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Yifan Zhang, Loftium — Founder Q&A

I never even thought that I would one day go into business, let alone do a startup. It seemed too risky.

When you receive an invitation to attend Harvard Business School or join the Boston Consulting Group, two of the world’s elite business institutions, the answer is usually a no-brainer. Yes, of course!

Yifan Zhang is one of the few who said no to both.

That’s because, Zhang, still a Harvard undergraduate at the time, was busy putting the finishing touches on her second startup. Unlike her first startup — a non-profit that collected donated clothing and then donated the proceeds to charity partners — this one was designed to pay the bills.

She had been bitten hard by the entrepreneurial bug and didn’t need more schooling or a stint as a business consultant to know what to do. The startup, which Zhang thought up in her behavioral economics class, featured an iPhone and Android app that would award cash rewards to members for hitting healthy goals — paid by members who don’t.

But in 2016, Zhang, ready for a new challenge — and a new city — moved to Seattle where she had an idea for another startup, Loftium. We caught up with the very sleep-deprived founder about her new venture as well as her remarkable backstory which began years ago in Nanjing, China, when she was seven years old.

Q: When your parents told you the family was leaving China for the US, what did you think?
I was really excited. I had never left the country before. The main thing I remember is that I always loved to eat bread — which was really strange in China — and my relatives were all like, “Oh, you’ll be a perfect fit because bread is all they eat in the US.” They had this idea that all Americans do is eat bread all the time.

Q: Why did your folks decide to move?
My dad wanted to come to the US for graduate school. Both he and my mom are landscape architects.

Q: And you landed in Indiana? That’s quite a change. How did that come about?
He had to decide between Muncie, Indiana, where Ball State was located, or Philadelphia. He really didn’t know the difference and so he chose Muncie. So we moved from Nanjing, which was a super-urban environment, to a small college town in Indiana. It was very different.

Q: For a little kid arriving from the other side of the world, what was that like?
I didn’t speak any English when I came here. My elementary school did not have an ESL teacher because they didn’t have any ESL students. Many of the people there had never met a foreigner before. I ended up in my first-grade classroom not understanding anything. My teacher just put me in front of the computer to play games. I did not know what was going on and had to learn from observation what was appropriate behavior and why people did what they did. By the time I started second grade, the school had found an ESL teacher and I was able to do one-on-one English classes.

Q: That’s a lot of culture shock to absorb — both for you and your family. How did you deal with it?
The community was very welcoming to us. Various people from the churches would stop by and show my mom how to do things, like go shopping. It was not something my family had expected. But I definitely remember the feeling of being an outsider. We did not know any other Chinese families, so we had to assimilate because there was no alternative. My family wasn’t able to get green cards for many years, and we couldn’t return to China to visit my family until I turned thirteen. So we were just alone in the US.

Q: How do you think that experience shaped you?
I think a lot of that drove me to think about my responsibility to create a better life for my parents. In China, they had both been white-collar workers and respected. I saw how hard they worked after coming here. My dad was studying in graduate school and my mom actually took a job as a waitress at a Chinese restaurant. We definitely were not well off. When I saw the change, I felt a lot of responsibility for that and felt the need to do well to provide a better life for them later down the line.

Q: You had an entrepreneurial bug in college. Talk about how that came about.
Actually, I think I was a late bloomer. When I was still in high school, I never even thought that I would one day go into business, let alone do a startup. It seemed too risky. But I found myself starting various things, even though they weren’t businesses. I started a tutoring club in high school and then started various groups when I was at Harvard. In my sophomore year there, some friends put together an entrepreneur’s club and that also led to an internship with Flybridge Capital in Boston. By the time I became a senior, I was pretty excited to start my own company, and that ended up being Styleta.

Q: And then came GymPact, where you spent about seven years. How did you get your latest idea to start Loftium?
When I moved to Seattle last summer, I bought my first home. I had left San Francisco in part because of the housing prices. I rented out an extra bedroom on Airbnb and saw how much money someone could bring in. Basically, I was able to cover the mortgage on my three-bedroom townhouse. And I realized that you could help people get into homes and then offer Airbnb in a spare bedroom over a three-year period and actually make back that down payment with a profit.

Q: When you compare the business models in Seattle with San Francisco, do you find any major differences?
San Francisco is just very unique. People move fast and they’re always after the next hot opportunity. But I think they also sometimes tend to give up more quickly on an idea rather than think things through. That can be good because bad ideas will die quickly. But if you’re working in a harder space or one which just takes a little bit longer to figure out, the ideas just may need more time or a few tweaks to develop. You don’t have that same speed in Seattle, so if you are trying to build something that takes a little bit more time, people are more patient. That includes investors, employees, and customers. So you have more room to grow something.

Q: Have you discovered anything about yourself as an entrepreneur that came as a surprise?
My formative years as an entrepreneur happened in the Bay Area and I didn’t realize how much that mentality became part of me until I left and came to Seattle. A lot of my thinking is around creating things that scale, being able to iterate, and not getting discouraged by the way things are now by focusing on how things could be. All that is part of the normal mindset that a lot of people have in San Francisco.

Q: What’s the craziest thing about you that your work colleagues don’t know?
I’m a pretty open person and they know a lot of my quirks. But they definitely don’t know that I was my high school prom queen.

Q: Is there a favorite quote you live by?
It depends on my mood, but one I that like is, “Every day you can decide this is not how the story ends.” It’s very empowering and I guess part of the entrepreneurial journey.

Q; Is there one individual who you most admire?
It has to be my mom. She’s so strong and works so hard.

Q: What’s your favorite book?
“Everything I Never Told You,” by Celeste Ng.

Q: Are you a movie buff?
I haven’t been able to watch a lot of movies. We just launched our company and I’ve been working like crazy.

Q: Getting enough sleep these days?
Uh-uh, nope. But I’ve been waiting for this moment for a long time.

Originally published on December 19, 2017.

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