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Leslie Hsu started her business Sunflow in the summer of 2020 when the world was still deep into the pandemic and she proves that with perseverance, design expertise, and a strong business plan you can build a successful company during a pandemic. She lets us in on how she started her business in secret, raised money prelaunch, and seamlessly works with her husband to run Sunflow.
Leveraging Design Expertise for the Perfect Beach Chair
Mimi: Welcome back to the Badass CEO. Today we have Leslie Hsu, the founder of Sunflow. It designed focus beach chair company, which she started the summer of 2020 after an outing to the beach. She had an idea to make a more stylish and comfortable beach chair and accessories. Leslie took her design expertise and started a company with her husband, Greg. Today, we are going to discuss what she did first to start a business, how she raised money prelaunch, how she grew her company to a seven figure business in less than a year with only three full-time employees, and what the best way is to get your products into the consumer's hands without sacrificing your margins.
Mimi: To get your top 10 tips, every entrepreneur should know, go to thebadassceo.com/tips.
Mimi: Leslie, thank you so much for coming on today. I'm so excited to have you and hear about your story because you started a business in the middle of COVID, which is great because there's a lot of businesses that are closing and having trouble and you took the opportunity to start yours. Let's start out with just telling us about how you came up with the idea.
Leslie: Let's see, I came up with the idea about three years ago. So the luck of starting and launching during COVID was just the coincidence. But, about three and a half years ago, my husband and I were at the beach. We do a weekly summer getaway with our family and we rent kind of like an Airbnb, maybe a couple blocks from the beach and it's our happy place. We go every year. It's a tradition. And when we were getting ready for the day at the beach, we gathered all our things together including chairs and umbrellas and coolers and snacks and towels and speakers and games for the beach. This probably sounds pretty familiar to anybody who's taken a day at the beach and tried to get everything there in one trip. Our journey was… We were laughing because we're on vacation. It's no big deal. But, it wasn't great.
Things were falling. Other things were opening. Things were falling off our shoulders. The kids were complaining, the normal day travels. When we got there, we finally unloaded all our stuff, dropped it on the sand, and it took us just as long I think to set everything up. It was kind of comical. But at the end, when we sat down in our chairs that were just not pretty and not comfortable, we looked at each other and we're like, "This is horrible. There has to be a better way."
We really care about our vacation. We love our family time and it's so important to us. And I would spend more to have a better experience getting there and getting home. When you look around the beach, everybody's got the same stuff.
Mimi: The same ugly chairs and the same-
Leslie: Umbrellas are flying around and the canopies and the toys and the towels. It just seemed almost like nobody had touched that in so long that it needed some nurturing, I think. And that's where we saw an opportunity.
Mimi: Right. So your business is about creating beach chairs, but then not only are they really good-looking, because there's not many good looking chairs, you buy the chair that's at Walmart or at the grocery store, but they're also more comfortable?
Leslie: We have really prided ourselves on Sunflow being a premium elevated product for the beach. We say that we are a beach solution. And with a few more years, we hope to get even more of a solution out there for everybody. We started off with the beach chair, because that's something that we thought everybody really could use. Maybe something that looks a little different, is a little more comfortable, easier to carry, easier to open, easier to close. And the accessories, also I'm very proud of, because I just think of all the accessories as being very thoughtful, which is really… If I were to describe the business, besides being a beach business or outdoor basics, I'd love for people to say it's such a thoughtful brand.
Mimi: So that's great. So at the time, when came up with this idea last summer, or you've been thinking about it for a couple of years, were you doing anything else? Were you working or did you have to quit your job? Were you a stay-at-home mom? What were you doing?
Leslie: I've been designing handbags for decades. So that actually, not that handbags and chairs really go-
Mimi: No, but you have an aesthetic look that's kind of in your wheelhouse.
Leslie: It's amazing actually. Even though it's not the same product, the whole idea of designing something to make somebody happy and fill a void and put what I think to be small details that really mean a lot, I think, in a handbag and a chair, you never really realized until something like Sunflow comes along because the accessories, they're just things that are more thoughtful.
Mimi: Right. So were you working and now you've quit your job or were you doing it on the side?
Leslie: I had handbag lines and we also did a lot of licensing. So we launched brands like Australia Handbags and we launched True Religion. I launched Jonathan Adler's handbags. It's been a long career.
