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Erin McKean Headshot

Five Things I Learned as a Female Founder

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According to research by Compass, only 10 percent of Silicon Valley startups are founded by women -- compared to roughly 50 percent of small businesses overall. It's not that women-founded startups do worse; in fact, Compass also reported that "the average venture backed company run by a woman has annual revenues 12% higher than those by men using on average one third less capital." Opinions differ as to why women are underrepresented, but at least part of the problem is lack of role models. So as a female founder, I feel an obligation to share what I've learned:

1. You'll be blamed either way, so you might as well do things your way.

It's tempting, as a first-time CEO, faced with the anything-is-possible blank canvas of a brand-new startup, to spend too much time searching for consensus with your co-workers and your investors. It may feel safe to get everyone's buy-in, but consensus is paper armor: as the founder and CEO, the final decisions (and the outcomes) are your responsibility.

Don't ignore all input and rampage around like Godzilla, but you don't have to make sure everyone is consulted on every little decision, either. It's much easier to recover from a bad decision than it is to make up the time lost to inertia and indecision.

Remember, too, you don't have to act on all (or any) of the advice you get. In my experience, the only other thing that compares in sheer volume of unsolicited advice is being a new mom. Let me offer a few helpful phrases: "Thank you so much for your feedback." "I appreciate your input." "That's an interesting suggestion!" Take it all in, sleep on it, even sketch out what things would look like if you did what was suggested... but trust your gut in the end. You're a founder because you want to bring your vision to life -- so make sure it really is your vision that you're building.

2. Criticism is a gift.

Criticism is hard to hear. Nobody wakes up in the morning thinking, "Gee, I hope someone tells me what I'm doing wrong today!"... but maybe we all should. Until you know something is wrong, you can't fix it, and ignorance (despite what they tell you) is hardly ever bliss. So when someone tells you about a problem, the proper response is "thank you." It doesn't matter if the problem is as simple as a typo or as serious as "your product is eye-meltingly horrible," they took valuable time out of their day to let you know. Be grateful. Be open. Apologize for what's wrong, ask them for more detail, show them that you really appreciate the favor -- and it is a favor -- that they are doing for you. Tell them you'd love to hear more feedback -- and mean it.

If you find yourself wanting to respond angrily, imagine the (terrible, ignorant, clearly wrongheaded) criticism was sent in the same spirit of loving-kindness that your dearest friend would show you. Then, if the criticism still seems off-base, treat it as you would any inappropriate gift -- kindly meant, but not right for you. (But you still have to write that sincere thank-you note!)

3. Don't underestimate the value of your time.

When you first take investment, it's hard not to worry about every dime you spend, and rightfully so. You're a steward of your investors' capital, and you want to make sure it goes toward the things that will grow the business. And since -- especially in the early days -- you're wearing multiple hats, it's easy to think that you can develop the product, do quality assurance, run business development, restock the Diet Coke in the fridge and keep the calendar and the books, too. I believe women founder-CEOs tend to put off hiring support staff longer, partly because that support work is so traditionally female. But if you suddenly developed full-on, soap-opera-style amnesia and could still do the task without too much difficulty? It's probably not something that is really worth your time.

So... delegate! Remember that every peripheral task that you dread and grudgingly grind through could be someone else's dream job. Then go find that person, and see how much more progress your team makes! I like to joke that the founder's job description is to do everything that we haven't hired someone better to do yet. When you do find that perfect office manager or awesome finance person, you'll wish you'd done it much, much sooner.

4. Be prepared to be invisible.

Female founders don't fit the famed "pattern recognition" touted by some investors or the movie-stereotype of the young guy in a hoodie, so it's almost as if we don't exist. At a recent startup get-together of more than 50 founders and CEOs, I was the only non-waitress woman in attendance for more than two hours, and I was asked if I worked for the VC firm throwing the soiree. (To be fair, the person asking immediately recognized his own bias and apologized.)

Sometimes this invisibility works in my favor; I've overheard many interesting conversations in San Francisco coffee shops because the (hoodie-wearing) men didn't think that the (mom-ish) woman at the next table could possibly be interested in their conversation about who they're pitching, their viral strategy, or their costs for customer acquisition. (Hi guys!)

But (obviously) when you're invisible you have to work harder to call attention to your company and products. It can be very uncomfortable to do what seems to be "unladylike" self-promotion, but it's essential. The best advice I ever got about overcoming this discomfort came from Roger McNamee, the chairman of the board of my company, Reverb Technologies, who told me that if I really believe in what we're making, it is my duty to share it so that as many people get the benefit of it as possible!

5. What comes after Lean In? Build Up!

I agree with Sheryl Sandberg that women should "Lean In" -- sit at the table, make their voices heard -- but I also feel that as the founder and CEO, you have the opportunity to take it to the next step and "Build Up." At a startup, not only can you create the products and services you think should exist in the world, you can also create the working environment you think should exist, too. You don't have to cargo-cult your workplace on the model of other startups -- you can make more inclusive products and a more flexible workplace at the same time. So do it.