HONESTY — have the integrity and courage to be honest to yourself, your team, your investors, and your customers, always. To me, authenticity and the character of the founder, or of any person really, are without a doubt way more important than his or her background, education, product, track record, and everything else.
Startups have such a glamorous reputation. Companies like Facebook, Instagram, Youtube, Uber, and Airbnb once started as scrappy startups with huge dreams and huge obstacles.
Yet we of course know that most startups don’t end up as success stories. What does a founder or a founding team need to know to create a highly successful startup?
In this series, called “Five Things You Need To Create A Highly Successful Startup” we are talking to experienced and successful founders and business leaders who can share stories from their experience about what it takes to create a highly successful startup.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Bernie Hung.
Bernie Hung is the rebel lawyer and innovative founder behind BlueBox Rocket. Her revolutionary Vision-to-Launch service helps pioneering entrepreneurs and CEOs grow their seed of an idea into reality or scale up their business for massive expansion. Through transformational coaching, inspirational and interdisciplinary business mentorship, and strategic legal facilitation, Bernie doesn’t just help her clients launch products — she helps them launch rockets.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
I was an ordinary girl born and bred in Hong Kong; I now live in London. I read law in King’s College London; those few years of living abroad in a completely different culture opened up my world, it was life-changing. I started my career in big international law firms. In those eleven years I’ve worked with some of the brightest people on earth: incredibly smart lawyers, high-achieving and demanding clients in multiple industries. I did my fair share of late-night conference calls and all-nighters, earned some money, but had no time to myself.
I needed a change after my two kids were born. I went in-house in GUCCI and became their senior legal counsel for APAC at the parent company level, another life-changing experience. I love everything about those eight years — amazing vision of senior management, amazingly luxurious products made with pride by skilled artisans, travelled to and worked with amazing people in over 30 countries.
But the most valuable insight I’ve gained since then is that “luxury” is when you tailor-make a deliverable to the person you are serving using your genius, devotion, and thoughtfulness to give him or her a one-of-a-kind pleasurable experience. When I started my own businesses, my goal was to ensure my clients enjoyed a luxurious experience.
What was the “Aha Moment” that led to the idea for your current company? Can you share that story with us?
My latest venture is BlueBox Rocket, a revolutionary Vision-to-Launch service that helps pioneering entrepreneurs and CEOs grow their seed of an idea into reality, or scale up their business for massive expansion. It’s an exceedingly bespoke service which combines my transformational coaching, inspirational and interdisciplinary business mentorship, and strategic no-fuss legal facilitation.
I’ve always been providing my legal services, business mentorship and coaching separately. Increasingly, I see an imperative need to have an assimilated service as the clients actually need all of this support. But I’ve always been told that you can’t combine them as no one has done that.
The thing is, I have a rebel deep inside of me. Since I was a kid I don’t like doing the same thing that everybody else does, I don’t want to go down the path that most people expect you to go because it’s a safe path, I don’t see why someone should dim their light to the level of the rest of the room because you’re expected to conform.
When I was coaching a therapist last year, she was struggling to kickstart her new business idea. She was baffled with all the legal and compliance stuff that she needed to research and handle, she was close to giving it up and going back to her old job. It dawned on me that I was exactly the excellent lawyer, business mentor and trusted coach that she needed, there is no better person to serve her as I can.
Was there somebody in your life who inspired or helped you to start your journey with your business? Can you share a story with us?
