The NZ China Entrepreneurship and Innovation Forum is coming up this weekend, so we sat down with organisers Kevin and Xilu to chat about our mission at Mum's Garage, and how people can kick-off their entrepreneurial journey.
Kevin: Tell us a bit about your background: Have you always known that you wanted to start your business one day and what was the trigger?
Natalie: I was from Kerikeri, which is a small town up in Northland, and I grew up on a farm up there. When I got to the end of school, I didn’t really know what I wanted to do, so I defaulted to moving to Auckland and studied Biomedical Science. I enjoyed science in school, so I sort of fell into that bucket. After studying for a year I quickly realised that Bio-Med wasn’t for me, so I switched to commerce, majoring in marketing and finance. I became really interested in starting my own business because I enjoyed the overall process of creating something. You get to implement every element of a business, whereas when you’re working in one, you are just like a cog in a wheel.
I had loads of business ideas, but found it difficult to implement them. I also didn’t have much confidence, didn’t have any experience in business, didn’t know anyone who owned their own business, and so I wasn’t able to turn those ideas into something more while I was in uni. I got to the end of my degree and decided I’d better get a proper job, so I joined the BNZ Finance Graduate program. I was in corporate banking for 4 years, and during that time I still had a tonne of ideas, but nothing I executed on.
The original trigger for Mum’s Garage really came from the experiences I had during a leadership programme I did, where I spent a week with 100 other young professionals who also cared about creating change in the world. This gave me the opportunity to get outside of my normal routine and think about things from a different perspective. I thought about whether I wanted to be doing what I was doing for the rest of my life, or even in 5 years time. I realised no, definitely not.
I then spent a year reflecting on myself and what I really cared about, and learnt more about entrepreneurship as well. As I learnt about entrepreneurship and started spending more time around people that were starting businesses or already had their own, I realised no one really knew what they were doing in the early stages. Entrepreneurship is all about learning how to start a business and developing new skills, and shifting your mindset so you can turn an idea into something. Understanding that really frustrated me, because I had spent 8 years studying a degree and doing a job I didn’t enjoy at all, because I’d never had the opportunity to learn how to execute on my ideas. During that time, I was surrounded by people in the same situation. The inspiration behind Mum’s Garage was the frustration around that.
Xilu: Why did you choose Mum’s Garage as the name of your company?
Natalie: Because it started in my mum’s garage - I started running workshops in the garage. When I quit my job, I was working on a couple of tech ideas, so as I was learning how I could get those off the ground, I learnt about the process to start a business. The other business ideas kind of dropped away, and Mum’s Garage just grew. We haven’t changed it yet.
Xilu: People say you need great ideas, not just good ones, in order to start a business venture. Looking back, what made you think that Mum’s Garage was an idea worth pursuing?
Natalie: That’s a really good question. People don’t need to start off with great ideas, because I don’t meet many founders that run with the first idea they have. Starting a business is about figuring out what the great parts are about your idea. Everyone’s idea morphs and changes from what they started out as.
You don’t need a great idea, you need to go through the process of turning an idea into a great business. You need the right thinking, the right principles, and a lot of persistence.
What’s really important about the early stages of a great idea, is finding out what you really care about and what you are passionate about. Also, what you are good at. For me, Mum’s Garage was a great idea because I am passionate about creating and enabling people to turn their idea into something.
Xilu: Do you then suggest there are no “bad ideas”, you just need to edit them into good ones?
Natalie: People definitely come up with some bad ideas, but building a business is a lot more about the person behind the ideas as it is the actual idea itself. People’s ideas get better the more they learn about starting businesses.
Bad ideas can become good ideas if the right thinking is applied and the idea is developed into something based on what customers want and the feedback from your market. A lot of people are halted by thinking that you need a great idea before you can go forward, but that’s really limiting, because the only way you can find out if something is a good idea is by going ahead and trying to get it off the ground, and learning what you need to do differently.
Xilu: What are some lessons you would share with your high school/university self now since you’re older and wiser?
Natalie: I didn’t know what I wanted to do, and I didn’t really do what I loved until I started Mum’s garage.