Mimi: So you were working for yourself, you had your own business at the time.
Leslie: Always working for myself. But, this one is really taking the cake. I'm all-
Mimi: That's great.
Leslie: And handbags. This is really, it's the dream job.
Mimi: That's awesome. Okay. You had this idea now. Obviously, where you're going to source your sun chairs is going to be very different than where you're sourcing your handbags. So where do you start with that?
Leslie: Hmm, that'S a great question. I started just by saying, "I have no idea where I'm going to make… How am I going to make a chair? I have no idea how to make a chair." It was a long road. I say three and a half years ago, we really had no idea which way to go first. But we did start just with the idea. Because we've got a little bit of experience understanding how to build a brand, so we went to branding and industrial design. We wanted to do it right. I didn't want-
SUNFLOW: Aligning Brand With Vision
Mimi: Well, stop right there. Let's talk about branding. So for anybody who's listening, they have an idea and they need to know how important a brand is, which is mega important, right? And it's also the fun stuff, right? Everyone wants to work on their logo and their name. What did you come up with first? The name, the logo, the colors. Talk a little bit about that experience.
Leslie: We hired a brand agency in Brooklyn and they were amazing and really fun to work with. It's really nice to work with somebody who knows what they're doing and what they're talking about, but it's also really important to keep in mind your vision, because what happened, I felt like, in the branding process, is sometimes the branding team has such great ideas and they think that's the best idea. And then you maybe don't agree, but you're kind of feeling like you're being sold.
Mimi: Like they know best because they’re the brand professionals.
Leslie: Right. It was an interesting epiphany. I remember sitting in one meeting and they had four names that they wanted us to name the company. And I remember not liking them. They were cool, but they weren't like great. There's not that many names out there because everything's been taken. Just to tell you guys, if you were thinking about starting a company.
Mimi: But when you say everything's been taken, just for people who don't know what that means, does that mean the trademark, the website? What are you saying? What has been taken?
Leslie: The first thing you do is you Google the word that you want and, probably, the URL is taken. I mean, 99.9% chance that it's taken. Every single thing is taken. That list of four names that they were recommending was amazing for names and words, but I didn't love them. And I know you have to pick from what's available. And I just remember saying, and they were telling me why they would work, and I just realized to myself, I just said, "I don't know. I don't want to have to be sold to love a name for what I'm seeing Sunflow becoming," which is now Sunflow. So I went home and I was like, maybe they're right. They have good reasons why these names would work for us. Okay, I'll tell you funny stories.
Leslie: I was driving home with my daughter in the car and I was still struggling. I was like, "Maybe the name's okay. Maybe I'll grow to like it." And Post Malone was on the radio… Sunflower.
Mimi: Oh, funny.
Leslie: I love the song. And we were singing to it in the car. And I looked at my daughter. I'M like, "What if we just took the ER off? And she's like, "That's cool." And sun, we wanted sun in there. Flow, actually, sounded great to me because it gave it some movement.
Leslie: And we went home and we Googled it and it was taken, but we got GetSunflow, which is fine. And the trademark wasn't taken. It was really-
Mimi: It was meant to be.
Leslie: Yeah. Meant to be.
Networking – A Big Factor in Raising the First $1M
Mimi: That's awesome. So you got your brand, you figured that out, you hired your brand company. And then from there, you started just finding sourcing to build.
Leslie: You know, it's also a lesson to be learned just in business in general. I think we've been around for a little bit doing different things. So I think that networking really comes in handy. Whether you believe it does or, if you don't believe in networking, even sometimes when you're not trying to network, you are. So friends and those friends want to help you and you want to help them. So I think that's really what led us to all the resources we needed. It was a combination of efforts from friends.
Mimi: Now, did you do, at the time, when you came up with this idea, you got the brand, you've got… Did you put together a full business plan or full financial model? Or did you just do a deck or "No," you're like, "I'm just doing this on my own. I don't need to do it-"
Leslie: In the beginning, first of all, we were really incommunicado, we were really high secrecy. I was really scared and paranoid that people were reading my mind and someone else was going to do it. And so we kept it very, very hush hush. Not even my family.
Mimi: Wow. Okay.
