Running your startup as a solo female founder is a wild ride: equal parts exciting, terrifying, rewarding and disappointing.
Being four years into my startup journey brings a sense of space and reflection, even if the fear hasn’t subsided (in fact, it becomes more intense as time goes on). In 2014 I founded my influencer and content marketing platform, Shopping Links, and looking back there are things I wished someone would have told me as I was starting out. Here are my tips for solo female entrepreneurs thinking about starting their entrepreneurial journey or who are currently in the thick of it and not sure what tomorrow holds.
Hopefully I can give you some advice that will help you avoid my mistakes, but don’t be afraid to carve your own path. And feel free to reach out if you want to grab a coffee or just need a hug!
1. Raising venture capital is not the most important thing
Sometimes it can seem like the only end-goal as a startup founder is to raise a successful Series A, B, C round. I originally thought this was what I had to do to be successful. Startup media constantly bombards us with success stories of the latest “Uber for” something raising millions from angel investors and venture capital firms. When you reach out to get featured on startup or business sites they’ll simply say, “Come back when you have a good news story about investment”. To an outsider, it can seem like the entire startup ecosystem is focused on the cult of Silicon Valley offices, free pizza and ping pong tables. I didn’t know any different until I spoke to one of the founders of a successful technology business a couple of years ago. When I quizzed him about investment, he said he never took any. My jaw dropped! I realised there was a better way to spend my time, rather than chasing external investment.
For all the aspiring founders out there: raising venture capital is not the only road to success. Shopping Links has been bootstrapped from day one and while it’s been tempting to go down the venture capital route, and at times I thought my only option, I’ve always been reluctant. I have loved the flexibility self funding has provided – it’s allowed us to be agile enough to respond to the changing landscape and the requirements of our customers. Staying true to my vision meant organically growing customer by customer, relationship by relationship, rather than handing over control to external investors for the sake of accelerated growth.
Successful startups in the media are portrayed as those who have moved from their garage or spare room to flashy offices, complete with branded t-shirts and the best employee perks.
All the things that venture capital can buy, but all too often these startups accumulate a lot of hype just to fold or pivot. I was recently listening to Jules Lund talk about his influencer marketing startup and he shared how driven he was by the end-goal of a lucrative exit in a few years. It was a refreshingly honest admission, but as a founder who has bootstrapped and built a platform and business based on relationships – rather than a highly-scalable growth strategy – my path to profitability has always been steady and sustainable rather than fast-tracked. I was surprised to hear that some highly publicised startups in the industry are not profitable and have no intention or plan to reach profitability.
I appreciate that many tech startups grow through bringing in investment, spending that on capturing market share, then using that growth to attract even more investment before eventually exiting. They do all of this without needing to become profitable, but in doing so they are taking such a huge risk. This growth-until-exit approach has made some founders incredibly rich, but it’s also burned many startups along the way: think about Jawbone – a startup which raised over $1.2 billion in funding, was valued at $4.2 billion, and still collapsed last year. If you grow without external investment, you’re compelled to build a sustainable business just to survive and any investment for the next year comes from whether you were profitable last year. This approach means that you can’t necessarily say no to some customers, and you may need to pick up business that isn’t aligned to your core strategy. But in the long-term, working with these clients rather than just relying on investment will help you to learn and shape your current offering.
This isn’t to say raising venture capital funding is the wrong route to take, I haven’t taken any so I don’t have the experience to comment. But I do know that you can grow a business without external investment. For many founders, accepting funding is necessary to keep the lights on and the business operating – but it also means handing over a certain amount of control and business strategy. Ultimately, your own values and ambitions should guide this decision for you.
2. It’s like having a baby that never grows up
When I became a mother for the first time, I thought having kids would be the biggest job I’d ever have – that was before founding a startup. Don’t get me wrong, kids are a full time job for many, but at least when they go to bed (and you have done their lunches, packed their bags and got their uniform ready) you can grab some down-time to soak in the day.
With a startup, that downtime never arrives, you go on holidays and you’re on call and you constantly have broken sleep to catch the US and the UK in their time zones. Kids are challenging and rewarding, but they grow up and grow through different stages. I am sure businesses do the same, but four years in and I still feel like I have a six week old that has just started to sleep five hours at a time.
