One of the biggest takeaways to emerge from the COVID-19 crisis has been the art of the swift pivot, something Chriselle Lim and Joan Nguyen have mastered with grace and grit.
The friends turned cofounders were well on their way to launching bümoWORK, a coworking space with licensed childcare, with a large emphasis on community. The design and build of the physical space was going full steam ahead in L.A.’s Century City mall for a May 2020 opening, when COVID-19 hit in March, forcing Lim and Nguyen to pump the brakes on the IRL space and switch gears — quickly.
Bümo’s growth and grand opening was on track, already fueled by a $2.4M seed round, which the two founders began raising in November 2019 and closed this past May.
Participants in the round include G5 Capital, the investment arm of Zhejiang Jiangong Real Estate Development Group; Vivian Chou, daughter of Hong Kong billionaire textile magnate, Silas Chou; Honest Company founder Jessica Alba; Digital Brand Architects founder Raina Penchansky; the cofounders of JGU Ventures; Thrive former chief product officer, Yardley Pohl; as well as celebrities and entertainers Whitney Port, Cara Loren and Jessi Malay.
As Lim and Nguyen were trying to figure out the next steps for their business, they were also dealing with the overwhelming task of home schooling their toddlers — another result of the ‘new normal’ brought about by COVID-19.
“Chriselle and I were the case studies,” Nguyen shares. “Between the two of us, we have four kids 5 and under, with our older children in preschool. Both of our children’s schools tried really hard to adapt, but it was clear that you cannot retrofit the traditional school model into the virtual setting. You must start fresh — and build it exactly the way you want it.”
And build it they did.
Bumo, which means ‘parent’ in Korean, maintained its core mission from bümoWORK’s original launch: finding a solution for working parents, specifically mothers.
Bümo Virtual School (BVS) started as a one-month learning camp — “another tab on our navigation bar of our website,” as Nguyen puts it. “We were all seriously quarantining so we had many Zoom meetings to stay connected as a team. During one Zoom call, we just said, “Let’s bat for the fences — let’s just make the best-in-class virtual school for young learners.”
Nguyen and Lim searched the domain and bought bumobrain.com on April 9, 2020. They knew they had a tiny window— a very tiny one — so they got to work right away.
The website launched on April 20 with a waitlist, and within about a week, their waitlist grew to over 1,000 families from over 30 countries.
Nguyen and Lim, both serial entrepreneurs in their own right, are no strangers to attracting international audiences.
Renowned digital influencer and content creator Chriselle Lim began her career as a wardrobe stylist. In 2011, she launched her YouTube channel and website, The Chriselle Factor, to empower and inspire women all around the world through her daily musings on beauty, fashion and lifestyle. With a following of over 3M across her various channels (including a highly engaged TikTok audience), Lim is now ranked among the top industry experts, deemed a pioneer in new media for her success in bridging the gap between the editorial and digital worlds. In 2017, Lim co-founded CINC Studios, a creative studio that specializes in the visual, digital and social communication for beauty, fashion and lifestyle brands.
Joan Nguyen is also the founder and CEO of MeriEducation. Raised by refugee parents, Nguyen spent much of her childhood living in poverty. Her father finished 7th grade and her mother high school — as a result, she was raised with the understanding that education was not only important, but also a privilege that she needed to wholeheartedly pursue. With a budding passion for education and learning, Nguyen started MeriEducation at 20 years old with $3,000 she saved, giving educational services ranging from SAT preparation to academic tutoring. After graduating college summa cum laude, she scaled it to four physical locations without any outside capital, and stopped opening more to leverage virtual instruction. Now, MeriEducation, an INC 5000 company, serves tens of thousands of students everywhere from Santiago, Chile to Tokyo, Japan.
(Side note: Nguyen had already mastered a pivot from fashion to education, when she launched a small self-named collection and quickly learned that there were too many barriers to entry as an unknown fashion entrepreneur: “I was 21, just out of college, and I stopped all things fashion one day and signed a lease for a 600-square-foot office that fall, which was the start of MeriEducation.”)
Back to Bümo, which has since spawned other spinoff businesses, including BümoParent and BümoBrain.
So how did the Bümo universe come to be? Discover how Lim and Nguyen secured their round of investment after hearing several “no”s off the bat, and kept persisting.
Karin Eldor: What led to the “aha” moment that helped you identify the void in the market for a space like bümoWORK?
Chriselle Lim: My ‘aha’ moment was when I went to Asia and realized there were so many places that support working parents — they were thoughtfully designed with the parents and kids in mind. But honestly the real ‘aha’ moment was when I started talking to other parents and CEOs of other companies that were telling me I needed to build this, because they would use it in a heartbeat!
Eldor: I love your story of how you went after rounds of investment, and had to tweak your pitch for the VC meetings.
