How did you meet?
We actually went to the same high school in China, but we didn’t know that when we met. We were first introduced at TechCrunch Disrupt. We were introduced by a mutual friend and that’s when we realized we went to school together.
When did you decide to work together on HelloAva?
Kailu: I heard Siqi’s presentation at TechCrunch Disrupt and realized we were both interested in the same products and space. I suffered from severe acne as a teen and tried everything I could to fix it, so I was drawn to Siqi’s initial idea for the company. I realized we had very complimentary skills and so I started providing my thoughts and helped with branding and product design. It turns out we really like working together.
Siqi: I needed help with the creative and Kailu had that skill. She also had the same work ethic and same standards for the product, values, and business I was looking to build. I think that’s the key: we had clearly different skills, but we shared similar goals in life that we wanted to achieve. This made working together very natural. In a way, I think we were informally working together from day one--we just didn’t get it “officially” on paper until later on.
Has anything surprised you when launching the company?
Siqi: I like to be in control. I’m not ashamed to say that. In my past couple of jobs, whether it was in finance or journalism, I felt like every single step I did I could do if I put in enough hard work. I like to be in control of my own fate. As an entrepreneur you are not always in control and there’s a high sense of uncertainty around all aspects of the business; the odds are always against you. We’ve had to make decisions with lots of unknowns. That’s very difficult to adjust to. Everything else I can get used to—I’ve worked long hours before, but now it’s about whether the long hours will pay off. It can be an emotional roller coaster because there’s not a really clear solution. You have to find a middle ground where you are OK not being in full control, but at the same time you are controlling as many variables as possible.
Kailu: I agree. Building a startup is a very humbling experience. It’s really not about you or about us anymore; it’s about if the consumer will care and the experience we are providing to them. That’s what matters. And that’s out of our control.
What have you learned as a founder? Any unexpected skills?
Kailu: I discover so much everyday. One of the most important skills is being able to hustle and go above and beyond to accomplish what you want. There are so many unexpected things that can happen everyday, and as a founder, you have to solve them. It’s constant problem solving and hustling.
Siqi: For me, I’ve surprised myself by how I’ve been able to convince people into believing in what we are doing. I’ve had a lot of meetings turn into amazing relationships and bring people into the company as advisers, influencers, freelancers, etc. We joke that we are the “closers,” but really I’ve learned to embrace the serendipities in life and when I see an opportunity, I close that opportunity.
How do you cope with the uncertainty?
Kailu & Siqi: You prioritize the customer. It doesn't matter about the halo on your head, your schools, or jobs, or how much achievement you’ve had to date. If you’re not building a product the consumers love, nothing matters. So for us, it’s OK to have small failures as we venture into the “unknown”. We are introducing a new product, and not everyone may love it. This happens to big companies too.
What is your superpower?
Siqi: I’m a closer. People can believe in your business, but they also need to believe in you. Being able to show people that can be a great power. It’s the ability to get people excited to believe in the vision that I have.
Kailu: I’m empathetic towards what users want. Every day I pay attention and observe what people are looking for and what people like. I like connecting the dots and putting myself in the user’s shoes so that I can bring that knowledge to the product.
What’s your kryptonite?
Siqi: I get upset, anxious, and almost a little sad when I feel like I’m not in control. I’m trying to learn to be more comfortable with that, but it’s a process and is something that every entrepreneur needs to learn. It’s the nature of the business.
Kailu: I’m trying to learn not to take everything so personally, especially when it comes to product and if users do/do not like it. It’s hard to stay confident, but we need to know what others think so we can continue to build a better product.
What's it like working together?
One thing that’s really fun about our friendship is that we have an overlapping friend circle so we often hangout outside of the office. We usually do the same classes or activities, like Pilates. It’s really fun to spend time together outside of work and to maintain a friendship that energizes the business.
Do you have any other hobbies/things you like to do?
Siqi: I’m obsessed with gadgets. I have a lot from Korea and Japan, like random lighting and oxygen machines. I keep a lot of my beauty gadgets in our office, so guests who stop by can try them out and get a quick shoulder massage or foot massage.
If I had to pick my favorites, I have an Oxygen Injection Machine that produces pure oxygen. I turn it on before I go to bed. It feels like a steamer, but it’s cold air and doesn’t require water. You turn it on at night like you would wear a mask. I also have an ultrasonic machine which I use less, but can be really great for your skin. It just takes more time to apply.
Kailu: Keeping a journal is my life hack. I like to write down thoughts that come to me. I usually don’t bring it outside, but it’s very therapeutic, almost like meditation. When you write something down, you are freeing your logical brain and your subconscious can emerge. There’s a book called The Artist’s Way that talks more about this.
If you could give yourself one piece of advice 5 years ago, what would it be?
Kailu: If things don’t happen as expected, don’t panic. You’ll always find solutions. It’s never as scary as it seems at the moment.
Siqi: Sometimes we are a little too optimistic. Some of our early hiring decisions have been bad choices, so I would tell myself that it’s OK if things don’t always go according to plan. You never regret firing someone too early, but you always regret firing someone too late. Don’t try to force something to be a fit.
What’s been your experience as a female founder? Any advice for women thinking about launching a company?
Siqi: I think it’s a great time right now to be a female founder. To start, females are being promoted and publicized as role models that young girls can look up to, so for us, I think we have a duty to set a good example and mentor younger people. All of the movements and events in the last couple of years have helped us in a lot of ways, whether it’s to bring in more partners or VCs or finding more supportive male counterparts. The space is improving for us to connect and get support as women entrepreneurs.
Kailu: It’s very important to not always pick the right female partners, but also the right male partners. We've been fortunate in our journey to have picked the right employees and investors (especially males). We’ve been inspired by them. In fact, a lot of our marketing team are actually male, even though most of our users are female. Talking with the male members of our team gives a really great perspective on the product, and it’s important to remember that being inclusive is not just about supporting women, but creating a safe space to share opinions and gather feedback and work together.