Growing up with two entrepreneurial parents, Coral Chung was born to be an entrepreneur, she just didn't know it yet. If you are dreaming of starting your own company but can't quit your day job quite yet, this is the episode for you. Coral worked on Senreve during nights and weekends. It was a type of pursuit to validate that there was a market and refine her idea. Inspired by the women who do it all, Senreve is derived from the French words for "sense" and "dream." Coral created the perfect luxury handbag for professional females, who need a bag to multi-task and look beautiful, just like they do.
Table of Contents
- Welcoming Coral Chung
- Testosterone Dominated Cultures
- Following Her Heart
- Coral Chung’s Inner Tension
- Purposeful Social Media Strategy
- The Financials
- Importance of Differentiation
- Senreve Outgrows the Garage!
- Mitigating Surprises and Unknowns
- Quietening The Inner Critic
Welcoming Coral Chung
Mimi: Welcome, Coral Chen Chung. Coral is an entrepreneur, former strategy consultant, and tech executive. She is currently the co-founder and CEO of Senreve, a luxury brand for the millennial professional woman. Senreve launched in November 2016 to focus on developing beautiful and versatile products that address the wants and needs of the modern woman.
The company has experienced significant growth over the past three years and recently launched a $16.75 million series A investment.
I would love to start out with your story. I mean, you started out in banking too – Bain Capital and Consulting?
Coral: I started actually in banking. My first job was an internship at UVS in LA in the investment banking division. And it was a crazy experience that I did not enjoy. And I just felt like I joined because, at the time, I was a Wharton and Penn undergrad. That's kind of the prestigious thing to do – to go into investment banking.
I remember feeling like, "Oh my gosh, being an achievement-oriented, ambitious person. I was like, I really want this internship." Most people get it when they're juniors. I'm going to get it when I'm a sophomore. I was so gung ho. It was a really great eye-opening experience that made me realize that banking was not for me.
Testosterone Dominated Cultures
Mimi: It's hard.
Coral: It was testosterone-driven. I was the only, really I was going to say a woman, but I was just a girl at the time just 19 or 20 years old. And, I was honestly just scared of all the testosterone. It was crazy. I also didn't feel like I had any role models. I looked at all the senior people within the firm and the head of the office and all the managing directors. I was like, "Wow, that's not who I want to be in 10 years or 15 years."
So yes, I did start off my career in banking and then I decided to go into consulting because I felt like that was the other prestigious thing to do. The experience was broader. What I wanted to get out of it was to really figure out what I'm truly passionate about and what I really want to do with my career.
Consulting was a nice platform for that because I got exposed to so many industries, different types of companies, different stages. I was based out in Asia, but I also worked in Silicon Valley. So it was a really nice breadth of experiences, which I thought was a good way to start my career, to get a flavor of a variety of things.
Mimi: I thought it was interesting. I saw that you went to Silicon Valley for high-end retail, but how does that relate to Silicon Valley?
Following Her Heart
Coral: I actually was based in Hong Kong initially and worked all over Asia. And that was a really amazing experience. But my boyfriend at the time, now husband, was in venture capital in Silicon Valley. And so I knew that I wanted to go back to business school, get my MBA. So I thought like, "Okay, it might be fun to also work in Silicon Valley. So it was more for personal reasons as opposed to for the industry or the specific experience. But while I was at Bain, I did work on a lot of different projects with high-end retailers based in Seattle, for example. And so it was an interesting and relevant experience from the perspective of eventually starting Senreve.
Mimi: Yeah. Now, was this in the back of your mind that you were always going to start your own company?
Coral: I think so. I think so. I grew up in a very entrepreneurial household. My parents were both professors and kind of technical people, turned entrepreneurs. It was very interesting to be an only child in a dual entrepreneurial household. And I was definitely really involved in their business and it was quite formative. So I felt, yes, that someday I was going to start my own company. It was definitely always a dream of mine.
