Entrepreneurship

A Founder’s Journey Is Taxing and Continually Demanding With Quynh Mai

A Founder’s Journey Is Taxing and Continually Demanding With Quynh Mai

VENTEUR spoke with Quynh Mai, Founder & CEO of Qulture (formerly known as Moving Image & Content), a digital creative agency known for equipping its clients to embrace the near future confidently. 

Through compelling narratives and cutting-edge technology, Qulture crafts prescient campaigns to connect brands with their audiences and guide them for their next big moves in the digital space. Mai has helped global brands, including Sephora, Nike, H&M, Google, COTY Group, L'Oréal Group, Yeezy, and Uniqlo, change their marketing practices from traditional media-driven initiatives to innovative, digital-first programs that drive business results for the modern age.  

Mai has worked with the world's top directors, artists, celebrities, and entrepreneurs in both business and creative fields and directly with tastemakers who have been at the forefront of cultural change, including Kanye West, Kylie Jenner, Angelina Jolie, Annie Leibovitz, and Jennifer Aniston.

 As Qulture's leader, Mai has steered the company to win two Clio awards, three Hermes Creative Awards, and a Webby Award, and was included in Campaign's "40 over 40 Digital Innovators."

A war refugee and female founder, she has established a reputation as a seasoned thought leader on the nexus of fashion, marketing, and technology. Mai has been a keynote speaker twice at Fashion Tech Forum and Melbourne Fashion Week, a panel host for Advertising Week for four consecutive years, and has contributed opinion pieces to The Business of Fashion and Women's Wear Daily.

The Journey

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

It's an inside-out job. Building a business helps you discover and articulate your values, goals, and vision of success to yourself, your team, and your clients. Often, an internal journey of self-discovery becomes a public one to galvanize others to work with or hire you.

By starting and running my business, I realized how much of a team effort everything is and how much lead a team takes to excel. I became a founder because I wanted things my way; however, becoming a founder showed me that's only sometimes the most successful path. As I matured as a person and my company grew and matured, I started to seek out strong, intelligent people who could challenge my thinking and teach me. And then, I learned that's where all the personal and professional evolution lives–in the constant growth and challenge. Whether it was a seasoned professional or a younger colleague who could teach me about pop culture, it became essential to become a listener, not a talker, and to learn rather than do more. 

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 saying "It's lonely at the top" is true. As the founder and CEO, one cannot confide fears or concerns with one's team members. Fear breeds more fear, and no founder is free from having an existential crisis or fear of total failure at some point. However, to be a leader, you still need to have a firm conviction and vision, even when insecure. 

At some point, I started seeking peers and coaches I could confide in. These were often strong, successful women who had been through the same issues, so it was easier to be vulnerable with them. Having a professional network of fellow leaders and confidants is critical to having a sounding board and a place to feel inspired, guided, and supported.

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

Rather than using pure intuition, I rely on observation, questioning, and feedback from others to form my opinion. I question first and decide second. When making a decision, facts are supported by intuition that confirms that my judgment is clear, sound, well-researched, and well-thought-out.

Intuition is often assumed to be a gut instinct. Still, for founders, it combines expert knowledge (around your core business), failure (having failed before, you know what to avoid), and courage. Of course, you never know if your decision is correct until after the fact, but experience and the courage to take a leap of faith often enable entrepreneurs to make the right choice in a timely way.

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? 

I always say that I had never worked harder than when I decided to open my own business. The buck stops at you, so you have to do everything–from business development and accounting to taking out the trash! For years, I would put in a full 10 to 12-hour day, stop to make and eat dinner with my family and get back to work for a few hours before bedtime. I was consumed with work, delivering top quality to my clients while leading a team of people who relied on me for vision and opportunity. 

It was a stressful time. I focused on my business, family, and health for those years and had to forgo a bit of social life. I lost touch with friends and didn't make any new ones. It was a lonely time, but now, a decade into my business, I'm on solid footing, able to rely on my skills, my team, and our combined expertise. I am now in a great position to focus on friendships again.