Most of the things I spent my time on during university, were what other people told me what I should do. People, such as your family and friends, can have your best interest at heart; they encourage you to do things they wish they’d done, or things that they think will give you greater value in life, but a lot of us are conditioned to go into a corporate job.
So I would question whether the things I did were because I enjoyed it, or because other people told me I should do it. The first part of entrepreneurship is becoming conscious about your behaviour, and the path you are on, and whether you’ve chosen it or whether someone else chose it.
The earlier you start, the better, because it takes a while to rediscover what you are truly passionate about and what you really want to be great at. If you can start doing the things you love in high school or university, then that’s really great because you get a head start. University is a great place for you to learn about what you care about, because there are so many opportunities and you are surrounded by so many different people.
Take time to figure out what you care about, and what really fascinates you about the world, and surround yourself by people who care about the same things as you. Be comfortable in that exploration stage.
Xilu: After quitting your corporate banking job, did you have any doubts about starting your own business when you encountered setbacks?
Natalie: No, I have never looked back. I was lucky that I learnt a lot about mindset and techniques for keeping in a good state of mind from the people I learnt business from.
I never had a really “dark” setback, and even if I had I wouldn’t go back into that environment. I wasn’t in any way passionate about corporate banking, and it didn’t match my skills and wasn’t the best place I could add value. If it all went horribly wrong, I wouldn’t go back to that, I would do something else.
Xilu: I totally understand that, because when I graduated from university, I had a lot of doubt about what I was doing, because after I graduated I worked for a PR agency for 5 years, and I was doing copywriting every day and that’s not something I’m very passionate about. And I have been questioning quite a lot, so you inspire me a lot.
Natalie: To just keep questioning is great, and there are 2 things that really help when you are at the “questioning” stage. One is writing and journaling down your thoughts. It’s really good because it makes you become more conscious about what you enjoy.
And meditation is also really good as well, and helps when you need to work long and hard hours. It gives you the opportunity to take a break from your constant thoughts. Meditation gives you a deeper level of consciousness. When you are thinking like that, it empowers you and allows you to think more rationally about what you are doing and how you want to change.
Xilu: I will definitely take it as a good suggestion and give a good think about it.
Xilu: In a world where everyone is not suited to be entrepreneurs, what kind of people coming through your consultancy, and you immediately know, that he or she would be successful in what they pursue.
Natalie: Most people are not suited to be entrepreneurs because we are conditioned to be employees. In much of our upbringing, we are taught to fit into a system where we are told to follow others. In school, you follow rules; in university, you are taught how you can operate within a business.
Most people don’t have the skills/mindset to be an entrepreneur right off the bat. That’s why Mum’s Garage exists - we are here to teach people the skills/mindset. The people that excite me most, and the ones who I think will be successful, might not have the skills or mindset at that point in time when they first come to mum’s garage. It’s more about the idea they have, where it came from, and if they are truly passionate about their idea(s). If they are truly passionate, they will put in the work in gaining the new skills to get them off the ground.
They also have the experience that gives them different viewpoints for solving problems. We always talk about startups as as a problem to solve. If someone has experienced something and that gives them a different view on the world, then that’s really exciting.
Xilu: What is a great team in your dictionary?
Natalie: Building a really great team is a hard part of starting a business, but the thing that makes a great team is when you’re brought together under a common objective – the vision for your company. Held together by common values, you care about the same thing. That’s what creates the unification of a team, but at the same time every individual is different in terms of their strengths and the way they think.
People often get in a team with someone that’s similar to them, because they get on very well, but to have a great team, you need to have different strengths. One team member can be great at certain things, and another team member makes up for any weaknesses by being great at other things. Have a system which allows a person to do what they are good at.
I have a good friend who as a background in health science. She shared an analogy for a business that I think it really fitting, and that is that an organisation operates like a human body. The vision, culture, shared values and systems hold the business together. Then you have individuals or departments which each have their own function, like you have the organs in your body. They work best when they’ve got their own distinct functions, but need the common objective and strong connections and pathways (communication) that keeps them all working with the same purpose.
