Connie Nam felt her confidence draining away. The founder of London-based lifestyle jewellery brand Astrid & Miyu had built a fast-growing, multi-million-pound company, but that didn’t matter. As unbelievable as it sounds, imposter syndrome was creeping in.
The Seoul-born, US-raised Londoner explains why: “I’d hired someone who’d started to challenge how I ran the business. They were an expert in that field; I wasn’t. I saw myself as a founder, not a CEO, so the criticism hit home.”
Luckily for Astrid & Miyu, Connie has a personal rule: get help when needed. Her pragmatism made the difference. “I reached out to a professional executive coach,” she says. “During this time, I also consumed loads of leadership books and podcasts to help me navigate my journey. All of these resources helped me to shift my mindset.”
By seeking help, Connie was able to fix her self-doubt and ease her transition from founder to CEO. She says: “As a founder, I’d been focused on building the brand and products. But now the time had come to build the business. All of this led me to think that I needed to build a strong team around me to help grow the business – I couldn’t do it alone. That’s what I’ve done and continue to do, and my confidence has returned.”
It’s not the only time Connie’s realistic approach to asking for help has paid dividends, as we’ll see. But it’s important to note that this founder’s willingness to seek assistance is built on an iron bed of self-reliance. Connie gained her resilience in childhood when her father’s diplomatic career took her to different schools and homes in Seoul, Washington DC and Seattle. She says: “I had to adjust each time. It probably made me stronger and more entrepreneurial because I had to endure the struggles of being the ‘new’ and ‘different’ kid wherever I went.”
Life eventually took Connie to a flat in Notting Hill where in 2012, while studying for an MBA at London Business School, she set up a £500 website and founded Astrid & Miyu. Before that, she’d been a fledgling investment banker – a job she part-loved for its intensity, part-hated for its rigid hierarchy and ‘do as I say’ culture.
Astrid & Miyu, like Connie’s self-reliance, has its roots in her childhood. “Jewellery was at the heart of what mum and I enjoyed,” she says. “When we travelled, we’d go to markets and browse jewellery stands. I’d play with mum’s jewellery and every piece had meaning because it came from a different place. I remember thinking that jewellery on the high street felt stale – it was under glass, put there by people in uniform. But in the markets, jewellery was fun. So I wanted to bring that fun to the high street.”
Connie launched Astrid & Miyu in 2012 whilst being a student at London Business School because she “didn’t have anything to lose”. Her jewellery brand found fans immediately and she soon needed to unlock capital to grow, which she did, raising £600,000 from early investors attracted by her banking experience, exciting vision and in-demand designs.
Connie evolved with the business, learning as she went. One of the biggest lessons she has learned is the importance of recruiting well. She says: “The biggest challenges, then and now, are people. When you hire well, it’s so rewarding. But get the wrong people and it’s costly for the business, the culture and the team. And at first it’s so hard to get the right people. When you’re starting out, you need generalists who can just get on with it. That’s a rare talent.”
So what does Connie – whose company now employs 150 people – look for when hiring? Unhesitatingly she says: “Humility and curiosity because skills can be acquired, attitude can’t. If you’re humble and curious, you will grow with the business.”
Astrid & Miyu has grown into a 50/50 online/retail business. It has also diversified to offer piercing, welding and tattooing. And the future looks as vibrant as its early years as the brand pushes beyond its London heartland. At the time of writing, Astrid & Miyu has eight stores in the capital and one in Manchester. But over the next 12 months, Connie – who owns 54% of the business – plans to open five or six UK stores outside London. She’ll also open one in New York (the lease is already signed) and another in Europe, possibly in Berlin, where Astrid & Miyu recently ran a pop–up.
But how has Connie managed such fierce growth while raising a young family? Maintaining a healthy, happy home life is an Achilles’ heel for entrepreneurs, but not for Astrid & Miyu’s founder. Why? Here, Connie returns to her rule: get help and don’t worry about asking for it. She says: “I certainly don’t ‘have it all’. It’s tough and I have to juggle like everyone else. But the big thing for me is having really good people around me. My team at work are amazing and I have a great partner at home. My husband works as hard as me, but does more with the kids and around the house. He’s so supportive and that’s massively helpful. Entrepreneurs, in particular, need partners who are super, super understanding. I have two brilliant nannies, too, so a lot of it is not being embarrassed about getting help.”
Connie has built Astrid & Miyu through a rare mix of self-reliance and knowing her limitations. From the moment she launched the website in 2012 to putting pen to paper on her new Manhattan store’s lease ten years later, she’s combined those two characteristics to significant effect.
Everyone knows that self-reliance is a potent force. What far fewer people understand is the power of knowing when to get help. And that’s the beauty of Connie’s story: it shows that to grow a company healthily and sustainably, the founder needs to master the art of asking for help. And that’s something they never teach you at business school.
Connie Nam’s three critical pieces of advice
1. Get help.
Connie says: “It’s vital to have someone who you can exchange honest ideas with because when you’re a founder or CEO, it’s lonely… there are many things you can’t tell your team even if you’re a very open person.”
2. Be kind to yourself.
“This is a piece of advice I give to other people but don’t take very well myself. I have very high standards and expectations for myself, but that often creates unnecessary stress.”
3. Be aware of the impact your words have on others.
“This idea really hit home when transitioning from founder to CEO. As a founder, I didn’t take myself too seriously. But as CEO, I’ve learned to be a lot more thoughtful about what I say because now it gets amplified. Saying something or someone is good has a bigger impact. And questioning something can be perceived as criticism. So being aware of the impact your words can have is something that founders should be aware of as their team grows.”