Getting personal: Five tips from founders who transformed passion projects into businesses
The founders of Fly By Jing and Lynit share how they launched and validated their earliest products and offer tips for other founders as they grow.
The genesis of any business is an idea, and often that idea is born from a founder’s personal passion or struggle. But for so many early-stage founders, it’s tough to know when to make the leap of turning a passion project (or solution to a personal or professional pain point) into a full-time gig, what steps to take before launching the business, and how to maintain that connection to the product and mission as the business grows.
We spoke to two founders who offered an insider’s perspective on what that process looked like for them.
Get to know the founders and the projects that launched their businesses
Chef and entrepreneur Jing Gao was born in Chengdu, China, but she grew up all over the world. When she returned to Chengdu in her 20s, she was swept away by the flavors of her hometown. “Food became a way for me to reconnect with my culture and my family, and as I started to learn more about the history of Chinese food — a cuisine with thousands of years of history — I wanted to share the ingredients and flavors that made it so special,” Jing said.
As she felt more and more deeply connected to Sichuan cuisine, she noticed a huge gap in knowledge about Chinese food in the West and its lack of representation in the natural food space. She got to work researching and developing a line of food products to change that, and what started as a small supper club that gave Jing a venue to develop recipes and share flavors with friends is now a thriving, internationally recognized brand called Fly By Jing. The company produces a growing line of sauces and other food items inspired by the rich flavors of Chengdu’s famous “fly” restaurants — authentic hole-in-the-wall eateries with such incredible dishes they attract diners like flies.
Like Jing, Michael Green built a company to fill a gap and solve a problem. A data scientist by training and trade, Michael’s passion (and serious hobby) is writing fantasy novels. When he grappled with restructuring the plot and character arcs of his first novel, he searched for software to guide him through the complex process — and found that no such tool existed. So he single-handedly built a prototype for what would become Lynit, a tool for writers to visualize and plan stories more effectively.
Five tips for transforming a passion or pain point into a feasible business
Although there’s no one-size-fits-all guide on how to get a new business off the ground, Michael and Jing shared the following advice for building companies that started as personal projects and continuing to grow those companies guided by a personal mission.
1. Let your challenges and instincts guide you
For both Michael and Jing, the drive to build a business stemmed not just from a personal passion but from a need to fill a gap in their respective markets — gaps they were particularly well-suited to fill as they were passionate about their work and were their own first customers.
In developing software to guide and improve his own writing experience, Michael used the challenges he faced during the drafting process to shape the product. He had a feeling he wasn’t the only one who would benefit from the solution he had built — and that instinct was Michael’s catalyst for turning Lynit into its own business.
“I knew I was onto something right from when I first built it for myself,” he said. “It changed my book. I got to really experience the value of it firsthand. And based on the significant value that it gave me, I knew that I wasn’t the only one who was running into this type of challenge.”
From his prototyping days through all the stages of Lynit’s growth thus far, Michael has been a superuser of his own product — and he wants his whole team to become users of the software, too. In fact, a writing course has become a standard part of the onboarding process for all new hires (of which there are five so far). The value of using and caring about Lynit and the challenge it's helping to solve is built into the culture of the company for good.
“Our internal brand promise is that we're writers helping writers,” Michael shared. “I need the team to write and use Lynit so they can get to know it like I do and come up with new solutions.”
When Jing visited the largest natural food exposition in the U.S., she was shocked at the lack of Chinese representation there, despite Chinese food’s popularity in the West. She tapped into her own personal experience of years of ingredient research and recipe testing to create products that would fill the gap.
She launched Fly By Jing without any outside funding, turning to Kickstarter as a way to raise money for her Sichuan Chili Crisp, her first consumer product and most famous to this day. She was the signature recipe’s first consumer: When Fly By Jing was just a supper club, Jing used the same chili crisp as a base for many of her most beloved dishes.
2. Tell your circle: Early reactions can be your first form of validation
If you have to do a lot of explaining or convincing when you start socializing your business plan or idea, it might mean you should go back to the drawing board — or hone your pitch. In Michael’s and Jing’s cases, their first conversations encouraged them to dive into the building process.
