5 pieces of advice from flourishing female founders

That have nothing to do with gender.

At Fluxx, we help large businesses behave more like start-ups. So it makes sense for us to stay in-touch with the start-up community. This weekend I attended the third annual ‘Women Entrepreneurs’ Day’ hosted by SheerLuxe.com. The sell-out event is designed for women who want to start or have recently started their own business, to network and hear from a line-up of successful female entrepreneurs.

I’m not usually one for gender driven events, however research shows that in 2016 only 9% of UK VC investment went into female founded start-ups. This is miserably low. So whatever we can do to encourage more women to start a business is good in my book.

The founders’ businesses and backgrounds were diverse, but there were key themes that rang true across most of them (and, unsurprisingly, had nothing to do with gender). Here’s what they had to say.

1. Don’t invest money until you have a proof of concept

A proof of concept is when you have real evidence that consumers want to buy your product or service.

Nina Cheng explained it as the ‘bread crumb’ approach. Put a crumb out, see if someone bites, and then put some more out.

Nina started life as an investment banker, and after several failed attempts at trying to start her own business on the side (and spending tens of thousands in the process) she unexpectedly found her fortune making phone cases.

During one particularly cold winter in New York, Nina wrapped her iPhone in fur to help keep her hands warm. She visited a bar that evening where she was bombarded with questions from revellers asking where she’d bought it. She even ended up selling it to one particularly eager punter who wanted it for a birthday gift. And voila, like that, she had her proof of concept.

She now sells these hairy phone cases for between $300-$500 a pop. Yes, really.

IG: wildandwoolly

Of course, a proof of concept is not always going to appear unexpectedly. The point is to avoid spending time and money on an idea until you have hard evidence that people desire it. Nina found this out the hard way, wasting thousands on jewellery moulds, inventory, websites, developers and materials for ideas that had no evidence of value.

These days there are so many ways to quickly and cheaply create prototypes of products or services and get them in-front of customers to test their reaction. For example, 3D printing is really cheap (Nina spent just $20 on her first CAD model prototype through Fiverr) and you can build temporary websites and post adverts on social media swiftly and at little cost.

At Fluxx we use a variety of tools and experiments to validate ideas in the cheapest possible way. You can read about some of them here https://medium.com/fluxx-studio-notes/weve-been-running-business-experiments-since-2011-and-this-is-what-we-ve-learned-9639b6c9db5f

2. Don’t overthink

This was a big theme throughout the day and was summarised nicely by Natasha Courtenay-Smith, author of the Million Dollar Blog, who said

“Don’t spend so long getting ready that you miss your own party”.

So many businesses (big and small) can get stuck in ‘pre-launch’ mode, driven by a fear of not having everything completely finished, thought-through or signed-off. Nothing is ever 100% finished. By delaying the launch of your product or service you’re losing valuable feedback and learning that could significantly improve your product or strategy. Or in the worst-case scenario (which I’ve seen happen) the market moves on and your product is completely redundant.

Successful start-ups are resourceful, move fast and spend money incrementally. Big businesses can do this too, but as founder of Sheerluxe.com Georgie Coleridge Cole said

‘When you have money, it’s easy to spend it on nonsense’.

Or as I think of it, it’s easy to spend OTHER people’s money on nonsense.

When you’ve got a proof of concept, it can be tempting to spend time and money developing forecasts, risk radars, omni-channel marketing strategies and experts to run all of this. But the bread crumb approach is still valid at this stage, invest incrementally and try to avoid spending on fixed overheads while you’re still in the early stages of learning and adapting. This can be an ideal time to employ part-time and/or fixed contract people so you can get the breadth of expertise you need with lower risk.

3. Don’t get distracted by the tech-hype

There’s a lot of attention on the successful digital and tech start-up ‘unicorns’. These make for very exciting reading, but that’s because they are the exception and not the rule (unless you live on a unicorn farm).

Not everything needs to have an app. And not every service needs a chat-bot. In fact, there is a lot of opportunity in the non-digital space that is getting less media attention.

Physical experiences tend to be more memorable and in a ‘digital-first’ world you can set yourself apart. I had the fortune of meeting a lovely lady during lunch who, after asking her what she did for a living, pulled out a little box from her bag and popped it in my hand.

Want to know more about these? Visit www.tvinacard.com

The box opened to play a 2-minute video with music and a perfume sample. It was impressive and drew a lot of interest from those around us. Yes it’s a bit of a gimmick, but it stuck in my memory.

If you don’t think this applies to service led propositions, think again. Fluxx worked with LV= to develop new ideas to engage consumers with their pension advice service. A lot of the ideas were digitally based, but the one that engaged consumers the most was a pop-up stand offering ten-minute advice sessions, tea and cake. LV= launched the ‘Pop-Up Pension Coach’ shortly after and won ‘Best New Product 2017’ by the UK Financial Services Experience Awards.

4. Don’t forget it’s called social media for a reason. Be social.

Needless to say, engaging with consumers online is still a priority for most businesses and getting digital marketing right is critical. However some organisations have jumped on the social bandwagon, assuming regular posts will lead to followers or viral success. There was a talk on the ‘A-Z of Digital Marketing’ which gave great advice in this area, but what stuck in my mind more was a conversation I had with Anna Shearer during one of the breaks.

Anna told me she had just left her role in marketing to become a full-time fashion & beauty blogger. I admit, I initially questioned if this was a good move, but after adding her on Instagram I found I was joining a following of over 90,000 other people. To put this in context, if we all met up for a beer we’d need to hire Wembley Stadium.

When I asked Anna how she got to this number, she simply said ‘I’m social’. She reminded me that Facebook and Instagram were built for people, not brands, and she invests a lot of time talking to her followers, liking and commenting on their photos and building relationships.

This approach won’t work for every business obviously — I’d be a little creeped out if my bank started commenting on my Instagram Stories. But there’s a huge opportunity to better use these platforms to get real-time feedback and insight from customers on topics that are important to them (and relevant to your product or service). It’s got to beat banner advertising at least, right?

5. Honour thy customer

When a start-up receives money for their product, they see it as a real honour. But what’s even more important is feedback — which they’ll treat like gold-dust.

Take Michelle Kennedy, who recently launched a tinder-style app for mums called Peanut.

Like dating apps, Peanut uses a swiping mechanism to connect potential friends with shared interests. This may include things like what languages they speak, if they work full-time, the age of their children and more.

The idea may sound odd at first, but as the previous Director of Bumble and Badoo, she knows a thing or two about social apps.

Despite being a new mum herself, Michelle spent months speaking to and understanding all types of mothers to uncover their hidden needs and desires. As she neatly put it:

‘You can’t build a business just for yourself, that’s a bit of a luxury’.

In fact, Michelle found that by co-designing her product with potential customers she was creating natural ambassadors for her brand, who would go on to passionately seed the product into their wider network — for free.

And some final thoughts from yours truly…

As I said before, these approaches have nothing to do with gender. So why is so little investment reaching female entrepreneurs?

Certainly more women need to step up, and events such as this are helpful — 83% of women who started their own business knew someone who had.

But it’s also important to identify any biases that could be influencing assessment criteria. During our recent scout of UK start-ups for News UK we were keen to encourage all shapes and sizes to apply, and were pleased to see that over 20% of applications came from women.

But this still isn’t enough. So if you’re still sitting on your business idea wondering what to do next, why not attend an entrepreneurs event, or better yet, apply for a place on a start-up incubator — you never know, it might just work.

For more articles like this, follow Fluxx on Medium. And if you’d like to share your thoughts on interesting start-ups, incubators or anything cool, please email me at charlotte.schofield@fluxx.uk.com.