Joelle Pang founded blog shop Dressabelle while she was working in a bank. She often worked 12 hours in the office, four hours on the blog shop, and slept for four hours before repeating it all again. It took her two and a half years before Dressabelle became profitable enough and she could quit her corporate job to work on it full-time. But that came with its own challenges.
“Dressabelle was my first startup and I became emotionally attached to it, my identity became attached to it,” Pang reflects. “I was so proud of myself when it was doing well, but on bad months I felt like a failure. I became overwhelmed and sank into depression. For a long time, I couldn’t get out of my house as I was physically, emotionally, and mentally burnt out.”
Thankfully, things ended positively for her. Dressabelle became successful and Pang eventually sold her shares. “It was the most challenging thing I went through but it was also the most centering event of my life. Your work should not dictate how you feel about yourself, the value of your life, and whether you are a success or a failure.”
These invaluable lessons are things you learn only after going through the fire of founding your own business. We spoke with Pang, who is now the regional business development director for FastJobs, Bryan Long, co-founder and CEO of Stacck, and Benjamin Koellmann, a co-founder of the HappyFresh Group, to discover things that only founders will know. The panel was moderated by Audrey Low, VP of Growth for ConnectOne.
The Problem is the Answer
Bryan Long’s mom told him to study hard, so he did. Long became a scholar, worked in the Ministry of Defense for six years and wondered if this was all life was about. At the age of 32, just as his second child was born, he quit his job.
Long did an MBA, went to law school, and then started Big Life Treats. “I did everything my MBA told me to do, I was on stealth mode and had a 40-page business plan. I launched it expecting a big crowd, but all I heard was crickets. I eventually closed the startup as it ran out of money.”
Long then co-founded Stacck, which automates communication between blue collar workers. Stacck is how he met Eduardo Saverin, one of the co-founders of Facebook.
“I remember his first question,” Long says. “It wasn’t about the product but rather, ‘Who is the customer and why is it a big problem?’ And I knew how to answer that as I did all the customer validation using Lean Startup techniques. We were ready with customer contracts and were able to raise money.”
Fit First, Scale Second
Benjamin Koellmann helped launch Lazada in Indonesia, seeing it scale from 50 orders a day to 10,000 a day. Even though it was an exciting time, Koellmann wanted to start a company he could call his own. He co-founded HappyFresh to work with retail chains and deliver groceries.
“Delivering the first order, seeing everything come to life, I remember that as a happy, proud moment,” Koellmann shares. “It took us five months from thinking we’re really going to do this to launching it.”
But there were struggles. A few months after launch, the team had promised investors they’d triple revenue over three months. “Scaling a business that hasn’t found the right product-market fit yet is unbelievably expensive. We hit the numbers, but they weren’t sustainable and it had lingering effects on our recovery. Had we been more moderate, things might have been different.”
Hiring is a two-way street
Joelle Pang didn’t trust anyone to take over her responsibilities at Dressabelle. “It was a mistake,” Pang says. “I ended up doing a lot of the execution and it took time away for strategic planning.”
Hiring is crucial to take a business to the next level, but an mis-hire can do as much damage as a right hire can do good. How did these founders get it right?
“When I hire, I look for self-driven people,” Koellmann says. “People who are independent, self-motivated, and flexible. In a startup, you do a lot of different things and sometimes you need to step up. You can be in marketing, for example, but will step in for ops because they need help. That flexibility is key.”
“Hire a bit different,” Long adds. “One way to test them is to hire the person as an independent consultant for a period of time.”
Pang concludes by saying that part of a hire’s performance also hinges on the founder. “The responsibility is on both the candidate and the founder. If a founder has mood swings, changes her vision every 3 months, or pivots continuously without a clear direction, you can imagine what it does to the morale of the company.”