This is a time of great uncertainty for us all. Many small businesses are making difficult decisions, and many will not survive the effects of this pandemic. I see businesses closing down daily as founders try to limit their risk and exposure and seek the ‘safety’ of employment instead.
Here in the UK we have a tricky situation where limited company directors are not getting proper access to financial support from the government, other than accessing the Coronavirus Business Interruption Loans Scheme. I’ve been busy lobbying for this in recent weeks, and there is a great irony in watching business leaders furlough their staff whilst not being able to receive any income support to keep the business itself running whilst they are at home. Directors are able to furlough, but are then prevented from doing any work on their business at this time. Nonsensical of course, especially as the self-employed scheme (which is not open to company directors) rightly allows individuals to continue working through the pandemic whilst also in receipt of the grant.
So my mind has naturally focused upon what it takes to succeed in business even in the best of times, and on my work, which is supporting, inspiring, protecting and championing female entrepreneurs.
We are a small group and we have very specific challenges, which I advocate for on a regular basis (despite feeling like a lone voice more often than not). It’s estimated that around 70% of female business owners generate an income of less than £25,000 per annum, and only 5% generate more than £100,000 per annum. I work with ambitious women who want to grow their business, and as you can see, the pool is quite small and needs strategic targeted measures to increase it.
We suffer from a lack of centralised, cohesive training and support; a lack of confidence and self-belief; all the problems that come from operating in a male-dominated environment; a lack of funding; and we are often our own worst enemies in that we lack ambition, we don’t put ourselves forward for opportunities, and put pressure on ourselves to move too fast (particularly for those who are also primary care givers in the home).
I have made a number of grant and loan applications this month, so that I can accelerate my plans around The Greenhouse, The Broadroom, and my Legal-Easy online solutions. I want to reach more women than ever, and more quickly, so that I can give solid support at this time to prevent women from giving up.
I’m also conscious that a new group of women are likely to be turning to entrepreneurship, either as a result of redundancy, or economic need in their household. If those women can access high quality start-up support effectively, they have a much better chance of early success than if they are floundering around, looking for help via Google or in the dangerous world of social media (which, as an aside, has been alight with incorrect and false business advice this month – it’s been horrendous to see how many people rely on the voice of a stranger online instead of being able to access proper professional support).
What we really need
So against that backdrop, I thought I would share some of the insights from research around what women in business actually need. My business plan is based upon putting in place a powerful community and a collaborative network to eventually form a ‘one stop shop’ that will empower female leaders to create a sustainable and commercially sound business operation – and protect them from the things which most commonly go wrong, by being honest and encouraging proactive action.
What I hope to do isto get this business plan accelerated by accessing the funding to allow me to do so. I’ve already lined up the A-Team (female version, anyway) who will stand alongside me to lead this movement.
We all understand that the impacts of Covid-19 are also bringing opportunity to review, reflect, rebuild.
The need for powerful female leadership, and building businesses with compassion, creativity and calm strength has never been more important. The voices of reason, kindness, honesty and collaboration need to be raised.
THE TOP TEN
Here’s my list of the top 10 things that female founded businesses need to succeed:
- A safe community for growth. A place where those who are just starting out can go to ask questions, get trusted advice and support, work alongside those on a similar journey, and be in contact with role models who are further along that journey. The more women who see becoming an entrepreneur is absolutely possible, the more women we’ll see running successful businesses and being ambitious for growth. Hence The Greenhouse and The Broadroom both have this community support at their core. It’s essential and for women it’s like oxygen, but it MUST be trustworthy and a safe space. Too many communities – especially online – are just breeding grounds for sales, pitches, unscrupulous and dangerous advice. Safety and trust are key.
- Female to female mentoring and coaching. We need to feel confident to take up more space and speak up to be heard in male-dominated environments. Having a strong mentor or coach relationship to focus on your self belief and provide guidance and accountability is a very powerful tool for increasing confidence and focus. It’s not usually affordable for most women in startup mode, hence why the community referred to above is so important. You can then access group coaching and training which will give you confidence and valuable insights. Informal buddying arrangements can allow access to a mentor further along the journey for support. You can also sign up to mentor others, and often get as much value from that process as the mentee does. We’re all constantly learning.
- Self belief and a strong mindset. All the research has pointed to the fact that women in business need support to believe in themselves and their own abilities, and to take more courageous action. As a coach, I’ve seen this hundreds of times with incredible women I work with – all lacking confidence and needing to be encouraged to take steps forward and past fear. And it’s something I work on daily in myself, using my own coach and my peer mastermind for support. Sadly, we weren’t brought up to think entrepreneurially, and so we need to overcome deep set beliefs and create new ways of thinking. Our challenge – particularly as parents – is also to ensure that the next generation of girls are not handicapped with the same societal beliefs that have held us back.
- Strong commercial and finance education. Well, I would say this wouldn’t I? But with cash flow being the number one cause of business failure generally, and against a backdrop of women not being taken seriously, we have to fix this and fast. All start-ups should have access to small business finance education and start as they mean to go on, producing cash flow projections, managing overheads and spend on an ongoing basis, setting financial targets and tracking revenue. All start-ups should be able to put in place simple customer contracts, ensure their websites and trading processes are legally compliant and feel confident understanding issues around IPR, supplier relationships, insurances, how to manage bad debtors. This doesn’t need to be complex, but it does need to be done early doors in a business, otherwise this group is not being set up for success from the outset. My Legal-Easy online solution is set to be launched bigger and better in the month ahead, exactly for this reason.
