9 Female Founders Share Their Best Advice for Starting a Company
Thinking about taking the plunge and starting your own company? You're going to want to read how our favorite female founders have forged their own paths. We've talked to and researched a group of inspiring women in order to put together a collection of proven advice for aspiring female leaders looking to found their own companies. We've learned that it often takes asking for help, failing often, and doing the things that scare you most in order to be successful. Read on for anecdotal lessons and digestible takeaways for your next venture!
Gutterman started working for the Huffington Post as Special Projects Editor right after graduating from Columbia University. After two years, she left to help found the mobile-first news startup Slant News. Slant democratizes digital media in a way that doesn’t sacrifice quality. The news startup also compensates writers for their work based on article performance. While Gutterman is an extremely accomplished writer, her work has appeared in publications such The New Yorker, The Brooklyn Quarterly, and BKLYNR, but founding and directing a news startup was a whole new thing for the talented journalist.
“Hiring the right people is essential to the success of any company (on that front, I recommend reading The Alliance), but possibly even more so in the early stages of a startup,” says Gutterman. “You're working in close quarters and sometimes for long hours. There are a lot of intimate moments. The idea of a ‘culture fit’ is often misinterpreted. Managers even use it as an excuse to avoid hiring for diversity and to bring people onboard who have similar backgrounds to theirs. To me, culture fit means bringing something new and different to the table while working productively with the team.”
In order to master the art of hiring as a beginner, Gutterman turned to her friend Emilie, the recruiter who initially brought her on at HuffPost. “At that point,” says Gutterman, “she worked in recruiting at Facebook. She gave me some really helpful tips on how to recruit employees. If I’m not sure how to do something, I always reach out and find someone who’s an expert.”
Takeaway: Always ask experts for advice.
Alba founded The Honest Company in 2011. She was inspired by what she found to be a gaping hole in the market. “I felt like my needs weren’t being met as a modern person,” Alba tells Forbes about her pursuit of safe home and baby products. “I want beautiful design like everybody else. But it shouldn’t be premium-priced, and it should, of course, be safe.” Within two years of realizing the toxic truth about most home and hygiene products, Alba had turned herself into an expert. She not only new everything there was to know about consumer products, she also lobbied for legislation to reform the Toxic Substances Control Act.
To quote a recent Forbes article, “The Honest Company has experienced an absurd level of growth. In 2012, its first year selling products, it hit $10 million in revenue. By 2014 it had $150 million in revenue and boasted a valuation of $1 billion.” But that’s not enough for Alba. “If we really want to make a difference in the world and people’s health, it’s billions and billions of dollars, not just one.”
Takeaway: Turn yourself into an expert on your subject. Take advantage of social media. You can never dream too big.
Black Girls Code is an organization whose mission is to increase the number of women of color in the digital space by empowering girls of color ages seven to 17 to become innovators in STEM fields, leaders in their communities, and builders of their own futures through exposure to computer science and technology. Unlike a lot of tech founders, Bryant wasn’t a techie from an early age. Rather, she was inspired by her daughter’s treatment in school. While Bryant worked in the startup world of San Francisco, she was shocked by the unequal treatment of girls in her daughter’s school. “I didn’t want [Kia] to be unmotivated and feel like she couldn’t learn these skills or thrive because of the attention she got in class,” Bryant tells Tech Republic. Bryant decided to take an extreme pay cut in order to leave her chosen field of biotech and found an education startup. “It’s nowhere near as lucrative as biotech, but it is one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever done in my career,” says Bryant. “It pays me benefits each and every day.”
Takeaway: Define success in your own terms.
Green left her job as a retail stocks analyst at Montgomery Securities to found Forerunner Ventures, a venture capitalist firm devoted to early-stage retail startups. When talking about what makes a company successful, Green focuses on delivering a quality experience. “Most things that people want already exist, and with Amazon or eBay there is always someone who is willing to undercut your price,” Green tells Fast Company. “But what does work is when a company focuses on delivering an amazing experience. This means having a high attention to detail around the product, thinking about how customers feel when they land on the homepage, considering what the package looks like when it arrives in the mail. I’m looking for companies that are set up to win on those levels.”
