By Alexander Malyugin '10; Published May 20, 2010
Before coming to Fuqua in 2003, Renee Hartmann had extensive experience as an equity research analyst and investor relations consultant. While working with start-ups through their IPO and beyond, Renee was inspired by successful entrepreneurs and decided to break the career rule of path dependency. She founded a fashion and design company Eno, in Shanghai.
By enlisting young talented designers and artists into the design process, Eno quickly earned appeal among young Chinese customers. In 2009 Eno launched a new business practice, EnoVate, a consumer research and consulting firm, which offers invaluable consumer insights and trends in the Asia youth market to multinational companies, like New Balance, Ticketmaster, Unilever, and Kraft.
Walk us through your career path and how you ended-up at Fuqua.
I started out my career in the buy- side doing equity research. I worked for Putnam Investments in Boston and London, in their research group. I analyzed companies and worked with portfolio managers to decide which companies to buy and sell.
After a couple of years I got my CFA before business school and sort of went the finance route. I then decided to switch gears and started doing investor relations. I would counsel CEOs and CFOs about how to deal with investors, helping them with disclosure, giving guidance, coaching them before the road show, etc.
After I left Putnam, I moved to San Francisco and worked with companies during the dot-com boom. Then, in 2000, I moved out to China and started the Mainland China Investor Relations Practice for Ogilvy & Mather, which was working with Chinese companies who were listing overseas and helped them to understand how to deal with US investors and the US investment landscape. After a few years in China, I decided to go back to school.
When did you start thinking about running your own company?
Before Fuqua, I worked in Investor Relations with startups in Asia-Pacific through the late-stage funding and IPO process. In some ways I may have gotten a skewed impression of start-ups, as I saw only the successful startups. But, I think working with all these start-ups is what started me thinking about doing my own startup. During business school, I focused a lot on entrepreneurship and venture capital. During school I got to hear people's stories, and interact with many entrepreneurs. That is what got me excited about being an entrepreneur and gave me the foundation to go and do my own business. Then during my second-year, when deciding what to do after business school, I came over to China and met with a lot of people here, and just networked as much as I could, stumbled upon some contacts who were about to start up a business, and then joined them.
What factors influenced your decision to switch from financial services to the fashion and consumer goods industry?
Well, I guess that's why I went to business school-- I wanted to change my career. I didn’t want to keep doing finance and investor relations forever. I wanted to get a broader management perspective. I wanted to get some operational experience. That's kind of why I went to business school. So that was what enabled me to change my career.
Which school experiences helped you launch your startup company?
I did a lot of work with the Entrepreneurship and Venture Capital Club. I was one of the co-presidents. I think just talking to entrepreneurs, and learning from them, and listening to them gave me an understanding. I took a lot of entrepreneurship classes. I took New Venture Planning; I took Entrepreneurship. So I went through the process of writing business plans and putting them together, and hearing from venture capitalists about what made a good business plan. Marketing practicum Class was also helpful. During the summer and school I did internships with private equity and a Venture Capital firm.
Which classes do you feel you should have taken more of at Fuqua?
In retrospect, I wish I had taken more marketing classes. I didn’t take, probably, as many as I should have. I took a lot of entrepreneurship courses and probably a little more finance than I needed to. But I wish I had taken more marketing classes.
I think it's helpful because it gives you an overall idea of how to build your brand. You need to do all that work up front. You know that you need to do the customer segmentation, the brand study. You have to go through all the processes to really get things clear.
I think as an entrepreneur, sometimes you get in a trap -- that there's constantly this balance between planning, strategy, and actually executing, right? So you’ve got to get that balance right. I think business school gives you the tools for planning and strategy. It may not always give you all the execution tools, particularly in China. But you need that strategy, and you need all that in order to come up with the execution plan.
The typical Duke student comes from a corporate environment.. What kind of challenges should they be ready for as they move to entrepreneurship?
Number one, you have much fewer resources to draw on. Everything you have to do is on a much smaller budget.
Second, you have fewer people to deal with, and you are really starting all the processes and procedures yourself. With a big company, you have a wealth of knowledge and history of the company, financials, support team, etc. As a startup you have to do it all yourself, down to little details, stuff you wouldn't really do in a corporate environment. So you've got to be willing and able to get your hands dirty.
The third thing is just having a lot of flexibility. Things change quickly. You've got to make changes to your strategy, refine things, and it just means being willing and able to adapt to change all the time as a startup.
You are from USA and you work in consumer marketing in China. Since it is critical to understand the country’s culture, how did you overcome this barrier?
