Strivin & Thrivin – Ep.26 – Simon Bernadino


Today, Laura Johnson is joined by Simon Bernadino, Founder of Lab17 and talent acquisition specialist. 

When Simon took on his first role as a retail store manager at 21, he met a colleague and friend with the right connections to help him kickstart his career. Being introduced to the GM of a media company, Simon had his first taste of the business world and confirmed his interest in sales. Following this, Simon took a six month trip to London which turned into four years and the beginning of his recruitment journey. Explaining that the same friend introduced him to a global SAP recruitment agency, Simon admits that he found his skill for talent acquisition by falling into it.

With a taste for recruitment and the prerequisite of enjoying meeting new people, Simon continued on this path, exploring agency and in-house work before going on to found his own company, Lab17. Simon worked at a boutique recruitment agency before transitioning to the in-house talent acquisition team at Spotify. 

With a wealth of experience in different recruitment environments, Simon founded Lab17 with his childhood friend and business partner, Nick Ingall. With Lab17, Simon and Nick were able to fuse their interest in tech with their desire to shift away from the traditional recruitment model. Describing Lab17 as more of a Talent Acquisition Consultancy, Simon explains that it was founded as a lifestyle business and adapts to a new partnership model.

“You have to have a genuine curiosity about tech and product development and actually attach yourself to the mission of an organization that you’re actually interested in.”

Simon has an authentic interest in what he does and identifies this as the key to being successful in business. In terms of the best career advice he has been given, Simon expresses a similar notion, encouraging people never to outsource motivation. 

“I never want to rely on pressure from peers or family or social media or just the world to motivate me to want to do something.”

Simon’s experiences with mentors have been outside of business, instead drawing parallels between the lessons he has learnt through his football coaches. Expanding his mentality on and off the pitch, he explains how invaluable lessons are learnt when dedicating yourself to a passion project.

“Find things that you’re passionate about and make sure you dedicate time to them.”

To hear more from Simon, listen to the latest episode of Strivin and Thrivin now! 


Laura: I’m your host Laura Johnson. And today I’m thrilled to be joined by Simon. Founder at Lab17 and Talent Acquisition Specialist.

To get us started, can you tell us a little bit about your career background and your current role?

Simon: Okay. I moved to Sydney when I was 21, I want to say. And I started working at French Connection in Circular Quay. So I was a store manager there and one of the guys I worked with, Ali, he moved into media sales and basically introduced me to a GM of a media company that basically focused on live events and selling media packages to events like the Royal Easter Show, for example, and basically all the Royal Shows around Australia.

And they used to put on customised events for the Rugby World Cup or the Football World Cup. And we would just basically approach different organisations and pitch them a media package to get their advertising up on the screens that we erected. So, I took that position just because I wanted to get into sales and also had an ambition to wear a suit on a daily basis because I thought that was really cool.

So yeah. It kind of ticked the boxes in terms of moving into sales and you have to wear a suit. So I was like, yes, I’m on board. And so, I did that for a few years and then I went over to London, which was meant to be a six month trip through the UK and Europe and the same friend that recommended me to the media company had moved back to the UK. So, he’s originally from London and he introduced me to another person who was working at a recruitment agency called Red Commerce.

So just like a lot of people who start off in recruitment or Talent Acquisition, I fell into it. And I guess I had the prerequisites of enjoying meeting new people and talking. So, I started doing recruitment at Red Commerce, which was a global SAP recruitment agency. And I guess the market I focused on was the Nordics, mainly working with companies throughout Denmark, Sweden and Norway. And I think a part of my success there was a lot of the individuals that I spoke to in the Nordics were just happy to not hear from someone from the UK.

So, I think they found my accent and the fact that I was from Australia quite intriguing and enjoyed talking about koalas and kangaroos and wallabies for the first few minutes of the call every time. So, it probably stayed there for four years and then came back to Australia and continued to do recruitment and joined up a boutique agency doing SAP and then went on to Hayes for six months which was awesome. Got to work within a tech team there with some really great people who’ve gone on to do some other things with tech companies as well. And then it came full circle.

One of the individuals that I worked with at Red Commerce, Sarah, she was the first dedicated Talent Acquisition person at Spotify when they were launching in 2010 when they started building out their internal team. So, she got in contact with me and I was at Hayes at the time and she said, “Hey, we’re going to be opening the service in Australia and New Zealand. Do you want to come on board?” And I was like, hell yeah. By that time I knew what Spotify was.

And it was quite a funny moment because of the people I’d been working with at Red Commerce, there was a few Swedish people and one of the guys, Mitzi, actually knew one of the people that were an early employee at Spotify and he showed us what Spotify was. And I remember looking at it for the first time in 2010, I was just like, this is just iTunes. Why would I bother? So then yeah, by the time they approached me in 2011, I had a better understanding and streaming was taking off around the world at the same time. And I thought, yeah, this is one of those moments where you get this one opportunity.

