As part of my series about the “Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Turbulent Times,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Vivian Chan of East Meets Dress.
Vivian Chan is the co-founder of East Meets Dress, a fashion startup that creates modern cheongsams (qipaos) for Asian-Americans who want to celebrate their heritage but also stay true to their style. Prior to East Meets Dress, Vivian worked at an early stage tech startup and several nonprofit organizations. She met her best friend and co-founder when they were both at Yale University. Outside of work, she enjoys playing basketball and traveling around the world.
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
My name is Vivian and I’m one of the co-founders of East Meets Dress. We’re the first modern fashion company to bring more Asian-American representation and inclusion to the traditional wedding industry by combining contemporary cultural designs, quality craftsmanship, and a dedicated customer experience.
The idea for East Meets Dress (EMD) originated from my co-founder, Jenn’s, personal struggles when she was looking for a modern version of the cheongsam (qipao), a traditional Chinese wedding dress. She wanted to wear a cheongsam for her wedding tea ceremony to honor her parents and heritage but finding a modern design that fit her aesthetics turned out to be near impossible.
At the time, her options were limited to suspicious online sites or stores in Chinatown with poor service and a narrow selection. Ultimately, Jenn resorted to custom making her cheongsam at a local tailor. I was her Maid of Honor and we both felt that Asian-American brides shouldn’t have to be confined to low-quality options or scouring Yelp to find the one tailor who could make a quality cheongsam from scratch. So we set out to create a modern brand and reinvent the cheongsam shopping experience for Asian-Americans.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
East Meets Dress wasn’t actually the name of the company when we first started. The very first name that we launched with was “Modern Asian Bride”, which our friends quickly told us that it reminded them of a mail-order bride service.
That’s when we immediately realized that we needed to change the name given the misleading connotation. Unfortunately, because we wanted to start quickly in the beginning, we had already claimed the domain and launched our Shopify store with “Modern Asian Bride”.
Needless to say, we had to go through a few logistical and somewhat tedious hurdles to change our name to East Meets Dress. In hindsight, my advice would be to spend more than just 10 minutes thinking of your brand name.
Ultimately, coming up with a good name shouldn’t prevent you from starting, but make sure to at least come up with a decent enough name with no misleading connotations and ask your friends and family to provide some quick feedback on it before you launch!
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
Both of our spouses have been incredibly supportive and helpful every step of the way from when EMD was just a crazy idea to becoming a profitable business. They were our consultants, therapists, motivators, as well as our free laborers at the time by helping us package and ship dresses out of our apartments.
Starting a business is tough and you rarely have any work-life balance in the beginning, so we couldn’t have done it without all of their patience and support.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When your company started, what was its vision, what was its purpose?
Our mission and purpose from the beginning has always been to “Elevate Asian American culture and lifestyle.” Growing up as Asian-Americans, we often felt like we had to straddle between two cultures, not quite fitting into either.
We wanted, therefore, to create products that are especially tailored for this unique market of consumers. Though we started with a niche product in the wedding industry because we knew there was a need and demand for it, we hope to continue to build on that vision and expand into other products and industries that continue to help elevate Asian American culture.
Thank you for all that. Let’s now turn to the main focus of our discussion. Can you share with our readers a story from your own experience about how you lead your team during uncertain or difficult times?
When COVID started, it hit the wedding industry hard and consequently, our small business. We experienced a 65% percent decline in our sales and revenue that very first month since most of our customers are brides. Many of our brides were postponing or cancelling their weddings and tea ceremony. It was certainly a very difficult and uncertain time and we’re still in the midst of pulling through it.
During these challenges, we made sure that we were transparent with our team with where the company stood and how we would survive this. We pivoted to focus more on virtual bridal appointments, doing Instagram lives, and ramping up our take-home sample try-on kits.
As a team, we prioritized the things that we could control such as improving our operations, internal processes, creating more blog posts and focusing on SEO. A silver lining to everything that is happening is that all of these tasks were important things we always wanted to do, but never had time to until now given that our business has slowed down.
Luckily, at the end of the day, we’re a small and nimble team and we don’t have any physical storefronts since we’re entirely online based. This has helped reduce our losses and mitigated our costs.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
Starting a company and being a business owner is a roller coaster ride. It’s both exhilarating and exciting while stressful and scary. We definitely have our ups and downs, and every business owner has days where they question why they even started a business in the first place when they could’ve just stayed at a comfy 9–5 job.
We’re no different. But both my co-founder and I knew going into this business that it would be a commitment we would make for the long-haul (sort of like marriage). We would never give up until we’ve absolutely exhausted all of our options and it would no longer be rational to keep pushing through.
Having a supportive co-founder and each other to rely on has definitely helped us stay motivated. We also try to implement systems that keep us disciplined in doing things that move the company forward even on days we don’t feel like doing anything.
