Dare to Dream, Take the First Step – Sherry Poon | Entrepreneurs for Good

There are fewer questions more interesting to ask an entrepreneur than, “Why did you do it?” Through this latest installment in our “Entrepreneurs for Good” series, we had a powerful discussion with Sherry Poon, who revealed one of the most interesting insights of how entrepreneurs have to overcome their fear.

Sherry Poon is the founder and CEO of wobabybasics, a Shanghai-based innovative apparel company created in 2007 by Sherry after the birth of her first child.

Sherry combines her experiences as an architect, environmentalist and parent to re-create children’s basic apparel with sustainable materials, simple, nostalgic styling, and modern practicality. Inspired by observations of children in action, during play, and everyday activities, wobabybasics offers uncluttered design, quality and functionality that appeals to both active children and their parents.

Wobaby Basics Sherry Poon - Collective Respi

Her story is one of originality, catalyst, and action.


Taking the First Step

The first step is often the most difficult one to take. To effectively be able to overcome that first barrier requires confidence in your idea, in your product, and in yourself. Often, this initial obstacle is a matter of mental strength.

Through this discussion, Sherry Poon shares with us her inspiration for her idea, the moment that gave her the greatest sense of pause, and how she worked through that moment to successfully launching her business. It’s a moment that we know many entrepreneurs face, and we hope through this video that you will be inspired to take your own first step.

Or, if you’re stuck in the middle of the entrepreneurial process, perhaps Sherry’s story can help ground you in the memory of why you initially took that step – so that you can overcome your current battle.

Entrepreneurship is about being inspired and harnessing that inspiration to fuel you through these challenges. In fact, success often depends more on inspiration than on having the “technical” ability to pull it off.

We like to fool ourselves into thinking that the problem’s too big, that we can’t have an impact – and that whatever impact we have is just going to be so small anyway, so what’s the point? We might as well stay safe, keep our job, and not dream too big, right?

But our “Entrepreneurs for Good” series highlights those standout visionaries who don’t just dream big. They dare to take that first step that often leads into true impact.

Subscribe to Collective’s YouTube Channel to keep up with the Entrepreneurs for Good video series:

 

Click here or watch Sherry’s full interview below, and check out the full interview transcript following:


For more interviews from Collective Responsibility’s “Entrepreneurs for Good” series, check out the playlist here. Stay tuned for more clips and full interviews in the coming weeks.


This article was prepared by Gabrielle Williams, Research Analyst at Collective Responsibility.


Sherry Poon, Entrepreneurs for Good: Full Interview Transcript

Sherry: My name is Sherry Poon, and I’m from Canada, I’ve been in Shanghai for 15 years. My background was actually in architecture, so I came to Shanghai as an architect, and then when we started having children, I started designing baby clothes for wobabybasics, my own brand of organic children’s clothes.

And now I also, I am the founder and one of the organizers of Eco Design Fair, which is a community event for anything that’s sustainable, tied to… so Eco Design Fair is a sustainable event to try and promote sustainable lifestyle and innovation.

It Starts with Family

Sherry: Family. For me, it really was the children. I had one child, and I was pregnant with a second one, and architecture and design is very time-intensive. I was still working part-time when I was pregnant, and that was eight hours a day. And I thought, “This is crazy.” Because my own desire was to be able to spend time with my kids and to be able to see them grow up, and – that early days is so important to make them into better people, and to create the little people that they are. So I wanted to be part of that.

But at the same time, my personality is that I do need something to do. I need a goal. I need to work. And so entrepreneurship – or starting a business – was the best way.

Sherry Poon Featured Image - Collective Responsibility

Getting Started

Sherry:  No, it could have been anything. As a designer, obviously I wanted to design something, to create something – but it could have been cups, it could have been pencils, anything at that point. But exactly at that time, I was also designing clothes for my firstborn – just little creations that were in my mind, sketching it out and having a tailor make it up for me.

And then we went home to Canada, and there were at least four or five people who asked, “Where did you get that little coat? It’s an amazing little coat. Where can I buy that?” And that was sort of the spark of, “Okay, maybe clothing could be a good direction for me.” And at the same time, also I was looking for organics for my children, and so creating something that was sustainable clothing for children was something that I could explore.

The Little Details

Sherry: Well for me, the big thing was that it had to be organic. And organic, because it’s the safest material for your baby. We looked at a whole bunch of different materials – my daughter had a bit of eczema, a bit of sensitivities in terms of skin sensitivities, but also anything that sort of touched her was very “present” in her mind. We would arrange socks for like five minutes before it was perfect, just because of the seam. So for me, to create something that she could wear that I would feel safe having her wear was very important.

