As the founder of two different tech startups, Quipper, which sold to Japanese employment firm Recruit for $40 million last year, and East Meet East, a popular Asian-focused dating app in the U.S., I've learned an incredible number of lessons over the past 6 years.
Here's my takeaway as a female founder in a male-dominated--but changing--world:
1. Build and maintain a strong network
Having a great network of investors and peer entrepreneurs is extremely important for the success of a startup. Women face a special challenge here, as the ecosystem is dominated by men.
I've been to VC-backed entrepreneur events where I was the sole female participant. It can be overwhelming, but I kept at it knowing my idea was great, and ultimately gained confidence by not being intimidated.
Women are naturally talented at networking. Follow-up and long-term relationship building is something we excel at. The secret is to stay confident and develop your own style. You'll gain much more respect and acceptance than you expect.
2. Constantly share your vision and mission
Insead recently performed a study to evaluate differences in leadership ability between men and women. The authors explored the idea that many people feel there is a bias against women that lingers in the business world, particularly when it comes to evaluating their leadership ability. To their surprise, women's ratings exceeded their male counterparts in most areas, except for one: Vision.
Projecting vision requires assertiveness, a trait which many women hesitate to present in the workplace, and are often taught throughout life to "tone down". What we're seeing is that women need to work extra hard to share their vision and encourage buy-in. In my experience, the key is to share your vision frequently and repeatedly - not just at hiring or fundraising time.
Startups are tough. You have to retain the best employees with very few resources. You have to maintain relationships with investors even without a developed path to profitability. Strong, continuous vision is the only thing that gives a sense of purpose to unite all stakeholders.
3. Think big (yes, even bigger)
Based on feedback from VC colleagues, female founders often struggle with funding because their business ideas often aren't big enough - either their target market is too small, or the business doesn't scale. The data supports this - females start 30% of the small businesses in the United States, but only receive 10% of the venture capital. Is this because of unconscious biases more than 93% of VCs are men? It's possible, according to a recent study on gender bias in Silicon Valley. Whether we like it or not, as a female founder, you'll have to fight for the place you know is rightfully yours.
You'll face extra pressure to show that your idea is world-changing. Do this by making sure you build a financial model that identifies unit economics, scalability, and margins.
4. Success means persisting beyond failure
A study by Wharton Management Professor Ethan Mollick entitled "Humility and Hubris: Gender Differences in Serial Founding Rates" shows that women are often less tolerant of failure for numerous reasons, and therefore are less likely to try to raise funds or launch a product after initially not reaching their goals.
Giving up after even a colossal failure is deadly to start-ups. Becoming a successful entrepreneur means failing many, many times.
I've found the best way to manage failure is with small, fast iterations. If you maximize the number of trials you can perform within a given budget, your fundamental knowledge and team structure strengthen significantly.
Having small, agile trials will help you move fast - and (for the risk-averse) limit the impact of any single failure.
5. Show the love
Startup life can be more chaotic than you ever thought possible. Sometimes, you'll find a surprise bill that you could never afford. Sometimes, an employee will be headhunted by your competitor. Sometimes, even co-founders start to move in different directions.
No matter what happens, make sure you maintain the habit of giving love. People may not appreciate your love immediately, but it will come back to you over the course of your startup journey. I've found that having gratitude will make your difficult journey much more rewarding and meaningful.
Women are naturally talented at building genuine relationships and showing empathy. Why not embrace these characteristics on our startup journeys, too?