Riding The Ups and Downs, Re-inventing Yourself, A China Entrepreneur Story with Gabby Gabriel

Michael MicheliniBusiness, China business, Ecommerce, Podcast0 Comments

This week on the show, we are excited to feature Gabby Gabriel. I had the pleasure of meeting her at an EO Bangkok Breakfast and extended an invitation for her to join us in Chiang Mai. Tune in as Gabby shares her journey, focusing on riding the ups and downs, reinventing oneself, and unfolding the captivating story of a Chinese entrepreneur.

Topics Covered in this Episode

  • Why did Gabby Come to China?

    Discover the motivations that led Gabby to embark on her entrepreneurial journey in China, unveiling the driving forces behind her decision.

  • How she met and started the growth of the LGBT community

    Dive into the fascinating story of how Gabby initiated and nurtured the growth of the LGBT community, exploring the personal connections and meaningful encounters that played a pivotal role.

  • Building a Mobile App, The Good, the Bad, The Ugly

    Explore the highs and lows of building a mobile app as Gabby shares the challenges, successes, and lessons learned throughout the development process.

  • Pivoting to a Marketing Agency

    Learn about the strategic pivot that led Gabby to transition from app development to establishing a marketing agency, unraveling the thought process behind this significant shift.

  • Starting over, and the mindset

    Gain insights into Gabby’s experience of starting anew and the mindset that fueled her resilience, offering valuable lessons for those considering or undergoing a fresh start.

  • Inspiration and Learnings

    Conclude the discussion with Gabby’s inspirational insights and key learnings from her entrepreneurial journey, providing a source of motivation and guidance for aspiring entrepreneurs.

People / Companies / Resources Mentioned in this Episode

Gabby’s VIP Page
EO Bangkok Breakfast (Mike’s vlog)
Chiang Mai Ecomm Meetup 23
√ Visit our GFA partner –  Mercury  – for US banking solutons for your ecommerce businesss

Episode Length 34:32

Special thanks to Gabby for generously sharing her inspiring journey, and a heartfelt thank you to all our listeners for tuning in.

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Show Transcript

[00:00:00] Episode 422 of Global from Asia Podcast. We have a very cool interview with Gabby Gabrielle about her ups and downs and reinventing herself, inspirational China entrepreneur marketing story. Let us tune in now. Welcome to the Global from Asia Podcast, where the daunting process of running an international business is broken down into straight up actionable [00:00:30] advice.

And now your host, Michael Micheli. And this show we have Gabby Gabrielle, she’s. A, a true entrepreneur and a gladiator I sometimes say, are going through the ups and downs in the rollercoaster. I met her in Bangkok at EO breakfast where she shared some of this story. We got deeper into this in our global podcast.

She came out to our e-commerce meetups here in Chiang Mai. People really enjoyed this. I’m so glad we got to record it and [00:01:00] share it with you today where we will go through her story. You know, how she came to China, how she found different paths if of different types of projects and businesses, from mobile apps to marketing agencies, you know, hitting maybe bottom and.

Coming back better than ever. It’s really inspirational, especially for the new year. I hope this inspires you. I really enjoyed it. And also we have some sponsors renewing. We have Mercury continuing with another year, third year in a row. Thank you so much. Mercury. If you [00:01:30] are serious about having a US company, especially for your banking and financial needs, they are a great solution.

We use ourselves for many of our own Amazon businesses with US companies mercury.com. You can also get a promotion if you sign up. With our link at global information.com/mercury, as well as a video review and a video tutorial I make about how I signed up and how I use it myself. Thank you Mercury, for your support again in 2024.

Let’s go into the show, Gabby, Gabrielle, I. Boom, [00:02:00] save the date. Cross-Border Summit. 2024 is coming back. 2020 threes was epic. Never got such great feedback in all of our events. Cross-Border Summit 2024. We’re planning already a year in advance. Save the date. November 14th and 15th will be the core event.

But of course it is a full week of amazing things. There’s pre-event, post-event workshops, trainings, elephants, sanctuaries. We have a lot of amazing things here in. My Thailand [00:02:30] again, so I would love to see you there. We’ve already pre-sold some tickets to previous people. We will be opening up tickets soon.

