The Secrets of Her Success: Lilian Chen Went from Startup Investor to Startup Founder. Here’s What She Learned.
As an investor in early-stage tech companies, Lilian Chen spent years evaluating and advising startups. Then she decided to build a company of her own. Here, the co-founder and COO of Bar None Games tells writer Amy Hourigan how she positioned her company for success and the advice she has for other female and minority founders.
Amy Hourigan: Hi, Lilian. Let’s dive right in. We mostly hear about entrepreneurs becoming VCs, not the other way around. What compelled you to make the switch?
Lilian Chen: When I was an early-stage investor, I had the opportunity to meet a lot of entrepreneurs and learn about a lot of startups. Investing in these companies was exciting, but it still felt like I was watching a game from the sidelines. There’s a unique thrill that comes with being an entrepreneur and building something from scratch. While being a founder has a lot of highs and lows, I’ve greatly appreciated the chance to bring my ideas to life, take control of my destiny, and make a lasting impact on the world.
AH: Was there anything that surprised you about the process?
LC: Launching a new company is like embarking on a journey into the unknown. You can plan and prepare as much as possible, but there will always be surprises along the way. One of the most surprising things I’ve learned from launching my own startup is that the biggest obstacle to success wasn’t external factors, but internal ones—fear, doubt and uncertainty. Contrary to what I would have expected, overcoming these internal obstacles is often more challenging, but it’s essential for any entrepreneur who wants to succeed.
AH: Your branding is fantastic. How did you position the company for success? Was there research or data involved, or was it more of a gut feeling?
LC: First of all, thank you! We spent a lot of energy and time on our brand to ensure that it conveys the fun and professionalism of our company. What you’re seeing now is version three of our website. The first two versions were put together by my co-founder and me with the help of freelance graphic designers, but we had not done a full branding exercise. For the current version, we worked closely with a brand designer who asked us how we wanted our customers to feel when they interacted with our brand. We had a very clear understanding of our target customer and the key differentiators for why they choose to work with our company. Every single color, font and illustration was carefully thought through, with many alternatives considered.
AH: You have thousands of customers. How did you grow the business so rapidly?
LC: In the beginning, my co-founder and I relied heavily on our own personal networks. We worked on creating a great product that people genuinely loved and told all our friends about it. They were excited to have us host team-building events with their teams and companies, and we worked hard to not disappoint. Word of mouth then helped us spread to other teams at the same organization. Now, we engage in marketing and sales efforts to help continue to spread the word. At this point, we have a clear understanding of our target customer and the key differentiators of our company. We care deeply about customer feedback.
AH: Speaking of customers . . . besides operations, marketing and finance, you run customer success. Why is that a focus, and how has it impacted the company?
LC: We take customer success very seriously here, as we know it’s the key to building lasting relationships with our clients. We strive to maintain the highest standards for all our operations, and that means going above and beyond to ensure our clients feel like they are in trusted hands. Whether it’s a special request or a small detail, we’ve got it covered so the organizers can sit back and enjoy the experience. We also follow up after every event to make sure the organizers are happy and to let them know how much we appreciate their business. It’s meant that our customers keep coming back.
AH: If you had to go back to the beginning, would you do anything differently?
LC: I can’t say that I haven’t made mistakes, but honestly, it’s part of the journey. I’m not sure I would do anything differently. There have been times when I’ve been really challenged, but the personal growth that it brought me is invaluable.
AH: What’s next for the company?
LC: In 2022, with the shift toward some people returning to the office, we focused heavily on building out our operations for hybrid and in-person events. We updated our format to maintain the same level of interaction and collaboration but transformed the formats to meet the needs of the client, regardless of whether their employees are fully remote. We are excited to continue growing our hybrid and in-person event offerings in the coming years.
AH: What’s your best advice for other females or minorities who want to start their own business?
LC: Beyond the typical advice that I would give to any aspiring entrepreneur, specifically for females and minorities, I would say to lean into your communities. Everyone who has been there as a minority knows how hard it is. What that means is that we’re also really willing to lend a helping hand to other people that we see pursuing their dreams. The community is amazing, and we support each other.
AH: Anything else you want to tell our audience of women investors and women and minority business owners?
LC: For women investors and business owners to succeed, we need to help each other out. Some of my best mentors and advisers have been women. I’ve really valued the ability for women to be candid with each other and share in both the wins as well as tough times.