The founders’ earliest forms of product validation didn’t necessarily come from formal, tried-and-true methods, but they were often the genuine (and sometimes emotional) reactions they received when they first shared their idea or product.
“I loved seeing people’s eyes light up when they tried a new flavor or sauce — especially the sauce that became our top-selling Sichuan Chili Crisp,” Jing reflected. “That was the ‘aha’ moment that it was special and could stand on its own as a product."
Michael’s inkling that fellow writers would also find Lynit useful was confirmed as soon as he showed them his prototype. “The first person I showed, their eyes jumped out of their head. And more people just kept saying how good it was,” Michael said.
Even if you haven’t settled on a business name or secured a domain, the mere act of speaking about your idea, either out loud or online, is an important step. Not only can it set next steps in motion, but it can also pull into your orbit people who may want to be involved with its creation or assist with beta testing.
This is something that Michael discovered with Lynit. “I started talking about Lynit’s concept to people I knew, and a lot of people were interested — even non-writers were interested in solving this problem,” he said. The reactions from others further motivated Michael to turn Lynit into a tool available to writers everywhere. “That was how I got the first developers. In fact, my friend told a designer about Lynit when they were at a party together. The designer said, ‘That sounds amazing! I'll help with that, whatever I can do!’ When I found that out, I was like, ‘Okay, well, I guess we're starting!’”
Beyond sharing your plans with your circle of family and friends, there’s another valuable resource you may be able to tap into: other founders.
"Seek advice and learn from others who have gone down the same path before, because every mistake has already been made,” Jing advised. “You can save yourself a lot of time and money by not reinventing the wheel."
Here are a handful of organizations enabling founders to learn from and support one another:
Black and Brown Founders, an organization assisting Black and Latinx entrepreneurs through in-person national events, virtual conferences, and virtual training programs.
Hello Alice, an online platform helping businesses to launch and grow, offering actionable resources, a unified community, peer-to-peer connections, and more.
All Raise, an organization that trains and advocates for women investors and founders in tech.
The Gathering Spot, a membership club for Black professionals — including entrepreneurs and creators. As written on their website, their mission is “to create a world where opportunity is the byproduct of community and collaboration.”
StartOut, a community of over 17,000 LGBTQ+ entrepreneurs, where fellow LGBTQ+ founders can receive education, networking opportunities, access to capital, and more.
3. Define and communicate your goals and vision early on
To ensure you and your team remain in sync and centered during those hectic early stages, you’ll need to set time-bound goals from the start. Otherwise, the initial excitement of launching the business can quickly dissipate as you get bogged down in fixing communication practices and aligning on the long-term vision with the rest of your team.
Communicating and thinking through that long-term plan was key for Michael, even before his first hire. “I needed to give my future employees a vision, so I got to work writing out my five-year plan for the company,” he said. “Since I'm going to be paying for all of them with my own money at the start, I thought: I should treat this long-term plan like I’m trying to pitch myself as an investor.”
Beyond those initial hires, Michael advocates for continuing to communicate the long-term vision — something he made an effort to do even in the throes of building the first iteration of a hyper-evolving product. “People need to be aligned on higher-level concepts and have a north star to keep them focused. Because if we keep making small decisions and adjustments that don’t align, it all just goes out of whack,” he said.
It’s not enough to just throw goals, objectives, and deadlines out there, hoping they stick — they need to be documented in an accessible, centralized place. Clearly communicating what folks should be directing their efforts toward (and why and how) is crucial, especially during the start of a venture where you are setting the precedent for how teams function. As an early-stage founder, Michael still grapples with communication and keeping folks in sync from time to time.
Having — and constantly referring back to — a documented single source of truth in one place is helping Michael and the rest of the Lynit team overcome that struggle. “Whenever we run into a communication issue, we have a mini-retrospective right at that moment and go back to our single source of truth — that’s something that keeps us grounded,” Michael said.
Use a dedicated tool like Notion, Confluence, or Coda instead of relying on a tool like Slack, where mission-critical information could get lost or disappear over time. Be sure to document verbal communication, too, to prevent details from being quickly forgotten or misremembered.
