"It's so Cute You're Doing a Startup!"

Photo Credit: Hank Randall, Brown University; L to R: Me, Sadie Kurzban, Morra Aarons-Mele, Vibha Pinglé, Sarah Carson
Photo Credit: Hank Randall, Brown University; L to R: Me, Sadie Kurzban, Morra Aarons-Mele, Vibha Pinglé, Sarah Carson

Is it hard being a woman entrepreneur? Is it hard getting funding? Is your venture really a ‘business’ or is it ‘just’ a lifestyle business? Given the stories finally coming out from the VC and tech worlds on what women have had to put up with, we know the answers to these questions.  So, when asked to moderate a panel of women entrepreneurs, I thought it was time to change the conversation.

The panel ranged from age 27 to 55, manufacturing to services, for and not-for-profit, and diverse backgrounds.  The discussion was lively, as one would expect from us women, with 3 main insights (yes, they’re based on a small self-selecting sample and are generalizations, but…):

1.  Women are agile entrepreneurs.

Putting issues of funding & access aside, do women approach entrepreneurship differently than men?  Yes! We are more willing to ask questions, which accelerates learning, which accelerates experimentation, testing, prototyping, which gets to answers faster, which results in faster adjustments and pivots based on customer needs.  Our egos are tied to the business’s success, not to being ‘right’, so we let go of assumptions when the data shows otherwise.  And, we marveled at how we get so much more ‘free advice’ (from men) then do our male peers.

2.     Balance is a variety of excesses.

Photo Credit: Hank Randall, Brown University; R to L - Morra Aarons-Mele, Vibha Pinglé, Sarah Carson
Photo Credit: Hank Randall, Brown University; R to L - Morra Aarons-Mele, Vibha Pinglé, Sarah Carson

A member of the audience shared this insight – what a great summation! We had a wide range in views on this topic.  Sarah Carson feels, “Striving for balance is striving for mediocrity.” Both she and Sadie Kurzban try to do a handful of things very well, forget the rest and manage the guilt (does that ring true!). Vibha Pinglé encourages integrating work and life to reduce the frequency of choosing.  On one occasion she had to take her young son with her to a meeting in South Africa and found him in a tree with the village children showing them his video game.  Not many kids get that kind of experience! Morra Aarons-Mele feels that the definition of balance is up to us, not to society. It’s our decision on how/when/why to scale our business and how to support and raise our family.

3.     It’s not the degree; it’s learning to learn. 

The world tells us the degree matters.  None of us have an MBA and yes, amazingly, we are all successful!  Our undergraduate degrees ranged from STEM to STEAM and while many of us didn’t or hadn’t directly used our area of concentration a lot since college, the process of architecting our own education and learning how to ask great questions, which was key to our undergraduate success, led to our success after college. 

Morra closed out the Q&A with a great piece of advice ~ live with a spirit of abundance.  We women, in general, tend to worry about not having enough – time, money, energy, etc.   But hey, it’s not about re-slicing an existing pie – it’s about making new and bigger pies and being proud of it!

Many thanks to the Pembroke Center for Teaching and Research on Women and the Jonathan M. Nelson Center for Entrepreneurship for sponsoring this panel and a personal special thank you to Danny Warshay for such an incredible introduction!

Photo Credit: Hank Randall, Brown University; L to R: Me, Sadie Kurzban, Morra Aarons-Mele, Vibha Pinglé, Sarah Carson
Photo Credit: Hank Randall, Brown University; L to R: Me, Sadie Kurzban, Morra Aarons-Mele, Vibha Pinglé, Sarah Carson

Every Business Is Social (Like it or not)

Mali HealthGiven the great comments on last week’s post and a Huffington Post article on the subject by Matt Murrie, I thought a follow-up was in order.   The comments centered on two themes:

  • Investment funding’s acceptance of “Social” as a viable type of business
  • Business Modeling – social vs. regular

Investment:

Venture capitalists have traditionally funded for-profit businesses with a strong focus on ROI – Return on Investment vs. ROIm – Return on Impact (ROIm will be a forthcoming blog post).  To most, the two ROIs are either incompatible or irrelevant.  Foundations and other philanthropies have traditionally funded non-profits with a strong focus on the ROIm.  Slowly investors are realizing this is an artificial distinction. 

  • No matter what your business, if it’s not having an impact on the customer in a way that delights the customer, you won’t need to worry for long – thank you Darwinism. 
  • The number of investors focused on maximizing both ROI and ROIis increasing.  For instance, FSG and New Profit come to mind, with returns some ‘regular’ VCs would love.  Accelerators for social enterprises are helping fledging ventures sustainably scale, such as the SE Greenhouse
  • The assumption that you have to be a non-profit to ‘do good’ is slowly becoming arcane.  While there are good reasons for some companies to remain non-profits, there is no reason that a socially-impact minded business cannot be for-profit.  The corporate designation B-Corp allows a company to blend doing well and doing good in a for-profit structure.  Examples include Method Products, Patagonia, Ben & Jerry’s and two of my favorites, Runa and Susty Party.

