Ly Cecilia Nguyen & Tori Watley Of Hurston: “Confidence”

Confidence: confidence is a leader’s best friend. I joke with Tori that there are enough people doubting us that we don’t need to do their job for them. Our experience deploying millions of dollars in real estate makes us the right leaders to democratize real estate investments, providing access and return to investments that have […]

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Confidence: confidence is a leader’s best friend. I joke with Tori that there are enough people doubting us that we don’t need to do their job for them. Our experience deploying millions of dollars in real estate makes us the right leaders to democratize real estate investments, providing access and return to investments that have traditionally only been available to a select few.

Being a founder, entrepreneur, or business owner can have many exciting and thrilling moments. But it is also punctuated with periods of doubt, slump, and anxiety. So how does one successfully and healthily ride the highs and lows of Entrepreneurship? In this series, called “How To Successfully Ride The Emotional Highs & Lows Of Being An Entrepreneur” we are talking to successful entrepreneurs who can share stories from their experience. I had the pleasure of interviewing Ly Cecilia Nguyen and Tori Watley.

Ly and Tori are co-founders of Hurston, a real estate investing platform, allowing investors to buy fractional ownership of rental properties, starting at 100 dollars. As second-time founders, they were featured in CNN, UN Women — WEP, Databird, and Voyage LA. Prior to becoming an entrepreneur, Tori pursued her undergraduate degree at Spelman College and then an MBA at Harvard Business School before working for seven years at Davita, a prominent health care services company. Ly was a principal at Bain & Company, a management consulting firm; she obtained her undergraduate degree at U.C. Berkeley and her MBA at The Wharton School.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?

Ly: I was born and raised in Vietnam and moved to the U.S. when I was 18. My parents were both entrepreneurs and devoted their lives to running a business. Because of that, I learned business fundamentals from my parents and I have always known that I wanted to be in business, but also because of that, I chose to initially avoid entrepreneurship and start my career working in big companies. It was unusual, in Vietnam at that time, for parents to encourage daughters to pursue advanced degrees, but my parents supported my decision to pursue an MBA since I was in middle school. I graduated from U.C. Berkeley, got my MBA at the Wharton School and worked at Bain & Company, a management consulting firm advising Fortune 500 executives on strategy, growth, and M&A. It was not until I met Tori that the idea of starting a company began.

Tori: I am a first-generation college student. I came from a hard-working family where education is valued. I pursued my undergraduate degree at Spelman College and then an MBA at Harvard Business School before working for seven years for Davita, a health care services company. I worked on innovative projects within the company and led DeVita’s expansion in Brazil.

Ly and I founded our first start-up, Leigh & Siena, a direct-to-consumer start-up, and raised over 1M dollars in pre-seed capital from VCs and angel investors. After 2 years of highs and lows, including a year of the pandemic with many pivots, we decided to close Leigh & Siena and return investors’ money. So yes, we can still taste the emotional lows of being an entrepreneur. However, the exciting and thrilling moments of our journey inspired us to create another start-up helping investors build wealth through real estate investing; we named it Hurston.

What was the “Aha Moment” that led to the idea for your current company? Can you share that story with us?

In addition to our own rental properties, Tori and I invested in a real estate deal together. As we talked to our friends and family about our investment, we realized that many, especially, women and minorities, don’t have access to investment deals and when they do, they often cannot meet the investment minimum. Another barrier for those who want to invest in rental properties is that they do not have the time to analyze the market and the property or to manage it. That’s how we got the idea to start Hurston, a real estate investing platform allowing investors to buy fractional shares of rental properties, starting at 100 dollars.

Hurston carefully analyzes and selects single-family home rentals in growing real estate markets using our proprietary algorithm alongside expertise from local real estate specialists. Investors select a property and decide the percentage of ownership they would like in the property. Each property is held in a property LLC that is designed to provide passive income without management responsibilities. Investors will be entitled to receive quarterly distributions of pro-rata net rental income generated by the property, plus potential tax benefits normally associated with direct property ownership, such as appreciation, depreciation, and expense write-offs. Hurston handles operational responsibilities.

In your opinion, were you a natural born entrepreneur or did you develop that aptitude later on? Can you explain what you mean?