Leslie: Not even my family. My brother, who will probably listen to this, is going to laugh because he had no idea. The first two years, Greg and I used our savings.
Mimi: Oh wow. Okay.
Leslie: We hired industrial designers. We hired branding companies. We did the product development all on our own. And I was traveling back and forth, doing sourcing, working with factories and everything, all hush hush. After the first two years, Greg and I put together a business plan and we went out to probably about, roughly a hundred.
Mimi: Oh wow.
Leslie: We presented it so many times. It was like an act. We were both-
Mimi: So you went to VCs or where did you go? To angel investors? What did you do?
Leslie: It was mostly angels and we raised a million dollars.
Mimi: Good for you.
Leslie: We wanted to get started because we didn't know what we would need from there. We launched and it really was taking off.
Mimi: You invested the million dollars before you even had your first sale?
Mimi: Wow. That's amazing.
Leslie: Most of the meetings, until the very end, I didn't even have a sample.
Mimi: Wow. That's great.
Leslie: Which is tough. Though it's a good point actually, because a lot of them say, "Well, do you have a prototype?" I'm like, "I don't."
Mimi: That, or you wind up having to give up a big portion of your company because the risk is too high. But that's great.
Leslie: We were very lucky. It was friends and family. So that worked out really well. But then, since then, we've raised another 2 million from the same friends and family and a few new investors joined us. But now we have proof of concept.
Mimi: Which is very important. You have the prototype, you're about to launch. How did you decide you were going to distribute it? This is COVID right now. You're distributing during COVID. So you're not thinking, "Okay, retail stores," Because retail stores are not the most place where people are going at this point. So you decided to go direct to consumer or which-
Leslie: Even originally, we weren't really planning on going to distributors or wholesalers because we didn't have the margin. With that startup, you can't bargain people down because I'm ordering such a small quantity, they really don't want to bargain with you. So we weren't planning on doing wholesale anyway, but we were planning on… We actually had a pop-up in East Hampton and we were planning lots of events. We had a PR company. We were going to do all sorts of great, great launch activities and items and giveaways and promotions. And then COVID hit. I don't have a lease in East Hampton.
Mimi: Oh no. You leased a place. Okay.
Sunflow’s Launch Strategy During the Pandemic
Leslie: And we were locked down, just like everybody else. And I was not able to travel. Pretty much the world had shut down. So our factories stopped making product. So we were losing days, weeks, months, as far as getting product as well. So it was really not ideal, but, you make do. We opened the store late because we couldn't get there. And we put it together ourselves. We painted it, we hung all the fixtures, we made all the fixtures, and we hung the chairs. And it turned out to be, instead of a retail store, it was almost really a showroom because we had no product. We had no inventory. So the inventory that we thought would arrive in May, didn't arrive 'til July.
Leslie: True. But I have to say we were so impressed because we launched online in May, and then the store opened, I think we opened in June, and we had so many orders.
Mimi: Oh, that's amazing.
Leslie: People were willing to wait. I remember it was 45 days. Our customers were willing to wait for our product.
Mimi: That's so something, then. That's amazing.
Leslie: It says that people had the same idea that I did. They would be happy to see a new beach accessory. It was absolutely amazing, actually. And then also, with COVID, a lot of family time, quarantine.
Mimi: No one's traveling. Everyone's going to the beach and staying local.
Leslie: On the bright side of a horrible, horrible pandemic, we like to think that our product could make their quarantine and time spent home-
Mimi: Right. Have you found your sales cycle cyclical because it's seasonal at this point or is it picking up because of Florida and California anyway.
Leslie: It's hard to say because we haven't been around for a year yet. Very interesting. It feels like it's been a long time. But, it definitely built up during COVID. July was really big for us. I'm proud to say it was actually more than we forecasted, before COVID.
Mimi: Wow. That's amazing.
Leslie: That was really cool. Then August, we expected a big drop-off because that's August, the end of the summer. It actually was really big. So I think summer continued because of COVID.
Mimi: People have [inaudible 00:17:19] out there. They went to the Hamptons and never came home.
Leslie: The pool opening later. You don't have to go home right away. The kids can
take school from their beach house or whatever. So I think that's why August is really strong, which was great. And then we kind of quieted down, and then November came and it was holiday time. Amazing. And then January was fine. Quiet. February, March ,and April, oh my gosh.
