Parsons Entrepreneur Academy had the chance to chat with Liyia Wu, the CEO, and co-founder of ShopShops — an innovative shopping platform that connects brick-and-mortar stores with consumers across the globe.
Shortly after graduating from Saunder’s Business School of the University of British Columbia with a double major in finance and accounting, Wu decided to delve into the media industry in Beijing. It didn’t take long, however, for Wu’s true passion to find and persuade her into moving to the fashion capital of the decade — New York City.
“I've always loved fashion,” says Wu. “When I graduated from the program [Associate of Arts and Sciences (AAS) Fashion Merchandising at Parsons], I worked in New York for about three years and then went back to China. I opened a multi-brand boutique store — mostly carrying U.S. contemporary brands and designer brands — and then I went on designing my own label [WO Squared] for about six years. That was all before ShopShops.”
Wu mentions her life’s work modestly, but the ideas and accomplishments she’s made thus far aren’t exactly small potatoes. For example, Wu didn’t just launch a multi-brand boutique — she founded Beijing’s very first U.S. designer boutique and introduced Chinese consumers to brands such as Helmut Lang, Tory Burch, and Loeffler Randall, among others.
In the fall of 2009, Wu launched her very own label, WO Squared, where she not only designed the collection but managed four Beijing-based retail stores and sold to more than 100 retailers across China and the U.S.
It was then when Wu decided foot traffic just wasn’t enough. She wanted to create something that was much bigger and inclusive — something that would make fashion available to everyone and so ShopShops was born.
ShopShops is an app-based shopping platform that allows brick-and-mortar stores to connect with consumers via livestream. With ShopShops, store owners have the ability to “go live” from their sales floor, creative curators (designers, influencers, etc.) can sign up for a host account and sell their merchandise via in-app checkout, and consumers can truly connect with the brands they love.
“When I had offline retail stores, I often felt like there wasn’t enough foot traffic — enough to get people to know about the existence of my store,” says Wu. “I think that was what drove me to bring cross-border fashion to more people around the world, starting with China first.”
What began as an “offline discovery map” for Chinese consumers became a livestream virtual shopping experience for locals and beyond. Now, ShopShops features products from the shelves of stores in New York, Los Angeles, Florence, and Tokyo.
“I wanted to build something that we can virtually shop as though we’re physically in that space,” says Wu. “I value the retail offline experience very much — the sound, the music, the display, the color background.”
While Wu’s story may sound like an entrepreneur’s fairytale, she started out like most entrepreneurs do: Determined with a cell phone in hand.
To get things started, she and her partner used a third-party platform and trusted their gut. Taobao Live gave Wu the ability to create ShopShops’ first minimal viable product (MVP), or in other words, a very basic prototype.
“It was very messy in the beginning,” says Wu. “We just did what we thought was right. I was on air for about 12 hours nonstop.”
By doing the leg work and developing an MVP, Wu was able to do the following before making a hefty, monetary investment in her idea.
“If you want to create, you have to be hands-on and do it yourself,” says Wu. “Once it starts working, then you can invest more money into building out your own platform or go out searching for money.”
Starting a business, no matter the industry, is a game of trial and error for newbie and seasoned entrepreneurs alike. Think about it: In the beginning, Wu wasn’t sure how she’d transform brick-and-mortar stores into the platform ShopShops is today. So, she winged it.
After developing her MVP, Wu decided to take things one step further by presenting her idea to shop owners, door-to-door style.
“I basically went through almost all of the retail stores in New York and Manhattan,” says Wu. “I can still (if they're still open) draw you a map on which store is located where and who's the neighbor,” Wu continues. “[This is] because my partner and I tried to pitch each individual store: ‘Oh, hi! We’re trying to build something; please work with us. We don't take commissions. We're just looking for a way to feature your product to our viewers.’”
A combination of determination, scrappiness, and a bit of help from XRC Labs — an accelerator supported by Parsons — enabled Wu and her partner to convince Hart, The Webster, and eventually, Rag & Bone, that ShopShops was a startup worth working with.
“With XRC Labs we were able to get a lot of direct intros to brands, who probably wouldn't have been interested in working with such a small startup,” says Wu.
Although Wu used money from her previous ventures to launch ShopShops, having a nest egg isn’t a prerequisite for starting a business from scratch. Here are three tips on how to raise money for your startup without draining your savings account.
Knowing your idea inside and out is imperative, especially when you’re planning to ask strangers for money.
“Every time I go out to raise, I make sure I have the right story and the right data to support the story or the idea itself,” says Wu. “From my experience with XRC, I learned that it’s important to focus on what you're trying to say — your idea should be to the point.”
You should also be prepared to answer particularized questions about your industry and be able to give real examples of why and how your company is different from the competitors.
Once you’ve nailed down your sales pitch, you’ll need to find the right people to present it to. Not everyone is going to like or “get” your idea, and that’s OK. Finding the right investor takes time, patience, a bit of research, and a lot of persistence.
“You have to keep pitching to different people. Knock on different doors to get to someone who understands and is willing to talk to you,” says Wu. “Pitching to the right platform, and also looking for the right people to accept your idea or know how passionate you are about your idea, is very important.”
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 20 percent of startups fail within the first year, 30 percent in the second year, and by year five, nearly 50 percent have shutdown completely. So unless you have impressive stats to support your idea (“proof of concept”), you’re on your own.
“Obviously you have to make sure your idea is a ‘real idea’ or something that’s missing in the market,” says Wu. “You need to have real numbers to show because it's not just about the story, it's about the results and how you can make that idea or goal come true.”
Wu says it also helps to have a bit of a business background.
“Having a finance or accounting background is the route to build your own business,” says Wu. “I think it really helps to understand the basic structure of business, how to run it, how to build it. If you want to be an entrepreneur, you need to know what a balance sheet is, what an income statement is, and how to budget.”
In total, Wu raised $20 million for her startup.
Launching a startup can be intimidating. It takes hard work, vision, and perseverance, but it’s not impossible. Here are three invaluable things Wu learned on her journey with ShopShops:
Interested in hearing more from Liyia Wu or learning more on how to launch or grow your business? Join the Parsons Entrepreneur Academy Network to view the full interview, exchange ideas, listen to stories, and learn new strategies so that you can make a meaningful impact on the world.
Meet the author:
Tabitha Britt is a freelance writer and editor. In addition to writing for Parsons Entrepreneur Academy, Tabitha is also the founding editor-in-chief of DO YOU ENDO — the first no-BS endometriosis magazine (by individuals with endometriosis, for individuals with endometriosis) in America. She earned her Master's degree in Creative Publishing and Critical Journalism from The New School of Social Research.
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