VENTEUR spoke with Dr. Michele Koo, a board-certified plastic surgeon from Palo Alto, about her entrepreneurial journey. Dr. Koo practices in St. Louis, but spends much of her time in Aspen working on her skincare line, Dr. Koo Private Practice. She earned her BS from Stanford University and graduated from Washington University Medical School in St. Louis. With over 28 years in practice and countless hours in the operating room, Dr. Koo specializes in facial procedures - "changing skin, face, and body to be in aesthetic harmony." She created Dr. Koo Private Practice to address the desire to transform skin non-invasively, with products that deliver on their claims and produce genuine results. 

Board-certified plastic surgeon Dr. Michele Koo / Photo courtesy of Dr. Michele Koo

The Journey

The entrepreneurial journey is one of self-discovery. What have you learned about yourself while building your business?

I’ve built two businesses. 

My plastic surgery practice I don’t consider a business. I consider it my life dedicated to my patients. It was great daily learning, an ever-changing experience. 

When starting my skincare line, Dr. Koo Private Practice, I had to dig deep to find much more patience than required for my surgical practice. 

For my surgical practice, I could readily solve a problem with the swipe of my scalpel, but not so for building a brand! 

I had to change my mindset for my skincare business completely. 

Most of all, I embraced how much I didn’t know and started all over again.

The entrepreneurial journey is often lonely. Have you experienced loneliness as an entrepreneur? If yes, what was that experience like, and how did you overcome it? If not, why do you think this is the case? 

The journey is lonely, filled with self-doubt, and simply downright scary. 

To keep from being overwhelmed by the Herculean lift and to calm my insecurities, I broke down my overall business plan into small daily to-do tasks. 

Pretty soon, completing those small tasks meant completing a benchmark and soon a milestone. 

I don’t dwell on the setbacks, wasted money, and wrong choices I’ve made, which have been many! I focus on learning from those mistakes and how I could pivot and not repeat them.

I try to surround myself with those who share my North Star that we are making a difference, making a better product, providing better service, and treating our customers with respect. I hire those who share my passion. The positive team energy is essential to staying on course despite my daily self-doubts.  

If “failure” is simply not an option, you won’t fail. 

You only fail when you stop pivoting. 

The Psychological Warfare 

Entrepreneurs generally sleep less, work more, and let their health slip. This combination, combined with loneliness, often results in insecurity, self-esteem issues, and low self-worth. Have you experienced any of these issues as an entrepreneur?

Anyone with a goal, and perhaps especially entrepreneurs, experience every single one of those emotions daily. 

I’m constantly told how crowded my space is, that I have no distinguishing features from the following 3,000 skincare brands and that I’m losing money! I have low self-esteem and insecurity and often can’t even make a simple decision daily. 

I overcome these self-doubts first by talking to my husband, young adult children, and my inner team, who share my goals. 

What helps is taking time for myself. 

I exercise regularly, watch fanciful fun movies, and read crazy science fiction novels constantly. 

I don’t want to be told what I can’t do. 

I want to surround myself with books, movies, and podcasts about what I can and might do. 

I surround myself with laughter, travel, love, and exercise. I surround myself with my family. 

I find exercise and self-care to be the most uplifting cure for low self-esteem and insecurities. 

When I feel healthier through exercise and more in control of one aspect of life, I feel more confident to tackle my professional uncertainties. 

The secret to success is taking care of yourself first. 

Koo by Dr. Michele Koo / Photo courtesy of Dr. Michele Koo

Newer entrepreneurs often equate their personal success with the success and value of their business. If their business fails, they are a failure. If their business succeeds, they are a success. Have you experienced this warped perception of reality? 

Of course, younger and newer entrepreneurs (and even older ones) experience that. It is near impossible to separate your professional failures from your self-esteem and worth. 

It is, however, really important to be kind to yourself. Forgive your mistakes professionally. Separate your successes. Letting go of the daily stresses and “lows” when you talk with your significant other and children is important. 

Separate your audiences. 

As a surgeon, mother, wife, and woman, my personal and professional life has become one. I wasn’t good at separating my practice and business stresses from those of caring for my family, especially when my children were younger. 

As I found better nannies, and thanks to my mother, I felt less stressed at home and in my business. The key again is to surround yourself with those you trust and love. 

I didn’t always have the emotional bandwidth to separate my self-worth from my professional successes and failures. I used to feel like an overall failure when my business was stressed, and I couldn’t achieve the next step. 

Unfortunately for my husband and children, they bore some of my worst moods, low self-esteem, and insecurities. I lashed out at them. I was impatient and abrupt and said horrible things because I was stressed and frustrated with work. 