I’d only been at Hayes for six months and was really enjoying it. But I was just like, yeah, I have to grab this with two hands. So yeah, I got the opportunity to join Spotify and basically was the second employee. First employee was Kate Vale and she was the managing director. So it was, I guess, her right hand person in terms of helping her build a team. And I focused on recruitment and operations and we actually started Spotify in a two person office in a Regis building on Sussex street.

So, that was my first step into Talent Acquisition and being internal. And the first opportunity I had to work with a scaling tech organisation as well. So I stayed there for four years and helped, I guess. Established the founding team for Spotify in Australia and New Zealand. And then after the first two years, I transitioned into media sales again and started working with the media team, basically monetising the free platform and working with different brands and agencies to get them advertising with audio on the platform.

Laura: That’s awesome. So, I guess Recruitment to TA to Media Sales and then what was next?

Simon: So next. So the Spotify journey came to an end, I think, about 2016. And Nick Ingall, who’s my business partner now, we actually met each other at the start of high school in year eight. So we’ve known each other since we were 14 years old and we used to live five minutes around the corner from each other in Darwin and we basically have been lifelong friends and both in the traditional sense of friends, but both really into our sports as well. I’ve always been, I guess, playing football. I guess we call it soccer in Australia and Nick was more into AFL and cricket.

So, we always had that connection and sort of drove each other to be better in those sporting domains. But then he also worked at Red Commerce and he also joined Spotify as an employee, but he joined earlier than me and was based in Stockholm and then did engineering product and design for them across Europe. So, in 2016, he’s been one of my mentors in life. We’ve had that friendship, but also from a professional sense we’re different personalities and different profiles.

So there was an opportunity where I was wrapping up at Spotify and I joined him because he was Head of Talent, at Invoice2go. So, I did a six month contract with him there. And then he was also transitioning from Invoice2go because he’d been there for quite a few years and helped them through the scale up journey that they had during that time. And he had just opened up conversations with Luke Anear at Safety Culture.

And at that time they were probably about, I think 50 people transitioning from having a headquarters in Townsville to Sydney, going through funding discussions to raise their series B and looking to establish their first internal Talent Acquisition team as well. So, Nick told me to hold tight for a little bit and we’ve got a good opportunity coming up where we could work together again. And he took the role as Head of People and Culture. And I guess I was his first hire to look after global recruitment or non-tech focused global recruitment.

So, mainly focusing on Sydney, but we’re also expanding in Kansas City and Manchester. So then I went onto the Safety Culture and I was there for a couple of years. And I guess Nick and myself had always had this vision where we wanted to do something together that was our own. And we always spoke about this blended approach to Talent Acquisition, that led to our experiences of starting as agency recruiters, but then going internal and understanding the different challenges and the different approach that you had to have from an internal Talent Acquisition lens.

And I guess just our interest in tech, in general and scaling tech organisations, funding, working in that space. So we started Lab17 in March of 2019. And we launched Lab17 as more of a Talent Acquisition consultancy, or partnership approach to moving away from the traditional agency model of a fee per placement and adapting it to better suit what we saw where the pitfalls with agency recruiters working with scaling tech companies. So, we really focused on a partnership model and we launched in March, 2019 with Invoice2go as a core partner and also Scheduler as a core partner.

Laura: That’s awesome. And then I guess since then, things have just been growing for Lab17, right?

Simon: Yeah. So, two years into the journey now, I think when me and Nick’s started, it was more of a lifestyle decision where we wanted to have enough work, where we could, from a professional sense, continue to grow our experiences and continue to learn and develop and grow our business. But at the same time, we also wanted to get a bit of balance into our life as well. So, Nick’s married to Victoria and got two lovely kids, Freya and also Leo. So, he wanted us to move to New Zealand and do a couple of ski seasons there and see what life across the pond was like.

And I guess at that point in time, I was already gravitating to what we have today in terms of working remotely. But I guess I was more attracted to the travel element and being able to operate in different time zones to spend time with family and friends, which I guess through that journey of being with Spotify for four years and SafetyCulture for two years where it was like, go, go, go. And there probably wasn’t the exact balance that I wanted between picking goals from a professional sense, but also being able to spend time with family and friends and pursue other side projects as well.

So yeah, it kind of started more as a lifestyle business and we want to continue to work with amazing tech companies and develop the Lab17 approach and brands. And then I guess fast forward to today, we’re a team of 10 people that between Sydney and Brisbane, and then we’ve also got a network of six people offshore as well. So, we’ve got four people in Serbia and two people in Vietnam as well.