I needed to give my future employees a vision, so I got to work writing out my five-year plan for the company. I thought: I should treat this long-term plan like I’m trying to pitch myself as an investor.
4. Set up your analytics first, while your customer base is still small
It’s probably not surprising to learn what a data scientist’s top piece of advice is for every budding entrepreneur: Get your data analytics framework set up as soon as possible.
This past August, the BBC published an article on tech that helps writers with their craft, and Michael was featured in the piece. The press caused an immediate explosion in Lynit’s visitor traffic: Their user base more than doubled in five minutes, and the influx of traffic crashed the app.
Luckily, Michael had set up all data tracking and analytics within the app a week earlier, which meant the Lynit team wasn’t caught off guard. They were able to immediately recognize what was happening and pivot to accommodate the rapid uptick in users. After more than 1,600 new accounts were created in just two days, they had a framework already in place to start tracking and understanding how people were using the tool, which helped the entire team, from marketing to product, get focused on the same shared targets.
Customer data and user analytics are a form of storytelling, and the insights from those stories can lead you to make slight but impactful changes to your site’s user experience, your marketing strategy, or the software features your product and engineering folks should work on next — among countless other positive changes.
That said, be prepared for data to tell you stories you don’t want to hear. As Tom O’Toole, the Associate Dean for Executive Education at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, wrote in Harvard Business Review, “Data inevitably creates transparency and reveals business insights that can be unexpected, uncomfortable, and unwelcome. Data analytics will unearth inefficiencies and misconceptions that complicate leadership and disrupt conventional thinking.” You’ll benefit from incorporating the data that may not fit your original narrative and from using data-powered stories to alter your own thinking (and team objectives).
While site building and hosting platforms can contain rudimentary analytics — Squarespace Analytics, for instance, includes info on traffic sources, popular content, visitor device types, and so on — you’ll want a more robust tool to glean a fuller picture. Google Analytics (which you can then visualize in Google Data Studio) is the go-to, while Hotjar and Qlik are also popular options.
5. Maintain perspective — and your own identity — to help you embrace the highs and lows of entrepreneurship
When your business stems from something deeply personal, it’s nearly impossible not to infuse your own identity and values into the company. Jing’s advice: Lean into it.
“Fly By Jing has helped me find power in my own identity, which I had been shrinking away from for years during my childhood and early adulthood. In 2020, I changed my name from Jenny back to my birth name, Jing, as a way to own my truth. It’s helped me reclaim my own story, and as an extension, to tell Fly By Jing’s.”
She also shares the insight that, as a founder, maintaining clarity around your “why” and staying true to your vision can help you overcome the rejection that will inevitably come your way at one point or another.
For Fly By Jing, 2021 has featured numerous wins worthy of celebration — including launching products at major retailers like Whole Foods and Target and expanding its offerings to include frozen, made-in-California dumplings. These successes helped the company clinch their biggest sales month to date in November.
“But the lows are just as plentiful,” Jing said candidly. “From manufacturing mishaps to shipping fiascos, to facing the highest demand we’ve ever seen in the midst of a pandemic at the same time the entire global supply chain broke down, the challenges are never-ending. And just when we feel like we’ve seen it all, a new, unexpected issue will always catch us by surprise.”
So how can founders weather the storm of rejections, hiccups, and mishaps? For Jing, it’s all about perspective. “During the journey of entrepreneurship, you’ll experience the highest of highs and the lowest of lows, and often in the same day. But maintaining perspective, and knowing tomorrow is always a new day, will get you through the roughest patches.”
From an idea with potential to a full-blown business
There are no strict rules and no must-follow formulas when it comes to how you turn your passion project or pain point solution into a financially sustainable business. But it’s our hope that the tips and insights from other founders help you feel less daunted by the prospect of getting started — and support a more deliberate approach when you do get going.
To close out with a final piece of advice, Jing listed a few important skills that any founder, whether they’re starting out or decades in, should prioritize: “Perseverance, being nimble, the ability to find creative solutions within your constraints, and a genuine curiosity for all aspects of the industry you’re working in.” These skills have clearly served Michael and Jing well — and can help you in your journey, too.