Takeaway: Pay attention to every part of the consumer experience.
Hoffman launched her first line right after graduating from Parsons School of Design in New York City. Originally called Circle, the collection was small and composed of one-of-a-kind clothes that Hoffman would hand die in her bathtub. Rather than waiting to be discovered, Hoffman traipsed around New York wearing her creations, with a bag full of samples. She would try them on for every shop owner she met, hoping they would bite and order a few pieces. One day legendary costumer designer Patricia Field (the woman behind the Sex and the City wardrobe) saw a few of Hoffman’s styles and immediately placed a $5,000 order.
Hoffman then transitioned from dip dying her fabrics, to designing prints that were more easily scalable. “The prints gave me a voice and allowed me to make so many more pieces of clothing,” Hoffman told The LA Times. Hoffman quickly learned how competitive the ready to wear market was and saw focusing on swimwear as a strategic business move. “Ready-to-wear is a hard, super-saturated business with a lot of talented people making clothes. Swim gave me an opportunity to say something that not a lot of people were saying yet.” Mastering her swimwear vibe enabled Hoffman to define and create an identity for her larger ready-to-wear label.
Takeaway: Express your point of view.
Weisberg and Zakin founded theSkimm in 2012 as a quick and easy news source for busy, professional women to read the news. Today, theSkimm arrives in the inboxes of over one million subscribers every morning and has become a nationally recognized brand. But that didn’t happen without Weisbery and Zakin taking an enormous leap of faith and quitting their jobs. “The decision to leave was the hardest, scariest thing we ever did. We loved our jobs, but for us we saw an opportunity that we couldn’t ignore. It was scarier not to go for it,” Zakin tells Biz Journals.
Takeaway: Doing the scariest thing you’ve ever done can be the best thing you’ve ever done.
Valued at over $2.5 billion, Tory Burch is a highly desirable property for many investors. But rather than take the best offer right away, Burch spent over a year figuring out who she, and her company, best fit with in terms of company vision. “It’s not a just met situation,” says Burch about her most recent investor. “It’s getting to know someone and having a common vision.” “One thing I see all of the time with entrepreneurs is that they give way too much of their company away, way too soon,” Burch tells Fortune. “How much and who you bring in needs to be really thought about.”
Takeaway: Think twice before you give any equity away.
Matthews started Matte Black, a culture marketing agency that helps brands define and create their brand voice and company culture. Matte Black specializes in targeting the millennial demographic. “There really is no red tape here. We walk in everyday and we think of an idea and we do it,” says Black. In her mid–late twenties, Matthews set herself the goal of finding three clients at a set retainer, to develop her agency. “I went out and I did it,” Matthews tells Behind the Hustle. “I signed four clients and it really took off from there. I went out there with confidence and said this is what I am doing, this is how I can help you, where can I be of service?” Matthews advises that it is always best to think ten steps ahead, learn from intense bosses, and then, when you’re ready, set yourself a big goal and achieve it.
Takeaway: Set yourself goals and execute them with confidence.
With over five million members, Rent the Runway is one of fashion’s most successful startups. Hyman founded the company as a tool for women, allowing them to rent brand name special occasion (and now everyday essentials) without a large financial commitment. It’s always good to have mentors that give you guidance when you’re making difficult decisions for the first time. But Hyman advises that, sometimes, you have to figure out what’s right for you and go with it, even if those more experienced than you disagree with your direction.
“In venture-funded startups, there’s a philosophy I’ve heard called ‘pattern recognition,’ which means that investors want to start defraying their risk by helping you as the CEO put in executives who have ‘bulletproof’ resumes, who have been there, done that,” says Hyman to Fast Company. If I go to the roster of say, CTOs who have been there, done that,” says Hyman, “there are not very many women on that list. If that philosophy is always followed, no women, no African Americans, no people of any diversity whatsoever will ever found and lead companies.” Instead of looking only for experienced employees, Hyman wants “to hire someone who is hungry, for whom Rent the Runway is going to be the defining career experience on their resume.”
Takeaway: Build diverse leadership from the ground up.