While living in Hong Kong, she spotted a gap in the market for women’s business books in Asia. In one of the most entrepreneurial cities in the world, how could there not be a single book describing how women have successfully started businesses? That was the inspiration for writing her book. In this interview, she shares her observations about entrepreneurship in Hong Kong and about the power women who run these businesses.
Be sure to check out the book excerpt after the interview. Maseena shares the story of one of the twelve women entrepreneurs profiled in her book.
TSE: What inspired you to write Ladies Who Launch in Hong Kong?
Maseena Ziegler (MZ): I was searching for my own business idea and hoping to get some inspiration from women entrepreneurs who turned their good ideas into great businesses in Asia. And during that journey, I discovered that there wasn’t a single book like it in Hong Kong – which to me was shocking. So I decided to write one myself. Funny thing, writing that book turned out to be the entrepreneurial venture I’d been searching for.
MZ: Melissa’s story was awe-inspiring. She grew up in poverty in Australia and went on to create one of the most innovative bio-tech companies in the world, Filligent. How did she do it? In her own words, with grit, grace and gumption.
Adrienne’s story arc is a bit different in that she grew up with a mum who was already an extremely successful entrepreneur, highly respected in the fashion world. Yet, Adrienne sought to carve out her own niche in the world. Her internet start-up Shouke, was recently acquired by Net-a-Porter – a testament to her success in Asia.
TSE: What is it about Hong Kong that makes it so conducive to entrepreneurship?
MZ: Hong Kong is a city where female entrepreneurs really can have it all – well, most of the time. The opportunities for a work-life balance are unparalleled. You have a thriving financial centre, affordable and accessible home-help and a community which is highly supportive of start-up entrepreneurs. The city is structured in a way that gives the ultimate platform to anyone who wants to start a business – whether something small or a potential multi-million dollar enterprise.
The women entrepreneurs I interviewed all mention how fortunate they were to have domestic help. While they remain hands-on with parenting or running their households, this additional support on the home front really does give them the edge. Their counterparts in other parts of the world may have great ideas or a yearning to have a business of their own, but all too often these aspirations get put on the backburner because they simply don’t have the time or energy to do it – they’ve got to go to the supermarket; they’ve got to do the ironing and cleaning. As one entrepreneur in the book puts it: ‘(In Hong Kong) You know dinner will be on the table when you get home. Or that your children will be picked up from school.’ It’s a luxury, but it helps.
TSE: What are some similarities and differences that you see between women entrepreneurs in the U.S. and Hong Kong?
MZ: I haven’t studied women entrepreneurs very closely in the U.S. but I have been meeting many informally. Women from both countries are equally driven and motivated.
I suppose the difference is in the execution. I find that aspiring entrepreneurs in the West guess and second guess themselves and want to be 100 percent prepared or plan to the nth degree before moving forward with their business idea, whereas women in Hong Kong tend to adopt the ‘flying by the seats of my pants’ / ‘I’ll just have a go and see what happens’ entrepreneurial approach.
This may well be a generalization though and it really all depends at what level of the game they’re entering. With businesses requiring a higher level of capitalization, you can’t afford not to be risk averse.
Book Excerpt: Abridged excerpt from the first chapter of Ladies Who Launch in Hong Kong entitled ‘The Banker-Turned-Designer,’ profiling entrepreneur Sonya Madden.
‘It was an insane belief,’ recalls designer Sonya Madden as she cast her mind back to the moment she created her product. ‘I just knew at the deepest, molecular level that this was going to work. And I think that’s what gave me the courage to walk in cold into buyers’ offices at Saks and Bergdorf on Fifth Avenue, New York and say, “I just flew in from Hong Kong and I have a product. You have to see this!”’
It was a great concept and one that had never been done before: Sonya simply added sleeves, like those of a cardigan sweater, to the classic pashmina and called it the ‘cardi-wrap’.
