“Sometimes naïveté can build confidence,” says Melanie Travis, CEO and founder of America’s fastest-growing online swimwear brand Andie Swim. “Knowing too much about the challenging parts of starting a business could scare you away from ever starting at all.”
That said, she and two other female entrepreneurs were happy to share the lessons they learned while successfully scaling their small businesses. To celebrate Small Business Week, Dell Small Business (a WeWork enterprise member) and WeWork invited Travis; Creator Awards winner Karen Young, founder and CEO of OuiShave, a sustainable women’s shaving company; and Amber Lee, cofounder of Visual Country, a creative shop specializing in Instagram and social content creation to WeWork 81 Prospect St in Brooklyn, NY. They shared their stories with moderator Tanya Klich, associate small business editor at Forbes, digging deep into what lies beyond growth and expansion when you’re at the helm of a small business.
Of the 36 percent of businesses in the U.S. that are women-owned, only 22 percent are able to scale past $1 million per year in revenue, according to the 2017 State of Women Owned Businesses. Here are the lessons that helped these founders navigate their growing pains.
Exhaust all options when fundraising
Resilience and persistence are essential attributes on the fundraising trail, the founders say.
“It was a lot of men hanging the phone up in my face,” said Young, a member at WeWork 81 Prospect St, of her early attempts to raise money. “Shaving is owned by only five companies in the world, and here I was, a black woman from Brooklyn, like, ‘y’all better let me in.’”
By persevering through repeated rejection, Young was able to find partners who believed in her and would invest. “It took a lot of knocking on doors—until I finally reached a woman who thought ‘why don’t we have that?’” she said. Winning $180,000 from WeWork at the 2017 Creator Awards helped her grow the business: Last year, OuiShave grew revenue by 350 percent.
Travis’s first attempts at traditional fundraising also failed. After knocking on the doors of people she knew in Manhattan asking for investment, she turned to alternative fundraising—and raised $20,000 via crowdfunding in two weeks. “I cobbled together another $100,000 from friends of families, which really just means high-wealth people who will bootstrap you,” said Travis, a member at WeWork 214 W 29 St in New York.
Delegation = balance
“In the beginning, you’re doing everything,” explained Lee, who runs a 15-person creative shop specializing in Instagram and social content creation. “I was our lawyer, which I would not advise. As the business grew, saving time came from delegating down; you want to do everything to save money, but at some point you need balance.”
Strategic hires can bring key strengths to the table. In the early days, Travis was too preoccupied with selling product to prioritize team culture. But in hiring her second employee, she found a partner who could manage that aspect of the business. “She really cared about the culture, and I’m so thankful for her efforts,” Travis said. “Two years later, culture is a core part of our company. We have a 100 percent hit rate of extending a prospect an offer and that person coming on board.”
Tap your personal strengths
Both Travis and Young said they knew very little about manufacturing and distributing the products they were launching—but they knew their respective categories needed innovating and marketing to their target demographic.
Before launching OuiShave, Young worked in production design and managed artists creating Estée Lauder product packaging. “At Estée Lauder, the hot topic was how to communicate with younger audiences,” she said. To her, the answer was simple: “Have authentic conversations and connect with women.” It’s a philosophy she’s successfully applied at OuiShave in order to grow their online reach.
While Travis had vast marketing experience, she knew very little about manufacturing swimsuits. So she struck a strategic partnership with an established manufacturer, which helped pave the way for Andie Swim’s growth. “I showed that we had a brand that resonated,” she explains. “I said, ‘You know how to make good swimsuits at good prices. I’ll give you equity in exchange for production and distribution.’”
Build for your customer
All three entrepreneurs place an emphasis on truly understanding customer needs. “We really try to be thoughtful about each and every product,” Young said. “Today we were sitting around holding bottles of our new shave creme, talking about how it felt in your hand.” The little details, she said, really matter.
Travis and her team design their swimsuits based solely on customer feedback. “We don’t have a designer on staff,” she said. “Everything from the photos to the messaging we use—we get feedback. We sit in our WeWork office, and one of us will swivel around and say ‘Did you see that comment?’” The unique fits and fabrics of the Andie Swim line are all informed by customers, Travis said. Listening to those insights helped her company exceed $1 million in revenue each month.
Few companies can do everything on their own. Tanya Klich called out programs like Dell’s Small Business Advisor, which supports small businesses scaling for free when it comes to tech infrastructure, security, data management, and more.
Young credits Shopify for helping build scale by creating a versatile and robust online consumer experience, while Lee leans on cloud-based products like Dropbox to collaborate with her cofounder and teams who work in different cities.
No matter the stage of your business, scaling challenges affect the most seasoned and the newest entrepreneurs. As these women shared, tackling these obstacles is all part of the journey.
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