Thankfully, I knew my health had to be a priority to have the stamina to work hard, so I dutifully worked out multiple times a week and ate well. Most CEOs have this in common–they have a regular exercise routine. It's critical to de-stress and have the energy and stamina to manage whatever comes along. Having a strong mind/body connection also allows me to think clearly, move fast and keep up with my Gen Z colleagues, who are energetic and full of ideas. Health is one critical piece that is vital for anyone running a company.

What is the most unrelatable part of being an entrepreneur, how does this impact your mental health, and why?

The media often elevates the role of the entrepreneur in a rock star fashion. However, it's a taxing and continually demanding professional choice. In founding my own company, I had to play many roles: business development, client management, human resources, operations, and accounting–in addition to creating my "product." On top of that, having a family, wanting optimal mental and physical health, and having a relationship can be overwhelming. There were many times when I was frustrated, quietly angry, or overwhelmed. Yet, I knew I'd never quit my own company because that'd feel like I’d be leaving a large part of my identity.

Once you learn how to excel for your own company, it's hard to want to work for anyone else. You get too used to calling the shots, having the freedom, and succeeding or failing on your terms. Also, being an entrepreneur is exciting–it's the ultimate business call to adventure–it's powerful, creative, and can be quite financially rewarding. 

Sure, there were points where I did feel "trapped" in my own company and had to push through mentally to continue and then push even further to thrive. And I think we've all learned as a collective society in the past few years that whatever you do and however you do it, it is essential to take care of your health every step.

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?

When you start a company, especially in the digital space, you feel pressure to scale fast and sell big. People expect digital companies to accelerate quickly for a founder's exit. It was more important to build a sustainable business where I didn't grow too fast to burn through people just for scaling. 

A few years ago, I had a firm offer to sell my company to a big publisher and spent almost eight months on the deal–projections, financials, etc. Unfortunately, during that time, I was so focused on the acquisition that I took my eyes off the business, and when I did, the company faltered, and the deal went bust! It was devastating to lose the value, but the worst part was rebuilding my business from that low point. It was emotionally and physically draining. 

On the path to success, I rarely allowed myself to have fun! Early on, work was about survival then work was about growing and scaling. It wasn't until much later that I started prioritizing myself.

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?

Crafting mission, vision, and value statements for your business are essential; do it as early in the process as possible. These are valuable items for calibrating your compass and helping your business stay on course. Of course, you can redefine and change them as your relationship with your business matures. However, these documents are great maps for making many choices and leading everyone in the same direction.

Quynh Mai, Founder & CEO of Qulture

The Successes

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

We are learning to say "no" to things that don't make sense for our company and not look back (so we can say "yes" to the right things).

Creating systems to help teams operate efficiently is critical to maintaining a work-life balance.

Knowing that culture will always change lets the audience and their behaviors dictate your strategy, not the other way around.

The Advice

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

Make sure you have a trusted team to support you as a leader–a group you can be yourself with and learn from. Understand that a huge part of successful leadership is communication–which is often about having people feel heard (which ironically is more about listening than speaking).

Invest in an executive coach early so you have someone who knows you and can guide you through the different life cycles of your business. When it's your company, it's hard to separate yourself from your business, but it's also essential that you infuse the company with you, so having that coach can help you integrate and excel quicker.

Is there anything else you would like to share?

Before starting your own business, you must decide what you want to do for that business. Here are some questions I’d recommend asking yourself and taking time to contemplate: 

Are you willing to risk financial security for yourself and your family for financial freedom? 

Are you willing to pay your employees more than you pay yourself (this often happens at the start-up phase)? 

Are you ready to work 50-60 hours a week without compensation for your time? 

Are you willing to put in the sweat, lack of work-life balance, and investment now to achieve your vision in the future? 

Can you handle the pressure of providing for the livelihood of your staff and their families?

These are tough questions to ask yourself, but founders need to be ready to say "yes" to these questions and work through issues, often with no reward or acknowledgment. But if you believe in yourself and your idea, then go ahead and say yes. There is no other professional or financially rewarding path that compares to having a successful company of your own.

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