During the Venture Forward Series at The Riveter, three advisors from the Seattle startup ecosystem — Sally Bergesen, founder and CEO of Oiselle; Julie Sandler, managing director at Pioneer Square Labs; and Martina Welkoff, Founding Partner, WXR Fund — offered advice to three female founders on how to take community to the next level — from balancing content versus product to optimize customer engagement, to scaling a community-based tech platform, to navigating the VC funding path.
The art of balancing a two-sided marketplace
Intentionalist founder and CEO Laura Clise created an
The Intentionalist has raised $37,000 through both crowdfunding and self-funding, and is seeking seed financing based on a pilot including 15 Seattle-based companies. The platform works as a two-sided marketplace, providing content about the local business community and an interactive shopping guide. While Clise has a strong proof of concept and a functioning product, there’s still work to do in terms of the “stickiness” of the user experience.
“I’m allocating time and resources to hitting milestones on awareness, use, and engagement. How can I balance the need to deliver on the product experience, while at the same time ensuring that content is where it needs to be?”
Martina Welkhoff, WXR Fund founding partner, advised Clise not to give up on content. “I fall on both sides of the spectrum when it comes to content vs. product,” said Welkhoff. “Both are important and getting the right balance is an art.”
She recommended leveraging the partnerships that Neville has developed. “What content creation can you outsource for mutual benefit so you don’t necessarily need to spend more money?,” she asked. She also suggested looking for production efficiencies through script collaboration or creative formulas for content creation.
Julie Sandler, managing director at Pioneer Square Labs, advised Clise to tap into the powerful community that’s already engaging with The Intentionalist.
Sandler suggested using social media or focus groups for feedback from the site’s users and fans. “Ask them how bad the experience really is,” she said. “Ask what they would prioritize.”
“You have, I suspect, a secret weapon that a vast majority of companies don’t have,” added Sander, “which is that you have a trusted line of communication … what an advantage that is!”
Sally Bergesen, founder and CEO of Oilselle, which she started in 2007, shared that as more companies jumped on the “by women for women” bandwagon, she needed to prioritize her position as a community designed for the female athlete. “You have to put community first and foremost in your storytelling,” said Bergesen. “Never stop storytelling. Get scrappy. Get creative. That’s what gets everybody feeling it.”
Getting funded in a .2% world
As a rising professional in the startup and tech industry, Sage Ke’alohilani Quiamno realized that a conversation was missing. “People talk about feminism, but no one talks about the intersectionality of feminism,” said Quiamno. “We’re not addressing the needs or challenges that face women of color in the workplace.”
She co-founded Future for Us, a platform to advance women of color through community, culture and career development, to fill that gap. Since launching in January 2019, Future For Us has grown to a community of 5,000 professional women, and Quiamno has raised $150K through bootstrapping and crowdfunding.
With so many community platforms proliferating the market, she believes venture capital funding is critical to differentiate and scale the business as a tech platform. However, she’s conscious of the challenges women of color founders face raising money. “Most of the time being a woman of color will either limit or won’t allow you to get funding,” said Quiamno, noting that black female founders are only able to raise an average of $36,000 for their companies and they receive less than .2% of VC capital.
“Having pitched 100 times since last September, these stats feel very real to me. As a woman of color, how can I position myself to succeed? How can I pitch my company to VC firms in a way that gets me across the line to get actual funding or interest?”
Sandler advised Quiamno to approach the funding process as a two-way conversation.
“The average U.S. marriage lasts 5 years,” Sandler said. “The average mentor relationship, especially for Series C onward, lasts 7 to 11 years and it’s a lot harder to get out of. You need to make sure you want to work with them through both good times and bad.”
Sandler didn’t discount the barriers and biases, but suggested that approaching the pitch as a two-way evaluation process will create an important dynamic between the investor and founder that should not be underestimated.
“It’s a position of strength that I’d say the underrepresented founder does not always come into the conversation with,” observed Sandler. “Irrespective of your background, irrespective of the stats, treat it like a two-way diligence process and conversation. Own that.”
She also advised her to push through innate biases by focusing on the big picture. “Talk about the big swing, the moonshot that you’re willing to take, as opposed to getting caught in the traffic light of answering every detail about your cost structure.”
