VENTEUR spoke with Phoebe Tan, Certified Internal Auditor (CIA) and Founder at Taelor. Tan has held several leadership positions, including in finance and operations in Silicon Valley. Before launching her artificial intelligence circular fashion startup, Taelor, she held the VP and Director position in finance, procurement, and operations strategy for one of the largest airline food companies in the world, with more than 80 of the world's leading airlines as clients. Her clients also included Amazon Go and Starbucks. 

Known for her persistence and ability to solve problems, she has led many ambiguous and complex operations optimization and improvement initiatives. As the VP of procurement, she transformed the company's supply chain and established sustainable sourcing standards. 

Tan received her MBA from the University of Chicago Booth School of Business and a Bachelor of Science degree in Applied Accounting from Oxford Brookes University. 

Taelor is an AI-powered two-sided circular fashion platform designed for men to rent apparel and for brands and retailers to test products. It is an award-winning sustainability startup that has won competitions organized by accelerators, including Draper University, the University of Chicago Polsky Center, and SPARK Accel. 

Taelor's mission is to play a part in saving the environment by extending the life of garments and supporting sustainable fashion, as well as simplifying lives by owning fewer articles of clothing and sharing more styles.

The Journey

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

I've learned so much about my passion for changing the fashion industry as a whole and making an impact on the environment. I've also learned much about my conviction to inspire others, especially minorities and underprivileged groups. I grew up in a humble family in Malaysia. I would have never imagined starting a fashion tech company that's revolutionizing the industry and realizing my bigger calling in saving the environment! This conviction and passion motivated me to become more vocal and courageous about what we do at Taelor. 

The entrepreneurial journey is often lonely. Have you experienced loneliness as an entrepreneur? 

I wouldn't describe the feeling as lonely. I'm a problem solver by nature and tend to focus on the matter and how to improve any situation. Sure, there are times I feel frustrated with the tasks at hand. But, like any significant pursuit in life, including my corporate job, I have to work hard to prove my worth and convince others. I have doubted myself along the way, but I persist in finding solutions, and once I figure it out, things become much more manageable.

I have a supportive boyfriend who always listens to and encourages me. I also have a dedicated co-founder, team members, mentors, and early investors who believed and started trusting our vision on day one. My gratitude for them motivates me to get going even during the most challenging times. I want to do my best to create value and succeed for them! 

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? 

Know your passion and create meaning in what you do. Starting a new business is exciting and can be rewarding but highly challenging at the same time. It's at least a decade-long commitment. And I know I can't just resign when things get rough. Finding what speaks to my heart every day is what keeps me motivated. At Taelor, it's about our mission of disrupting the fashion industry with our circular fashion model and algorithms. It's about changing how people think about fashion, inspiring them to embrace sustainable practices such as the rental and resale of clothing, and partnering with sustainable brands. 

Together, we can reduce the fashion industry's environmental impact and create a better world. While the mission is my driving force, I also find meaning in my progress and the new things I learn daily. And we celebrate even the small wins! Ask yourself why you started the journey–what impact do you want to see in yourself and others? What are you trying to change? 

Newer entrepreneurs often equate their 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? 

Not really. I focus on what I can do now, what I can do better, and what I can control. I focus on progress, improvement, and growth rather than the results. But, again, my conviction is I'm giving it my very best, and I'm fully committed. 

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

1. Disappointing my team members and our investors

This fear is my driving force behind delivering results. 

2. Disappointing our customers

I often tell my team members we have to be obsessed about our customers. We have to understand their needs, elevate their styles and help them achieve their goals, be responsive, be proactive–anything we can do to improve their user experience and stick with Taelor, etc. This is the mindset that everyone at Taelor should have. My co-founder and I find opportunities everywhere to engage with our customers. We have a regular customer feedback session that's incredibly important to us. 

3. Running out of cash

This is not a problem for us now, but in reality, it's something that every startup should monitor closely. We are very resourceful and monitor our budgets and resource allocations closely. For example, we review our marketing, spending, and performance weekly to adjust and optimize spending accordingly.

The Mistakes

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

1. I learned to prepare better, to be open for help, to get honest with myself, and to trust myself

I seldom had to practice my presentations much when I was in my corporate job as I knew the materials very well and felt comfortable answering any questions. However, my co-founder is a master of presentation and public speaking, and she wants every pitch to be perfect. So, before our first pitch competition, she arranged over 40 mock pitch interviews. 

At first, it was overwhelming for me–it's my operations nature always to want to get things done quickly and efficiently while optimizing returns. However, I soon realized the importance of practice, feedback, repetition, and storytelling skills through those mock interviews. As a result, I felt much more prepared and confident when we officially started fundraising. 

2. At the same time, I also learned to trust myself and be authentic

During a competition, we prepared for every possible question but failed to answer them well as we got too caught up in finding the slide and answering the questions ideally. I was disappointed that we didn't win the $100k! In hindsight, I know I can trust myself more, and even if I don't know something, I will continue to find the answer or solution. I've learned to focus my energy on the business itself. We may not have the perfect answer, but I know I'm on track to figuring it out.

3. I wish I knew the best resources and tools available from day one 

There's so much information and so many resources available online for founders, but sometimes, we need to know which route to follow. We should have tried to do many administrative tasks ourselves to avoid working with the wrong company, which could have saved our time and money. We learned by asking around and reaching out to other founders, but also through trial and error. It's essential to find the proper support early on and offload most administrative tasks to the professionals so we can focus on the core business and find customers. This includes areas outside of your expertise. Don't try to figure everything out yourself.

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?

1. Taking the time to develop and explain your company identity and culture

When I worked in the corporate world, I often thought about the kind of company I wanted to create and the kind of people I wanted to hire. Create a culture that aligns with your values and vision. For Taelor, it's an environment that values honesty, diversity, respect, learning, and growth. You must hire people aligned with your values and vision.

