Gillian Wong, Lindsay Jang and Nicole Fung came together to create a company to bring contemporary streetwear to Hong Kong’s women, starting with an edgy fashion blog and adding in the next few months their own clothing line. The MISSBISH team sat down to talk with us about how they combined their different professional experiences — in fashion, hospitality and finance — and together took the leap to start a company and grow it.
Their insights about building a fashion brand from scratch, hiring talent and advancing as female founders in the industry make fascinating reading for women who want to learn about running a fashion company.
This interview was originally published on Prabha Dublish’s blog featuring international women entrepreneurs. Edited excerpts of the interview follow.
Tell us more about your backgrounds.
Wong: After I graduated from university, I went to Beijing to study Mandarin for a year. I then worked at HYPEBEAST, a men’s streetwear company, and ran their e-commerce operations. Through my work there, I realized that there was a market for women’s streetwear as well, so I found these founders and we started MISSBISH together.
Jang: I never thought about being an entrepreneur. My dad was an entrepreneur and so were my grandparents. If you immigrated to Canada and didn’t speak English, then you’d most likely own a small business like a convenience store or restaurant. For that reason, I grew up with an entrepreneurial mindset.
After working a few jobs in the hospitality industry, I realized I didn’t want to work for someone else anymore. Then MISSBISH came up as an opportunity, and I took it because I didn’t know anything about digital or media, so it was an opportunity to learn something new.
Fung: I went to school in Canada, moved to Hong Kong 4 to 5 years ago and went into banking. But I was always hanging out with people — read: entrepreneurs — who were doing much cooler things. I wanted to do more of that, because it seemed more interesting than what I was doing. So in some ways I accidentally fell into it.
Why specifically Hong Kong?
Fung: I have family here so, it was a really easy move for me. I also already spoke the language and had travelled here a bunch.
Jang: I left New York with my partner, and we travelled around for awhile, eventually ending up in Hong Kong. We had recently had a daughter, so I was taking care of her and teaching yoga. Hong Kong proved to be a city that’s very nurturing of small businesses. There are very few barriers to entry. This is different than in New York, where everyone is already doing everything.
Wong: I moved here to be with my father, and it made sense since my job [at HYPEBEAST] was here as well. Hong Kong was also the perfect place to start MISSBISH, since the city has a growing streetwear culture.
Have you ever felt any gender bias in Hong Kong?
Jang: If anything, being a woman is helpful. Many brands are trying to figure out how to talk to women because they have more buying power. It’s so ridiculous that we are having this conversation in 2017, but finally people are really respecting the opinion of women.
In the U.S. specifically, there is a stronger feeling of “poor me.” It’s almost cultivated more there than in Asia. After a while, if you stop spending so much time whining about the inequality, then you’ll have more time to act and do something. Focusing on the negative does no good.
How did you decide to take the leap from your previous careers to MISSBISH?
Fung: It took me a good year and a half to actually make the jump, because I didn’t want to “waste” my degree. But I realized that I can still make a real salary, and I was really fed up with my cubicle job.
Jang: It was a constant source of positive bullying, where we encouraged each other to quit and make the decision to dive into MISSBISH. Everyone knew that they wanted to do it, and MISSBISH was totally conceptualized. We put it into action finally because we were all supporting each other.
Can you talk a little more about the challenges you faced during the transition?
Wong: Forming a daily routine was difficult because there was no one there holding each other accountable. It took us 6 months to figure out each other’s roles and to become efficient. We also basically took on roles that we knew nothing about and learned them.
Jang: We had to take on a business partner because all three of us wanted to be creative and do the branding, but no one wanted to do the numbers. We brought my sister on, who runs the offices for my restaurants. Now she does the numbers for MISSBISH. Then we also brought on an additional partner our friends referred to us to, who has experience in consumer and digital retail. He’s helped a lot with structuring our business and monetization as well.
Fung: Another challenge was figuring everything out. We had to learn how to use Photoshop, InDesign and everything else that went into running our web business. We never really had experience with it, so a lot of it was research and asking for help from people as well. We’re lucky to have a strong community of friends who are helping us with different things.
How big is the team now?
Wong: We have 20 interns around the world and three salaried employees.
Jang: We are currently building out China right now. We’re trying to find someone who can embody what we do in China, like identifying trends and finding copywriters. It’s scary because we are doing it blindly — we don’t know the language well enough, and we don’t know how to market to those consumers.
Have you had difficulty finding local talent?
Fung: A lot of our interns reach out to us. We’ve only put an ad out once, and we received a lot of responses from all over the world. It’s good to have an international team, because we have an international reading base.
Jang: In Asian culture, you’re expected to become a corporate professional. No one is really excited about you doing the unknown with little security. That affects the talent we’re able to attract as a startup.
Everything in China and Asia tends to grow very fast, so the Hong Kong community is exploding. The big money people are trying to cultivate talent, but technical talent is still very expensive here, so we outsource it.
How do you ladies maintain a work-life balance?
Jang: I just think that, as an entrepreneur, you have to chose a business you are passionate about. It is in some ways a 24-hour job. You are always thinking about it, but you do the best you can to enjoy your time off as well. I also believe in quality over quantity — long hours don’t make you better.
Wong: I think the apps we use really help. Gmail, Slack, Trello, WeChat and Facebook help keep things flowing and organized.
Fung: We have a pretty good separation of duties, but it wasn’t always like this. When we started, it was more intense, since there was a lot to set in motion. As the team expanded, our work-life balance improved.
What was raising your first round of investment like?
Jang: I think it’s the same as anywhere. We were very conscious of not raising money too early, and we raised capital when we weren’t even really looking. One of Gillian’s friend’s husbands runs a family office and wanted to get into “athleisure,” so he totally understood our business model. We had another investor lined up who had fashion experience, but they were more interested in the exit strategy and didn’t get the importance of the platform, so it didn’t end up working out.
Will this new line of products be athleisure clothing?
Jang: The first one will be. Then moving forward we want to drop products in multiple different categories. We aren’t following a typical calendar, we want to release on a monthly basis.
What are some moments of inspiration that got you through those hard times as an entrepreneur?
Fung: For me, it’s thinking about my corporate job 2 years ago and how I’d much rather be doing this.
Wong: Same thing as Nicole. Happiness is so important.
Jang: I just think that, if this doesn’t work out, there’s always something else that I can do. Then I think it can’t be that bad.
What advice do you have for readers thinking of becoming entrepreneurs?
Fung: I always thought I’d be working my 9-to-5 job, but, once I discovered what I was passionate about, I was able to decide what I really wanted to do. I think it’s finding your passion and turning that into a career. But if I didn’t do that 9-to-5, I wouldn’t have realized what I liked and disliked.
Jang: I would tell anyone to work for someone first. There is no replacement to learning from someone else and having the structure to develop your skills. A huge part of success is building your work ethic. It gives you a better understanding of what it takes to be an entrepreneur.
Wong: Just learn how to save. If I didn’t have my 9-to-5 job and didn’t learn the process of managing my money, then I wouldn’t have understood how to run a new business and manage finances.
Prabha Dublish is an undergraduate business student at Babson College in Wellesley, Mass., and co-founder and president of Womentum, a nonprofit pay-it-forward crowdfunding platform that allows anyone in the world to donate to women entrepreneurs in developing countries.