However, I also was fighting the inertia of staying on the hamster wheel. Staying on the typical chorus and the path of certainty. If you're at a consulting firm, for example, at Bain, you go from associate consultant to consultant, to leader, to manager, to partner, et cetera. It's a very laid out and clear pathway. And so yes, I had to fight that to a degree, but I think I always had that entrepreneurial spirit. So yeah, it wasn't like one day I woke up and had the realization. It was sort of in my blood.
Coral Chung’s Inner Tension
Mimi: Did you leave your job and then start your own? Or did you do it on the side?
Coral: So when I was starting Senreve, I was working at a big data analytics company called Medallia, which is one of the high flying unicorn companies. About a year after I left, actually it went public. And so at the time, I was there, it was a really exciting time for the company. So yeah, it was very hard for me to leave. What I did was for about six months or so, I kind of worked on Senreve as more of a nights and weekends type of pursuit.
I really wanted to validate that there was a market, flush out the idea. I wanted to make sure that, or as much as possible- nothing's ever a hundred percent sure – but make sure that I felt confident that leaving an incredible opportunity like Medallia was going to be worth it. So that was about the first six months.
Then what happened was really interesting because the rational side of me just kept saying, "Oh, you should stay at Medallia. Wait until your options vest and it's definitely going to go public. It's going to be an amazing exit and all of this." And then the irrational side of me was kind of saying like, "You really have to start Senreve. Now's the right time.
There's never the perfect time. The two sides of me were kind of fighting and eventually, the irrational side took over and was just like consumed me, right. It was one of those things where I was constantly thinking about it and it just overtook my being. I couldn't shake it. The rational side of me couldn't win that battle. So at that point, I knew that it was time to leave Medallia and work on Senreve full-time.
Mimi: And you did. So, okay. You did that. And now you did have experience obviously in the high-end luxury market product, right.
Coral: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Mimi: And so you weren't completely green to the industry and able to use a lot of your contacts from your past experiences to help you start the company?
Coral: Absolutely. I think it was really critical that I wasn't starting from just a total blank slate. I did have a lot of, I would say advantages going into it. Probably one of the biggest things that was beneficial was actually the relevant network that I had. So I was able to get a lot of warm introductions to relevant people, whether it's manufacturing and production or product development, or design.
All the critical functions to get Senreve going. I would say weren't necessarily just like cold outreach or cold LinkedIn outreaches. They were a lot of warm introductions. I was very fortunate to have a lot of advisors, different mentors, and folks in my network who could really just help make these introductions and get these conversations going, which I would say, accelerated the process of building Senreve.
Mimi: No, it's definitely true. I think when I'm looking at a company to invest as an angel investor, there are two things that I look at, right. It's one is, who is the CEO? Who's running it? What they are like as a character, but who they know. Are they green to the industry or do they have those contacts? The second thing is the product. And what makes it different? What differentiates it? So can you talk about that? What differentiates your product in this kind of saturated market of fashion and bags?
Finding a fit in a competitive market
Coral Chung: I think it's so interesting because people definitely have an impression that the market is crowded and saturated. It's obviously highly competitive. And I think what's interesting is yes when you look at the market as a whole, it is that way, but it's really about identifying where you fit in into this big landscape.
It really is interesting because once you dig deeper, I mean the luxury handbag market is huge. It's a $60 – 70 billion global market. And when you look at the different segments, each of those are billion dollar markets and opportunities. And so the Senreve points of differentiation really come across in a few areas. So the first is we really focus on the intersection of luxury, design, craftsmanship, quality, and versatility functionality, and having all the features and details that women really want and need in their lives.
So that intersection in terms of a product design development and delivery process is very rare and it didn't exist prior to Senreve starting. To have a brand focused on that level of luxury execution and design, but also having that functionality and versatility. So that was a big one.
The second piece was really from a price point perspective. We were highly disruptive. So our products are manufactured in the same factory as Celine and Fendi and Balenciaga and products that typically priced at $3,000 to $5,000 or even higher. And we priced at under a thousand dollars. That was a really important thing that we wanted to achieve. And we were able to achieve that with the direct to consumer digitally native business model, which is a highly disruptive business model as well. So that was the second piece.