We grew up surrounded by entrepreneurs so it feels like we were natural-born entrepreneurs. However, we believe that successful entrepreneurs are made. Our upbringing exposed us to entrepreneurship and hence, gave us the courage and confidence to start our own company. But it’s our work and life experience that shaped us to be the leaders that we are today.

Was there somebody in your life who inspired or helped you to start your journey with your business? Can you share a story with us?

Ly: My parents. In college, my mother majored in French, and my dad in Art. They had no formal business training, yet they started and grew a successful business consigning handmade products in Vietnam. Since I was 10 years old, my parents took me to visit gift shops at hotels & resorts during our vacation. That was how they identified what products were missing, what customers wanted, and how they would price their products. After each trip, they created new products and pitched the store that we visited. Later on, in college, I learned that what I have been doing for years is what business classes would teach me: market research.

Tori: My mother is my role model and a huge inspiration for me. I watched my mother work around the clock, as a computer programmer, to create her own processes in a field that’s not necessarily very open to women and women of color. That just propelled me to be interested in business.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

Fractional ownership is an innovative way to invest in single-family rentals while giving investors the ability to build a portfolio of rental properties at a lower price point. A key feature of fractional ownership is it gives investors the ability to own rental properties without the time-consuming burden of managing tenants and maintenance and repairs.

We were explaining the concept and benefits of Hurston to a potential investor. The investor is a minority woman who worked full-time with 2 kids. She had been looking for ways to invest in real estate but couldn’t afford the high investment minimum and did not have the time to analyze deals. She was so excited to learn about Hurston. A man overheard our conversation, came to me later and said “this is not just a problem that women and minorities face. I would love to have access to this investment deal. How can I get on the waitlist?”

It became clear to us that Hurston speaks to more investors than our original hypothesis. We are proud to make real estate investing accessible to accredited and non-accredited investors.

You are a successful business leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?

Courage over fear: Many leaders have the qualities to become an entrepreneur but only a few place courage over the fear of failure and uncertainty to start a company. It took guts for us to leave a successful corporate career to start Leigh & Siena. After closing down our first company due to the pandemic, we chose to overcome our failure and stood back up to start a second company, Hurston. We refuse to accept the fact that real estate investing is only available to a select few and we will change it.

Learning agility: the ability to know what to do when you don’t know what to do. No one prepares us for a global pandemic that will impact the world for years. As leaders and founders, we have to make decisions, even with uncertainty and adapt to new environments. Once we started taking action, we would learn something that would get us in the right direction.

Visionary storyteller: entrepreneurs understand the continuous change that is occurring around us and have a vision for a solution that is yet to be discovered. More importantly, successful entrepreneurs can clearly articulate the purpose and goals of this new vision. When we were fundraising for our first start-up, Leigh & Siena, a custom wedding dress brand, we pitched VCs and investors who were mainly men. We explained the concept from the very basic level because we were describing a product that men typically do not relate to and we were also talking to men whose wives may not necessarily understand the problem that we were describing as they have a higher level of income than the average American. Our ability to describe our vision resulted in over 1M dollars in pre-seed capital to transform how women shop for wedding dresses.

Often leaders are asked to share the best advice they received. But let’s reverse the question. Can you share a story about advice you’ve received that you now wish you never followed?

Tori: Early on in my career, the advice I followed was to “work hard and you will get promoted.” In reality, hard work alone is not enough. We need to sell our ideas and promote ourselves. As a woman, sometimes we are very cautious about talking about our own achievements. I would be cognizant of saying that if we were men and we had half of our experience, we would walk into the room and say we deserve to be here.

Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them create a work culture in which employees thrive and do not “burn out” or get overwhelmed?

Ly: Empower your team to voice what matters to them. Everyone has their own routine and their own way to get re-energized. For one employee, it could be flexible work hours to avoid traffic or to spend time with their family. For another, it could be a daily workout during lunchtime. A healthy mind and body will help one thrive at work.

Tori: Have some fun when you work. Working for or leading a startup is hard work. If you don’t enjoy what you do, you will be burned out and demotivated quickly.

What would you advise other business leaders to do in order to build trust, credibility, and Authority in their industry?

Listen to your customer to truly understand their pain points and what they are looking for. We don’t assume that we know what they are going through. This is how we build relationships and trust/credibility with our customers, partners, and investors.

Can you help articulate why doing that is essential today?

If you don’t already have competitors, you will. A strong understanding of and relationship with our customers is how we differentiate ourselves.

