An Interview with Lu Li, founder of Blooming Founders
Serial entrepreneur Lu Li is the founder of Blooming Founders, a business social network and support community based in London for early stage female entrepreneurs. Through events and forums, it aims to connect female founders with tech talent, corporates, interns, industry experts and investment to give them a leg up on their startup journey’s.
Q. It’s great to meet you. Tell me how your ‘Escape’ from the corporate world came about.
I was working for Proctor & Gamble in Switzerland in Product Marketing, and was introduced to the Strengths Finder test. The concept was a real eye opener for me and I took the test twice over a couple of years before training as a Strengths Finder coach so that I could take teams through the process myself. The more I got into it the more I realised the next promotion I was destined for didn’t fit with my strengths. The roles on offer in the organisation didn’t appeal to me and I started asking myself why would I take on a role that wasn’t going to play to my strengths? So I decided to leave.
Q. What were you hoping to do when you left?
I wasn’t full sure but I knew I wanted to work for myself, running my own business. So I started an Image Consultancy in Zurich aimed at Executive women and focused on the importance of appearance, behaviour and communication in projecting the right message about themselves in the corporate environment. As a Business School Graduate and former Management Consultant you think you know a thing or two about setting up a business but you really don’t, and I quickly realised that my business model wasn’t sustainable. The market in Switzerland just wasn’t big enough. So I moved to London in search of a bigger market opportunity and this time started a Consulting Business in Tourism.
I worked for Fortnum & Mason’s and Selfridges helping them understand Chinese tourist behaviour in order to develop their International shopper acquisition strategies. But again, I couldn’t make it sustainable, I couldn’t find good people who understood enough about the Chinese culture, could speak to Executive level directors and were experienced in the Retail space to work for me so I couldn’t scale the business. I quickly found out that the Tourism industry was cut throat too with retailers just viewing people as walking wallets and that wasn’t an area I wanted to stay in.
Q. So where did Blooming Founders come in?
After these two experiences, I was in need of support and motivation for my next venture and it started me thinking about what really gave me good energy. Women’s empowerment and bringing women together to support and strengthen each other was what really got me fired up and by the end of 2014 I realised there wasn’t really a network for this in London. So I started hosting a few Meetups and casual drinks to build a community of women to share experiences or just be there to support each other and at the start of 2015 set up Blooming Founders as an events company.
But at the end of 2015 there was a real transformation in the events industry as co-working spaces started popping up all over the place and setting up events became very easy to do. The barrier to entry was so low that the number of events taking place grew quickly and of course people started expecting them to be free. Again this wasn’t going to be sustainable.
Q. Where has that lead you now?
With the brand of Blooming Founders established, I decided early this year to move back into products and focus on putting together a book. “Dear Female Founder” is a collection of letters from 66 female founders and women investors addressed to aspiring female founders and was really inspired by the lack of role models out there. You can’t be what you can’t see and this was something I’d really felt as I’d been starting out on my own. In a way getting back to what I know — building a product, marketing it, selling and being able to move on — has given me a bit of a break from the startup cycle. I think entrepreneurs need that otherwise you just wear yourself out. I’ve also learned a lot through my own experiences and recognised there’s a gap in educating startup founders so I’m working on a programme that really bridges the gap between startup inspiration programmes and being part of a full blown incubator.
Q. What’s your advice for someone at the beginning of their startup journey?
I see a lot of people struggling with idea validation and shying away from really defining the problem they’re fixing. If you have an idea, ask for money up front and if people will pay then you know you’ve got a solution that’s worth building. I don’t see enough startups doing that and in particular women doing that. Payment validates in idea above all else.
I also don’t see people working on customer development, they just start building before defining what features their users want or how they want something to work. You have to get out there and talk to your customers before spending money on a building anything.
Fiona Mellors interviewed Lu Li at the Huckletree Shoreditch. Dear Female Founders is published in September 2016, sign up to the Blooming Founders mailing list or follow @BloomingFoundrs for updates.