The last piece is related to how we are very data-driven in our approach. That's very different from traditional luxury brands that have a top-down creative director. It's very… the whole process is very top-down. It doesn't really take into consideration the feedback or the actual input from real women who are using the products. So we are constantly iterating. We're constantly in dialogue with our community.
We do a rapid iteration product development and release process that's very separate from the fashion calendar. So all of those things combined really allowed us to have several breakthroughs. One of the big breakthroughs that we had is our Maestro family of products because what's interesting about that is we really kind of pioneered the big, luxury convertible backpack category. It really just did not even exist before Senreve. And so that product that we launched just immediately had a lot of traction and resonated with women because it's so differentiated across all of these dimensions that I talked about.
Purposeful Social Media Strategy
Mimi: And I see you have a big Instagram following. I mean, it's great. I love your social media feed. And so how did you get those followers? Is it through just word of mouth or did you have a strategy?
Coral: It was very purposeful. It's interesting because I was speaking to someone about this the other day and they were observing that it seems like every Instagram post, every piece of content that we put out is very purposeful. For example, they noticed that we have a lot of diversity in the women who wear our products and that's very purposeful. Whether it's our own photoshoots or different partners that we work with, we're always focused on a variety of skin tones, hair color, hair length, the eye color.
We want as much representation and diversity as possible. So yes, first of all, it's really about understanding your brand and putting out content that is thoughtful. I think that is supercritical and we're a really visual brand. So Instagram and social media are really important for us to curate and deliver through these platforms what our brand is about.
Developing content and community
Coral Chung: We focus a lot on developing content and curating that and making sure that it's aligned with our brand. The second piece, definitely, is about word of mouth. And it's about creating a community where there are very loyal and fanatically, enthusiastic people about the brand and about the products and that there's an offline and an online component to that, of course, but social media kind of accelerates that and gives a great platform to continue developing that.
The last thing I would say is that it was really helpful to get the approval, the endorsement that embracing the fashion community, the fashion editorial community, the digital influencers, celebrities, and so forth. So that really helped us continue to grow as well.
Online is where the sales are
Mimi: That's great. Now, do you find you're doing most of your sales online? Because I do see ads popping up in my feed or what percentage are you online versus selling in stores?
Coral: We're about 90, 95% online. We do sell offline, but it's pretty minimal. So the bulk of our business is online and it's a single channel. It's direct to consumers through our website.
Mimi: That's great because then the markups are much better for you as well.
Coral: Well, that's what allows us to have the price point that we do, right? Because most of the other brands go through retailers, distributors, several layers before it reaches the actual end consumer. And that's why our quality is of the level of a $3,000 to $5,000 bag.
Mimi: That's great. That's great. Now, did you finance this in the beginning on your own, or did you immediately go for a friends and family round?
Coral: For the first couple of months in the very early days it was bootstrap. So it was my personal capital, but we did raise some angel and kind of seed investor capital fairly early on. It was raised before we fully launched. And then we didn't raise any formal, large institutional capital until late last year, which ended up being really great timing.
Mimi: That's great. So when you do the friends and family round, you didn't have to value it at that point? Did you just do convertible debt?
Coral: Yeah. It was a convertible note. Yep.
Mimi: And then now this past time, can you talk a little bit about your valuation? I always find that that's kind of… was it a VC or private equity or was it more of like individuals that invested in this last round?
Coral: Yeah, it was a very well known venture capital, private equity firm, growth equity firm called Norwest. They actually have invested in some really great consumer startups. For example, they were part of jet.com, which exited. Also, they invested in Kendra Scott and I was really attracted to working with Sonya Brown is the partner who is on Senreve's board now and was leading that deal. I was very attracted to working with her because A, there are not a lot of senior female partners, that leading venture capital or private equity firms, and B, she had also a great track record of backing female founders and female CEOs. It was just a really great fit all around. That's why we decided to go with them. And it was a really interesting process because prior to that, we didn't work with any institutional funds.