The New York Post called it ‘a cross between a poncho and a cardigan – a stylish solution to excessive air-conditioning’. The website Daily Candy hailed it as ‘the ultimate multipurpose garment’. Even Vogue in the UK proclaimed that ‘no one [at Vogue] gets on a plane without their Sonya Madden Cardi-Wrap’. Within a year of its launch, A-List Hollywood stars were requesting Sonya’s cardi-wraps or were photographed wearing it.
As ingenious as Sonya’s concept was, the cardi-wrap might never have made it into a single store, if Sonya hadn’t used her ingenuity to finagle her way through the locked buyers’ office doors of the world’s most prestigious retailers (where the names of the buyers are closely held secrets). Her doggedness in getting her design seen by these elusive decision-makers holds lessons in entrepreneurship for every serious businessperson.
An intrepid globetrotter
Maybe it helped that Sonya hadn’t started her professional life as a designer. ‘My father was in finance; my mother had gone into nursing. In my family, you went into medicine, finance or management consulting. So I never considered doing something creative [as a profession] as I had no exposure to the design world.’
Despite a preference for more traditional professions, Sonya says that creativity infused her family life. Growing up in Toronto, Canada, ‘I designed evening dresses on the weekend when I was a teenager, and went to flea markets to buy hides to make my own handbags. I didn’t think that it was unusual because everybody else in my family was really creative.’
By the time Sonya made her way to Hong Kong in 1993, her three sisters were already scattered across the globe, following a family tendency towards wanderlust. Her father had lived for years in Latin America before marriage, and her mother had lived for a while in Europe.
‘My twin sister Jillian was in Tokyo, and my other two sisters had just moved from London to Sydney and Copenhagen to Paris, and I was the only one at home. And my parents were like, “When and where are you going?” So I went to visit Jillian in Tokyo, and came down to Hong Kong to see some friends… and it was love at first sight.’
She’d been working as an analyst for a bank in Toronto, and found a job at Credit Suisse First Boston in Hong Kong, working in the Debt Capital Markets Group. ‘It was the most extraordinary time to be here,’ she says, remembering the pre-handover days when Hong Kong was still a British colony. ‘Now we look back and it’s kind of laughable that people didn’t know that Asia was on the brink of exploding as they were still so focused on the US and Europe.’
Sonya rose rapidly through the ranks as an investment banker, moving from Credit Suisse First Boston on to Deutsche Bank. Working in Hong Kong as part of a satellite team gave Sonya greater exposure to the market and first-hand involvement in some of the largest transactions undertaken in Asia. But after five years in banking, Sonya became restless. She started to dream of a career in a more creative field – something involving design. ‘I had sketched and drawn all my life but when you do something all your life, you don’t necessarily think you can turn your skill or talent into a career.’
In 1999, Sonya, having just turned 30, decided to ‘try out this fashion thing’. ‘I took some time off and went to New York for six months. I went to the Fashion Institute of Technology and Parsons School of Design, and did a semester at both of them. I knew I wanted to get into something fashion-related but I had no experience in the industry.’
She got an education in design, but not in the other skill sets that she knew were going to be at least as important in running a company. ‘They’re good at teaching you basic design skills, like draping and pattern making, but they don’t teach you anything about the business. I decided that, for my own business, I was going to come up with the concept, designs and business vision, but I was going to outsource all the other technical aspects.’
From her years in banking, Sonya had training that would prove invaluable in her fashion business: the ‘comfort of knowing how to run a spreadsheet and a monthly cash-flow statement’.
Leaving design school early, she jumped feet first into her new venture. ‘I thought, the only way I’m going to do this is just by doing it – baptism by fire.’
A call to arms
Investing about $15,000 (USD) of her own money, she registered Sonya Madden Ltd in Hong Kong and began with a slight twist on the popular pashmina, which had become a wardrobe must-have, but which hadn’t evolved yet beyond its original form. ‘There was only the basic pashmina, and nobody owned this market or was a product leader,’ Sonya observed. ‘So I decided to create the next generation of wraps, the “pashmina 2.0.”’