What are the most common mistakes you have seen CEOs & founders make when they start a business? What can be done to avoid those errors?

Spend time perfecting the product before product-market fit: We both had a successful career at large corporations where we were used to delivering high-quality products and services. In the start-up world, we iterate so frequently based on customers’ feedback that perfecting a product or a website in the beta phase is a waste of time. Your first customers will put up with flaws if the product is solving an important pain point for them. We aim for “C minus” quality with the exception of a few critical product features. For Hurston, we aim for a passing grade for the time to close a property, the website design, our email marketing, etc. The exception when we will not compromise in quality is our analysis of the market and property to assure a high return to investors. And our current less-than-perfect product has a waitlist.

Mistaken interest for product-market fit: interest doesn’t equal product-market fit, action is what matters. Whenever we survey and talk to customers, we keep in mind that customers don’t always know what they want and what they would do. We have to test it with action, which can be signing up for a waitlist, making a purchase, putting down a credit card to back their interest, asking questions (a lot of questions). Don’t get us wrong, we still talk to customers a lot but we know that interest is the beginning, not the sight of success.

Ok fantastic. Thank you for those excellent insights, Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview about How to Successfully Ride The Emotional Highs & Lows Of Being An Entrepreneur. The journey of an entrepreneur is never easy, and is filled with challenges, failures, setbacks, as well as joys, thrills and celebrations. This might be intuitive, but I think it will be very useful to specifically articulate it. Can you describe to our readers why no matter how successful you are as an entrepreneur, you will always have fairly dramatic highs and lows? Particularly, can you help explain why this is different from someone with a “regular job”?

Entrepreneurs are usually exploring new territory, which comes with trial and error. Mistakes and failures along the way are inevitable. It’s like driving in an unmarked town, you will get lost and it’s part of the discovery process.

Unlike a regular job, there is no job description for a founder. We are the sales representatives, the web developer, the marketing specialist, the analyst, the assistant, the CEO, and more… In the morning, we would talk to real estate experts to source properties; in the afternoon, we would pitch investors; in the evening, we would update properties information on our website and answer questions from customers. There is no one telling you what to do (not even a board of directors early on) and no one telling you whether you are going in the right direction, you just need to do it and figure it out.

Do you feel comfortable sharing a story from your own experience about how you felt unusually high and excited as a result of your business? We would love to hear it.

We raised over 1M dollars of pre-seed funding from venture capital, angel, and private investments. Our proudest accomplishment is not the amount we raised, but the fact that we raised it from a diverse set of investors.

We started the process with a list of more than 300 venture capital firms. We narrowed the list down to 100 firms relevant to our industry and were surprised to find very few women investors on the list. It was a sad day. We are two women entrepreneurs. There’s nothing wrong with pitching to men, but we were disappointed to see that less than 10 percent of our potential investors were women or from underrepresented minorities. We knew that we had to do something to change the status quo.

We used our strong network of alumni and connections through our studies and corporate work to contact as many women investors as possible. Because we were reaching out to a lot of women in our network who had never invested in a start-up, it was almost like the pitch now doubled in time. Not only did we have to sell them on the idea and our accomplishments, but we also had to educate them on the risk of investing in start-ups, how valuation is set without revenue, what a S.A.F.E. (Simple Agreement For Future Equity) is, and how it is different from convertible notes. It was time-consuming but it was an investment we wanted to make. Even though certain women didn’t invest in us, they are now more open to investing in the next start-up they get pitched.

In the end, 60 percent of our pre-seed investors are women or underrepresented minorities. We are excited to have a diverse set of investors and advisors, who are an extension of our team.

Do you feel comfortable sharing a story from your own experience about how you felt unusually low, and vulnerable as a result of your business? We would love to hear it.

10 months into the pandemic, after the 6th pivot, we felt defeated. We ran out of ideas that we were passionate about. We had to face the difficult decision of closing down our first start-up. We knew that it was the right decision but it was still a low point in our journey.

Based on your experience can you tell us what you did to bounce back?

When we talked to investors about closing down Leigh & Siena, the first question everyone asked was “how are you doing?” Their support didn’t end when we made a difficult decision to close down the business. As we were issuing refunds of the remaining fund, many investors reminded us that we put up a hell of a fight against the pandemic and thanked us for letting them invest. (Ly: I have tears in my eyes and a smile thinking back at these conversations).

Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “Five Things You Need To Successfully Ride The Emotional Highs & Lows Of Being An Entrepreneur”? Please share a story or an example for each.

Passion: make sure that you are passionate about what you are creating because that’s what you will think about every moment you are awake (and sometimes in your dreams). The entrepreneurship journey comes with many obstacles, the passion to help women and minorities build wealth through real estate investing is what gets us through the highs and lows.

Confidence: confidence is a leader’s best friend. I joke with Tori that there are enough people doubting us that we don’t need to do their job for them. Our experience deploying millions of dollars in real estate makes us the right leaders to democratize real estate investments, providing access and return to investments that have traditionally only been available to a select few.

Optimism, or even, unrealistic optimism: during a work trip, we miscalculated the time and arrived at the airport 15 minutes before our flight took off. We realized this on the way to the airport, stuck in traffic. While I started looking into the next flight, Tori was determined that we would start running as soon as we got off the car and convinced everyone to let us cut the line. We ran. We pleaded until the rep let us check-in and everyone in the security line let us through. This is a small example of the many obstacles we faced as entrepreneurs and the optimism that can be considered unrealistic paid off. We made it to the gate, panting and sweating profusely, but we made it. Don’t be shy when it comes to hope and optimism, give it a try!

Support system: lean into your network of investors, mentors, friends, family, the people who believe in you and who see your potential. Our support network is our source of confidence and our cheerleaders.

Self-care: it’s a marathon, not a sprint. Meditate, work out, do what you need to set your boundaries for yourself against your desire to work all day all night. Taking a step back from the company is necessary to make a giant step forward.

We are living during challenging times and resilience is critical during times like these. How would you define resilience? What do you believe are the characteristics or traits of resilient people?

To us, resilience means standing back up after a failure. It’s a matter of when, not if, an entrepreneur will experience failure. For us, it was the 92 “No’s” we got from investors during fundraising, the moment we realized that our original idea didn’t have product-market fit and needed to pivot, and many more. We learned from the setback and adapted to new situations.

Did you have any experiences growing up that have contributed to building your resiliency? Would you mind sharing a story?

Ly: I was fortunate to grow up in a relatively well-off family and attended a private school in Vietnam. When the school was approached by a TV show to make a documentary about its students, I was chosen for an interview. I shared with the reporter my dream to become a successful businesswoman and make a lot of money so that I could ensure every child in Vietnam could finish high school. After the show aired, I realized the documentary was about the growing gap between rich and poor people in Vietnam. Seeing my upper-class life compared to that of a teenage shoe-shiner in the city brought upon a harsh and heart-breaking feeling for a wide-eyed twelve-year-old. Since that day, when I experience failure or obstacles, the vivid image of the child on his knees shining shoes on the side curb, daydreaming of sitting in a classroom, gives me the strength to stand up and continue my journey with the ultimate goal of making a difference in the world.

This is why being passionate about the mission of the company is important. If I believe the company will make a difference in the world, I can overcome anything.

In your opinion, do you tend to keep a positive attitude during difficult situations? What helps you to do so?

We have many privileges in my life that even in difficult situations, we choose to see the glass half full. We are lucky to have been born to women who serve as amazing role models and to be part of a generation that has had the benefit of so many women leaders who paved the way before them. This is why, when the pandemic broke out, we remind ourselves that we are lucky to have a long financial runway and focus on pivoting the business model.

Can you help articulate why a leader’s positive attitude can have a positive impact both on their clients and their team? Please share a story or example if you can.

The culture is defined by the leaders’ attitude. A positive attitude allows the team to be their best self and encourages employees to take risks and explore. This is when creativity flourishes and new ideas are born.

Ok. Super. We are nearly done. What is your favorite inspirational quote that motivates you to pursue greatness? Can you share a story about how it was relevant to you in your own life?

Ly: “Carpe Diem” a.k.a. “Seize the day.” I first learned of Carpe Diem from Dead Poets Society, one of the first American movies I watched in Vietnam. Growing up, my parents taught me to understand my privilege and to be grateful for what we had. Carpe Diem inspires me to make the most out of each day. I am determined to have an impact on my family, on my friends, on my community, on the customers that Hurston serves, as it is my last day on earth.

How can our readers further follow you online?

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this. We wish you continued success and good health!

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