Business Model:

As an early adopter and co-creator of Alex Osterwalder’s Business Model Canvas (BMC), I use it the most.  A Social Business Model Canvas had been created specifically for social ventures, and there is a lot of value to looking at a business from this perspective.  The reason I prefer the BMC is its flexibility.  You can change the labels on the boxes and use colors to highlight differences. The BMC impels you to think about the sustainability of the business and the compelling value to the customer in a way traditional social businesses haven’t – as a real live business that has to compete for customers’ attention and resources just like everything else – including two of the biggest competitors – “Doing Nothing” and “Good Enough”.   Take a look at a canvas for Pencils of Promise.  Instead of Revenue, the box is labeled Outcomes & Outputs.  Outputs are things like revenue and profit. Outcomes are the difference you make for your customers – the real value you are delivering for them.  In the case of Pencils for Promise, both are important – if they are not having the impact they want – changing lives, educating kids, then what are they doing? Doesn't this also apply to any business - ultimately?

While the Social Business Model Canvas has a box for surplus – what you are doing with what’s left over, I posit that’s a question every company has to answer.  Any business hopefully has a surplus – at least eventually.  If some of that surplus is not reinvested in the company to support, enhance, add to their compelling value proposition, then the shareholders won’t be getting anything back either.  Perhaps a social business will choose to reinvest all of it’s surplus directly into the business while a for-profit may choose to give dividends, but that’s not a hard and fast rule for either type of company.  Reinvesting a surplus can be in all sorts of resources – equipment, material and perhaps most importantly, people. 

This is not an either/or issue – it’s an ‘and’.  Hopefully, over time, the distinctions between social and ‘regular’ businesses can fade, because I truly believe, any business of any sort that doesn’t focus on it’s impact on its customers, communities and the world, on it’s ROI eventually won’t have any ROI anyway.

 

Create Your Own Luck

You know how much I believe in serendipity & random collisions (a la Saul Kaplan!).  Meet Samir Rath (bio below).  I met Samir when he was in the 2nd cohort of the IE-Brown E-MBA while simultaneously investing and starting companies all over the world, including Chile, because, doesn't everyone? Read Samir's thoughts on serendipity, luck and entrepreneurship - and join in!

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Innovation is serendipity, so you don't know what people will make.- Tim Berners-Lee, Inventor of the World Wide Web.

How often do we hear our friends and family say “Oh! She is so lucky. She moves in the right circles”. Or “He is so lucky. He is always at the right place at the right time”. Beyond the tinge of jealousy that such messages communicate, also hides a subtle ring of despair. May people feel that no matter how hard they work or how capable they are, their spate of bad luck just keeps messing things up.

Luck is nothing but an attitude. Richard Wiseman, the author of “The Luck Factor: The Scientific Study of the Lucky Mind”, defines luck as the outcome of how we deal with chance and that some people are just much better at it. ‘Unlucky’ people tend to be very apprehensive of the future, uncomfortable with change and want to control their circumstances. They tend to have set pre-defined expectations of how a situation should play out, often leading to disappointment. This is inevitable given how bad we are at predicting the future. ‘Lucky’ people, on the other hand, embrace the randomness of life with open arms and accept that change is the only constant in the equation of life. Serendipity becomes a way of life, with happenstance encounters evolving into friendships and business relationships. The ‘lucky’ ones make it much more likely that they will stumble on incredible events and be at the right place at the right time with the right people. Sometimes things work out.

Todd Kashdan, a psychologist at George Mason University, observes that getting lucky gets much harder as we get older and wiser, not because the game of life has changed but rather because how we play the game has. We get wiser with age and armed with experience, we form very strong convictions on how the world works. This applies to companies too. AT&T, which traces its origins to original Bell Telephone Company, could not anticipate a change in behavior, blinded in part by its domain expertise in telecom infrastructure. A young startup, Whatsapp, figured out that we have changed the way we communicate and want to share images, video and audio media over the internet across multiple platforms. At the start of the year, Whatsapp had more than 450 million users, all built and supported with a team of just 32 engineers.

We will be engineering some serendipity for the launch of our forthcoming book No Startup Hipsters. With the common thread of building technology companies that focus on real problems, we will be connecting tens of thousands of entrepreneurs, investors and enablers. Each person would login through a social network and a twitter style 140 characters description of what they are working on. Curated profiles from across the globe will quickly zip by in a “hot or not” style and when both sides choose to connect - Boom!. So, come create some luck by signing up at ThunderClap and get the book for free too.

SAMIR RATH is a financial technology entrepreneur and angel investor working with technology startups globally from over 20 countries. He helped build the Asian operations of GETCO LLC, one of the worlds largest trading technology firms, listed on New York Stock Exchange today as KCG. He began his career as a Macroeconomist for the Monetary Authority of Singapore. He is the co-author of a forthcoming book titled "No Startup Hipsters - Build Scalable Technology Companies”. [www.nostartuphipsters.com]. Twitter: @Samir_Rath