She started it!

A couple of weeks ago I joined a panel discussion after the screening in Wellington of the documentary She Started It as part of NZ Tech Week 2018. The film’s been around for a while but it remains an insightful production that is pretty much a ‘must see’ for women in the tech startup scene. I thought it a riveting piece of journalism covering a range of scenarios that are uncomfortably familiar having co-founded one myself. I was grateful to the organisers Xero because it made me look at my own journey in a whole new light.

She Started It takes a film camera inside the lives of five young female entrepreneurs over a two-year period as they go through the set pieces that are fundamental to any ambitious founder — pitching to Angel and VC investors, building teams and finding ways of getting their products to market. Some of them succeeded, some failed. The film captures their reactions to unfolding circumstances — the tears as well as  the laughter. It’s  an intimate, sometimes verging on voyeuristic invitation to walk a mile in their shoes.

The real power of the documentary lies in not shying away from the soul shrinking tough times when other people don’t get your vision and you are quite literally living on the smell of an oily rag. She Started It doesn’t pull any punches about the sheer grit it takes to get a new product off the ground. I was glad the directors weren’t tempted to sugar coat the message. It’s said that 99% of new business fail — even the best ideas, from the most determined, visionary and capable people are not guaranteed to make it. Caveat ‘wantrepreneur’ huh?!

As a secondary theme, directors Nora Poggi and Insiyah Saeed explored the nitty problem of female under representation in entrepreneurship, and the gender-based issues women entrepreneurs have to overcome. That too struck a strong chord with my own experiences. A co-founder of my business was told by a key player in NZ’s investment community not to bother even trying because she couldn’t make it as a woman in tech! When we started pitching the angel networks in NZ eight years ago, there were hardly ever any women in the room, investors or founders, and I believe from the bottom of my soul we would have raised more money initially if we had different chromosomes.

As the film played out, the story that caught me most was that of Thuy Trurong who had made her mark in her native Vietnam founding and running a chain of frozen yoghurt outlets. This intrepid twenty-eight-year-old Vietnamese woman moved herself and her team from Vietnam to Silicon Valley at a week’s notice to join the iconic 500startups program. Her company at the time, GreenGar, produced mobile apps including Whiteboard, a collaborative drawing application. Whiteboard achieved over nine million downloads in its first four years, was used by school students in more than 100 countries and achieved profits greater than a million US. Despite its seeming success, the team failed to bring in the capital required to scale it and the writing was on the wall. Ultimately, she had to go back to Vietnam and compose, “the hardest email I’ve ever written” to GreenGar’s loyal base telling them they were closing down. It was incredibly poignant, and I was drawn into her disappointment, but also her steely determination not to be ground down by the experience as she started thinking about her next venture.

Facing that terrible, gut-wrenching moment when you have to accept that the thing you’ve poured your lifeblood into is just not working is horrible. Really and truly and viscerally horrible. My sister and I launched a satirical magazine in the early 2000s. It was written for women like us who were looking for an alternative to the usual drivel dished up by the ‘glossy’ mags and it sent up the whole genre of outrageous cosmetic claims and superficial crap that they peddle. We called it SHREW Magazine. Conceptualizing and researching it and building the stratospheric business plan which depicted a worldwide SHREW membership spending whopping amounts in our SHREW Shop. It was the most fun I’ve had in my career.

Throughout, we worked like demented beings — I think was writing something like 25,000 published words a month — and my sister and insanely talented (sometimes just plain insane) friend were cranking out idiotic spoof ads and other glorious send ups from our crew of invented and totally outrageous Op Ed contributors. I remember editorial meetings when we were quite literally crying with laughter as we brainstormed things like how you would create the graphic representation of You Really Are What You Eat and Drink. OK, I know, you had to be there. But for us, it was glorious and funny, and we were on the mission we seemed to have been born for with our combined skill set and slightly offbeat take on the world. Of course, we crammed way too much content into each edition, so we would have likely burnt out if money wasn’t a factor, but the inspiration and ideas flowed like ‘Bolly’ in an episode of Ab Fab, and the joy of creation fueled the energy to keep the frenetic pace up.