Planning For More Openings
Mimi: Because everyone's going on vacation again. So are you selling now? When you say this, everything's online at this point, or are you-
Leslie: We have, still, a store in Short Hills Mall, New Jersey. Which-
Mimi: Are you based out of New Jersey?
Mimi: You are. I grew up in New Jersey.
Leslie: Oh yes. I know. I know. You know the Short Hills Mall.
Mimi: Jersey girl. I know the Short Hills Mall well.
Leslie: It's actually really great. We opened it right before Christmas.
Mimi: Oh, okay, great.
Leslie: And it's such a cute store. You should go stop by. It's really, really cute. Colorful. You feel like you're at the beach when you're there. And then we also have retail space in New York, on Mulberry Street between Prince and Spring at Naked Retail. That's been doing well too. We have two retail locations, but online is just-
Mimi: You're expecting to keep growing your online presence and then rolling out more stores versus doing wholesale.
Leslie: I'm not sure. We're kind of at a crossroads, but we're not sure because online is just… It never sleeps.
Mimi: Yeah. That's what's great about it. That's the way to go, especially now. That's where everyone's shopping. Have you brought on full-time employees or are you pretty much outsourcing all of your needs?
Leslie: It's me, my husband, and Felicia, who was our first hire and only hire. And she's amazing. For anybody who's starting a business, really be careful who you hire right away, because those people are your key people. So it's really just the three of us. And then we have amazing freelancers. We are so lucky, I'm telling you. I feel like every person we work with is vested in our-
Mimi: For people, I think employees and finding key people is extremely hard. Do you have any recommendations for people? Did you use Fiverr or did you use anything or was it just word of mouth? How would you suggest for someone to find good, even if it's outsourced, help?
Leslie: I guess I'll say that we're going to roll back to networking again.
Mimi: Mm-hmm (affirmative).exactly.
Leslie: Really. We asked people, who we respect what they think, if they've got any people they would recommend. If Felicia, we happen to have known for 15 plus years, she lives in Short Hills.
Mimi: Yeah. That's great.
Leslie: But she's somebody that we, Greg and I, my husband, have always had our eye on because she's amazing. And right when we launched this thing, she was the first person we called and [inaudible 00:20:19] right away. And all the other freelancers that we work with have been recommendations of friends or other people we worked with. We're very lucky we found-
Mimi: Right. So since this is going so well, what are you doing with your handbag consulting business? And are you just putting it to the side? Are you still doing both?
Leslie: I'm just doing this right now.
Mimi: That's great.
Leslie: I really had to step away from the handbags because, first of all, right now, I love handbags and fashion is great, but I think this time that we're in right now, I feel like the Sunflow really fits it better, for me, even. This is what I hope becomes my forever.
Thinking Super Big
Mimi: Exactly. So going back to operationally, because I think people who are starting things try to… I love the fact that you are thinking super big, because I think a lot of women, I don't know if you know this or not, but only 2% of women CEOs of certain companies ever reach a million dollars in sales. So low. The fact that you were thinking big, growing, raised money, I think a lot of women would have thought smaller and not been confident enough to raise money. I think by you doing that, is great. Any advice that you would give somebody, for another female CEO, to get to that point and to think big?
Leslie: Yeah. I think we're there, which I'm very proud of. And I think the idea, as we were developing it for three years, it was not something we had thought of and tried to bring it to market in a rush.
I think there's something nice about pacing yourself and making sure that you do your due diligence on who your competition is. How you can make the product different? What message are you trying to send? Because, one thing that's unique about Sunflow and other businesses that are super successful is that they're unique in their message.
I feel like there's a lot of noise out there, because there's so many amazing, amazing products. But to stand out, what do you need to do? So I do think that the time we took in silence and in a stealth mode was very valuable to us, because I think we switched directions maybe 50 times.
Mimi: Oh wow.
Leslie: At first, I'M like, "Oh, should we do this?" And then, "No. Let's go for high end." And then, how much do you want to elevate it? And then it kind of takes a life of its own. Then, by the time you're ready for market, you'll know when you're ready. If you really believe it's unique, you start bringing it to friends and family. Because if it's unique enough, they will see it. That's why [inaudible 00:23:05]. You know when you were saying, how to get investors without a sample.