Can you share more details about the round of investment you received to launch bümo?
Nguyen: Our fundraising journey was an adventure that had steep downhills and small inclines that kept us hopeful until the end. We got a few warm intros from a friend who had just closed her round. Eagerly, we decided to fly out to San Francisco to meet with a few VCs — they were so excited, it seemed, about what we were saying but in retrospect, they were just being polite. We heard the same words over and over again, our model was “asset-heavy” and “not scalable.” In between international Zoom calls, 10 or so trips to San Francisco and New York to meet VCs, and dozens of in-person meetings locally, we tweaked every line of our spreadsheet for our financial, changed our deck and rehearsed it in different ways — who should say what, when and why.
1- Don’t assume “not now” is a “hard no.”
Nguyen: Between April and July 2019, over 200 people were pitched Bümo in some way, shape or form — and all 200 people basically said “no” by politely saying “not now.” But the really important move for us was with each “not now,” we not only asked why, but we asked who else that particular person knew who would have an appetite or slight interest in learning more about Bümo. In July 2019, we saw the writing on the wall — we were not going to get any investor to really make the leap, but we had to keep moving with practically no money.
2- Gain digital traction by building and engaging a community.
Nguyen: In late July 2019, we launched Bümo as a weekly parenting digest — it was lean, we could do it with just the two of us along with someone we contracted who later became our first employee. Chriselle is a mastermind at all things digital — most notably, building a community— and I am an executor, writing the first newsletters and setting up the website. By August, we had over 10,000 followers and subscribers. We went to Westfield (the parent company of Century City mall) and told them about our idea to start a robust work lounge with a childcare space, and they believed in us. We still had no money — we asked for the world, and they gave us a few islands.
3- Go back with updates.
Nguyen: With digital traction and with the ‘yes’ from Westfield, we went to all the investors who had said “not now,” and emailed a brief update. One investor, Vivian Chou, flew to Los Angeles — we showed her the space filled with debris and really just a shell. She said she would invest — she was our lead investor.
4- Remember that people invest in your grit, reputation and integrity.
Nguyen: Vivian said something that really resonated with the both of us. She told us that she believed in us — the idea was great, but she was convinced that we could execute on this idea given our sheer grit and unwavering persistence even after months of “not now’s.” That was a key turning point for us — people invested in us. It was our character, our reputations and our integrity that swayed people, not just five-year projections or unit economics.
5- Reach out to your network (after all, your network is your net worth).
Nguyen: So, we went to people who would invest in us. Chriselle reached out to the influencer network that believed in her and watched her grow from a wardrobe stylist to having an eponymous fashion label, and really building a fashion community of devoted followers over the course of a decade. I went to the families who saw me grow a one-person, in-home tutoring side job into an INC 5000 company with students from all over the globe, publishing almost a dozen textbooks along the way.”
“In the end, it was the people who knew us — people who knew our core were the people who helped us close this round.”
Eldor: Based on the experience above, what advice would you give to fellow female founders looking to raise VC capital?
Lim: Manage expectations! Know going into it that it will be hard! Expect a lot of ‘no’s in the beginning and it might take some time to get some traction, but once you get the traction, it just kind of takes off. My number 1 piece advice — especially if you have not raised money before — is to research investors and firms with women investors. We were introduced to a few women investors who led us to others, and the word just got out.
Eldor: Can you share more about BümoParent?
Lim: BümoParent is our online community where we provide tactical tips, parenting advice from experts, and share inspiring stories from other parents. Our mission is to make parenting easier, reimagining the way millennial and Gen Z parents work and live through fostering community, and innovating solutions to parenting hurdles through our content. Whether it be from our blog, Instagram, TikTok, or weekly digest, we are constantly putting out content to inspire our bümos.
Eldor: So much is happening so quickly, and I know BümoBrain Virtual School is very much in motion and bümoWORK is set to open its doors in Century City in the fall. What are your next steps, at this point?
Nguyen: It’s interesting because we do have so many verticals of our company. As an interesting analog, having BVS and bümoWORK is like balancing two children whom you both want to succeed. There are times when both of them want and need your full attention — there are times when one is okay and the other needs attention, and vice versa. We shift gears often and quickly — we are definitely getting plenty of practice from being mothers of two children each.
And while it’s tough to predict the future in the midst of a pandemic, Nguyen and Lim are planning as much as they can:
“Our next steps for BVS are to expand our international footprint more and develop curriculum and programming for more age groups,” Nguyen shares. Right now, we offer programming for children 3 to 6 years old. We would love to offer programming for even younger children. For bümoWORK, we are focused on getting the physical space open this fall and making sure that we open in a way that not only promotes education and balance for families, but also safety for everyone.”
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