Episode 205: Jane Lu, CEO Showpo | Being a Good Business Person Means Being a Good Problem Solver
Bob interviews Jane Lu founder Showpo on switching gears from finance, starting a business in her parents’ garage in Australia, starting her online fashion brand, Showpo, and her legendary Instagram account as #thelazyCEO.
Tell me something good about retail
Jane Lu, CEO Showpo: Being a Good Business Person Means Being a Good Problem Solver
Bob: I am so excited to be speaking to Jane Lu, the Founder of Showpo.
Jane: Thanks for having me. Very excited too.
Bob: Oh my goodness. You are like a rock star in retail in Australia and around the world. I think you're in 80 countries now. Is that correct?
Jane: We're actually on 100 now.
Bob: That's probably just in the last two days. You're taking over. Well, I'm so thrilled to have you on the podcast and for people who don't know, who are you and what do you have to do with retail?
Jane: So I'm Jane Lu, the Founder and CEO of Showpo. Showpo's an online fashion store. We're global, selling to 100 countries, like you said for women roughly 16 to 36 and we've been around for 8 years that we completely bootstrapped from my parents' garage, a business in my parents' garage with just a couple of shelves of clothes to now we've got over 150 staff.
Bob: Well, I follow you on Instagram and your...I don't know what...they're not really considered a movie I guess but they are so cute and you have such an aesthetic. It is so clearly defined.
Jane: Oh, thank you.
Bob: We'll come to your social media in a second but I love your story because you're not just somebody that just decided to form a business. One, you had a spectacular failing I think and quickly recouped from it but more importantly, you've got a whole finance background. Can you fill us in on that?
Jane: I studied accounting and finance at university and what I quickly learned was that it might be interesting in theory but in practice it is so, so, so boring. So boring. And I actually worked at KPMG and Ernst & Young, which are two of the big four accounting firms and I just absolutely hated it. The whole time I had fake spreadsheets open, but I was secretly on Facebook. You just hit Alt+Tab any time anyone walks by.
Bob: I love that. Unless I'm listening to this as a boss and I realize, "Hey, someone's hustling while they're at work here." But still.
Jane: Yeah. That's true. I was quite lucky that I got into a Cadetship Program which meant that it's quite exclusive and it means you can start working full time and studying part time, which meant I started working straight out of high school because -I can't believe this- but I was so eager to climb that corporate ladder that I wanted a head start and to get into it as soon as possible but what was great was that I also learned at a young...like a relatively young age when people...you know, I think most people graduate and then they start a job and then they realize I hate it. I realized I wanted a career change around the same time I finished uni. And so that's when my friend, Ashley came to me with a business idea and that was my first business. That was around popup stores. We ran these popup stores in underutilized locations which basically are bars when they're not busy and we sold things from emerging designers.
Jane: And so we quickly learned...and this is a really important business lesson... I learned because at the time I was like, "Hey, we're going to do this business model slightly differently and we're gonna make millions." But then we quickly learned that, you know, maybe no one was doing this business model because it doesn't work. And so you learn that no matter how much hard work and dedication and passion that might go into something, if the business model doesn't work, it's never gonna work. If no one wants the product you're selling, it's never gonna work. Sounds obvious but...
Bob: Well, but I attribute that...but let's face it. I think you're incredibly smart and you're incredibly quick to react to that because there are so many people that will stick with a concept and they say, "Well, if I just have..." Now and admittedly, you know, as the retail doctor, is my 25th year, and there was a certain amount of...when I started that is a matter of kinda plugging it out, but I think it's all changed certainly in the last three or four years. I think you can get your metrics really quick and say, "There's no market for this." Or, "It's too hard. It doesn't scale. It's too expensive." Would you agree, Jane?
Jane: Yes, absolutely.
Bob: So there you are. You're opening these popup stores in what are kind of bars and where does that moment come when you say like, "This isn't cutting it."
