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“I was just as unprofessional, not serious, poor, as anyone is when they start a business.” Jane Lu’s statement is stunning in its simplicity and its, well, truth. She is the co-founder and now sole owner — that’s right, no investor support — of Showpo, the online fashion retailer, worth $30 million. She made the 2017 Financial Review Young Rich List, but she doesn’t care, telling me, “Honestly, I did not want to be on that list.” What she does care about is proving to women that they really can create their dream life. All you have to do is get busy — and tell a couple of little white lies. This is how she built her business empire, and dream life, and how you can too.
1. Ignore Other People's Expectations
This was Jane’s path: From high school, straight into studying Commerce at university, which parlayed itself into Accounting and, eventually, a well-respected job at an accounting firm. It reads as a ‘traditional’ success story, particularly through the lens of Asian-Australian families, and might have ended up that way. . . If Jane hadn’t realised pretty quickly that she hated her job.
I felt like that guy in Suits — though he didn’t have the degree, and I had the degree, I still didn’t know what was going on!”
While she was obviously unhappy, Jane stayed in that job for years. It’s not an uncommon story, as the weight of social expectations are still a major factor in our decision making process. And a lot of that pressure can come from people we love and trust — something that Jane knows all too well. When she initially quit her secure job to work on her first start-up, a market stall business co-founded with a friend, she didn’t tell her parents for two years. When asked if she’d do things differently now if she had the chance, her answer was a resounding: “Not at all!” For good reason, too.
“The hardest thing is to believe in yourself and back yourself day to day when you’re not having any success. When you’re already questioning yourself and your life choices, to have nagging parents asking you every day: ‘Oh, are you successful yet? Has it happened?’ I wouldn’t be able to deal with that kind of pressure. [Your dream] could potentially buckle a lot sooner. I’m all for the little white lie!"
2. Start Seriously Small
But what’s the best first step to take? According to Jane, the answer is always a very small one. To give yourself the best chance at whatever success you have in mind, you’ll need to set the first bar very low and use each little win to fuel your excitement and passion for the next one.
“If I had in my head that I was going to end up in the office that I’m in, surrounded by the team that I’ve got. . . If I had that goal seven years ago, every day I would have looked at myself and thought: ‘I’m failing, I’m nowhere close to where I want to be.’ And I would have given up,” Jane says. “It’s about having small, incremental goals and trying to be better than you were yesterday.”
The key is to dream big, plan small and track your process. According to Jane, a big part of Showpo’s success has come from celebrating every win, no matter how small. In the early days it kept her motivated to keep pushing for growth, and now, it has the same effect on her team. “I’ve still got screenshots on my phone of when we hit 1000 Facebook followers, 10,000, 100,000 and one million. I’ve got screenshots of every milestone. I mean, we love to party! We love to celebrate all the achievements.”
3. Be Prepared to Juggle
This is probably a good time to mention that ‘making a change’ doesn’t necessarily mean quitting your day job tomorrow. There’s rent to pay, after all. So, prepare yourself for the hustle. Whatever small action you’ve taken — maybe you started an Instagram account for your travel blogging aspirations, or enrolled in an online design course — dedicate your after-hours life to the cause. Get up early, sacrifice your weekends, spend your lunch breaks reading and learning as much as you can. “You know, a lot of people think that when they start a business they’re going to quit their job, they’re going to go to a café and work on their laptop. . . It’s not like that, you need money!"
There’s a reason so many inspirational stories start the same way. Jane is frank about how difficult the side-hustle stage can be: “That was pretty tough. Having that first business definitely didn’t help me at my job. The fact that I would, like, use the meeting room to take calls for my business, then I’d get home at 7 p.m. after my day job and I would be working on the business, and we did stalls so I’d be working in the stalls on the weekend.”
4. But Know Your Opportunity Cost
Having said that, no-one can do ‘the juggle’ forever. Not only is it a serious drain on your energy, but if you really want to make the dream a reality you need to know your opportunity cost. According to Jane, this is the most important concept to understand.
“We had three [physical] stores for Showpo. Even though one of the stores was a bit of a cash cow for us, we decided to shut the store down — which is such a difficult decision, to close a profitable sales channel. But we needed ourselves as resources, our time as resources, to put into an online store,” Jane explains.
“So the opportunity cost in managing that bricks and mortar store is the sales we could have been making in online orders.”
“Within a month of closing down the store, our online store made up for it in sales." Enough said. Your time is your most valuable, scarce resource; use it wisely. If you’ve been nurturing your dream on the sidelines so well that the momentum is getting away from you — firstly, congratulations. Secondly, it’s time to take the real risk and let go of your ‘old’ life. Put your time and energy where the most potential is for you.
5. Failure Is a Gift — Learn From It
It’s not the first time we’ve heard this, but it is so important to remember in every single aspect of life: You will make mistakes, guaranteed. Don’t beat yourself up about it. Jane puts it a little less delicately: “You’ll probably [stuff] up when you first start. You definitely will. . . But you’re going to learn how to do that better next time around.”
And it’s true. But what’s important is not letting those mistakes, missed targets, or a single bad result derail the New You Train. These are opportunities in disguise — opportunities to learn, grow, and improve.
Even running a multi-million dollar business, Jane and the Showpo team don’t get it right every single day. It would be crazy to expect that they would. But by focusing on the learning opportunity, she’s been able to steer Showpo to 'don’t argue' levels of success. “Never invest more than what you’re willing to lose," she says. "It’s all about learning from the mistakes, but once you’ve learnt, you need to have money left over to reinvest.”
Jane's Top 3 Tips for Female Entrepreneurs
For the disruptors whose dream is to start their own business, we did you a solid and asked Jane for the three most important things to know. And, true to form, she delivered absolute gold:
- “Start something, like an Instagram account, and put a couple of products in there. Just so you can start learning, start going to events and actually have something to talk about. When you learn something at an info session or a business conference you can put it into practice.”
- “There’s never a right time, so just do it. Don’t spend time umm-ing and ahh-ing about it.”
- “Don’t spend time over-planning it because, until you do it, you’ll realise that what your buyers want might be different to what you think they want. When people say they’ve got their business plan, I feel like they might tear that plan apart in the first week of starting. It’s all about learning on the job.”