“Play to your strengths”: Why Airwallex’s Lucy Liu rejects labels in startupland


Airwallex co-founder and president Lucy Liu. Source: Supplied.

She may be a leading woman in Australian startups, with her business pegged to become another local unicorn, but Airwallex co-founder Lucy Liu doesn’t like to think in labels, preferring to focus on her strengths and successes than her gender.

Founded in Melbourne in 2015, Airwallex secured $109 million last June, in one of 2018’s biggest capital raises.

Since then, Liu and co-founder Jack Zhang have been focusing on growing the team, and have opened three new offices.

The business has been moving quickly, Liu tells StartupSmart.

“Startup years are like dog years,” she says.

“You have seven years’ worth of stuff in one year.”

Last year, Liu took home the Finnies Female FinTech Leader of the Year award, while Airwallex itself won the award for Excellence in Payments.

However, Liu doesn’t feel defined by her identity as a woman founder. In fact, she doesn’t even think about it very much.

“I’m very happy to represent women in the tech industry,” she says.

“But what I stay away from is making it a label.”

Liu doesn’t necessarily believe leading a startup is any harder for women than it is for men. Instead, she thinks it’s more about doing what you’re good at, and doing it well.

“There’s no better or worse, or easier or harder. It’s just how you play to your strengths,” she says.

“I have other co-founders, and we complement each other in different ways.”

And if she is considered as a role model for other aspiring startup founders she’s “definitely very honoured”.

However, she notes respect comes from running a successful and admired business, not from who she is as a person.

“A lot of the time, you look up to people because their company does great things. You rarely see people saying they like the founder, but not the company,” she says.

“It’s because of the amazing things these companies do that you look up to the person and aspire to be like them.”

A balancing act

For other founders, Liu’s advice  although she admits there are exceptions  is to get some experience working in a corporate, or at least for someone else, “so you see it from another perspective”.

Liu worked in an investment bank for two years before founding Airwallex, and her co-founders each had eight or nine years’ experience elsewhere.

“Being in a big corporate lets you see things in a very structured way,” she says.

Corporate life is full of frameworks, processes, rules and policies, she adds.

And while those things can be restrictive, “they are also ways to minimise risk”.

At Airwallex, in the early days, “there were no rules, we just did whatever we wanted,” Liu explains.

“But if you really want to have a successful company, you have to have some kind of mechanism in place that is similar to a big corporate,” she says.

“By the time you are hundreds of people, there are certain ways of doing things that are probably more appropriate.”

That said, Liu believes startup culture can still be applicable to a large company, if you’re willing to take some lessons from the corporate world.

“Working for a corporate let me see things that are probably applicable to running my own company, and things that are probably not very scalable or flexible for a tech company’s culture,” she says.

The recruitment process, for example, has changed: the founders no longer interview everyone themselves or hire people on the spot. However, all hires are still signed off by a founder.

“Having that final approval is very important, because the founders are the gateway to keep things as they are.”

Airwallex is still a startup at its core, Liu says, and she hopes it will be forever.

“We try to move with the market rather than having a ready-made product and hoping someone will use it,” she says.

“That’s where the importance of recruitment processes come into place,” she adds.

“You have to find people who are like-minded but still have the skill-set that’s required … someone who can grow and adapt to a new environment.”

“You have to be confident”

Although she does recommend cutting your teeth at an existing business, Liu doesn’t discourage aspiring founder from giving their startup idea a go.

“If you have an entrepreneurial spirit, take a leap and try it,” she advises.

“Especially when you’re young, you can afford to make mistakes.”

And the key to success — especially when raising funds — is to have confidence in yourself and your business.

It’s the founder who knows the business inside and out, Liu explains.

“There is no way that investors can know more about your company than yourself.

“You have to be confident, otherwise, why would they trust you with their money and why would they support you?”

An investment is a relationship, Liu explains. It’s neither a loan nor a charitable donation. Backers are not going to give you a chunk of money and walk away.

“So, a lot of the time, especially for very technical companies, you have to do a little bit of education for the investor.

“Demonstrating that you know every single thing about what you’re talking about is very important.

“Know about yourself, know about your competitors, know about the market, and think from the investor’s perspective,” she advises.

Investors are going to be there with you, supporting you for the next few years, she adds.

“Present it in the way that you’re bringing them on for the journey.”

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