Written by Sarah Pumffrey
Research has found that the potential of female entrepreneurs is going untapped in the UK, with men finding it easier to raise funding for their start-ups. We explore five key challenges faced by female entrepreneurs and how to overcome them.
A study by the Women’s Business Council has shown that the UK economy is missing out on more than 1.2m new enterprises due to the untapped business potential of women. The research also found that male entrepreneurs find it far easier to raise funding for their start-ups than female entrepreneurs. It’s clearly not a level playing field, but the UK does have plenty of inspiring female entrepreneurs who have created thriving businesses. We asked some of them what challenges they faced at the beginning – and how they overcame them.
The challenge: raising funds
Entrepreneurs need to ‘big up’ their business in order to attract investment. “Some women find this incredibly hard as we generally downplay our strengths,” says Melanie Lawson, founder of health supplement brand Bare Biology. “Men often also lack confidence, but tend to be much more comfortable winging it.”
Xanthe Vaughan Williams, co-founder and director of Fourth Day PR, agrees. “It’s always appealing to hear from someone brimming with confidence and enthusiasm about very large numbers,” she says. “Women are often more pragmatic and realistic about future prospects, which isn’t necessarily what an investor wants to hear.”
The solution: “Don’t be afraid to speak up and believe in yourself,” says Helen Wang, who founded healthy snacks business Abakus Foods two years ago and now has products in over 500 stores. “Women tend to be more shy when it comes to self-promotion. This is something we need to overcome by giving ourselves a nudge sometimes.”
Remember, however, that you need to offer substance, as well as style. “Be clear what you need the funding for,” says Juliet Barratt, co-founder and chief marketing officer of sports performance and active nutrition brand Grenade. “Don’t borrow too much or too little, and speak to friends, family or local businesses who are in a similar position as you or recently had investment or borrowing. Ask them about their experience and who they used. Be sure you need the investment or funding and are comfortable with the amount of equity and terms of the investment.”
If borrowing makes you uncomfortable, look at what funds you can raise yourself. Instead of raising money, Wang saved up in her previous job in finance. “This gave me the start-up capital needed and since then, I’ve been bootstrapping, by reinvesting proceeds back into the business to fund organic growth,” she says.
“Being bootstrapped means that you build a really good business foundation, having to make things work from day one and to apply discipline with your budget. And also, it gives you the freedom to run your own business.”
The challenge: lack of expertise
Niamh Barker, founder of The Travelwrap Company, which sells cashmere wraps, describes being flung in the deep end when she founded her business.
“The hardest thing was trying to be an expert in everything from legal dealings with Companies House to SEO and marketing, in other words wearing too many ‘hats’ and knowing I was not an expert at any of it,” she says.
The solution: “Reaching out to others who have been there and done it definitely helps to avoid some pitfalls and make faster progress,” says Wang.
As your business grows, Barker recommends passing roles you’re uncomfortable with over to others. “My other tip is: read loads,” she says. “I read business books all the time.”
Lara Morgan, a motivational speaker and co-founder of British-based portable aromatherapy brand Scentered, agrees that outside advice can be invaluable.
“Whatever the challenge, I’ve always sought the advice of experts. I use humility to get answers to the information I need,” she says. “I read and learn continually on every subject under the business banner. Also, learn your finances, use technology to the best of its benefits, and employ people smarter than yourself.”
Expert support can be invaluable, agrees business coach Shirley Hensher. “Good business mentoring and coaching will ensure that entrepreneurs have robust business cases and a well-presented pitch,” she says.
The challenge: juggling work and family
Childcare responsibilities and workload can overlap and finding the balance can be difficult. “The pressure of juggling a family and work is tough,” says Barratt.
The solution: “Don’t be afraid to ask for help or advice from family and friends, and be prepared to work hard,” says Barratt.
It’s important to be organised, disciplined and flexible. “Ad hoc childcare or domestic chores need to be put to one side,” Hensher says. “Set boundaries and routine so that working time is respected – by everyone, including yourself. Get out of the house and away from distractions, and look for lunchtime and evening networking events that fit better with your lifestyle.”
The challenge: being too trusting
In Lawson’s experience, women are often more trusting than men and more willing to give people a chance – but she says this can create a challenge in business. “Starting out, I didn’t always do a huge amount of due diligence, especially with service suppliers – although I did a huge amount with the supply chain for my physical products,” she says. “I wasted a fair amount of money on people who talked a good game but didn’t deliver.”
The solution: “I’ve learned to spend much more time checking people out, generally only going with personal recommendations, and to have much more confidence in my own abilities and judgement,” says Lawson. “If I have any kind of doubts about people now, I go with my instincts.”
The challenge: perfectionism
“Some women strive for perfection, partly driven by a lack of confidence but also due to an inherent trait to be conscientious,” says Lawson. “It’s easier to lose sight of the bigger picture if you’re obsessing over tiny details. Even if you think it’s perfect, someone else won’t. It’s subjective and relative.”
The solution: Lawson recommends ditching perfectionism. “I’m not saying launch a shoddy, ill-conceived and badly executed idea, but there’s no such thing as the perfect service or product: you’ll never be happy and it won’t see the light of day,” she says.
“My approach is to adjust as you go along, learn from everything, and make changes to the next iteration. No business launches with the perfect, finalised product and even if they did, they’d soon have to update it.”
Williams agrees: “You’ll make mistakes whatever you do, so try to avoid wasting time on long deliberation about anything that isn’t critical – and on worrying about it afterwards,” she says.