Jane: Well, I...actually, it was my business partner that told me that she didn't wanna do it. So I actually wanted to turn these popup stores into an online store. I spent a month taking photos of everything, building my own website. Stupidly, it was a Wix website which is base build on Flash, so it was useless anyway because it's not mobile compatible. But what was great...sorry. She told me that she didn't wanna do the business anymore. Kind of completely screwed me over at the time which again, like you said, it's great because she made us fail fast.
Jane: Because we realized that...sorry. She made me... So I had to quit my job for this business. It was in the middle of the global financial crisis and I think what also urged me to quitting was...I was like, you know, "I should probably quit before they fire me." Because I was so bad at my job and they were starting to make people redundant during the GFC but what was done was I probably should've stuck around for a redundancy payment and use it as safe capital.
Bob: And then you could've built your business quicker. I gotcha.
Jane: I know. But anyway, damn it. But anyway, it all worked out. So spoiler alert, it all worked out. So we...so she...so all of a sudden...so you know, there's me at the age of 18 with a job and so, you know, my parents and I, we emigrated from China to Australia when I was 8 and they did that so that I could have the chance of like a better future with more job and financial security. So having achieved this at 18, having everything I...all of a sudden, I threw all of that away. Like I studied, you know, [crosstalk 00:06:39] I studied the thing that I wanted to study, I got the job that I wanted, I had everything. I threw it all away. All of a sudden, no job, unemployed, business has failed, I lost all my life savings, which wasn't that much but with the first business...I could not have been more rock bottom at this stage.
And so I had no choice but to start a business because it was in the middle of the global financial crisis. No one was hiring. And so I started...I decided to start another business by default because I had no other options. And then when I was like, "What kinda business should I start?" I had only accounting and finance experience or a little bit of retail fashion experience from this business that failed, and I was like, "Look, if I'm gonna like create my own future, I'm definitely not gonna choose accounting." .
Bob: You're gonna open an accounting office. Okay. That's not gonna happen.
Jane: No, definitely not. So that's how...so people say, "How come you started this Showpo?" I'm like, "Well, it kinda happened by default." But also, I think like, you know, when one door closes, others open. And it's literally...that's why I always tell people just to start because, you know, business is all about being a good...being a good business person means being a good problem solver. So it's just literally you just start and then you adapt and you learn and you quickly evolve. So that's kind of what happened.
What was... The crappy thing I guess was...you know, because like I said, my parents like gave up...they keep guilt tripping me that they gave up everything to move to Australia for me, so I couldn't tell them I threw it all way. So for the first six months I actually pretended to go to work but...
Bob: Wait, wait. You were living at their house, right?
Jane: I was living with them, yeah. And so...and I'm an only child, so all the pressure's...all the eyes are on me. So just to paint you a picture, I would have to get up early and, you know, I'm not a morning person, so getting up early when you're unemployed is like possibly the worst thing ever for a not morning person I know.
Bob: You know, you could be doing a comedian's riff on this. You know, you could've been a standup. It's pretty funny but...
Jane: I really could. Just go to the...I will take this material to the Comedy Cellar tomorrow.
Bob: It would be great.
Jane: But then it gets...it actually gets worse because then I have to put on my suit which is like a proper like, you know...a penguin suit, I guess. And then my mom actually works in the city, so I used to get a bus in the city with her. So I couldn't just keel off and go to the park. I actually had to go to the city. And I ended up carrying around an empty laptop bag because I'm like, "Well, this laptop is useless and heavy."
Bob: Wow. You were dedicated...well, and that's true around the world. I think kids don't wanna let their parents down and are willing to keep that alive because...see, here's the thing. You know, I'm a Baby Boomer. I'm 61. And we are much more stressed, and we worry about the future and I think, you know...I hate sounding old here, but young people have totally got the message that you can do anything and why the hell not, right? So why not be an entrepreneur and why not lead with my strengths and why not try it and wow, I failed. Well, big deal. I guess I'll just do another one. And I really respect that with you because, you know, you are kind of this force of nature when I first met you a couple of weeks ago and...but you're a smart cookie too because you've mastered this idea of who your girl is. You're not going after, you know...I'm gonna go after the Macy's girl or I'm gonna go after XYZ. You know who she is and when I see it in your social media, I could certainly see a young woman saying, "Yes, I wanna be her." And you've captured it in such a way that maybe you've created this young woman who is really put together, and the sense I get is you kind of can go from one look to another really easily. Is that kind of part of what you show?
