She Means Business spotlights London’s most exciting female entrepreneurs. This week, CITOYENNE talks to Lu Li, founder of women’s start-up network Blooming Founders.
I’ve always had an entrepreneurial streak. My family moved from Beijing to Berlin when I was six years old, so that’s where I was educated and where I really grew up. Almost as soon as eBay came into existence, I was there selling Pokémon cards – it was my virtual lemonade stand and I made some money with it! When I was twenty, I went to business school at the Ingolstadt School of Management and I left a lot of that entrepreneurialism behind. I was doing what I thought I should do and getting on with my life in the traditional way. If I have any regrets, it’s that I didn’t pursue my other interests when I was at university. I missed the advent of Google AdWords, Facebook, YouTube and all the other tech and media platforms that emerged in that time and that are incredibly useful to be able to monetise today. If you’re engaged from the start, you can see how these things develop and you can grow with them. As a founder now, it would have saved me a lot of time if I hadn’t lost those few years.
On graduating, I was offered a job at McKinsey in Munich and to be honest, I took it for my ego. You just don’t really turn down a job at McKinsey, but it turned out not to be for me. Think of the stories you hear about consulting, then about McKinsey and then imagine how much more extreme it is Germany… it was tough and I realised very quickly that it just wasn’t what I wanted to do. What I did discover was that I enjoyed working on the market side of things over working on the strategic level. I wanted to work with people, with products and on something that felt tangible. I’d previously done an internship and been offered a job at Procter & Gamble, so I moved there and worked in brand management. I worked on product development and led the launch of two haircare collections for Pantene across Western Europe, which I loved and I learned a lot from being involved in that whole process. However, I eventually realised that, to advance in the corporate world, it’s not just about your achievements, but also about indulging in office politics and making sure you’re perceived in the right way. I got into a bit of a difficult situation where office relationships were complex and honestly a little toxic. When I reflected on it, I realised that not only did I need to move on but I would also be better off working for myself.
When you switch from a corporate career to entrepreneurship, you have to know what you’re getting yourself into. I wasn’t exactly a college dropout so I had to make some sacrifices – I’d had a career and a nice lifestyle – and I had to figure out how long I could sustain myself without an income. I was living in Zurich at that point and I started an image consulting business for women in middle management. The focus was on getting that next promotion, so I did style, behaviour and communication training. The problem was that there was no repeat business. My clients were happy with the service but they had no need to come back and so I spent 90 per cent of the time looking for new clients and only 10 per cent doing the work. I realised I had an unsustainable business model and I think that was the point at which I learned the Lean Startup lesson. Coming from an academic and a corporate background, I didn’t have that ‘hustle’ mindset. I thought I had to train myself – I went to image consultancy school in London and New York, I bought books and the things I thought I needed and invested a lot of time and money into ‘retraining’. Until I launched the business, I didn’t know that it wouldn’t actually work. It’s so important to test the market before you invest.
I also felt that Zurich was too small for entrepreneurship, so I moved to London to pursue a new business idea. I’d discovered a gap in the tourism market – essentially that Chinese tourists are travelling more and spending more money, but that there’s not much in the way of communications and marketing that’s geared towards them. With my consulting experience and bicultural background, I started a business based on the idea that I could help retailers, hotels and other brands who were looking to attract more Chinese customers. I met my business partner at a trade show and a couple of months later, we won the Selfridges account. I enjoyed doing the consulting work, but after a while I came across a scalability problem. I wanted to expand but I really struggled finding other people with the right cultural insight and business experience to join the team. I stepped away from it and realised that I didn’t actually want to do it by myself and that, as a founder, it was important to me to create something that could grow beyond me.
I was living in London and going to start-up events when I realised that there was a disconnect between that world and the female founders I’d met along my journey. I was there because I wanted to upgrade my skills and make new connections and while I knew that there were other women out there starting businesses, they weren’t necessarily engaging in the start-up world. That’s why I started Blooming Founders – I saw a need to build a community. Starting a business on your own means you do almost everything yourself, but we all need people to bounce ideas off and by going it alone we can disadvantage ourselves. 70 per cent of female founders in London are working by themselves and it’s really hard, because you can’t know everything and you can’t know everyone. I’m a big believer in communities and relationships – in pooling knowledge and resources – and that’s what Blooming Founders is really about. It’s also been a great way to do more research into why women don’t launch start-ups as much as men do and what we can do to change that. I think building a better infrastructure is key in encouraging more women to pursue their start-up ideas. As female founders, we have a strong shared identity and ability to empathise. One of my goals is for that community to provide emotional as well as business support. If we don’t stick together, we all lose.
At the moment, I’m working on creating a members’ club and co-working space that can be a home for our community. We currently have an online community and host events, but a physical space is the major goal. I want it to be a place to host events and bring in mentors, investors and anyone who is interested in and wants to engage with female founders because while those people exist, at present the ecosystem is fuzzy and it’s difficult to find them. It’ll be a place where women can work and take meetings but have the flexibility they need; drop off their kids, eat well and take good care of themselves at the same time as connecting face-to-face with their community and building supportive networks. I envisage it as a kind of Soho House for female founders, probably a little less fancy but still very cool. There are some interesting and successful examples in New York – like The Wing – but this is a newer concept in the UK. I have no intention of ghettoising women – we have to play the game with everybody else – but I do think we have different needs and priorities. A lot of the current infrastructure is built for men, so my intention is to build something for women, that appeals to them aesthetically, welcomes them and introduces them to more opportunities. If men want to be part of that, they’re very welcome. I’ve been bootstrapping with Blooming Founders for the last eighteen months, building the brand and a highly-engaged community with minimal capital. I think we’re now at a place where we could be fundable, but I want to see how the far the power of the community and partnerships can go. I’m very excited for the next phase.
There’s a personality type that I see in female founders: the insecure overachiever. The way that women are socialised to think about themselves leads us to have really high expectations – we think we must be able to do everything and be prepared for anything before taking that leap of faith. That’s where a support network like ours can help, because sometimes you just need someone to share their own experiences – especially of failure – and to give you that push. It’s just as important to have the right team. I see some start-ups with fantastic ideas but the wrong dynamic and it can just kill the whole thing. Working on yourself is such a key part of it. In a corporate career, you get a lot of (expensive) personal development training, but as a founder you just don’t have those resources. One of the most exciting start-ups Blooming Founders is working with is BOLDR, which is a personal development virtual coach that aims to recreate that training at a fraction of the price. It’s something I really believe in and think can help a lot of people, especially the generation that’s coming out of university now with all this debt and anxiety over what to do with their lives. I say think about what you want to get out of the next few years (or even life in general), build your skills, get to know your strengths, stay informed, keep educating yourselves and as soon as you’ve got some sense of direction, take a deep breath and go after what you want.
–as told to CITOYENNE
Photography: Marianne Paul