Scientist Turned Entrepreneur with Founder Michelle Tu, Ph.D.

Growing up, Michelle Tu had a creative spirit and curious eye for all things business—but she was born to immigrant parents in the 80’s who really wanted her to focus on having a stable career profession. She decided to focus on her education and school work, and fell in love with math and science. Michelle […]

Growing up, Michelle Tu had a creative spirit and curious eye for all things business—but she was born to immigrant parents in the 80’s who really wanted her to focus on having a stable career profession. She decided to focus on her education and school work, and fell in love with math and science.

Michelle then went on to study biomedical engineering in college and completed her Ph.D. in cell biology. Soon after, she realized how much she had been pushing her creative spirit aside, so she took the leap. She’s learned, she’s failed, and she’s flourished. And it’s all brought her to where she is today.

Michelle Tu’s Website: https://www.michellektu.com/

Josh:
Hi everyone. This week, we’re here with Michelle Tu. She’s the founder of Modern Theory. She’s been an entrepreneur for five or six years working for herself. I’m very curious to hear more about the whole journey, but at this point, she is replacing her previous income that she had in her last job, which is amazing. But first of all, thanks for coming on the show, Michelle.

Michelle:
Thank you so much, Josh, so happy to be here and thanks again for inviting me to do this.

Josh:
Yeah, so set us up real quick, just what is Modern Theory?Then we’ll go into the backstory.

Michelle:
Yes. Modern Theory is a line of premium hand poured candles. Our focus is on non-toxic fragrances and sustainable ingredients when it comes to the wax that we use. Really just trying to focus on creating moments of pleasure and bliss, and also helping you elevate any space in your home.

Josh:
Okay, awesome. So take us back because we chatted a little bit before we hit record. You’ve actually had two different businesses starting five or six years ago. What led to you doing entrepreneurship in the first place?

Michelle:
Yeah, I think as a young kid, I was always interested in business. I had family members that had their own businesses, but my parents were really strong opponents of me starting a business or going into business. They really wanted me to focus on having a really stable career profession. I was really into the life sciences. I was a scientist prior to becoming an entrepreneur. I think also growing up, I had a big creative spirit, but I pushed that aside and decided to focus on my education, my schoolwork. I thought I was doing the right thing by going on and pursuing my PhD. So I did my PhD in cell biology, and then while I was working on my PhD, I wanted to use the research that I was doing to focus on creating a skincare line.
So after I graduated, I did this whole year round trip traveling around the world. That really inspired me to just do something of my own, and so came back, decided not to take any job offers that I had lined up and was just like, screw it. I’m just going to take this leap an try to extrapolate all of the skills that I had as a PhD student and somehow apply that to business. Friends were like, “Why don’t you go get an MBA, or take some business classes?” I was like, “Well, I guess I’m just going to treat this as a real life MBA. Let’s see what happens.”
It’s been an incredible journey, lots of highs, lots of lows and everything in between, but I realized pretty early on that the skincare beauty industry wasn’t really for me. It wasn’t really where my heart was, as much as I loved developing and formulating different skincare products. I just felt like I was being held back in a lot of ways, especially creatively. I think there was one opportunity for me to be creative when we did some rebranding, and that just lit a spark in me. I was just like, I want to do more of the creative stuff, but again, I just kept pushing myself with my skincare business. I wasn’t happy, but I kept sticking with it because I made this huge leap. I told all these people like, yeah, I’m turning down this whole career as being a scientist to follow my dreams of being an entrepreneur, but it just wasn’t the right industry for me.
So I created a box for myself and expectations, and it just was a really tough time to deal with that internally, but then externally, I’m supposed to be the face of the brand. I’m supposed to be doing this and that, but I wasn’t happy with the business. So I turned to candle making as just a way to blow off steam and my DIY relaxation thing. As I started doing that, I just became more interested in doing the design and creating mock-ups for the boxes that the candles were going in or the labels, and I was like, this is awesome. There’s nobody telling me what I’m supposed to be doing. I have all this freedom, and I’m getting to be creative, which I felt like I wasn’t really able to do previously.
So it was a very organic thing that just happened, and then eventually, people had seen my candle designs. I did a mini soft launch to family and friends, emailing people saying, “Hey, I have candles. If you’re interested, check them out.” Of course, the response was super overwhelming, positively overwhelming. So, like I mentioned earlier to you, I decided to just sign up for my first craft show farmer’s market, and totally not the scene that I thought I would be in. I went from hardcore scientist with the lab coat on in the lab and presenting all of my products. Then I’m at a farmer’s market in overall trying to sell candles. It was so different, but I had so much fun.
It was a completely different just … I don’t even know if it’s industry, but just community in general. Everybody was super welcoming and the ability to talk to so many different types of people, I think that was really rewarding for me. So I decided to just keep doing that and then eventually turn Modern Theory into a full e-commerce business. Especially now with all of these festivals and markets shuttered because of COVID, I had to adapt really quickly and be flexible, and so far, things are going super awesome.

