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Confessions of a Female Entrepreneur

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Fund-raising is an awkward and often uncomfortable effort for those raising funds. But when the person asking is a women entrepreneur, the dance takes on many more nuances. First, a woman -- asking for money from the usual funding decision maker -- a man -- can bring out the age old male/female dynamic and take the focus off track. Another hurdle can come from a woman's own feeling of vulnerability when asking for assistance (something we prefer to give, instead of take). Still, a third challenge is trying to convince the funder that you (a woman) are every bit as capable of leading and scaling a business as your male counterpart. I don't care what people say about this -- the perception that a man as a leader will take the business more seriously is always there. (Perception can take a long time to catch up to reality!) So, the "ask" is now a "dance" with layers of complexity and nuance. Navigating this minefield can be tricky, but if you follow a few tips I'm paying forward from very credible sources, it will go a long way to making you far more effective in fund-raising.

Skill #1: Practice The Ask This advice came from a doctor friend in New York who runs a very successful medical publishing company (Castle Connolly Medical Publishing) His advice: Look in the mirror. Practice your pitch. Then practice asking for money. "Would you like to invest?" (pregnant pause) Then don't say another word until you get an answer. I would wager that 9 times out of 10, people talk their investors out of investing by what they say after they ask. No matter how uncomfortable it may be, don't say another word until the person responds to your ask. It's painful! And the interesting part of this is that people to whom you are pitching really want to tell you their thoughts. They want to tell you if they can or will invest. Cut to the chase! You've done your part -- now let them do theirs.

Skill #2: Understand the Ask In my ASTIA training, the coaches emphasized we figure out how much money we needed, how it would be spent and what we'd achieve. Of course this can be an exercise in futility given different amounts often translate into different scaling opportunities for businesses. However, there's a point at which too much money is a negative. It takes a lot more time and thought to intelligently invest larger amounts of capital than smaller amounts. More important, more money does not equate with a higher degree of success. So know how much you want, why you want it and what your investors will get for it. If you can't do that, how can you expect an investor, whose job rests on making good investments and thus profits for his/her investors (limited partners, or "LP's"), to trust in you to grow that investment for the benefit of all?

Skill #3: Ask for the Team! This nugget came a few nights ago from Gina Bianchini, Founder of Ning. She clearly sympathized with my difficulty in asking for something for myself. However, I am extremely effective when I asked for things for others. So she suggests asking not for you but for your team. Ask for the people who rely on you to move the solution forward and who believe in the solution so much that they devote their time for nothing or next to nothing but an expectation that their shares will be worth something one day. I found that to be brilliant. It has truly helped me to see the "ask" in a totally different light. Thanks, Gina!

Skill #4: Stay Focused on the Ask If you're talking with an investor for funding who's interested, be attentive and consistent. Set a schedule and expectations. Don't be afraid to ask what the next steps are. If there are deliverables (venture speak = if they expect you to provide further documentation or do something), then set a time when you will deliver on that request. And not next week or month, but in one, two or three days. If they need time to review your documents, ask them "Should I check back with you on Friday?" We all get very busy and the old adage "The squeaky wheel gets oiled first" is an enduring adage for a reason.

Skill #5: Believe in Yourself If you don't, how can you expect others to? And if you really do believe that what you are offering has value, and that you are the one to realize that value, then there will be many buyers. Not just one. After all, you are "offering an opportunity." People don't make money by hourly wages. They make money by putting the money they've made to work. And as we all know, the opportunities out there to make a lot of money from a small amount are limited and risky. You are the one holding the cards here. So don't push. Set objective, realistic time-lines for further discussion. But if the person is not being responsive, and it's not simply because of their busy work life/travel schedule, then take the hint. You don't want an investor who is investing in you because they made a promise or feel bad. You want investors who believe that what you have created is important or exciting. You want investors who bolster your own zeal. Don't sell yourself short by settling for any investor short of a really great advocate.

So, to sum it up, though more complex challenges may exist for a female entrepreneur in the fund-raising game, acknowledging that they do exist and facing them head on is a far better strategy than pretending they don't. Fund-raising is a skill and like any skill, there are those to whom it comes natural, and others of us that have a learning curve. Hopefully these tips provide the fodder for that curve.

I believe there is no better time to be raising funds as a female entrepreneur. Female entrepreneurship is a topic on a lot of people's minds and tongues, and groups are sprouting up all over to support and fund women lead businesses. Perhaps it's because the metrics from recent studies show how successful women run businesses have been. Perhaps it's because firms want to show they've evolved. Whatever the reason -- embrace it! And make the most of that perception!