Babes in Start-Up Land.

By Melanie Bainbridge

I write this blog because I am living it, and I understand that whatever I’m going through is hardly likely to be unique to me. For me, while the notion of lean or ‘fast’ start-up brings with it some wonderful tools, it also brings some insurmountable ideological challenges – and particularly for female social entrepreneurs, these glaring gaps can look like great chasms without safe bridges.

Now this doesn’t mean that I’m questioning the models themselves, nor their efficacy for many entrepreneurs. Nor am I saying that all women entrepreneurs struggle with the start-up ecology.

These models may be immeasurably valuable for entrepreneurs who wish to build a business primarily driven by a desire for profit, without significant altruistic outcomes. Or for start-ups with an intent for fast scaling and high profit exit. They protect against over-investment in ideas which have no market. They allow for failure as a learning tool, while also allowing for it to not be a barrier to finding, and funding, the ‘next big idea’.

But I think I am safe in making the assumption that there are other wonderful women who want to bring their nurturing skills to the table in business, who perhaps don’t fit the mould of a traditional lean start-up model.

I’ve spoken recently to a number of local, proactive female social entrepreneurs who have found that while they want to be part of the process, they’re finding themselves without a meaningful place in it. So, while this is my story… I wonder if it’s yours too…

Spinning in a space now cluttered with jargon – lean start-up, pivot, scalability, mission drift, rapid growth, exit strategy – I’m a new social entrepreneur who wants desperately to be part of the conversation, but I’m finding myself a soft, round peg trying to squish myself into a hard, square hole.

I’ve seen many amazing women tackle the system with style – they do the squish and make it work, but for me, the idea of applying any 'out-of-the-box' model to build a flexible, responsive, socially responsible business is an anathema.

So how do I fit into the lean start-up space, or alternatively, how do I chip away at the hard edges to make it fit me?

There are a few key start-up ‘must haves’ that I’m finding myself struggling with.

Number One – Planting the seed is the hardest thing.

Lean start-up culture seems to assume that every business is hunting for expansion capital. This may well be true. However, my experience in this space has been that for me, and for many other female social entrepreneurs, finding start-up capital or seed funding is more important and more difficult than financing the next big ‘growth spurt’.

Like me, many of my female colleagues in the start-up space have started with a world-changing idea – and no dollars. The seed they are trying to germinate is lifeless until fertilised, and access to seed funding – particularly for ‘profit-for-purpose’ social enterprise – is hard to come by.

There are precious few funding options around that will fund an idea before it is a fully formed business with a proven sales record - cash flow is king - but by the time the business is mature enough to have cash flow, it’s quite likely not to need major investment unless it intends to scale, and scale fast. So, while we’re exhausting ourselves trying to find funding, we’re reserving little energy for developing our idea.

I’m lucky in a sense in that I do have an amazing, supportive partner, and I don’t have kids, or mortgages or investment portfolios. For many female entrepreneurs with family commitments there are myriad competing priorities for money, so often bootstrapping, or self-funding, really isn’t a real option. In essence, a personal investment into a new enterprise is money coming out of the family purse.  

But with sufficient front-end capital, female entrepreneurs are capable of building sustainable start-ups, that can graduate into sustainable, world-changing social enterprises. So how do we push past the ‘start-up funding blues’?

Number Two - Show me the money and I’ll show you the door.

It might sound odd to some, but when I embarked on my own social enterprise I wasn’t looking for the exit sign. I know! Incredible! Amongst my circle of colleagues and co-conspirators many are looking to build a business with an outcome they can see, feel, and measure into the faraway future, and this means that we’re not necessarily (only) looking to financial growth as our key measure of success.

While the perspective of the big business world might be coming a little late to this realisation, I see the feminine ability to empathise and nurture as both a skill and a business value. For me it's a strength that allows me to dig deeper into the psyches of my market, and to understand their needs at a very human and personal level. But this means that I consider my 'customers' beneficiaries. They are more than a means to a sale, they are a treasured, reciprocal relationship that I’m not looking to ditch as soon as the money rolls in.

