Born in China and raised in Berlin by two entrepreneurs, Chanyu Xu grew up with business in her bloodstream. Working in her parents’ restaurants since childhood, food became another of her passions. Xu went on to become a serial entrepreneur, founding several foodtech startups.
After experiencing the pressures, long hours, and stress that comes with being a startup founder, Xu decided to combine foodtech and healthtech in her newest startup, her1, which uses science and nutrition to help hard-working women stay beautiful.
In this interview, Xu shares her experiences as a startup founder, and her advice for those on the same path. Xu also shares her views on women in the startup world, and how her1 is working to change beauty – from the inside out.
Tell us about your background, and what made you want to become an entrepreneur.
I grew up in a family of entrepreneurial high-achievers, so it seemed like the natural thing to do to become an entrepreneur myself! My parents moved over to Germany to build a better life and when I was three years old I moved over from China to join them.
After seeing my parents launch their own businesses in gastronomy and retail first hand, and the incredible fulfillment and life-long learnings it brought them, I was convinced it was the right path for me. I went to Berlin University of Arts to study Strategic Communications and during this time I started my first venture, the B2B SaaS startup Customer Alliance. Since then I have launched multiple successful businesses in the European startup space.
My parents did not like my decision at all, as they wanted a classic corporate career path for me. Much later they understood that because of the way I was brought up – spending school holidays and summer jobs in our restaurant, taking on responsibilities – this entrepreneurial way of working, building and creating things, is just part of my identity.
You’ve founded several foodtech startups. Tell us more about your entrepreneurial history, and where your passion for food comes from.
Before launching her1, I founded four previous businesses, where I learned an incredible amount; both what to do and what not to do in business! They were the perfect experiences for me to build on to start her1. Since 2013 my businesses have all been in the food tech space. Growing up with my parents running restaurants meant I became a big foodie early on.
In 2009 I started in SaaS with Customer Alliance, then I went into foodtech and opened my first ghost restaurant concept Eatüber in 2013. I then decided to join Rocket Internet’s startup EatFirst as country co-founder before moving on to cofound eating.de, a national ready-to-eat gourmet delivery service, which attracted prominent German and US VCs including Holtzbrinck Ventures and PayPal cofounder Peter Thiel’s own FF Angel Fund. This all served to enrich my entrepreneurial experience. I learnt a huge amount from failing and making mistakes (which is essential when starting up and running your own company), too.
My previous business experiences were also the inspiration for her1; working long exhausting hours in the startup world and seeing the effects that healthy food had on my performance, energy and even my overall health like my skin and nails sparked the idea for her1. There was a clear gap in the market for female-focused, chemical-free and all-natural nutrition blends to support women to live their best lives and I wanted to be able to offer a natural, simple, easy and trusted solution. In 2018 I finally launched female first edible beauty products under a new brand her1, backed by business angels and early stage VCs.
You said that your experience as a serial entrepreneur has told you what to do and what not to do in business – what should entrepreneurs not do?
Don’t worry about failing or making mistakes. When building a business mistakes are inevitable and you have to be comfortable with making them – this is the best way to learn. Secondly, don’t admit defeat too easily or accept that it’s “not possible”. A good entrepreneur will find a way. Thirdly, don’t be afraid to ask for help from your network and to fill in your own weaknesses with your own team. No business was built by one person alone and the sooner you recognize this, the more effective your progress will be. Lastly, don’t over-complicate your product or idea – you should be able to explain your business in one sentence.
How do you think women view business differently than men, and what qualities do women bring to the male-dominated world of tech?
I think men and women are different in the way they approach business, when it comes to pitching for investment, running a business, creating a company culture, representing a business. Women are generally more cautious about taking risks in business and often aren’t as comfortable as men are in exploiting their networks to ask for help. On the other hand, I’ve found women tend to be more collaborative in their working style and connect on multiple levels so the company culture feels more supportive. I’ve seen it with my parents – being co-owners for the past 30 years. There’s no right or wrong. What counts are actions. I’m rooting for entrepreneurship and try to share my knowledge regardless of age, gender, or nationality.