Her first re-invention of the wardrobe necessity was an evening wrap, in gorgeous brocades, which she sold through a single Hong Kong department store, Seibu. ‘I just wanted to do one local store. I had no experience, I had to cut my teeth and learn the ropes before I went to the US.’
She was learning on the job and knew she wanted to take the pashmina a step further, but didn’t yet know how. ‘When you put the pashmina on, it’s perfect, but the second you try to do something like put a handbag over your shoulder or reach for something, it starts to fall apart… I tried to find a way to make it stay on. I cut armholes into one piece, so it was like a sleeveless wrap that you put your arms through. And then the material falls over your arms so the armholes aren’t visible.’
Evening wraps were a small market, however, and she needed to broaden her base. So she started to experiment with knitted fabrics and cashmere for all-day wraps. And it was this new fabric that sparked her inspiration. ‘Since we’re using cashmere, why don’t we just add sleeves?’ she thought. And that’s how the cardi-wrap finally evolved. ‘As soon as I came up with the sleeve concept, I just knew this product was going to work.’
But money was tight, so Sonya took a short-term job in the banking industry to keep the business afloat. ‘Everything I earned went straight into the business,’ she says. Sonya worked around the clock with days spent at her bank job and evenings at the studio, perfecting her new creation.
Flying by the seat of her pants
Her hard work paid off: in 2002, she had her prototype. Armed with samples of the cardi-wrap and an ‘absolute belief’ in her product, Sonya set her sights on the lucrative US market and the ‘big four’ department stores: Bendel, Bergdorf, Saks, and Neiman Marcus.
Sonya booked a flight to New York even though she had no buyers lined up for meetings. Her business, she admits, was in a ‘desperate state’ and she was determined to use the trip to turn around her fortunes.
Had Sonya completed her formal training at a fashion school or worked in the industry longer, she would have realized that, as a fairly new and unknown designer, her plan to win over buyers in New York would be akin to moving mountains. Had Sonya been more experienced in the inner workings of the fashion industry, she would have known that there were industry guidelines that required the use of ‘look books’, buying seasons and show rooms, and that her chances of getting through the door without operating within such parameters were slim.
Had Sonya known all of that, she may never have boarded the plane: this complete lack of insider knowledge turned out to be her biggest break.
New York, New York
‘I just knew it was a good product. I was so convinced, I thought, if I could just stand in front of the buyers, they would say yes. All I needed to do was get in front of them. And, at this point, I was two years into the business and my resources were getting pretty low. I didn’t have a lot of revenue coming in. So, you know, necessity is the mother of all invention… if you have to, you do.’
She tried to find out who the buyers were before she left Hong Kong for the States, but her efforts led nowhere.
I was this complete no-name from Hong Kong arriving in New York – the fashion capital of the world. Monday went by and I didn’t even know the buyers’ names yet. Tuesday and Wednesday went by, and still no names. And I would call up the stores and they would say, ‘Oh we don’t give out the names of buyers. If you have something, then please bring a look-book and they will get in touch with you when they have time.’ It’s comical now that I think about it – how little I knew.
Those on the inside of fashion circles acknowledge this elusiveness as a code for ‘I’m trying to get you off my line.’ At this point, a less enterprising person might have given up. Not Sonya. ‘I thought, I’ll be damned if I’m getting on that plane back to Hong Kong without a single meeting!’
But time was running out, and determination, by itself, wasn’t going to sell the cardi-wrap, or pay the rent back in Hong Kong. She had only a few days left before her flight back to Hong Kong. She needed to come up with ideas – and fast.
That Thursday, she hatched a plan. Back to Bergdorf she went, ready to give an Oscar-worthy performance.
I walked into the personal shopping department wearing my nicest outfit. I said, ‘Hi! I was here yesterday and I was so lucky because the accessories buyer also happened to be here and she gave me such good advice on the most amazing product. I wanted to send her a thank you note, but I didn’t get her card. Can you give it to me?’ A moment passed and then they replied, ‘Yeah, sure, absolutely! Her name is [to preserve the anonymity prized by buyers of the major retailers, let’s just call her Mary Smith]. Here you go!’ And they handed me her card.
