Over the past couple of months, I have been following the startup journey of my very good friend and founder of Refni, Xiao Han Drummond, as she navigates her way through the intensely competitive SheStarts accelerator program along with eight other talented female founders. Xiao Han is incredibly passionate about the power of serendipitous encounters in expanding the breadth of our collective human knowledge. Her startup Refni is unique and bold in its mission to help individuals immerse themselves into the digital worlds of others who are very different from their own selves. Xiao Han believes that Refni will help people break out of the ‘filter bubbles’ created by Facebook and Google based on their previous likes and clicks, embrace the global diversity of content, and expand their worldviews.
Over delightful breakfast and morning coffee that Melbourne is so famous for, Xiao Han shared some snippets of her startup journey with Refni as well as the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead in her exciting venture!
Shu: “At SheStarts, you have been working with a team of mentors and fellow founders who come from very different walks of life. What are the main highlights of the program so far?”
Xiao Han: “SheStarts has been a fantastic experience with very experienced mentors providing guidance as I continue with the birthing process of Refni to make internet browsing a real adventure into distant lands of divergent perspectives, opinions and ideas. I had previously done a lot of research and testing on the idea, but having new people with substantial experience look into the idea with fresh eyes – and then independently come up with similar user experience patterns as I had conceived – further validated my initial hypothesis.”
“Another great experience has been the ability to visit companies such as LinkedIn that are in the forefront of Innovation, meet highly motivated people and learn about their processes and strategies. As a new founder, I believe that this experience is going to serve me well as I look into expanding my team and lay down the operational infrastructure of Refni.”
Shu: “You have said earlier that the idea of Refni came out of your passion for human curiosity. Were you always a curious person? How did people and circumstances in your life impact your decision to be an entrepreneur?”
Xiao Han: “As a young kid growing up in Beijing before my family’s move to Melbourne, I remember myself being intensely driven by curiosity and adventure. I was nicknamed the ‘troublemaker’ amongst my friends, always looking for new ways of having fun that adults didn’t approve of. I loved climbing high walls and buildings to get different views of the massive city I lived in, and today I feel the same curiosity at work as I am on a mission to help others get a better view of the cyberspace through the exploratory power of Refni.”
“Taking on the role of a sole founder leaving the certainty of the corporate world has been a leap of faith into the unknown, and I had to tap into the strength and guidance that I received from my mother and grandmother as a child. Both of them taught me to be the author of my own journey, be self-reliant and create my own opportunities. When times are tough I always look back at how my family overcame many hardships to be successful and, drawing from their grit, I know deep down that I shall be able to pull through.”
Shu: “What is the level of interest that Refni has generated so far amongst your future end users?”
Xiao Han: “Over the past few weeks, I have done extensive interviews with future end users of Refni, ordinary people from all walks of life who understand that in today’s algorithmically filtered world of the internet, we are missing out on hearing the voices of people who are different from us. They have shown a lot of interest in Refni’s core value proposition of making web discovery more serendipitous and helping to unlock the experiences of individuals we don’t necessarily get to interact with in our day-to-day lives.”
“True to Refni’s goal of making the world a more connected place, Refni has sparked interest in many different parts of the globe, with people from Denmark to Singapore signing up to the mailing list. There are CEOs, Stanford grads, artists and VR geeks who are on the list and they have signed up organically with virtually no marketing spend. That certainly feels quite exciting for me and is further validation of my idea!”
Shu: “Moving forward, what are the key challenges for Refni?”
Xiao Han: “The long-term vision of Refni is enormous, and we have the potential to impact many industries such as marketing, media and education. The key challenge is how to best align the next steps of the company with the big aspirations that we have. We want to stay focussed from Day 1 on how the Refni platform will operate at the intersection of many digital industries and help to drive their growth and value in support of the wider digital economy.”
Shu: “Historically, the tech world has been under-representative of women, and recently several initiatives like SheStarts have been leading the charge in supporting more women aspiring to be tech founders. What is your advice to women dreaming of starting their own tech ventures?”
Xiao Han: “As a person in tech, you need to challenge the status quo and think outside the expectations that society might have placed on you. Life isn’t always fair, and if someone judges you based on your gender, you have the opportunity to prove them wrong.“
“I believe that regardless of gender, age or any other aspect of our identity, to be successful we need to understand our core sense of purpose and be prepared to make the sacrifices necessary to achieve our goals. If you have the dogged determination, you will be able to write your journey to success.”