2. Taking full advantage of having quality mentorship connections in your life 

The power of entrepreneurs to be great leaders and influencers that can make a positive difference in others (and the environment!) through our decisions.

3. Make sure you hire all of the experts you to protect your business, your employees, and your customers 

Administrative and legal complications come from taxes, employment laws, and insurance. Don't try to figure everything out yourself. Get help!

Phoebe Tan, Certified Internal Auditor (CIA) and Founder at Taelor / Photo by Chris Lee and courtesy of Phoebe Tan

The Successes

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

Hiring is challenging for all companies but especially for startups. When we started, I ran the operations in my townhouse, and hiring people to work out of my house was challenging. I did most of the packing, laundry, and order processing myself early because we needed more time for a warehouse. I needed to offload my work and find someone to handle fulfillment, merchandising, and order processing. I also needed someone I felt comfortable with working at my house. Finding the right person who was flexible and able to perform all functions quickly took a lot of work. I posted an adjustable part-time position for an operations helper and went through a few people, but I needed something else. 

Meanwhile, I was hiring part-time stylists. Two candidates I interviewed were still in school, getting their fashion and merchandising degrees. The program was online, and the candidates were looking for part-time fashion-related roles. I was impressed by their passion for changing the fashion world and why they were interested in joining Taelor. 

Although they still needed to be qualified and ready to be a stylist, I convinced them to join the team and learn other aspects of the operations while also learning about styling and merchandising. They are now responsible for all operations tasks and are motivated to learn to style and merchandise on the side. As we scale and grow the team, I plan to train them in the role they are passionate about and hire others to fill in the gaps. 

During the early phase of a startup, we should not look for candidates who meet the job description requirements. Instead, we should focus on finding motivated talent that aligns with our vision. The roles can be fluid and developed over time as we continue to grow, pivot at times, and find the right product-market fit. There are many freelance platforms where we can find experienced talent to help us get things done and progress. 

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

1. I make sure I check-in with myself and know when to check-out

I know when to take a break and focus on the now. As for me, it's my meal times with my partner and play times with my fur baby.  

2. I enjoy changing my environment 

Find your zen zone, a place where you can relax, like the meditation room at the airport. I'm a nature lover. My zen zone is to sit outside on my deck to meditate and reflect whenever I need a break to unwind or recharge. This practice will usually shift my energy and perspective, even if it's just for 10-15 minutes. I also enjoy hiking and spending time in nature on the weekends.

3. Becoming an expert at managing my time 

Becoming more tactical, prioritizing my time and energy on the most impactful areas (the 80/20 rule applies here), and delegating or outsourcing the rest. We only have a finite amount of time, so spend it wisely. Another way to think about this is the more time I invest, the higher the return I expect. Less is more. Refrain from occupying yourself with unproductive meetings. I like doing 30-minute time slots on all introductions and regular weekly calls.

It's also essential to find the proper support early on and offload most administrative tasks to the professionals so we can focus on the core business and finding customers. This includes areas outside your expertise. Don't try to figure everything out yourself.

The Advice

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

Know that there’s more to life than work

Personally, my startup is, and has always been, an integral part of my life, but not all of my life. It energizes me and stirs my creativity and problem-solving mind. It gives me a sense of joy and happiness. But, of course, other parts of my life are also sources of pleasure and satisfaction, such as my fur baby, my family, close friends, and nature.

Know your passion and create meaning in what you do

Starting a new business is exciting and can be rewarding but challenging at the same time. It is at least a decade-long commitment. I know I can't just resign when things get rough. Finding what speaks to my heart every day is what keeps me motivated. At Taelor, it's about our mission of disrupting the fashion industry with our circular fashion model and algorithms. It's about changing how people think about fashion, inspiring them to embrace sustainable practices such as the rental and resale of clothing, and partnering with sustainable brands.

Together, we can reduce the fashion industry's environmental impact and create a better world for all. While the mission is my driving force, I also find meaning in our progress and the new things I learn daily. And we celebrate even the small wins! Ask yourself why you started the journey–what impact do you want to see in yourself and others? What are you trying to change? 

Realize your time is valuable!

As mentioned above, prioritize your time and energy on the most impactful areas and delegate or outsource the rest. Spend your time wisely. Refrain from occupying yourself with unproductive meetings.

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

1. Find the right co-founder who complements your skill set and shares similar values 

Most importantly, make sure that if you have a co-founder, it's someone you respect and want to work with. It's like finding a compatible life partner–showing one another mutual respect, creating an excellent product together, and focusing on growth, not drama!

2. Immerse in the startup community and build connections early on

You can share resources, especially regarding new hires and fundraising. 

3. Have fun along the way

Sure, things will get hectic, but you'll have so much joy once the product is out. Customers will be happy, and the team will feel inspired. So focus on the fun part!

Other

Is there anything else you would like to share?

Taelor is a men's rental clothing subscription box designed for busy men to look good without having to purchase or own clothes. Men receive two subscription boxes each month with four pieces of clothing. Each item is hand-selected by AI technology and a personal stylist, so each person has custom clothing based on their lifestyle and personal preference. 

Men can then return the items in a pre-paid envelope at the end of the month and receive new items the following month with no pressure to buy. 

Taelor’s rental model means men always have in-season styles at their fingertips, and no extra closet space is required. By renting clothes rather than owning them, Taelor customers are helping reduce waste and saving the environment. 

Taelor is offering an exclusive discount to VENTEUR’s readers. Use the code "ModernProfessional" to get 25% off your first two months. 

Cover photo  by Chris Lee and courtesy of Phoebe Tan.

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