When You Have a Dream But the World Says “No”
Vicky Tsai is the founder of Tatcha, a line of Japanese beauty and skincare products.
She might be the most unlikely origin story that we’ve heard about this month, because from the very beginning she was told by everyone there was zero market for her. In the U.S., American retailers claimed they had no demand for Asian beauty supplies, and even in Japan the products were viewed as old-fashioned, like something your grandmother would use. All she heard was NO.
Undeterred, she trusted what she had – a skin-care miracle called “blotting papers.” They’d been used for centuries by geishas in Japan to remove oil from their faces before and after putting on makeup, and all the geishas she’d met had flawless skin. She tried them herself after years of suffering from dermatitis – in just a few weeks of using them and some other related products, her face was healed. Once she ran out of her own supply, she searched everywhere and discovered that Kyoto was the only place where you could find them, and they had no interest in exporting them. Already under a mountain of personal debt, she sold her engagement ring to purchase 10,000 packs of blotting paper and the company was born.
For the next several years, the debt only got worse, and the “no’s” only got louder. Unable to afford rent, she was forced to run the company out of her parents’ garage, and repeatedly had to borrow money just to make payroll. Finally in 20217, her perseverance paid off – following years of growth that everyone had said would never happen, she sold the company to Unilever for a reported $500 million.
A few things I take away from Vicky’s story:
First, no matter what business you’re in, the name of the game is solving a problem. Whether it’s a problem you have (like Vicky’s dermatitis) or a problem you see for others, the biggest question is: what problem are you helping solve?
Second, don’t underestimate the power of learning from someone who’s different from you. Our own perspective inevitably will have blind spots – what if traveling to another country or listening to another point of view holds the missing piece to your puzzle? In Japan, it was an old-fashioned idea that nobody wanted, a gold mine hiding in plain sight that just needed a rebrand. Could the key to your dream be waiting in some other cultural context that you’ve never explored before?
My favorite part of all is just her refusal to take No for an answer. Even when the odds weren’t in her favor, she just kept showing up and finding a way forward. Part of me wonders if it all traces back to one of her first jobs working for Starbucks Corporate – at one point she was the lead on a massive initiative to launch Starbucks in China, pouring her soul into the job to ensure the campaign was a huge success. At the end of that year during her annual review, the VP gave her an evaluation of “Meets Expectations;” shortly after, she was like, “Nope, I’m out of here.” Like she already knew there was something more in her, no matter what negativity she heard from others.
I love the quote from Vincent Van Gogh: “If you hear a voice within you say ‘you cannot paint,’ then by all means paint, and that voice will be silenced.” As we wrap up this origin story series, what voices are you listening to? If you’re hearing a no to your dream, or if someone is looking at your best efforts and saying it “Meets Expectations,” I hope this is the year you go out there and prove them wrong.