The decision to start your own business normally begins with a brilliant idea. And while getting it off the ground requires passion, hard work and smart decisions, the rewards can be considerable. Beyond job satisfaction and financial success, being a founder offers the opportunity to create a work environment and culture that works for them, something which can have particular appeal for women.
To celebrate International Women’s Day, Raconteur hosted a panel discussion featuring four inspiring female leaders – three of them founders – to get their take on how to secure investment and recognise the perfect partner, and why women are uniquely suited to running a business.
“Women can multitask, we’re leaders and explorers and we’re brave,” says Abbie Miranda, founder and CEO of luxury lingerie brand Beija. “We’re perfectly suited for founder life.”
In Miranda’s view, the pressure put on women, particularly those who have children, means that many have an always-on mentality that can be helpful when running a business, especially in the early days. “We’re still doing the dogsbody jobs, but also trying to scale the business,” she says. “You never have a lie-in because your brain is racing with problems or ideas or solutions and it’s just relentless. But that’s the fun of it, it’s wild.”
One of the most crucial elements of launching a successful business is financing. Convincing investors to part with the money that is needed can be a significant challenge for founders. “There are so many young businesses – not just female-owned ones – that are doing all the right things and making the sacrifices, but not getting the fortune,” Miranda explains.
Part of the challenges lies in finding and understanding the right investor. “My biggest tip would be to choose who you take money from because that really changes the nature of the strategy your business can take,” says Romina Savova, founder and CEO of pension management company Pension Bee.
The bulk of Pension Bee’s financing came from angel investors before the company went public last year, bringing the total amount of capital raised to £100m. “We entirely bypassed venture capital,” says Savova. “I have a pretty strong view that venture capital is inappropriate for women-run businesses.”
The reason for this, she says, is that many women’s approach to business is stakeholder, rather than shareholder, focused. While female leaders have a “multidimensional approach” to the purpose of the business, which covers customers, employees, regulators and investors, venture capital might invest in 10 companies, comfortable in the knowledge that nine might fail but that is ok as long as one is successful.
“That’s just something that is unacceptable for most female leaders of successful companies,” Savova states.
Picking the right partners
This approach of selecting the right people to work with goes beyond investors to all potential partnerships. “Ask yourself ‘what do I need from a partner?’” says Dr Joanna Abeyie, founder of inclusive executive search firm Blue Moon. “If you know that your strength is your creativity, look to bring on a partner who is more logistical or managerial. What is it that’s missing, that I don’t recognise as my own strength?”
The second step, says Abeyie, is to understand what impact that partnership needs to have. Is the next challenge to scale the business or to raise its profile, for example. Setting out the end goal of the partnership is vital before pairing up with an individual or company.
Finally, she continues, trust your instincts and knowledge. “There is an exaggerated gratitude which you can give to people,” says Abeiye “That extensive gratitude can undermine how much you know about what you’re doing.”
While humility and kindness are positives in any business dealing, it is important to stay mindful of relationship dynamics. “Sometimes you can have so much gratitude that this person will even give you their time, that you don’t trust your instinctive feelings about a product or company you know inside out,” she adds.
Fighting off imposter syndrome
This questioning of instincts is a common theme in discussions around women in business. So-called ‘imposter syndrome’ is something that plagues even those at the very top of their game, including Kelly Simmons, director of the women’s professional game for the Football Association. So what can women do to fight this, particularly when approaching important presentations or investor meetings?
“There’s nothing like great preparation,” she says. “Making sure that I’m really prepared and focused helps bat that imposter syndrome voice back. Then, just having really good people that I trust to talk to about stuff.”
For Simmons, one of those people is a mentor, which can be a helpful step for any founder striking out on their own. Miranda agrees.
“When I didn’t have female founder friends, I was really struggling, so I sought them out,” says Miranda. “I’ve got them now and we’re honest and we explain tricky stuff to each other. Having a team of other founder women and mums in business made it all make sense and seem possible.”
The steps to entrepreneurial success may not be easy, but they are clear. Trust your gut, go into every meeting prepared, know what you want from partnerships and surround yourself with support. Now all you need is a really great idea.
Five top tips from female founders
- Be passionate and let people know.
“If you’re not passionate about your business, or you don’t understand the reason you’re doing it – there’s just no chance,” says Beija’s Miranda. “You’ve got to believe in it so hard because you’ve got to sell it so deeply”
- Don’t run at the first opportunity.
“Sometimes when a particular brand is really sexy or reputable and wants to do something with you, you run at it because you think ‘oh it must mean I’m good then’,” says Abeiyie. “If you love your business, don’t be surprised when other people think it’s brilliant.”
- You can’t be good at everything.
“Be comfortable with what you’re not good at and don’t try and do things you can’t,” says Mazie Fisher, Miranda’s sister and Beija co-founder. “We’ve tried to display our finances confidently, but we’re creatives and that’s what we’re good at – you have to own it. That’s what is going to get investors’ attention”
- Choose partners carefully.
You can’t underestimate a supportive home life, says Pension Bee’s Savova. “If your business is important to you, it has to be important to your partner as well. If it’s not important to them, you’re going to struggle.”
- Do things your way.
If it’s chaos, embrace the chaos, says Miranda. “Rather than putting pressure on myself to feel like ‘it should be more like this, it should be more organised, more strategic’ it’s about accepting, as a founder, that it’s pretty chaotic and that’s just the job.”