Trusting Your Intuition in Business

Imagine this: You’re 21 years old and someone offers you what seems like a lot of money to buy your fledgling company. What do you do?

This is no hypothetical scenario. This happened to me. I took the money. Then I went away to school for a year and bought the company, LANYU, back.

That’s not the usual trajectory in the business world, but it’s the path I chose, which was largely based on intuition. An old Chinese proverb states, “deep doubts, deep wisdom; small doubts, little wisdom.” Doubt is part of the process of applying intuition to your business, especially since so many people will say that you’re wrong.

While you can’t stop the deep doubts from coming, you can counter them by measuring those doubts against your vision. The stronger your vision, the stronger your conviction.

Cultivating Your Vision

In my case, my vision was based on something that transcends business. I am from South China. My mother is the fourth generation in my family to practice Su embroidery. Su embroidery is an art form that takes decades to master and a single piece of Su embroidery usually takes months to create.

These days, machine embroidery is much more common than Su embroidery. My mother, grandmother and her mom are all “xiu niang,” which is Chinese for “embroidery girls.” They are a dying breed, mostly because it’s difficult to make a living that way. I hire xiu niang to work on our couture pieces and to help support their work. I believe I am helping preserve this art form and promote it so more people can enjoy it.

In other words, my heart is in my business. This isn’t a matter of looking at the data and trying to find a market niche.

In today’s data-driven business landscape, relying on intuition goes against the tide. As Modesto A. Maidique, former president of Florida International University, wrote a few years ago, “Quants say we use intuition because of our cognitive limitations. It is a strategy of last resort...”

Maidique found it wasn’t as clear-cut as that. After interviewing CEOs about their decision-making processes, he discovered that the success rate was much higher when such executives went with their gut about decisions related to their field of expertise. That wasn’t all it took though. Good decisions required exhaustive introspection and an objective understanding of one’s own biases and emotions.

This is an important point. Sometimes, you are the only one who can see your vision, or what others call a “crazy idea.” It’s very important to know your own risk-taking aptitude, weaknesses and strengths as well as those of your advisors.

Testing Your Vision

Entrepreneurs have to test their intuition all the time. Most recently, I really felt that LANYU should take part in New York Fashion Week. Some of my advisors had valid objections to this idea and thought we should do it next year instead.

The reality is, it’s hard to make a case for taking part in the show. The numbers don’t support it. It’s hard to put a monetary value on it. However, I believed it was an amazing opportunity to kick-start our Ready to Wear collection and to give our U.S. team an opportunity to work with our teams in Paris and Beijing.

What made me so sure? The same thing that convinced me to buy back my brand several years ago: I have a strong belief that this brand is offering something new. I think American clients appreciate handcraft artisan pieces even more than Chinese consumers do. I also believe that by using my brand to connect those clients to Chinese artisans, I’m helping spread joy.

Again, that’s not something you can calculate in an Excel file. But business is a very human endeavor. That means that sometimes we’ll make mistakes. But however circuitous the path to success, following your intuition is always more satisfying than playing it safe.

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