Lessons Learned: Female Entrepreneurs On Their Journey to Growing a Business
The road to running a successful business is filled with ups and downs—successes often come after repeated trial and error, and embracing risk is crucial. Hong Kong Tatler talks to eight women about what they’ve learned and what they are working on for 2020
For the founder of colourful home decor and interior design brand Lala Curio, perseverance and focus are key to running and growing a business.
Laura Cheung marches to the beat of her own, beautifully designed, drum—as can be seen in the whimsical, eclectic style that has come to be associated with Lala Curio, her home decor and interior design services brand. Among the treasure trove of items that Lala Curio produces and that are available online and at the Colourliving furniture store in Wan Chai are tiles decorated with the traditional art of cloisonné and exquisite hand-painted wallpaper.
“I was designing for different brands and saw their success but found limitations in having to follow their brand guidelines or market trends,” says Cheung. “I was yearning for the opportunity to create what speaks to me, to find purpose in my creations. I wanted to embrace lost crafts and reinvent them to make them fashionable again.”
Everything at Lala Curio is bright and colourful—the polar opposite of the minimalist Scandinavian style—and that is the only way Cheung wants it. “The whimsical spirit has been inherent since the early days when I was visualising the brand; it’s all about taking very serious craftsmanship and making it fun and attractive for a larger audience.”
That audience includes shoppers at Pacific Place, where Lala Curio was commissioned to create Chinese New Year installation A Voyage to the Prosperous Splendour. It featured lanterns of all sizes, and panels decorated with intricate embroidery and embellishments, all in bright shades of red, pink, fuchsia, gold and more—very much an embodiment of Lala Curio’s style.
Learning new skills
While Cheung revels in the vibrant world that she’s created at Lala Curio, she is no stranger to the harder aspects of running a business. “As an entrepreneur, you need to dabble in all aspects of your business: areas that you might not have expertise in. Learning to seek for the expertise, and learning to trust and delegate, are instrumental when you are growing your business.”
Grit is another tool that she counts as essential for an entrepreneur. “It’s important to find each new challenge exciting and to not be put off when problems arise, as it is all part of the journey.”
While Cheung doesn’t shy away from a challenge, she has also learned to be more focused. “As a curious creative, I am naturally drawn to all things beautiful and I’m always wanting to take on new challenges. I have learned to follow a clear direction for the company.”
Spreading the word
This year, Lala Curio will be expanding to the US, with a showroom in Los Angeles. “We will also be taking on more collaborations so we continue to spread our mission to reinvent traditional craftsmanship and keep it sustainable.”
The founder of The Wedding Atelier and The Floral Atelier, with locations in Hong Kong, Singapore and soon Shanghai, gives her tips on how to make your business bloom
Former financier Lelian Chew is the founder of The Wedding Atelier, a full service company that plans and designs spectacular events around the world that don’t necessarily have to be a wedding, given that the company also counts luxury brands such as Louis Vuitton, Cartier and Ferrari as loyal customers.
“I started The Wedding Atelier seven years ago in Hong Kong after leaving a decade-long career at Goldman Sachs,” says Chew, who had been approached to help plan a wedding on the side. “That’s when I noticed a gap in the industry for a professionally run company that focuses on the most discerning clients on their biggest day.” Thanks to her laser-focused approach on the concept and audience from day one, The Wedding Atelier has been thriving ever since.
Today, Lelian also runs The Floral Atelier, a sister company to The Wedding Atelier that offers majestic floral creations and artisanal event design. One of her proudest projects was creating florals for former US president Barack Obama, with whom she shared a conversation and photo. “Many of my life’s most deeply rooted beliefs are embodied in his life story, so it was extraordinary for the team and I to be of service to him.”
Go far, go together
Her biggest lessons so far from running her own business, she says, are “that it truly takes a village. No one can do it all, so if you have the desire to go far, you’ll need to go together.” Chew also advises other business owners to “identify your niche from the onset and understand what sets you or your brand apart from the competition. Then, take that conviction and run with it. Try your best to ignore the naysayers and non-believers, and be prepared to work very hard.”
A new atelier in 2020
Lelian is currently busy working on her third atelier, which will open later this year in Shanghai. “We have many exciting projects in the pipeline for both The Wedding Atelier and The Floral Atelier in 2020, but one of our bucket list goals is to plan and design a wedding on every continent. We’re more than halfway there.”
A vocal coach whose students include Cantopop singer Kelly Chen and actress Tang Wei, and founder of the online Pure Singing Platform, Krystal Diaz talks about evolving on the job and the benefits of business coaching
For most entrepreneurs, the path to starting their own business usually involves a fair amount of pondering and planning. For Krystal Diaz, it was more a combination of fate and passion.
