Starting a company is uniquely overwhelming and completely unlike anything else I have ever experienced. You have an idea that you are convinced is going to change the world, but where do you even begin?
Two years ago, as first-time entrepreneurs, there was a lot Alex and I didn’t know (and many things we still don’t). So we made a list of all of our questions and identified “experts” (ahem, friends and family) in our network who had experience to help us navigate these known unknowns. Our questions covered everything from how to build a unique and authentic brand to how to find and recruit an exceptional early team.
I was lucky to be able to call on two entrepreneurs I’ve known my entire life: my dad and his dad (my grandpa). My grandpa emigrated to the U.S. from Cuba in 1961 when his textile company was expropriated by Castro’s government. When it became clear that what he had worked so hard to build would no longer be his — and that there would be little opportunity there for his four children — he knew he needed to leave and start over in the U.S. He fled with his family, leaving all of his possessions, and settled first in Miami, eventually securing a job on the graveyard shift at a textile factory in North Carolina.
After a year on the job learning everything he could, he quit. He was confident he could build a better business than his boss, so he went out on his own. Having seen that there was growing interest in double knit fabrics, he invested in specific manufacturing equipment, convincing a local bank to extend him credit to buy machinery. He started flying up to New York once a week, lugging a large suitcase of his samples and going from one design house to the next, developing a network of accounts. He was determined to make his new business work, in order to provide a better life for his family, who were living in a small apartment with his four children sharing a single bedroom.
My dad joined his father’s company in 1978, after a brief stint in law, with no manufacturing experience. Soon after joining, he realized that the company was failing to capture revenue in two ways: first, by not optimizing their supply chain in a way that could both improve quality and reduce cost; and second, by working with an outsourced sales team, which was common in those days. He and my grandpa developed a way to produce stretch fabrics 20 percent cheaper and faster by sourcing coarser yarn that delivered the same look and feel as more expensive raw material. The result was an improved turnaround time which made the company the most reliable supplier for design houses. He then created a new salesforce in-house, ensuring the company owned its relationships with its consumer-facing partners. The result of these two initiatives? The company boomed, growing to 700 people, 3 manufacturing plants and finally going public in the early 90s.
My dad and grandpa understood that in order to succeed, you had to be persistent, creative, humble, but most importantly, hungry. Really, really hungry. It’s rare to see either of them pat themselves on the back. They’re always thinking about their next project or how to improve their current project, rather than focusing on what they’ve already accomplished.
My dad and grandpa understood that in order to succeed, you had to be persistent, creative, humble, but most importantly, hungry.
While I’ve learned so much from their experiences and internalized many values that I now call my own, there are a few life-long lessons to share.
First, don’t accept as fact what other people say about your idea. It’s easy to criticize someone else’s idea, and much harder to stand firmly behind one. Thoroughly do the market research and customer discovery yourself so you can develop the courage of your convictions. Early on in the ideation phase of LOLA, I was pitching a very well-known startup CEO, and he expressed skepticism that LOLA’s business model could succeed and called me a “wantrepreneur.” This lit a fire under me. I replied: “I can’t wait until your three daughters get their periods so I can sell them all their tampons and prove you wrong.” (He laughed, and said he liked my attitude.)
Second, lead with your principles in mind and surround yourself with people with steadfast moral compasses. My family jokes that my dad’s motto is, “That’s not right!” for literally everything: someone cutting in line or not re-filling the water pitcher. But sticking to your guns in business garners respect, even if it’s at the expense of profit. We could have launched a tampon delivery service with cheaper, synthetic products, and followed the status quo by not disclosing our ingredients. But, it wasn’t right! We weren’t comfortable selling something that wasn’t the best product made of natural fibers.
Third, it’s never too late to start over (the old adage is real: there’s truly no time like the present). Reinventing yourself is daunting, but it’s 100 percent possible. My grandpa had no choice but to start again, because he didn’t want to give up his dream of owning a business. At 34, with four young kids, he was forced to reinvent himself, and found his way towards achieving the American dream. I come from a non-profit background, but saw an opportunity in the wellness space and couldn’t NOT go for it. Even though it meant starting from square one.
My dad and grandpa are both living, breathing embodiments of what hard work, integrity, flexibility, and grit can earn you. I grew up listening to their stories about learning to live and grow in a new country, and what it was like as a first-generation entrepreneur. Their highly set expectations for themselves and their businesses exemplify what it takes to succeed, and I hope to follow in their footsteps. They provide constant encouragement, perspective, and optimism to me in my own journey.