Finding the right job can be difficult when you’re younger. Family expectations, choosing the right degree, and that first step into adulthood are all added pressures.
It’s journey Showpo founder Jane Lu knows all too well.
“[At school] I got a 99+ UAI [a high percentile rank used for college admissions], I studied commerce at UNSW, I got a job even before I graduated. I was definitely ticking the right boxes for being a good Chinese daughter,” laughs Lu as she tells her startup story at SydStart Thurday. “I mean, I even played eighth grade piano.”
But after landing the dream cadetship with Big Four firm KPMG and then a job at Ernst and Young, she knew it just was never going to work out.
“I just got so sick of being stuck in that boring grey cubicle,” she says.
“There was this moment where I looked at my phone and I thought: Three hours have just passed, I’m literally three hours more dead than I was and all I’ve done is remove the circular referencing from this spreadsheet … how is this my life?
“So I quit.”
While she knew it was the right thing to do, many doubted her decision.
“I felt great about this (quitting) but everyone thought I was an idiot because it was in middle of the GFC [global financial crisis] and everyone was getting made redundant. And there I go quitting my job to run pop-up stores,” she says.
After a false start with her first business called Fatboye Group which Lu looks back on and laughs at the name, she says starting from scratch was hard.
“I literally hit rock bottom. I didn’t have a job … and I had way too much pride to ask for my job back.”
Her Chinese heritage meant the pressure to do the right thing was immense.
“I had done everything that I was meant to do,” she says. “I was on (her parent’s) ideal trajectory for a good career. So, I just couldn’t bring myself to tell them that I quit my job.
“So, there was only one logical thing to do. I didn’t tell them.”
On top of the pressure came the deception required to maintain face.
“The unfortunate thing was that I was still living at home at the time, which meant that for six months I had to get up early, put on a suit and pretend to go to work. And let me tell you the only thing worse than being unemployed is having to get up early when you’re unemployed.
“So, I’d get up early, put on my suit, have breakfast with my family. Catch the bus into the city, sometimes with my mum. And just wander around the CBD [central business district] trying to figure s— out.”
A turn of fate
It turned out to be the best thing she could have done.
In September 2010, Lu met a like-minded girl who wanted to start an online store too.
“We instantly hit it off. One night over too many glasses of red wine we came up with the name Show-Pony,” she said. They subsequently rebranded as Showpo.
But having lost money from the first business, plus a HECS (government student loan) bill , as well as having to repay KPMG $US18,000 for breaking her cadetship, Lu says her debt was sky-high.
“It was a total of $US60,000 at the age of 24. Not a great place to be when you’re starting a business, or not a great place to be any way,” she says.
“That being said, Showpo turned over $US10 million last year, we’ve been bootstrapped the entire way and we’ve always been profitable.”
She may have experienced more bumps in the road than the average startup founder, but the overall result has been a success.
“There is no prescribed way to achieving success,” she said. “Go against the grain and follow your gut. I’m a good example of ‘if I can do this anyone can.'”
And now that she’s made it? Well, she says all wants is to find a way to be a CEO that doesn’t have to do anything.
“I want to do as a little as possible,” she laughs. “My [social media] handle is @thelazyceo. I want to delegate out as much as work as possible.
“Remember: Work smarter, not harder. I’ll let you know how it goes.”