Mimi: Right. No, it's great.
Leslie: It's hard. But I think it's because they saw the vision, maybe, through our eyes, because we were really excited about it. A lot of people have had the same getting to the beach and getting off the beach experience similar to ours. I think people feel almost like it's a familiar problem and they can't wait for it to be solved.
What might have been done differently
Mimi: Right. Now, is there anything you wish you knew now that you didn't know when you started?
Leslie: Yeah. There's a lot of things.
Mimi: What's the biggest thing that would have saved you the most money or time or headache?
Leslie: One thing is that I did start off micromanaging, which is okay when there's only two of us. But then, once you have more people on board to help and you've hired these people, and you're paying these people to do what they do best, just remember that's why you hired them. And that's why you're paying them. I feel like I didn't really let them do what they do best right away because I was wanting to see everything and changing it when it really didn't matter. And it wasn't going to make that much of a difference.
It was micromanaging. But now, I've learned and if something comes through my email and I know someone else can take care of it, I don't even need to respond. I think I'm just on there just to see it. And I've learned to let it go which is a big thing for me.
Mimi: It is. I think for a lot of women, that's a big hangup, another reason why, because we try to do too much and then we try to make it perfect instead of progress. So you get caught up in the minutia of like, does it really matter what font… Yes it does, but does it really? Or is it better off just getting to market and then changing the font later if you need to?
Leslie: Exactly. That was definitely a lesson. I probably could have saved a bunch of hours and I could have been focusing on other stuff. But, I'm better now.
Tips for juggling it all
Mimi: Speaking of other stuff, how do you manage being a mom and family life, work life, personal life, balancing it all. Because being an entrepreneur and growing a company as fast as you're growing in such a short time, you could probably work 24 hours a day if you let yourself. How do you manage that? And do you have any tips on how do you balance it all? What do you… Is there any apps, any tricks up your sleeves, that kind of makes you a super mom and super CEO or bad-ass mom, Badass CEO?
Leslie: I think hardworking is something every entrepreneur is, no matter what. And when you say I could work 24 hours a day, I also work with my husband. So it does make it hard not to work 24 hours a day, because as much as the business demands more, we give it more. And that's the perils of opening a family business. But, you have to learn to separate it, which has been really hard.
So I'm just going to admit, we work 24 hours.
And, I go to sleep early and I wake up early and I do have a funny story. We are pretty hard working. I'm sleeping with my partner in the business. So one morning I remember getting up, I get up around like 6:00 AM and I try not to wake him. So I don't want to move and I just kind of cough to like reach over to your phone, because I'm working with suppliers all over the world. There's just-
Mimi: You wake up to like emails from overseas.
Leslie: Yeah. I grab my phone. I'm checking some emails, because it's great, touch screen now. Remember the Blackberry? It-
Mimi: Mm-hmm (affirmative) So much noise.
Leslie: [inaudible 00:26:46] or anything. I'm reading email. And then I get one from my husband.
Mimi: You get one from your husband? He's awake.
Leslie: I turn over and he is awake doing the exact same thing that I'm doing. And he responded to an email I sent last night.
Mimi: But he didn't realize you were awake. Oh my gosh.
Leslie: He did the same thing. He was trying to be really quiet. And we're both like, "Okay, we can just get a few emails done before we actually wake up for the day." So these are just things that-
Mimi: That's so funny.
Leslie: Are in your nature.
Mimi: Yeah. Well it's hard to. You probably had dinner or you're probably… You said you had a daughter, right? You probably sit in there talking about it and your daughter's like, "Okay, I'm partner now too. I'm partner number three because I'm part of this conversation."
Leslie: Well, that's funny you should say that. So that brings us to how I de-stress. So my days are usually, now, this is a COVID day, so, it's wake up. I dance for exercise. I do that almost-
Mimi: That's great.
Leslie: In a local place. It's called studio 509. It's in Maplewood.
Mimi: Okay, great.
Leslie: But, I do that, which is the best release ever. I'd rather dance than have a massage. Getting a massage, I will need a pen and paper for the full time-
Mimi: Because you're thinking.