The day the boxes of our first edition arrived and we were able to see our posters in our stockists’ windows was beyond exciting. And the launch party?  Well, that was another t was  was a night I will never forget. We expected people to be mildly amused but were totally floored after we handed out copies to our guests when the entire theater (we had the party on stage at an opera house) went silent as people started to read … then the laughter erupted, and we knew we’d created something incredible. It wasn’t just us founders who loved it. Our printers raved, the team at the distributor said they couldn’t wait to get at the next edition when it arrived from the printer, and our readers and subscribers … laughed on cue.

So, what went wrong? For a start, our timing was poor. I strongly believe that timing is everything and we were a couple of years too early with our offer. Thinking about it, we also could have been a decade too late. Either way, our timing sucked and the wrong time is the wrong time!  If we’d launched even a couple of years later, we’d have created it as an online product and then been able to amp it up through the emerging social channels like Facebook. To us, SHREW was as much a club as a magazine. It would have been incredibly effective in an online environment where we could, with a bit of additional investment, have created the SHREW World that lived in our heads. Taking it online would also have made it a tech startup at a time when angel funding for such things was starting to be available … even on occasion for female founders!

Lacking this scenario, it came into being as a MOFO of a full colour 60-page magazine.   We relied on hard-hitting content to and the club-like atmosphere to speak for itself and quickly build a cult following. We believed we could achieve the Holy Grail of the publishing world —  a rapidly growing, loyal subscriber base that would remove the need for us to sell our souls to get advertising dollars that might have compromised our editorial freedom to tell it like we saw it. The issue here of course was lack of working capital to promote the bejesus out of our magazine. Not much point having a genius product no one knows about!

This wasn’t quite as random as it sounded. There have been some great publications that have worked on a model like ours. Most of the memorable ones have been primarily targeted at … er … men. And what’s wrong with us women that we’re so spot-welded to celebrity gossip, superficiality and the outrageous claims of pseudo-science? Anyway, we emulated iconic and commercially successful alternative publications like Private Eye and Viz in the UK. We even approached the publishers of Viz to seek backing as we figured our SHREW Magazine would be a perfect stable-mate. They pretty much laughed at us saying women would never go for it. Depressing though that was, it didn’t in any way damp our enthusiasm because we passionately believed there were like minded others out there who wanted something different, if only we could find them. As it turned out, we weren’t delusional in thinking this, we just couldn’t get to enough of them, quickly enough. The monthly print costs were unsustainable and, after five incredible editions — we had the sixth finished ready to roll — we had no choice but to call time because we had run out of runway.

People in the startup community talk glibly about the virtues of the ‘fast fail’. While it’s logical and eminently sensible to remove the life support when the condition is clearly terminal, it completely trivializes the emotional impact of doing it. Like Thuy,  pulling the plug on GreenGar, closing our magazine was one of the hardest things any of us ever had to do. We did revisit the concept a few years later and try to take it online but the moment had passed. We were no longer the same people who’d tapped into the sparking, pacy narrative of the original — it was a mistake to exhume the corpse because the magic our earlier selves had conjured up had died with it.

In common with the women in the film, I seem to have some deep-rooted and obsessive need to bring new ideas to the world or to forge my own destiny. I’m not sure which. Maybe both. Since the magazine venture, I’ve been co-founder of two tech startups.  One wasn’t commercially successful, but spawned the other . Eight years on, the jury’s still out on this one.

The truth is that most entrepreneurs don’t find the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow even after ‘serial’ attempts. The Big Buck outcomes we read so much about, which entice and tantalize and keep you in the game busting stupid hours, sucking up shitloads of stress and sleepless nights are rare. Statistically, most of us are lucky if we make any more than we might had done if we’d stayed in regular jobs, likely less.

So why do we keep on keeping on? I believe it’s not uncommon for successful entrepreneurs to became so hooked on the adrenalin of growing a global business that they resort to gambling as a substitute when they exit their ventures. I understand that. Making something that’s never existed before is one hell of a blast. That burst of creative energy it takes to get it off the ground delivers a better high than any substance I’ve tried. Better even than the endorphins from a good work out. It has to, to make up for the frequent times along the way when you stare into the abyss wondering if you’re really prepared to lose not just one shirt, but your whole wardrobe.

The stakes are most definitely high, but the compulsion to see your dream start come alive holds an allure it’s hard to describe. Of course, if you do achieve the big pay out you’re a visionary and completely vindicated in taking the risks. If you don’t make it … well … you can always sell your should and resort to dressing it up as a fast fail!

 

Watch She Started It

Cover Image from Are Female Entrepreneurs Set Up to Fail — great article and worth a read.

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