Female Founders: Amy Nesheim Of Artful Contracts On The Five Things You Need to Thrive and Succeed as a Woman Founder
An Interview With Candice Georgiadis
It’s going to take longer than you think (and that’s okay). Part of the special sauce of being a founder is an innate sense of believing in the vision you’re bringing to life. That optimism and the pervasive stories of overnight success make it easy to be unrealistic when it comes to timelines and goals for your business. If it’s taking longer than you thought to get started, don’t give up.
As a part of our series about “Why We Need More Women Founders”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Amy Nesheim.
Amy Nesheim is a corporate lawyer turned online entrepreneur and founder of Artful Contracts. She started Artful Contracts because she believes that all business owners, no matter the size of the business or how successful, should have access to high-quality legal resources without going into debt over massive legal fees. She’s on a mission to make the legal aspects of online business accessible to everyone, so entrepreneurs can grow their businesses faster and with more confidence.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
I became a lawyer because I wanted to help people. At the end of college, I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to do yet, but I knew I wanted to be in a position to change things for the better. I thought getting a law degree would give me the leverage to do that. But after law school, I ended up in a small local law firm working with real estate developers and other local small businesses.
I quickly realized that the traditional legal model worked well for established business owners, but so many more businesses were falling through the cracks. Most of the businesses I helped with contracts had been using something they had put together themselves for years because it was too expensive to come in during their startup phase.
Right now, the law is not designed to be accessible. Our legal system is slow to evolve, slow to change, and that means lawyers are out of touch with modern business owners. The only way to access legal knowledge is to walk into a fancy, intimidating lobby, make a sit-down, in-person appointment with a grey-haired man who won’t take your plans seriously, and drain your wallet trying to explain your online business to someone who refuses to use email.
Many people, especially women, would rather avoid that whole process entirely, which leaves them open to huge legal risks. In my entire time at that law firm, I only worked with one female business owner. Every other client was male, white, and over 50.
The traditional legal model didn’t allow me to help people in the way I had always wanted, so I decided to meet online business owners where they’re at by lowering the barrier to entry. This includes providing legal education in their environment, making it easy to actually figure out what they need, and making it inexpensive to protect their businesses so they can get started with confidence.
If my business helps one person who never would have been able to afford $300+ per hour legal fees or never wanted to step foot into that fancy lobby, I’ve done my job. And if I can begin to change the way the legal industry functions entirely, even better.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
In the comments section of one of my advertisements on social media, a man accused me of using my looks to sell legal products. The photo accompanying the ad was a headshot of me smiling, wearing a crew-neck top — no skin showing, nothing risqué about it. This of course sparked a fierce debate in the comments with many women coming to my defense and calling this man a pig. I decided that internet trolls are just a sign that I’ve actually made it.
This experience highlighted for me the types of struggles that women still face as business owners that men just don’t have to deal with. As a young lawyer, I had to be hyper-aware of the clothes I wore to the office so that my male clients would take me seriously, and they still made remarks about my age and qualifications because I didn’t look like a “lawyer” to them. The same is true when a female founder applies for a business loan or VC funding. And as much as we try, this perception issue isn’t going to be solved by wearing dark colors or fancy suits.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
I make mistakes all the time. As a business owner, many of those mistakes are very visible — broken links, wrong dates/times for events, uploading the wrong version of a video, etc. I think the biggest lesson I’ve learned is that while some people will always tear you down for it, for the most part, people are kind and forgiving. They understand that founders are people too and mistakes happen. Every time I make a mistake, I receive a polite message pointing it out, saying “I’d like to know if it was me” or “Was this intentional?” Mistakes are a part of life, and the bigger goals you set, the bigger mistakes you’ll make. But there will always be kind people to support you and forgive you for it.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
I am so grateful to my parents. I quit my job and started this business with no backup plan. I could tell they didn’t understand what I was doing at all at first, but they always supported me. They couldn’t see my vision, but they trusted that I had one and had the ability to bring it to life. Feeling that support and faith gave me extra drive on the hard days. Now, my mom is my bookkeeper! Having someone who I trust to help bear the cognitive load of balancing the financial aspects of business has been such a weight off my shoulders.
Intentionally building community and asking for help from people with similar aspirations has also been vital to my success. I am part of a small group of female business owners in the online education space — we meet virtually every week to talk through issues we’re having in business, new projects and goals, and simply support each other in the highs and lows of building a business. Being part of a community of strong women who understand the challenges of being a female founder has been invaluable to me.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. According to this EY report, only about 20 percent of funded companies have women founders. This reflects great historical progress, but it also shows that more work still has to be done to empower women to create companies. In your opinion and experience what is currently holding back women from founding companies?
‘Entrepreneur’ isn’t one of the career paths that is presented to us as children in school. So much of education still centers around skills necessary to be a good employee, and that emphasis does not encourage entrepreneurship. For women, this effect is compounded because there are so few female founders for girls to look up to. It also comes down to belief in ourselves — in the same way that women don’t ask for raises, they don’t ask for funding. And that funding is in turn harder to get because investors don’t see many female entrepreneurs and end up undervaluing women-led businesses.
I think it’s also impossible to talk about the challenges or roadblocks female founders face without addressing the imbalance in home responsibilities that still exists. Being a founder requires dedication and sacrifice that many women aren’t in a position to make. Until we can create true balance in the expectations and burdens placed upon men and women at home, there will always be fewer female founders.