But the fact that I’m not looking for an ‘exit’, or a way to offload my precious creation as quickly and as richly as humanly possible, devalues my business in the eyes of investors – for what is an investor, if not someone looking for a return?

For female social entrepreneurs, the return is often more valuable but less tangible than money – but by definition, this makes it less measurable and potentially less (obviously) viable. While it may have a high social, environmental or economic value for a whole community – that value may not translate into direct investor return.

Impact investors might view this slightly differently, but in calling themselves ‘investors’ and not philanthropists, they effectively subscribe to a very similar model. While they may be looking for enterprises that (also) have a social return on investment… they are nonetheless concerned with financial return and plan to capitalise on their investment at some stage – as they step through the front door they’re looking for their way out.

Number Three - Scalability in hyperdrive.

An obsession with expansion investment drives the culture of ‘rapid growth’ which so many start-ups subscribe to. You must run before you can walk. You must build an empire before you build a business. You must show projected income of bajillions. You must constantly sprint to catch-up with the juggernaut that you have created.

I have found that many of my colleagues in the sustainability, social enterprise and start-up space feel limited by the notion that in order to be ‘investable’, a business must be scalable at a rate which makes the head spin – and, like me, they are also fearful losing control of the runaway enterprise.

Some might say this is a fear of success… but is it? Is my reluctance to outgrow my own capacity to deliver, and to need the support of investors to ensure that I can meet my market’s needs, really an irrational fear?

To my mind this is simply good business practice. To scale at a rate where you can be confident of meeting the expectations of your customers, investors and beneficiaries, while not burning yourself out trying to meet them, just seems both personally and professionally responsible.

I see so many new enterprises give away equity for the sake of ‘fast growth’ when, if they approached their enterprise with just a little more patience and a view to growing their tribe before seeking fast expansion, they might find themselves without so many scary investor expectations to meet in the future.

Number Four – Imposter syndrome is a real thing.

I’ve never wanted to admit to it – but I’ve felt like an imposter my whole life. No matter how much genuine, honest, heartfelt respect is thrown in my general direction, I still manage to convince myself that someday, somehow, someone is going to realise that at least 80% of the time I don’t know what I’m doing. I berate myself for mistakes and failures, I overcompensate with overwork, I burn myself out trying to be all things to all people – and I know I’m not alone.

I also hear myself apologising for what I don’t know, far more often than I hear myself owning what I do. Even in writing this blog I was constantly asking myself about my right to say anything about an emerging space in which I am merely a participant - a journeywoman.

I say the phrase ‘subject matter expert’ to myself over and over before I speak in front of groups… merely to convince myself that I know what I know. I facilitate the careers and growth of others, rather than putting myself forward or putting time into my own ventures.

I compare this to some of my amazing male colleagues that are operating in the same space, many of whom have the same amount of translatable skills and experience as I do, but are able to convince others that their expertise is genuine, even when I know (and they know) that they’re making it up, just as I am.

This may be a male / female thing – but I also think there’s something in ‘fast’ start-up culture that encourages a ‘fake it ‘til you make it’ attitude, and for many, if not most women that I know, this is not an ethos that sits comfortably - perhaps the passage below might have something to do with why.

Number Five - Failure is not an option.

One of the central catch-cries of the lean start-up community is ‘fail fast, fail cheap’. But how does this sit with those of us who don’t want to fail at all?

My reason for creating my social enterprise is not now, and never was, making a fast buck then offloading, but is centred on a long-term vision for a better future for a whole industry, and I’m not sure that the lean start-up model, or the traditional start-up incubator and accelerator models and their associated marketing mantras, really help me to succeed in achieving my vision.

In my head, what the lean start-up game calls ‘pivot’, I call fuck-up, and for many female entrepreneurs, who are in this game to create a better world, failure is not an option – particularly at this interesting and often frightening point in our social, political, emotional and environmental evolution.

As women – do we really want to be seen to fail? Having spent hundreds of years - from witch hunts, through suffrage, through the feminist revolution and beyond – proving our worth beyond the confines of the kitchen, I’m not convinced that we are yet as well-facilitated as our male counterparts in the entrepreneurial space.

