Lucia’s in 906 on 9.06 – Interview with an ex-banker turned Entrepreneur on the opening day of his shop

On September 6, 2011, Tianyi finally shaved!

Many of us were wondering to how long his beard would grow, for Tianyi has sworn not to shave at all until his jewelry shop opens. Apparently, he got this idea from Yao Ming (姚明) and Mei Lan Fang (梅兰芳), and for all three of these extraordinary people, this simple trick seems to have worked exceptionally well.

Although we were all secretly hoping to see Tianyi with an ankle-long beard or even a mustache, it was nevertheless an extremely exciting day for all of us.

Finally, one of us did it. Finally, a friend whom we know, whom we eat and play with, whom we can actually feel and touch, has built a business from scratch and opened it in the nucleus of Lan Kwai Fung. Finally, someone pursued his dream with passion and showed us that there’s a life outside of banking.

If life is defined by a small number of special days, today would certainly be one of them for Tianyi. After an opening ceremony involving eating roast pig (a Cantonese tradition for business opening) and the biggest moon cake known to men, I sat down opposite him on his well-decorated brand new shop. Shadowed by a flower bouquet with a message that reads “Tiffany’s today is Lucia’s tomorrow”, I asked Tianyi about his journey since leaving a top-tier US bank 15 month ago.

ME: So, first things first, who do you think will be mandated to take your shop IPO?

T: (lots of laughter) Although it’s “slightly” too early to consider this, I must say that Morgan Stanley has made a very good first impression, for my very first customer today is an employee of MS!

ME: This definitely shows the importance of early client coverage! Let’s get started, how do you feel today?

T: Very excited indeed. I’ve been working on this for 9-10 months and finally, I did it! Creating something from nothing is really hard work and I have come a long way. I am happy with what I’ve done to date, but this is just the beginning, real work starts today and I can’t wait to get to it!

ME: Tell us about the preparations for the shop, did it take as long as you thought it would?

T: The whole thing took 9-10 months, and when I first started, I thought 3 months was all I needed! Looking back, I could have done so many things differently. I was a complete novice and knew nothing about the business a year ago, so I took many D-tours. This is the price you pay for learning something from scratch. If I had the opportunity to start over again, it would probably only take half of the time, like 4-5 months.

ME: Yeah I noticed that your beard was getting long… What are the major reasons for the delay in opening?

T: First of all, my own inexperience as mentioned earlier. Secondly, I am a Perfectionist, which didn’t help! Lucia’s is named after my wife and I wanted everything to be perfect, which meant everything took twice as long as it otherwise would if I was simply shooting for a mediocre shop.

Thirdly, I have to say I sometimes purposely immense myself into a lot of the details, for which maybe I could have leveraged other people. Because I saw this process not only as setting up a shop, but also as an opportunity to actually get to know myself better. For example, I realized that I enjoy high-level strategic planning and choosing product designs much better than the knitty gritty administrative stuff (who doesn’t?). Maybe it’s the way I think, which is more like an artist than a scientist.

Specifically, the one thing that kept haunting me and caused much of the delay was website building. I had to outsource and find a programmer in mainland China and it has proven to be rather difficult to find someone who is both reliable and capable.

ME: Did you ever hit a road block and think about quitting it altogether? How did you deal with it?

T: Are you kidding? I have been stuck, many many times! In fact, I can’t even count the time of times I was stuck. Sometimes it lasts a day or two, sometimes it takes weeks. When things don’t work out, like you just can’t for the life of you find the right supplier, I start to get frustrated, start to think about “what if”, think about whether this thing will actually work, and think about failure or disappointing others and myself.

When this happens, I usually allow myself to take a break, spend some time talking to friends, wonder around the streets of Central to get inspirations, browsing on the internet and Weibo (Chinese tweeter) also helped. I think it helps a lot to keep forcing yourself to read relevant information even when you are stuck, and new ideas will eventually come to you.

The important thing is that, although I’ve been “stuck”, I was never really in doubt of the fact that I wanted a jewelry store. The goal never changed. I might have doubted whether and how I was going to get there, but never the goal itself.

ME: I can only imagine how hard it must have been to create something from nothing. Why did you put yourself through this? Why jewelry store?

T: There are 3 main reasons as to why I chose “jewelry”. First of all, support from my beloved wife who is also keen on jewelry (surprise surprise!). It’s hard for a man to fully understand a woman’s business, and Lucia’s acumen for jewelry made it possible for me. Secondly, I am naturally interested in design. I love beauty and love creating beauty in the world. It is where I can find passion within me. Lastly, I see this jewelry shop as a pilot test for a “Physical store + Online store” business model. This is also why I spent a lot time on our website (www.lucias.hk). Many products may be suitable for this test, it just so happens that jewelry fitted the bill for me.

ME: Let me take a step back, could you take us through the thinking process behind your resignation from banking and how you decided on jewelry?