I was inspired by a friend when I started my first business eight years ago, a boutique intellectual property law firm in Hong Kong. I’ve known her since my first job. Gabriella (that’s her name) is a maverick superwoman type of lawyer, who has the biggest heart and the bravest soul. She didn’t only help me out by referring clients to me, but more importantly, I learned from her to do business and live life with bravery, generosity and authenticity.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
It’s me, clients work with me because of me, my vision and my ability to help them achieve transformation and their desired outcome. Since my first job as a trainee in the largest law firm in Asia at the time, I realised that clients follow the lawyer, not the law firm. Since that time I’ve been mindful to continuously add value to myself and to what I do for clients, to go that extra mile, so that I can help my clients excel in their jobs. Delivering strategic, tactical solutions is no doubt vital, but I also enjoy communicating with my clients deeper in a way that feeds both the mind and the soul, that’s what relationships are about. A client recently gave me a heart-warming testimonial where he called me “a-thousand-angels-in-one”, these really are moments which give me the greatest bliss.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
I’d like to measure my success by the number of lives I’ve positively impacted and brought joy to. I’m grateful to be able to do all I love and love all I do, and my passion is to help others do the same. My purpose is to leave no pearls hidden under the haystack, no good talents should go to waste.
One of my investments is in a small, quirky coffee shop in North London; I still work there sometimes. I love interacting with customers to get to know their stories, triumphs and challenges. I’m always elated when customers tell me they are inspired by what I do and they now want to see what they can do for themselves. Recently a customer told me that after our chat she’d now seriously explore becoming an art therapist to help autistic kids even though she has been out of the workforce for years to take care of her special needs child.
You are a successful business leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?
- Curiosity — This is especially helpful when it comes to my legal consulting and my coaching. I remember a legal client asked me to help review some ‘standard’ documentation in relation to selling on the largest e-commerce platform in China for the company he’s working for. Ten minutes into the conversation after asking some questions, it turned out that he actually needs coaching in relation to setting up his own business and improving his health! When it comes to expanding our vision, our business, and personal frontiers, I believe we should all think like a child — always be curious, always ask why and why not, always don’t take ‘no’ for an answer!
- Honesty — Be honest to yourself and to others. I’m all for authenticity; phoniness and fakeness don’t sit well with me, this may be one of the reasons why I love being an intellectual property lawyer because I help brands fight against pirates and counterfeiters! I remember when I was a junior lawyer, a client asked me whether I could achieve a particular result. I knew we couldn’t but I was very tempted for a second to say ‘yes’ as some of our partners would (they would over-promise to get the work in, and later find a way to blame others when they couldn’t deliver). But I just couldn’t let that word come out of my mouth when I knew it’s not the right thing to do. In the end, I told the client we couldn’t promise that result but our team collectively has the intelligence, experience and network to devise the best strategy and get him the best possible result in the circumstance. To my delight, the client seemed pleased with my answer. From that moment I knew smart clients value honest allies with integrity more than yes-people.
- Empathy — I’m a naturally empathetic, intuitive and observant person. I do things by thinking and noticing how other people perceive what I say or do, how my words or actions affect other people, and I’ll preempt others’ negative emotions by tweaking and adapting my method. When I was about six or seven years old, my class teacher wrote in my report card that I am empathetic (in Chinese). I didn’t know that phrase and I had to ask my mum to teach me to look it up in the dictionary. Empathy is crucial in business, and we should practice thinking from the perspective of our customers, business partners, and employees.
Often leaders are asked to share the best advice they received. But let’s reverse the question. Can you share a story about advice you’ve received that you now wish you never followed?
Actually there is none. I’m happy where I am now, and I believe all my past experiences have brought me here so I’m grateful to all of them. There is no good or bad advice as such but what I make out of them and how I make use of them. I learned an awful lot from so-called ‘bad’ advice or ‘bad’ experiences, nothing is wasted in my view.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey?
When I first started my boutique law firm in Hong Kong, I had to do everything. Thankfully I had a lot of help and support from many people to which I’m ever so grateful. In order to get clients, there was a lot of travelling as 95% of my clients were, and still are, in the US, Europe and the UK. The hardest part for me was not being able to spend enough quality time with my kids, to learn and practice proper parenting and not be a ‘tiger mum’, and not knowing which part of their childhood I have missed.
Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard? What strategies or techniques did you use to help overcome those challenges?
I think it’s in my blood that the more challenges there are, the more determined I am to succeed. My dad was like that. My dad loved fixing and repairing things, I observed and tried to help out when I was a kid. Whenever there’s a block, my dad would find ways to go over it or go round it, he always tried his best to find a solution. I grew up aspiring to be as solution-oriented, resourceful and resilient as my dad.
