The November meeting of Women in Telecoms & Technology (WiTT), which was held at Google’s Campus facility in Tech City, celebrated women entrepreneurs in tech with a panel discussion among leading women who have founded businesses in the tech sector. Our women entrepreneurs event was timed to take place during Global Entrepreneurship Week, which runs from 18-24 November 2013.
Our fantastic line-up of panelists included:
- Clare Flynn Levy, Founder and CEO of Essentia Analytics;
- Cary Marsh, CEO and Founder, Mydeo.com; and
- Alicia Navarro, CEO and Co-founder of Skimlinks; winner of The Next Web’s Co-Founder of the Year 2013.
Audrey Mandela, WiTT Chair and co-founder of Multimap.com, chaired the panel.
Detailed bios of our panelists can be found here: WiTT November 2013 bios.
Here are some of the key lessons and tips from our panelists:
Becoming an entrepreneur
Being an entrepreneur is much harder than you could possibly imagine!! You will work harder, sleep less, and make less money than at any other time in your life. You must be passionate about your idea and certain that this is what you want to do.
A significant upside is being able to do things the way you want to. Clare Flynn Levy values the fact that with your own business, you don’t have to conform to anyone else’s ideals, or your imagined view of these ideals.
Be bold. In the very early days of Mydeo, one of Cary Marsh’s investors asked her to think about which company would be the best partner she could possibly have. Her response: Microsoft. But why would they deal with a start-up like hers? Cary picked up the phone anyway. The result: Mydeo became the first and only service to be fully integrated into Microsoft’s Windows Movie Maker software. Mydeo now provides high-quality streaming video hosting to over 250,000 individuals, communities and businesses around the world.
Cary took a similar step when thinking about who her perfect investor would be. In October 2007 Mydeo announced that Best Buy, the largest consumer electronics retailer in the U.S., had taken a minority equity stake in the business, and would use Mydeo’s platform for its own video sharing service.
The lesson: don’t think that because you are small you can’t approach major companies. Be bold, and make the connection.
Be brave enough to take big decisions. Alicia Navarro told the audience about a key point in the evolution of Skimlinks when she decided to ditch two years of development work to focus on only one part of her business in order to survive. That pivot proved a turning point for the company.
Don’t take NO for an answer. One of the panellists had applied for a research grant and been turned down. She redoubled her efforts, rewrote the application and the convinced the government panel to change its mind. She got the grant.
Be aware of and open to shifts in the market. Clare Flynn Levy originally rejected a free/freemium model because “it seemed wrong not to be charging for our services.” In fact this was exactly the right model to pursue, as has been proven many times by other businesses.
Similarly, if you find your business plan isn’t working, change it sooner rather than later. “Fail quickly” is the current jargon. It’s the agile entrepreneur who wins in the end.
Learn not to take rejections and failures personally.
Consider using an incubator to get specialist expert help fast, especially if you’re lacking experience in an area that will be important for your business.
Get to know your customers well, particularly your top customers — it keeps them loyal and you will get insights into how to develop your products and business from them.
Recruiting and people
Establishing a corporate culture is important and that comes from the founder. This gets harder once you grow to more than 50 employees.
Good people are hard to find, but it’s best not to rush into a hire or make compromises. One member of the audience quoted Richard Branson: “It’s better to have a hole in your team than an asshole in your team.”
The best way to find people is through referrals, although one of the entrepreneurs found her perfect CTO through LinkedIn. Her approach was to create a message that was written in her own personal style, rather than to post a job listing that looked like all the rest.
It’s also worth hiring interns. Skimlinks has had particular success with interns, many of whom have gone on to become full-time employees.
One of the best ways to retain people is to incentivize them in the business, by giving them share options through an EMI scheme. This is tax efficient and aligns everyone’s objectives. [This is a UK-specific method for distributing share options; for more information on EMI schemes, please see the Customs & Revenue guidance: http://www.hmrc.gov.uk/shareschemes/emi-new-guidance.htm
Raising money/dealing with investors
When you are looking for investment, focus on the terms and the investor rather than the valuation. Do you and the investor have similar views and goals? Try to ensure that the terms are not very onerous if things don’t go to plan; for example, avoid ratchets if at all possible. It’s better to go with a lower valuation and then do additional rounds, each at a higher valuation, than to try to do it all at once at a very high valuation.
Most investment rounds take about 20% of the company; the valuation is then a function of the amount of money you are able to raise.
It is in the nature of a small, high-growth, early-stage business that business plans will never be fully adhered to. But you will need to make sure that your investors understand this and continue to support you despite the changes you will have to make. Keep them involved and informed.
Promoting your business
A PR firm can be helpful, especially in the early stages of a business. Engagements with PR firms can range from full development and execution of your strategy and campaigns, to simply providing support with press releases and contacts. A key thing to remember, though, is that they cannot generate news for you.
More importantly, journalists do not want to be bombarded with information that is not news — they’re much too busy. Be sure you have something significant to announce.
Awards, nominations, new services and partnerships are generally newsworthy. In fact, Alicia Navarro attended the Great British Entrepreneurs Awards after the WiTT event, and won the Silver award for Digital Innovation Entrepreneur of the Year. Congratulations, Alicia!
We’d like to thank our fantastic panelists again for their contributions to this WiTT meeting. We look forward to hearing more from them as their businesses grow! We’d also like to thank Google for hosting our meeting and providing refreshments.
This panel discussion is an annual event for WiTT. If you know someone who would make a good addition to the panel in 2014, please send your suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org.