This Young Founder Built a Multimillion Dollar Business by Rejecting the Silicon Valley Ethos and Being True to Herself
Laura Behrens Wu came to the U.S. as an outsider, and admits she's still trying to find her way.
In this series, Open Every Door, Entrepreneur staff writer Nina Zipkin shares her conversations with leaders about understanding what you have to offer, navigating the obstacles that will block your path, identifying opportunity and creating it for yourself and for others.
When it comes to entrepreneurship, few things are certain, but one thing you can always count on is that you’re going to hear the word no. This is a lesson that Shippo CEO and co-founder Laura Behrens Wu learned as she worked to get her company off the ground.
As a student, Behrens Wu ran an ecommerce store and found herself running back and forth to the post office on an almost daily basis. While she was interning in San Francisco as part of an MBA that her heart wasn’t really in, she realized that her irritation was likely a real pain point for a lot of people.
She was inspired by the creative energy in Silicon Valley and had a conviction that she could help businesses like hers by giving them a hub to ship their products all over the world without having to deal with different logistics for each carrier.
So the first-time founder left her MBA program behind, set up shop in a brand new country where she knew very few people and built her company one step at a time -- but not before meeting with 125 investors and getting 115 rejections. Behrens Wu says she wouldn’t allow herself to feel discouraged, and used the setbacks, and the fact that the company had customers who valued the service, as fuel to keep moving forward.
“We used each opportunity to get better and improve. The first dozen pitches were terrible. The next several dozens gave us room to practice. The next 50 were strong, but we realized that we weren't talking to the right prospective investors,” Behrens Wu told Entrepreneur. “The more people we'd meet, the more they would talk about us to each other. After many months, we found partners who not only wanted to invest, but more importantly, cared about our business and vision.”
Her persistence paid off. Today, the German-born 26-year-old has built a platform that assists more than 25,000 businesses with their shipping needs. It has grown from a team of two, Behrens Wu and her co-founder Simon Kreuz, to a staff of 70. The company has raised more than $29 million in funding and in 2017, shipped $2.6 billion worth of gross merchandise across the world.
Behrens Wu shared her insights about trusting yourself and not being afraid to strike out on your own.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Can you tell me about a time you needed to create opportunity for yourself or others?
[When we chose to incorporate the business]. We decided [that it] seemed like a product that customers could have use for. [We didn’t know if we would be successful], we just wanted to keep solving the problem. And we were really excited about the early customer feedback.
It was a big step for me, because I didn't really have any friends or family or any other connections here. And back then we didn't have any funding. We had some proof of concept [and] it seemed like customers wanted it, so we thought let's just keep working on it. We got into an accelerator and that got us some early capital to be able to pay rent. And then in the accelerator, we were able to raise our seed round. So it was a very step-by-step thing.
What was at stake for you in this moment?
We were always making sure that we were able to survive a couple of months. Today it is much bigger picture thinking. We're able to think about how we're going to make next year work. That's been a big shift.
In the early days, there were times when we weren't even sure whether our visa applications would be approved -- this actually meant spending months in Europe without knowing whether we could return, all while having team members in the U.S. We really felt like we didn't want to give up so easily.
What personal traits or strategies do you rely on to create opportunity for yourself and others?
Persistence. People keep talking about how smart people are and that's great. But I think it comes down to a persistence and determination to make something happen. In the press you'll read about an overnight success. It's sounds easy in hindsight. But the reality is it's never an overnight success. Especially not the first time. People have been working on ideas and have been failing or not getting anywhere for years. I believe in being persistent and determined, setting clear goals and spending all your energy on going after them.
At the same time it's important to be somewhat realistic as well. When we raised our seed round, I talked to 125 investors to be able to get 10 investors to invest. I talked to a lot of people and there were a lot of no's involved in that process. I possibly could have given up earlier but their feedback just didn't make sense to me. The feedback was not good enough for me to say let's stop. If the customers had told me that the products makes no sense and I shouldn't be working on it, that probably would have been another outcome.
When you experience a setback, what do you do to keep going? How do you get unstuck?
It's developing an understanding of what I can do that we can take away from that. What could we have done better to make sure that next time we're not running into the exact same problem? And then I very quickly get back into problem-solving mode. So there is a time to be upset and vent and to be sad. And then there is a time to go back into [the mindset] that this is a problem but this is solvable problem. What are the next steps in order to be able to solve that and then figure out a plan of how to tackle it?
People who want to advocate for themselves don’t know always know how. What are actionable steps they can take to make themselves heard? What steps do you take?
Coming from Europe it was a different mindset compared to Silicon Valley where everyone talks about killing and crushing it. It is just a way of thinking that is very unfamiliar to me as a German. In Germany we're rather factual and not as extroverted. That was a big adjustment. The most important thing to keep in mind is to be authentic. Don't bend over backwards to pretend to be someone different, because you're not able to feel comfortable and confident if you're always trying to be someone else.
The first two and a half years, I was really trying to live up to other people's expectations around what they thought a good CEO should look like. But that's a huge change for my mental health.
Has there been a counterintuitive or surprising way you've opened doors for yourself?
Personally I prefer to underpromise and overdeliver. I never put a number out there that would be insane to meet just to make investors or potential partners happy in that particular meeting. We always try to put a number out there that it is realistic, even a little lower, and then when we over deliver on these expectations. I've made a lot of friends and often mentors through being vulnerable about my fears and challenges. The best kinds of conversations that I've had is talking about them. It's easy to small talk about how we're all killing and crushing it but then the conversation goes nowhere. When people ask me, how's the company doing, or how are you, and something's not going well and these are people I trust, I'm very up front about it and I get really good advice from them by opening up.
Was there a blindspot that you had about leadership and opportunity you worked to change within yourself?
Because I'm a first-time founder in my 20s, I'm still learning about my own identity, who I want to be and what my leadership style is, and then you're being put into a mold where there are all these expectations from everyone else what they think good leadership is. The leaders used as examples are all male. It's not very realistic. Learning that I don't need to be like Mark Zuckerberg or Steve Jobs -- I can figure out what Laura wants to be like. It's a fine balance between being persistent and being determined and being what is considered "too much" in today's society for a women to be. I really don't care. If I need to be bossy in order for the company to be successful, so be it. And as long as we're doing it the right way, it doesn't matter what other people say.
Nina Zipkin is a staff writer at Entrepreneur.com. She frequently covers leadership, media, tech, startups, culture and workplace trends.