Can you help articulate a few things that can be done as individuals, as a society, or by the government, to help overcome those obstacles?
As women, we need to be cognizant of how traditional notions seep into our perceptions of what a founder should be. I got the same comments about my age and my looks from older female lawyers that I did from male clients. We need to be conscious of the way we talk about other women and use our words to empower each other. That includes the way we talk about our female neighbor’s “little side hustle” as opposed to our male cousin’s “new business venture.” Words and perceptions matter.
As consumers, we can support women-owned businesses and businesses that strive to remove the traditional barriers for women to advance.
This might be intuitive to you as a woman founder, but I think it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you share a few reasons why more women should become founders?
More women should become founders because it gives us the power to lift other people up. It may seem small, but the impact a founder can have on their own team is priceless to each of those individuals.
For my own company, I want to create a culture that always respects my team as human beings and the lives that we live outside the company. As a founder, I get to help my team live their lives in a way that is meaningful to them. That includes 6-hour workdays so they can be with their kids after school, lots of vacation and holiday time, and discouraging work outside the workday.
If there are more of us who value our team members as whole people instead of just for the work they can do in the office, we may be able to create a cultural shift that will alleviate some of the imbalance in higher positions that stem from women needing to care for the demands of home life.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a founder? Can you explain what you mean?
I think the myth that holds people back the most from becoming a founder is the idea that they don’t know enough, either about business or their own area of expertise. No founder knows everything when they’re getting started. A business degree doesn’t guarantee success. Neither does a high level of expertise in your field. The best way to learn is through experience, and the only way to get experience being a founder is to do it.
Is everyone cut out to be a founder? In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful founder and what type of person should perhaps seek a “regular job” as an employee? Can you explain what you mean?
I honestly don’t think everyone is cut out to be a founder, and that’s okay. Every founder needs a great team supporting and implementing their vision. A team is at its best when each team member is playing to their strengths. For a founder, those strengths are resilience, risk tolerance, and vision.
Founders are resilient. They see failure as a learning opportunity and a chance to try something new. The fact is, most businesses fail. A founder is someone who looks at that fact and finds it freeing rather than demoralizing because they know they have a few chances to get it right. If the first business plan doesn’t work out, that’s okay because most don’t, and they’ll just try again having learned a few things along the way.
Founders also need a very high tolerance for risk. Again, there’s no guarantee that any business plan will work out. Some people need the security of a steady paycheck or want to check out at the end of the workday. Founders prefer that instability, which they often see as a possibility, to the constraints of a “regular job”.
I also think the most successful founders have vision. They have a purpose and a passion that drives them to create their business. While that could be some bigger mission for changing the world, it could also be a vision for how they live their own life.
Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
- It’s going to take longer than you think (and that’s okay). Part of the special sauce of being a founder is an innate sense of believing in the vision you’re bringing to life. That optimism and the pervasive stories of overnight success make it easy to be unrealistic when it comes to timelines and goals for your business. If it’s taking longer than you thought to get started, don’t give up.
- There’s no such thing as failure, only learning opportunities. Successful founders look at what other people would consider failures as opportunities to find another path or improve upon what went wrong. Success comes from analyzing, finding the problem, and addressing it. Not from giving up and pivoting after every perceived failure. Even if the entire business model crashes and burns, you’ve still learned a lot from all the work you put in.
- You don’t have to do it alone. The saying “it’s lonely at the top” is never more true than with founders. The founder carries the vision, builds the culture, implements new ideas, develops products…all of it. Especially in this age of “solopreneurs,” it’s so easy to think you have to do everything yourself. It’s ingrained in us from a young age that only the product of our personal effort counts toward our success. But successful founders know this is a trap — they rely on people who have strengths they lack to round out their company and take their vision to even greater heights. Dan Sullivan’s book Who Not How explains this perfectly and really helped me shed the notion that I had to do it all myself.
- But at the same time, no one else is going to do it for you. The biggest learning curve stepping into the founder role is that suddenly, no one else is telling you what to do. There is no right way to start a company. And suddenly, there is no boss dictating priorities. I had to learn to be disciplined in only working on the things that would truly move the needle for my business and ignore the things that were more fun or interesting, or just related to vanity metrics rather than true growth.
- You can only grow what you can measure. I’m not the first person to say this and I won’t be the last. Business is a numbers game and knowing your numbers is the only way to make sure they’re growing on a consistent basis. This applies to action items as well as financial figures, and each member of the team should know the numbers they’re striving for on a daily or weekly basis.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
I founded my company with the mission of making the legal aspects of starting a business more accessible to everyone, so any success I have furthers that mission. I think creating more equitable access to legal knowledge is an integral part of empowering more women and other people who are not well-served by the traditional legal model to start their own businesses.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
In keeping with my mission, I would love to see a shift in the legal system to make it more accessible to everyone. Access to justice is a huge issue that has a reaching impact across all areas of society. In the business world, increasing access to legal resources would help more people who wouldn’t otherwise be able to start successful, sustainable businesses. In other areas, decreasing the burden of legal access would help people reach more equitable resolutions to tenant disputes, family matters, disability access, and other issues that disproportionately impact low-income populations.
We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.
I would love to meet Megan Hyatt Miller. She’s a successful CEO of a company that grew from one person and she still prioritizes her family and creates intentional margin in her life. She exemplifies the balance that I strive for in her personal life and in the company culture that she helped create.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this