What do you see as the main challenges faced by women in the startup world, and how do you think they can be overcome?
A big challenge women face is that there simply aren’t enough of us in the startup world. This can be intimidating for many women – and there are a lot of tech solutions being made for women but not by women! I’m passionate about women supporting women in business and creating powerful alliances with one another to make it easier and less intimidating for women to enter the industry. Additionally, the more we get people talking about this gender gap, the more women will be encouraged to start their own businesses in tech or venture capital.
Another challenge is the risk that we begin to lose our local female talent to other major cities around Europe who are more welcoming and supportive of women in the sector. If we do not create an environment that offers them room for growth, opportunities to make mistakes that they can learn from and a climate for collaboration, then of course they will go elsewhere. I think it’s our responsibility to be role models for the next generation of young women and innovators. I try to do as much as I can to support and mentor other female entrepreneurs in my spare time.
Your latest startup is her1. What are your products, and how does nutrition impact beauty?
her1 is a direct-to-consumer beauty care company that is trying to clarify the still very confusing space of nutrition and health for women. Our approach is holistic by combining health, food, and beauty with smart digital guidance for modern women. Our products are natural, clean and made from real food, rather than filled with chemicals. We see them more like recipes than supplements! We never promise quick-fixes or provide pseudo-scientific information to our customers. We have designed our blends with medical experts and qualified dietitians to provide products that are grounded in science and specifically address particular female health and beauty needs. We are a company by women, for women, and we really care about our customers.
Our beauty food range contains: Natural Youth, Inner Beauty and Skin Glow, which are all 100% plant-based, preservative, and chemical free nutritional blends designed by our in-house dietitian with female health and beauty in mind.
Each blend allows women to tailor their supplementation to specific needs; from promoting glowing skin and elasticity and protecting it from stress and damage, to eliminating dead skin cells and reducing fine lines and wrinkles, to improving gut health, thanks to natural probiotics, strategic adaptogens like chaga (an immunity booster), superfoods like Moringa and antioxidants from fruits and vegetables like kale and strawberries (which protect cells from free radicals).
The blends have been designed to be easily integrated into a busy modern woman’s life. We also provide digital guidance with simple recipes for daily smoothies, juices, yogurt bowls, overnight oats, nut butters, baked treats or simply dissolved into water or nut milks.
Unlike most existing supplements, our aim isn’t to replace food, but rather to enhance and improve existing lifestyle habits. In each of our supplements we have put together ingredients that were selected for specific reasons and which can work in synergy with each other to provide a stronger beneficial effect. We work with the premise that health starts from within, when you ensure a healthy microbiota and gut lining, the absorption of nutrients and the blockage of unwanted pollutants allows your body to shine naturally.
In your opinion, what qualities does an entrepreneur need to be successful, and what do you think is behind your success as an entrepreneur?
In my opinion being someone who is not afraid to fail is essential to be a successful entrepreneur. My success has come from seeing failures as opportunities to learn and grow, so I don’t see them as failures as such. As an entrepreneur you have to be resilient and be able to adapt to different situations. Many businesses start as one thing and then evolve into another, so you must be open to change.
What advice would you give to other entrepreneurs who are just starting out?
A few key pieces of advice I would give:
In the beginning: Try and meet as many people as possible. Go to networking and startup events, mingle with fellow founders – you never know who you might meet; a new employee, a potential co-founder or even an investor.
If you’re new in town: Get involved in the co-working spaces in your city. In Berlin there are so many like beta Haus and factory. All of them have big, supportive communities, run events and networking opportunities. The startups and founders you are likely to meet there will understand exactly what you are going through in terms of the highs and lows, which will be invaluable to your start-up journey. These co-working spaces also provide a good platform for getting your name and business idea out there into the startup world.
If you’re looking for investment: Get your story line and KPIs straight. You should be able to explain your business in five minutes, to you grandmother. Too many pitches are overloaded with information and facts.
Lastly, I would say reach out to entrepreneurs you admire and ask them for advice; you would be surprised how many people are willing to share and support a fellow startup or founder in need, and if they aren’t able to help they might be able to connect you to someone else who can!