Selma Studer is the founder of GONG, a wellness venture aimed at helping people to relax and find a sense of calm through gong baths — immersive sound experiences during which sound “washes” over you as your body releases tension and your mind effortlessly enters a meditative state. GONG offers not only in-person experiences in various spaces throughout London as well as workplaces, but also online sessions that allow people to access sound therapy from the comfort of their own homes, which is especially important in the current pandemic. Their offer includes both live streamed sessions and high quality recordings leveraging immersive technology.
Selma founded GONG based her own experience with sound therapy, which helped her handle the pressure and stress that came with her former corporate job, as well as a profound desire to help others deal with these same pressures. Sound healing is an effective antidote to the stresses of modern life, but not many people know about it and these experiences aren’t always accessible — and that’s what Selma has set out to change.
Selma graduated from Oxford’s Said Business School MBA programme in 2016, and she served as the Chair of the Oxford Business Network for Entrepreneurship (EOBN) during her student tenure. Before she came to Oxford, she had a successful career in corporate communications and marketing in the US for more than 10 years. After business school, she settled in London where she rejoined her former employer, The Adecco Group to promote the company’s digital ventures and support thought leadership in spheres such as AI and HR tech. In 2018, she decided the time was right to finally found her own business, which resulted in the creation of GONG.
What is your background? What made you decide to get involved in supporting entrepreneurs?
I spent more than 10 years building a career in communications and marketing in the corporate world, but I always had a strong interest in wellness and health and started to take interest in the startup world. In coming to Oxford for my MBA, my main goal was to broaden my skillset and learn about entrepreneurship, and I was hopeful that I would be inspired to launch or join a meaningful venture. My interest in wellbeing increased even more while at Oxford, and I took Sophie Maclaren’s mindfulness class which helped me realise how important it is to understand how your brain functions and how to apply this to your work and everyday life. A few seeds were planted, yet it wasn’t until a few years after graduating that the idea for a business venture in the wellness space finally came to me.
At the time, I was stressed and everyone around me was stressed, and there were few healthy outlets in London – everyone just goes to the pub. That’s an exaggeration of course, but I wanted to create experiences which could be helpful and enjoyable – and I felt gong baths (which I first experienced on a yoga retreat right before heading off to business school) could be a perfect fit. The problem was, this experience was hard to find and largely inaccessible to anyone who is not wellness oriented. There are lots of stigmas and associations that had to be broken down around this healing modality.
What is your definition of entrepreneurship?
I would say that it is about putting ideas into action — going out there, finding solutions to real problems or pain points. Entrepreneurs to me are change-makers, and entrepreneurship is about going from ideas to actual actions and impact.
How and when did you know your idea was good enough to develop it?
After my MBA, I worked with a number of start-ups, including two travel tech ventures and SaaS communications platform but I didn’t yet have an idea for a venture of my own. I was then offered an opportunity to rejoin my previous employer, The Adecco Group, in London to lead communications for their digital innovation unit which sat at the intersection of the corporate environment and the world of start-ups. It was an exciting time, and we were working with Microsoft to co-create an HR tech start-up, YOSS. But the idea to create something on my own was still at the back of my head, so when there were a few shifts in the company and my role was evolving into something else, I decided that the time was right to do it. From my previous market research, I knew that there was a gap in the market that GONG would perfectly fit into, and I wanted to create something that would really make people’s lives better. I started to test the concept and build an “MVP” version of the experience while I was still fully employed, as well as immersed myself in learning everything I could about sound therapy. At a certain point, however, I knew that I need to wean myself off my corporate job or I would never fully pursue my passion. What really gave me the freedom to go for it was securing a freelance contract with my employer to give me some security as I was growing the business.
What would you say are the top 3 skills that needed to be a successful entrepreneur? Why?
I think it is important to do what you are truly passionate about, but also to be able to differentiate you from your business so that you can ease up on yourself. You certainly need courage and resilience – it’s a wild ride so you need to buckle up and be able to bounce back from the inevitable knocks and persevere. And resourcefulness – being scrappy at first and doing the most you can with what you have or can get access to.
What is your favourite part of being an entrepreneur?
I think it is the freedom in being your own boss. You obviously have this feeling of motivation, because the venture is your baby, which means you must have passion and devotion to do it. It is also amazing to see how your work has a direct impact.
