I'm a female founder. This is what it's like.
First and foremost, I want to start with an enormous thank you to our entire Whering community. To our users, friends, investors, and advisors, hitting two million downloads so early on in our journey feels surreal, and the whole team and I are so full of gratitude for everyone who made it possible. We’ve surpassed our wildest goals by a mile, and I believe this very positive achievement is something to emphasise as a founder, a team leader, and simply — a woman.
Founder, team leader, woman. In 2023 we usually don’t think twice at those three words within the same sentence. We might even correct someone when they assume somebody to be a he– not because there's a strong possibility they’re not, after all only 14% of companies globally have a solo female founder– but because the sheer assumption bias is exhaustingly frustrating.
It’s no secret that the same systemic biases also gave me a head start. As someone with a background in finance, which comes with an extensive supportive (and well-funded) network of people to lean on, I’m also a white, able-bodied woman, it’s easier for me than others. In so many ways I begin to tick the boxes of someone who is extremely investible — yet, it’s still incredibly challenging. Women in minority groups and those from working-class backgrounds are also subjected to racism and/or classism along with sexism, evident by the fact that in the U.S, for every $1 men raise in early-stage venture capital, women raise an average of $0.38, and Black women raise just $0.02. In the U.K., only 10 Black female founders have received VC funding between 2009 and 2019, and none have received late-stage funding so far. We need to recognise where our systems are failing us and figure out a solution that provides all women with an equal playing field, because truthfully, being a solo female founder can be (and in most cases is) difficult and lonely.
I find myself being met with skepticism, much higher benchmarks than my male counterparts, and frequent knowledge-probing on the other side of the pitching table. And it’s not just a ‘feeling’-- Harvard Business Review (HBR) found that male and female entrepreneurs are asked very different questions by VCs. “They tend to ask men questions about the potential for gains and women about the potential for losses,” for the most part male entrepreneurs receive promotion-oriented questions, while women receive prevention-oriented questions. An example the HBR gives in regards to the topic of customers is that a promotion-oriented question would look into customer acquisition, versus a prevention-oriented question would ask about customer retention.
While fundraising for Whering, I am constantly being asked to defend my business over and over and over again, despite all of our positive metrics and obvious product/market fit.
Yes, you have 2 million downloads, but will this growth really last? How do you plan on preventing competitors from stealing your users? Maybe you just got lucky the first time. Yes, your month-on-month growth is 6% higher than the industry benchmark, but it’s not enough. What about your user retention?
And so in turn, I begin to doubt myself: maybe I didn’t explain that as well as I could have, perhaps those numbers didn’t make sense, maybe my valuation was too ambitious, all the while subconsciously knowing my male counterparts would never be made to feel like they should be second-guessing themselves in this way.
And this male-female issue of disbelief and pessimism is not something that’s unique to the world of founders, entrepreneurs, or VCs. As a woman, not being taken at face value is something I have had to face for as long as I can remember. I know I can’t be the only one familiar with the “oh you like [insert football team name here]? Can you name every player on their team? Where did they finish in 2004?” middle-school conversation, when we know very well a man expressing a similar interest would never be probed in the same way.
This disparity in comments and questions between male and female founders doesn’t stop at just professional questions– it can veer into more personal comments, in regards to my appearance, or even in regards to the validity of my product – is an app like this really necessary? Don’t you just open up your wardrobe and pick an outfit? This seems a little vapid doesn’t it? Is it a lifestyle you’re looking for with this business idea because you love clothes? When I have just gone over market research, focus groups, and case studies showing that there is an enormous appetite for a product like this on the market (not to mention data on our existing user base).
Following our feature on Dragon’s Den, I’ve had an influx of men dismiss the product altogether and message me to tell me I’m “beautiful” or “hot.” When a man pitches his business, the predominant feedback will rarely focus on his physical appearance. Instead, people will reach out to praise his genius, his ambition, and his hard work.
The introduction to Whering on Dragons Den mentioned my background in finance and was rebranded to me “swapping stocks for frocks.” I can appreciate the humour, but at the same time also recognise the subconscious misogyny engrained in those words– it’s condescending! Being a woman with a consumer tech product that started out addressing a pain point experienced predominantly by women, I’m met so often with men that don’t ‘get it.’ Some investors have ended calls with me, telling me they’ll ask their 13-year-old daughter or their wife what they think– but hold on – I thought you were the expert? I would be happy to pitch it to your wife if you don’t get it. But that’s the problem, > 70% of the investors I meet are men (I have a spreadsheet). And of course, all of this brings us back to a very long history of power imbalance in the industry.
Hearing this kind of feedback every day is not a far stretch from beginning to believe it and ultimately convincing yourself to aim lower and make peace with smaller achievements. Anyone tuning into Dragons Den in March 2022 would have heard Peter Jones ask me: “Why have you come in here with such a ridiculous valuation?” after I pitched Whering. Looking back, thank f*ck I didn’t take that comment on board because I ended up raising at a much higher valuation a few months later given our traction.
I would love to wrap this up by telling you how I did it, but truthfully I can’t because I’m still in the thick of it months later - this is one of the worst landscapes (especially consumer) start-ups have faced in a long time, and we are all feeling it. One thing I can say is that surrounding yourself with people going through the same thing and sharing these stories is invaluable when it comes to reminding yourself that a lot of the time it actually isn’t you - it’s them.
While building a primarily B2C business might make me less investible, it does mean that on a bad day, I can open up Instagram or Twitter to see people telling us how much they love the app, or how it’s completely changed the way they view their wardrobes.
Seeing people discuss me, my pitch, my tone of voice, what I’m wearing, the app, its merits, all of it in real time, but then also seeing those who see through the bullsh*t and fight your corner– you’ll end up remembering comments like this.
She didn’t ask for a job! Missing the point! Won’t invest in her and her biz but she’ll do working for me where I can have her be brilliant for me not herself/ her biz grrrr #dragonsden how condescending— nuala murphy she/her (@nualafmurphy) March 17, 2022
And really, I feel so lucky with the incredible team I have around me and the wonderful Whering community we’ve cultivated. Hitting 2 million downloads earlier this year has just been such a boost and a testament to our hard work.
Different women in my life have been the ones to help me make sense of the wild whirlwind that is fundraising as a solo female founder, so if you’re relating to a few too many of the points I’ve mentioned and just need someone to let it all out with, my inbox is open.