The good thing about the Chinese consumer field, is it's very new. So I don’t think anybody is really an expert on the Chinese consumer. I think it's really just focusing on the consumer and understanding what they want. One of the ways we did that at the beginning is we just engaged a lot of different consumers and brought them into the process. We have an online design competition where we allow our users to actually design products. We worked with artists around China, up-and-coming graphic designers, and fashion designers. We worked with a lot of musicians: bands, DJs. We didn’t know the market, so we tried to engineer the business model where we allowed the consumer to be a part of the product’s creation process. We engineered the business model to allow the consumer to have a lot of involvement and input. So as we've grown, we've learned more. We do more and more in-house design now, and we've actually started a whole service offering, which is all about understanding the consumer. So, we utilize people. It’s important to become really close to the consumer, engage them in the process, and talk to them, all the while recognizing that we're not perfect. I'm not the consumer, actually. So I have to reach out to other people and find out what they want.
Are there any challenges to starting a business in China and how did you address them?
Lots of challenges! [Laughs]. It's hard to compare it to the US. The biggest challenge as a foreigner being here is, I think, trying to really understand what motivates people, because you have cultural differences. So I'd say the biggest challenges have been getting past the cultural barriers. Because I think to be a good manager and a good entrepreneur, you have to really understand what motivates people. Sometimes, cultural barriers prevent you from completely understanding different people's motivation factors. So I'd say that's been the hardest part of it.
Operating in China has its own challenges, whether you're a foreigner or a local. Some things that you think are going to be really easy can be really hard; some things you think would be really hard can be really easy. But I think those challenges are manageable, for any startup.
Was there any impact to your business from the economical downturn?
Yeah, I'd say we did get a little bit of impact from that. It didn’t hit China as hard as it hit the rest of the world. But we were impacted by the Olympics in Beijing. Everybody was very excited about the Olympics and bought a lot of inventory. Then right after the Olympics is when the crisis hit. So you saw a combination of post-Olympic slump plus the economic crisis. You had a lot of discounting in the retail market. So it wasn’t that it was necessarily a big slump in the retail market. But because of the promotional environment, you had to play along; otherwise you wouldn’t be making sales. So we had to be more promotional than we normally would.
Our key model for growth is franchise development. So we have local entrepreneurs who will go open up an email store in their town. So it slowed down franchise development a little, because people are more conservative during a downturn.
Was the alumni network helpful to you and do you have any pieces of advice on how to better utilize it?
When I came over, the Duke network in China was not that strong. I used more of my personal network, because I had worked here before.
I think the best thing to do is just reach out to people, and try to get the right contacts. Everyone I've met through the Duke network has been super helpful, and wanted to help. I think that the other thing that I found in China, I've actually tapped into the larger Duke network, not just the Fuqua network. So, undergrads, law school, anybody. That way, you're getting more people.
With running your own business, how do you persuade your partners, your customers, and your colleagues?
You have to really believe in your plan, and you have to be passionate. I also think you have to have a thick skin. Because of course, along the way you're going to see lots of people who don’t believe in you or don’t like what you're doing. You just sort of learn to ignore that and just focus on what can be done.
What are the three main characteristics that are crucial for an entrepreneur to have?
You have to be willing to accept a lot of risk. And you have to be willing to accept the fact that you may go out of business. You've got to sit there and worry about that, and plan for that. For me, it's meant taking a much lower salary than I'd be taking at a multinational firm. If you're the type of person who really needs a lot of job security, entrepreneurship may not be for you. So I think you have to have a tolerance for risk, a passion, a little bit of a thick skin, and stubbornness to be able to just stick with it and do it.
On the other hand, I know from when I was at school that a lot of people wanted to do entrepreneurship. I think the thing that prevented people from doing it is paying back your student loans. I think it was not for lack of wanting to do startups, but it was more financial pressure that was probably the biggest deterrent for people not to do startups. And that's just kind of the reality of it. There's no real way around that.
Any final inspirational advice for Duke Students?
The biggest advice is to just do it. It's one of those things--I don’t think there's ever the perfect time, I don’t think there's ever the perfect situation. It's not easy. It is very rewarding. I don’t really have a huge desire to go back to a large company, despite the enticing paycheck.
But I think that once you do it, you learn a lot. You get to see all aspects of the business. I've learned more than I could have possibly imagined that I would have learned during this timeframe. There've been ups and downs along the way; it's not easy.
But I think that the learning you get, and the ability to really jump in with two feet and understand every aspect of the operation. I've learned about legal, I've learned about warehousing, logistics, retail operations, HR, motivating systems, bonus plans, funding, sales. You have to learn every aspect of the business.