For female founders raising capital for their women-focused companies, pitching to male VCs can be a daunting undertaking. It's been said that venture capital is a "mirrorocracy," not a meritocracy: VCs tend to invest in teams that look like them and support products that they understand.
Women entrepreneurs are therefore at a particular disadvantage, especially when their companies are focused on solving problems for female consumers. Ale Breuer, Co-Founder and CEO of Ezza, experienced this firsthand while fundraising for her Chicago-based, tech-savvy nail salon. Ale sat down with Project Entrepreneur to discuss the inspiration behind launching Ezza and how she found a way to get male investors interested in women's manicures.
Project Entrepreneur: What inspired you to start your business?
Ale Breuer: In my first year of business school, I started to get my nails done more often. With salons around the corner from my apartment, I assumed I would easily find my go-to nail place, but one salon after the other fell short of my expectations.
Nail care is a grooming necessity for professional women, yet our options are limited to either luxury salons offering expensive and time-consuming services, or cheap neighborhood salons that are inconsistent or mediocre and often resort to unethical employment practices. My wallet vetoed the first, and my conscience objected to the second.
What's been the biggest challenge you've faced so far?
It's hard to pick just one. We go through a lot challenges and they frequently change as we evolve as a company. One of the biggest challenges we are facing right now is balancing the urgency to adapt to feedback without being overly reactive. How do you know when you have enough data to make a change? Since we are at such an early stage, we don't [yet] have any benchmark data to compare, so it's difficult to evaluate how we are doing.
What's been the greatest reward?
After our launch party, I stayed behind to clean up. It was just me, my husband, and two of our close friends. I remember standing in my guest lounge barefoot, holding my heels in my hand, scanning the entire space. I started to cry thinking about how incredible it felt to take an idea and transform it into a business. Ezza nails was no longer just an idea on paper, but a real business, and I was standing right in the middle of it. Realizing your own potential and seeing it come to life is a pretty powerful experience.
Can you describe a problem you've solved in your business and how other early-stage founders can repeat your success?
Because our business largely serves women, we struggled to explain our business to men. When men heard the word "nail salon" come out of our mouths, we would instantly lose their attention. This was a big problem for us because most investors are male; we couldn't succeed if we couldn't convince men that there was a problem and it was worth solving.
To address the problem head on, we created and practiced different versions of our problem and solution statements. We tested them all out to see which one would stick. Ultimately, we learned that the best way to grab someone's attention was to get customers. We launched a pop of our space to prove that there was demand for a new solution in nails. After a month of operating our pop up, we had the data we needed and a much more compelling story to tell.
What changes would you most like to see in your industry, and how are you working to make those changes happen?
I'd like to bring respect and transparency into the industry. There is a stigma associated with being a nail technician, and that oftentimes translates into disrespect. We are working on elevating the nail industry by delivering a unique experience founded on great customer service and respect on both sides of the manicure table.
On the customer end, there is a lack of education and knowledge about quality nail care and sanitary practices. Our manicure specialists are trained to educate their clients about the health of their nails so our guests are more informed about their manicures.Who or what motivates you to keep going, even when things get tough?
Who or what motivates you to keep going, even when things get tough?
I do one of four things: listen to power anthems by female artists (personal fave: Sia), step away from my computer and hit the gym, read articles about successful entrepreneurs, or spend time with my team, which is my favorite. Having the opportunity to hang out with a teammate after work is the best kind of rejuvenation; I always leave the night with a lot of ideas and a ton of perspective.
Can you provide a few updates on what's new with your business or what you've accomplished since you attended the PE Intensive in April 2017?
Since the PE Intensive, we closed our seed round and launched our first nail space in downtown Chicago! We've been in operation for about a month a half so far, and our main focus has been customers, customers, customers!
What's one piece of advice you'd give to other entrepreneurs just starting out?
Keep a journal and write about your entrepreneurial journey. We all know to track our goals and have folders of excel files to track our numbers, but nobody ever tells you to track your experience. Everything goes by so fast, and as an entrepreneur, you are constantly pushing yourself to new limits. It's easy to overlook wins and focus on the next challenge, [but] I've found that if you want to be successful, you have to celebrate your successes.