Jane: Yeah, absolutely. I think like, you know, it kind of all just happened very organically and I think, like you said, because I'm not...I don't have a fashion background. I don't have...I'm not a fashion girl. I'm actually just selling to girls like me to like...you know, and I think I see everything, every problem that we're trying to solve from the eyes of that common...like our consumer and not with my own like ideas like already in mind and so...
Bob: Well, I think that's key because, you know, people are trying to listen to customers, right, but they have so many levels above them as far as retailers that they don't really know...or whoever does know doesn't have the power to do it and you're solving for that person because you are that person and that's great for a brand but sometimes it makes it hard to scale because some of them are just too niche of a niche but you're in 100 countries. I think you know who she is and she's the same around the world. Would you agree?
Jane: Absolutely. And I think that it's exciting time to be around like...when you have more of a niche because of like how globalized the world is. Like, you know, we've seen like amazing growth on like micro brands and just because what...of what like Instagram can do for you now specifically with more like shoppable posts, influences. Like you can...it's like the more you know...the more strong your brand is and specific, it actually carries a lot of weight.
Jane: Do you know what I mean?
Bob: I would agree with that. I think we're approaching the end of mass retail as we know it, and it's becoming the mass to the one which frankly eight years ago we didn't have the tools to do this and you've seem to have, I think, mastered them in such a way that you still feel fresh and fun and like, "Oh, this is my brand." Like your customer is certainly responding to that.
Jane: Yes. I think you can directly see a correlation for us between like who's following...where our sales are coming from and where our Instagram followers are and I think that's just where we're in every country and all these are countries...100 countries that I'm selling to where like something about us. Like I think like we're relatable, we're fun, we're approachable and like I think that's resonating with those girls, you know, in that market and it's like an infinitely big market, I think.
Bob: Yes. Now a question about your social post. Are you hiring models? Are these employees? Although I did see you recently in New York in your outfit that somebody...I don't know if it was you who said, it also doubles as scrubs. Your pink outfit was pretty cute. But are they employees? Are you hiring models? Because they seem like they genuinely have fun with it.
Jane: Yes, I mean, no. They are models but they definitely do have fun and they're really part of our like...they're part of our company. Like they come to all of like work events. We've taken them on trips before and they've been with us...our models have been with us for like three or four years.
Jane: And so, yes. We're very unique in that we use these...like these specific models and we keep using them and we also have a set level of exclusivity to like...the brand's not vertical so that...and that's the thing. When you see their photo on Instagram, when you see a Facebook ad with these girls like you know it's Showpo.
Jane: And it's like there's that brand recognition because there's just so much noise out there right now. And we also incorporate...you know, especially we're doing a big like all-sizes campaign because we've extended our sizes from 2 to 8 to now we're selling 0 to 16. And because there actually is a lack of models of all sizes in Australia, but also, you know, we have girls like that in our office and I think people really like how candid we are about our office. People love the Showpo office. It's almost like, you know, aspirational like for our demographic, so we often use the girls in our office in these videos to talk about, you know...we'll...instead of saying how to dress for the redhead we'll use the redhead in our office. We don't need to use the model. How to dress for certain bodies hot, we'll use the girls in our office and I think it's a...you know, and then also seeing these familiar faces, relatable faces, is something that's really resonating really well with our audience.
Bob: Well, and it's not just you having to carry the weight of that because I could've seen that continuing and at some point, you're like, "I have to run the business, kids. I have to...can't come out for a photoshoot because we just got these in," right? So...
Bob: What do you think the best advice you ever received has been, Jane?
Jane: My boyfriend actually tells me that I'm not special...so whenever I complain about a problem, he's like, "You know what? Like you're not special. Like just don't think...don't dwell on this problem thinking like you're the only person like dealing with this and that, you know, this is a unique problem. Just like get over it."
