Hello SOTGC community,
Many of you in the SOTGC community are either already entrepreneurs or are aspiring entrepreneurs. So, for this column, I thought it would be helpful to have a woman who has started her own successful and growing company provide you with insights into how she did it.
So let me introduce you to Victoria Tsai. She is a smart, dynamic and humble 30-something with an MBA from Harvard. She is also a working mom, and and has worked for top brands and startups alike. Her company, Tatcha, was her brainchild and she is very hands on, growing her company into what I predict will be a global sensation.
Oh, and spoiler alert, there’s a discount code especially for the SOTGC community at the end!
Now I’ll let Victoria tell her story ….
Q: Victoria, tell me about Tatcha, what it is and how you came up with the concept.
A: Tatcha was created as a way to share beautiful treasures that I’ve found on my journeys to the East. Whether they are skin care products based on the ancient rituals followed by geisha, or introducing people and artists to my customers, or sometimes even sharing things I have learned about myself, I feel that my job is to share treasures. I came up with the concept of Tatcha as I was looking for a meaningful career, and, as a woman, more simplicity and authenticity in my life … so I started traveling and an idea was born.
When I started my journey to Japan, my skin was in terrible shape from my testing too many name-brand skin-care products on my own skin while I was working for a big brand in graduate school. At that time, I could hardly use anything on my overly sensitive skin, but I loved the Japanese blotting papers that I could find at Narita airport. When I asked a friend who lives in Tokyo where, outside of the airport, I could find them, her response was, “Oh, the beating papers.” And I said, “No, the blotting papers.” She then explained that the papers I loved were actually the by-product of the gold leaf process … the beating papers (gold is placed between the papers and pounded to make gold leaf). I later learned that these papers were an important part the 300-year old beauty regime followed by the original geisha, who were known for their flawless complexions and beauty.
It was very interesting and intriguing to think that an original beauty product could still be out there. After some searching and many trips to Japan, I uncovered a 200-year old, three-volume text in Kyoto that documented the full beauty regime of geisha, a very rare find as these secrets were typically shared orally and not written. Working with historians, scientists, and geisha themselves, I was able to create an entire line of products that only use pure ingredients (including camellia flower, green tea, pearl, rice, red algae, silk, peony, and indigo) to replicate this ancient tradition. And during the process of creating Tatcha, I found beauty and peace in a part of the world that I hadn’t spent much time in but that now truly feels like home.
Q: You and I met when we both worked at Starbucks and launched bottled Frappuccino® in China. That was some experience! Can you tell us how you made the transition from a big company to your own startup? What were some of the challenges you faced?
A: After leaving Starbucks, I spent time at a venture-capital backed startup in Silicon Valley. I was surrounded by 19- and 20-year olds who were starting their own companies left and right, and it got me thinking. Starting my own company has always been a dream of mine, but I thought I needed more experience to do it. Here, these young people were putting themselves out there, trying to fulfill their dreams, and that takes a lot of courage, which was very encouraging to me. And that was just the push I needed to take the leap myself. I decided to stop stalling and wasting time and to do it myself.
The biggest challenge that I’ve faced was money. When Tatcha was launched, it was mush easier to get money for a dotcom idea but not as easy for a brand or consumer product to get started. But I was determined to come up with a way to make it work. I took four jobs, sold my engagement ring, my car, and most of my furniture to get the business off the ground. I haven’t looked back since.
Q: During the process of honing your business idea, what did you learn, and what tips do you have for readers who want to start their own company?
A: I actually get approached a lot by people wanting to know how and if they should start their own company. The absolute number one piece of advice I have is that being an entrepreneur is a lifestyle choice. It doesn’t matter if you have the next world-changing idea or whether you have enough connections, you have to want to be an entrepreneur. That means you have to be comfortable taking risks without a safety net and without a fancy title at a big company to define you. The work will take over your life so you need to be completely committed.
A lot of women who have left the workforce after having children have asked me if I thought starting their own companies rather than going back to corporate life would be better. I say if you want flexibility to be with your kids on a regular schedule, this may not be the route for you. Being an entrepreneur is definitely not a part-time job.
Q: Now that Tatcha is four years old, you must have experienced pitfalls and low points. How were you able to learn from those experiences, and what are some things you would warn aspiring entrepreneurs to look out for?
A: Starting a company is like falling in love … the highs are high and the lows are low. It is similar to being on a roller coaster. I would also say don’t read your own press as you are not as bad as they say but you aren’t as great as they say, either.
When starting your own company, there is no shortage of people who are willing to help entrepreneurs, and they can sometimes be great investors, mentors, and advisors. What many entrepreneurs find is that in the beginning people will come out of the woodwork to help you with your company in exchange for a seat on your board or equity in your company. At the time when your company is worth zero, it seems like the deal of a lifetime. But I would caution aspiring entrepreneurs to be selective as to whom they let in to the inner circle and at what price. You definitely want to align yourself with smart people who share your vision and dreams for your company.