Xilu: How do you like your team at Mum’s Garage?
Natalie: I have an awesome team. There’s 3 of us now, one full time and one part time. They’re great at the things I’m not good at. Elyse, who’s head of Marketing and Product, is excellent at executing on new ideas and keeping structure so we’re delivering on things well. Patrick is the third person in the team, and only works part time. He’s working on improving our operational processes and strategy, so we can automate more tasks and make the “machine run smoother”.
We all care a lot about helping more people to bring their ideas to life and build companies that will have a material positive impact on the world. We also share a similar core set of values which helps us to work together.
Kevin: Why do you think this forum is worth coming?
Natalie: I think it’s great for graduates or students who are interested in entrepreneurship. I think it’s really good to get an understanding on how you can go from having a great idea, to actually starting something. In my session, I will try share as much value as possible on how you can transition out of a job and how you can take those first steps. It will also be good to hear about other people’s stories.
Often, you don’t get to hear about the early part of their stories, so it’s a cool opportunity to hear about that. Also it’s a great opportunity to connect with people who are also interested in entrepreneurship as well. Finding a new community of like-minded people is really important. And, it’s an awesome opportunity to find out about opportunities in China. The more you know about where the world is moving, the better equipped you are to make good decisions for your startup. There are definitely a lot of opportunities for startups in China.
Xilu: Is there any advice you want to give students or graduates? Do you encourage them to at least pursue their career step by step in the first stage, and get a general idea of what they want to do in the future? Or do you suggest that they should go with what you are passionate about right after graduation?
Natalie: One piece of advice which influenced my path was when someone said if you want to start a business, go and learn how to start a business on someone else’s pay cheque. Get paid to learn about starting a business, and that was part of the reason why I joined the bank. But in all honesty, there were very few skills I carried over from being part of an existing business that I could apply to starting a new business, apart from personal maturity. I became more mature and learnt more about existing business management, but starting a business is very different from working in an existing business.
If you want to start a business, my advice is, choose an idea which is a real problem to solve, and find a community to help you bring that idea to life. Or, find an early stage startup where you can potentially work in. You’ll be able to see the early stages of starting a business, which is beneficial because you can see any mistakes or what they have done well, then apply those learnings to your future business.
Or work in a job in an area you truly love – then you can identify opportunities and problems that exist in that area. If you have experience and expertise in an area you are passionate about, it’s a good breeding ground for great ideas.
Sam: What other skillsets do you think someone should acquire at the university stage if they wish to start their business after they graduate?
Natalie: It depends on the person and what they want to do. Firstly, do something that really interests you. Finding an idea you are really passionate about or a problem you are passionate about solving is a great place to start. If you don’t know your passion, then there are a couple of areas which are most beneficial for teaching practical skills. They are anything to do with human behaviour, as business is much about your ability to influence human behaviour. Something like psychology or design is great as it gets people thinking about solving problems with products.
Secondly, physics principles are great because they teach you how to solve problems based on fundamental truths. That is really valuable because you break things down into their core variables, which feeds into the early steps of starting up a business. Thirdly, think about the way in which the world is going. So something like computer science, software development, or artificial intelligence. But to be honest, it doesn’t really matter. I researched what other successful founders have studied and it varies so much from arts, engineering, science, etc. There’s no one way, so do something that interests you the most.
Xilu: Actually, one of the entrepreneurs he used to work as the CEO of google in China and now he has his own startup business, his name is Li Kaifu. During an interview, he believes in 10 years artificial intelligence will replace 50% of human jobs but that’s why he’s investing a lot into creation, helping people to build stuff. You’re doing something similar which is really great, because robots can’t build their own business.
Natalie: Yes, I agree. The implications of artificial intelligence are potentially quite scary so you need to be new creating value, otherwise the jobs you do will be done by robots.
Xilu: So perhaps if you kept working in corporate banking, you will be replaced by robots as well.
Natalie: A founder I spoke to recently put it like this - "often people say it’s risky to start a business, but staying in a job that’s going to be replaced in the next 10 years, or working in a job you do not enjoy, seems to be a bigger risk than starting your own business."