“I saw a problem and wanted to solve it.” “I didn’t realize I was starting a company; I looked at it like I was working on a project.” “I didn’t want to work for anyone else.”
Whatever the motivation, all five of the panelists on our January “Young Women Entrepreneur| Unbroken” panel have become successful entrepreneurs. Unlike the normal set up of VLab events, this one featured five entrepreneurs under the age of 30. Fran Meier, founder and chair of TRUSTe, and moderator of the event led a lively interview-style, interactive discussion between the panel and audience.
“More businesses are started by women than men.” Fran Meier
Brienne Ghafourifar started Entefy, a communications startup harmonizing the world of interaction into one interface, with her brother Alston. At age 17, she became the youngest college graduate to raise $1 million in seed funding for her start up. At just 29, Lisa Falzone has built a sophisticated iPad point of sale system through her company, Revel Systems. By competing in hackathons to do A/B testing, Alex Meliones and her company Bitwall (co-founded with her brother Nic) had their first product, customer and investor within a 24 hour period. Their product focuses on a micropayment for digital subscribers. Nanxi Liu founded her first biotechnology focused company while in college at UC Berkeley. Now, with 4 other co-founders, she has founded Enplug, a software based startup allowing businesses to download and customize apps that customers can interact with. Yunha Kim and her co-founders realized that there must be something other than just looking at a blank screen when their phones were not in use. From that thought, an idea was formed, and Locket was born.
“Media makes you want to believe you can’t start a company without knowing how to code. But, lots of great entrepreneurs don’t know how to code.” Lisa Falzone
Even though all five of these companies are software or web based, a poll of the panel showed that only a couple had any prior background in coding. Instead they found ways to compensate. Alex shared how her co-founder brother encouraged her to improve her coding skills. While Nanxi did have a background in coding, she shared that it is important to have someone on the team with strong coding skills, preferably a co-founder.
Each of the five panelists also stressed the importance of having co-founders, in general. More importantly, you should have co-founders who you trust and can be transparent with, co-founders who are complementary and can empower you. After all, as Nanxi pointed out, her plan is to have her company reach that billion dollar mark and more. Only 17 companies hit the billion dollar mark in 2014, and the average time it took to get there was 9 years. She’s in it for the marathon, not just the sprint. For her first start up, Nanxi, found someone with a similar passion as her at a bar, and was able to form that connected passion into a company. Brienne and Alex found co-founders in their brothers. Lisa found her co-founder through an inspirational blog she started, while Yunha’s best friend growing up was her co-founder.
So how does being a woman affect the funding process? How can parents or educators lead their students on the path to becoming entrepreneurs? How was company culture cultivated? What were the panelists’ biggest obstacles? Look below for answers to these questions and more. With so many great questions, and only one and a half hours, many questions were left unanswered. Look for Part 2 of this blog, with answers to post-event interview questions in the upcoming weeks. Still have more questions? Well you can always rent Fran Meier’s couch on AirBnB and she will be more than happy to give you advice.
How was the funding process? Challenges and learning experiences?
Brienne: It was hard, but mostly fun. You get a check, but really, it’s an “I believe in you” slip of paper. It comes down to the people who support you whether you are young or a woman or a man. Those are the people you owe it to.
Yunha: The first investors were men. Tyra Banks was a huge sponsor as well. As Tyra Banks is a huge supporter of women entrepreneurship, it does bring reason to question whether she invested in Locket because I am a woman.
Lisa: Revel has had three rounds of funding. It is really helpful to get other people in the industry to promote you before hand. By having people build you up as a CEO, you get a bidding war started to get funding.
Is it an advantage or disadvantage to being a woman during the funding process?
Brienne: It’s both. It’s a matter of perspective. Knowing your strengths and what you are doing for the world is more important. Being a woman can be positive in the sense that you can build a strong network. However, on the negative side, there are many biases working against you, for example, age, gender, and race.
Alex: Anyone who has put me down has only made me stronger in the sense that I wants to prove them wrong.
Nanxi: There are so many resources out there to help with the process
Lisa: It’s a disadvantage, but I’m not a man so I don’t know what disadvantages exactly. One possible disadvantage is that when companies go to raise money, investors like to invest in people like themselves and those who have already had successful companies. Only 4 percent of investors are women, so because of that, there is already a spoken or unspoken bias against women.
Nanxi: Investors are immediately drawn to male founders, so women have less time to make an impression then their male co-founders
You can anticipate a lot of things. But what has surprised you. It can be something good or bad that you didn’t know.
Nanxi: HR. I took it for granted. Up to 20 employees, I was sending out checks personally. Figuring out the HR process was important for legal reasons as well. It is important to have someone hired specifically for HR or have the process outsourced like we do. The cost attached to HR is huge.
Lisa: I thought creating or selling the product would be hard, or getting funding. But building the team has been the hardest aspect. It is the most important but most challenging.