So as an example, I'm trying to learn how to drive manual shift and I'm like, "Oh, I just can't. I can't do this." And he's like, "No, you're not special. Half the world drives manual. Just suck it up and do it." And that principle...like he says it about work things as well and it's just like, suck it up. You're not special. And it really works.
Bob: That is so opposite of what we hear the message that millennials have gotten all their life which is, "You're special. You have a cape. We can all do this and super powered." You have a boyfriend who's like, "You're not special. Take the cape off. You're just somebody else. Everybody is having the same issues, get over yourself."
And what...going...looking to go into retail, whether that's online or popup or brick and mortar, what do you think you would tell if a friend said that and they spring it on you at a Starbucks and you're like, "Oh." What would you tell them?
Jane: I think these...I think nowadays you really need a more...I mean, this excludes...like if you're ever gonna get a venture backing and have a lot of money, then you can kind of do whatever. So this is, you know, advice for someone who's starting like myself with not much money and you're kinda hustling by yourself. I would say you really need a specific product like a niche product, something that really stands out in the market and can cut above the noise or there's a particular way that you're doing this, but you can't start a business like Showpo now. Like we are... And the thing is, you know, right now we have 50% of our stuffs are uniquely designed, but when we first started, we were just retailing. So you ret something. We weren't anything special. What we did differently back then was we had a unique way of marketing using social media but now like there's...you can't...there's...you know, you can't just start and just try uniquely sell things that everyone else has.
Jane: So your product needs to be really strong and then I would still...and people also say, you know, organic traffic is dead. And yes, it's different to the golden days when I started because that was like amazing, but I think these days there's still so much you can do. So for example, like I mentioned before, Instagram with shoppable posts. There's...you can do...you can really push a specific product a very long way. Influencer marketing as well has...it's just still really powerful. And so that's, you know, the...and Instagram still has organic growth so that...and...sorry.
Bob: So let's go back to Instagram. How do you decide what you would boost for Instagram? Is it because you have 500 of these in the warehouse, is it because you think it's right on trend, is it just a feeling? What determines that for you, Jane?
Jane: I mean, first I think you initially start with like your gut feel I guess because then...because you wanna test what works, but then the best...the amazing thing about social media is you get instant feedback on what people like and what they don't. So you literally...I mean, like even if you look at the last two photos I posted. One is like the pink suit that looks like scrubs. Like that has like 2,000 likes and then my other photo in this like beige outfit, that's 6,000 likes. Okay. People don't want these pink suits because it's really hard to wear on the day to day. And people like the beige outfit because, you know, like...so you instantly know what kind of...what people want. Now I would go and boost the...
Bob: Beige one.
Jane: Yeah, exactly. And try and sell those products. And then I would take those outfits and then maybe do a flat lay, put it on...send it to influencers. So these are the products we wanna see. Let's get it into different formats as well. And then I think that, you know, people...the thing about Facebook is Facebook is still very strong.
Bob: It is.
Jane: What's interesting is...well, it's a funny story because like 2015...like I think it was 2015. I was speaking to one of the biggest newspaper publications in Australia and I casually said that Facebook is dead which then became the headline...
Bob: We've all been there.
Jane: Yeah. It was like, "Oh, my God." Because the next year, we figured out how to make Facebook work. We realized like, you know, Facebook organic can still work when you supplement it with a strong and clever paid strategy, paid media strategy and if you...we started to do a lot more with video and we created original content.
Jane: All of those things work. So actually, last year, 2018, we were the most engaged brand on Facebook in Australia because...and now like oh, God. So now actually whenever I speak to anyone, you know, that's my example as a caveat to be like, "What I'm saying is just what I think right now. Like I could be wrong." I know that...you know, it's just like a timestamp to right now. But anyway, so I do think, you know, like marketing on Facebook, it's still the cheapest form of direct digital marketing. I would still highly recommend it.