Laura: That was awesome. Definitely want to dig into the work-life balance at some point. But before we do, just talking about career, there’s lots of people and it’s been brought up a few times about people that… Recruiters that want to go in the house. What do you think were the biggest lessons you learned doing that in doing that or tips you’d give to somebody that’s thinking about that transition?

Simon: Yeah, I think based on my own personal experiences and I guess hiring people from agencies to come internal, it’s just, you have to have a genuine curiosity about tech and product development and wanting to actually attach yourself to a mission of an organisation that you’re actually interested in as well. I think in the perfect world, we all like to say, we’d love to work with companies that we identify with on a personal standpoint, that align with our values and what we think is right and wrong.

If that were the case, I’d probably work for a company like Patagonia, but that’s not always the case, but at a minimum you need to be interested in tech or you need to be interested in product development. And you need to be curious about what an organization is doing. Do you know what I mean? When I joined Safety Culture, I guess on a basic level, it was like a checklist application, but that wasn’t the story that we went to market with.

It was really focused on, this is a software that organisations can use to keep their workforce safe, to make a better world. And I think if you’re going to go from an agency, being in an agency mindset, you have to really flip the way that you think in the sense that you’re a part of one organisation now and you need to find a way to motivate yourself and identify with what that organisation is trying to do and the impact they’re trying to have on the world.

Laura: Yeah. That’s great advice. I guess as well then, so going through your career, there’s obviously been lots of different roles, lots of different types of roles as well, right? From Hayes to start-up to media buying, there’s lots going on. What do you think is the best and worst career advice you’ve had along the way?

Simon: I guess the best advice I’ve had is you’ve always got to find something that motivates you on a personal level. You know what I mean? Whatever role you go into, there’s always going to be expectations and responsibilities from the organisation, from your line managers or just from the people that you work with on a daily basis. But you really need to find within yourself what motivates you. And I think for me, that’s always transitioned into my personal life as well.

I never want to rely on pressure from peers or family or social media or just the world to motivate me to want to do something. Do you know what I mean? If I want to get fit, I need to get fit for myself. If I want to be good at my role, I need to be good because I want to be good at my role. And I’ve played sports since I was five years old. So, I’ve always had a competitive mindset and I’ve always pushed myself to want to be the best at anything I do. So, I think if you rely on outside factors to drive you, I think you’re already starting behind eight ball there.

Then in terms of the worst that I’ve had, I can’t really think of something really bad that stands out. But I think it’s just working in different types of organisations, so going from being in corporate world to start-up to starting your own business as well. I don’t think if anyone has given me advice around this, but I think what I have noticed is that individuals can sometimes be hesitant in asking a hard question or asking a question that they really have.

And I think that’s always something that I’ve struggled with as well on a personal level because I have come from a pretty small hometown and the culture that I’ve been brought up in as well is, you need to know your place. So, a come up with a humble mindset as well. But I think you need to push yourself to be uncomfortable and sometimes asking hard questions or asking questions that you think are dumb holds you back as well.

It’s not any advice that’s been given to me, but I think it’s just something I’ve noticed in general that you can hold yourself back with the mindset that it’s not my place to ask this question or it’s not my place is to push back. So, you’ve just got to constantly remind yourself to step out of your comfort zone and be vulnerable.

Laura: I think that was great advice. And then I guess you’ve also touched on mentors, said Nick’s a mentor. Do you have several mentors that you rely on? Do you do any mentoring?

Simon: I don’t do any mentoring. And I appreciate and love mentorship and I can see the value in it. And I’ve always played sports, so I’ve always had coaches and I think in a football sense, I’ve had some fantastic coaches that not only had an influence on me from a football perspective, but also had an holistic influence on me in terms of my life and approach to things. And I think before trying to get a serious job, I wanted to be a footballer.

So, I moved from Darwin to Adelaide when I was 14 and basically got billeted to a family and played in the second tier, just below what is the A-League now. And during that period, I spent obviously a lot of time away from my family and friends. So, my coaches during that period were probably the biggest mentors I had and you’d be training three or four times a week and playing on the weekend.

So, you spend a lot of time with these individuals and yeah, there’s probably a couple of really good coaches that not only influenced me from a football perspective, but they were both ,two key ones Milan and Peter, were very focused on the way you present yourself as a human being as well. That also reflects on the way you play football. Being a footballer isn’t just about what you do on the pitch. It’s about what you do off the pitch. It’s about your preparation. It’s about your mentality. It’s even about the way you walk.

There’s this thing where they talk about, they could tell a good footballer in the first five minutes, just from the way that they communicate, the way that they hold themselves, the way that they kick a ball, the way that they walk and jog. So, I think from a mentorship, football and sports has always been a big guiding light for me. But I’ve also mentioned, Nick’s always been a good person in my life from a professional and personal standpoint because he compliments me in the areas that I’m not strong in, in terms of that he’s more commercially astute than myself. And he can kind of see a bigger picture than me. So I’ve always kind of lent on him for that.

