by Kelly Keenan Trumpbour, CEO, See Jane Invest
Getting more women involved as business owners and investors sounds fantastic, but where do you start? What if you don’t want to run a business or find yourself low on cash? There’s a little something for everyone.
Can You Picture Yourself As An Entrepreneur?
Humor me for a second and picture yourself as CEO of your own enterprise. Naturally you are wearing some killer outfit, have trendy office supplies, and a fabulous office.
Moving past the trimmings, notice what bubbles as you react to this scene. If you hear yourself thinking, “I hope no one took my old job,” or, “When do I get to go home?” you may have found your path in life and owning a business isn’t it. That’s fine. We still need you. More on that later.
Maybe you noticed a giddy little jolt followed by something dismissive like, “As if I could really do that,” “I’m sure there is someone else who would do it better,” or, “I wouldn’t really know what to do.”
If something undefined appealed to you and was sent scurrying by doubt, my suggestion is to give more airtime to the giddy little jolt. No one is saying you have to own your own business, but you should pay attention to the spark. Life is simply more fun when you run with fireflies.
What exactly delighted you for half a second? You doing something on your own? Taking responsibility for your unique vision? See what happens when you spend some time with those thoughts. They may very well lead you to entrepreneurship. Or not. That’s okay as long as you give the sparks more airtime than the doubt.
If what appealed to you was a change of scenery and something very different from your present circumstances, stay with the observation. Realize that on its own, cabin fever isn’t enough to sustain a start-up. There are less expensive and less time consuming ways to reframe your world. Still, the itch to shake things up can lead to some very interesting places.
I know some of you pictured yourself as CEO and ran with it. You saw more than a logo, but your daily routine. You pictured yourself having a real passion for sinking your teeth into this one thing and pitching anyone who would listen…what exactly? Crap.
Does this sound familiar: I kind of have this idea that I’ve been dabbling with, but I don’t really know what to do with it, and I’m not sure it will ever actually work. It’s really just kind of a thing I do on the side so, um, nevermind.
You. Let’s talk.
So You Think You Might Want To Be An Entrepreneur. Now What?
In order for women to consider entering the game as entrepreneurs, they need to invest in their ideas. But sometimes, articulating the idea is the hardest part.
Just like anything that grows, if you want to see an idea go somewhere, you need to nurture it. The common mistake is to believe this process begins by pouring energy out into something external. We have to start with investing in ourselves. Even if you can define your vision, it can go nowhere if its creator and champion is maxed out, exhausted, and unable to prioritize herself.
Whether you are trying to make sense of early stage inspirations or have a framework in place, start by taking a quick inventory of your life and ask yourself if there is some corner of the day that belongs to you. I’m talking something longer than a shower. Maybe you love yoga or a run on a wooded trail. Maybe waking up at the crack of dawn and journaling gives you some peace. Do you cook because the rhythm of chopping, stirring, and kneading has a soothing quality to it? Even if it’s alone time in the car or the walk back from the bus stop after you say goodbye to the kids, keep something for you, and keep it simple.
These activities give your mind a chance to play with the puzzle pieces without a tight focus. Like a good hearty stew, a great idea needs a back burner to simmer and transform. A CEO, whether novice or veteran, also needs a moment in the day that allows her to check in with not just her company’s big picture, but her own personal big picture. You need room to gauge what’s in alignment and what needs adjustment. It requires a wide-angle lens. The minute any part of your business stops running parallel to your core priorities is the beginning of instability. Find those twenty minutes.
Refine And Experiment
So you know you count on yourself to stay grounded and set the to-do lists aside. Now what? The next step is to notice what you are drawn to, get specific, and keep checking in. Consider what feels like second nature. Do you have a hobby, something that you dabble in, maybe a talent that your friends and family think of as your special skill?
See if you can describe in a few lines why that activity has meaning for you and what need it meets for other people. Picture in your mind the kind of person you hope would appreciate it as much as you do. Describe in detail who that person is and what motivates her.
Go online and research what other people are doing with a similar idea. When you find yourself feeling a little jealous, take note of what triggers that reaction. Most likely, it’s a key to a standard you value. Also notice what turns you off. Knowing what you don’t like tells you how your approach is different.
Do a rough calculation of how much you spend out of pocket to create your thing once. Ignore the bells and whistles you could add on later and stick to the expenses you realize in the basic service itself. Now imagine what other costs would arise if you went out of your way to share your service with someone you don’t know, things like travel or childcare. Add up those expenses and you have your bare bones overhead costs.
How much would someone have to pay you to cover your costs, make it worth your effort and leave you with a profit? Whatever number you just came up with, add 20%. I highly doubt it will be asking too much.
Collect all this information, and you have the start of a basic business plan. It can be done in a weekend. Like a rough draft of a novel, the sketch of your business idea can evolve. Sit with it. You don’t have to do anything more with that information. All I ask is that you notice how often you ask yourself, “What if?”
If you feel like you want to move forward, start with something simple. What is the most basic, least expensive, and most easily repeated way to test your idea? I use “test” in the scientific sense, not in the winner/loser sense. Entrepreneurship is more like a laboratory than a contest. You design an experiment, you let that experiment play out, you take notes of the results, and you start all over again tweaking based on your observations.
The goal isn’t to start with atom splitting. Begin with something more like vinegar and baking soda making a styrofoam volcano erupt. What’s important is that you start somewhere—anywhere—and keep tinkering.
