The co-founder of a recently funded startup shares her advice on dealing with male investors.
By Nicole Staple (Co-founder, Brideside)
I run a bridal e-commerce company called Brideside, with my co-founder Sonali Lamba. As the name may imply, we are exclusively women-focused, as well as women-led. Like many of you, we have heard some discouraging feedback that underscores the inherent challenges women face in fundraising, particularly while pitching a women-focused product.
Our reality: only 21% of angel investors are women, and just 16% of startups seeking capital are women-led. Most investors are not accustomed to investing in women-led teams or women-focused offerings. Sonali and I aim to play a small part in alleviating these female-driven investment challenges during our careers, but I’ll start with sharing a few learnings from our recent experiences.
Each point below aligns with a quote that has been said to me while we raised our most recent round. Yes, each of them made me angry. But I’m not writing to kick-start a laundry list of female complaints. The fact is, we could have been much savvier at certain times. We could have taken better control of conversations simply by knowing our audience. Instead, we were put on our heels (literally) and were unprepared for a balanced, effective counter response. In that light, here are four suggestions on how to address, or even avoid, certain types of investor feedback:
Pitching to a Group of Men May Require You to Reframe the Conversation
"We discussed it internally and given our past experiences with companies that are focused on women we will have to pass. We have to cater to our investor base and at this time businesses that target women do not resonate at all with them."
- Follow up email response from an angel network platform with investor base of 11,000
Let’s get the facts straight: women control about 80% of consumer spending and are increasingly becoming top decision makers in their organizations. Given that only ~13% of venture capital funding is flowing to women-run businesses, my intuition tells me that there is a disproportionately large opportunity for businesses that get the female consumer.
Unfortunately, as the email above implies, the investor ambivalence towards this marketplace can put your story at an unfair advantage. My advice: unless you have an absolutely indispensable story to tell, avoid the urge to lead with your customer pain point or solution. Instead, frame the conversation around the business opportunity. If you are seeking angel or venture capital investment, you are in the business of making money for you and your investors. Show male investors right off the bat that you understand your addressable market, how to get customers, and the exit opportunity. Then make the undeniable and tight connection to the pain point.
Define Your Success Metrics in Relatable Terms to a Male Audience
“I don’t invest in ‘women things.. Women are… too difficult as consumers.”
- Male retail/manufacturing angel investor
Think that a male won’t understand the pain we feel in bridesmaid dress shopping? Then choose a direct analog to your business that a male investor is familiar with and can get excited about. Explain how your success metrics are similar in-kind, and then demonstrate how the numbers show indisputable traction. Most investors are familiar with key metrics within different industries, and this can immediately put on the same plane as other companies they have seen, or even recently invested in.
Be Blunt About What You Need
“I know you need money, but how else can I be helpful?”
- Woman angel investor
Well, really, we just need money.
Women tend to be more risk averse than men, and we experience this firsthand when women say “yes” to everything except writing a check. While great female mentors and advisory board members are incredibly helpful, the most valuable contribution they can make at crucial stages in your company lifecycle is capital.
When speaking with potential women angel investors, we try to be clear and blunt about what we need at the very beginning. It is not always easy, but this communication is crucial. Women angel investors will likely understand your product as well anyone, and could be your best hope to get your business off the ground. They will also be part of the change to a more equitable angel investor landscape.
Sometimes You Need Backup
“I’m not sure I’m the right investor for you; I don’t really understand this stuff. But I’m sure you’ll do very well. You’re two cute girls.”
- Male angel investor
We are first-time entrepreneurs and therefore recognize the execution risk in our founding team. This is common. However, even though I am 30 years old with an MBA and startup experience, I look young and am pitching a bridal business. This can have a real impact on the first impression I make. When I see a male investor as a great potential partner and know that he’s not getting our business model for the wrong reasons, I bring in backup.
For us, our pinch hitter is one of our male investors, who is in his mid-40s and an experienced entrepreneur. He initially knew nothing about weddings, but understands good business fundamentals when he sees them. He has our back, and will gladly take a phone call if it helps us move forward on a lead. Sometimes translation from an ally is all you need.
What missteps did you make when fundraising?
About the guest blogger: Nicole Staple successfully pursued investment banking before catching the startup bug. With a move to San Francisco, she joined the market as a venture capital investor. The decision to explore business school led her to Kellogg School of Management, where she continued to develop her passion for tech (and skills as a spinning instructor).