Subscribe to get updates at 2024 dot cross-border summit.com. Also, check out videos and testimonials from last year as well as all of our years we did ’em in China and this will be our sixth one. It’ll be great to meet you there and network and make some great relationships. I can’t wait November, 2024.

All. Um, [00:03:00] well, just an intro about me. I’m originally, I grew up in Cleveland, Ohio, and I went to school in Boston, and then I moved to China shortly after graduating from university in 2012. So before I moved to Thailand, I lived in China for about 11 years, and I moved to Thailand April of last year, which a lot of.

Expats left because of COV and other [00:03:30] situations. I decided I had been planning to leave because I thought 10 years anywhere is a long time and I wanted to try other places, but the CO situation did make it very difficult. So today I’m going to share a little bit about my story. So if you Google top Chinese advertising agencies, especially in the US we come [00:04:00] up, it fluctuates in day to day, but in the top five.

So how did I, how did I make that happen? And this is just some screenshots that right next to Ogilvy. Welcome, and this year we won a bunch of awards for some of our specific client work, but I do think we are one of the best agencies in China. Not to to, to overstate, but I, I [00:04:30] really worked hard to create a really awesome agency.

And another interesting thing is that less than 1% of agencies, and this is a North American statistic. Are owned by women, which is crazy. I couldn’t believe it when I, when I heard that. And it’s something that I feel I even more responsible to do a good job because I’m out there representing only the top 1%.

So, [00:05:00] okay, so how did I end up in China? Well, basically at the time I had studied abroad in the uk. And I met a girl there and we were long distance for like two years and it was either breakup ’cause I was going to law school and at the time America didn’t have marriage equality on a federal level. So even though I was living in Massachusetts, which had gay marriage.

She couldn’t come and like live with me as [00:05:30] my partner in the, in the US we could have moved to the uk but that was just way complicated. And since I wanted to be a lawyer, it didn’t make sense. So I was working at the writing center at my university and some people just came back from China and they’re like, China’s amazing.

You guys gotta go check it out. And they had just been teaching English there. And my girlfriend at the time was. A teacher by profession. So I suggested, why don’t we, I could [00:06:00] take a gap year and we can go to China and see if we really wanna get married. And I also thought if Obama were reelected, he would change the laws for federal marriage.

So that’s what we did. We moved to China as English teachers. Hmm. And that’s me. Um, in 2013, teaching, writing with my university students. So during this [00:06:30] period in my mid, like early to mid twenties, I started to question whether I wanted to go to law school. And there was a period of wandering, I would say, in China, kind of just going with.

Things that I was passionate about, which is photography and writing. And I started to build a social media following, basically interviewing people around Shanghai, taking these photos and writing stuff about [00:07:00] meeting people. And it became, um, pretty popular. I got around like 30,000 followers on Chinese social media.

It was called Shanghai Love Notes. And when the B, b, C, the last time they came to China to make a documentary, I was the only foreigner they interviewed in the whole series because of this. So I took them around, um, Shanghai for a segment of the series. And for me, the reason I mentioned this is that I think we’re [00:07:30] all pretty young here, that sometimes we’re not really sure if what we’re doing is what we actually wanna be doing.

But what I’ve learned in my entrepreneurial journey is that. Every spurt of passion kind of is a foundation for the next level up. So even though at the time it seemed like meaningless, we meandering and I wasn’t making money from anything I was doing, that kind of creative process led me [00:08:00] to other opportunities when I was the version of myself I needed to be to, to let those opportunities to, to develop.

So at the same time, I broke up with my girlfriend in 2014, and so that was two years of relationship life in Shanghai. And now I was like, okay, I need to meet some gay friends. I. And as I’m sure many of you know, China has a reputation for [00:08:30] not being LGBT friendly. So I was on the quest to look for gay people to hang out with.

And I remember asking my Chinese friends at the time, Hey, like, where are the gay people in the city? And, and they said there weren’t any. And I started to believe them because I literally couldn’t find any gay people to meet up with. Until one day I was at a random restaurant and at the table next to me, I heard someone say the word lesbian, [00:09:00] and I was like, oh, you guys are lesbian.