But yeah, I don’t think I’ve had any really dedicated mentors, obviously at Spotify working very closely with Kate Vale. When I started working with her, she had already had a phenomenal career in launching Google in Australia. She worked at YouTube, so working closely with her and the approach that she had to building teams and being human first, above all had a big impact on the way that I went after talent as well and the kind of people that identified. And then just even with that group, I was lucky enough hire people like Henry. He transitioned over to Spotify from Sweden. He’s one of my really close friends now. And now he’s the country manager for Acast.

Do you know what I mean? So, I was just really fortunate to work and hire smart people who have gotten to be a part of my life. And I think they’re not dedicated mentors, but I’ve learned so much from them. Serena Leith as well. I hired her for marketing at Spotify. And now she’s the director of marketing at Tik Tok. If you know, Cassandra Lloyd as well, we hired her as a Sales Manager and now she’s over at Pinterest. So there’s a lot of people that I’ve been fortunate enough to work with and call colleagues and now really good friends in confidence that have really had a good impact on my professional and personal life.

Laura: I see. It sounds like you’ve just been surrounded by really amazing people, that you’ve got that great community around you, that you can bounce those ideas around and talk to people about stuff, which is awesome.

Simon: Yeah, definitely. And I think that suits my personality better as well, rather than having a dedicated mentor.

Laura: Yeah. Crowdsource it all. And then I guess the other thing I wanted to ask about is obviously you touched on the fact that Lab17 started as a bit of a lifestyle business to try and get some work-life balance. I think we all know anyone that’s worked with start-up, that work-life balance doesn’t always exist. Obviously you’re starting your own thing again. So, what do you do to switch off or how would you try and manage balance?

Simon: Yeah, definitely. And I think that’s a really important topic, especially in the current climate, right? So, I think being active and playing sports has always been a big part of my life. I’m getting closer to 40 now. So training for football three days a week and playing on the weekends isn’t realistic. And obviously it doesn’t compliment the balance in terms of trying to grow a business and working at tech companies.

But I think you’ve always got to delegate time to passion projects. You’ve got to dedicate time to doing things that make you happy. And I think over my journey with working with tech companies and moving into Lab17, I’ve tried different things. We’re in lockdown start of last year and I really got into walking. I’ve never really liked walking and even running. I can’t understand running for a long time. I can only run five Ks. And instead of doing more, I just try to do five Ks quicker.

But my house mate, Kareem, who’s a Chief Operating Officer over at Cascades. He’s obsessed with walking and we moved in together at the start of lockdown and he’s like, you got give walking a go. And I was like, all right, I’ll give it a go. And I’d probably clock up like 20,000 steps a day now. And I find that a good way to disconnect and try to find different walking tracks and different areas to go to and spend part of the time completely switching off and just taking in the surroundings.

Then I’ll spend 30 minutes listening to a podcast. And then of course I can’t help myself, so I’ll probably spend 30 minutes walking and doing emails at the same time, which isn’t always a good thing because you find yourself tripping over and bumping into people. But outside of that, i’m really passionate about, growing up in Darwin, I’ve always been surrounded by nature and I’ve always lived in houses and had a big garden. So I love gardening, bit of the green thumb. Our house is swamped with plants and I also love cooking.

So, I guess the overarching message is find things that you’re passionate about and make sure you actually dedicate a time to them.

Laura: I think that was great advice. 20 Ks days also sounds great. I’ve been trying to do 10,000 steps a day. I’m like create a challenge within a group of friends to try and keep us accountable, but 20’s pretty impressive. The last question, just looking at time. Who else would you like to hear from on the Strivin & Thrivin podcast?

Simon: Yeah, I guess who would I like to hear? I think Henry would be a great person because obviously he’s the country manager for Acast, which focuses on podcasts. I think he’d be an interesting person to talk to from a domain perspective, but also he’s had a really great career working at Spotify, going into Acast and I think he’s got a really interesting perspective in terms of his life and transitioning over from Sweden to Australia, the different work environments and approach also very different.

I remember when I started Spotify as well, they do an onboarding program where they fly everyone to Stockholm and there’s a dedicated day to doing business as a Swedish person, which is interesting. And I think Nick as well, he’s worked with an amazing group of tech companies and he’s obviously been at Safety Culture, Spotify, Invoice2go, he’s been at Atlassian and so from an internal perspective as an employee, he’s worked for some amazing companies, but he’s also been a driving force behind the success that we’ve achieved at Lab17.

Laura: Thank you so much. And thank you for today.

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