But to their credit and resilience, they were my rock and anchors throughout the ups and downs. They knew despite my harshness, I loved them so deeply and showed up for them so reliably and sincerely that they forgave me and accepted me. I didn’t always express my unconditional love for them adequately, but as my children have matured into their twenties, they understand better as they step into their careers. 

The one thing you must do for your personal and professional life is show up no matter what; be a rock for those around you, and they will reciprocate. 

What are your three biggest fears as an entrepreneur, and how do you manage those fears?

  1. I‘m not a good thought leader. 
  2. I’m off-target on my products. 
  3. I can’t hire the right people.  

I rely on my instincts of what is important to myself and test and retest that those principles are also important to others. 

The Mistakes

What are some mistakes you made early on as an entrepreneur, what did you learn from them, and how can others avoid these mistakes?

I was so desperate for a team and traction that I listened to everyone and hired them all. 

Big mistake - lots of wasted money. 

As you gain confidence, mostly in yourself, you start making more prudent choices much slower. 

Hiring slowly and firing quickly is what I try to live by today. 

Surround yourself with honest, sincere people who care about others and who genuinely have a moral conscience. 

Listen to what’s important to them. Family is a big part of that equation. 

Love of travel and time spent with family and friends are qualities by which I measure a person. 

Their value of knowledge and learning is another quality I value. 

Board-certified plastic surgeon Dr. Michele Koo / Photo courtesy of Dr. Michele Koo

What are three things you see that are often overlooked by entrepreneurs you encounter, and how can other entrepreneurs be aware of these things from the beginning?

Slow down, solidify your foundations, and don’t settle for quick money or partners. If you want to build a brand or company, ensure your service or product is real and valuable, not “shit you put in a bottle and sell.” 

Give yourself plenty of headspaces; time to think and reflect. Forgive yourself, give yourself plenty of learning curves, and listen more than talk. I try to listen and read what thought leaders say on different topics to gain wisdom. 

Set small daily discrete tasks that are doable. Start with the small, achievable steps, and soon you’ll achieve significant milestones. 

So many entrepreneurs want the 30 under 30 or unicorn goal so quickly that they lose sight of what it is they are truly providing. 

Is it real? 

Will it make someone’s life better? 

Do I provide a service? 

Why my service or product? 

Answer those questions, then find your team. 

The Successes

What are three seemingly insurmountable obstacles you’ve faced as an entrepreneur, and how have you overcome them?

  1. Lack of capital.
  2. Lack of knowledge and inroads in your space. 
  3. Lack of a team.

You must make a million calls, take on a million meetings, and kiss a million frogs. 

What are three ways you have managed to boost your productivity without causing burnout?

1. Do Something Different

Travel, explore, and discover something you’ve never done before. Do something frivolous and fun every day. It can be as simple as buying yourself flowers that simply brighten your day. 

2. Reflect

Take time to think and reflect on life, your friends, your mission, and what you learned from that day.

3. Be Grateful

Wake up every day and be grateful. Grateful for everything you have, don’t worry about what you don’t have or what others have achieved. None of that matters to you and your mission.

The Advice

How can newer entrepreneurs develop a healthy work-life balance even when it seems like an impossible task?

Set up a routine. Establish one hour every day on your calendar for meditation, exercise, or simply a walk. Do it without fail, just like you would never cancel a meeting.

What three key pieces of advice would have made your entrepreneurial journey easier, and why?

  1. Do the groundwork research first before creating a single product. Understand your space thoroughly. 
  2. Start small and find your niche from the start.
  3. Define your North Star. 

What do you think the most significant difference is between how an entrepreneur sees their career path versus how an employee at a company sees their career path, and why?

An entrepreneur takes the personal blame for everything. Failure and walking away are not options. There is no beginning or end of a work day. 

What role has intuition played in your success as an entrepreneur, and why do you think this is the case?

Intuition and your “gut” distinguish a successful entrepreneur from a dabbler. Intuition doesn’t happen by birth or luck. It is achieved by opening every receptive since you have to learn, retain, and use that  information. 

How has entrepreneurship catalyzed your healing or expanded your consciousness?

It has expanded my consciousness. Your obstacles humble you. Your tiniest successes elate you. Your disappointments crush you and make you want to quit, then you look around at all those that believe in you, and you gain back your willingness to continue. 

A constant feedback loop needs to be positive, not spiraling downward. 

The healing comes every day as you convince yourself, “the next call will bring success.” There is always hope… but you also never let yourself be too excited for fear of disappointment. 

Is there anything else you would like to share?

Put on your big girl pants. It’s a rough, lonely ride.

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