I’m a lesbian too. And then they introduced me to the one meetup that happened once a month that was organized via email. And I went to a couple of them and I said, why don’t we turn this into something a bit more substantial and organized through WeChat. And I started basically this LGBT organization that started as like a 20 people thing and grew, um, [00:09:30] over the years.

And I became known in Shanghai as a lesbian godfather and, and it became a very large organization, um, around in 2017, around 10,000 people. And my, um, whole entrepreneurial journey really kind of started at this time. I was on a quest because I saw, even though I knew I wanted to move back to [00:10:00] the United States, I started this organization that was changing people’s lives was super fun and.

It wasn’t, wasn’t profitable at all. And I was like, if I leave, this is just gonna fall apart. Foreigners cannot, cannot start non-profits. And I’m also kind of anti non-profit for the LGBT community. ’cause I don’t think we’re like endangered animals that need to be donated to. Um, I wanted to [00:10:30] find a way to make the organization sustainable.

So how do I do that? Um. In parallel. At the same time, I had quit my job in 2016 and when I was quitting my job, a Chinese guy I worked with, I was quitting my job to monetize Shanghai love notes. I was gonna turn it into an e-commerce platform type thing. And he, he, I was working as an education [00:11:00] consultant, basically helping Chinese students.

Study in the US and he wanted to start a similar program and he gave me 50% of the company and was like, uh, you just have to organize the English speaking department. And once we get the students, I was responsible, but I could see that he came from a wealthy family, had limited sales skills and just didn’t have what I thought it took [00:11:30] to actually make this.

A possibility. So I was getting nervous ’cause I wasted like three months waiting for this to keep going. And at the same time, in 2017, um, Airbnb had just come to China and I had a friend who was leaving China and had two apartments and she gave me two sets of keys and was like, here Gabby, take these keys.

If you can make money on this, these apartments, I’ll split it with you. So we put it on Airbnb. [00:12:00] In April of 2017, and I was surprised how much money we made in that month. And then basically I was like, I started China’s first Airbnb property management company. I. Um, so it was good because from May to September is high season for rentals in Shanghai, so I, in the end managed around 70 to a hundred apartments at a given given moment, [00:12:30] and, um, made a good amount of money that I was then able to, what I thought was create an app for the LGBT community.

And because I didn’t have a technical background and just being a young. Entrepreneur, I didn’t really go about it in the best way possible. Um, so like in 2017 when I started the Airbnb property management company, I [00:13:00] couldn’t even afford a hot desk. And I did the whole WeWork journey from Hot Desk to out of graduating out of WeWork during my entrepreneurial tenure.

Um, and I, I like this picture because it was early in my entrepreneurial journey. You would see me working super late and it, although it’s not my current company, I do think that, you know, people were judging me a lot at that time, thinking I was crazy, working so [00:13:30] hard all the time. And even though it’s not what ended up bringing me to where I wanna be today.

Um, I think it’s the work ethic and the self-belief that shaped the foundation for growth basically. So I, if I were smart, I would’ve sold my Airbnb property management company, but instead I was in my twenties and I was like, I’ll just close it. It was a six figure USD business [00:14:00] that was, its first of its kind in China, so.

I just lacked the business knowledge and root coaching that could’ve helped me even have a, an exit. So I took the money that I made from the Airbnb management company and created a, an idea for an app. I hired a team in Chino, which is Northeast China, to develop this app. ’cause it was the cheapest company I could find.

[00:14:30] And basically it was a community app. The idea is that this would take what I built in hundreds of WeChat groups in China, turn it into an app, and then I could monetize it and scale it basically. So that chained out company ended up outsourcing the product to India. So six months into the [00:15:00] the journey, I was still waiting for this app to be finished.

And my community, the community’s all wondering like, where is this app? Because Gabby, you’ve been talking about it. We did some events getting people excited about it, and I started the project in August. And it was January and the app still wasn’t ready. So I found out that they had outsourced it to India and I had the choice.

I had [00:15:30] two things. So first of all, I was running out of money ’cause I was paying a monthly retainer. Um, so I either needed to find funding. Change, um, app providers. And what I did is I had met a guy during my years in China who was this older gentleman that I never knew was one of the richest guys from Ireland and who [00:16:00] happened to be gay.

