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Lessons from Women Tech Entrepreneurs – 2015

WiTT hosted its annual Women Tech Entrepreneurs panel session on November 18th, during Global Entrepreneurship Week. The event was held at Campus, and refreshments were very kindly sponsored by Google. The panel comprised Vicky Brock, Founder and CEO of Clear Returns; Sarah Turner, Director of Digital Strategy, Turner Hopkins and Founder, Angel Academe; and Amy Weatherup, a serial entrepreneur and Cambridge Angel. Audrey Mandela, WiTT chair and co-founder of Multimap, took the chair.

Each panel member briefly described her business and her journey to becoming a successful entrepreneur. This was then followed by an extensive and highly informative Q&A which provided honest and practical advice and experiences.

Q1 – Each panelist was asked to tell us what her worst and best decisions were.

Vicky said the best decision she made was to be patient and look for the right idea. It took two years to find and on the way she learned some of the skills you need to get there. How do you decide when you have got the right idea? She suggested getting four or five people into a room for the weekend. Pay them to come. Pitch your idea at them and get them to try to destroy it. If it is still standing at the end – go for it!

The worst decision she made was to found the business with people who were not themselves putting cash in. Her advice: always make sure that everyone has “skin in then game.”

Amy’s best decision was to get into start-ups young! At the time she had no job so in a way was forced to do it. But you have less to lose before you have a mortgage and family to support.

The worst decisions were all around recruitment. If your guts tell you someone is wrong don’t hire them or if you do and you are right, part company as quickly as you can, within the first three months or faster. Always take up references, particularly from people you know.

Sarah’s worst decision was going into business with co-founders who were friends but who were not aligned with her business objectives. Her best decision: to just do it! But she advises would-be entrepreneurs to test out their ideas as a side project first of they can.

Q2 – When you were looking for investment, were you treated differently because you were women?

Sarah: I have heard horror stories about women not being taken seriously by investors but I actually think that these are quite isolated instances. Most good guys want to help! In my view a diverse group of investors is best. From that point of view we need to add more women to the investor pool which is what Angel Academe is trying to do. Diversity in my view is very important.

Vicky: Try to make sure you have a choice and that you don’t need the money when you go to raise it. In my company 60% of the shareholders are female and they hold 75% of the equity. I walked away from a £100,000 angel round because it wasn’t right for the business. They told me to fire my husband as they didn’t like “pillow talk” – I turned down their offer!

Amy: I was the only female investor in the 1990s so the good thing was I tended to get recognized and remembered.   Cambridge Angels [Amy is currently one of only two women in this angel network] is mainly men and there are not many female-led businesses in Cambridge. We also need more women to be entrepreneurs, to be the CEO. It is less a challenge now than when I started. We need to avoid the “ask permission” culture.

Vicky: “Entrepreneur” has a started to have a specific profile – i.e., someone who goes out and raises millions. We need to move away from this image. It’s not about raising money — it’s about running a successful business, large or small. Entrepreneurs should build the business that is right for them and not get too far outside their comfort zones.

Q3. How did you find your first 10 employees?

Vicky: The first four came on board for no pay and a small number of options for the first year. They were as committed to the business as I was. We also focus on grads and returners as these are both at the lower pay levels but can be very effective workers if given the right support.

Amy: Recognize mistakes as earlier as you can. We only hired people once we had a contract so that we could be sure to have cash to pay them.

Sarah: We have used volunteers to get the Angel Academe going and it has been very effective.

Q4. What’s your view on options?

Amy: We gave options to everyone. My advice is, don’t be stingy. We gave the first six around 1% each and then used smaller amounts for later recruits.

Vicky: I disagree to some extent. We have given the first 10 employees some options which only execute on exit. The whole option pool is only 5% of the share capital.

Sarah: Investors tend to want to ensure that the key employees have options. This is generally quite standard.

Q4: Do you have Good leaver/Bad leaver clauses in your option schemes?

All three panel members said that they did have good leaver/bad leaver clauses but that at the end of the day it was up to the board.

Q5: What single piece of advice would you give a budding entrepreneur?

Sarah: Identify a problem that has a big enough market to make a good business.

Vicky: De-risk chunks of your business idea by outsourcing.

Make sure people know when things are going well or that people have done well – we have a Triumphs Friday!

Amy: Talk to people about your idea. Academics are always worried about their ideas getting pinched and so don’t talk about their ideas enough. You can’t develop them properly in a vacuum.

Get customer money in as early as you can to kick-start the business and test its viability. Trust your gut feel.

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