Leslie: When you dance, I can't think. Once you walk in, you can't get the choreography, they're moving really fast. It's literally, a mind relaxation hour. And then I come home, shower, and get back to pajamas, like everybody. But, that's my decompressing time. The other thing is that, I think you could probably guess, our decompressing time as a family is the beach.
Joy for the whole family
Leslie: So we used to travel all the time. We try to get away as much as possible. But one of the biggest challenges now that I have noticed is that, if you can imagine our business is the beach, and then our relaxation is the beach. It's hard to relax on the beach. My mind is racing and Greg's, he's got numbers flying all over in his mind. And then our two daughters, like you said, it's their business too. They're like, "Should we make a TikTok? Should we take pictures?" Even for social media, we take all the pictures. I mean it's-
Mimi: That's great. But you know what? I think it's a great lesson. I grew up and my parents had real estate and that's what we talked about over dinner, was just their real estate and what happened today with the tenants or what thing went wrong. And so it taught you, and that's probably why in this day and age, I love real estate to this day. I'm buying and selling properties because I just grew up… So it's a great experience to give your kids.
Leslie: It is a great experience. But I have to say that we had a little intervention during COVID with our daughters. They actually sat us both down, my husband and I. They sat us down and said, "We can't talk about Sunflow all the time."
Mimi: Oh yeah, I understand that. Yep.
Leslie: They're teenagers. One is 19 and one 17. They love it. They're so proud of it. And they are all heart in it. But they just said, "We can't talk about it all the time." We really make a conscious effort to be thoughtful to our family and talk about other things.
What Else Has Worked to Achieve Success?
Mimi: That's good. So this is amazing. Is there any advice that you would give anyone who's thinking about starting their own company or, you've given so much great advice, but, is there any other last minute anything that we haven't really talked about that you think we haven't covered, that you would want to cover?
Leslie: One thing that I would say to anybody who wants to start a business is don't let not knowing already how to do it stop you. If you love driving and you've got a great idea about making a car or something, but you have no idea. You just love driving. How are you supposed to know how to make this or start a service that does this? If you love it and you believe in it, you'll figure it out. It's very [inaudible 00:30:49], because it's amazing what you can find online now, too.
But also, just friends. It's like a wonderful thing that people help you and you help people. This is really something I've learned through this business. We could not have done it without the friends that we have, the people that we know. Everybody should know that entrepreneurs are also willing to help others because that's how every entrepreneur gets to where they are. They did not do it themselves.
Mimi: Having a support system or a mentor or some kind of something that you could look to, to get. And also, even the books and the podcasts and audio books, everyone's just writing their heart out. They're giving you it all in a book. So just pick up a book of somebody that you think that you want to be, or that has done what you wanted to do.
Leslie: Yeah. Even more specific, if you have somebody that has done something that you want to do something similar, but in a different category or a different field or something, you can email them. You don't know. People are willing to help and that's what's so great about it. This is how great business start. It's an idea and how do you get there? You ask for help.
Mimi: It's true. You learn as you go. You're not going to know all the answers. I think that's another thing. I think a lot of women or entrepreneurs tend to want to make sure they know how to do everything, because they're afraid to fail or afraid to do something wrong.
Leslie: Yeah. But, we're here for each other. I definitely feel very strongly about that because I talk to people constantly, weekly, different people with different ideas. I think they're amazing ideas. Or, how can I make this idea happen? I don't specifically know, but I can give you the general idea who you could ask. Don't be afraid to ask, basically.
Mimi: That's great. Leslie, this has been amazing. So anybody who wants to check out or purchase any of her products, it's GetSunflow.com to see her beautiful chairs and also on her Instagram page or TikTok. I guess you're on TikTok too.
Leslie: Yeah. My daughter started that. Yes we are.
Mimi: Pretty impressive. That's good. It's good. And I thank you so much for your time. This has been amazing and I wish you the best of luck for the rest of the summer that's coming up. I think you're going to have another great summer where people aren't going to be traveling as much and staying local at the beach.
Leslie: And staying safe. Fingers crossed.
Mimi: Thank you for joining us on the Badass CEO. To get your copy of the top 10 tips every entrepreneurs should know, go to thebadassceo.com/tips. Also, please leave a review as it helps others find us. If you have any ideas or suggestions, I would love to hear them. So email me at Mimi@thebadassceo.com. See you next week and thank you for listening.