Start Me Up: Lessons for Women Entrepreneurs Shared From Tech Founder
“No one really wants to grow up and be a banker.”
Catherine Tan discovered this after a decade in investment banking for firms such as Barclay’s and Morgan Stanley.
“I wanted to be financially independent and be around smart people,” she says. And banking for her was that, but banking was not something she would do forever.
So Tan took the leap into blogging. Or more precisely, she developed Notey, a content company that she hopes will be for niche blog topics what Pinterest is for images and Spotify is for music.
As founder and chief strategy officer, Tan says the idea for her Hong Kong-based start-up was seeded in 2012, when she was hunting for travel blogs and found there was no easy way to stream content through topics.
Tan (who celebrates her 35th birthday this week) says she saw how hard it was for both the publisher and the reader of blogs, so in in 2015, she founded Notey, with the help of her husband, Kevin Lepsoe.
Notey now has close to 50,000 active publishers or bloggers, with “a few million” active users each month and Tan is working with brands on collaborations. And as a woman in a tech publishing startup, she has also found key lessons in developing her own leadership style.
“There are 200 million women entrepreneurs across the globe in the process of starting or operating new businesses, according to The Global Entrepreneur Monitor,” writes Liz Sara in Inside Business.
“There’s been a dramatic increase in the number of angel groups, funds and venture capital firms in the U.S. that invest in women-led startups. Today there are more than 15 such organizations and that number is growing steadily – not just in the U.S., but also worldwide,” writes Sara, founder of Best Marketing LLC, and an angel investor, a member of the Dingman Center Angels, and the first female chair of the Board of Advisers for the Dingman Center for Entrepreneurship.
“Statistics are stacked against women — just 7 percent of all venture capitalists are women according to a TechCrunch analysis, and women received less than 3 percent of all venture funding in 2016, according to a report in Fortune in March,” writes Carolyn Zinko in the San Francisco Chronicle.
Women, and particularly black women and all women of color, are funded less frequently for their tech start up ideas, even if the ideas would prove to be more successful.
“Women start companies at twice the rate of men, yet women comprise only 16 percent of tech founders. According to a study by First Round Capital, founding teams including a woman outperform their all-male peers by 63 percent, but female CEOs get only 2.7 percent of all venture funding, while women of color get virtually none: 0.2 percent,” writes Bari A. Williams, head of business operations, North America, at StubHub, in Fast Company.
In spite of challenges, like those facing other female entrepreneurs, Tan persevered and is now two years into the venture with offices in San Francisco and New York, as well as Hong Kong. Tan says creating Notey that now has a full time staff of 13, has taught her crucial lessons in leadership, entrepreneurship and the marketplace.
Tan’s move aligns with the mission of Take The Lead’s learning programs, created by Gloria Feldt, Take The Lead co-founder and president. “Rewrite the script. Play the lead. Embrace the power within,” Feldt advises.
Tan offers these strategies for all women entrepreneurs so they can learn from her mistakes as well as her successes.
Hiring the right team is critical. “I know now to spend more time talking about their motivation and how passionate they are. We move fast and make changes constantly, so they have to comfortable in sharing tasks. You have to make sure someone is joining the team for the right reason.”
Disaster avoidance is key when externally funded. “Just one setback can lead to failure, unlike in private business when you make a mistake. So you have to make smart decisions. What I’ve learned most is that while you don’t have a boss, you work for your investors and colleagues. At the end of the day, these folks believe just as passionately in our business as we do which motivates me to make it as successful as possible for all of us. But if you are cash-flow driven, you don’t need external funding.”
Time as commodity. “Do not underestimate the value of time, it is the most expensive commodity. Some decisions we’ve made while seemingly better or easier at the time, ended up taking away time from the rest of our business.”
Develop a leadership style. “We have a flat structure and I am very hand-off. It is a meritocracy, so I am very goal-oriented and look at the big picture. I believe in vision-driven leadership. Having a woman as a team leader brings opportunities. It is more difficult for women in early stage funding, but in later stage funding it is all about the metrics. My chief technology officer is a female and we recruit top female tech talent, so that is an advantage.”
Network. “It’s not just about having mentors, but having a support system of friends, family and independent advice or a business coach. You do not want a gap in support, you need to have a sounding board and a lot of positivity to keep you sane. There are so many surprises. We now have a network of tech gurus and investors.”
Bad days can be bad but good days are fantastic. “You derive that feeling of satisfaction that you can never get from a corporate job. The fact that millions are using something we created as a team is amazing. Sometimes you can forget how far you’ve come because I focus on what I can do more of in this moment.”
Give back. “In Hong Kong, I am involved in community outreach that offers workshops on soft skills for high school students and also the Young Founders School, that helps students who want to build a tech business. They give me the best ideas and I always listen to what they have to say.”
Tan says the grueling male-dominated banking business gave her a good foundation for managing and launching her start-up, Notey. She is used to working “a minimum 12-18 hour day during my time on the trading floor and taking calls during U.S. London and Asian hours,” Tan says.
“We’re gradually becoming the go-to place to find and discover new blogs and at the moment, this is exactly where we’d like to be. Feedback we’ve been receiving is that it’s becoming increasingly hard to find smaller, niche publications. Just like how Spotify is for music, YouTube is for videos, it’s our goal to be the destination for blogs for Notey.”
While Tan is aiming for Notey to become a household name, other tech funding initiatives are looking to help other women entrepreneurs like Tan in tech startups.
“It noted that less than 20 percent of tech entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley are women, while the market’s female leadership is in the single digits for African-Americans and Latinos,” writes Angela Ruth in Forbes.
“Even the investing landscape lacks diversity. Women make up less than 8 percent of all investment decision makers in venture capital firms, while less than 1 percent of VCs are African-American and 1.3 percent are Hispanic. Numerous reports, including a research study by a Harvard University research team, confirms the same troublesome gap in the tech labor market,” Ruth writes.
“Studies like Project Diane are underway to specifically look at why there are diversity gaps in the tech startup industry. Its focus is to better understand where the issues are in order to find a starting point for making the necessary changes.”
More tech startups from women of color could be a goal that enables great ideas to reach the marketplace.
“VC firms could also raise a fund or allocate a portion of their current fund to only investing in people of color. If paired with a diverse associate or partner devoted to sourcing founders of color to invest in, this strategy could bring us closer to parity,” Williams writes.
“Technology has the ability to change lives, not just for the founders but the consumers, creating access and opportunities to worlds and resources never seen before,” Williams adds. “To promote not just equity in the industry, but industry progress with new technology and audiences, venture capitalists will have to pay attention to these forces of nature: fund them, provide advice, media support, and watch them soar. The industry will be better for it.”
About the Author
Michele Weldon is editorial director of Take The Lead, an award-winning author, journalist, emerita faculty in journalism at Northwestern University and a senior leader with The OpEd Project. @micheleweldon www.micheleweldon.com