Having grown up in a musical family—her father is an award-winning music producer and her mother is a singer who is also a sought-after vocal coach in Hong Kong’s entertainment industry—Diaz started singing seriously when she was eight but initially wanted to pursue a career in film studies. “However, after two years of working for a film production company, I realised that I really missed singing. So I decided to follow my mother's footsteps and train to become a vocal coach,” she says. “When I started as a vocal coach, I just thought I was joining the family business.
“It wasn't until much later that I realised I was building an entirely new brand—creating new systems, marketing strategies, sales procedures, and hiring, training and managing staff. It dawned on me I was growing a business that was operationally very different from the music production company that my dad had established.”
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Taking a different approach
At the same time, Diaz was growing her own family. Being a mother to two young daughters spurred her to take a more entrepreneurial approach to her business. “I created a job that relied on me to continuously trade my time for money and I didn’t have an exit plan. I realised this wasn’t sustainable.”
Since then, Diaz launched the online Pure Singing Platform, through which clients can pay for access to online lessons, videos and other materials from a curriculum that she created.
During the process, Diaz learned more about the need for speed when introducing new services to the market. “My background in music got me used to the process of rehearsing and perfecting a performance before presenting it. So whenever we launched a new programme or initiative, I would be spending far too much time on things that probably didn't matter in the end.
“As an entrepreneur, you have to make calculated decisions to drive your business forward but it's unrealistic to expect that everything has to be perfect before it can be launched. Sometimes you have to launch before you’re ready and then adjust or pivot as you go.”
Diaz also enrolled in a business mentorship programme. “One of the first lessons I learned was that your business is a reflection of yourself. So in order to change your business, you have to change the way you make decisions, which means you have to change the way you think and process information,” says Diaz. “I wish I’d found business and personal coaches way earlier than I did. I always felt that the life of an entrepreneur is a lonely one, but I realise now that it doesn’t have to be.”
Sharing the love of music
In 2020, Diaz will also focus on the Online Vocal Academy—a collaboration with her brother Adam, a songwriter and music producer. “The goal is to build an international community of singers, songwriters, vocal coaches and music industry professionals, all learning, supporting and working with one another to create and share great music.”
Being able to solve problems under pressure is a must if you want to run your own event planning company, says the owner of Le Lumière Events
Every child loves parties but few turn it into a business later on in life. That, however, was exactly what inspired Leanne Lam to start Le Lumière Events.
“Since I was a little girl, I have always thrown parties for myself and my friends during our birthdays, Christmas and other festivals because I loved dressing up and bringing a group of people together,” says Lam. “I am a strong believer that life is always worth celebrating and we can always treat ourselves and our close ones to a lovely gathering.”
Lam also stood out for starting her business at a young age—choosing to learn about running a company at the time when most people are starting their first job. “I am glad that I started my business early because I used the extra time to explore and learn what works best for both me and my company,” says Lam. “The earlier this process begins, the earlier you can find success.”
While she was growing her business, Lam also worked on building her confidence and thinks sheer determination is a key trait. “There will be a lot of times when people don’t believe in your ideas or think you can’t pull it off. But you have to believe in yourself and believe that you can eventually succeed.
“Age does not matter as much as you think it does. When I first started, I used to be self-conscious that I was too young and I was meeting partners and clients who had more years of experience than I did. But the truth is, the only thing that matters is whether you are confident in what you are doing. Of course you need to be able to deliver what you sell but there is no need to doubt yourself.”
Solving problems on the go
Anyone in the event industry will attest that while you can plan every detail of your event meticulously, there is little you can control when it comes to the weather, traffic—or even a terrorist attack, an extreme example that Lam had to deal with when she was in London during the attack in 2017, when three men drove into pedestrians on London Bridge.
“You quickly learn how to problem-solve in a time-pressured situation. When one of our events in London was affected by that unfortunate happening, I had to think on the spot of an evacuation plan and rearrange all logistics immediately to move our guests to another venue,” says Lam. “It was a very valuable lesson on the importance of having a contingency plan, always.”
Lam has worked on events around the world, and this year she is taking the service to the next level with the launch of the LL Travel series, which will provide additional experiences for clients planning an event in another destination. “Aside from the event, whether it is a wedding, birthday or anniversary, we will also curate one of a kind cultural and culinary experiences for our clients,” says Lam. “We are so excited to be travelling around the world with them.”