What individual, company or organization inspires you most? Why?
There are so many wonderful companies that I take inspiration from, for example Peloton and Headspace. But if I were to choose the one that has shaped the aspirations of my business the most it would probably be SoulCycle, the spin studio that started in NYC in 2006. They really were the pioneers in taking experiences out of the gym and into people’s lives in a meaningful and engaging way. They created an entire industry around boutique fitness as well as a lifestyle brand centred around the experience of health, fitness and community.
If you had 5 minutes with the above individual/ company/organization, what would you want to ask or discuss?
I would love to get to know their thoughts on the future of wellness, especially related to the digital sphere and how they view that alongside their studio spaces post-pandemic.
What has been your most satisfying or successful moment in business?
I think that there is still a lot of growth ahead of us, but I find that the sole fact that we are still here and we are evolving despite the pandemic brings a lot of satisfaction. Last March, I was about to sign a 5 year commercial lease to grow the brick and mortar concept, and I’m very fortunate that the lockdown happened first and we narrowly escaped what could have been a massive setback. Instead, we quickly moved all of our services online and we have tripled our number of team members from 3 to 9 in the past year, which shows that we are growing. We’ve also had the privileged of delivering our experience to many big companies like Apple, Spotify and BCG, so it’s great to see that that our offering resonates and can support employee wellbeing.
What would you say have been some of your mistakes, failures or lessons learned as an entrepreneur?
I think that the most important lesson for me thus far was related to pricing, it is important to understand how to value yourself. You must find a way to sustain your business even though you just want to do good and help everyone.
How have you funded your ideas?
We are now self-funded from revenue essentially. I did invest a bit of my own money at first, and we also tried fundraising when I needed capital to expand the physical space, but now we generate revenue that allows us to fund ourselves. At some point we might go out and raise again to further develop the tech side of the business.
Are there any sector-specific awards/grants/competitions that have helped you?
Yes, certainly. We work with London South Bank University’s South Bank Innovation accelerator for immersive tech. It’s funded by the European Regional Development fund and we’re really grateful for the support. In the very early days we also had support from the Trampery’s Product Accelerator and Positive Planet UK’s incubator focused on female-founded businesses.
What is good about being an entrepreneur in Oxfordshire? Bad?
I think that Oxfordshire is amazingly vibrant, especially because there is a lot of networking opportunities for those interested in entrepreneurship and you can choose from a number of subgroups and sub-communities to join. Being part of Oxford’s MBA community was a great source of inspiration as well, and it is still important to me.
If a new entrepreneur or startup came to you looking for entrepreneurship resources, where would you send them?
There are mentoring programmes, such as the one organised by the Oxford Women in Business society which I participated in. Events organised by the Oxford Entrepreneurs Network and the Oxford Angels Network are also worth recommending, and most of these groups now have online networking spaces as well. What is more, there are Oxford events outside of Oxford. For instance, I have now relocated to Switzerland and there is going to be one of these here too. Then of course there is the Enterprising Oxford newsletter and the one from the Entrepreneurship Centre and the Skoll Centre at Said Business School, which I still read religiously as it allows me to be up to date with the news and stay connected to the entrepreneurial world at Oxford and beyond. Their Entrepreneurship Centre is great for resources.
Have you faced any challenges as a woman entrepreneur? If so, how have you overcome them?
I think that one of those situations came when I was scouting for real estate for the studio, as it turned out to be quite a male dominated space. But other than that, I’ve been fortunate that I haven’t encountered many such situations that really stand out.
What resources would you recommend for other women?
Definitely get in touch with your network — friends, school alumni. Join online communities and go to events to learn and get support from others. I also listen to podcasts, such as How I Built This with Guy Raz, but there are some great podcasts from female founders too like And She Spoke and Second Life. LeanIn circles or Meet Up groups for female founders can also be really helpful.
How could institutions such as the University of Oxford better support women entrepreneurs?
They already do a lot. I think that there could be even more opportunities for funding, because you can never have too little of that. They could also have a directory for women-owned businesses to facilitate partnerships and increase visibility.
Do you have any advice specifically for other women who want to be entrepreneurs?
Be resourceful and resilient, and remember to take everything at your own pace. It is important not to give in to the pressure and to stay true to what you want to do.
Any last words of advice?
Take care of yourself — it is easy to forget that, and it really is extremely important.