It’s helpful to also find a community of other entrepreneurs to keep in touch with and share best practices because it can be very lonely running your own company. We also read a lot of inspiring books from past entrepreneurs to reinvigorate us every so often.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
Staying calm and level-headed. Your team is looking up to you and following your lead with regards to how you react to negative situations. Not panicking externally (even if you are internally) can help defuse stressful situations for everyone.
This is not to say that you shouldn’t be transparent about the facts and the situation, but there’s always a mature way to react to things and a bad way to react. At the end of the day, we are all human, so authenticity and empathy matters as well–you have to be able to sympathize with your team while also motivating everyone to continue to work hard and believe in the vision.
When the future seems so uncertain, what is the best way to boost morale? What can a leader do to inspire, motivate and engage their team?
Celebrating small victories is one of the best ways to boost morale and doesn’t cost anything. Every week, as a team we read and highlight our customer reviews and give shoutouts to team members who helped deliver amazing customer experiences. We also try to get creative with team bonding events that we can do virtually whether it’s starting a book club, doing a movie night or happy hour in our PJs.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
People value honesty and authenticity especially when receiving difficult news. Always deliver the news personally if possible either through a video or phone call and never through an impersonal channel such as email or Slack.
A term that we like to keep in mind is radical candor, which is the idea that you can be straightforward while still showing people that you care and have their best interests in mind.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
Focus on the things that you can control and know that there is always something within your control. For example, our product and customer experience can always be improved and we can always continue to write good content for our customers no matter what crazy thing is happening in the world.
The key is to do what you can at the moment to set yourself up for success in the future.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
Stay action-oriented even if it means only making small improvements each day. During turbulent times, it’s still better to do less than you hoped than nothing at all. It’s important to cut through all the noise when things are fluctuating and continue to make slow and steady progress rather than being reactive to current events. Action always relieves anxiety.
Can you share 3 or 4 of the most common mistakes you have seen other businesses make during difficult times? What should one keep in mind to avoid that?
- Taking shortcuts — when times are tough, it’s easy to start taking shortcuts and lower the quality of your product or standards to save money, time and resources. This is short-sighted and it’s even more important during tough times to stand out among the crowd by continuing to provide your customers with what they expect and deserve.
- Giving up too quickly — success requires patience. There’s a quote by Jacob Riis that says, “When nothing seems to help, I go and look at a stone cutter hammering away at his rock, perhaps a hundred times without as much as a crack showing in it. Yet at the hundred and first blow it will split in two, and I know it was not that last blow that did it–but all that had gone before.” Most businesses fail because they gave up before the hundred and first blow.
- Being too risk averse — while it’s important to be cost-conscious and focus on your core product, there are also many new opportunities that can spring up during difficult times that you should take advantage of. Many successful companies are the ones who take big risks when their competitors are too afraid to do so. During tough times, you can still try to be creative when it comes to launching new products, test new growth channels, etc. rather than just sticking with what you know.
Generating new business, increasing your profits, or at least maintaining your financial stability can be challenging during good times, even more so during turbulent times. Can you share some of the strategies you use to keep forging ahead and not lose growth traction during a difficult economy?
We’ve been focusing on sustainable growth methods such as prioritizing our SEO efforts, improving our product quality and customer experience from end to end to generate more word of mouth referrals as well as gathering more customer testimonials and stories.
A lot of our strategies now go back to the beginning days of our company where even though we only had a few customers then, we worked really hard to deliver an amazing customer experience and product, which in turn led to a lot of positive reviews and brand referrals that generated exponential growth for us.
Here is the primary question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a business leader should do to lead effectively during uncertain and turbulent times? Please share a story or an example for each.
- Share every burden that you can with the maximum number of brains. Sometimes as leaders, we can get stuck in our own silos and feel like we need to solve every business problem ourselves. But the great thing about hiring smart people on your team is that they can often come into a situation with a new perspective and offer even better solutions. When you share the burden with more brains, you not only bond with your team members because you’re all in this together, but you can resolve problems faster.
- Find ways to recharge so you can continue to operate at a high level. No one is superhuman and it’s just as important to not burn out as a leader during tough times. Treat your body and your mind well so you can be your very best when you’re needed the most.
- Care for your team. As Maya Angelou said, “People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” While sending care packages to your team members might not seem like a big deal, it can really make someone’s day and is an easy way to show your appreciation for them.
- Remember your north star. It’s easy to get stuck in the weeds as you’re busy putting out fires, but remember to take a step back and think of the bigger picture and mission of what you’re trying to strive for and readjust your compass if necessary.
- Be the leader that you want to have. Put yourself in the shoes of your employees and imagine the type of leader you would want to have during these times. Then live up to your own vision of that person.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
One of my favorite quotes is by the author of Atomic Habits, James Clear. He says, “Motion feels like progress. Action is progress.”
A lot of times, we mistake motion for progress. For example, if you have a goal of getting in shape, motion would be talking to a personal trainer but action would be to actually just do 10 pushups.
While motion can be useful, only actions deliver final results. The same concept applies to running a business. You should always reflect on whether you’re focusing more on motion or action.
How can our readers further follow your work?