Josh:
That’s really, really cool. What stood out to me about that whole story, just jumping on one part of it is, it sounds like you went pretty far with this. What sounds like, to me, an expectation about how you’re supposed to live and work. You go all the way through to a PhD and you finished it, and then you switch. I would imagine there’s a lot more to that. What happened?

Michelle:
Oh, I think I love science. I will nerd out all day, every day on science, but I just think career wise, it just wasn’t something I saw myself doing in the long-term. I really didn’t see myself sitting at a lab bench doing research forever. I always knew that I wanted to somehow get into the business side of things. So I slowly started doing internships and stuff like that to gain more experience outside of just pure, basic research. But yeah, I mean, at the end, I really took a huge leap. I mean, I felt it was a natural progression to go from my background into creating a science backed skincare line. But once I got into the industry, I realized it’s not. It’s so different from what I had envisioned it to be.
It’s also a very, very saturated market as well, and I was bootstrapping everything. You can imagine, with a grad school budget, that’s nothing, but it was just pure hustle. Yeah, I mean, it took me some time to finally let go of just those expectations, right? I got through grad school, I finished my PhD. I was like, okay, I can get through this business, but with a business, there’s no real graduation date with my future like, “Okay, now I’m done. What’s the next thing?” Whereas with my first business, that decision was up to me, and that was so hard for me to pull that trigger.
This summer, when I did it, I was terrified. I was more terrified about what people were going to think of me, what my parents would say, what would family and friends say? Because I felt like what if I’m letting them down? But at the end of the day, everybody was so, so supportive. I think that’s key to being a successful business person, is really having that support system. Yeah, I was able to just let go of those expectations and that pressure that I had put on myself, because I was just internalizing everything else from outside. But yeah, I’m so glad I made that switch, and I’m so much happier now, too.

Josh:
When you were starting that first company, the first year or two as you’re trying to get it off the ground, was it scary to think about, now I’m doing this thing and it’s turned out to be not what you wanted, but I would imagine at that time, it wasn’t clear yet. So you’re bootstrapping this company, trying to get it started. But in the rear view is always like, oh, I could have done this other thing. How was that for you?

Michelle:
Yeah, the first few years were really tough. I think there was always the fear of failure, right? I mean, I have a much different perspective now, but back then, I was like, no, I cannot fail at all costs. I cannot fail. I have to do this. I have to do it right. I remember I was at a bar and it was like a friend of a friend was talking to me. He was saying, “I can envision in five years, you’re going to be a millionaire.” That stuck with me. I was just like, I barely knew this person, but then I felt the pressure that, oh my gosh, this person thinks that I have to be a millionaire in five years. I need to make sure that happens.
I mean, at the end of the day, that’s just so unrealistic. There are so many things that can happen, and it’s hard. It’s hard starting a business. It’s hard being an entrepreneur. It’s hard growing and scaling. So yeah, I think it was just, early on, the fear of failure. Now looking back, I’m like, dude, I’ve failed so many times over and over again. I’ve learned so much from each of those failures, and it’s made me a better business person.

Josh:
Are you an Enneagram person. Do you know about this?

