Empower great leaders. So much of our growth has come from finding the right people, and then empowering them to make the greatest impact in their role. Trust is such an important part of this process. You also need to have a good understanding of the level at which you’re hiring, to make sure you find the right balance between nurturing and micromanaging.
For my series on strong female leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Jane Lu. Jane is the 32-year-old corporate dropout who went from being $60,000 in debt to being one of Forbes’ 30 Under 30! Lu founded Showpo in 2010 from her parents’ garage, having previously worked in accounting and corporate finance. After returning from a year abroad, she was inspired to ditch the “cubicle life,” so she quit her job to start her own business. What started off with a laptop and two shelves of clothing is now an online global fashion empire that ships to over 100 countries and employs over 150 people. Lu aggressively used social media in novel ways to grow Showpo, and the company now boasts a combined social following of over 3.5 million engaged followers.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
I was working in accounting and bored with my corporate life, so I jumped at the chance to quit when a friend asked me to run a fashion business with her.
Unfortunately, that business failed and I hit rock bottom. I went from having the job I’d always wanted to having a failed business and no savings during a global financial crisis.
At this point, I decided I had no choice but to start another business. And that’s when Showpo (then called Show Pony) was born. I started Showpo from my parents’ garage and after almost nine years, it has become one of Australia’s fastest-growing fashion e-commerce retailers, shipping to over 100 countries globally.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
An interesting thing actually happened to me very early on in my career. My family originally immigrated from China when I was eight years old in order to provide me with greater opportunities and a secure financial future. So, when my first business failed, I was afraid to tell my parents that I had quit my stable job for this new business venture.
How could I tell them I had thrown everything away?
So, for six months, I put on my corporate suit, carried around an empty laptop bag and pretended to go to work. I would go through the routine of getting up early, dressing up, eating breakfast with my parents and talking about “what I had planned for the day,” and then commuting on the bus with my mom into the city. I had to convince my parents that I was still working in finance until I finally had the courage to tell them the truth. Thankfully, they were super supportive when I did.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
When I started the business, it was called “Show Pony.” We were primarily selling party dresses, so it seemed like a fitting name. I didn’t do any initial research and then one day, I decided to do a Google search, which led me to the (now glaringly obvious) realization that since Show Pony was such a common phrase, there were already several other Show Pony stores out there.
At the time, this wasn’t so funny. I was pretty devastated that after two years in business I had to change our name. We eventually decided to drop the “ny” and make up our own word — Showpo! It seemed a bit odd at first, but then again, some of the best brands in the world have pretty outrageous names.
I learned that these opportunities lead to pivotal learning moments. It allowed us to redefine our brand. As we grew our product range and started designing in-house, we were not restricted to the connotations of a Show Pony and were able to significantly expand our offerings and customer demographic.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
We are always really candid, honest and fun on our social channels, which makes our content stand out.
Last year, a website glitch, combined with poor resource forecasting, resulted in a backlog of orders, causing customer inquiries to double overnight. I posted a video apologizing after the incident, which received a ton of positive feedback. It made me realize that businesses are always publicizing their wins, but it’s just as important to be transparent and honest with customers when things go wrong.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
We just released our first Bridal Collection featuring eight beautiful and affordable wedding gowns in sizes 0–16. Our goal is to grow with our customers, so we designed this collection to take them into new stages of their lives. We also know that weddings are expensive and we think all brides should be able to look and feel amazing on their special day, regardless of their budget.
What advice would you give to other female leaders to help their team to thrive?
Hiring the right people is so important. From the Netflix book, we’ve adopted the term to not hire “brilliant jerks.” Someone might look great on paper, but they could be detrimental to the team as a whole if their values and behavioral traits don’t align with our company’s.
What advice would you give to other female leaders about the best way to manage a large team?
Be honest with your team. Transparency is so important. Since the start, I have always been really open with the team. They know how the business is performing, any difficult times we’re facing and anything else we’re going through.
