“I always did something I was a little not ready to do. I think that’s how you grow. When there’s that moment of ‘Wow, I’m not really sure I can do this,’ and you push through those moments, that’s when you have a breakthrough.” ― Marissa Mayer, former CEO of Yahoo!
Entrepreneurship is a lonely, challenging road. This is especially true for female founders. In addition to the traditional hurdles faced by entrepreneurs, female founders often encounter additional challenges related to funding, accessing networks, building teams, and so much more.
The world does not make it easy to start women owned businesses. But here at Future Founders, we’re trying to change that.
Over the last five years, we’ve been fortunate enough to mentor, coach, and grow dozens of female-led businesses through our Startup Bootcamp and Fellowship programs. The bulk of the tools and curriculum used in these programs have been developed and refined by Katie Sowa, our Chief Operating Officer here at Future Founders. Katie’s unique background and experience working with young entrepreneurs across the country has allowed her to develop a framework for female founders that helps them overcome some of the many challenges they face when building their businesses.
With such a robust history of mentoring and working with women owned businesses, we wanted to share some of the many insights Katie has developed over the years. So, we sat down with her and asked a simple question: What are you top five most valuable tips for female founders?
Here’s what she had to say…
1. Fake It Till You Make It
Often times, we wait for perfection. For many years, I strived to be perfect – from having perfect cursive as a second grader to making sure I never gave the wrong answer – when really the only person judging my level of perfection was me. We can be our own harshest critic and judge our current selves based on where we imagine our future selves should be. Everyone has to start somewhere and if you mess up, it is okay.
In the world of ballroom dancing, we have the motto – fake it till you make it. When performing a routine, if you mess up the choreography you simply need to keep dancing because you are the only one who knows the steps should have been different. Only when we downplay ourselves or fail to trust that we are smart and capable enough to learn along the way and continue pushing forward will others doubt our ability. Your idea or business will never be in a perfect place and there will always be things we don’t know. Sometimes you just need to go forward with what you have, even if you don’t have all the answers right now. Trust yourself to figure it out along the way. As Zig Ziglar said, “You don’t have to be great to start, but you have to start to be great.”
2. Give Yourself More Credit
Have you ever wondered why me? Have you wondered why someone would believe in you or buy your product over your competitors? What if you don’t live up to their expectations? What if they find out that you are not the most qualified or that you don’t have all the answers? Are you good enough? Are you sure you can pull this off?
If you have ever had these or similar thoughts, you have imposter syndrome. Imposter syndrome is a psychological pattern of internalizing and doubting your own accomplishments out of fear of being exposed as a fraud. High-performing individuals, particularly women, suffer from imposter syndrome, and it can be destructive to your personal and business health.
When the doubt and nagging thoughts hit, recognize imposter syndrome for what it is. Remind yourself that you are capable and talented. Remember what you have accomplished so far and celebrate the wins, no matter how small or insignificant they may seem – replace your self-doubt with a sense of courage and appreciation. Be proud! You deserve to have a seat at the table. You are capable of being an entrepreneur and pursuing your dreams as much as anyone.
3. Ask For Help
It is okay to admit when you don’t know something. It is okay to ask for help. In fact, knowing when to ask for help is a sign of wisdom. Entrepreneurs need mentors. A good mentor will motivate, inspire, and challenge you to grow. According to a survey by The UPS Store, 70 percent of mentored businesses survive more than five years, which is double the rate of businesses without mentors. In fact, a Harvard Business Review survey revealed that 85% of CEOs with formal mentor relationships said they have avoided costly mistakes because of their mentors.
One caveat – make sure you ask the right people for help. Find mentors and supporters who believe in you and who are willing to give you their time. Don’t pay for advice when you are starting out. Organizations like the WBDC, SCORE or Micromentor can help connect you to mentor meetings. Ask your social networks, connect with a personal note on LinkedIn, or even cold email your role models. It never hurts to ask. Start by having informal 1-on-1 conversations before establishing a formal advisor or mentor relationship. Most importantly, find mentors who have the right kind of expertise. Vet their experience and track record before you implement advice. Mentors and advisors who have been there and done that can help you learn from their mistakes and experiences faster. Determine the buckets of areas that you and your business may need help with – marketing, finance, operations, fundraising, legal, etc. – and source subject matter experts that you can build a relationship with and trust over time.
Remember that everyone has opinions, but at the end of the day, only you are the one running your business. Trust yourself and your gut first, but find people who can point you in the right direction and who can help pick you up when you stumble.
4. Know Your Numbers
Just like Shakira’s hips, numbers don’t lie.
Too many times I’ve heard founders say “Math is not my strong suit,” or “I’m not good with numbers.” Wrong! You don’t have to be a mathlete to understand your numbers – you just have to try. Your business runs on numbers (dollars and profit and costs), and just like you have become the expert on your customer or know the in’s and out’s of your product or service, you must be committed to at least have a basic understanding of your numbers. Your finances and projections serve as a tool that helps you make better business decisions. Become enough of a numbers person to know how your expenses and revenue affect your bottom line.
I once was hired by a startup that took their eye off the ball – they assumed other “experts” would look after and manage their finances, but this backfired big time. No one will care about your business as much as you do. Find mentors or advisors or team members who have financial expertise to help you, but dedicate consistent time each month to look at your P&L statement or your cash flow and reflect. As an entrepreneur, it is your responsibility to yourself and to your company is to pay attention to and understand the financial side of your business. They say cash is king, but be the queen who makes the rules and conquers all.
5. Find Your Tribe
Entrepreneurship can be lonely. What starts as the freedom and independence of being your own boss and turn into feeling the pressure and weight of the world on your shoulders. But you don’t have to go it alone. The most successful entrepreneurs know you need a support system to survive, thrive and scale up.
“Find a group of people who challenge and inspire you, spend a lot of time with them, and it will change your life.” -Amy Poehler
Surround yourself with people who believe in you and support you. Find other founders who understand what you are going through and spend time with them. Create a community that you can lean on. Participate in local organizations, networking groups, or accelerator or cohort programs. Work in a co-working space. Join a mastermind or accountability group to share and learn from your peers. Build your tribe of founders and strong women who will raise you up when times are tough and will cheer you on when you achieve success. Having people around you will make you stronger than you can be on your own.
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