Michelle:
No, what’s that?

Josh:
It’s a personality test, which obviously, we are very into over here. But I was curious because it sounds like a lot of what you come back to and what you’re putting expectations on for yourself is how you appear to other people. It’s Enneagram type three that is like that, and yeah, it’s pretty common. But how have you fought through that, or is it sounds like now, right, even the story of being in overalls, I can imagine that that part of you that wants to appear a certain way might not look so kindly on wearing overalls and showing up to a farmer’s market. So how have you dealt with that part of yourself that always wants to look a certain way and show up?

Michelle:
Yeah, that’s something that I’ve struggled a lot with in the past few years, and especially with the transition between the two different businesses. I feel like I’m much more my authentic self with Modern Theory versus [Kira 00:00:12:57]. I think the expectation for myself, but also from people surrounding me was like, Oh, you have to dress a certain way. You have to present yourself a certain way. I had to go to conferences and all this stuff, and it was just very formal, right? Honestly, t-shirt and jeans, that’s my jam. I want to be the most comfortable at all times, but I felt like the thing with my first business, I always had to, again, present myself in a certain way to come off as more professional or have more credibility. I think it just has taken me this amount of time to realize no, that shouldn’t matter.
You could be whoever you want to be. It doesn’t matter what you wear, who you hang out with, what you like to do. I think what’s important is your personality and how you deal with people. Are you a kind person? Are you respectful? What are the values that are important to you? So I think what has happened over the past few years is I’ve really honed in on what is important to me. What are my values, especially during this whole COVID situation, really focusing on what really brings me joy, what really matters to me. I think having been more focused on that, that’s just made me feel more comfortable in my own skin and being authentic and not really caring as much as what other people think about me, so, yeah.

Josh:
Then I was curious how your relationships with the people that originally set expectations for you, your family, people that you grew up with, how have those relationships morphed or changed as you’ve grown more into who you just want to be?

Michelle:
I mean, again, I mentioned earlier, I was terrified letting people know that I was going to close down my first business and focus on Modern Theory. I was so happy and so surprised by the fact that people were like, “We’re going to support you regardless of whatever you do.” I think that just gave me even more courage to continue to do what I’m doing and also the confidence too. Like, oh, all these people, they don’t care what I’m doing as long as I’m happy and I’m doing it. I’ve had several friends and family members reach out and say how much I’ve inspired them or I’ve been an inspiration. I’m like, what, that’s crazy. I’m just doing my thing and it might not be the most conventional path, but I’m owning it. I’m having fun and doing something that I really enjoy, and I get to be myself, which is awesome.

Josh:
Yeah, that was what my next question was going to be, is what does a day look like now, as you’ve grown into this new reality? What’s your schedule like? What do you spend your time on?

Michelle:
I mean, I think the really interesting thing about being an entrepreneur is every day is so different, right? You don’t know. I mean, you can have plans and you can schedule things, but there’s always something that pops up that you weren’t expecting. I think being an entrepreneur, you need to be flexible. You need to be adaptable. That’s how I approach the day to day schedule for me. It’s different meetings, or I need to work on like packing and shipping. I need to work with my manufacturers. Do I need to have a meeting today with my marketing person? So each day is different, but I think I thrive off of that. I think novelty is something that is exciting to me. I love having new experiences and being adventurous, and yeah, I feel like I was made for this, so.

Josh:
Then what’s your vision for the future now?

Michelle:
Yeah, just continuing to grow Modern Theory. It’s going pretty fast right now. I’m hiring some folks in the next few weeks, just hired an intern to help with some things as well. Got a new, exciting project that I’m launching next year, which I’m super freaking excited about. I want to tell the world, but I know I got to keep it under wraps for now. But definitely new products next year, new designs, and hopefully expanding into more retail stores. That was the goal this year, but with most retail stores not doing super great or just holding back on purchasing any new inventory, I’ve just been doubling down on e-commerce. Of course, Interact has been super helpful because most customers, they want to smell a candle. They want to know what it smells like in real life. So being able to provide a quiz for them to find their perfect scent has been really helpful. Also, I’ve got some sampler sets too, so people could just order the samplers and test them out too, so I’ve been trying to get as creative as possible.

