Start-up tips for female entrepreneurs

We all know turning your own business dream into a reality is hard, but is it harder for women than men?

by Adam Gale
Last Updated: 06 Dec 2016

The thing they don’t tell you about the glass ceiling is that it’s double-glazed – reinforced, like the kind they make skyscraper windows out of.  Despite the regular beatings enlightened CEOs have given it over several decades, it’s still there, cracked but unshattered.

Female entrepreneurs, you might think, have found a way round it. Unlike their corporate counterparts, they aren’t dependent on anyone else to give them a promotion or put them in a ‘pipeline’. Success is in their own hands, right?

Well sort of. As any small business person knows, no woman or man is an island. Relationships with buyers, suppliers, banks and investors all count. It’s perhaps unsurprising therefore to learn that women are as underrepresented among top entrepreneurs as they are in FTSE 100 boardrooms.

In last year’s Management Today Top 100 Entrepreneurs, compiled independently by Philip Beresford of The Rich List fame, there were only 17 women. Research from HSBC earlier this year showed that only 30% of entrepreneurs aged between 35 and 54 (generally the most successful group, not including tech entrepreneurs – only 4% of whom are women) were female.

The whys of this are perhaps for a different time. In the spirit of overcoming hurdles and getting things done, MT got together a panel of entrepreneurs and investors at our Inspiring Women in Business 2016 conference for some sound advice.

Develop a thick skin

‘The world of manufacturing is dominated by big burly men in industrial estates. Being a young girl with no proven track record and experience, it was incredibly hard to get them to take me seriously,’  says Cassandra Stavrou, who founded posh popcorn brand Propercorn in 2011.

Not everyone you deal with is going to be enlightened, so in some sectors Stavrou says you may have to develop a thick skin. Not that this means just sitting back and taking it.

‘I’d be greeted with "hello young lady". It’s quite patronising. I don’t really tolerate it and I’ll call people up on it,’ says Stavrou.

Be confident

For many years, Studio 104 founder Jane Porter was a fashion buyer looking for her ‘lightbulb moment’. It came while on holiday in Africa.

‘As we went from one hotel to the next, we noticed a common theme – amazing food, elaborate decor, fantastic service, but ill-fitted, poorly designed uniforms. I shouted to my boyfriend I’ve got it – I’m going to design the best uniforms for the best hotels in the world, and that’s exactly what I did,’ says Porter.

After returning home she immediately bought a ticket for an around the world backpacking tour with her friends. While they were sunning themselves, however, she was meeting MDs and purchasing managers. It soon paid off, and with contracts with JP Morgan and the Savoy hotel.

‘I won the opportunities because I was confident. They asked me about what I’d done before, because I was up against companies turning over £10-20m a year, but what I sold was my expertise. They bought me.’

It’s a view echoed by serial entrepreneur and MyShowcase CEO Nancy Cruickshank. ‘We need to address that confidence gap [with men], be really planned and prepared, be positive. Think about how can you just be assertive, get those skills and get out there.’

Pick the right backers

In order to expand internationally, Stavrou recently raised £7m in funding for Propercorn. Selecting the right investors is crucial, she says.

‘There’s obviously the cheque, but it really is about whether they share the same vision, because you’re going on a long journey together. Is there a good relationship and level of trust? It really is about the added value beyond the money.’

Don’t think that you have to wait until you’re turning over £10m before looking for backers, either.

‘At every stage of development, think about who you should be talking to, getting advice from, using as a sounding board,’ says Marion Bernard, head of strategic investment at the Business Growth Fund. ‘It’s about building a relationship over a number of years, before the formal transaction part which should hopefully take a couple of months.’

Remember the basics

Entrepreneurs have to be a jack of all trades, at least at the start. Stavrou took free courses on how to do a P&L, what cashflow is, how to trademark – while also working jobs at the evenings and weekends.

Her main advice is not to be too distracted by higher things such as brand. ‘People can get very giddy with social media and marketing but that isn’t your bread and butter, that’s sales, that’s what you live and die by. For the first six months we left no stone unturned, followed every lead, trying to the critical mass. Then you can try and build your brand.’

Just do it

While figuring out who and what you are is important, there’s no substitute for just getting on with it – even if it creates the odd hiccough. Remember Porter’s first client, JP Morgan?

‘It was a disaster. I delivered and spent the next six months rectifying all the mistakes I’d made, costing too low and accepting the deadline. But the mistakes I made were the making of my business. I bent over backwards to fix the problems, and they rewarded me with a nationwide contract. I then quit my job, employed my first person, and the rest is history.’

Photography by Julian Dodd

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