Whether it's acknowledged or not there is still an unspoken stigma around women running businesses. While there are amazing female entrepreneurs making waves across a range of disciplines and industries – the male / female ratio in management and executive level roles across the board speaks volumes.

If guys hop from start-up to start-up, they are called ‘serial entrepreneur’ as though it were a badge of honour, while women get stuck with the stigma of ‘failed business woman’. Is this fair? Of course not. Is it real or just a perception? Does that matter, if in the minds of women it creates a stumbling block of fear and a real reluctance to throw their hat into the ring?

Number Six - Bootstrap burnout.

In light of all of the above, we work like crazy people, barely giving ourselves time to slow our heart rates before we launch into the next crazy, dangerous, ‘go hard or go home’ phase of our business building; whether we’re just hitting the launch pad - desperately trying to raise funds to change the world, or trying to run a functioning new start-up with all that entails. We become superwoman - giving up friendships, hobbies, juggling family and ‘day jobs’ – and we burn out, fast.

So the concept of fast start-up might be great for some – but not for me. With that comes the knowledge that my idea is constantly under threat. Someone with few ethics, much self-interest and deep pockets could make it happen before I can. I know that, but for me, that has to be the reality.

I am limited. I have a reserve of time and energy - over and above my day job, trying to pay my debts, and trying to be a kind and available friend - that I can put into this idea, and no more. I’m tired of watching my beautiful colleagues run themselves into the ground trying to make themselves into that square peg.

As a 40-year-old, female entrepreneur – I’m going to continue to approach this work with the energy I have, not the energy I wish I had.

So, for what they’re worth, here are my takeaways from a year trying to fit the lean start-up mould.

Slow start-up is OK. After a recent unexpected stint in hospital and experiencing physical and emotional exhaustion that I’m just realising has been following me for far too long, I think it’s OK to breathe. The only expectation you can truly carry is your own, so try not to make it too heavy. Lean start-up models are just that – models that you can choose to adopt, take great tools from, or reject if they don’t fit your needs.

Start your enterprise as you mean to go on, be true to your mission and ultimately to yourself. Protect your health and strive for your version of success, and allow for the fact that only you truly know what that means. Let the wonderful people who believe in you and your idea support you – but never let them lead or push you to burn-out. Advice is advice – we can take it or leave it.

Grow and learn, be open and agile, but own your own experiences. Only you are entitled to steer your ship. If there is something you inherently know, that sits in the core of you and needs to be realised, follow that dream and know that just because it hasn't happened fast, doesn't make it a failure.

We all know that there's no sense in beating a dead horse, so make sure you know your 'customer' and seek validation of your mission along the way, but don't lose faith in your vision. The world has been changed countless times by people who trusted that there could be a better way and persisted through obstacles until that way became a path for others to follow.

Lastly – learn to say no. It’s the single most important piece of advice I can give, and one I’m barely coming to grips with myself. I don’t mean just saying no to the great advice that all the ‘experts’ want to give, or to investors who wish to change the way your mission is delivered – I mean saying no to the hardest thing of all – over-commitment.

Now, when I apply the term ‘lean’ to myself, I apply it to the way I view my time. I acknowledge that there’s precious little of it, and am leaner (and perhaps my friends would say stingier) with the way I give it. What I know, is that the people who love me will be there when I come out of the other end of this all-consuming phase of development – and that they’ll be proud of me for having given it the time it deserves. Those who can’t come to terms with that will fall away, and I will have to accept that.

Perhaps I would call this way of working ‘slow start-up’, or even ‘persistent start-up’ – nothing happens as fast as you’d like it to, competing priorities abound and you will get stuck along the way. Your will to carry your mission through the quicksand of start-up land is what will build a strong, resilient business – and a strong, resilient you.

So with love, trust, and a commitment to my precious mission, I strive for a persistent enterprise built on healthy habits, and realistic outcomes. Fail fast and fail cheap? Honey – I’ve never been fast, and I’m definitely not cheap…