So we looked at a whole bunch of different materials – including bamboo, soya, whatnot – all the different types of eco-materials, but came back to organic cotton because it is one of the oldest, one of the safest clothing, one of the safest textiles there is – for children or for anybody. So that was very important for me, was to make sure that it was safe.

The other big thing was also – as a parent – was to make sure that the clothing were easy for parents and for children. I saw my husband struggle with clothes, I had struggles with clothing – when my daughter was older, she would wear clothing backwards, and you know, you don’t have the heart to say, “Oh, take it off again and try it again.” So we created clothing that was functional, stylish, but also super easy to use – and just by little details that would make a huge difference.

Challenges

Sherry: Well, not having a fashion background. I think I started from square-one, which is, I think, a very good thing, because a lot of designers start with patterns, something that’s already been set, already been used in mass-production. But as somebody not coming from that background, I started from zero, which is great because having an architecture background, I think in 3D. Children are in 3D, so I thought clothing must be in 3D as well.

And so there’s little details, like we have little patch under the arms where it serves quite a few purposes. One that I noticed was you often pick up children under the armpits, and that’s exactly where all the seams are coming together, which cannot be very comfortable for the little baby. So we did away with that and put a little patch underneath, which allowed for more comfort, more movement because it becomes more 3D, but it also – that little patch was able to – you can sort of insert it anywhere in the pattern cutting and be able to save fabric waste as well. That’s one of the details.

Getting Help

Sherry: Well, the first thing I did was look for mentors – people that were in the business – and just ask them questions. This is even before having any conceptual ideas what I was going to do, just looking for ways – looking for experience, basically, from people who have done it before.

So I found somebody who was very much into organic textiles. He used to work for an organic clothing company – actually, an organic baby clothing company – and now, he was at that time at an agent for organic textiles in Shanghai. So he gave me a lot of background, and a lot of help in terms of where to look for suppliers – because that’s often the biggest problem in production, is finding the actual suppliers, or good suppliers.

And then I also hired a fashion designer, for obvious reasons, just to help me go through the process. As an architect, I already knew a lot of the design aspects of it – you know, like colors, and how to draw a sketch, whatnot. But she taught me more of protection – so she taught me how to make patterns. I made my own patterns, which are very similar to architectural patterns.

But she also taught me materials, field materials, different types, what do you use, how do you spec it – and more of how to get it from your sketches to actually produced in a factory, which is very different process than it is from [architecture].

It Took a Year

Sherry: Well, it took a full year from the idea of “Okay, let’s get this started. I know that it’s going to be organic baby clothing, and I want to try this out as a small brand in Shanghai.” So there was a lot of testing. Often with a lot of my friends, they have a lot samples, early, early samples – obviously I tested them on my own children as well. Tried to get a lot of feedback in terms of, for the branding, for the clothing itself, from anybody that I knew. Yeah, I really just grabbed anyone. So thanks for all of those people who supported me in the early days, because I probably was very annoying.

That time where it was just, you know, everything was home office, having two people to sell those clothing. Because we were new, we weren’t taking pre-orders, so everything was coming in hoping that it would sell. Yeah. I mean, it’s not a huge investment, but the time investment to try to market this – beyond just the clothing, there was also the branding, and we had the website up, just the whole production, the going-through with the fashion designer, the patterns.

So there were – it was more of an investment than just the 3,000 for the production. It was definitely adding up. And when you’re just starting, you don’t see any returns coming in yet, obviously you get a bit skeptical.


For anyone starting a business from scratch, you often have these days where you’re like, “What am I doing? Am I going the right direction? Is this going to work? Is it not?”


There’s a lot of things, a lot of concerns, and it was the same for me. I mean, there were a lot of questions, and at the same time I was still working part-time as an architect, and I didn’t want to take that risk to let go of my job just for this idea that I had, in case it did not work out.

So there were a lot of worries, and I think just before production started, I remember asking my husband, “Do I do it? Do I not? This is a huge risk. I’m putting in an order. This is it.” And he was the one who was like, “No, just go for it. So we lose a bit of money if it doesn’t work. Just do it. Otherwise you’ll never know later on if that’s what you want to do. Just do it now and get it out of your system. If it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work. If it does, then fabulous, keep going.”