Set up a blog. Tell a couple of friends that you are thinking about branching out and would anyone they know be interested in that really cool thing you do? Take some people out to coffee, ask questions, make connections. If you can think of people in your community who you admire and hope to emulate, try to meet them. Put yourself in the same setting as them, even if it’s for short bursts of time. When people ask you what you do, go out on a limb and make it about your business idea. Even if no one has paid you a dime and your office assistant is a chair-stealing cat, tell people what you do succinctly and with conviction. See where it takes you.
Business Ownership Isn’t For Me. What Can I Do?
If you love the idea of supporting women in business but don’t feel compelled to explore entrepreneurship, consider how you can invest. Notice I didn’t say give. I said invest. It’s just as important for women to appreciate deserving a return on investment that goes beyond gratitude as it is for women to make a profit in their businesses.
In the near future, our government will make it possible for anyone to own limited stakes in companies looking for investors on websites known as equity crowdfunding platforms. Right now, companies can only accept investments publicly from accredited investors who are high net worth individuals. These rules exist because the government wanted to protect regular people from a repeat of the 1929 stock market crash. An unintended consequence was that the people who were qualified to invest were often in different networks than the majority of entrepreneurs.
Equity crowdfunding will allow people who make up the market to decide who gets funded. In the same way firefighters raise money for a new truck by passing around a boot at traffic lights, equity crowdfunding will allow companies to take in large amounts of money through many small contributions. The only difference is that your $5 might come back to you with gains.
Consider that most businesses require a minimum of $10,000–$20,000 to set up shop, and you will understand why too many women are blocked from entering the game. When equity crowdfunding comes into existence, the money collected isn’t a donation but a fractional ownership in the company itself. This means that instead of just walking away with the satisfaction of helping a woman advance her business, you have a right to profits. The exact details of how it will all work are still being defined by the SEC, but it’s very likely a small investment will make you a company shareholder.
Until equity crowdfunding becomes a reality, other crowdfunding sites like Indiegogo or Kickstarter work on the same principal without offering equity. They operate like a public television pledge drive. You don’t have a right to any profits from the entrepreneurs, but you can expect to help launch a product and be thanked with a reward gift. Often, the reward is the first production of the product itself.
Not every campaign is worth backing, and that’s why crowdfunding is a great way to test your intuition. Don’t be surprised if you quickly develop a sense of which projects have momentum and which ones are going to fizzle. Given that women are on the receiving end of endless marketing campaigns, it should come as no surprise that we can synthesize an informational video, a product description, and a founder’s background and call it like we see it. Many of the campaigns ask for contributions as low as $5.
To get your feet wet, every month See Jane Invest will pick three compelling women-run crowdfunding campaigns. We profile their concepts and let our readers vote for the campaign they most want to see funded. At the end of the month, See Jane Invest backs the winner with a pledge. You don’t have to give any money, just tell us who you think deserves the cash.
Investing at a higher level is still crucially important because there are not enough women serving as angel investors or venture capitalists. Moving beyond basic startup costs, these groups take risks to facilitate necessary growth in companies poised to make millions of dollars. For women who do qualify as accredited investors, there are angel networks such as 37 Angels, 85 Broads, and Pipeline who help women learn the basics of angel investing. I’m currently working with women leaders in Baltimore to start our area’s first women angel network.
If you feel cash strapped and can’t invest, think about how you can prop up women business owners in your community. Word of mouth is an entrepreneur’s best friend. Use social media to talk up companies founded by women. Think of the types of services friends tend to ask about. Graphic designers, photographers, pet sitters, caterers, accountants, and financial planners are all just a sampling of independently run companies that people have a hard time finding. Make a list of women-owned businesses that you admire and have it handy when someone asks if you know anyone.
Consider volunteering with organizations that mentor upcoming women business owners. For example, based in San Francisco’s Mission District, La Cocina is an example of a fantastic nonprofit that elevates women with skills and ideas into competitive entrepreneurs. Its mission is to offer low-income women and immigrant entrepreneurs entry into the food industry by turning informal (and often illegal) home businesses into competitive, regulated companies. They give program participants access to commercial kitchens, mentoring, and help establishing legitimate businesses. They accept volunteers interested in offering technical assistance, mentoring, and general help. There are many other nonprofits like La Cocina throughout the country.
Our voice is missing in the worlds of entrepreneurship and investing which means we are limiting ourselves by remaining customers who react to the market instead of evolving into the CEOs and investors who define the market. Yes, there is risk, but there is so much to gain. I hope your answer is the same as mine. Game on.
Photo by APW Sponsor Gabriel Harber
Kelly Keenan Trumpbour founded See Jane Invest to help women gain the confidence and funding they need to turn their ideas into start-ups. She believes entering the marketplace as entrepreneurs and investors enables women to express their values, give back to their communities, and model smart risk taking. See Jane Invest is focused on helping women understand and use the advantages of equity crowdfunding once SEC regulations complete the 2012 JOBS Act. Kelly draws on her experience in Washington, DC lobbying on behalf of women’s business groups, recruiting young professional women to enter politics, and helping them link the personal stories behind their passions with the conviction of leadership. A published author and professional speaker, Kelly holds an MBA from Johns Hopkins and a law degree from the University of Maryland. She and her husband live outside of Baltimore.