Disclaimer: What worked for me may not work for you.
I raised a round of seed funding recently. I’d been working hard at it, and at the same time working hard with my co-founder and team to build a product and a company. We’re far from done but a recent chat with Amy Puliafito at a Rock Health XX Dinner made me realize I need to pause, take a breath and acknowledge a few things that helped me and may help other women (and men) out there who are trying to do the same thing.
Fact #1: I am a woman building a startup in Silicon Valley competing against a field of, mostly, young men. The odds are against me.
Step 1: Stop worrying about being a woman or [insert whatever reason you think you’ll fail here] and focus on your strengths.
Focus on the strength of your idea, team and timing. If you want an amazing blog on the definition of tech, team and timing go here (warning, my co-founder is not for the faint of heart; he’s no brogrammer—scorching of earth commence).
You are going to have to pitch and get rejected more times than you can imagine. A VC once told me kindly (and I mean really, really kindly—as in “I want to spare you the pain of failure” kindly), “Below us are two floors of seed stage startups, the average person is male and under 20”. Deep breath. OK.
With odds like that, if you’re ready to jump in this pool don’t worry about being a woman (I mean with odds like that, what was worrying going to change?), focus on what you can affect—your idea, pitch, team, tech, timing. You’ll make a difference by executing and succeeding. If you are a woman and your target audience is too, use that to your advantage. No one knows your audience better than you do.
Fact #2: I’ve spent hours learning/doing the mechanics of incorporation, capitalization, and startup operations. I know another woman entrepreneur who films herself pitching 12x a day.
Step 2: Prepare.
I know my cap table. I’ve raised money on a convertible note and negotiated a priced round and I know the pros and cons of each. I’ve incorporated a company…myself…but I know when to get and how to use an attorney. I know the vocabulary and I can answer questions with confidence. Excel is my friend.
Educate yourself on all these things—incorporation, funding, operations and everything else (Caveat: I already knew how to ship product). It’s all out there to read if you look. Brad Feld’s posts on term sheets are particularly helpful. Valuations and specific mechanics may change by the year (month) but the basics are all there and very well discussed. VCs like Mark Suster and Dave McClure make it their business to tell you just about everything and more (thank you, sirs) and they all argue with each other so listen to their arguments. You will need to be able to answer questions about your company in any period of time and any order so do yourself a favor and learn it in your bones. Or, as my sensei sometimes required when we practiced sparring, pitch blindfolded.
Fact #3: It took me 8 months to raise $1.3M. I hear it took Pinterest longer.
Step 3: Don’t Follow the Herd and Don’t Worry if Your Raise Doesn’t Look Like “Their” Raise.
Raising my seed round felt like mountain climbing looks—one agonizing milestone at a time. That’s ok, we were building product and moving forward. Evaluate yourself and your raise on the strength of each investor you attract. If you are able to attract smart investors you are fine, it doesn’t matter if it takes longer than the people around you.
You will hear stories every day that so-in-so raised $4M in four days on AngelList. Tomorrow it may be you, but until then don’t judge your success by those anomalies. Don’t chase an outcome you can’t realistically achieve. Focus on investors who will evaluate you and your business outside of the flash funding lens and on the merits of your team, tech and timing. Is there a time to reconsider, to stop, if it isn’t going well? Yes, but I can’t tell you when, you must be honest with yourself.
Fact #4: Men are great.
Step 4: Learn to judge people quickly and well.
I have amazing women on my team who move mountains every day to build our company. Three of our advisors are women who dominate their field. However, the only people who have invested their money in our company, and in me, are men. If you missed Dave McClure’s thought provoking post on women investing I recommend you read it. Unfortunately, my experience supports his view.
Men are not our enemy, they are our allies – find the good ones, discard the rest. Remember, it’s not personal; it’s about building great companies. You’ve read it a zillion times, it’s true: Do not waste time on anyone who wastes yours. Learn to tell the difference, male or female. Learn to tell when someone is giving you an excuse. And, as with anything worth doing, there are contradictions:
If the money is offered, take it. However, you must learn to say no to money, if it’s the wrong money, even when you’re not sure how you will meet payroll.
Good luck, don’t settle, fight hard.