Start-up status, and the importance of generosity in business

This week we chatted to Charlotte Chiang from Missfits about the importance of generosity in business – and how to embrace your start-up status.

Before I got into the start-up industry, I studied international economics and worked in development finance. I was consulting banks in China on microlending and green lending projects. When I turned 29 I had an early midlife crisis, moved to Italy, and took a course in lingerie design. Then I founded Missfits. Missfits gets women into bras that fit, using a universal sizing and personalized recommendation model. We sell curated bra boxes to our customers on a try-before-buying basis, and they really like it!

On challenges in business

Building the team has definitely been a challenge, as there are so many work opportunities with better conditions available to the kinds of talented, hardworking people I (or anyone running a start-up) would want on the team. 

Secondly, securing investment is no joke. I know that fundraising is hard for every start-up, but as a woman working in femtech, I’ve been laughed out of pitch rooms, told repeatedly that this simply isn’t a problem worth solving, even asked to do a self-demo of the product (ew). Ultimately, it remains hard to be taken seriously. I just don’t think that men working on a women-focused product, or a women working on a gender-neutral business, receive quite the same response.

‘Aim for authentic communication’

In terms of growing an audience, we have more tools and channels than ever before. At the same time, there’s also a lot of noise to cut through on these channels, and customers are getting really savvy when it comes to which brands they actually want to listen to and have a relationship with. 

I think the best way to overcome this is aiming for authentic–rather than perfect–communication. A lot of start-up companies feel like they need to position themselves like a big brand in order to gain an audience, but guess what? 1) You’re not a big brand, and 2) people are way more likely to engage with a person than a brand with no face. Show people who’s behind your business, what you’re up to every day, what your hopes and aspirations and challenges are. The more connected people are with your story, the more they’ll be able to tell it for you and spread the word.

What 3 things does a small business need to succeed?

  1. Willingness to listen to customers and adapt/pivot the business therefrom. A lot of startups get so fixated on a solution before it’s been validated by the market. It’s trite, but true: fall in love with the problem, and be curious about what the most repeatable, scalable, solution to that problem will be.
  2. Grit. You don’t really have to be the smartest or most talented person in the room to succeed. You just have to want to do it more than anyone else, and that means the persistence to see it through the hard times.
  3. Generosity. I truly believe that giving to others without expectation of return, whether that be business advice, connections, or small acts of support–creates good will and trust that will help you succeed in the long term. 

‘Shift your focus’

I think times are tough for everyone right now, but shift your focus to profit/cashflow rather than growth. Start-up mythology often teaches us to focus on the top-line only, but if you’re losing money in spite of growing your revenues, your business has an expiration date. 

Also, do some strategic assessment. What opportunities are available to you that weren’t before? That might mean suppliers who are more willing to renegotiate contracts, more public attention being shifted online, or customers who are getting experimental with new products at home. Focus on which doors have opened, rather than pounding on those that are now closed.

On mentoring:

A good mentor is extremely valuable. I define a good mentor not as someone who imposes their opinions on you, but rather someone who is able to challenge your thinking and ask you the right questions at each stage of your journey.

‘You need to ask the right questions’

Not enough entrepreneurs take advantage of the mentoring oppotunities available to them. The main reasons I’ve seen are that 1) people don’t know where to find a mentor, and 2) they don’t know how to use a mentor. You can get a lot more out of a mentoring session when you come with very specific questions that they can actually answer, rather than generally talking about the state of your business and expecting them to have something intelligent to say. This is actually not as easy as it sounds–in order to be asking the right questions, you need to constantly have an objective view of what your biggest problems and needs are. 

‘But don’t take all the advice you’re given’

Somehow I find, when you start a business everyone else suddenly becomes the expert on how it should be run. The advice is generally well-intended, but accommodating everyone’s opinions will quickly get you nowhere (as I had to learn the hard way). It’s important to be very discerning about whose advice you take, and to meanwhile tune into your intuition when you need it.

Charlotte Chiang.

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