And I ran into him at a Halloween party and I told him about this app and. He said he, he’d be, because I said I was starting to get the feelers out for investment before I needed it, and he said he might be interested. So in January when I contacted him, I was running, I was down to my last like a thousand dollars and I was supposed to be going to a conference in the US where I was gonna talk about the app.[00:16:30]

So I was in big, big trouble. And I remember I asked him if he was still interested in investing and then he, he had me send my business plan and on my 30th birthday, he messaged me to meet him at a cafe in Shanghai and sent me the investment money, at least part of it. So I had enough money to go on my, um, to the conference in Washington and I got the funding I needed and if what I wish I [00:17:00] did.

Is then take that money and hire a new team in China to build the app because it got outsourced to India. So many problems with that. To launch a product in China, they use totally different types of tools in China, you know, Google’s block their everything. And although the Indians really tried to do the best they could with what they knew and, and without trying to use Google products.

In the end, it wasn’t, um, suitable and [00:17:30] they told me that, um, I, they’ve made over like a thousand apps and I was the only person that actually ever went to visit them in India. And I worked on the app with them for three months in two early 2018. So June is Pride Month in China, and we launched the app. It, um, the first of its kind in China, but unfortunately because of the technical problems, it just was [00:18:00] not functional.

It was enough to get people to register, but beyond that, it wasn’t well done. And I was very naive with what I thought was going to happen and all the things that, uh, went wrong basically. And. Again, now I’m running out of money again ’cause this is six months later we finished the product and um, now I’m trying to fundraise.

This is Y for N, which is one of the biggest [00:18:30] mobile exhibitions in the world that happened to be in Shanghai that year. And although people always thought like, oh, Gabby, what you’re doing, it’s very cool, but no one would put money into it. So by the end of the summer of two 2018, I. We ran out of funding and this time lots of people, like thousands of people in the community, knew about it.

Um, there was, I [00:19:00] was well known in the, in the community, so it looked, I at that point was. Um, feeling extremely depressed and also doubting myself a lot and my own capabilities because I thought that this was a great idea, but no one would invest in it. I couldn’t make money from it. And now what was my dream?

And I thought I was living the dream. Ended up becoming a public embarrassment. [00:19:30] But I believe that necessity is the mother of invention. So unlike other entrepreneurial solopreneur people that you see on LinkedIn saying, oh, wait until you have enough money saved. I think really it’s better to put the pressure on yourself.

For me anyway, I’m the type of person, if I am under pressure, I will deliver. And although it was a [00:20:00] miserable time because I was, I had no money, I was negative $30,000. And basically everybody hated me because they thought I had raised a ton of money and squandered it and making it, making a lousy app. Um.

So on the basis of this foundation, I had to get a job and I got a job as a marketing manager. [00:20:30] So we ran out of funding September th 2018. I got a job in October, 2018 as a marketing manager at an accounting company, and I remember on the first day. And they were too busy to train me, and I was just sitting there thinking all self-hating thoughts like, I’m such an idiot.

How did I end up in this situation? I went from being the coolest lesbian in Shanghai to the most hated [00:21:00] lesbian in Shanghai, and also like everything is wrong. And then I thought, well wait a second. I still have a registered business in China. Why am I letting this company hire me as an individual? They could hire me as a business.

So I left, went back to WeWork, um, rented a desk from someone who had a bigger office and started Gab China. So basically [00:21:30] I start the whole climb again, you know, and because of my LGBT community, I was able to get. Clients pretty quickly. Um, my first clients were my best friends. So one of my friends from California who brought bagels to China, she, she hired my agency.

And then another best friend who had an industrial design company in the south of China also hired my agency. And you really just need one or two clients to [00:22:00] get going. Um, and in two years, I basically scaled it to a six figure company. I. And this was a a 12 person WeWork office. And at that, actually from eight people in WeWork, it becomes, doesn’t make sense anymore.

So it’s better to get your own private space in China. Um, another key aspect to my growth was joining Accelerator program as part of Entrepreneurs [00:22:30] Organization. It’s an American nonprofit, but they operate all over the world. I joined the accelerator program in Shanghai, but they also have one in Bangkok and through the accelerator.