We worked with smaller angel investors or family offices, or like Jesse Draper, who backs a lot of female founders or more individuals whose LPs didn't have their investors. So of course, working with a fund that is very formal, that has a lot of partners, that has their own LPs, it's a very different relationship, but I have enjoyed the experience and I feel like Sonya was the right partner to be involved and it's been a great journey so far with them.
Mimi: Oh, that's great. So Jesse did invest in your company as well.
Coral: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Yeah, she was part of the early round. Yeah.
Mimi: Because we even interviewed Jesse a couple of months ago.
Coral: She's good. She's also very unapologetic and I really liked her and she's really proactive in terms of fostering a community for female leaders and entrepreneurs, which I appreciate a lot. She organized a little COVID round table for all the companies that she invested in that I thought was quite helpful. I mean, a lot of investors were trying to do things to support different companies and I felt like she's done a lot of great things over the past few months, especially during this very tricky year of 2020.
Advice for entrepreneurs looking for financing
Mimi: Yeah. Now, do you have any advice for any CEOs or entrepreneurs that are listening right now that are looking for financing? You make it sound like it was very easy to get in front of someone like Jesse or in front of Sonya, but is there any kind of advice that you would give in order to get in front of these different private equity or VC or angel investors?
Coral: Yeah. The first thing, it really goes back to doing a lot of networking, right. So I will be honest. It was not. I didn't start from zero, right. I had a really fantastic network for my MBA at Stanford, the Stanford community and that network is really incredible.
Jesse happened to be a close childhood friend of one of my business school classmates, so that's how we were connected. Obviously, my husband also knows her father from the venture capital community. We had multiple points of connection. It wasn't a cold LinkedIn email or outreach. Definitely, I had a head start from that perspective and that was helpful. But I think what's interesting is a lot of people don't realize that once you have this entrepreneurial drive, there are people in your life that want to support you. I want to help you, right. But you have to make the ask.
The attribute of persistence
I would say I was very assertive from that perspective in terms of really tapping into my network, reaching out to people, seeing how I could get in touch with Jesse in three or four different ways. I was definitely… in the case with Jesse, I was extremely persistent because as you know, she's a young mother, she's got a lot going on. While we were in conversation, she was also raising her funds for her fund. I was fundraising, but she was fundraising. You have to be assertive and persistent in the pursuit of those conversations, right. I had many, many follow-ups with Jesse. It wasn't by any means like a straightforward process. It required a lot of persistence.
Mimi: Now, have you had a pinch-me moment that like, "Oh my gosh, this has worked. I can't believe it. I have my own company, it's successful. I just raised a lot of money." Can you name any specific moment that you're like, "Oh my gosh, this is happening and it's working."
Coral: A couple of those from the early days I would say… I think what's interesting and exciting about Senreve for me is the vision has never really changed. So a lot of startups and founders and CEOs will talk about how they've pivoted or they've made some dramatic changes. And as a result, the business became more successful.
It's exciting to me that in some ways I'm still executing on the very first business plan that I ever wrote for Senreve. It's still a very consistent vision, which I think is super exciting, but what really was a major kind of pinch me moment early on was, we had launched and we were pretty much sold out immediately. And we just had great traction pretty much from day one. And I think that speaks to the work that we did in advance of the launch, such that we were pretty confident that our products were going to be well received.
Importance of Differentiation
Coral: And to your point about differentiation, we were very confident that the products were highly differentiated in the market. We weren't really copying anything that was out there. It was truly differentiated. And then the second time, this was really a small thing, but what was exciting was there's a Half Moon Bay Private Equity Conference for women. Every year it's a big gathering for female investors.
Friends started texting me. They're like, "Oh yeah, I'm at this conference and there's this panel. And three of the five panelists have Senreve bags." And so it was just, it started to build that word of mouth and the buzz and people were starting to recognize it and get excited about it. And a lot of the senior women at Goldman at Warburg Pincus and all these different places were starting to use our products and spreading the word. That was really exciting.