Cara and Laura Li
Cousins Cara and Laura Li join forces to bring new ways of drinking matcha to Hong Kong with Matchali
What happens when two self-professed matcha fanatics come together? For Cara and Laura Li, it was a match made in heaven.
The cousins and co-founders of Matchali are bringing a modern interpretation of matcha to Hong Kong by blending centuries-old tradition and heritage into colourful, matcha-infused teas and other drinks. Kicking off with a pop-up at The Upper House hotel, Matchali’s healthy, hand-crafted beverages are all made with premium, ceremonial-grade green tea powder that has been sourced from a tea farm in Uji, Kyoto.
A modern concept
“After living in New York for five years, I became a real matcha addict,” says Cara, who replaced her regular cup of joe with matcha and found it to be a great source of caffeine—minus the jitters. “When I moved back to Hong Kong, I saw a real opportunity for a contemporary matcha-centric concept.”
Laura adds: “I’d always wanted to do something with matcha, so when Cara moved back to Hong Kong, we brainstormed ideas together and the concept grew organically from there.”
F&B versus fashion
This is Laura’s second business—the first was an online fashion retail store called Gizzy & Nacho that she launched about a decade ago. “Running a business takes hard work and you have to be ready to do anything and everything,” she says. “From my last business, I learned to be more strategic, more wary of taking risks and to think of the big picture instead of being too reactive. The F&B industry is very different from fashion but super fun and rewarding—we’re learning something new every day.”
According to Cara, “It’s crucial to stay true to your vision and standards without compromise, and to constantly ask for feedback so that you can keep getting better and better.”
“We’ve been so lucky to have had all the positive feedback and encouraging comments, and it makes us incredibly happy to see people enjoying our drinks,” she continues. To anyone out there looking to start their own business, both founders agree that it takes passion and dedication—and a great partner.
“Entrepreneurship is extremely rewarding and full on, and Laura and I are lucky to have a great partnership to balance the workload and inspire each other,” says Cara.
Matcha more coming in 2020
Next for Matchali in 2020, says Laura, are “more popups, retail and wholesale concepts, and our very own tea shops—stay tuned.”
Amy Powell and Christina Lau Tam
The founders of Toasst, a wine subscription service that introduces customers to high-quality but affordable wines from around the world, give their insights on the growing pains of starting a new business
Amy Powell and Christina Lau Tam’s new business is testament to the importance of doing what you love. The duo leveraged their interest in enjoying good wines, which don’t necessarily have to be top shelf labels from Burgundy and Bordeaux, and took advantage of a gap in Hong Kong’s wine market to start a wine subscription service. Toasst offers wine made from unusual grape varietals, from up and coming wineries and from little-known wine producing regions. The wines are delivered monthly or quarterly to the member’s home and come with fun tasting notes and food pairing tips.
“As wine lovers who are always looking to discover new regions and interesting winemakers, we were looking for the kind of wine club that we would want to be members of,” says Powell. “Despite Hong Kong being an international wine hub, it can be challenging for typical consumers to access affordable, unique wines outside of mainstream brands.”
“We see, among our own network, many people who enjoy wine on a nightly or weekly basis but aren’t interested in drinking top-end Bordeaux every night of the week,” says Lau Tam. “We saw a lot of demand from consumers who were interested in trying new wines but didn’t have a trusted source to turn to. With our own friends, we increasingly saw them turn to us.”
See also: An Expert’s Guide To Setting Up A Winery
All hands on deck
With Toasst having started just last year, the pair are learning to deal with all the challenges of launching a business. “Being an optimist and highly self-motivated are essential,” says Powell. “There are so many unexpected challenges that come up when starting a business from the ground up. By staying positive, remaining flexible and focusing on our end goal, we were able to roll with the punches in the early months.”
“An inherent comfort with risk is also necessary,” says Lau Tam. “Being an entrepreneur is not the comfy job with a set salary that many people are looking for. There is no boss telling you what to do. We are the bosses.”
Being your own boss, in a young company, also means that you have to roll up your sleeves and take care of everything yourself. “We are capable of doing a lot more than we thought we could. There is no IT department to turn to when you have a technology problem, so you need to figure it out yourself,” says Lau Tam.
Adds Powell: “We were learning how to do basic coding, updating our website or graphic design to do our own simple flyers and marketing materials. Old dogs can learn new tricks.”
Being an entrepreneur can be a lonely experience—one of the reasons why Powell and Lau Tam wanted to be business partners. “We keep each other company, hold each other accountable and celebrate success together,” says Powell.
New ways to drink wine in 2020
This year, Toasst will be exploring different ways for people to experience their wines—from mindfulness workshops that include wine tasting to networking sessions for female executives.