Q: Did you work with a venture-capital firm and/or private investors for funding? If so, what would you recommend to those looking to raise funds?
A: For Tatcha, we did not work with any venture capitalists or institutional investors. I primarily self-financed the business internally from the team I currently have and from a select few outside investors. The kind of fundraising you do should match the type of financing you need, depending on how you want to grow. For example, if you want to grow quickly and sell within three to seven years, then going with venture capital [VC] firms is a good way to go as they’ll want to see a return on their investment within that time period. If you want to build a company that will be around for a hundred years and maintain control of your company, working with a VC is probably not the way to go.
Q: Tatcha, as with any consumer-facing brand, values its relationships with its customers. Can you share with us some tips on customer engagement?
A: The top priority in our company is making sure our customers feel loved. I know this can sound like hyperbole but the whole company is built around this idea. It makes sense for Tatcha because we are a skin care company and skin care is such an intimate product … it passes through the skin and into the body.
Being authentic is key. Authenticity trumps slick marketing every day of the week. Even though you don’t have millions of dollars to spend on an advertising campaign, you can still deliver a strong message that can touch your customers’ hearts.
Q: Social media is so powerful in reaching people and telling your brand story. How does Tatcha use social media to share its story?
A: We are still trying to figure out how to effectively use social media, but, yes, it is a very powerful way to reach fans and customers. As I mentioned when we talked about customer engagement, authenticity is essential. Big brands can have huge design firms or advertising agencies put out beautiful campaigns that we could never afford. But with social media, you can always put out something that is real, human, and intimate, which is much harder for big brands to do, although some do it well.
At Tatcha, we give people direct access to the team so they can see into what we are doing everyday, which hopefully allows us to be the best brand for them that we can. It might not always be perfect … I might put up a post with typos or there might be bad lighting in a picture, but we are real, and it is meaningful to our customers because it is real.
Q: I know that Tatcha products are available from your Tatcha website as well as select stores in the U.S., Hong Kong, and the UK. What tips do you have for people who want to expand their business internationally, and is prior international experience necessary?
A: Having knowledge of a local market is never a bad idea if you want to sell there. You don’t specifically have to have that knowledge yourself; you can partner with someone, work with a local distributor, or even send someone from your team to live in the market. However you do it, you have to have someone trustworthy who can help you translate the brand to the local consumer. This is the key to success.
Do your homework, know how distribution in the market works, what are [the] nuisances of that market, and so on. Not even big brands can enter international markets with a cookie-cutter approach, and that applies to all of us as well.
Q: One thing that many woman face, and I know you and I have talked about this before, is balancing career with family. Do you have any recommendations or tips for strategies you employ to keep it all together?
A: I travel about 70% of the time, so, to keep my sanity, I came up with a new definition of what normal is. For me, I don’t exactly know what work-life balance means as it sounds like there is equal weight to both, and as an entrepreneur that just is not possible. I don’t think about whether it is a specific day of week or the weekend … it is just a day. I don’t think about whether it is office hours or not … I’m just awake or asleep.
When I travel, I try to bring my daughter and husband with me. To allow for productivity, I hire a babysitter so my husband and I can work without the baby running in circles in a hotel room bored silly. Travel really is the hardest part. It doesn’t bother me if I miss sleep or a meal, but it really bothers me to be away from my child … so I came up with a new normal. If I’m on a business trip, I might work in the morning and then spend time with my family in the afternoon and then work in the evening. That is how I redefine normal, and this solution works for me. (Note: Victoria’s husband, Eric, works for Tatcha as Vice President of Finance and Operations).
Q: Victoria, thank you so much for your time to share your insights with our readers. Before you go, do you have any last words of wisdom?
A: I’d like to add that I think women, especially mothers, make wonderful entrepreneurs and leaders. I think I am a far better entrepreneur and leader today than I could have been before I had my daughter. I think I now have much more compassion and patience; [I] know how to be heard and how to hear others.
Being a parent has taught me how to adapt my lifestyle, how to not freak out at little things, and how to be the adult. To the SOTGC community, I’d like you to know that if you want to be an entrepreneur or executive, women and mothers are uniquely skilled as long as you stay true to yourself.
If you are interested in learning more about Tatcha products, please check out the website at www.tatcha.com. Victoria has also been very generous with us in the SOTGC community … if you want to try her products, you can receive 15% off by using this code: STILLETO15 (good for any skincare product and valid until June, 15, 2014, one per customer).
So…are you ready to begin your entrepreneurial venture? If this post inspired you please Tweet, Pin, or share on Facebook and help spread the message.