What I learned were a few fundamental things, so I’m a very good marketer, but just because you’re talented at a specific skill doesn’t mean you have what it takes [00:23:00] to grow a business. What I see a lot of entrepreneurs doing is tying their self-worth to the ability to grow their company. You actually could be an amazing person at what you do, but actually growing your business is a completely different skillset.

And that’s what I learned in the Accelerator program. Scaling Up. Scaling Up by Vern Harnish. He’s the founder of Entrepreneurs Organization, and it’s a book you can buy online. It’s also a style of how you [00:23:30] can run your business to scale. And for me, this was an extremely important lesson. If any of you have ever failed before, you know how humiliating that feels.

How, how, how it makes you feel like you’re not able to do anything. And a lot of people give up at that stage, but actually that’s where you really learn your most. Um, and as part of the program, I also [00:24:00] received mentorship and an accountability group. And in my mentoring I found out lessons, not just about who I wanted to be, but who I didn’t want to be.

’cause I looked around at EO China and I was like, um, I’m 35 now, but I was like 30, 33. Um, do I wanna be where these 50 year olds are? In 20 years. And for me the answer was no. And I say that very respectfully. They’re amazing guys. [00:24:30] But for me, I have bigger ambitions for myself. And I thought, well, whoever you’re hanging out with is who you’re going to become.

So by meeting the mentors who did TE teach me a lot, but it also taught me who I didn’t wanna be. And that led to seeking out mentorship from people who I did wanna be. And the journey to seven figure USD business [00:25:00] was led by, uh, winning a few key accounts. Huawei, and this was still one of the best, one of like top five entrepreneurial moments was getting taken to Huawei HQ and Shenzhen and the full amazing treatment that they gave us when we kicked off our partnership and.

You know, just two years before this I was suicidal and, and debt and, um, thinking that I was the [00:25:30] biggest idiot in the world. And just by really self-belief and having the know-how to think that there was another way for myself, and now we’re a 50 person team. I’ve expanded services outside of China and I also started another agency.

So even though it’s kind of all one company, I’ve created subcategories of agencies under the [00:26:00] GAB brand. So in 2022 we launched Gab B2B, which is a English and Chinese marketing and advertising for B2B industrial companies focused on apac, but it ended up being. The brands have a strong footprint in apac, but they, they may hire us for their global needs.

And then next year I’m starting Gab Green, or I’m launching Gab Green, which is a sustainability [00:26:30] communications agency that will be based in the us. So I’m moving back to America. Meanwhile, my business in China is pretty. Another key point I learned in Accelerator is that you’re just supposed to own your business.

You’re not supposed to be working in your business. And so, because I really wanted to leave China, I did everything I could to make myself not operational as possible. And it took me years of hard work. [00:27:00] Um, and now it’s pretty, it’s pretty self-sufficient. It pretty much runs without me. And I think once you.

Have learned the skills to make that happen. It can be applied across other businesses pretty easily. And these are some of our clients. I told Mike we don’t have a lot of e-commerce clients because when I first started the agency, you know, actually most brands on Tmall make no money. And I asked like friends [00:27:30] who have huge clients like Burberry.

They’re not making money on, on e-commerce in China, only the cosmetics companies are. So, if I was a new agent, when I was a new agency, I didn’t want to have the KPI of sales and let that be potentially detrimental to, for me to scale up. I focused on community growth and, and brands that didn’t need sales as a KPI, because then it became more about quality of [00:28:00] content.

Quality of, um, followers and not necessarily about sales, which was great because that’s how I was able to grow the business. But we did have and have had e-commerce clients. One of them is thoughtfully their a hundred million US Amazon company from California and they wanted to try, they tried all of Asia for a couple of years.

Wasn’t profitable and then just went [00:28:30] back to only selling on Amazon and English speaking countries. So my advice for e-commerce companies is never sell in China unless it’s going to be like an experiment because it’s very difficult to unnecessary. It’s better to stick to where you are and what’s working and scale that up before you start making calculated risks in China.

