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There is a giant push for more female entrepreneurs right now led up by empowering initiatives and resources like Change the Ratio, Women 2.0, WITI, and The Daily Muse.
With so much support and encouragement from the growing women in tech community, now is definitely a great time to take your step and run after your dreams.
But as a female entrepreneur myself, I would like to take this time to share some of my experiences and missteps as a female starting up in tech, so other females can look out for and avoid similar situations.
Before we begin: This is a very personal story that has been hard for me to share. I was finally prompted to write about my experience thanks to a few other women sharing their voices through recent articles. In particular, the recent post and advice from Rachel and Cindy.
The search for a cofounder isn’t that different from the search for a soulmate. You’ve heard it many times before - picking a cofounder is like picking a husband or wife. It is. You are looking for someone who gets you, your way of thinking, why you’re creating the product, and where you want it to be. You are looking for someone to be completely in sync with.
This creates a rather challenging situation for female entrepreneurs seeking a technical cofounder, most of who are male.
What I’m about to share is probably a very unusual startup horror story:
I left my first job shortly out of college to work on my startup. I was working with a guy I knew of from high school. We met up for coffee when he learned I was into startups and working on a side project. We had a great conversation, really hit it off and he offered to help me on the technical side of my project. He was an iOS developer and I was a mobile UX designer. We thought on the same wavelength, were able to bounce ideas off each other, and enjoyed hanging out together. We were a solid, well-balanced team. Or so it seemed.
The seed of the problem started when he admitted he liked me. I told him I wasn’t interested in a relationship and he let it go. I thought that was that. We had met up and were working together to start a business, so we kept working together. He soon quit his job to join me full-time and we started working out of his apartment. I ran around meeting people, researched, wireframed, designed, and he implemented the functionality. A few months in, we were looking to take our startup to the next level. But that wasn’t the only thing that wanted to get to the next level; in the midst of investor meetings, he sat me down and told me he was in love with me. This would’ve been great news had I felt the same, but I maintained I was not interested. After that, things turned sour. His demeanor completely changed. He became bitter and uncooperative, and we started arguing over the smallest things that didn’t even matter. His agreeableness and willingness to hear my point of view on the product was gone. We could no longer work together.
But, he still gave me one last chance to keep our startup alive. His ultimatum:
"I can make anything happen for you. If, you were to be with me."
I was thrown into a state of shock, disgusted and insulted by how he was trying to take advantage of the situation. I refused.
That was one crushing experience to go through. But the second one was on its way…
After we agreed to shut down, he decided he liked the product so much, he was going to run off and launch it himself (entrepreneur’s worst nightmare right?). I’ll be writing a post later on what happened here and why, in the end, you shouldn’t worry too much if this happens.
I spent a long time afterwards reflecting and trying to figure out what happened. What went wrong? What could I have done to prevent it? Did this happen to anyone else? Was it common, but just unspoken of?
Here are some of my lessons learned.
Don’t be desperate. This is something first time entrepreneurs are very vulnerable to. Many jump at the chance when they believe they’ve finally found that person who gets them and thinks on their wavelength. It’s natural but could be dangerous; and it’s easy to overlook those slight uneasy feelings when you have this great idea you just want to execute on.
Understand motivation. It’s not enough that you guys think alike and get along. It’s important to understand their motivation. Motivation drives behavior. No matter what they say or how they behave, if someone didn’t enter a business relationship with the right intent, when push comes to shove, their true colors will show.
Speak up. Be assertive and firm on where you stand in the situation. I have always been hesitant to speak up, be assertive or confrontational, but people will take advantage of this. Lay down the law so there is no room for second guessing. Make it known how you feel so that it is black and white. Don’t worry or be hesitant that you are coming off as harsh or arrogant. I still need to work on this.
Don’t give up. This is most important! Don’t be daunted! Get back on your feet. After it fell through, I spent a week or two reflecting and learning from the situation, got back into a full-time job, and worked to revive my startup with a different team on the side.
This quote from Cindy Gallop’s WITI interview really sums it up best:
"female entrepreneurs face many more obstacles than men, the playing field is not level… know that, just grit your teeth and make your startup happen"…"only person to make things happen for you is you"
For male-female partnerships, it’s possible to confuse romantic interest for professional compatibility or make professional decisions that are subconsciously driven by a romantic interest, whether intentional or not. There has been one other situation I’ve heard about in which the cofounder also developed an interest in the female cofounder and had to part ways. So, although not too common, it still does happen and it’s important to be wary of such a situation arising. Avoid this by making sure you two are on the same page and laying down the rules ahead of time. Any other tips on how to avoid or talk about these situations?
It’s embarrassing to explain that such an unprofessional thing killed our startup. But the lessons learned through this experience definitely extends across areas, like figuring out if someone will actually be a good cofounder, that is applicable for both male and female entrepreneurs.
Here is the full list of articles and relevant discussions that prompted me to finally write about this:
NYTimes: For Women, Parity Is Still a Subtly Steep Climb
WITI Summit: Cindy Gallop on NYC startup scene and funding for women
HBR: Four ways women stunt their careers
Change the Ratio: Women, apply to YC!
TED: Sheryl Sandberg on Why we have too few women leaders
On Startups: Choosing a cofounder
Mark Suster: Why aren’t there more women entrepreneurs