- Redefining the definition of success. The option of self-employment is going to help a lot of parents out of unemployment and help improve the lives of lots of families, but they will only succeed if they get access to smart support in the crucial early years. Case studies of uber-successful business leaders can be very intimidating, with “that will never be me” and comparison-itis kicking in, which is a killer of dreams and progress. Providing real-life and accessible role models helps to challenge that definition of success and demonstrate its various forms. Most women don’t aspire to own a million pound business and drive a Ferrari; they want simpler metrics such as replacing (and then increasing) their previous employed income; freedom from structure and oppressive corporate cultures; flexible ways of working; to make a difference in their community; to provide a better life for their families; and simply to enjoy doing work that brings them joy.
- Media and PR. Having said that, we absolutely need high-profile female entrepreneurs to be given the media attention they deserve. Women business founders are often braver and have taken more risks en route than their male counterparts, but they currently aren’t given recognition in the same way. We need more role models to inspire us, more stories to help us believe we can do it too, and opportunities for us to be more courageous in shouting out about our own achievements too. We need the media to work with us to provide constant voicing of our challenges and celebrate our progress.
- Healthy competition. We need to create an environment where ambition is encouraged, demonstrating a hunger to succeed is attractive, and where failing is seen as a good thing: an informative way to learn from your mistakes and make different decisions next time. We want to see collaboration as the main tool for success, where women are supporting each other and partnering up, but also a competitive culture, where we are collectively and individually aspire for more.
- To be taken seriously. As a female CEO it is culturally difficult to be taken seriously, and indeed we can be our own worst enemies and not take our own businesses seriously either. Too often we get badged as having a hobby or a ‘lifestyle’ business, something to do from home around the kids and be patted on the head for. Backhanded compliments such as, “You’re doing so well, I didn’t think you would make it this far!” or “I think it’s so wonderful that you’ve managed to create your little business from home.” This is where a safe community can offer that essential emotional support for female entrepreneurs, so we can share frustrations but quickly move on to a more productive state. We can’t change the culture overnight, but with a more ambitious environment and a deeper self-belief coupled with supported and strategic action, results will speak for themselves. It all starts with taking yourself seriously, and being surrounded by others in the same mindset.
- Leadership training. In order to succeed, women need to adopt a leadership style which feels natural and right for them, to bring out the best in themselves and their team. However many of us have been immersed in corporate alpha-leadership and become bogged down in beliefs around needing to be strong, directive, bullish and hustling our way to success through sheer sweat and swearing. A new style of leadership, based upon more feminine traits of compassion, intuition, collaboration and creative thinking is emerging and allowing us to finally use our voices in a more authentic way to inspire others and solve problems with honesty and tenacity. Getting women access to this thought leadership and surrounding them with role models is accelerating this movement and bringing forward a new wave of empowered strong role models.
- Funding. Last but by no means least in this list, we come to the money bit. I’ve shared the shocking stats on this elsewhere and will continue to shout about it, but access to both loans and capital investment for female founded businesses is near damn impossible. As a result of the 2019 Rose Report we remain hopeful that new avenues will open up however in the short term we need tacit recognition and an ongoing voice to communicate that this remains a source of frustration and a very important obstacle to growth. I’m part of the Natwest Accelerator scheme which has ‘women in business’ as its stated priority. Though I must confess that I asked whether I could have preferential access to the CBILS as a result of my participation, and the answer without any hesitation was no. Surprising, but alas not surprising at all. I’ve been fighting this good fight for a good few years now and I’m used to the rejection and the lack of foresight. That’s why I’m creating community in order to raise the collective voice so that it becomes too loud to ignore.
Outside of the main list, I also have to add childcare, which is an issue for so many, especially during school holidays. Managing the routine and day to day demands of raising a young family, alongside long hours and a hectic work schedule of building a startup – even with the help of your spouse, family and friends – is really difficult. At its simplest level, we need to keep talking about this and take the pressure of trying to ‘have it all, do it all’. There will be times in business growth where a female founder simply needs to take her foot off the gas, and being able to make these choices around her family without judgment or censure is essential. The traditional view of business growth suggests a linear upward trajectory and this is detrimental to the way that female founded businesses need to grow. We tend to build more sustainable and consistent businesses, rather than going for fast growth and overnight success story. Often this is because we are spinning a million other plates in tandem, and having society recognise and value (celebrate!) this is essential. Never has this issue been more in the spotlight than now, with many female entrepreneurs having to either stop, slow down, or place themselves under extreme stress in order to balance having children at home.
What do you think? What else would you add? What do you agree with, what do you not agree with?
This list is not meant to be exhaustive btw. All areas overlap each other, and need to be accessed cohesively and effectively. I also want to make it clear that I am not a raving feminist, and what we as women in business need most of all (as in life generally) is to work seamlessly alongside our male counterparts. But we can’t get away from the fact that being a female founded business owner brings its own specific challenges, and progress in equality has not yet evolved fast enough to welcome and support us. So my work is about levelling that playing field, so that women gain more confidence, a more powerful voice, and the education and support that they need to step up and out.
It also doesn’t detract from the fact that in order to succeed any business first and foremost needs a great idea, a lot of hard work, high quality delivery, committed customer service, and of course transformational results for its customers. I see too many women setting up in business and spending money on fancy pants websites, logos and branding, social media campaigns… before they’ve even got their hands dirty just selling and delivering and getting early results and feedback.
Business is about serving and helping people to solve problems. Most women love to help and love to serve, and that’s where our distinct edge will lie as business owners. If you can be part of a strong community led by trusted mentors, work alongside a collaborative peer group, build your confidence by taking consistent action against a sensible business plan, and access ongoing Business 101 training and support (ideally with funding to cement your progress), then you’re going to be a powerful force to be reckoned with.
I mean, WE are going to be a powerful force to be reckoned with.
The future for women in business is collaboration.
And that’s what will make all the difference.
Thanks for reading and please do share with me your thoughts. Let’s keep talking. Now is not the time to give up.