Female Founders: Lauren Pufpaf of Feed Media Group On The Five Things You Need To Thrive and Succeed as a Woman Founder
An Interview With Candice Georgiadis
Tenacity — It will be about 10X harder than you think it will be. And that’s ok. Building a sellable product and then actually getting people to buy it is no easy task. We had several red herrings along the path to product market fit. You think you’re getting traction and seeing great signs from buyers, then they stop returning your calls. So you re-work your assumptions and get back to work.
As a part of our series about “Why We Need More Women Founders”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Lauren Pufpaf.
Lauren is Co-founder and President/COO of Feed Media Group (FMG). She’s been building businesses in the Bay Area for 20 years, and launched FMG to the world 7 years ago. Lauren believes in focusing on people growth as much as revenue growth and shares an intense obsession with music with her FMG team.
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?
When I packed up my car and moved to San Francisco, I had zero experience, but knew I wanted to work in marketing. Ad agencies felt like the best place to learn, as you touch so many business models. After several years soaking up the analytics and planning sides of digital marketing, I moved into startup growth. From building two-sided marketplaces to launching media brands, I got the opportunity to experiment and learn and always knew I wanted to build found a company and build a business. Eventually, the universe connected me to my cofounders and I knew I’d found the right partners to take the leap. It’s rare to be able to combine a personal passion (music) with the opportunity to build a sustainable business solving a real problem in the market.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
The reality of small businesses is that they can be a rollercoaster of ups and downs. I’ll cheat a little here and share two stories that illustrate the juxtaposition if that’s ok.
In 2017 when I was 6 months pregnant, we were facing an existential crisis. The bank balance was dangerously low, but we knew we needed to invest in the company. My co-founder brought in funding at the last minute and we changed the trajectory of the company (not a minute too soon).
On the flip side, we had the pleasure of bringing the whole company together in July 2021 in San Francisco to celebrate our biggest year of growth. At the end of the day, we were able to surprise every employee with a bonus.
I bring up both sides of the coin, as I think part of what makes the founder story so interesting is that you experience so many highs and lows and have to learn how to surf those waves.
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?
We all made many mistakes along the way! I’ve definitely had to learn how to pitch for funding effectively. There is this delicate dance between painting a broad, sweeping vision for the company and not over-reaching into hyperbole. That’s something I’ve learned across all my startup experiences (and am still working on) — the ability to envision big outcomes that are rooted in reality.
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’ve been fortunate to have a lot of different types of folks in my corner over the years. One that stands out is a mentor who ended up connecting me to my co-founders. She’s a successful operator-turned-VC that is there any time I need her. She also provides great inspiration for what success balanced with family can look like.
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?
There are a lot of layers here and the roots of the problem go deep and wide. A few reasons jump out to me, however, based on my own experience.
It’s proven to be harder for women to secure funding. In fact, only 2% of VC funding goes to founding teams comprised of ONLY women, and 16% goes to teams of mixed gender. That means 82% of funding goes to teams comprised only of men.
And, to add to the challenges, deal sizes for females are typically less than half the size of male-founded companies. Part of the challenge here comes from the fact that women have traditionally lacked business networks that rival those of men. Then, of course, there is the fact that less than 5% of VCs are women.
So, funding is certainly an issue, but there are other societal factors as well, including the general lack of affordable childcare and the fact that women pick up more of the slack there. Women’s careers were disproportionately impacted by COVID, for example.
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?
Efforts to diversify the makeup of Venture Capital teams are certainly important. I’m so impressed with the work that All Raise is doing to “amplify female and non-binary voices, accelerate their success, and create a tech culture where women and non-binary voices are leading, shaping, and funding the future.” In terms of government impact, it has been proven many times that childcare subsidies significantly increase labor force participation among mothers.
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?
One huge advantage of being an entrepreneur is that you’re charting your own course and really have control over the decisions you make, which is very rewarding.
It’s an incredible challenge and an incredible growth experience to found a company. Robyn Ward of Founder Forward has said that building a business is as much a personal growth journey as it is a revenue growth journey, which I completely agree with.
Additionally, the way women approach challenges in the workplace and the problems we are trying to solve with our businesses is often quite unique. We have a different perspective and everyone benefits from a diversity of ideas and approaches.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a founder? Can you explain what you mean?
I’ve often heard talk of overnight successes and Silicon Valley darlings that suddenly scaled their businesses and sold or IPO’d. In my experience, there are no overnight successes — it takes time to figure out product market fit and then figure out how to scale. 7–10 years is a reasonable timeframe to plan around for some kind of liquidity event.
There also used to be a perception that you had to be young and could not have a family to be a founder. I wholeheartedly disagree with that and, if you find the right partners that also prioritize balance, you can build a business and a family at the same time.
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?
You definitely have to be committed to learning. At each stage of growth, the founder has to acquire and leverage different skills. Pounding the pavement to do sales calls is required in the early days, but figuring out how to keep multiple fast-moving teams aligned is more important as you grow. I think you have to be excited about that challenge if you are going to make the leap as a founder.
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.)
5 Things you Need to Thrive and Succeed as a Woman Founder:
- Tenacity — It will be about 10X harder than you think it will be. And that’s ok. Building a sellable product and then actually getting people to buy it is no easy task. We had several red herrings along the path to product market fit. You think you’re getting traction and seeing great signs from buyers, then they stop returning your calls. So you re-work your assumptions and get back to work.
- Realistic Optimism — There is a difference between believing you will succeed and believing you will succeed easily. You absolutely have to believe to your very core that you can figure this out. And, you also have to know that hard work, planning, operational excellence and the previously mentioned tenacity will be necessary to get there.
- Great Personal Support Team — No matter your family/domestic/living situation, you are signing up to spend A LOT of time on your business moving forward. So, whether it’s friends that understand you can’t do happy hour this week, a partner that gives you some leeway with the kids, or siblings that can pick up some slack for you, having a support team that is excited about what you are building is crucial.
- Rock Solid Business Partners — Assuming you are working with co-founders to bring this dream to reality, you will be spending a lot of time with them and some of it will be very stressful. It’s obviously important to make sure they’re highly skilled in their domain, but it’s actually MORE important to make sure you aligned on both values and outcomes for the company. I’m fortunate to have two male co-founders who I truly enjoy as human beings. We’ve been on this rollercoaster ride together for several years now and I know without a doubt that they will have my back every time.
- A Sense of Humor — While the day to day challenges you face will feel very serious, it’s imperative to bring along a sense of fun and playfulness for the journey. Humor boosts morale and often pulls you up out of the depths of a challenge to get some perspective. Since it’s a marathon not a sprint, you might as well have fun along the way.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
It starts with your own company and the environment and culture you create.
I take employee experience very seriously and, in fact, one of our strategic pillars is to “create an environment in which every employee learns and thrives”. We want to help people learn, do more, and consistently grow so that we can positively impact their entire careers.
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.
Equal power and equal opportunities for education, financial independence, and personal growth would change the world. Educated women have fewer, healthier, and better education children and the impact is carried on to the next generation.
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 sit down to lunch with Tara Brach. She is a spiritual teacher with a really special, calm presence and I think I could learn so much from her.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.