This is my talk from the Geek Girl Carrots & TechCityWomen event - it covers everything from my entrepreneurial journey to the best advice I've received through Female Founder Fridays.
Thank you all for coming. and thanks for the kind introduction, I really appreciate you all coming and I’m hoping I can share some stories tonight that will prove valuable. As mentioned, I have a couple of perspectives that I’ll be drawing from. I’m the founder of Zealify and I also do Female Founder Fridays - both of which I’ll dig into in more detail. Hopefully before the end of the night I’ll have covered my entrepreneurial journey, lessons learnt, female founder fridays & women in tech as well as some tips & tricks. My main aim for tonight is not to just talk about myself but to make it as actionable and insightful as possible so please don’t hesitate to raise your hand and ask a question if something comes immediately to mind.
Firstly, I thought I would tackle the question about whether entrepreneurship is something you are born with or if it is something that can be learned. I’m sure we’ve all had this discussion at some point. The conclusion I’ve come to is that to be a great entrepreneur you have to be exceptionally good at learning because there is so much to absorb and learn along the way. As for the initial spark, in my situation, I have always wanted to run my own business at some point in my life so it was always something I had in me.
I started my first “business” when I was 7. I sold Apples from the side of the road out of a rabbit hutch. I branded it the Apple store, though never had the foresight to trademark it! The Apple Store lasted until the Rabbit Hutch finally broke and then it was on to the next one. Throughout my childhood and teenage years I always had projects from selling cocktails to my parent's friends to creating phonic spelling books for primary schools. When people wanted to be Doctors or Firemen I always wanted to be an Entrepreneur, so when the opportunity presented itself I jumped in head first.
My journey so far
I met my business partner, Andy, at University where we’d worked on various projects - we founded a society together to give students more exposure to business leaders. It just happened that there wasn’t a society for the business school and we thought there was a good opportunity to start one. This was our first experience of “starting something” and it quickly became one of the largest societies on campus. This gave us a lot of lessons that we wouldn’t have otherwise had and all of a sudden pieces of our academic business background began to fit together. We had to do marketing to build a membership base, manage the finances and budget for the year, recruit and manage a team of other volunteers and so on.
This leads me into my first tip and lesson for anyone looking to become a founder or learn about running their own business. I really don’t think anything can beat just getting started. No amount of planning or forethought will be better than just getting stuck into something. More importantly, it doesn’t have to be a big grand plan. Any side project, no matter how small is better than being idle.
Just get started and get busy to start learning. An idea won’t fall on your lap but good opportunities emerge by being active so just start small and begin working on something.
The society then led to opportunities for Andy and I. In our final year we were invited to attend a hackathon. We were preparing for our finals and we were in Norwich, the hackathon was in Birmingham. Coming from a traditional business school background we’d never heard of a hackathon but thought it might be a good opportunity. So we got in the car and drove to Birmingham for the weekend. To say the weekend was an education would be an understatement - we’d started the weekend thinking Ruby on Rails was a band and finished the weekend googling the difference between VCs and Angels. I think this is another lesson I’ve picked up -
You have to take leap and just show up when a good opportunity arises.
After our hackathon ‘startup induction’ we made the decision to start our own company after graduation. At University a problem we’d noticed was when people tried to collect money for an event, holiday or present, they were often left out of pocket by people who didn’t pay or paid late. So from that our first business was Incredibli - a platform for helping people split payments across a group whether that was for a gift, holiday or anything else! With only a business background and no technical skills to speak of we were ashamedly slow to get going. It took us a little while to realise that in a startup you have to be willing to get your hands dirty and only you as founders can make things happen. We decided to teach ourselves basic code & design to get our minimal viable product up & running. This is an area where the startup landscape is hugely improved. We initially went to classes at General Assembly and used Treehouse to learn code. There are now so many resources out there that the basics of anything can be learned if you put enough concentrated effort into it.
You have to get your hands dirty and we have to continually remind ourselves that things don’t come easily. Sometimes you just have to get stuck in.
With Incredibli, we were lucky enough to exhibit at Launch Festival in San Francisco and fly to New York with UKTi for pitching and mentorship. Although this was a fantastic opportunity it is one of my lessons learnt for future founders - don’t get sucked in by the hype. It’s easy to see these events as a great way to grow your business or engage but really when you’re only 6 months to a year in, this isn’t going to be the place where you become the next Google or Facebook. You’ll just be another startup in a sea of 1000’s of startups. It was a good personal learning experience but in reality neither did anything to advance our business. It was when we were flying back from New York we realised that we had been doing all of the superficial ‘startup’ things but not really doing enough customer development to understand how to achieve product/market fit. That was when we knew we had to close Incredibli - we didn’t have any employees or investors at the time so it was a much easier decision than it could have been. What we did have, however, was an offer of investment on the table, we knew we couldn’t accept as there was no viable business model. However, something we’d previously worked on together had begun to come up more & more in the previous months and we just couldn’t shake that thought that there was an opportunity to be explored. We didn’t want to give up entirely so we pursued a different idea.
