Six things we’ve learned starting a company as Asian American founders

“Mom, I’m quitting my job to start my own thing.”

You can probably imagine the ensuing chaos once we made this kind of declaration to traditional Asian parents. As the cofounders of a fashion company, this statement became a conversation that we had to have with our parents. 

But we were committed. After Jenn’s struggle with finding a modern Chinese wedding dress for her wedding, we realized that there were limited options that catered to Asian American needs in terms of style, quality, and service. 

So we set out to create East Meets Dress — a modern day brand that designs cheongsams & qipaos for Asian Americans who wanted to celebrate their heritage but also stay true to their style. 

We’ve been entirely bootstrapped from day one and it’s been quite a rollercoaster ride. Here are six things we’ve learned on our journey so far.

Cofounders.
Photo Credit: William Trang Photography

1. You need to spend money to earn money.

This one required us to unlearn some of our old habits. Growing up in Asian immigrant families, our parents always taught us to save more than we spend. 

But when you’re just starting out, you need to spend money to get the word out about your business. It doesn’t have to be millions, but even putting in $50 for a Facebook ad to test if anyone else was struggling to find a wedding cheongsam gave us the initial confidence to fully launch East Meets Dress.  

2. Focus on the rocks, not the sand.

Once we started getting some customers, our to-do list looked like a never-ending black hole that spanned across operations, customer support, marketing, and product design. 

There’s a tendency to just get the sand — the fun or easy tasks — out of the way, but that doesn’t really move the needle. We realized that you first have to focus on the rocks — the harder, foundational objectives — to reap the most rewards later. 

For example, Vivian grew up playing basketball and her coach would always make the team practice hundreds of free throws. Shooting free throws is boring (let’s be real), but it’s the foundation that will actually help you improve your game. So every day, we try to complete one rock no matter what.

Photo Credit: Jeremy Thomas

3. Be resourceful. Test ideas on a small scale, but quickly.

If we had aimed to have an extensive collection of dresses, beautiful photography, and everything all figured out before we even launched East Meets Dress, we probably would have given up before we even started.

Luckily, we started small and focused on just helping one customer at a time and our business grew from there. When you’re bootstrapped, you have to be scrappy. We learned to be our own model, stylist, and photographer for our photoshoots. 

In addition, we would test new products on Etsy first and run quick A/B tests over a weekend to test out a hypothesis (e.g., “what sorts of dress designs would our customers want to buy?”) before ordering a large inventory of items. 

This allowed us to quickly assess which designs resonated with customers first and also scrap bad ideas without having invested too much time, money and energy into them. Staying nimble and being resourceful was key! 

Models, stylists, and photographers.
Photo Credit: East Meets Dress

4. To stay motivated, think in terms of things you can control. The rest will follow.

In school, we’re used to seeking validation from grades and numbers so it’s tempting to tie your daily motivation to metrics like sales and website visits. However, those numbers can vary wildly and arbitrarily, so it’s much better to set your sights on goals you can control and accomplish. 

For example, each day, we prioritize making a certain number of product enhancements, establishing various partnerships and other bigger picture tasks that we know we can achieve instead of hoping to hit a certain number of sales per day (and becoming dejected if we don’t meet that goal). 

Doing so has made us both feel happier and more productive when we cross these action items off our to-do lists and, as a result, our sales have also increased.

5. Ask for help. Connect and learn from others who are on the same journey.

As a company with two introverted co-founders, it’s easy to get stuck in a tunnel when it’s just you and your business partner building a company from scratch. While we love bouncing ideas off of each other, we’d sometimes repeatedly come to the same conclusions.

Accordingly, we made an effort to connect with and schedule regular check-in calls with other entrepreneurs and co-founders of similar companies, like Nimble Made. This allowed us to share best practices, lessons learned, and also support one another. 

Being able to step back and gain a fresh perspective is invaluable and, most importantly, it helps us remember that there are others on this crazy startup journey too!

Read Nimble Made’s story on Cold Tea Collective.

6. It’s not always glamorous, but make time to celebrate the little wins.  

As co-founders, we have done everything, from hand delivering packages to our customers, figuring out tax codes, to being on hold for an hour to speak with USPS, and so on. 

We also are routinely asked by our parents if we’re ever going to get “real” jobs again. Of course, it’s not always glamorous, and starting our own company is definitely one of the most challenging things we’ve ever done.

However, the major upside is that it’s also one of the most rewarding experiences of our lives. Everything that we’ve encountered along this journey has made us into better entrepreneurs, especially since we set our own goals and priorities. 

We also get to determine how we celebrate our successes! For instance, we made a “wheel of wins” that we spin each time we finish making a customer’s dress for a triumphant exercise routine — which could result in jumping jacks, burpees, and so forth (and, yes, we do replace our gym memberships with this). 

Our “wheel of wins.”
Photo Credit: East Meets Dress

Our favourite is when it lands on “Dance to a Beyonce song.”

Whether you’re preparing for a similar conversation with your parents, or just curious about entrepreneurship, we hope this was helpful.  And if you want ideas for your own wheel of exercises, you can find us at @eastmeetsdress.

Get 10% off any dress in the East Meets Dress collection by entering the code COLDTEAEMD10 at checkout.

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