Whether it’s investing in startups or launching her own venture making ultra-comfy, sustainable men’s underwear, Yang Liu has been involved in entrepreneurship most of her career.
The China native worked at several tech startups in her early 20’s after graduating from university, and later joined investment program 500 Startups, where she guided investments in 18 different startups around Europe. But in late 2016, Liu took the risky step of leaving the venture fund to start her own non-tech business, JoeyWears, which is determined to improve the quality of men’s underwear, whose fit had long been a complaint of her fiancé’s.
We met with Liu in London to hear her insights about transitioning from the finance world to business ownership. Her experience will be interesting for anyone considering changing career paths.
This interview was originally published on Prabha Dublish’s blog featuring international women entrepreneurs. Edited excerpts of the interview follow.
Tell us about your background?
I was raised in China and went to school there. After I finished university in just 2 years, I joined a mobile app startup as the first hire of an all-female founding team. I worked at the company, building the product and learning the growth-hacking mentality. I was excited by the entire startup scene, but, many of my peers, we all expected to take that traditional finance or consulting position. After leaving the startup, I took another position at a U.S.-based consulting firm that was founded by female founders as well. It was impressive to see how female leaders were impacting the world, but after that experience I realized corporate consulting wasn’t for me.
Right after, I hopped onboard an early-stage smart [Internet-of-Things] hardware company that was backed by Foxconn, the largest manufacturer in the world. They provided us with a lot of support that allowed us to scale and grow quickly. I was flying between China and Silicon Valley, juggling different time zones while dealing with manufacturers until I decided to move to London to be with my fiancé.
I came to learn a lot about growing startups, but not about managing companies that were beyond the early stage and had to deal with large budgets, scale and more. That was when the opportunity with 500 Startups arrived. It is one of the largest early-stage seed funds and best accelerators in the world. I was lucky because they had recently launched the office in London when I moved there. They had a program, Distro Dojo, focused on post-seed-stage growth, and I knew that was the perfect place for me to be. I managed the program for a year, and we directly invested in 18 fast-growing companies across Europe.
I learned so much about scaling businesses that I got itchy to do it myself. So that’s when I decided to take the jump and start JoeyWears.
What are some the differences between the San Francisco and London startup scenes?
The ecosystem in London has matured in the last couple years. There are now more “unicorn” companies. The big difference I see is in terms of embracing failure. In my opinion, people in London aren’t comfortable talking about failure due to social pressures, but in America the process is more important than the results. Another difference is in the willingness to help people. In San Francisco, you never know who will be the next Mark Zuckerberg, so everyone is working hard and sharing resources. But in London, there’s more community pressure and less collaboration.
What stage of the business lifecycle are you in?
We started 6 months ago. Traditionally, underwear is made with cotton, but ours is made from tree root fiber, which is regenerative. Many cotton manufacturers produce harmful chemicals that go into the rivers in developing countries, so our goal was to find a more sustainable fabric, which we found in Austria. We’ve made 20 prototypes and finished one round of product testing with 100 men to see if we were able to adjust the fit to be better. Soon we will be launching a Kickstarter campaign.
How are female entrepreneurs treated in London?
I’m also director of SheWorx in London . We focus on promoting female entrepreneurs and connecting them to funding sources. Fundraising here for females is difficult due to social gender stereotypes. There is definitely a strong movement to promote female founders, but it will take time. Although the proportion of female founders in the U.K. is still smaller than in the United States, we have seen a lot of women within SheWorx start businesses later on in their lives as compared to in the U.S.
What keeps you going when you are facing challenges as a founder?
I had a tough month in December. People questioned why I was leaving my position at 500 Startups to start my own company. Then people found out that I was not doing a tech company and thought I wasn’t “cool” anymore. I went through a period of self-growth so now I just follow my own instincts and opinions and ignore the judgement of others. It’s especially important to filter out what other people say.
What advice do you have for college students who want to be entrepreneurs but aren’t sure where to start?
Find ways to build a network to help you achieve success when you start your own business. Also, find your own pack. Find people who are at the same place in life as you are and share your drive. These people will inspire you to keep going when things get tough and give you advice when you need it.
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.