Journey of a 21 Year Old Founder

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Lily Wu started Austern International when she was only 19 years old. One year later, she won a $10 000 AMP Tomorrowmaker Grant from over 5600 entries and now runs her program across four cities around the world. In 2015, she won first place in Anthill’s 30 Under 30 competition, naming her one of Australia’s most successful entrepreneurs under the age of 30.

We decided to ask her a few questions and share a little about her journey.

Why did you first become an entrepreneur?

To be perfectly honest, it never started off as anything altruistic, saving the world or even anything that meaningful. The reason I became interested in starting in business was actually a fight for survival when I was 15. My parents went on a 3 month trip, leaving me with $100. As a high schooler, I thought $100 was a heap of money until it ran out a few weeks later. As my friends started to get part time jobs at Maccas and KFC, I thought I would also try my hand at getting some extra cash lest I starve. Unfortunately, I was rejected from every single Maccas and KFC I applied for.

A turning point was when I was chatting with a friend and she told me about a wholesale website where she would get her mum to order clothes for her. It changed my life forever. That website is now famously known as e-commerce giant, Alibaba. Within an hour, I set up a new Facebook profile called “Cristaux De Gelee”. Don’t ask me how I came up with that name. I started buying Nike, Adidas JS Scott shoes for $40, selling them for a base price of $80 and telling my friends to help me sell for however much they wanted. Some would subsequently sell for $150 and make a $70 profit. That business started rolling and before long, I was recruiting friends to help me be distributors.

Even when I quit selling shoes when senior school started, one thing stayed with me. I knew that whatever problems I would face or what the world was facing, there has to always be smarter and better ways in doing things where everyone could benefit.

Tell us briefly about Austern International

Austern International is a place where millennials can explore their own passions, their directions and self awareness, equipped with the skills that companies most value so that regardless of whether they want to become an entrepreneur or work for a company, they can think bold and engage in a career that fits their passion.

We do this through 3 week Millennial Leadership Programs in thriving hubs like Singapore, Hong Kong, Sydney and Melbourne where they can travel with like-minded peers, solve real company problems, pitch to executives and receive the entrepreneurial workshops to develop the skills needed to disrupt themselves.

How do you manage your time, juggling a startup and your university studies?

The real application of university in my life is to be able to utilise every bit of information or theory I’ve learnt and try apply it to real life or to my startup. For example, whilst I’m not someone who’s particularly maths savvy, doing the core finance courses helped with basic financial modelling and understanding the core components when seeking investment. Both my majors, accounting and business law has helped supplement and build on knowledge for what I needed to be an entrepreneur and run a business. A particularly useful course “Legal environment in Asian Business” helped me understand the legal boundaries when I was considering both the China and Singapore laws when expanding Austern to those areas.

Getting great marks is definitely not a priority for me but rather, I like to make sure I can apply the things I’ve learnt to my business. For me, doing a course just as a WAM booster is a waste of money and waste of time. So in terms of time management, it all comes down to priorities. Truthfully, it depends when it comes to studying for university. If I deem it as a priority, I would definitely make time to study and try apply it to my startup or even to just store it for future reference and use. If it’s a subject I find useless and irrelevant, I’d probably just cram it all the night before and vow to never pick a subject like that again.

What do you think about university and how do you approach your personal education beyond the classroom?  

University over the years are trying to shift their focus so it can keep up with the current times but I still think there is a gap in expectation between the skills students have coming out of uni and the skills employers wish to see when hiring talent.

Whilst universities are moving their courses online and using MOOC platforms, maybe introducing a few new courses here and there, the process is still incredibly slow compared to the fast moving nature of industry.

From my experience though, UNSW is probably at the forefront of innovation compared to other universities I’ve seen. There are great promoters of entrepreneurship in UNSW – the people like Josh, Mel, Mary at New South Innovations who have done phenomenal work building up their student entrepreneurs. However, still only a very small proportion of students know about NSi but at least that community is rapidly growing. (Lily attends UNSW)

AMP Tomorrowmaker for Austern
Winning $10,000 against 5,600 contestants as AMP Tomorrowmaker for Austern International. Left: Simon McKeon AMP Chairman; Right: Craig Meller: AMP CEO and MD

When it comes to students in this generation, many students will go through uni believing they are confined within one field, confined only within their technical capabilities when the real skills they actually need to train; the soft skills of communication, teamwork, leadership can open doors of immense opportunity but is only up the students to discover those opportunities themselves.

Could you please share some lessons you learnt on your journey?

  1. Always test traction before implementation – I always try to get customers before launching any product or service just to know that I’m not going into it having wasted time and money for something that doesn’t work. After that, then just figure out how you’re going to deliver.
  2. Partnership is like a marriage – Find the right people for your team from the beginning because you don’t want to divorce the people you marry. If you find the right people, the marriage gets sweeter as it goes along because they’re going to be with you through trials and tribulations as well as the triumphs and successes. So just finding someone with the right technical skill isn’t enough. They have to share your vision and your values (and also be enjoyable to be around).

 

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