Rebekah Campbell: “There are so many advantages in being a female founder.”
Female founders are hot property. The country needs more start-ups, and women represent just 4 per cent of people who launch technology companies. A succession of conferences and white papers address this issue: why are there not more female-led companies?
Three years ago I launched Posse, now named Hey You, an app to order and pay at cafes and restaurants. Creating and building a technology company is heavy going for anyone.
Raising capital, making mistakes, running out of capital, inspiring teams on low budgets to work hard for long periods with no end in sight, yet hanging on to optimism, realism and sticking with the vision is tough.
I launched my start-up with great enthusiasm. I read biography after biography of start-up superstars – Steve Jobs, Elon Musk, Rupert Murdoch, Barry Diller – and imagined copying their words, actions and mannerisms. To become successful, I thought I’d need to become like them.
But as my journey unfolded, I learned that I’m different. It’s hard to tell if my experiences of life as a start-up founder are specific to being female or unique to being me. I suspect that women do face different challenges.
Here are some of mine:
1. It’s lonely
There are very few other women in the ecosystem. Earlier this year, I raised our latest capital round; I pitched our company about 50 times to Australian corporate and venture funds, each time to an average of three investors, so 150 people in total. I had one woman at one meeting. Out of the 122 angel and professional investors in Hey You, there are no women. Despite significant efforts, I’ve yet to recruit a female engineer.
There are lots of fantastic men in our industry, some of whom are involved in Hey You and have invested both money and hours of advice. But I suspect my relationship with them differs from their relationships with male founders. I may be invited out for coffee or occasionally lunch, never to dinner, the pub or to sports. The business support is there but the personal backup is missing.
2. I handle stress differently
In a start-up, every week is an emotional roller coaster. Once, things became extremely tough. Team morale was low, we hadn’t yet found a financial model that worked, key members had left and I couldn’t afford to replace them. We downgraded from our funky Surry Hills warehouse office to a dark, cold Redfern garage.
Motivation was low, team members slumped in and out, glum and lethargic. Everything slowed down and we needed more capital. The end was on the horizon. Determined not to lose our investors’ money, I worked long hours to try to kickstart the company into growth. I was exhausted, and dreaded that month’s board meeting. An unfriendly director hammered me on our metrics and productivity.
I’ve seen men in this situation and they fight back. Perhaps they bang the table and speak in a loud voice, but I’m wired differently. I cried. My all-male board looked back at me, perplexed, wondering what to do next.
3. I’m no Steve Jobs
Start-up founders have to be able to make stuff happen. We can’t wait around for months being nice to everyone. My research of other successful founders led me to think I had to act like Steve Jobs to be successful. Our team has now grown to 45. I’ve found it hard to direct young, energetic groups of developers, product designers, sales, marketing and operations to jointly focus on our objectives. We’re all inexperienced and we all think we have the right answers.
In an effort to keep on-track, I found myself channelling Steve Jobs – running strict meetings and dictating outcomes. It didn’t feel right, but I had to balance retaining motivation alongside clear strategic direction. That’s not easy. I asked a mentor to observe one of our meetings, and he made this observation. “You are using hammer mode. The hammer is the most ineffective of all leadership styles, and for you it is very unnatural. You are good at other types of leadership that most people find difficult. Stick with them.”
That was it! I’d spent the first three years of my start-up journey thinking I had to act like a man in order to make it. The only people I’d read about were men and, when I discovered couldn’t emulate their styles, I felt inadequate. The role of founder is difficult, whether male or female. I have qualities that are distinctly mine. My style is my own; I’m not afraid to show my emotions when I need to, and I strive to lead with my strengths – inspiration, care and integrity.
4. Individual styles
There are so many advantages in being a female founder. We are rare. We get more media coverage, are asked to speak on more conference panels and stand out in a room of mainly male investors. We have our individual styles. My advice to female founders starting out on this crazy adventure is to embrace yours. I thought I had to act like a man because it appeared the only available role models were men.
Since then, I’ve sought out other women at different stages on their start-up journeys. These friends and mentors provide great emotional support and, rather than trying to emulate the style of someone completely different from me, I try to recognise approaches and skills in others who are similar to, but more advanced, than me. I seek to learn from them in order to become a better version of me rather than someone else.