5 Tips To Succeed in a (Mostly) Male Industry

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One COO shares her advice on how to succeed in a largely male-dominated industry. By Sara Swenson (COO, Boatbound)

When people ask me what I do, they act surprised by the answer.

Apparently, very few expect to find a young woman as the Chief Operating Officer of a high tech start up — especially not in two markets, (tech and boating), that are typically dominated by men.

As the COO at Boatbound, the fully insured peer-to-peer boat rental marketplace, I’ve had some time along the journey from launch to becoming a funded company with a rapidly growing marketplace to reflect on what it takes to succeed. I have worked hard and learned a lot along the way and I wanted to share some of what I have learned with other female entrepreneurs. Here’s what I’d like to tell other women who are dreaming of being the COO of a start-up tech company, I hope you find it helpful!

You Need Self-Confidence

First and foremost, you need confidence—lots of it. You must believe you belong where you are and that you can compete there. This involves knowing who you are as well as understanding others.

I am very fortunate to have grown up in a sailing family and learned to handle my family’s 24-foot sailboat before I was old enough to have a driver’s permit. My teen summers were spent in coed regattas with other young sailors across the Ontario and Finger Lake region in upstate New York.

When it comes to college sports and gender, sailing really stands out as unique opportunity for women. There are no all-male college sailing teams!  You can sail co-ed or on an all-women’s team. While attending UC Santa Cruz, I chose both and the ripple effects on my confidence and network continue to serve me well.

Don’t Be Afraid to Take Risks

To build your confidence and skills, say “yes” when opportunities come your way. One of my most important lessons was that you don’t need to have the exact skill set in order to take on a challenge and succeed. When I was invited to join the professional crew on a Farr 40 for the 2000 Kenwood Cup, a 10-day off-shore regatta. I’d never done anything that intense—and I was only 19. I said “yes” and ended up being the only female in the entire fleet!  I learned by doing—and by stretching myself. It may be the risks that you take OUTSIDE of your career that give you the confidence to take risks within your career.

Taking the job at Boatbound was my biggest career move. Why would anyone resign her position as a manager at a top global firm to risk her future with a pre-launch start-up? I did it because I figured my skills could help make it a success—and was eager to do so. In fact, I was so excited when I heard about the Boatbound concept that I chased down the founder on Twitter and convinced him to interview me for a position that did not even exist. He hired me.

Many women avoid applying for jobs if they think they suspect they lack some relevant experience. That’s a terrible loss for them and business. Before I took the Boatbound COO position, I had never dealt with human resources issues, and certainly not details such as employee health insurance. But I was sure that I could figure things out just as I had in previous experiences on and off the job.

Keep this in mind: Just because you don’t know how to do it doesn’t mean that someone else does. No one has ever launched a company exactly like Boatbound. As a leader, I’m faced with making decisions every day for which there are no clear precedents.

My philosophy is this: There are no wrong decisions. You need to make decisions—and then learn from them.

Work to Build Genuine Relationships

I’m very grateful to one of my first bosses who coached me on how to develop a professional network—and why it matters. LinkedIn had just been launched and I jumped right on it and still actively expand my contacts.

At first, I used LinkedIn contacts to find out about positions for myself. Now, as the COO of Boatbound, I find I can rely on the relationships that I have nurtured over the years to help grow the company. My contacts have been key in creating strategic deals, e.g., with Boat US and West Marine and for finding service providers. Contacts have even been helpful with getting us press. For example, one contact progressed in her career and is now the successful editor of a large regional boating publication.

In building your network, don’t be a taker. It is equally important to give.  Find out how you can help others in their careers. I am very open in offering information about positions, in writing recommendations, and in connecting them with informational interviews. At a recent OpenAir—an event hosted by Airbnb—I met a Cambridge University graduate student researching sustainable, responsible venture capitalists. I was delighted to be able to connect her to a really great resource, John Kohler, the Director of Social Capital Programs with whom I studied while earning my MBA at Santa Clara University, and with whom I keep in regular contact.

Hone Your Business Focus

Business decisions must be based on their effects on profit, observed or predicted. Learning to think this way is a skill.

In my case, it has a long history. My parents always granted me considerable independence in decision-making, including one to go to Argentina at 16 for year as a Rotary Exchange Student. They handed me my own credit card, which I managed very well throughout the rest of high school and college, quickly learning how to avoid late fees and interest charges!

My first few years at West Marine encouraged me to analyze decisions thoroughly as my role  was to determine where we could where could we locate a new store and make money. To make my forecast for the profitability of any potential location, I was given a minimal amount of information. My background in econometrics turned out to be key, and I learned to add in additional factors, e.g. geography, as I worked through case after case. Eventually I began to develop a clearer perspective on the entire business, one that that ties data analysis to the thinking about profits for use in making business decisions. Depending on the size of the company, this can involve millions to billions of dollars.

We are not dealing with billions yet, but at Boatbound it is still important for me to keep an eye on the key performance indicators e.g. number of listings, number of rentals, customer satisfaction. You need to balance investing in your business with your burn rate.

Our decision to use VCs or strategic partners required a very unique analysis. We know that we needed to focus on getting a high number of boat listings. We realized that partners such as Brunswick could help us not only with capital investment but also with growing our boat listing through their customer basis. No VC could offer us that. We also partnered with other boating organizations, American Sailing Association, Boat US, Dominion, USA Waterski to grow our awareness among boat owners. The entire boating industry is in dire need of younger boaters—and we offer them an attractive platform for reaching them.

Go For Your Dreams

Even though outnumbered by men, women entrepreneurs are having increasing successes. For any women dreaming of leading a start-up, the time could not be more opportune. Find the challenge that inspires you, go for it, and figure out the details later! If you pursue your passion, the success will follow. Go get ‘em ladies!

Do you have any other tips?


About the guest blogger: Sara Swenson brings over a decade of intensive experience in strategic market planning, high-tech initiatives, and marine industry analysis to Boatbound. Sara worked as a product manager in the Cisco Solutions group, delivering end-to-end solutions to solve customer problems, and as a project manager in Seagate’s sales operations, leading enterprise-wide projects to improve business processes. Prior to this, she served as West Marine’s research manager, visiting virtually every boating market in the U.S. and Canada while setting the framework for the store optimization strategy.