How to Succeed in Startups — Even if You’re Not a Handsome Man
How does a woman in cleantech succeed in a startup world where investors prefer handsome men? Never fear — the dynamic women on a panel at the recent startup eventVator Splash Oakland embodied evidence that women can be every bit as successful as their male counterparts.
Investor and startup coach Reena Jadhavmoderated the panel, “Startup Success Secrets — A Female Perspective.” She was joined by Carol Carpenter (Chief Marketing Officer, ClearSlide), Mary Ann Byrnes (C&M Partners), Kristin McDonnell (M33 Partners), Anne Dwane (Chief Business Officer, Chegg), and Meera Kaul (Meera Kaul Foundation).
While most of the insights shared apply to anyone trying to achieve startup success, some were especially relevant to women in cleantech. That was certainly true of what followed Jadhav’s opening remark that investors tend to favor handsome men.
Given that, what can women do to get investors’ attention? Kaul, the angel investor on the panel, said she looks for:
- Conviction, enthusiasm, skin in the game. In cleantech and sustainability, that’s not hard to find; conviction and enthusiasm are often what get us in the game.
- Customer validation, feedback from customers. This one rang true to me as an employee of a solar startup. Our task here is to ensure that the specific service we provide is useful to customers — and also that they understand the benefits of solar power in the first place. Feedback from customers is crucial to determining both.
- Whether the startup is talking to other companies in the same domain. Communication with other companies is particularly crucial in many cleantech fields, where it’s not just the startup that’s new but sometimes the field itself. Those working on an emerging technology like electric vehicles can benefit tremendously from learning what’s working for others in their area.
All the panelists agreed on the importance of networking. The message was clear: Don’t wait till you have something concrete to show. Start networking now.
Also crucial to a startup is the team, which can make the difference between mediocre and great performance. The panelists offered this advice on recruiting:
- As an important retaining technique, look for employees who are amenable to mentoring.
- Recruit via referrals.
- Take the time with your team to come up with good interview questions.
- Leave a voicemail for references and ask them to call or text back if the candidate is outstanding. Or ask the candidate to set up a time with a previous employer.
- Look for the 3 C’s: Competence, Character, Commitment.
- Value attitude over experience: look for employees who are passionate and committed. Many cleantech sectors are new enough that experienced workers may be hard to find — but these same areas tend to draw people who are in them because of their passion. So it’s good to know that this is an important quality.
- Look for people who fill your blind spots
- Hire a diverse team. Diversity in the way people think is critical — a good argument for hiring women!
What about returns on the initial investment and other outcomes? After all, a startup has to lead to some product or service offering. In this area, a range of advice was offered:
- The CEO’s role is to sell, to communicate the vision — especially important when communicating something new. The Solar Roadways project taking off recently is a great example of how a vision being communicated right can make all the difference for a cleantech startup that’s breaking out of the mold.
- Maintain flexibility in terms of expenses.
- Ensure there’s trust and accountability across the team — open, direct communication is critical.
- Focus on outcomes, not activities — not just doing things right but doing the right things.
- Develop a clear product roadmap, including a timeline for any upgrades.
To sum it all up, the panel discussed an issue that’s near to all of our hearts: balance. This one can be especially tricky for women to navigate — all the more so when we’re working on something we feel will change the world. But it’s important to bring sustainability to our own lives, as well as to the planet. The panelists each provided their own unique perspective:
- Work/life balance is a personal thing. We all need to form realistic expectations of how much we can work — and that’s different for each individual.
- One idea offered was to set aside non-negotiable times off during the week or on weekends, whether those are hours or full days.
- Along the same lines, it’s a good idea to set strict guidelines about how many nights you have dinner with the family, as well as what weekend activities you’ll fit in.
- You may not achieve balance every day. If you can lead a balanced life on balance, you are doing well.
- Reach out to others, take advantage of mentors.
- Outsource anything that doesn’t require your personal attention.
- Set your own personal expectations.
A couple final nuggets the panelists left us with: Remember that hindsight is 20-20, and don’t let fear of failure hold you back — as Kate Purmal urged us at a Women in Cleantech and Sustainability event. And also remember that it’s half what you know, and half who you know. It’s all about surrounding yourself with the best possible people.
My own takeaway? Anyone who surrounds herself with women as engaging, dynamic, and helpful as the ones on this panel will surely be on the road to success.
Photo credit: Hasain Rasheed
Rosana Francescato is Director of Communications at Sunible.com, an online marketplace that’s radically simplifying the home solar buying experience. She’s on the board of Women in Cleantech and Sustainability and the steering committee of theLocal Clean Energy Alliance. She’s been the top individual fundraiser at the GRID Alternatives Bay Area Solarthon four years in a row.