Challenging the luxury fashion market is not an easy feat. That's something Coral Chung heard many times in the early days of her handbag start-up SENREVE. Her international experience with brands like Prada and Bain & Company – spanning from consumer goods to tech hardware – are strong qualifiers for this Founder and CEO, but it's her willingness to take risks, focus on long-term gains and relentless focus on customer-centricity that truly make this brand a challenger.
Why did you decide to start SENREVE?
I grew up in a very dynamic household – my mom was a chemistry professor and my dad an engineer and they both became entrepreneurs after immigrating to the U.S. from China. I was an only child and frequently the only native English speaker, so I got pulled into a lot of random business situations when I was very young. I remember drafting emails to lawyers and coordinating with different European suppliers when I was 12 (deepening my voice to try to sound 25).
I became very passionate about fashion, luxury, and globalization at a young age, but really built on that passion when I was based in HK with Bain & Company. There, I was exposed to the many different industries ranging from consumer goods to tech hardware to financial institutions, and geographies including the Greater China and South East Asia regions. I also saw the deep influence of luxury fashion on various culture globally. I later went to Stanford for my MBA and worked at Prada for the Global COO and CEO of the Americas. That was an illuminating experience because I was able to understand the traditional luxury industry from the insider’s perspective.
Despite my insider experiences in fashion, consumer, luxury and retail, throughout my career, I could never find that perfect luxury work bag that had all the characteristics that I was looking for. So, I felt obligated to go out and create it.
What major challenges did you overcome as an entrepreneur?
In the early days of SENREVE, there were many fashion industry experts, mentors and advisors who told me that my idea was ridiculous and would never succeed. Some argued that I would never get the cost structure right –mainly because they had a fixed mindset around the traditional retail model and brick & mortar approach. Some suggested that it would be too expensive to create a luxury brand and the timeline too long – it would take 20-30 years at least to break through the noise.
I think it was important to stick to my gut at every turn and not get discouraged. I also realized that when you’re doing something different, that fundamentally challenges traditional assumptions that an industry is built on, it’s natural that most people wouldn’t understand or can’t imagine that alternate universe – so I tried very hard not to take any criticism too personally.
What defining challenger brand characteristics have made your brand most successful?
- Focus on brand: We never sacrifice brand for irresponsible growth. We always do what is right for the brand in the long-run even it means taking some short-term hits, including passing up financially lucrative partnerships that damage the brand or taking a widespread/ broad distribution approach.
- Direct-to-consumer, innovative and flexible omnichannel approach: Direct-to-consumer is a key pillar of our business model that powers everything from managing all customer touch points and detailed analysis of data, to product development, to marketing messaging and content creation. However, direct-to-consumer doesn’t necessarily mean 100% online only or no other channel partners. In our case, we want to be where our customers are and make it convenient and a special experience whether it’s online or offline. That’s why we’ve partnered with leading retailers like Nordstrom and Neiman Marcus in their select top store locations.
- Community and customer centricity: We have a deep respect for our customers and take all of their feedback very seriously. In fact, we have held regular customer “hackathons” where every member of our management team, including myself, reaches out directly to customers to check in on them and start a dialogue. I frequently get responses like “wow, I can’t believe the CEO is actually reaching out” and my reply is that it is my honor and an absolute pleasure to connect with a loyal customer personally.
What are the biggest changes in your industry and how are you staying ahead?
We’ve seen a lot of doom and gloom in traditional retail – I see that trend continuing, which is actually to our benefit as a challenger. A lot of traditional brands and retail companies have inefficient organizational structures, invested too heavily in underperforming store footprint/capex, and are slow to implement changes. We are new, so we don’t have those legacy issues to burden us. I think the biggest thing that we need to be mindful of is the rapid pace of change, and we need to continue to stay nimble even as we continue to scale and mature. We are extremely watchful of unnecessary bureaucracy in decision making, making sure we’re always using the most efficient tools and technology, and not becoming risk-averse and unwilling to test and experiment.
What are you currently working on that’s unique or innovative?
One of our core brand pillars is Innovation. We are constantly testing and iterating. Whether it’s from a product perspective, marketing perspective, or just creating new innovative processes. A few examples:
- Alternative materials: We are always collaborating with start-ups in the materials space to understand options to make our products more environmentally-friendly. Although we currently use leather (which is a byproduct) and have a verticalized local manufacturing process that reduces our overall carbon footprint, we are always looking to improve: whether it’s plant-based bamboo or pineapple leather, microbe-based materials or other new innovations.
- Small batch, just in time manufacturing: We recently launched an Earth Day Campaign that shines light the detrimental activities of the luxury fashion industry. Several brands have been called out over the past few years for literally burning millions of dollars worth of product. Our view is that we can do better. First of all, we have a demand-driven approach and would rather sell out than overproduce. Secondly, we would never destroy our products – these are handcrafted bags that artisans in Italy spent days making, each product has a soul.
What big learning moments have you had throughout your career?
- Taking risks: As a perfectionist and daughter of two Asian tiger parents, it was hard for me grasp the possibility of failure. That was always my biggest weakness, and I think taking this huge leap of faith to launch SENREVE was a big learning moment for me. I approach opportunities and problems differently now and am much more optimistic and open to possibilities.
- Letting go: SENREVE is my baby so it’s very hard not to do everything and get into every detail at the company. But as the company grows, I realized that that approach was detrimental to the organization and actually slows us down. I recently took a week-long vacation for the first time in over 3 years where I didn’t check Slack, email or text multiple times a day and that was really good for me. It freed up my mind space to dream about the future in a much bigger way.
- Managing and motivating people: It’s an absolute art. One thing that I learned from motherhood is that it takes time, patience, repetition and a lot of encouragement. Most importantly, it needs to be fun and she needs to understand the “why” behind it. I think in a company this is also true, there’s a really important balance between feedback, context, encouragement, and recognition.
- Redefining “balance”: I think juggling a dual-entrepreneurship situation with my husband and a young child has been one of the most challenging experiences for me. It’s made me more resilient, but also more forgiving of myself. I used to feel extremely guilty about stressful work moments causing me to be a bad mom or stressful mom moments causing me to feel like I’m underachieving at work and not leaning in enough. I realized how destructive that guilt was all around and instead of obsessing about that, I try to take time for myself to meditate or reset by reading a book. Where I can, I also try to include my daughter in SENREVE activities.
What one leadership trait do you think is most critical to making a Challenger Brand successful?
Focus. This is the most critical thing because as a challenger and upstart you have very limited resources and many distractions. It is absolutely critical to know exactly what your focus is otherwise you will end up spinning your wheels. For example, SENREVE is a brand whose products serve the modern multi-faceted woman. We launched with only 2 styles and slowly expanded over the past 2.5 years to over 10 core shapes. Oftentimes I see companies expand product SKUs and categories very rapidly, and I think that is a costly mistake. We always aim to become a multi-category global brand, but we will do it step-by-step in a focused way.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
It’s from my brilliant husband and other half. I’ve always been full of ideas and the perpetual “wantrepreneur” before founding SENREVE. One day I started sharing with him the early concepts, and he smartly advised me to imagine what it’s like to talk about it every day with friends, mentors, strangers and just think about how it would feel. Does it thrill you or tire you out if you wake up and do that over and over again? That was such a helpful litmus test because I realized that I was ready and excited to live and breathe SENREVE every day and that starting this company was my calling.