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2 Women Serial Entrepreneurs Tell All

Susan Leger Ferraro, founder of an early-childhood schools chain, and Laura Fitton, digital business owner, irreverently detail what has helped them most along the way.

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Keep your equity in your pocket. Help out your mentor. That advice and more emerged during an Inc. panel this week in Boston titled "How I Did It: Women Entrepreneurs Tell All." 

On the panel, Susan Leger Ferraro, repeat entrepreneur and founder of Little Sprouts, a chain of early-childhood schools that she sold in 2008 to American Education Group, was joined by Laura Fitton, who founded Pistachio, a Twitter consultancy, and OneForty, an app store for Twitter that HubSpot acquired last year. Maisha Walker, founder and president of Web design and Internet marketing firm Message Medium, moderated. 

Here's what Ferraro and Fitton recommend you take from their experiences:

Get mentors.

Ferraro has had six mentors ("all men--but very evolved men") including Deepak Chopra, whom she met after chasing him down a golf course in 2002. "If you want to talk to someone, you make sure to talk to them," said Ferraro. "If they resonate with you, you get their number."

Fitton, whose mentors include Guy Kawasaki and Seth Godin, pointed out that successful businesspeople like mentoring energetic entrepreneurs because it expands their own spheres of influence. When you do find mentors "don't ask lazy questions--ask specific questions," she advised. "Make it easy for them to mentor you."

Both women emphasized that mentoring should be a two-sided relationship. Ask your mentor what you can do for him or her--not just the other way around.

Volunteer.

Ferraro gained experience and relationships critical to starting her own company by working a few hours a week--gratis--at other companies. "Those experiences taught me what I didn't know as a business leader," said Ferraro, adding that the greatest value lay in observing other leaders in action.

Fitton warned against using busyness as an excuse for not volunteering. "It's easy to say, 'I'm a single mom running a startup'," she said. "Everyone will buy that excuse. But it's a freaking copout. You have the same 24 hours a day that Mother Teresa had. That Gandhi had. You woman up and decide what you're going to do with it."

Always say yes.

Leap or lose. If things don't work, Ferraro points out, you can always pull back. Seven years ago, WGBH, the public television station in Boston, wanted to launch a pre-school literacy curriculum in the classroom. The organization had approached 15 school chains across the country offering to train teachers and provide the necessary resources, but had been repeatedly rebuffed. The program seemed like too much work. Its effectiveness wasn't assured. "I said, 'When do you want to start?'" Ferraro recalled. Today, WGBH is still one of Little Sprouts' most important partners. "I can't believe all those other people told them no," Ferraro said.

Approach VCs. 

Fitton advises against trying to "parachute in on the most-widely-read, popular venture capitalist blogger." Instead, she said, start with your inner circle--those who trust and believe in you. Find out whom they know in the venture community or on its periphery. Then use those contacts to start working your way closer.

"When an entrepreneur cold calls me and says, will you introduce me to some angels, I tell them it wouldn't work because I can't give a credible introduction of who you are and what you're doing," she said. "So start with the people closest to you, even if they are eight degrees from venture capitalists. They will get you one step closer."

Or don't approach VCs at all.

Eight weeks after emerging from the Tech Stars accelerator, Fitton's company, OneForty, closed a $2 million venture round. It happened fast--too fast, said Fitton. The company wasn't ready for it. "Our burn rate went way up and we became much more expensive," she said.

That happened before OneForty had quite settled on a direction. Taking venture capital means "hiring a boss you can't fire," she added.

Ferraro's venture investors insisted she relinquish several projects that mattered to her, including work in the community, and with the homeless. "I had to do it under the radar and behind their backs," Ferraro said. She advised attendees to consider debt first and "keep your equity in your pocket."

Don't craft culture.

Fitton said having a mission and core values is important. But they are "bullshit unless you make your hiring and firing decisions based on those things."

She adds that if you claim something is a core value but wouldn't fire someone for not embodying it, then it is not really a core value. "Do you have the balls to tell your best engineer, 'I'm sorry, you're not a fit. You shouldn't work here anymore because you're disrupting the culture.' Even though they wrote 80% of the code?"

Find balance.

A single mother, Ferraro insisted on "sacred time" with her three sons while building her companies. "There were hours where I wouldn't answer the phone except in an emergency," she said. "Whoever was my second-in-command I would say, 'I'm taking two hours. We're going to the zoo.'"

Fitton's experience was different. Forced to relocate to California for three months during the launch of OneForty, "I threw my kids under the bus," she confessed. The children, aged two and three, stayed with their father, from whom Fitton was divorced, "and his awesome girlfriend who is now their stepmom."

Balance did come eventually. Since selling the company, Fitton, who is now HubSpot's inbound marketing evangelist, has pulled back. Last spring she worked four-day weeks to spend more time with her kindergartner.

Be nice. 

Simply being gracious can set you apart. Ferraro said that when she is asked to speak at an event she sends the organizers something from Edible Arrangements to thank them for the opportunity. Fitton described how she met social media expert Gary Vaynerchuk, who was thronged by admirers at a party following a presentation. "All I could think of was, 'Someone needs to get Gary food,'" said Fitton, who brought him a plate. The two have been close ever since. "Kindness and consideration," said Fitton, "are low-hanging fruit."

IMAGE: Getty
Last updated: Dec 21, 2012

LEIGH BUCHANAN is an editor-at-large for Inc. magazine. A former editor at Harvard Business Review and founding editor of WebMaster magazine, she writes regular columns on leadership and workplace culture.
@LeighEBuchanan




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