One female founder explains why networking wasn’t helping her business and what she learned from some time away.
By Michele Spiezia (Founder & CEO, Bespoke Atelier)
I’m going to share a story with you.
I won’t name names, because the experience I’m about to share happened somewhere that’s run by some people that I really like. People who have great intentions, are supportive of me and my startup and who might end up helping me again in the future. They might know who they are when they read this, or maybe not. It doesn’t matter.
What I’m about to tell you is a tale of why being a female founder of a tech startup at a networking/investor/fundraising/ event is a certain kind of special experience — an experience in which the only certain expectation is that there won’t be a line for the ladies room.
In the Company of Angels
Last year, I had pitched a certain angel group. They invited me, having met me previously at another event. I was thrilled. Our platform had just launched (it was a false start, and we’re anticipating a second launch this summer, but that’s another blog post!) and we had a little bit of traction. Not enough to rouse this crowd, which was understandable. They asked pertinent and interesting questions. We promised to keep in touch.
A few months later, I was invited back to their “all member meeting.” This must be good, I thought. They were following up! They wanted me to come back and meet all of the members of their angel group. I wasn’t asked to pitch (since that was being reserved for companies further down the line than I was — again, understandable) but I could come and have a table to display our startup (a la NY Tech Day style). I was psyched.
I showed up early, heels in hand, flip flops on my feet. I schlepped my tablecloths, easels, foamcore boards and iPads in my new H&M dress that I loved but wasn’t really made for sitting (or driving) in — a fact that was realized too late that day.
There was a central room where all the startup tables were, along with a nice spread of sandwiches, salads, beer and wine, and lots of guys in their pleated khakis & blue button ups. A couple of others in ill-fitted suits. But thank god – no room temperature pizza! I perused the room.
Not Exactly a Flying Start
I didn’t see a table marked for me… oh no.
I approached the organizer to find out that my table was “in the back.”
Now, I’m not going to go all Rosa Parks on this thing, but I was irked. Another company was also set up “in the back,” and a third table sat empty for a company that never showed up. The spin on the situation was that “in the back” was just outside the board room where pitches would be, so surely there would be more traffic as members and startups moved into the board room, and of course, following the pitches. That’s cool. I’m easy-going. Just happy to be here…
No one came to see me during the initial part of the event (the part where members are supposed to meet and greet with startups). NOT ONE PERSON. The guys at the table next to mine were cool, so we chatted. I mingled in the front room for a bit. I held strong. I handed out cards and smiled. I’d put on the full court press following the pitches.
I went into the board room with all the members and all the startups, and I quickly noticed something…I was one of only FOUR women in the entire room of nearly 100 people!
To make matters worse, one of the women worked there, one was “assisting” a presenter, and the third got invited because she works across the street.
I was the only female founder in the place.
I watched the pitches (standing, of course, since sitting down in that damn dress was an impossibility) and then hurried back to my post at my table outside the board room, anticipating the deluge of angels that was about to flood out of this board room and be dying to finally get to talk to me. Most bolted for the exit (i.e. the opposite direction of my table setup), anxious to head home as the event was already running late. But alas, a few stragglers were making their way toward me.
The Invigorating Conversations That Followed
In the next 20 minutes, I could only compute what occurred as laughable. Exactly three people approached my presentation table –
Gentleman #1: Well hello there. What a great set-up. Tell me what you’re building.
Me: (encouraged) Well, Bespoke is a creative browser tailored to the needs of visual minds.
Gentleman #1: Interesting. I don’t know if you know about these types of things, but you’ll need to carry proper insurances for your business, and I can help you with that. Here’s my card.
Me: Yes, thank you. Actually, I’ve started two previous companies, so I DO know about these things. But thanks. Nice to meet you. (ugh)
Gentleman #2: Excuse me.
Me: (still encouraged) Hi! How are you tonight? Nice to meet you!
Gentleman #2: Yes, you too. Um, is the restroom back here somewhere?
Me: Why yes it is, however, I think you’ll find quite a line at the men’s room.
Gentleman #3: Hi there! We met briefly in the boardroom before.
Me: (less encouraged) Oh yes, hi. Your pitch was really great. Nice work.
Gentleman #3: Thanks. I’ve been in this industry longer than you’ve probably been alive, so I know my stuff. This new company of mine is going to be great.
Me: Um hmm…
Gentleman #3: So, I was thinking that when we get out of here you’d like to join me for a cocktail.
Me: No, thank you though. I don’t think my husband or my 8-year-old would appreciate that. Nice to have met you.
Needless to say, as a “female founder trying to raise funds for a product in the creative space,” I couldn’t have felt more alien.
I’m starting to feel as though I get asked to these types of events because I’m like some kind of show pony — hey, there’s that pretty girl with that nice looking app — we don’t really get what it is or does, but it looks a bit different and interesting, so it’s fun to bring her along. Ugh.
I put my flip flops back on, packed up my table of stuff and drove home (not before cocktail dude made one final car-side attempt to take me to the bar next door).
Going on Networking Hiatus
This isn’t working for me or my business, I thought. It’s not getting me anywhere, except proving to be a giant time suck. It certainly isn’t paving a path toward investor meetings.
When I finally got home, I dropped my shit at the door, and in the presence of my co-founder/husband and my 8-year-old son, I confidently declared that I was taking a voluntary hiatus from networking. ALL networking. No coffee chats, no meetups, all member meetings or pitches. I was done. Indefinitely. This wasn’t working for me – at all.
This hiatus lasted approximately four months. I deleted Eventbrite emails daily, changed the settings on my Meetup account, and just put my head down and got to work. It was astonishing how distracting startup networking had become, and how little payoff it offered.
While on hiatus I raised $75,000 in friends and family cash, which I was able to make last for nearly five months. Our team accomplished more in that time than we had in the previous 18 months combined. We came into the new year with a brand new version of our product in the works, a marketing strategy, a new launch date, and a level of confidence that had evaded me even on my best days.
Making it Work For You
I did, slowly, get back on the networking horse, but with much more caution, discern and respect for the value of my time. I still attend a tech event here and there, but am clear going in of what my expectations are, and what result I’m seeking. And I’m not afraid to bail if it sucks. Most of the networking I’m doing these days is with my potential users, which admittedly has me feeling more in my comfort zone, and toward a more direct result – traction.
Go where your users are. Always. The line at the ladies room will be well worth the wait.
This post originally appeared on Medium.