So what about my LGBT app? So I did finish [00:29:00] it. Um, the original plan of when I started the agency was actually to self-fund my app because I hated the fact that I needed to ask investors for money for something that I knew would change, change so many people’s lives. They just not enough investors who can understand the impact.

That this type of community can have. But at the same time, I was heartbroken about what happened to me, [00:29:30] and I felt that the community didn’t have my back when I basically failed and put all of my energy and time and money into this. I was judged. I was blacklisted. People weren’t inviting me to parties anymore just because they thought that of the story that they put in their head, and so I finished it for myself, but I didn’t continue doing it because I had another great business [00:30:00] that was going really well.

My agency and I decided to put this project on pause until I could regain. My passion for the LGBT community, and I do still believe in this and may start this again, but in the US or Europe where people can understand and care about the LGBT community. So with that, I leave a few tiny lessons. One is [00:30:30] that I think as entrepreneurs.

Your idea is just like a gentle seed and really it’s the people closest to us who are the quickest to swat it out of our hands. Oh, honey, you, you think you have a great idea? Maybe you share it with your mom or your girlfriend or someone close to you and they’re like, oh, honey, that’s not for you. That that’s, that’s more what that works for Jimmy.

’cause Jimmy has those skills. But when you have a real plan and I and a belief for your [00:31:00] life or whatever, you have to learn how to grow through resistance and, and to find what it takes to nurture yourself despite all of the odds that are against you. So this is one of my Shanghai love notes. I wrote it when I saw this guy reading while he’s collecting.

Recycle, like, um, stuff on the side of the road to sell. And I, and at first I judged him like, what is he doing reading? Then I thought, oh my God, I’m, that’s so [00:31:30] ignorant because I don’t know what his plans are. So when you have a goal for yourself, there are no distractions. There is no right place and right time.

There is only you and your dream, and to others you may seem ridiculous. But they only can see where you are, not where you’re going. So thank you.

Are you looking for USA banking solutions for your e-commerce business? [00:32:00] I am proud to say mercury.com is supporting the podcast here, third year in a row at Global from Asia. And we’re proud to say it ’cause we use ’em ourselves for many of our own. Amazon Brands, e-commerce brands and joint ventures with our US structures.

And they’re super easy to do online application, no fees, and they have great customer support. Have helped us with trouble with Amazon Seller Central over the years about some receipts and statements and everything like that. So we’re so happy to say thank you, mercury, for supporting our show, being a great [00:32:30] service and supporting other e-commerce sellers.

We’re really proud to say they’re a sponsor here and we also have a video tutorial as well as an overview and a special. A link with a little bonus for you as well for us under certain conditions. Check it out@globalfromasia.com slash mercury for that information. Thank you for listening and thank you Mercury.

Thank you Gabby. Again, you know, it was her first time to Chang Mai. She’s usually down in Phuket, you know, and bouncing between China a lot. So it was really great to catch up with her [00:33:00] in her trip through Chang Mai, and I’m so glad we got to document and record this. It’s, it’s actually part of my little.

One of my, I have so many dreams. I say so many, so many plans, but basically I, I, I love to be able to have, you know, in-person meetings and record and share with people and create legacy. You know, I think this interview, this show will be helpful for people. For many years to come. And you know, it inspired me the first time I saw it in Bangkok, and the second time I saw it again in Chiang Mai.

And maybe you actually watch it twice. [00:33:30] It is a new year, 2024. We got a lot of things going on here. And what we want you to do is take action. You know, learn. Don’t be afraid to make a mistake. Don’t be afraid to fail. I’ve. Of course made my share of failures. I’m pretty transparent about it. My wife says I’m too transparent about it, but we need to keep on pushing forward until we find success.

I, I really have a good feeling for all of us in 2024, and I hope you find yours as well. So I’m gonna wrap it up, [00:34:00] keep it short, sweet, or our outro today, episode 422 of Global from Asia, over and Out. See you in the next episode, like subscribe. Building whatever. Who cares? See y’all later. Bye-Bye. To get more info about running an international business, please visit our website@ww.global from asia.com.

That’s ww.global from asia.com. Also, be sure to subscribe to our iTunes feed. Thanks for tuning in.

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