Go for a Swim!

Sherry: I went swimming. I took a swim. For me, that’s like meditation, so if ever I had a problem or was feeling down, I’d just go for a swim, and by the time I finished, the problem would be worked out, or at least I would feel more relaxed and be able to just go for it again.

I think all entrepreneurs need that. They need a downtime, some time where they are just not thinking about their business, or are able to just let go – and often you have a clear mind, and you can go back to your task at hand easier and getting the job done faster.

Work-Life Balance

Sherry: It’s tough, finding that balance for any mother who is a working mother is tough. And it’s going to be that eternal question that I don’t know if anybody can ever answer. In the early days, of course I could have put a lot more time into it. It became more of a part-time job because my other part-time job was taking care of the kids, and obviously that was my priority.

So there were often were a lot of late nights trying to get things done. The business was intended to be very local, to be selling to China. I think we came in a bit too early, because there was not that market originally in China yet. We were selling a lot to foreigners in the early days, but obviously that is not Shanghai. We needed to reach out to more of the locals, which that market was not there.

So after a few years of trying to do markets, small-time markets, and still balance between life and work, I decided to actually do more of a – upscale it, take it to trade shows, and sell it outside of China. At that time, I was not working anymore at an architecture firm, so this was like “the business”. So it became bread-and-butter.

It was more than just a hobby, so it was a conscious decision for my family, “Okay, let’s give it a try, to make it – take it one step up.” And that meant also that I was not able to spend as much time with the kids. But the ayi would have to take over a lot of the work, and it was just one of those decisions that we had to make.

Going back a few years afterwards – now I’ve switched back. We’ve done the trade shows, we’ve done the markets, we’ve seen the business grow over the past eight years. I’m a different type of entrepreneur now – I know where my priorities are. I’m not as self-conscious or feel guilty to let go of the company a little bit more, for my priorities.

I’ve seen where the business has been able to go to, and I’m very satisfied with it, and so with our third child, I was able to go, “Okay, let’s just not grow the company. Let’s actually let it go a little bit, let the sales go a little bit, and lower it down. Try to maintain – I mean, still maintain the quality of the clothing, and the designs, and the branding as we’ve always had, but lower production so that I can be able to actually spend more time with the kids again.” And that was, again, another conscious decision of my own.

Making Hard Decisions

Sherry: Yes, definitely – I mean, when we downsized, we had to let go of some staff, we had to move offices. There were a lot of decisions that we had to make for the business, but – and also, you know, I had to take a lower salary obviously, with not a lot more sales – everything, all expenses had to be very, very tight. And that was something I was willing to do just so I could have more quality time at home. This is an ongoing discussion between Rick and myself. Yeah, I’ll let you know in about half a year!

Yeah, no it’s something that – I mean, as an entrepreneur, I think it’s great to have that availability to be flexible with time, but also with the business direction, that you can slow down, you can speed it up, and at this moment, we are just trying to maintain the branding of wobabybasics and the quality of it. And I think for at least the next couple years, it will maintain at that small scale – and then if we need to, it will still be there ready to ramp up again.

What Makes China Hard?

Sherry: I think it’s because there’s no one way to do things. You can’t just go to a bureau and go, “Okay, I want to go from here – A to B. Get me there.” What’s the process? There is never – nobody will give you the same answer. There’s not – any one entrepreneur has had the same direction, or experience with the same direction, so you can never get from A to B the same way. You always have to find your own way. It’ll be like A-B-C-D, and then eventually you’ll get to that spot.

And it’s always a learning process, it’s always that discovery, I think, that is very tough. In Canada, you just go to the Small Business Bureau and go, “Okay, this is what I want to do. Help me out.” And it’ll give you all the steps, and you’ll follow those steps, and you’ll get there. You just can’t do that here. Every single person has to discover their own way to get to where they want to go to. And that’s really tough.

And obviously, language is another one – language and culture, not being from here. Having to depend on your staff to try to understand what you want to do and how to get there is also a big challenge. I depend a lot on Chinese staff to be able to operate in China, and that’s a lot of trust that you put into somebody.

I think there’s two ways. I mean, obviously there’s a lot of distractions when you’re trying to figure things out that could have been so much easier if you were somewhere else. And these distractions, obviously when your time limit on working hours is so limited that – yes, it would have been much easier if it was in Canada, and I would have been able to go from A to B a lot faster.