Another anecdote: a friend of mine was on a flight from SFO to Sao Paulo. It was a business class flight and he was saying, "Oh my gosh, there are two women sitting next to me in business class with Senreve bags. They're so excited to talk to me about it. So, there was all this great word of mouth indicators that started happening and that was really exciting.
Senreve Outgrows the Garage!
Coral Chung: I would say one of the big early milestones also for us like many good Silicon Valley startups it started out in my garage, in my basement, and slowly took over other parts of my house. But the day we moved out of my house, that was a huge moment. It was kind of like the start-up baby growing into adulthood and leaving the house. So that was a huge milestone. And we're actually going to celebrate our fourth birthday on November 16th, on Monday. So that's really exciting as well. So much has changed over the past four years.
Mimi: That's awesome. And how big is your team now?
Growing the global team
Coral: So we have about 50 globally. We have quite a global team with folks in Hong Kong and Shanghai, out in Asia. We have folks in Italy where we manufacture and then we have, especially with COVID now a pretty spread out team in the U.S. Some people are in New York, Denver. We have people, of course, in San Francisco where we're headquartered, but it's interesting to have such a spread out and global team.
Mimi: Is that hard for you to manage all those people? Is that on your shoulders, or did you hire somebody to kind of help oversee keeping that?
Coral: As the team grows, management and leadership challenges definitely exists. We are always talking about ways to improve, like meeting productivity and because we're coordinating across time zones, it is definitely hard for me because I do a lot of morning meetings and calls with Europe and Italy and a lot of evening calls and meetings with Asia. And so my days are pretty long in that way to accommodate all the time zones.
I'm really excited to share that we just brought on a new COO. Her first day was actually three days ago. So that's been exciting. We've brought on a Chief Growth Officer who was the head of growth and VP of international at Away [luggage]. So that's been really helpful. So yes, I am continuing to build out the leadership team so that it's more scalable and I'm not the bottleneck. I think that's really important for the phase of growth and the stage that we're at now.
The impact of COVID on company culture
Mimi: Like you have to touch everything. Is there anything new that you're doing during COVID, since everybody's kind of remote and working around the country, that you're, around the world, that you're doing to kind of still create culture?
Coral: That's something that we talk about all the time actually. And I think we've done it to varying degrees of success. In the early days of COVID, we did some virtual happy hours and get-togethers. I think that had mixed results and mixed reviews. I think sometimes people just feel like, "Gosh, you know, jumping on another Google Hangout or Zoom after a long day to do a virtual happy hour and have time to enjoy connecting, is just hard. It feels draining and more of a burden.
Appreciating one-on-one conversations
Coral: I think we're still really working through those, but a lot of the things that I find to be helpful is creating more small group and one-on-one interactions. So I'm definitely having a lot more one-on-one than I used to, but having even a 10-minute touchpoint that's a little bit more personal, that really allows people to get to know each other. It only works in a small group format. Either one-on-one or maybe a group of three, but I think those have been the most productive.
Mimi: That's true. That's a good point.
Coral: The other thing that we've really instituted is like team pulse checks and just making sure that people are feeling motivated and happy and productive and healthy and safe. So we have done a lot more of just data gathering and serving and making sure that we're documenting feedback.
From a leadership communication perspective, I do a monthly town hall with everyone on the team so they can submit questions or we can have a conversation about any topics or any concerns or any questions really. The topics vary from a very high level, kind of our strategy going into holidays, to our hiring plan to return to office post-COVID.
Hopefully, at some point, there will be a vaccine or hopefully, we could get it to a point whereas we talked about in Asia, people are back in the office because in Hong Kong they don't have thousands of cases or hundreds of cases. They have very few cases where Singapore they've gotten it to zero new cases. And so people can be safe being fully back in the office or getting together for team building events and things like this.
Mimi: What is your hardest part about launching this? Have you seen any obstacles that you're like, "Wow, I didn't expect this."