Yunha: (Agreeing with Lisa) Sustaining morale and having employees come in excited is important. I didn’t think about culture, but after 6 months, realized how important it is.
Lisa: Revel grew from 30 to 100 people rapidly. I didn’t realize how big and critical culture was, in addition to defining fundamental values for the company. It is important to define the culture and put it into structure, and to make sure it is promoted throughout the company.
Nanxi: Enplug found culture organically. For a year and a half, 13 members of the team lived in a house in Bel Air, and all 20 members worked there. As the team grew, the team moved to an office space, but the culture had already been built and lifestyle was shared.
What are some obstacles you have faced?
Lisa: Every day has like 50 obstacles to overcome. There are lots of challenges in everything when you are building something out of nothing. I am challenged every day. It’s exciting but scary. When creating innovative products, you don’t know what will happen, but that is part of the thrill.
Yunha: I faced an obstacle when Locket grew to 15 from 3 in a month and a half. I realized that we would need to pivot projects, so we had laid off half the team. It was very hard to do that.
Layoffs are hard, but firing is even harder.
Nanxi: The first person we fired was 1 year into forming the company. We googled how to fire someone and read on ehow.com how to do it. We made a huge over the top deal about it, choosing a public space to avoid confrontation. But we were surprised at how well people take it. They understand and probably saw the firing coming.
Lisa: If you hire and manage correctly, then it shouldn’t be a problem, but if don’t, then it is a problem.
How do you keep a work life balance?
Alex: It’s different for each person. It is important to cultivate passions outside so it becomes easy to tackle work on Monday.
Brienne: If you play life like a game, you aren’t working a day in your life. Quoting my friend, “If you love what you do, then it’s not like work and you enjoy it.” So there is no loss of balance.
Lisa: If you look at work like an adventure, then you don’t need balance. Why have balance when you are on an adventure.
Nanxi: If I had kids, I would need work life balance, but for now, I don’t need it.
Yunha: We need more of work life integration not balance.
So then, how much do you sleep?
Alex: Like 3 hours of sleep, then 3 hours of work.
Lisa: I get stressed, so I don’t sleep that much.
Brienne: It’s impossible to shut off.
What do you use instead of sports metaphors, or more specifically, football metaphors?
Lisa: I use sports metaphors, more specifically swimming metaphors. Compare to 90s Olympics races.
Brienne: I use soccer metaphors and compare scenarios to World Cups
Alex: I use comparisons to superpowers and superheroes. (Avengers)
What is your role as CEO?
Lisa: As CEO, you are the biggest sales person. I met my first investor in a coffee shop.
Alex: As CEO, you wear a hat in all different departments. It is important to talk to everyone.
Nanxi: As CEO, selling the company is important. I would sit in the middle seat of airplanes to talk to people. Maybe 50 percent will respond and one will become an investor.
Brienne: Networking is important, especially in the Silicon Valley. It doesn’t start from an investor, it could start from a bank or friend or vendor. If they love what you are doing, they will help.
What do you do if you don’t code?
Nanxi: The hard part is building a sustainable business model and having people pay for it.
Alex: It’s not just building, convincing people to pay for it is an even bigger challenge.
When women founders are asked a question, the questions almost always start “As a woman…” How does that make you feel?
Alex: Being a founder is isolating, but when they phrase questions like that, it feels more isolating.
Lisa: I never thought of myself as any different than a guy.
Women have had a bad reputation of not helping each other in the past.
Nanxi: I have heard that, but Enplug takes active steps to help women entrepreneurs. At Enplug, the CEO, CT and Head of Sales are all female. Enplug hosts a women summit in Los Angeles ever quarter. Being proactive is the only way to change this perception.
Lisa: It is important to not see other women as competitors. Instead, we should help others; women and men should not be judged differently.
What would we have to do as freshmen or sophomore women in high school? What should we be doing as family or even as the girls to get on this path?
Alex: Ask people for help. That’s the hardest part, but the most enriching part
Nanxi: My sister was passionate about the environment. I told her to write a two page business plan to start a garden in the school, and helped her obtain a sponsorship from the bank, and she was able to get the garden started. In the meanwhile, I spoke with the school principal in the background to help get approvals.
Lisa: Just do it, just start, start selling. Start selling a product even before it is created.
Yunha: Coding classes, demystify coding for students.
Our panelists inspired us with their discipline, hard work, wisdom and youth. Stay tuned for Part II of the Q and A from Young Women Entrepreneurs…
Fran Maier, Founder, TRUSTe
Brienne Ghafourifar, Co-Founder, Entefy
Lisa Falzone, CEO, Revel
Alex Meliones, Co-Founder & Chief Creative and Marketing, BitWall
Nanxi Liu, Co-Founder and CEO, Enplug
Yunha Kim, Co-Founder and CEO, Locket
Be sure to check out our upcoming events…
Written by Dipti Kanthilal, VLAB Marketing Committee Blogger. Dipti is a National Science Foundation GK-12 Fellow at Santa Clara University.