Starting a business is hard. Being a female business owner can be even harder. Pay gaps, gender bias, and sexual harassment are just a few of the unique challenges women in business might face. Pair that with high business failure rates plus challenges getting new business loans, and it’s easy to see why taking the risk might not feel worth it. But being a woman in a man’s world can actually make all the difference.
Women have a personal perspective into 51% of the world’s population that men don’t, which is invaluable to any female-targeted business. One of the biggest advantages women have is their network—we don’t just lean in, we lean on each other. And depending on industry and location, that network can be huge.
Missouri and Alaska, for example, have the highest percentage of women-owned businesses, according to a new study by Seek Business Capital, which analyzed data from the US Census Bureau American Survey of Entrepreneurs to determine which US cities and industries have the most female entrepreneurs and which industries are most likely to have female entrepreneurs.
To make your time in business a little easier, we asked real women in business to share their best startup advice for women. If you have a network of influential businesswomen in your life, reach out and ask to hear their stories. If you don’t have that network, start building one now.
1. Invest in Yourself
“Investing in professional growth will always deliver ROI,” said Robin Rucinsky, president of Thrive Advertising. “It’s hard to pull the trigger on investing in that copywriting class or that accounting course, but it’ll pay dividends. When first starting a business, it may be hard to budget for investing in yourself. However, your brain is your most valuable asset. Growing your mind is never a waste of money. A free way I’ve invested in continued education is using my library membership. I use a library app to check out business audiobooks. I love to learn and while getting to a physical class is hard, streaming an audiobook on my phone is easy.”
2. Ask for What You Want
“Although you’re entering a male-dominated industry, don’t be afraid, timid, or shy to ask for what you want,” said Deborah Sweeney, CEO of MyCorporation, which helps new businesses form an LLC or corporation. “One of the unfortunate realities of being an entrepreneur is that no matter what stage your business is in, it’s highly likely that you may need some extra capital to help out. This is, unfortunately, an area where we as women in business face bias. For example, in a fashion business, some male investors may need more convincing that your products are necessary. I’ve also heard stories from other women CEOs who were refused capital and couldn’t be taken seriously due to their gender.”
3. Don’t Fear Failure
“In a male-dominated world of business, it is often a challenge to learn to be confident and understand that failure is just part of a learning curve,” said Andrea Loubier, CEO of Mailbird, a tool that helps people manage multiple email accounts. “When the feeling of rejection is still fresh, I get out and hustle and begin networking as if my life depends on it. I also like to remember the other women fighting for the same goals, and especially the boundaries that we are knocking down for female entrepreneurs of the next generation. I know that I am equal with my male colleagues, despite the unique obstacles that I may face.”
4. Lean on Your Network
“Launching your own business can be intimidating at any point in your life, whether when you are straight out of school or more established and settled in life and looking for a change,” said Jen Lyon, founder of film production house Alphadu Productions. “You need to make the leap and open your own business and you’ll be surprised at how much support is available to you. Whether it is small business loans aimed specifically for women, social media chat groups that give advice and help out with frugal marketing ideas for those who are just starting out and your community…people get excited when others pursue their passion. Show that you are excited about your business and that becomes contagious.”
5. Stop and Smell the Roses
“Be excited! There are going to be a lot of challenges, nay-sayers, and long, hard days ahead, but remember to enjoy the experience of being an entrepreneur,” said Audra Hamlin, owner of The Gift Firm, a digital marketing firm that works with consumer product companies. “Stop every once in a while and just enjoy. Know who your go-to person is when you need a smile. This has been invaluable to me over the years.”
6. Optimisim is More Important than Intelligence
In 1973, at age 22, Shark Tank star Barbara Corcoran left her job as a restaurant server and opened a small real estate office in New York City, using $1,000 she had borrowed from a boyfriend. This maven, who had failed at twenty-two jobs, slowly developed the tiny office into a $6 billion dollar business, using the unconventional lessons she had learned from her homemaker mom.
Corcoran sold the business for $66 million in 2001 and has invested in more than 30 companies since Shark Tank has been on the air.
In an interview with Entrepreneur Magazine, Corcoran said, “Building a business is little more than a series of quick opportunities followed by a series of big obstacles. The opportunities arrive and leave so quickly that they’re way too easy to miss.”
Success and failure are permanently connected, according to Corcoran, and she adds that the single most critical attribute all entrepreneurs need in order to thrive is the talent to fail well. Corcoran believes in being optimistic to the point that exceeds all logic, especially in the grueling initial stages of launching a business. She rates optimism as more important than intelligence for the budding entrepreneur.
Corcoran doesn’t believe that a woman has to leave her day job in order to be successful: she says that many of her most successful entrepreneurs on Shark Tank turned their personal interests into businesses while holding down a full-time job. She gives the example of Cousins Maine Lobster, which started with two cousins selling lobster rolls part-time from a food truck, and which now has 12 franchises.
7. Be Willing To Start Small
Sarah Blakely is the youngest self-made woman billionaire who turned her life around with her idea of producing a new line of flattering undergarments. She launched Spanx from her home in Los Angeles in August 2000: a company that is now worth over a billion dollars.
The idea for Spanx came one day when she put on a pair of pants but disliked how her rear end looked. She decided to wear a pair of control-top pantyhose, with the feet cut off. The slender, graceful difference prompted Blakely to patent her own footless body-shaping hose. Spanx now has 200 different types of slimming undergarments, ranging from swimwear to Mama Spanx and, most recently, Spanx for Men.
Blakely marketed her invention using $5000 in personal savings until she found a factory willing to produce her footless hose. A major opportunity came in late 2000 when Oprah Winfrey highlighted Spanx on her popular nationally syndicated TV talk show. Sales rose steeply after this, and Blakely was able to swiftly build an empire.
8. Be Open But Assertive
Brooklyn native Lisa Price was walking through Park Slope one afternoon when she found a book on essential oils. The knowledge she gleaned from this book led to her experimentation with different oils and creating fragrances and body lotions just for fun. When her mother, Carol, suggested that she bring some of her lotions to her church’s flea market, Lisa sold almost every jar.
Price officially established Carol’s Daughter in August of 1994, with just a handful of steady customers. With a huge following from her website, mail order business, and walk-in traffic, Price relocated the store from her brownstone in 1999 to Brooklyn’s Fort Greene district. She lists celebrities such as Jada Pinkett-Smith, Jay-Z and Halle Berry as clients.
Carol’s Daughter sells millions of dollars worth of products today, having launched a special collection in Target stores countrywide and on Target.com in March 2014 in addition to extending into select Walgreens in 2015. Price sold her company to L’Oreal in 2014.
Price told the New York Times, “Be open. Your way is not necessarily the only way or the right way. But while you’re open, be assertive. Because I feel like I wasn’t as assertive as I could have been in my earlier years, and I did what other people told me to do. It’s only now that I’m learning to be more assertive. So I think it’s important to find that balance between being open and listening, but also not letting someone bulldoze you into doing what they want to do.”
The Bottom Line
Regardless of your industry or location, talking to real women who were once in your shoes—or still are—is the best way to learn hard lessons the easy way. If you’re in a metropolitan area, take advantage of networking opportunities by attending industry events, maintaining relationships with existing contacts, and even reaching out to women you admire to see if you can pick their brains over a cup of coffee. You’ll never get a “yes” if you don’t try.
Lendio is committed to supporting women in business by offering tailored financial solutions. Learn more about business loans for women.