Bergesen shared a question that one of her mentors asked her when she first started Oiselle, “Do you want to be rich or do you want to be queen?”
“Do you want to grow a company to lead it? To employ people? To be part of the fabric of a community?,” she asked. “There are all sorts of different goals other than to be rich, which is so often what the VCs are looking for.”
She told Quiamno that if her goal is the latter, she needs to structure her conversation accordingly. “The VCs are going to want to know how quickly you can ramp it up, how you’re going to gas the tanks and what your exit plan is,” she said. “It’s often a spend, grow, lose money, grow, exit cycle.”
She added that the other route, may take longer but can offer more control.
“It took us a long time to get to profitability,” said Bergesen, “and I learned that if I was profitable, there’d be a bank there to back me and we could grow at a gradual rate thoughtfully, with a story and a rationale. It’s just a choice you have to make as the founder.”
Welkhoff advised Quiamno to do her research and hone her pitch. She observed that one advantage founders have today is all the information about VCs available online through content and social media. “You can get a sense of a person and their values from their online presence,” said Welker. “Seek out the people in the venture community who exemplify the values you’d like to see in a partner.”
Welker then encouraged Quiamno to work her network. “You have this incredible community of 5,000 women and I bet people in that community know people you want to work with,” Welkhoff said. “Make a “wish list” of the top 10 people you want to meet and then try to get to those people through trusted relationships.”
Going big, global and boldly growing an ed-tech company
After spending time in foreign service in Vietnam, Pakistan and Iraq, teaching high school and founding Transcend Academy, a D.C.-based national college preparation service, Tina Tran Neville turned her eyes to emerging markets where she discovered an enormous demand for certified North American teachers.
“Native English-speaking teachers are really prized,” said Neville. “There are 2 billion people who want to learn and there’s only 250,000 teachers.”
She cofounded Lana, to connect North American teachers with students through a proprietary video conferencing software, in late 2018.
Neville is bootstrapping the English language learning program with revenue from her first company and it’s “paying her bills”, but this time around she is ready to scale a high growth company.
“I want to go big and I’m owning that as a woman,” Neville said. “I love saying that. I used to say I was building a lifestyle business but now I am inspired by the community around me to be bold.”
Neville and her team have built the technology and have a paying customer base. With Lana recently launched in Vietnam, Thailand and China, Neville is developing her business strategy through 2020.
“For the next 18 months what are the key metrics we need to focus on as we build our initial team and scale? What are the business strategies I should be thinking about as we try to go big and go global?”
Welkhoff commended Neville for generating revenue already. “The task now is to turn a sustainable business with organic growth into a company with hyper growth,” she said.
“This is an overused cliché, but it’s about how you’re going to ‘pour the gasoline’ on it,” said Welkhoff. “You want to tell the story that with this amount of capital you are going to take off and be a global dominating force.”
She told Neville to start by interrogating what’s working and not working.
“It’s crucial to evaluate where there’s traction, where there’s engagement and where there’s conversion,” said Welkhoff. “Look for indications that people want more … and that more people will want it.”
Sandler advised Neville to build a “growth” narrative that connects the founder story, the point of differentiation and metrics.
“One of the first things VCs look for is a founder who comes across as the only person who can build this vision,” shared Sandler. “They want a founder who’s creating something in a massive market who’s just the inevitable person to be attacking the opportunity.”
She pointed to Neville’s background as a compelling foundation.
“There’s a thread connecting all of your experiences that led you to solve this huge problem and create a huge opportunity in a way that very few people could,” said Sandler. “You combine that with some natural talents and it’s a perfect recipe.”
She added that the vast majority of founders that she interacts with at the early stages are not building the infrastructure to track data around repeat customers and referrals. “It’s kind of hard to do at that level of granularity, so build it from the ground up with an eye toward telling that story with your data.”
Bergesen encouraged Neville to tie her brand story to the emotional funnel of expanding horizons for people through her business.
“You are bringing the world closer together and helping people cross cultural barriers,” Bergesen said. “The idea of expanding horizons is so meaningful and understandable so don’t lose sight of that.”
Christina Vuleta runs Break The Future, a consultancy focused on brand and product strategy that positions companies for growth.