HK HUB Spotlight: Sandra Wong and Julie Tuan of Lola’s Ice Pops
This week in the next part of our Spotlight Series, which celebrates entrepreneurs who have taken a leap of faith and left behind a career in the corporate world to start their own business, we speak with artisanal food trailblazers Sandra Wong and Julie Tuan, founders of Lola’s Ice Pops. We discover why they walked away from secure careers in law to face the uncertainty, risk and hard work of the start up world, and how they have created one of Hong Kong’s most interesting homegrown food retailers.
Tell us a little bit more about yourselves and your families
Lola’s: We are Sandra Wong and Julie Tuan. We each have two children (Sandra’s are nearly 5 and 3yrs old; Julie’s are also nearly 5 yrs old and 1 year old).
In the spring of 2013, we started Lola’s Ice Pops. We make artisan handmade popsicles. Recently we added artisan small batch American style hard ice creams to our product line.
What is your background?
SW: I am trained as trial lawyer in New York. I was initially a prosecutor in Brooklyn and then a civil litigator with a specialty in medical malpractice. I then moved to Hong Kong in 2007 because my husband’s firm (he’s a corporate lawyer) asked him to check out their Asian practice. When we moved here I became qualified as a solicitor in Hong Kong and found work in the medical legal field until 2010 when we had our first child.
A significant part of my job in Hong Kong involved defending doctors in serious criminal matters and disciplinary actions. The work by nature was quite stressful. As a result, I developed high blood pressure during my pregnancy. My firm reacted quite poorly when my obstetrician instructed me to take medical leave due to my medical condition. I was appalled at the way women are treated in myprofession in Hong Kong (or at my firm at least), as this would not be tolerated in the United States where I was trained. After I had my first child I decided to give up the practice of law, for as long as our family remains in Hong Kong.
JT: I’m originally from the San Francisco Bay Area. I am also a former lawyer and worked as a corporate attorney for several years in San Francisco before moving to Hong Kong with my husband (also a lawyer) in 2004. I continued to practice as a corporate finance attorney for global law firms in Hong Kong and Shanghai.
My job required long hours and frequent travel. Working 12+ hours a day was the norm, and we were often required to travel for client meetings on just a days’ notice. I remember once when we were on a deal, our team basically working around the clock, I was the first one to leave at 3 am because I was 8 months pregnant. I decided to “retire” from the law when my first child was born in 2010. I wanted to spend more time with my daughter which would have been impossible given the nature of my job.
Where did the inspiration for Lola’s Ice Pops come from?
Lola’s: When our kids started to eat solids, we began to make frozen popsicles out of pureed fresh fruits for our kids. Those became a hit with our own kids, friends and family. Soon people began to ask us to make these for kids parties, and thus a business idea was born.
When we first started Lola’s Ice Pops, Hong Kong did not have any alternative to the mass- produced artificial and chemical laden popsicles and ice creams. We thought it would be fun to bring something fresh to the market. Our philosophy is to avoid processed ingredients and thus we make most if not all of our ingredients from scratch, from the caramels to the brownie bites, mochis (Japanese-style rice cakes), marshmallows and nut brittles. We only use fresh fruits and herbs that are in season.
What have been your biggest challenges?
Lola’s: Realising that 80% of running the business has nothing to do with making ice pops and ice creams in itself. Since neither of us have a background in the food business, it has been a fun roller-coaster ride of learning-on-the-go for us.
What’s your favourite part of the job?
Being in our dedicated kitchen and making new flavors of popsicles and ice creams. The process is quite creative and it’s a nice payoff when customers love our products.
Do you miss anything in particular from your corporate life?
SW: Since we are in the kitchen a lot, I mostly wear kitchen friendly clothes. So I do miss dressing up and looking smart although I don’t miss wearing heels!
Professionally speaking, I miss most being in the courtroom. I miss the sheer mental challenge in trial advocacy like yelling “objection!” on the top of my lungs and then arguing the fine points of the rules of evidence but this I will have to wait until one day we move back to the United States.
JT: Yes, I miss the dressing up part too! Nowadays when I’m in Central I feel like I’m a bum. But seriously, I miss being in an environment where I am able to concentrate and focus my attention on one task – and actually be able to complete it in one sitting. Or being able to have a phone call or work at the computer without having kids screaming in the background or climbing all over me.
Where do you see your business in five years time?
Lola’s: Hopefully with a full staff and team members dedicated to handling particular areas of the business like production, legal, marketing, sales, accounting, website, social media, etc. Right now we are still doing this all on our own, mostly just the 2 of us.
How do you retain a work/life balance?
Lola’s: A significant reason why we decided to start Lola’s instead of going back to legal practice is that we want to devote more time to raising our young kids. Both our husbands have stressful careers and we wanted to be the primary caregivers for our children. In our day to day, we plan a lot of our business activities around our kids so that not only do we get things done but also take care of our kids’ needs as well. That is why most of our emails and other correspondence don’t get sent out until after 11pm way after the kids have gone to sleep!
What are your go-to time saving resources?
SW: I like gadgets and new apps. I am always trying to get Julie to download the latest and greatest calendar or productivity apps.
JT: I don’t know if it’s really a time-saver, but I like to set everything up for the next day the night before when the kids are sleeping. I go through the calendar for everything that needs to get done the next day and try to set up as much of that in advance so that the day of everything goes smoother and nothing is forgotten (hopefully!).
SW: Agree. We put together a production plan for the ice pops and ice creams every week. On crazy days I may even need to work out my activities by the hour on what I have to do, where I have to be, and sometimes even how we execute things (e.g. which of us will set up which part of a catering event). Our kids’ activities are also built into our plans so that they can be taken care of at the same time.
What advice would you give other women who are considering striking out on their own?
Its going to be a lot of work, so be prepared to be overwhelmed, especially when you might not know how to do a lot of the things you have to do for your business. For example, we had no idea how to do HTML, social media and graphics. We’ve had to learn a lot of it on the go, by trial and error and it took (and still takes) so much time. Sometimes it feels like we put in more hours and efforts into our business than we did with billable hours.
Find a good partner. We are fortunate to have complimenting personalities. But like any two people we also have our differences. We joke that we are like a married couple, we each have our pet peeves (which the other knows how to trigger) and quirks. Fortunately, though we have actually become better friends since we started this business.
To find out more about Lola’s Ice Pops and the new range of Lily & Ran ice creams, visit their website.