Jane: When you have a unique product, it's about creating unique content around that product. And so I think those are the three best ways to work...to start a retail business when you don't really have a lot of money.
Bob: Yes. Well, and I think that's the other thing that...and I've always said that too that you can't just open a store to sell somebody else's product and assume I build it and they will come. That just doesn't happen. You have to build it and you have to go out and you have to drag them kicking and screaming to your site and entertain them and thank them and oh, you're our tribe. It's like yesterday I did a speech for music retailers on my Conductor and I started off by singing, which I never try to keep note with. That happened and the client said, "You're in. You're one of us." And that's the point that they wanna feel like your young woman absolutely feels that way. So sidebar here. So when you feel overwhelmed or unfocused which...I don't know, you have so many irons in the fire, what do you do besides listen to your boyfriend who says you're nothing special? I mean, what do you do to kinda get that back or to unplug or something?
Jane: I mean, I am very lucky. I have an amazing exec team. I've got my general manager, my head of product. Specifically, they've been around with me for most of the journey and so the...sorry. They've been with the business for years and they are just so smart and help alleviate the stress and I think just having people to talk to and to just work on problems, it has just been what keeps me sane.
Jane: And then I think also just having people that I respect. You know, when we do make a mistake just to...for...the people that I respect to say, "Hey, you know, like don't beat yourself up. Let's work on fixing this." That is just what...that's what really works for me. And then just on the...for the immediate problem, I just normally like to step away, drink some wine, watch some Netflix and just like completely just take my mind off things and that really helps.
Bob: I would agree. I think that's the challenge that a lot of entrepreneurs do, is we think that, "Oh, only I can do this." And you can do the work of three people, but you can't be three people. Right, Jane? I mean, you have to be able to say, "I trust you and it's gonna be fine." Well, listen, I don't wanna take up too much of your time. You've been really generous. Tell me something good about retail. What's, you know...you've been in it for quite a while now. You're obviously meeting with success. Just tell me something good about retail.
Jane: Retail's just very exciting. I think, you know, speaking...going to NRF and just getting...it's just very exciting time to be in. it feels like, you know, like a renaissance of the bricks and mortar as a sales channel and a marketing channel and, you know, that's something...what's really exciting is like years ago I'm like, "No, we're never gonna do bricks and mortar." And now I'm like, "Hey, you know what? It's something that I'm open to." So I think the fact that like it is so quick changing, it's so dynamic is really exciting because what's great about that is like, you know, you gotta constantly change and be agile, but it also means if you get to...you'll never get to a point where you're in a rut because it's changing. There's always something new you can do to tweak and to improve and...I mean, I just love it.
Bob: That's a great point. I know sometimes I ask people, "So tell me a time when you really liked change and another time you hated it." And it always involves to me you really hate it if it comes on you and someone says, "You have to do this." But if you choose it, you'll love it. It's like, "Oh, I can do this, and I can do that." And then you're excited by change. So I think you are a living example of that, Jane. I think you certainly have an amazing brand and amazing story and most importantly, how can they find out more about your wonderful brand?
Jane: Well, we are Showpo, so you can shop at showpo.com or Showpo on Instagram and I'm also on Instagram as the Lazy CEO.
Bob: All right. So I have to ask about that before I get off. So how come the Lazy CEO? How did you come up with that?
Jane: Honestly, it's just because Jane Lu was already taken. And we were just chatting about before, coming from a Chinese background and very academic background, I always thought it's just about working hard. They have this thing called hustle porn, working really hard yourself, it is like a validation of the good work you're doing but at one point, I've learned that really finding great people and trusting them to do work and inspiring and leading them and delegating well, is actually the way I'm really going to grow this business. So being lazy is a virtue, if you know how to be lazy.
Bob: That's a perfect way for us to end. So thank you so much, Jane and continued success to you.
Jane: Thank you, Bob. Thanks for the chat.
Find out more about Showpo here.
Follow Jane on Instagram here.
You can also hear her on the Retales Podcast episode Inside the Millennial Mindset with Nick Molnar and Jane Lu.