If you're wishing upon a star in the hope of living 'happily ever after', you'd better wise up. When it comes to running a successful business, there is no magic wand.By Carla Rover (Editor, The Advertising Technology Review)
Many female entrepreneurs hear "It's not easy" to be female or a single mom and run a business on such a regular basis that it ceases to have meaning. The "not easy" part isn't the hard work: it's that repetitive self-talk that often defeats us.
Not only must female entrepreneurs come to grips with the intimidating mass of work involved in creating a viable business concept but they must also deal with an equally unnerving, Disney-inspired belief that if your fairytale didn't work out according to your imaginary timeline, you ought to pack it in, or at least wonder what went wrong. We also, just as frequently, move to the other extreme and believe that it can't happen for us - we discount our dreams and we lose our initial energy and willingness to go the extra 100 miles necessary to make it happen.
Here are three ways to fact-check your personal fairy tale and move past the life scripts that keep you stationary.
Cinderella: The Handsome Prince Was a PR Gimmick
My son, who just turned 9, slapped his head full of blonde corkscrew curls and shook his head in mock disgust. "Mom, you were stupid. It's OK, But this isn't a fairy tale. Stop looking sad and get up and do something brilliant." He was right. Newly arrived in NYC from Florida for grad school, finding that (after my 10 year relationship had suddenly ended) I was to be sole bread-winner for my family of 2, I was mopey, but I had things to do. I had 4 articles to write, 2 phone interviews with tech CEOs on opposite coasts, 2 websites to mock-up, a spec script to edit and a new office space to view. Plus, he was hungry, and his need for veggie nuggets and pasta overrode his usually Downton-Abbey-worthy tact.
"Like, this isn't Cinderella," he said, through a mouthful of goldfish crackers, "you have to rescue yourself all the time." Business, like life, sends us curve balls. You may find that you and your employees are left without the proverbial college fund and no matter how "cute" your baby (aka your venture) is, investors will only go for your business over someone else's if there is something in it for them that they can't get elsewhere. That baby you've carried now has needs and, suddenly, your idea isn't so awesome anymore - especially if you are at the pre-launch phase where you actually need to pay people. You might be a star at a VC meet-and-greet, with an inbox full of enthusiastic emails 'expressing interest', but you know what? The emails, the free drinks and smiles of encouragement are, quite frequently, just good PR. This is the dirty little secret about the entrepreneurial world. A bright idea - your adorable baby - isn't enough to win an investment. The prettiest website, the best 5-year projections and your smartest copy won't make an investor grab for the checkbook unless you are meeting his or her needs for long-term rewards - not just your own, in a spectacular way.
Translation: Don't wait for a VC or a mentor to smooth the pre-launch or early growth stage period with cash to make the day-to-day operations easier. Shark Tank isn't reality - that's why it's a game show. Your wit, reason and bright ideas won't win you cash, your skills as a business developer will. Build an airtight business plan, create a working model and be capable of making it work on your own (or with your existing team) without VC money. Just like Cinderella, do all of the mundane tasks no-one else (your competitors) wants to do and master them. Be cheerful about it because your company is able to exist without the cash-addiction that runs many top-heavy, over-compensated start-ups out of the realm of relevance quickly. Be able to feed your "baby" without regular infusions of helpful cash. This, by the way, can kill the bootstrap mentality that often fosters the creativity that's born of a lack of funds.Yes, there are VCs who will swoop in and save you, but you are most attractive when you don't need them. Don't wait to be rescued- the handsome money is out there, but it won't help you if your business can't run without it.
Beauty and the Beast: Nice is not the Same as Successful
Like Belle in Beauty and the Beast, I had frittered away a Saturday afternoon dusting and scrubbing bits of grout in my kitchen to have some semblance of control over my circumstances, when I should have been editing code for my website. I wanted things (life) to be easier and my business to be more simple. Unlike my five-year old self, who asked my mother why didn't Belle, from Beauty and the Beast, just stab the Beast when she brought him his dinner and run away, grown-up Carla tends to think that bright ideas and good intentions should eventually be rewarded with success. Deep down, in the part of my brain that still believes in fairy tales, I wanted my desires to do really nice things for the world (and my son) with money to be rewarded with, well, money.