In terms of strategies or techniques, I always do this — appraise the situation and the reasons leading up to it as accurately and comprehensively as possible. This sometimes involves repeating the process (if you can), talking to different stakeholders, asking powerful questions to gather all the facts and emotions, taking heed to different voices, listening to your own intuition, and keep trying out different solutions until you find the right one for the time being.
The journey of an entrepreneur is never easy, and is filled with challenges, failures, setbacks, as well as joys, thrills and celebrations. Can you share a few ideas or stories from your experience about how to successfully ride the emotional highs & lows of being a founder”?
Bizarrely, I’m normally not brought down by the emotional lows caused by failures and setbacks, I guess it’s because I know that they will come and will be plentiful on the journey of entrepreneurship. This is not to say that I expect to fail — on the contrary I know I will succeed once I set my mind and heart to pursuing something — but when failures and setbacks do come I’m not thrown off the chair or defeated.
My challenge is more about emotional highs, not so much managing them, but actually getting them! I grew up with a Chinese teaching in my family which says that “extreme joy turns into sorrow”. So I seldom have extreme joys, thrills and celebrations — not when I received a full scholarship to study law in one of the best universities in London, graduated with a First Class Honours degree, or when I received an industry award for leading the best in-house legal IP team in Asia. Of course I was proud of and very happy about my achievements, but those “high” emotions were possibly not high enough according to the standard of most people! Well I have probably portrayed myself as a heartless robot now! Frankly the lesson learned in my journey is that being vulnerable to my team and even to my clients at times is critically important to us as leaders. As Brene Brown said, “imperfections are not inadequacies; they are reminders that we’re all in this together”.
Let’s imagine that a young founder comes to you and asks your advice about whether venture capital or bootstrapping is best for them? What would you advise them? Can you kindly share a few things a founder should look at to determine if fundraising or bootstrapping is the right choice?
Most VCs will tell you “go big or go home”, but let’s begin with an understanding that it is totally okay not to have outside investments and you can still run a successful and gratifying business with happy customers and employees. But let’s say you are open to both possibilities of growing organically and flourishing using external funds.
First off, look at the uniqueness and competitiveness of your product, the size of the market opportunity and network, and the preeminent skillset and potential of you as the founder. The reality is that not every idea is a unicorn idea with massive market potential that will lead to VCs investing in you to become a Facebook, an Airbnb or a Coinbase.
Next, ponder how much control and authority you are willing to give up to the VCs in terms of company direction, equity power, management, and participation preferences, dividend rights, exit options, and so on. Think long and hard about how much risk you are willing to take on as a founder, when the VCs ask you to pursue an aggressive expansion strategy or spend a fortune on launching a new product line or swiftly scale sales and marketing.
Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. Many startups are not successful, and some are very successful. From your experience or perspective, what are the main factors that distinguish successful startups from unsuccessful ones? What are your “Five Things You Need To Create A Highly Successful Startup”? If you can, please share a story or an example for each.
My formula is Belief + Action (5W1H) + Honesty + Fun = Success. For the purposes of this interview, I’ll pick the five most important things in my view to create a highly successful startup.
- First and foremost is BELIEF. I’ve coached a number of founders, they all wanted to take over the world, but sadly not everyone can clearly articulate their distinctive beliefs. What is your pioneering vision? What is your conviction? What qualifies you to be a changemaker? When founders do not one hundred and twenty percent believe that they are the movers and shakers of society, it is extremely difficult if not impossible for the startup to take off.
- Related to that is to get your WHY glaringly clear, your origin story of why you want to disrupt the world in your particular way is where you need to be laser focused on to push through towards your audacious goals in the waves of cynics, naysayers, do-nothings, killjoys, and cutthroats.
