Short Story co-founder William Du subscribes to the adage that "if fear is the only thing stopping you, then you should do it.” It echoes Ralph Waldo Emerson’s words, "What we fear of doing most is usually what we most need to do.” They have a nice ring to it, but others will still steer clear of challenges. Not William though.
William has packed a lot of courage and guts to bring with him in his exciting roller-coaster entrepreneurial ride, which he shares with business and life partner, Carolyn Wong. They had a brief taste of the business world during their stint at the 30-year-old restaurant owned by Carolyn’s dad. They helped out by looking at systems and changes that they could employ in the restaurant. But when they were about to implement it all, the restaurant burnt down. However, everything was not reduced into ashes because the experience became a prelude to having a venture of their own.
Even while at school, they have taken various jobs that stretched their determination and resolve. At one point, they sold massage equipment in the middle of a shopping centre. “You have to be thick-skinned. We learned some amazing skills from that. I think the sales (component) is very important,” he reflected.
As they were juggling jobs and studies, the work part got them resolute. But not the school bit. William confessed, “I hated my studies. I hated going (to university). I hated the whole thing. That was like a prison to me, and I truly disliked it. And it was the same for Carolyn. We would take about two hours to get to university, where we studied. We would get to the front door. Then, we would turn around and leave because that's how much we hated it.”
No doubt that they struggled with this pain point. But if there’s any consolation out of this scenario, that pain point also served as a spark that became a fire in their belly. They enrolled in a brief business course that gave them access to a government grant. It became their launching pad to start their business, Short Story.
The ride had finally begun to roll. Both jumped in at the deep end despite the risks it posed. “The scariest thing, I guess, was giving up our careers and studies for something that could potentially be nothing. I was studying Product Design, and Carolyn was studying Dentistry. That was probably the biggest risk for us,” William admitted.
The first product they came up with was a very good one, or so they thought. “It was like a scrapbook frame. We were trying to sell it to kindergartens and preschools. But that's certainly a tough market to break. And so, we were probably doing that for about three to six months – cold calling, cold visiting and going nowhere. But in our hearts, we knew we had to carry on and had to keep moving.”
December 3rd came, which was Carolyn’s birthday. A friend of theirs got her a box of beautiful Japanese origami papers, which she started folding into butterflies. Since they had a whole load of frames left from their previous product, William had a eureka moment. He told Carolyn “Hey, why don’t we put these two together?” That was how they created their first signature artwork frame, which they started selling in markets and generated good sales.
In spite of this, their families and friends were quite apprehensive about the track they were taking. “I think, probably, they were more of trying to protect us from doing something outrageous,” William reasoned. One time, a big art exhibition was taking place, with only about two weeks to go for preparation. “There was one spot left. And I think at that time, the price was about AUD4,500, which was all the money we saved up that we made in the markets. We asked our friends and family, ‘Should we do this?’ It’s a bit crazy when you don’t know anything about it. They’re all saying, ‘No, you shouldn’t do it. It’s not enough time. Maybe you should wait till next year.’ In our hearts, we already knew we were going to do it. So, we did it. And it was amazing. We pretty much had a sold-out show,” he recounted.
William’s parents alone had a different perspective on work. Coming from humble beginnings, they always wanted their son to get a comfortable office job. “They envisioned that having an office job, like getting up from nine to five, is the best life you possibly could have. I think, to them, they couldn’t understand that they had the ability not to do that,” explains William. During the first few years of Short Story, his parents would visit him in his workplace in a warehouse and ask him when he would get a job. William would retort, “What do you mean? Like this is my job!” Now, he laughs off as he recalls that incident.
He admits that he had no idea about business when he was young. “Personally, I didn't know anything about business. It never crossed my mind,” he claimed. Since his parents told him to work hard and get a good office job, it was what he thought he would do. It wasn't until he came across Robert Kiyosaki’s book Rich Dad Poor Dad in his early 20s. William shared how it impacted him. “That book changed my life forever. It got me started to think, ‘Hey, wait a minute. If I keep doing the same things as everybody else, then I would eventually end up like everybody else.’ So, that's when I got my entrepreneurial mind going.”
But becoming an entrepreneur is not just about generating sales and earning an income. It also entails managing a team. Finding the right staff and managing them properly was among the biggest issues William cited. The lowest point he had in Short Story that he could remember was when they experienced massive staff turnover. It was one Christmas season, their busiest period, and William and Carolyn were left to do everything, from answering emails to packing.
