3 Lessons This Founder Wants Other Industry Disruptors to Know

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As a Vietnamese refugee, Lan Phan, founder of Community of Seven, knew that education would change her life. Her mother was a hairdresser who never made more than $15,000 yearly in Inglewood, California. She supported Phan, her two brothers and her father, who couldn’t work due to a disability. Phan got into Stanford University on a scholarship and went to Harvard Graduate School of Education.

“My life was transformed through education. We can create systemic equality through access to education and eliminate inequities,” says Phan.

In 2020, Phan was a Fortune magazine executive entrusted with a multi-million dollar budget and a large team to launch a startup within the magazine. Then she received the devastating news of her and her team’s layoff. She struggled with depression and anxiety as she parted ways with Fortune, so she began posting daily on social media: mainly career lessons she wished she had learned. Her initial audience was her brother and some friends. One day, one of Phan’s posts received 30,000 likes and was viewed by hundreds of thousands. That’s when Community of Seven was born.

Phan is now on a mission to democratize leadership and development opportunities for purpose-driven leaders. Community of Seven provides group coaching, workshops and training to large Fortune 100 companies and tech startups. She offers free content on social media, including microlearning and livestreams on her YouTube channel.

“I grew up in corporate America, where leaders didn’t look like me. I was often the only one at the table who was a woman of color,” says Phan. “Those identified as high potential, primarily white men, were given access to coveted leadership and development opportunities. I and so many others were never on those lists. I want to change that for the next generation of leaders.”

Here are three lessons Phan offers founders who are set to disrupt how businesses are built.

Related: After Her Unexpected Layoff, This Founder’s Love of Fragrances and Self-Care Helped Her Cope. Now She’s Disrupting the Fragrance Industry.

1. Start with what matters the most

“I didn’t get access to leadership and development opportunities until well into my 40s, even though I had managed large teams since my late 20s,” says Phan. “I was often good enough to create the decks and write the strategy docs, but not to present them. The company wasn’t investing in me. I finally realized I had to start investing in myself.”

Given her track record of building businesses, Phan was approached by three venture capital funds with offers to invest in Community of Seven. While some may have jumped at this opportunity, Phan declined. “I want the freedom to build on my own terms. I want to stop chasing assigned targets, including charging exorbitant membership fees. That’s what matters the most to me.”

Phan has taken money out of her retirement account to fund her business. She also has taken on contract work in marketing and other side gigs. Her advice for others is not to rush to get funding: focus on clarifying the problem you are trying to solve through your business.

“If you start taking money too early on, you may be pressured into growth metrics you can’t achieve and have less control over the products you are building. Be strategic about raising capital,” says Phan.

2. Develop expertise in multiple areas

“There are trade-offs to not taking funding,” says Phan. “I had to be wise with how I spent the money I had. I learned to do many things on my own until I started bringing enough revenue to outsource and get additional support.”

Phan became her own social media manager. She upskilled herself on best social media practices and learned to create her own graphics, including a brand logo. She learned to build websites, create community platforms, invest in equipment to livestream as well as film and edit her microlearning sessions. She learned the importance of a balance sheet and how not to overextend her hiring too quickly or outsourcing things that could wait.

“By developing expertise in a number of areas, you get to know your business deeply,” says Phan. “And when you do bring in those individuals with expertise to help you, you have a better understanding of what you need and how to best work with them, because you have done that job before.”

Related: She Maxed Out Her Credit Cards and Sold Her Engagement Ring to Start a Business. Now She Has $25 Million in Funding — and Smart Advice for Fellow Black Women Founders.

3. Don’t be afraid to ask your customers for feedback and adapt

Phan has built her business over the course of a few years, testing and trying different offerings. She piloted small mastermind groups and received feedback that others could benefit from what was being discussed. She took those learnings and built workshops for Fortune 100 companies. She offered 60-minute workshops and received feedback that some of those may be too long, so she is now offering more bite-sized learning moments. She had so much content across different platforms, and her audience wanted an easier way to access it — so Phan published her first book, Do This Daily, centered around secrets to finding success, happiness and purpose in work and life.

“Don’t be afraid to ask your customers for feedback and then adapt,” says Phan. “I see too many businesses struggle because they aren’t willing to adapt or test the things their audience wants.”

Phan continues to offer free resources for her mission to democratize learning for all. She has amassed over 500,000 followers across her social media platforms and built Community of Seven into a six-figure business.

“You shouldn’t have to look a certain way, have a certain title or be friends with the CEO to get access to a coach, a week-long leadership training or an exclusive membership-based community,” says Phan. “There should be no gate-keeping. We all should have access to the resources to help make us better leaders.”

This WOMEN ENTREPRENEUR® article is part of our ongoing series highlighting the stories, challenges and triumphs of running a business as a woman.

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