With more and more creatives gravitating towards freelancing and a DIY model of building their careers, Lavena Xu-Johnson, the co-founder of Wishu, explains why she’s fighting the corner for Gen Z talent.
There are many motivations driving entrepreneurs to build a business. More often than not it’s a combination of wanting more agency, wishing to change things and earn more by taking risks. But in the case of Lavena Xu-Johnson, there’s another added dimension. As co-founder of Wishu, the social marketplace app for creative freelancers, she doesn’t so much see her audience as a market opportunity, but more a source of inspiration.
“Our business is driven by appreciation, respect and empathy,” she says. “These creative entrepreneurs have to fight their way up in an extremely competitive industry. Not only are you running your own business, but, as a one person team, you need to know everything.”
Founded in 2019, Wishu supports creative freelancers to hone their skills and build their portfolio, develop ongoing relationships with clients, attract requests and bookings, and apply for on-demand jobs posted near them. Billed as the world’s first social marketplace app that allows transactions between creative freelancers and business individuals in need of their services to be booked and paid for through the app, it already has a host of major players on board such as Y-Combinator, TechStars and Momo.
“The stereotype is to think that having a full time job as a creative freelancer is not a proper job,” sighs Xu-Johnson. “But for the people who go in there and build their own name, that requires so much courage, strategy and talent. That’s where our respect comes from.”
The app has its origins in the university days of the three founders. They started off creating a society for entrepreneurs to connect with London tech founders but wanted to build a marketplace for students to monetise their skills. As their thinking evolved, this was where Wishu was born and they would subsequently visit other universities to collect sign-ups.
“All we did during any break time was break into universities, go around and show students the prototype and collect sign-ups,” she beams. “It was such an amazing time.”
From there, the founders went on to experience what Xu-Johnson describes as typical start-up life. “We lived together, shared the same food, worked together non-stop.”
Underpinning all of this was a realisation that the creative economy was growing twice as fast as the UK economy and had so much unlocked potential.
“Our research showed us just how old-fashioned the approach was to the creative industry because technology hadn’t been implemented,” she explains. “When you’re creating an advertisement or campaign onsite, you need to have a team of professionals such as stylists, makeup artists, set designers, the post production team and everyone in between. These people are hired by marketing departments or agencies and 80 per cent of those hires are freelancers.
“But it’s fascinating that they haven’t implemented technology [to support these people]. That’s what made us excited and we realised we’d found a niche and could really help this entire industry.”
Looking After Yourself
In Wishu’s short entrepreneurial journey so far, Xu-Johnson has already learned a vital lesson that’s she keen to impart to other entrepreneurs considering launching a business; most importantly, look after yourself.
Setting up a business is hard and despite being on a firm growth trajectory that comes with winning big pitches and awards, she says burnout is a big danger for all founders – particularly during a pandemic.
“Success doesn’t save you from burnout,” she warns. “Being a founder taught me a lot about life and how to be patient, compassionate towards yourself and resilient. You don’t get tonnes of gratification because you have so many expectations on yourself. It’s easy to forget and hard to appreciate what you’ve achieved. You just never think it’s good enough, so you end up feeling bad. You’re always trying to reach the next level then catching up with your expectations without appreciating what you’ve done.
“That’s how burnout happens. I had to learn about resilience and I think bring resilient is highly related to self-compassion, patience and acceptance.”
Acknowledging that she’s now very much “back on track” and feeling like “a new self”, Xu-Johnson is happy to talk about the next stage of development for Wishu, which is to go global.
The app is only operating in the UK at the moment but they are rapidly turning their sights to global expansion.
“We want to build the most engaged community with the most advanced work tools and unite the industry on one platform,” she grins.