But saying that, the skills that I’ve learned as an entrepreneur here is invaluable, I think. Any entrepreneur, I think, has to be malleable – you have to be able to see what the problems are within your company and be able to fix them quickly. If you can’t do that, it’s hard for your business to thrive. And being in Shanghai, and having these daily problems that you have to fix, my skills are really good at that. Because that is something only being here can teach you so easily. I’m really thankful.

Sharing and Success

Sherry: What’s different from here and maybe other places is that entrepreneurs here – isn’t not as competitive here, I think. Or… how do I word this? I think, for a lot of entrepreneurs who have succeeded, is that they’ve been very open in sharing what they want to do. If they’ve got an idea, they’ll ask whoever they want, whoever they need. “Okay, I’ve got this idea. What can I do? How do I get there?” They share their idea. They’re not really protective of it.

Whereas I think, maybe in the West, you’re always wondering, “Okay, who’s going to steal my idea? So I’m just going to keep it to myself and try to work on it.” Whereas I find successful ones here just blast it out – “Okay, what can you do? What can you help me with?” And that’s partly because Shanghai is a “We’re all in the same boat” kind of thing, where there’s only so many opportunities here.

We all try to help each other, if we can. It’s all about networking here. Who do you know? “How can that person help me?” So I often see that successful entrepreneurs here are very good at networking, and being able to share their ideas, and being able to get it out – and I think the results do come in.

Staying Inspired

Sherry: I think children – the family still keeps me going. In terms of design inspiration, it’s definitely them. I watch them every day and see how they wear their clothes, use their clothes. That’s definitely the design inspiration.

In terms of getting the business going, it would have to be the clients. I intentionally do markets within the community here – even though at some times I know I may not get that sales coming in, but I will get the feedback from the clients. And overall, it’s always good to meet the clients to just get feedback, but also just for your own sanity to hear all these great comments about your products – always gives me that energy to keep going.

Chinese vs. Foreign Clients

Sherry: I think the Chinese market and the foreign market are very different here, in terms of – we’ve even had to change branding, and what we write in Chinese and what we write in English is a little bit different. For the Chinese, obviously it’s more about health, especially for organic products. They don’t care that it’s going to help save the world, but they do care that it is better for their own children. And I think that’s a very valid concern to have – it’s just a different concern than foreigners might have.

So when they do come to see the products, or feel the products, they do want to know – first of all, where’s the cotton from? If it’s Chinese cotton, or if it’s imported cotton. And actually, ours is imported cotton. When we originally started, I actually wanted everything to be sourced, and supplied, and produced in China. At that time, it was very hard to find good quality, organic cotton in China, so it isn’t being imported. And luckily, that is something that the Chinese are looking for, so it does help the brand. So they want to know if it’s a local product as well, if it’s made in China or not. They’re very concerned about quality.

They’re very concerned about, also, if I actually have a store here somewhere. Because I think that makes it more of a valid business, instead of just a hobby, just going to markets and having a table. It’s very important for them that it’s a valid business that they can trust that company and then trust that product. I think they’ve had too many reports, too many news of products that are – food products and whatnot – that are not safe to be of concern about this.

For our local clients, they’ll ask a lot of questions, and if they’re satisfied with the questions or with the product, sometimes they’ll just buy one piece just to try it out. But I’ve often seen – after that one piece and they love it, they’ll come back and buy ten, twenty more pieces, and they become very, very loyal clients. And price is not a concern for them.

For foreigners, it’s often the other way around. They’ll love the products, they’ll understand the brand, but they’ll just be able to afford one piece or two pieces – and price is often a concern. I’m often asked, “Okay, can I get a discount?” from people that I did not think I needed to answer that question to.

Environmental Premium

Sherry: The environmental part is always a second thought. I mean, obviously for products, they’re looking at – first of all, do they like the product? Do they like the design? Then, you know, is it affordable? Then, okay, if it’s eco, then that’s either a bonus or – yeah, let me grab that, because the one beside it is about the same price but not eco.

So that kind of affects their decision – and then that’s for both foreigners and locals. The foreigners are often buying because it is a new piece. We often have a lot of more Chinese-inspired designs that they like to take back home or they like to buy as gifts. So it’s something that is memories from Shanghai.


For more interviews from Collective Responsibility’s “Entrepreneurs for Good” series, check out the playlist here. Stay tuned for more clips and full interviews in the coming weeks.


This interviewed was transcribed by Gabrielle Williams and Augustine Lee, Research Analysts at Collective Responsibility.

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