T: The reason for my departure from banking is simple: I wanted to try start-up. Unlike others who might quit to travel, to take a break, to find meaning of life etc, I quit for a clear and simple reason – to start my own business. I thought about this carefully and for a long time, and decided that it was impossible to do a “part-time” start-up, it’s simply impossible and you may end up losing on both sides.

Only after I quit had I started to think about which business to do. Being an ex-banker myself, I realized that I knew many young professionals working in Central and living the busy lives of HK, so I started brainstorming services that I can provide for these gold-collar workers and friends. I toyed with several ideas including fresh juice store, food delivery service, etc.

At the same time, I realized that pretty much all the ideas I was thinking about required a physical store, so I started looking for suitable locations at the same time. It soon became obvious to me that those curbside retail shops in HK are way too expensive to be sustainable, so I focused on “upstairs” shops. I went to a few buildings in Central/LKF area asking the door man if any room was empty or for leasing (very brave!), and quite luckily, I found this location which was previously occupied by a dentist. I was able to lock in a 3-year contract at a reasonable price.

The jewelry idea really came to me in an epiphany, one evening around the end of last year. Maybe because there was a jewelry exhibition in HK around that time, or maybe because there was some media coverage about Zbird (钻石小鸟) that I saw, or maybe it was just meant to be. Something hit me that made me decide. It felt good! Not knowing what to do was painful for me, and from that moment on, I had a purpose in life.

ME: Congratulations, I can almost feel your excitement on that night when you figured out what to do. I am curious how your boss reacted when you resigned.

T: She was very surprised. My boss was not convinced that I was going to do a start-up business which I didn’t even know what it was going to be yet. She was suspicious that it might just be an excuse for me to quit and join a competitor. To this day, I’m still not convinced that she bought my story the day I walked into her office and out of the firm. Well, she sure believes me now!

ME: How about your parents and family? Were they supportive?

T: My wife has always supported what I wanted to do, I couldn’t have done it without her. My parents are also very open-minded, they value my happiness above the perception of a good job and supported me every step of the way. Also, the idea of starting your own business is probably more common and acceptable in Guangdong, where I’m from, so my family is not foreign to this idea.

(In fact, Tianyi’s father took a bus for more than 7 hours from Maoming, their hometown in Guangdong province, and came to the store opening in Hong Kong to support his son.)

ME: It’s great that you have such a supportive family. However, now you are closer to 30 than 25 and having been married for several years, things like kids, buying a house etc must be coming to mind. How does this whole start-up thing fit into your life planning? Put it another way, how much time do you give yourself to try startup businesses before going back into the job market, if god forbid the business doesn’t work out as well as you had hoped?

T: I will never sacrifice my family. I will never throw everything I have on the line and risk the future of my family. The investment size at the moment is manageable and I will only take risks provided that I can provide a comfortable life for my family. I have been very diligent in controlling cost every step of the way and any loss that may incur so far would be acceptable to me.

The best case scenario is that the shop can breakeven in a year or so, and once it is on the right track, I can then free myself from the tedious day-to-day operations and focus on more strategic thinking, and may venture into other related areas. Going back to the job market will be a last resort, and I will probably give myself a couple of years trying to make this work, before considering going back.

ME: Last question, any advice for those who are also thinking about quitting their job and do startup?

T: Really take the time to carefully consider whether startup is what you want to do. If the answer is yes, do it ASAP.

ME: Thank you very much for your time on your first day of opening!

As I walked out Room 906 of Yip Fung Building on D’Aguilar Street, a few things came to mind.

“Startup”, to many, is a somewhat glamorous term. “Startup” to bankers is like “Investment banking” to undergraduates. Hardly anybody knows what it is, yet everybody feels a magnetic compulsion towards it. The advice in both cases should be the same – only do it for the right reasons. “Creating beauty in the world”, in Tianyi’s case, sounds like a pretty good reason to me. As he said, creating something from nothing is extremely hard work; it takes effort, time, serious commitment and even love. Many people start out trying to find out what they are made of, but end up not liking the view.

Some entrepreneurs have suggested that you need to be under heavy pressure to be successful. You need to give up everything in order to gain something. Some suggest putting everything you have on the line and even take on debt, in order to burn all your exit options so that you have nowhere to go but forward (that’s certainly what VCs like to see!). Tianyi’s philosophy is clearly different. Is the business world really a place where only the blood-thirsty can survive, and that the nice guys who care about their families can’t? I look forward to the day when Tianyi proves them wrong.

Lastly, the cliché “behind every successful man, there is a woman” comes to mind. In this day and age, when many mainland girls require their boyfriends to own a house (and put both their names on it) before even consider marriage, it is not easy, to say the least, to give your other half the freedom and financial support to pursue his/her dream. Tianyi is a lucky man. We hope the power of love will sweep through all the obstacles along the way and take him to ultimate success.

<The End>

Written on September 6, 2011 on behalf of www.life-after-banking.com. All Rights Reserved.

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