CrunchBase data on US funded startups shows that in 2014, only 18 percent – about 1 in 5 – had at least one female founder. It’s a gain over 2009, when that number was only 9.5 percent – but there is still a lot of room for improvement.
I know this firsthand. I was one of 30 female founders in a batch of 300 founders earlier this year at Y Combinator. And I’m frequently asked, “Why aren’t there more female startup founders?”
It’s an important question with many answers — from access to capital and support networks to the challenges of family commitments that increase the risk factor when launching a startup. All of these reasons ring true, but for me, it ultimately comes down to one thing.
We don’t have more female founders because, although women start more companies than men, they don’t create more startups. According to Venture for America, in 2012, while women started twice as many businesses as men, 88 percent of them were sole proprietorships that didn’t have employees. There is a clear difference between starting a solo businesses and starting a fast-growing, high-impact startup. And if more women don’t take the leap into these higher-risk ventures, we’ll continue to see few of the them at the helm.
Both men and women are guilty of stalling when it comes to building a company, because we all get stuck planning perfection. But research shows that women are more affected by this. For example, women will wait to have 10 of 10 qualifications before applying for a job, while men feel they only need six. Some experts have referred to this dynamic as the Confidence Gap – that often women lack the self-assurance of their male counterparts, even though they are just as capable and qualified (often more so).
It’s beyond a shame — it’s a tragedy. I know many brilliant, ambitious, visionary women who are seeing bold solutions to big, complex problems in ways that others haven’t or can’t. I believe so deeply that the best companies are born from people trying to fix pain they personally live through each day.
But we need to find a way for these bold ideas to get into the world faster and in greater numbers.
I understand the appeal of having an idea remain pristine and perfect in my mind, always alive as a possibility. But having gone forward with my own startup idea twice now, I can also tell you that there is nothing like having it live out there in the world — to see something living because you put it there. It’s very much like being a parent — all that pride and wonder wrapped up in the worry and fear.
So I want to help others, and women in particular, remove some of the barriers to getting started and find a way to quickly figure out if you have a contender or not.
It took two years for me to launch my first venture, which ended up better suited as a small business than a high-growth startup. By the time I realized I really wanted to build a high-growth, high-impact startup, I had run through my personal funds and more importantly, the time I had allocated for myself.
But I was curious – really, obsessed – about the problems plaguing childcare. I wanted to see if my simple idea of connecting parents with pre-screened caregivers was compelling in a crowded arena of contestants. So with both time and money running short, I devised a simple, four-week test, and using the $180 I had left in my bank account, I set off with the goal of finding 100 paying customers. The result was Poppy.
I realized that this simple trick of challenging myself to do a four-week test with a minimal amount of money was immensely powerful in showing me I had a viable startup idea. Why?
- Calling it a test made it feel less daunting to me and gave me an easy out if it was an utter disaster.
- Committing only four weeks made me treat each day with urgency because I only had 28 of them to prove that my idea could become a viable business.
- Using less than $200 made me scrappy and forced me to find solutions I hadn’t thought about before.
- Seeking just 100 paying customers (and just four that first week) made me focus on a goal that seemed within reach. It kept my gaze down on the path in front of me rather than up towards that nebulous future.
- Most importantly, hitting 40-50 percent weekly growth in those early days proved that this could be a real startup — and laid the groundwork to later raise capital.
Eighteen months later, having grown bookings 50x since that first week and raised venture funding, I now realize how important this test was. It set my company on a course that is scrappy and focused on growth that delivers value.
If you think you may have a great idea but have been stalling when it comes to taking that first step, here’s my advice:
1. First, let’s stop talking about everything in terms of a launch. Let’s call it a test. Then start thinking about all of the things you want to learn from this test, what experiments you’re going to use to learn, and what metrics you’ll use so you know what the result is.
2. Next, let’s give it the resource constraints of four weeks and $200. Resource constraints are one of the only true constants of startup. Beginning with this mindset will keep you on your toes and scrappy. Plan out each of the four weeks deliberately with what you want to learn and accomplish. Print out a calendar. Write your goals in the margins.
Most of you will need a website and some mechanism of showing your product, getting feedback, and getting paid. There are so many affordable, accessible resources out there now, but to keep it simple and get started, check out SquareSpace and Typeform. Both of these integrate with Stripe so you can collect payment as a storefront or through short links. In any case, you should be able to get the most basic version of what you’re trying to do within that $200 budget. If there is expensive inventory, think about ways to approximate some of that in the beginning.
3. And, lastly, give yourself a tangible goal — to reach 25 paying customers. While my original goal was to hit 100 paying customers, that is very aggressive in just four weeks, and I was selling a relatively low-cost service. So to begin with, aim for 25, with a 30 percent weekly growth goal. So if you start with 10 paying customers in week 1, then you need 13 in Week 2, 17 in Week 3, 22 in Week 4. It keeps things manageable, concrete, and actionable. And once you’ve got 25 and you’re in the cadence of seeking weekly growth, the path to 100 customers will become more visible.
I know firsthand that it’s so much harder than this makes it sound. I know what the bar is to be funded by top VCs and to build a startup that can turn into a sustainable company, and how hard that is as a mother of two young kids and in a two-career marriage. There are many barriers to getting started — a full time job, a family, thinking you don’t have the resources. But I can tell you, each of those barriers can be overcome for four weeks if you want it badly enough.
At the end of the four weeks, you’ll be over that initial barrier of starting. You’ll figure out if your idea represents something people really need in their lives, or if it is something that was great in theory but not so much in practice. Regardless, you’ll learn a great deal, and that’s the real point.
If there is any lesson to be salvaged from this election cycle, it’s this: It is women’s time to be big and bold and brave.
So I challenge you to commit to four weeks — think big but start small.
You have little to lose and everything to learn.
I’d love to connect with you and help you out if you do decide to take the plunge. So if you want to tell me about and commit to your own four-week test, go to fourweektest.com.