill magazine in 2009 and the SmartCompany website in 2010.

The next step, she jokes, is global domination. ‘But there is a part of that that is true; I want to be able to replicate this globally, even open an office in Iceland if we want to. As I learnt at Swinburne, anything is possible if you set your mind to it, create the vehicle that gets you to where you want to go, and bring people on the journey with you. To me that is the fuel — delivering good, meaningful, effective work and having the opportunity to work with great people while doing it.’

Words by Lucinda Schmidt.

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