Josh:
Then what have you learned about yourself in terms of what you’re really good at and maybe things that you don’t enjoy so much?

Michelle:
Oh yeah. I think what I am best at is putting out fires because I feel like I’m constantly doing that. But yeah, I think it’s just being able to put out fires, but connect with different parts of the business, right, whether it’s, I’m dealing with manufacturing, I’m dealing with design, I’m dealing with vendors, I’m dealing with customer service. I think, again, being able to wear all these different hats is really important because hopefully one day, as Modern Theory grows and scales, then I’ll be able to hire more folks and build a team, but then still understand what’s going on and have that expertise as well, because I think that’s important. You should know the ins and outs of your business.
But things that I don’t really enjoy, that’s hard. I don’t enjoy the fact that I could let work keep going. My husband has to tell me, “Okay, it’s time. You got to wrap up,” or else just I’ll stay up all night. I’ll be brainstorming ideas, this and that. If you’re in this for the long game, you have to be able to just manage your time wisely and just not burn out because that is a real thing.

Josh:
Yes, definitely, it very much is. Then I was curious with some of these initiatives that you’ve talked about, like getting into retail. That one popped because from what I’ve heard and in my experience, some of these things are like really big and scary, and you don’t know if people are going to respond well, if they’re going just straight up tell you no. It doesn’t sound like you had much of a background in marketing and sales to know oh, I can rely on these strategies and this is how it works. How did you deal with that when it was lots of people telling you no?

Michelle:
I think you just build just sick skin, right? I just got used … I remember in the beginning I was like, “Oh my gosh, my world is coming down on me,” when people are telling me no. I’m getting rejected from this store and that store, but then it’s just like you get used to it. You’re like, this is just how things work. Right. Some retail store or retail partners aren’t a great fit and that’s okay. Sometimes, there are companies that have reached out to me asking for partnerships and this, and I know that, hey, you know, no offense to you, but it’s just, it’s not a good fit either. So I think just understanding that at the end of the day, that it’s just, it’s a business thing. It’s just not to take it as personal.
Of course, I have no sales, no marketing background, but I had to learn. I had to force myself to be a salesperson, especially at these markets. But to me, because I really believe in my business and I feel very confident in what I’m doing and I love what I’m doing and the way that I’m doing it, that it doesn’t feel salesy to me. I’m not trying to push products on people. It’s like, hey, check them out. If you enjoy it, great. Let’s have a conversation. I want to know what are the sense that you enjoy? How do you use candles in your life? I think that’s the connection that I’ve really built with a lot of customers, and I appreciate very much.

Josh:
Then I was curious, if you could go back and talk to yourself as you’re starting the first company in the very beginning, what do you think you’d want that person to know?

Michelle:
Oh, that’s a really tough question. I think I would tell Michelle five years ago, four years ago, just don’t sweat the small stuff. The things that kept me up at night ended up being so minimal, so insignificant. I think it’s really just focusing on what can you do here and now? Have a plan, but don’t expect it to be exactly that way. Again, just being flexible. I think I was just really hard on myself because I didn’t know what I was doing. So I felt like I had to do everything perfectly, and guess what? Things are not perfect. We are not perfect, so let’s just enjoy the ride.

Josh:
Yeah, that’s awesome. I think a great place to leave off, but for anybody that’s interested in checking out your products or following your journey, where are you online?

Michelle:
You can reach me at Modern Theory on Instagram @modern.theory. I’m always happy to chat with people. So you can email me michelle@moderntheory.co. Yeah, I think those are the two best places that you’ll find me.

Josh:
Awesome. Well, thanks for coming on the show.

Michelle:
Of course. Thanks Josh.

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Josh Haynam

Josh Haynam is the co-founder of Interact, a place for creating beautiful and engaging quizzes that generate email leads. Outside of Interact Josh is an outdoor enthusiast, is very into health/fitness, and enjoys spending time with his community in San Francisco.

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