Mitigating Surprises and Unknowns
Coral: I would say there are so many challenges, there are so many ups and downs. I definitely am a planner and very much like to keep things under control. And so I really hate surprises. So there are very few things that fall outside of my set of expectations, because I really went into this eyes wide open. I kind of obviously experienced firsthand from my parents and their entrepreneurial experience.
I knew in some ways it's going to be stressful. It's going to be hard. Things are going to go wrong. I was just reflecting on… literally, the day that we were supposed to launch, the day before we were supposed to launch four years ago, we were still kind of nervous about whether or not the products would arrive from Italy because they were stuck in customs. All these crazy things happen all the time.
In 2020 in particular, there was a moment, especially in March when COVID hit Italy really hard and our factory partner had a full shut down. We were really nervous and really scared that we didn't know when they were going to reopen, how they would reopen. There were some angry people waiting for their products that were on pre-order that were delayed and delayed yet again. We couldn't tell them a definitive answer of like, "It will be shipped for sure on this date," because we didn't know when things were going to reopen. So that was incredibly stressful, the uncertainty …
Mimi: Where were they going? We're all locked down, so you didn't need a bag.
Coral: Well, what's interesting is our products are premium and sought after. And so some of these people, it was a birthday gift or something really special. They probably thought about it for six months before pulling the trigger to buy it. They've been waiting for it for a few weeks, right. And so I could see them being anxious about it, for sure.
Positive lessons from COVID
Coral Chung: Thankfully, I think most people were extremely understanding. In some ways going through this COVID experience, to your point, everyone was kind of empathetic of things being shut down. I think there was a lot of understanding, but also we really, during that time, wanted to understand how Senreve can be supportive of women around the world that were struggling and how we can contribute.
Coral: So we had this really incredible moment of getting together, pulling together a mass drive during the PPE shortage. We ended up donating over 20,000 masks to different hospitals around the country.
Mimi: That was great.
Coral: So, yeah, we've done a lot of things like that, especially this year, because we feel like it's really important as a brand to contribute and to really support women because one of the main brand pillars for us is empowerment. And I think it's always really important to be authentic and live up to those brand values.
Quietening The Inner Critic
Mimi: That's great. So is there any advice you would give any entrepreneur that's looking to start their own business or they're thick in it, any kind of last minute tips that you would say, "This is one thing I wish I knew," or "This is what you need to have," or anything?
Coral: For the people who are thinking about starting, I think what I feel like I had the biggest struggle around was this critic inside, right? The rational side of me always kind of shooting down or poking holes at ideas that I had or things that I wanted to try out. I think that's probably the biggest thing is to, as much as possible, try to silence your inner critic.
It’s not a linear process
Coral Chung: Really just try to think about it as your career path is non-linear, it's always very winding and most of the people who ended up where they ended up in a successful situation, it took them a few tries, or it was very convoluted. It wasn't like a straight and linear or kind of up into the right situation. So I would say, yeah, for the people who want to get started but are fearful or have doubts, try to surround yourself with people who are positive and supportive and really as much as possible, silence your inner critic.
Focus on the silver linings
For the people who are thick in it and it's tough, to me I think the main thing is there's always a silver lining way to look at things. One of our big cultural values at Senreve is optimism, flexibility, grit, and perseverance. Those are some of our cultural values. And I think it really is important to focus on the silver lining and the positive and through challenges,
If you are able to pull through and survive, sometimes the best ideas and the most interesting things come out of that. So I would say that's certainly been true for Senreve, especially through 2020 and the COVID time. It's really pushed me and pushed us as a team to come up with some incredible ideas because we were so constrained in many ways. So yeah. Don't give up because it's important to claw your way out of it, right. And even if it's not pretty, if you survive that I think continues to build confidence for the next challenge.
Mimi: Okay. This has been awesome. I really appreciate your time and I wish you all the success and continue growing and thank you very much. I really appreciate it.
Coral: Yeah. Thank you so much for having me. I enjoyed the questions and I love what you're doing.