People romanticise the whole idea of having a business, but for me it’s nothing like those romantic ideas. You can’t take a day off to be sick and holidays are just never the same. It’s not as glamorous as some make it out to be. That’s why it’s so important to be pursuing a project you’re truly passionate about. You need to love it, because you’ll be living and breathing it more than anything else in your life.
3. Loneliness will happen, but you don’t have to go it alone
Without a co-founder, the misses and the rejections can feel all the more personal. As a solo female founder, there are many times where you feel alone. People around you are busy with their own lives, kids and jobs. Your team plays a huge role in helping to overcome that feeling and this team becomes your pseudo family and support network that you can share your wins and losses with. Building a strong team with a great culture is what gets me through most days.
I also share my daily struggles with my husband and my closest mentors. Some days I have wanted to give my business away to anyone who wants to take it. But once I have shared the load and listened to some good advice, I have renewed energy to move forward. There’s no shame in asking for help. You can’t do everything on your own, believe me I have tried!
4. You’ll learn everything on the job – not in a book
If I’d stayed in my corporate role I would have job security, a salary and a safety net most of the time – but I doubt I would have had the opportunity to learn what I know now. By leaving your safe harbour for unchartered waters, you’re taking a leap of faith (some say a crazy one!), but you’ve got to embrace and live that new adventure.
It took me a long time to accept that I was not contributing financially as I had done previously, even though my workload was a lot more. But the people I have met and the advice and encouragement I’ve received has made it all worth it. You can’t buy knowledge or experience and you can’t learn how to be an entrepreneur in a book or from someone else – you just have to do it.
Everyone wants a startup because they think it’s fun or liberating, but unless you have that fear, tenacity, grit and stubbornness driving you to make it work, it never will.
5. Don’t undervalue your business
If I could speak to my earlier self, I would tell her to be fearless. That’s something all aspiring female founders should tell themselves. In the early days of Shopping Links I was afraid to approach large agencies and push hard into big business. As a startup in an industry where I had no experience, I would tell myself that we didn’t have the runs on the board and that we were too new to qualify for big businesses. Instead we approached smaller agencies, too nervous to lock the big guns into any contracts. In hindsight, I should have been locking these heavy-hitters into contracts in the early days.
In the beginning we basically worked for nothing. We worked to get experience, to learn and show others what we could do. I wish I had valued what we were providing to businesses, but instead I discounted everything because we were a startup. I would recommend that you don’t underestimate or discount your worth like I did.
6. Success comes in many forms
Seeing other female founders celebrated in the media can be discouraging. Not because it’s not you but because they’re often fit, impeccably dressed, hair blown out and smiles dialled up to 100 per cent. The female entrepreneurs gracing the covers of our national magazines can make you feel like there’s something wrong with you – you’re in your track pants, hair unwashed for days, glued to your laptop, with the outside world a distant memory.
We are told that success means being fit, glamorous, in-control, with great hair and makeup, but it’s not reality for most solo female entrepreneurs, who are waking up before the sun, missing important events and just not having time for daily beauty routines. Reading about the success of others can skew your view of the entrepreneurial journey and it’s important for founders to share the lows as well as the highs. That’s realistically what the journey looks like
I want to re-frame our markers of success. I want to show that women can be successful entrepreneurs in the tech industry, in the science industry, in industries other than social enterprise and social media. They can build a sustainable, profitable business and not be embarrassed by that. There are so many smart businesswomen who work day in, day out to make a difference in their field that aren’t recognised. I salute these women. They are my everyday heroes.
I worry we’ve got a zoomed in notion of what success looks like for women, but we don’t have a broader lens that champions women in all different fields. As a society we often only glorify women who are glamorous and popular, or those who make significant differences in social enterprise. When we acknowledge that success comes in all shapes and sizes, and when we celebrate our losses as well as our wins, then we can work together to provide a variety of publicly celebrated role models who uplift, inspire and nurture the next generation of female founders and leaders.
Kim Westwood is the founder and director of Shopping Links, a global influencer and content marketplace that provides managed collaboration services for leading international brands such as MARKS & SPENCER, Macy’s and Folli Follie to name a few. Shopping Links was the winner of the Business Services category at the 2016 Governor of Victoria Export Award and Kim has been named a finalist in the Telstra Business Women’s Awards in Australia.
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