Her audacious plan appeared to be working.
She went across the street to the address on the card. ‘Hi I’m looking for Mary Smith,’ she said, hoping that people would assume she had an appointment. Nobody blinked, but it turned out that Mary Smith’s address on the card wasn’t Mary Smith’s physical address. She was told to go back to the store, where the buyer could be found on the third floor, past a designer collection. ‘So I go to the third floor, and find the door, but the door is padlocked!’
Sonya decided to stand and wait. Ten minutes later, an employee walked through the door and asked if Sonya was looking for someone. She said, yes, she was there to see Mary Smith, omitting the small detail that Mary Smith wasn’t expecting to see her. The employee pointed Sonya to Mary Smith’s office, ‘just down the hall’.
‘So I walked in there and said, “Hi, Mary, I know you’re not expecting me. I just flew in from Hong Kong… I have a product. I think you’ll love it. It’ll take just five minutes. Can I show it to you?” And I did. And she immediately loved it. Unfortunately, I didn’t know they have buying budgets – she tried to push it through, but they’d already maxed out their buying budget and couldn’t.’
Following the impromptu yet positive meeting with Mary Smith, Sonya’s confidence knew no bounds. She had been right about the cardi-wrap. On to Saks. ‘What I finally realized is that the best way to a buyer is through a buyer’s assistant.’ She made her way to Saks Fifth Avenue but she was unable to enter the offices without an appointment. She worked her way into the mailroom and looked up the buyer’s assistant’s phone number.
So I’m in the mailroom on the phone with the buyer’s assistant: ‘I have something that I think your buyer will love. I’ve just flown in from Hong Kong and I’m two floors down. Will you come down and meet me?’ She didn’t really want to, and only agreed to come downstairs because she wanted to get rid of me… But she loved the product, and said, ‘Give me a second,’ ran upstairs, and called back saying, ‘Okay, the buyer will see you.’ So I went up to the office, and they were one of our best clients for five years.
Sonya was in. ‘They placed an order for a September/October delivery.’ At first, it was just 120 pieces distributed to about eight Saks stores. ‘I knew they would sell it immediately, and they did. A few weeks later, they said, ‘Okay, we’re comfortable, that worked really well. We’re going to order another 120.’
Have a healthy disregard for the impossible
Sonya wanted to get her product seen by the buyers of the world’s most prestigious department stores. As a first time designer with no contacts, this is almost impossible. But Sonya didn’t follow the conventional rules; she was determined to pursue the buyers until they agreed to meet her. Her approach may not work for everyone but she had the entrepreneurial mindset – and that often means having a healthy disregard for the impossible.
Advice for entrepreneurs
Sonya came into the business with talent, intelligence and courage, and has learned a lot along the way, which she is happy to share with other women who have big dreams of entrepreneurial success. Sonya believes that would-be entrepreneurs have a special mindset that sets them apart from their peers, from those who are happiest with a guaranteed salary and security. Entrepreneurs have to be relentless and determined to succeed. I’m sure all the other talented women entrepreneurs you speak to will tell you the same thing: they never gave up. Despite all the hurdles, they kept going. And what keeps them going is passion – that absolute belief that they have something that’s great. It’s not arrogance, it’s not attitude, it’s belief. It’s something to do with ‘internal monitoring’ and ‘external monitoring’. If you’re an external monitor, you believe you have an ability to affect the environment around you, as opposed to believing that the environment affects you. And I think most entrepreneurs believe they can affect the environment around them. Otherwise they wouldn’t do this, would they?
For Sonya, her goal was never to fly first class or take exotic five-star holidays. The nature of her work, she says, is the reward. ‘I think it was Confucius who said, “Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life.” I consider myself the luckiest person because I love what I do. And the thing that I love to do, also happens to make money.’