This type of thinking usually doesn't lead to your being rewarded with accolades. More often than not, you end up, like Belle, in a scary relationship with an untamable beast (VC) with no hope of escape from your incessant maintenance work. Great ideas and teams of nice people usually don't hit the big time just because they're swell. There must be an "escape" strategy which allows you to shed your lean startup status and move into an empowerment phase. In other words, don't become a slave to day-to-day operations once your business plan is proven and running post-launch with just the occasional glitch. You have to build towards getting out the door and into your own castle. This requires more than forward-thinking, it requires a strategy which allows you to build not only for growth but also for prosperity, while wrangling with your company's daily needs.
Translation: Moderate goals and a survival mentality means that your company will probably stay unexceptional. As a journalist, I've had more than one CEO tell me privately that despite their company's massive capitalization, they still don't know what kind of company they are "trying" to be. Those companies, not surprisingly, tend to blend in with the background rather quickly. Focusing exclusively on keeping the "beast" of VC fed and avoiding major blowouts pulls focus from your company's main job: intelligent growth. Support a policy of relentless innovation. Create strategic alliances which allow your company to have options for partnerships when your business model evolves. Look for the door - create a clear path towards independence which focuses on revenue, not just more investment.
Above all, believe that it is happening. Men tend to conceptualize failure as learning, women tend to look at failure as indicative of a character flaw. Why? Because we are socialized to be beautiful, flawless and dependent on external validation through decades of instruction. This requires us not to talk too loudly, to handle rudeness and even abuse "gracefully" and to be "pretty" while doing it all. Forget playing "Belle". You need to build towards finding a way out of the starting gate - and fast.
Snow White: What are you, stupid?
Snow White, who had the survival skills to slash her way through a haunted forest and survive for days on nuts and berries, was no frail pixie, yet she decides (inexplicably), and after surviving attempted murder, to eat an unwashed apple from a random lady who shows up mysteriously in the forest. Snow White, like some entrepreneurs, tends to take the newest ideas or the glossiest resumes onboard simply because they play into the fantasy. She was a princess - after all, why wouldn't someone magically appear to serve her, in the middle of nowhere. Entrepreneurs, unlike big, heartless corporations, have feelings. We want to be honored, appreciated and handed money, talent or press, and swiftly too, even if the timing or the source, isn't right. That desperation to be a part of the big company society - to move out of the lean startup pool - causes us to make bad decisions that cost us later. Snow White couldn't get over the fact that despite being lovely, kind and fierce, she was still excluded from the beautiful castle that should have been hers. That resentment can be an innovation killer. We become so wrapped up in the imbalance in the shark tank that we forget to be alert and aware - not only of our opportunities but the pitfalls nearby.
Translation: Remember how hard it was to have the courage to launch your own business and compare that with the work required to run it. Couple that with all of the sacrifices, personal and financial, that you had to make to get here. Now consider the fact that even if no-one builds a reality show around you or you don't make the "Top Ten under 40" list, you have achieved something astounding. You have done something that most humans do not do. You have left the option of a secure, paycheck-based future and bet on your dreams. You have climbed a mountain of increasing challenges and come out on top of a decision to keep trying. Would you really risk losing that independence by taking on a VC who doesn't get your company's long-term goals or hiring an MBA who has the right resume but the wrong vision? Snow White didn't believe, at the end, that her life of independence outside of the castle was worth guarding with the same ferocity with which she had charged through that perilous forest. Don't get sloppy about your vision - it is worthy not only of your labor to bring it through its difficult birth, but your protection.
You don't get to call yourself a parent - or an entrepreneur - when your vision is cute and virtually maintenance free. It is when it requires constant work, comfort and security, beyond when you feel you cannot give anymore. It is when you have to leave your comfort zone and find you're going without vacations just so you can pay your staff. That is when you own your vision and when you will stand out from the other 99% of the people who call themselves entrepreneurs. Your dream was worth fighting for, now fight to keep it. And maybe, just maybe, you'll get your happy ending.
Women 2.0 readers: Are you inspired to make your business fantasy a reality?
About the guest blogger: Carla Rover is a Communications Director in New York City, Previously she was the Publisher of The Advertising Technology Review. She is a freelance programmer and web developer, specializing in social media platforms. She studied international relations at NYU and law and political economy at The University of Oxford, St. Catherine’s College. Follow her on Twitter at @carlarover. Photo credit: GettysGirl4260 via Flickr