On the other hand, the highlight of his entrepreneurial journey was a few Christmases later. They have established their staff and gathered about 40 to 50 people for their Christmas party. “It wasn’t until then that we realised how much of an effect we were having on our staff and the people around us. I was like, ‘Wow! We are in-charge of looking after all these people!’ That probably culminated everything that we’ve achieved and done up until that point,” he recited.
It was the result of getting their culture right and making it strong enough for people to want to stay. Now, he can say that they have a strong culture at Short Story. “It is a very close and very well-knit family. When we hire, we don’t hire by qualifications or skills. It's more about the heart and also the ability to come into our culture, our family. That's probably the key thing. A few other things that we do is the morning huddle every day. We do have lunch together every day, which is a big big part of the social welfare of everybody. We're just very relaxed and very easy going. If someone needs to take time off, they take time off. They just make it up. We're very easy that way. We're so focused on self-development and growth as well. We allocate budget every year for them through self-development courses or books or things to improve their roles.”
He and his partner put a premium on growth and development of their people because they, too, continue with their learning through EO Melbourne. More than a venue for learning, EO is a safe place for them where they can thrive. They find EO Melbourne as a good environment where they get the opportunity to talk with like-minded individuals without feeling alienated. What William likes most is that in EO, “There is no judgment. There is no ego. Everyone is friendly. And there’s always something that you can always learn. The social events and learning events are great.”
Apart from the lessons and stories he heard from others, William also grew by learning from the mistakes they have committed. During the early stage of Short Story, he and Carolyn dabbled into other businesses, which never took off. “We have started a few other ones in the past that have led us to learn lots of great lessons. We were probably still too new and too young to take on multiple businesses,” he remarked. Another realisation he picked along his journey is the value of mentors. It’s a key area that they’re still working on at the moment. They have people they get advice from, but not on a regular basis.
When it comes to their products, William fathomed they should have put up their online shop first before taking the wholesale route. Moving forward, he underscored the need of not allowing perfection to get in the way of progress. “Just because something is not perfect doesn't mean that you should hold off the product. You need to launch it first and fix it afterwards. But you should never be to a point where you get stalled so long that it just eventually doesn't end up happening,” William advised.
On a personal level, William found a comfortable space in entrepreneurship. Having to conform to authority was quite a challenge for him. He found that working for himself has given him so much freedom to unleash his creativity and full potential. Setting up a business has also brought energy and excitement to his entrepreneurial spirit. There is a huge possibility that he would try other businesses as well, not to mention that he is already into cryptocurrency. Looking towards the future, William sees himself as more of an angel investor of some sort. “I love the startup stages of a business. I love trying to help people grow at that stage. I think that's probably one of the most exciting stages,” he enthused.
For all the rewards he and Carolyn have reaped through their journey, they have taken the initiative to give back to the community through their support in non-profits like Challenge and Project Gen Z. Another gratifying thing for him on taking the entrepreneurial path is that it opened the eyes of their friends and family about starting a business. As they see how it benefited William, they are also thinking of the possibility of doing what they have dreamt of doing.
In all these, William is grateful for the big and small blessings that have come his way. The people that surround them, family and friends that help them grow, these are reasons for him to appreciate the life he has now. Most of all, he is thankful to have Carolyn as a partner. “I believe that a massive part of success is gratitude. Being grateful every day and realising how lucky we are to be where we are and to be able to wake up every morning, not enough people realise that. This life we get to live now is amazing. I’m so grateful for this every day. And yeah, we just want to share that with the people we love.”
Hurdling all the stumbling blocks and gaining its benefits, William is positive as to what the future holds for Short Story as they gear towards global expansion. The UK, China, the US, and the main continents are their targets, along with flagship stores in each country, in five year's time. But he is not discounting the possibility of taking investors into the company and ultimately passing on the reins to new business leaders.
Indeed, there is no obstacle too big if you have determination and resiliency. William recognised that these qualities have pushed him forward to go after his dreams and allowed him to get back every time he gets knocked down. “Have the guts and the dreams. Don't be afraid to fail. If you fail, it's just another learning. And you will make it work. If you truly want it to work, you will do anything to make it work.”