- Make sure you have clarity on your WHAT — your niche or ‘dot’ as Dean Graziosi puts it, and what validation you have got to prove that the market actually needs what you are building. What is your product-market fit? What are your business strategies? Do you have a clear yet flexible roadmap to achieve your company’s short, medium and long-term objectives? A startup is a highly risky yet potentially highly rewarding venture. So if you don’t have clarity on what your product-market fit is, find a mentor or a coach to help you, otherwise you’ll be very busy being busy and drowning in the sea of hustles and will eventually fail.
- Next, WHO is in your team. Very often for startups the leadership consists of you, you and you as founder(s). But closely examine who is in your leadership and management team, who do you surround yourself with, and who can you get advice and help from on both business and personal levels. ‘People’ is the critical success factor that determines whether a startup can successfully accelerate, whether it can secure investments, and whether it can grow and sustain. I believe you’d be better off having the right people than the perfect business idea or product concept, if you could only choose one.
- Last but certainly not the least, HONESTY — have the integrity and courage to be honest to yourself, your team, your investors, and your customers, always. To me, authenticity and the character of the founder, or of any person really, are without a doubt way more important than his or her background, education, product, track record, and everything else.
And don’t forget to have FUN in the journey, that’s the whole point of being your own boss!
We entrepreneurs are passionate in finding solutions to solve problems in our world, we all want to change humanity for the better. Some of us have phenomenal life stories, some of us don’t and that’s ok, -where you started is not important, what you do to get to where you want to be is what we need to direct our eyes and heart towards. It takes great courage to make the first trembling steps as an entrepreneur to go after your dream and I salute you. Ordinary people who choose to make extraordinary decisions every single day in service to others are successful people. So set your right intentions, cultivate the right mindset, strategies, and relationships, push through adversities with your inner light, and the rest will flow.
What are the most common mistakes you have seen CEOs & founders make when they start a business? What can be done to avoid those errors?
Trying to do everything ourselves is definitely a big one. As CEOs and founders we want to be in control and we have a tendency to hold on to everything. But this can cost us a lot — the growth of our business, the efficiency and happiness of our team, the physical, emotional and mental well-being of ourselves and our loved ones, to name a few. I’d advocate putting in place strategies, processes, and budgets to delegate and outsource certain tasks to other geniuses who are more competent for those jobs than ourselves.
Startup founders often work extremely long hours and it’s easy to burn the candle at both ends. What would you recommend to founders about how to best take care of their physical and mental wellness when starting a company?
Well I’m guilty as charged! My daughter always says I work too much. The thing with me is that I really, really love everything I do so they don’t feel like work at all, thus I always reply to her “yes dear, I play too much!” Jokes aside, what I do recommend founders do is to schedule wellness in your daily calendar — whether it’s meditation, journaling, going for a walk, listening to your favourite music, spa time, reading, spending time with your loved ones, or doing nothing…the key is to schedule it so that it gets done.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
I founded The Rebel Law School, where we help brilliant lawyers gain the skills that they don’t teach you in law school or in law firms, we help them lead a career of true impact, excellence and profound client relationships. According to the statistics of the American Bar Association, there were 1.33 million lawyers in the U.S. in 2020, imagine how many lawyers there are worldwide! Unfortunately, however, the legal profession in some places has gotten a bad reputation. What I wanted to achieve through Rebel Law School is to revolutionize the legal industry through our teaching, research, and partnerships, and we bring in and train excellent, all-rounded, unconventional, fun-to-work-with lawyers with extreme professionalism, utmost integrity and immense passion in service.
We are blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.
I’d love to interview or have lunch with Jay Shetty. Jay is incredibly inspirational, resourceful and wise, yet humble and approachable. His business is exceedingly successful through his service and spirituality, which is very inspiring for me as an entrepreneur. When I graduated from his coaching certification school, one of my goals was to interview him one day; I’d love to help make his wisdom go viral in my own ways.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
My websites https://berniehung.com and https://blueboxrocket.co.uk, I’m also on LinkedIn. I’d love to connect with your audience to answer any question they may have or chat about anything of interest to them, please feel free to message or schedule a call with me.
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this. We wish you continued success and good health!