This is when we looped back to what we were doing whilst at university. The society we founded was connecting business leaders and the student body. Two things that became very apparent was that unless a guest speaker was coming from a large brand name company, they attracted a very small audience from the students. Secondly we consistently had the businesses ask us how they could attract better talent. From these insights grew Zealify.
Zealify is a platform that helps high growth companies showcase their company culture to hire better talent. We do this through creating online profiles using professional photography of the office, videos of the team and insights into the company culture. This allows companies to build an employer brand and use their unique culture to hire more competitively. We’ve worked with companies such as GoCardless, SwiftKey and Pusher. For job seekers we realised that there is a difference between the only the obvious career paths and the great opportunities that are out there but unknown. Our platform offers a way for job seekers to discover companies and career opportunities they might otherwise not have heard of and learn everything they might want to know about those companies before they apply for the role. In essence, it boils down to helping companies do a better job with their recruitment marketing and building an employer brand.
We certainly took a lot of lessons from our first startup which allowed us to move much quicker with Zealify but we by no means got everything right. We certainly had an increased support network, better understanding, better skills in developing a product and broader knowledge around how to just build a startup. We were quicker and stronger second time round and I know we would be quicker again if we were start over now.
Whilst running Zealify I began to realise we had no female advisors or mentors and I wanted to change that. I felt having a breadth of views and women who had ‘been there done that’ could help broaden my view of business and the challenges we’ve faced. I started thinking about using interviews to help connect with these fantastic women but also gather ‘lessons learnt’. It was something I thought would be useful and something I personally wanted but I wasn’t really sure how much interest it would gain from others. I emailed a couple of mailing lists asking whether people would want to be interviewed or sign up for the blog and the response was phenomenal. I had over 50 requests to be interviewed within a couple of hours - I went from knowing a few female entrepreneurs to struggling to manage a diary of interviews.
One year on I’ve been able to interview over 30 female entrepreneurs and profile their stories, everyone from Sarah Wood from Unruly to Tamara Lohan from Mr & Mrs Smith all the way through to founders just starting their journey.
Lessons from female founders
I thought I would round out by sharing some of the themes I have picked up on from these interviews with female founders. It is a challenging environment to build a business or join a tech company as a woman - ‘bro culture’ does still exist and the old boys network certainly rears its ugly head when raising investment, but there are things you can do to overcome these hurdles.
One of the biggest pieces of advice I’ve heard through my interviews is surround yourself with advisors & mentors both male & female. Women implement and action advice well but also sometimes lack confidence in certain areas - having trusted mentors is crucial whether you are an employee at a startup or a founder. I realise that “get good mentors” is often thrown around as key advice. To make it more actionable I believe that one of the mistakes I made was that we had lots of sources of advice but we didn’t work hard enough to create really strong relationships with just two or three so that they really got to understand our business and could consistently provide good, unbiased advice. There’s a difference between advice from 10,000 feet and advice from someone who understands the full context of your business. This is where a really strong mentor - mentee relationship is important.
Secondly, don’t try and act like a man to fit in. I’ve been given a lot of terrible advice when it came to pitching for investment - the worst of which was to have ‘more balls’ and be more aggressive “like a man”. This is terrible advice. If you do this you will end up with investors you most certainly don’t want. Be your own, authentic self. Several of the founders have spoke of feeling pressure to conform to a male stereotype but after internal debate rejected that… it’s clearly not done them any harm!
Thirdly, if things aren’t going right for you, still support and advocate for other women. It can be easy to become competitive or jealous when things aren’t going right for you and they are for others.
Lastly, don’t believe the hype. People will always tell you things are ‘going great’ or they’re ‘killing it’ but 9 out of 10 of them will have completely doubted what they were doing within the last 24 hours if not within the last hour. People always talk about the great stuff and the achievements but the one stand out moment from all my interviews is that the founders can list the challenges they have faced far easier than their achievements. These are what have shaped them as founders, employees and teammates - helped them to work harder and push further than they thought they ever could. Also bear in mind that whatever founders are willing to share publicly, they have most likely been through many moments far worse. Don’t think that you are the only one going through tough times. As a startup community we are terrible at creating a culture of only showcasing the highlights.
Finally, I would like to advocate that once you’ve made it or you’re further along in your journey ensure you continue to pay it forward and mentor other women coming through. Don’t just pull the ladder up, some of us still need it. In fact I’m willing to bet that nearly everyone in the room has at least one thing that they have thought about pursuing but haven’t yet acted on it for one reason or another. It might be achieving a personal goal starting a small side project, launching a new initiative at your company right through to founding your own business.