Hichame Assi has joined Envato as only its second-ever CEO after a decade at HotelsCombined. Here, Hichame reflects on his journey to now and delves deeper into what motivates him to lead.
“I’m not really one for titles, to be honest, and I never strove or thought about being a CEO,” reflects Hichame Assi from his home office in Sydney. The former HotelsCombined CEO has joined Envato this month to take on the top job from co-founder Collis Ta’eed and takes up a relaxed presence as he talks through his journey to now, with the afternoon sun of spring filtering through his window. “For me, I’m always focused on solving the problem. I guess over the years I’ve helped align teams to solve problems and eventually someone thought I must’ve been good enough to be entrusted to lead.”
“As a leader, I try to find the sweet spot between someone’s passion and the needs of the business. I’ve been fortunate to have some very inspiring people in my life along the way, whether my parents, partner, teachers, friends or colleagues. I have learnt from everyone and they have all had a role in shaping my perspective on the world.”
Hichame’s journey to Envato has been one of travel and adventure, from his formative years as a student in the northern Syrian city of Aleppo – where he also developed a love for NYHC punk – through to post-graduate education in London and, eventually, settling down in Australia’s harbour city. It’s a unique experience, he acknowledges, that has marked him as a truly global citizen.
“I’m definitely grateful to be a TCK; a third culture kid. My father is Syrian, my mother is English, and while I was born in France, I’ve also lived in Syria, UK and Australia since 2008. I feel at home everywhere and also nowhere as I don’t think its where you go but who you’re with. I met a lot of different people growing up and learning in international schools, which themselves give you a unique perspective on the world and friends all over the globe. The main thing I got out of this is respecting a diversity of culture and thought, and in my career I’ve found myself constantly striving to nudge this diversity towards alignment.”
Studying business and the finer points of managing global eCommerce startups were actually not Hichame’s first choices when he graduated from secondary education in Syria. “I wanted to study physics or pure math, but ended up studying literature and humanities; you can put that down to a quirk of the Syrian educational system. But it was still fascinating for me to break down language and how to interpret it, especially psycholinguistics and sociolinguistics.”
“It was a few years later when I had the chance to do a Masters in eCommerce; I was part of the first cohort to take the course at the University of London, and it was a great experience. The course had three key tracks: Tech, Management and Economics, all meshing together to help explain the fundamentals of eCommerce. It also helped me realize that I did not have the patience nor attention-to-detail to be good at tech or economics!”
“I was fortunate, however, to be doing this study while working in a large global eCommerce business in the online travel space – OctopusTravel – where it was clear that the ‘practicalities’ of day to day running of such a business were evolving much quicker than the academia could deal with. I felt sorry for our professors and lecturers who had to balance between the reading material and the influx of daily changes in the industry.”
The now-defunct Octopus Travel gave Hichame the reason to visit Australia, and while the company is now long gone from the fast-paced – some would say brutal – online travel industry, the rest is history. You could even argue his arrival at Envato was destined to be – as a ThemeForest customer he already has front-end experience with the company’s products! – so while the transition from running HotelsCombined to heading up Envato’s global community of creative assets tools and talent might seem an irregular move, for Hichame, there are more similarities than not, “I had 20 great years in the space and learnt most of what I know today in terms of scaling a business and leading teams,” he says. “It is generally considered to be one of the most competitive industries out there and super fast-paced. Having to keep up while maintaining a strict focus needed a culture and ethos that was very entrenched in agile thinking and execution.”
“That I can take these lessons and apply them in another fast-paced, values-driven culture is exciting for me, and I’m looking forward to the challenge of helping Envato, and this inspiring team, scale globally for the next stage of its own journey in the digital creative industries.”