“We are looking into experimenting with exclusive wine events for our subscribers as we build a community here in Hong Kong for more adventurous drinkers,” says Lau Tam. “And we will continue to scout out the most interesting bottles from around the world so we can keep surprising and delighting our subscribers.”
“We currently have our eyes on English sparkling, Greek reds, great value French—it exists—a vast number of unsung Italian white varietals and much, much more,” says Powell.
The early investor of Hong Kong’s number one social shopping platform Goxip shares her biggest business lessons, inspirations and plans for 2020
A shoppable Instagram or fashion Google, Goxip is one of the world’s fastest growing e-commerce platforms, with 500 international online retailers, 36,000 luxury brands and five million items in its database. The company allows users to upload photos from their smartphones or online to find similar items in their marketplace.
“I liked the opportunity of merging fashion and technology,” says Yim, who made the decision to invest in Goxip in 2019 along with her friend Chryseis Tan, the CEO of Berjaya Times Square in Malaysia. While Yim has a day job as the associate director of capital markets at Knight Frank, she embraced the opportunity to wear a second hat as an entrepreneur and now treats Goxip as her own business. “Goxip is all about providing a better user experience for shoppers by way of a fashion search engine that uses image search technology. This helps our customers find exactly what they want and matches them with the 500 merchants we currently have on the platform so they can shop instantly.”
The right team
One of the biggest lessons in business for Yim was finding the right people to work with. “I completely trust Juliette Gimenez, the founder of Goxip,” she says. “It’s all about hiring the right person and team—people with the stamina and determination to make the business a success or turn it around when things do not work.”
The Goxip team has since grown from three to more than 40 staff across Hong Kong, Singapore and Malaysia. One of their proudest accomplishments to date was “reaching number one on the Hong Kong iOS App Store,” says Yim. “Our entire company was jumping up and down, and I could not have been more proud to witness this.”
When it comes to business inspiration, Yim looks up to her father Stanley Yim of SAS Dragon Holdings, who started his own business at the age of 21. “He’s seen and experienced a lot, and has always encouraged me to step outside of my comfort zone in order to learn and have new experiences.
“You need to embrace the mentality of not fearing failure,” she advises future entrepreneurs.
“2020 is a very exciting year for us since we just launched a new product called rewardSnap last year and the traction has been astonishing. The key growth plan for 2020 and beyond would be to expand rewardSnap into Singapore, Malaysia and Korea—with more exciting plans to come.”
The chief designer for her own high jewellery brand, Sarah Zhuang Jewellery, which is available in Hong Kong, Mainland China, Japan and London, talks about retaining a positive outlook and the need to balance creativity with business acumen
Sarah Zhuang knows jewellery, having grown up in a family that has been in the industry since 1995. And while Zhuang chose to stay in the same field, she chose to do it her way, with Sarah Zhuang Jewellery, which stands out for its contemporary, versatile designs. Each collection pays homage to a trait embodied by modern women, and the pieces are equally suited to the boardroom or ballroom.
“Growing up in a family that has been in the industry for 25 years really helped me to have a basic understanding of how the business is run,” says Zhuang.
Balancing art and business
Zhuang honed her craft at the Gemological Institute of America and the Hong Kong Design Institute, and supplemented it with further studies at the Accademia Riaci in Florence. “When you are passionate about your work, you naturally become determined and motivated,” she says.
However, she adds, passion and creativity can only take you so far when you are running your own business. “I wish I knew, in the beginning, that having a creative mind is not enough if you want to start your own business. You also need to be good with numbers, learn about finance and a lot of other skills that are not related to design.”
Making swift decisions is another important lesson that Zhuang learned on the job. “Being decisive is crucial, as there is no room for procrastination in business. You have to be clear about what needs to be done and get things done quickly.”
She identifies a positive outlook as another important element to her approach, one that helps her to embrace taking risks. “You have to take risks and be willing to accept challenges, even when you’re going through hard times; you have to believe in yourself and believe in what you do,” she says. “When confronted with challenges, I find that being optimistic really helps. Try to look on the bright side and focus on moving forward rather than dwelling on the past or the negative.”
New year, new partnerships
This year, Zhuang wants to concentrate on building her brand in Mainland China. “We will be launching our new collection with Lane Crawford in Beijing and Shanghai this year. Also, I will be collaborating with a fashion jewellery brand for the first time, so I’m really excited about that.
“The fact that I have taken a different direction from my family gave me a lot of room to explore new opportunities and to collaborate with different people.”
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