Local entrepreneur finds opportunity and hope despite the pandemic

Mike Zhang has shifted from backpacks to face masks

Mike ZhangAt the end of February, Forbes Media ran a success story on Madison entrepreneur Mike Zhang. He’d taken a risk in 2018 and left his job as vice president of ecommerce, digital marketing and innovations at Lands’ End to launch his own business, Fenrici Brand, on Amazon Marketplace. Fenrici generated $1 million in sales in its first year — a feat, according to Forbes, achieved by fewer than 1% of Amazon sellers — and was projected to double sales in 2020. But mere weeks after that interview was published, COVID-19 slammed the U.S. What did Fenrici Brands primarily sell? Backpacks, thermoses and lunchboxes to school kids.

“I essentially abandoned my own business, I admit,” Zhang laughs now, as his sales predictably tanked. So he did what entrepreneurs do: He adjusted on the fly. He pivoted and partnered with the local nonprofit Center for Community Stewardship to raise $3 million to bring personal protective equipment gowns from his native China to first responders and churches in Wisconsin. “At that time, it was more like, ‘How can I support the overall efforts enveloping COVID-19?’ Because it was a more life-and-death situation.”

Fenrici — a play on the names of Zhang’s sons, Felix and Henry, who are students in the Middleton-Cross Plains Area School District — included a social mission from the start. Zhang’s wife, pediatric oncologist Inga Hofmann, is head of the pediatric bone marrow transplant program at American Family Children’s Hospital. Zhang diverts 5% of Fenrici’s proceeds to efforts fighting rare childhood diseases. He also predicted the challenge of procuring personal protective equipment when global demand had never been higher. So he dipped into his retirement fund and extended his credit line at the state’s largest microlender, Wisconsin Women’s Business Initiative Corp., or WWBIC, to purchase tens of thousands of KN95 masks and protective gowns, which he donated to first responders and churches. Then he set a lofty goal: crowdfunding $3 million to import 120,000 more units of personal protective equipment on a chartered flight from China.

“In the end we only raised $20,000, so we didn’t get an airplane,” he says with a smile. “Eventually we donated [the money] to Wisconsin Medical Society so they could use this for rural health care facilities that often get ignored and really need the help. It’s an effort I don’t regret that I made, and we got enormous support.”

Zhang has always relied on swift action, rather than letting fear and analysis paralysis take over. He learns by doing, and he’s done a whole lot of that since he first arrived at the University of Wisconsin–Madison in the late 1990s and earned his Ph.D. in biochemistry. From there he pursued his MBA at New York University, then worked in advertising for Procter & Gamble Co. That’s when he met Hofmann, a medical student in Cincinnati. They lived in both San Francisco and Boston, two of the best-known startup hubs in the world. When Hofmann was recruited to UW Health’s University Hospital in 2016, Zhang found Madison’s startup community drawing his attention away from Lands’ End, ultimately.

“I’m genuinely impressed and encouraged and supported by the whole startup ecosystem in Madison,” says Zhang, who participated in both gener8tor and Doyenne accelerators. “I learned a lot from Amy [Gannon],” he says of Doyenne’s late co-founder, who died last year with her young daughter in a helicopter crash in Hawaii. He says he also gained invaluable support from WWBIC, Merlin Mentors and MadWorks.

By summer, Zhang returned his attention to Fenrici Brands, pursuing new products such as quality kids’ face masks. He also offers an Amazon Mastermind program, where he demystifies Amazon Marketplace for other entrepreneurs and startup supporters. Despite the ongoing pandemic, there are many opportunities — particularly in online sales, with so many businesses forced to evolve and their customers staying home.

“We have to recognize the changes that are happening around us and be open, versus being overwhelmed by fear and sticking to old ways of doing things,” Zhang says. “I don’t have a crystal ball, but the principle is still the same. We know that people are trying to adapt. How can we help them?”

Maggie Ginsberg is a monthly columnist and senior contributing writer for Madison Magazine.Magazine footer that says "Like this article, get so much more by subscribing"