10 pieces of advice for startups, from successful female founders


Chris Walters

Chris Walters

Blog author Chris Walters

Chris Walters writes for Policygenius, a digital insurance brokerage trying to make sense of insurance for consumers. He previously wrote for The Consumerist.

Published|5 min read

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Last week, a group of smart, successful female founders and CEOs gathered on the 15th floor of the New York Times building in NYC for "10 Things Every Female CEO Should Know," a panel organized by development consultancy Cyrus Innovation, along with co-sponsors Brand Foundry, Dev Bootcamp, New York Angels, and Bella Minds, as part of Cyrus's Female Founders program.

The panel moderator was Deborah A. Bussiere, former CMO of Ernst and Young and a "Corporate Refugee" who now advises startups, and over the next 90 minutes she asked the panelists to share some of their hard-won secrets to becoming successful entrepreneurs, so that other female entrepreneurs can help #changetheratio of women in the startup world.

Here's a list of some of the best advice for startups from the evening.

#1 Learn to "peacock"

Heidi Lehmann, Co-Founder SWSI Media, says to get the attention of investors you have to think of yourself as simply a great founder who's building a great company, and to do that, you have to learn to peacock. Men will accept praise regardless of their role in a project, whereas women will deflect it by saying, "Thanks, but it was really a team effort." Investors, to no one's surprise, respond better to the former.

#2 Don't get in your own way

Kegan Schouwenburg (Co-Founder and CEO, SOLS) says she initially felt uncomfortable having to negotiate an employment agreement for herself, until her lawyer pointed out that every male CEO he knew of had negotiated one. She adds that during the hiring process she often sees women undercutting themselves when it comes to compensation, and men being pushier and asking for more. Her point: "Don't get in your own way."

#3 Be honest about your strengths (and weaknesses)

Sara Potler LaHayne (Founder and CEO, Move This World) says you have to embrace the "vulnerability in leadership" and admit your shortcomings to yourself, so that you can then be honest with your mentors and advisors and get the help you need. "They're very eager to say, 'Look I've been through this challenge before,'" LaHayne says. "You don't have to reinvent the wheel every time."

#4 Don't be Gollum

Kathryn Minshew (Founder and CEO, The Muse) says to be careful about falling too in love with an idea. "I often think when you have an idea you end up like Gollum in Lord of the Rings," she said. "You sit in the corner and polish it. You don't really want anyone to see it because they might say it's ugly. And often it is ugly. But there's something in there, and you need enough people to look at it to know what that is."

#5 Be smart about the "test quickly, fail fast" approach

Schouwenburg confesses that her company was moving so fast last year that at one point they ended up with a 100% return rate. "And it took us about 4 weeks to get that feedback cycle, so by the time that we got that feedback we had 4 more weeks of 100% return rate that we'd shipped on top of that." Then she overcompensated by implementing such a rigorous QA process that this past February they didn't ship a single product. Find a happy middle ground and stick to it.

#6 Don't waste money on development if you can find a cheaper way

Jennifer Fitzgerald (Co-Founder and CEO, PolicyGenius) advises that you stick with low-fidelity prototypes if they're working for you, even if they're not pretty. "At first, my co-founder and I relied on Excel spreadsheets and PowerPoint presentations to test early versions of our quoting algorithm with users. They got the job done, they didn't cost us anything, and they were tools we already knew how to use from our days as consultants."

#7 You're the expert

Mary Kopczynski (Founder and CEO, 8of9) says it's easy to fall into the trap of waiting for someone else to anoint you an expert in your field. You're already an expert or you wouldn't be in this business, so be brave, step up, and say "Yes" the next time your PR person tells you about a new opportunity. Schouwenburg adds, "You find it getting easier, and then the bar gets higher, and you find yourself doing things that months ago you would have never imagined you could do."

#8 Watch out for the "credibility gap"

Minshew says not to pitch to investors too early in the life of your company, because it can be hard to shake first impressions. "Wait until you're ready to go in with the pitch and the personality that they'll be judging you on for the next 3 to 5 years of your life."

Fitzgerald agrees. "I think what happens when you're a female founder, even if you have a great vision, a great product, an MVP with good traction, is you still face a bit of a credibility gap, particularly with the bigger institutional guys. Once we switched tack and started pitching people with whom I didn't have a credibility gap—angels who knew me, McKinsey directors I worked with—we raised our seed round successfully."

#9 Use this simple test to tell if you're getting what you need from your developer

Cyrus' Chief Product Officer and panel organizer Tami Reiss suggests if you want to know whether you're getting what you need from your developers, you should be able to ask a question and get an answer like this: "I made this decision after I evaluated these other options, and this decision is the best one based on what you need as I understand it from our conversations."

#10 Finally, don't give up

A few hours before the panel started, Minshew announced that The Muse had just raised $10 million for its Series A round. But it took hard work and perseverance to reach that point, including a period where she attended networking events every night for the free food and paid her one employee from her personal bank account. She was also turned down by 148 investors in a row before anyone said yes. "When you reach 148," she jokes, "then we can talk."

Image: Nathan Dumlao

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