And to be aware that as your business grows, the people and things that require your time will grow exponentially with it. You need to be better at prioritizing and knowing what to say no to. This is probably the biggest lesson I’ve recently had to learn the hard way!
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
Our General Manager, Alex Durkin (aka Durka), has pretty much been here from the start and really helped grow the business into what it is today. Initially, we butted heads. We had very different working styles and didn’t see eye to eye, but our differences are what made our partnership work.
I was focused on growth and sales and Durka wanted to take time to create systems and processes. I know it sounds obvious now, but those systems and processes are what helped us achieve the phenomenal growth we’ve had today.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
We work with The Hunger Project to help end poverty and hunger by providing microfinancing to women in developing countries. Empowering women is something that is really close to my heart. Each year we also host a charity sample sale and donate all proceeds to them. We’ve raised over $60,000 to date, which has provided over 1,000 microfinance loans to women in underdeveloped nations.
What are your “5 Leadership Lessons I Learned From My Experience” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)
1. Learn from other leaders
I started my career in corporate finance in my early 20s and I learned some of my most important leadership lessons during this time. There are a lot of managers and partners within the finance industry, so you learn quite quickly what type of leader you want to be, or, more importantly, the type of leader you DON’T want to be!
2. Create a workplace you’d be happy to work at
I thought about all of the things I wish I had when I first started out in my career — flexible hours, team celebrations, an office pet, rosé on tap and, most importantly, a supportive team. I used to dread sitting in a cubicle because that just wasn’t me. Now I’ve created a work space that I love and built a team that also values these experiences.
3. Recognize that mistakes happen
A good leader isn’t quick to blame people for mistakes. If your staff are in constant fear of screwing up, they won’t be open to thinking big! At Showpo, we encourage a culture where mistakes can be made and even laughed about. At our all-staff meeting held every Friday, we have a regular section where team members can nominate anyone who has made a silly mistake for a “Shame Shot” so we can have a laugh — alcohol is of course optional!
If you’re not making mistakes, then you’re not doing enough that’s new. You’re not growing! Of course, nothing annoys me more than making the same mistake twice.
4. Understand your colleagues
Feedback is important, but everyone’s different. Giving staff feedback is about understanding how that person needs to feel validated. Some people need words of affirmation, others want acts of service or even quality time. At Showpo, I take all of our new starters out for lunch and we don’t talk about work, we talk about them! I also have monthly one-on-one catch up with the exec team and people leaders, and we have also recently introduced 360-degree feedback, which I’ve found very helpful.
5. Empower great leaders
So much of our growth has come from finding the right people, and then empowering them to make the greatest impact in their role. Trust is such an important part of this process. You also need to have a good understanding of the level at which you’re hiring, to make sure you find the right balance between nurturing and micromanaging.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
I would inspire a movement towards supporting female entrepreneurs and business leaders in the early stages of their careers. I actually started working on this initiative with my friend Gen George a couple years ago, when we decided to start an online network for women to share ideas and grow their businesses.
When we first started the group, there really wasn’t something like it that existed for women in the entrepreneurial community, so we thought it would be a great place to start. The group is called Like-Minded Bitches Drinking Wine and there are already over 100,000 members who hold regular meetups globally and provide support and advice for one another. This has also given me a chance to meet other business women in the group in real life, which has been so much fun and very rewarding.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“You’re not special.”
It sounds harsh but when I would whine about something being too hard or impossible, my fiancé (and CFO at Showpo) would say, “Oh, you think there’s something special about you that would exempt you from being able to do this? No. Other people have done it, so just harden up and get on with it.”
Honestly, it’s helped me so much! It’s forced me to face my fears of having tough conversations and even of learning how to drive a manual car!
Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂
Sara Blakely. She has completely transformed the underwear industry and empowered so many women with Spanx — it’s a household name!
I really respect that she’s a self-made billionaire with no external funding who’s also donated more than half her wealth to charities and supporting other women entrepreneurs.