As a female investor, I have often heard from other investors, “so do you invest in fashion?” I am actually an emerging tech venture builder and investor, meaning Serval, my company, focuses on enterprise AI, blockchain, mixed reality and lots of data technologies to build transformative products and startups. But this sort of gender-biased assumption doesn’t come from just men. I’ve often had women approach me to invest in lifestyle businesses, or founders focused on fashion asking me to advise or mentor them.
Advice 1: Do your homework about my company before approaching me, rather than reaching out mainly cause I’m one of the few visible women in the startup space.
Sometimes, I’ll take such meetings as a way to give back or to help women in general cause we still got a long ways to go. When I do, I will ask about their origin stories, the why behind their startups. What I hear often is that they want to build community, empower women or a certain group of, that they feel a particular problem is not being addressed for people like them. A lot of the time, too often, I’m not hearing details.
How is that community is going to be built? Just by buying your product? Really? Building communities is hard work that is complex and multi-faceted. I know cause I’ve worked on it in previous careers. You need to be clear about what the community is, what binds them together, how you will monetize that group in a mutually beneficial way.
What does it mean to empower others? Have you done it before and have the authority to be able to deliver? Is what you’re offering really empowerment, or just a marketing hook? Do your potential customers need the empowerment you are articulating, and is that a large enough number of people willing to pay? Hard questions I know, but if you are launching a business, you’d better to able to cogently articulate the answers.
The issue of whether you are really solving a problem that people are demanding to be solved, that should be solved is vital and universal, but something young founders seem to be not understanding. I have had potential founders sometimes be offended because I asked hard questions and challenged their assumptions. It’s not personal. It’s what’s necessary and should be expected if you are expecting investors and customers to give you their money.
Advice 2: As a businesswoman/man, you will be expected to answer tough questions crisply. If you are not ready for such challenges, you are not ready to launch a business.
Why a lifestyle startup? I think lifestyle businesses, while they seem easy cause many of us readily understand it, are some of the most difficult ventures to launch and scale. They tend to not have many proprietary opportunities to sufficiently differentiate your product or offering from competitors and protect your market position. They are often heavily reliant on expensive marketing and branding campaigns which large corporate players are already doing or could move into easily. And lifestyle products are called that for a reason. They are not necessities, but fall into the discretionary budget which greatly increases the potential that consumers may stop buying your product if there are other options whether better, cheaper, or trendier.
With more cutting edge technologies, there is just greater potential to outstrip competitors, shift quickly as you learn, do it all more cheaply, and then scale it faster and bigger. I would suggest anyone thinking about launching a lifestyle business explore if within the problem you are looking to solve, there is a fundamental (rather than nice to have) need you can address. Is there a way that a more technological solution might deliver a better solution, not purely for the sake of the tech, but because the tech allows for a much better product?
Advice 3: For a better competitive edge, think less lifestyle and more essential about the inherent nature of your product. And think more deeply about how embedding key technologies can offer a better solution on the market among your competitors.
I personally would love to see more women as cofounders of deep tech startups. For the women who I have met that have the mad skills to be tech founders, I have too often found them reticent to talk about their ideas, take longer to launch a version of their product, and be too slow to build their teams. These are the traits that make women successful on teams, but I think it holds women back to some extent as well. I’m not saying go against your well-honed intuition or nature. However, I challenge women to get more comfortable being uncomfortable. By talking with more people (the right people) sooner, by going faster, by gathering more people around you and be willing to manage more than doing it all, I believe women will be more successful and become more critical in changing the landscape of technology, of startups, of investments. In the startup world, speed and ability to scale vastly are important for serious struttin’-around success. I would so love to see more women struttin’.
Recently it’s come to light that women have historically been excluded from pharmaceutical studies, and as a result, the drugs on the market today affect half of all potential consumers in ways unforeseen. What a shame. Imagine how different the landscape of tech might be, how different artificial intelligence, mixed reality, blockchain, data applications, and insights will be when more women with their perspectives and experiences are cofounding and building the solutions that will be our future world.