Pitching in a Patriarchy – 6 Lessons From a Female Founder

aisling-byrne-nuw

About The Author: Aisling Byrne is co-founder of sustainable fashion startup Nuw – a platform that lets individuals take their wardrobe online so they can share and swap clothes with friends and other Nuw members.

Pitching in a Patriarchy is something I think about on an almost daily basis. It’s my lived experience and the future of my business and our team rests on my ability to navigate this environment. 

… No pressure. 

As female founders the odds are stacked against us. 2.3% of Venture Capital went to female founders in 2020 and only 18% had a positive experience raising funding over the past 18 months.

I was one of the 82% who has had a less-than positive experience fundraising. 

Dissecting and learning from the experience has been both depressing and empowering. Depressing for the obvious reasons; only 2.3% of VC is going to female founders. The road is littered with toxic masculinity, inappropriate behaviour and aggressive negotiation tactics.

For the entrepreneur, this first leaves you questioning yourself – rather than the wider environment. However, when you zoom out, the shared experience of female entrepreneurs across the board speaks volumes.

The investor approach towards men and women is different – and the by-product of this is an upstream battle for the female founder. 

But, ultimately, I have found this new perspective empowering. Why? Because knowing what we are up against is half the battle. Acknowledging that it is hard makes it easier to get through, and learning the rules of the game inside out gives you the best possible chance to win regardless of the hand you have been dealt. 

Here are six things I have learned about pitching in a patriarchy.

1. Navigating the patriarchy is a skill. Learn it like any other. 

Understanding the dynamics that shape our society is key to navigating it. Without the knowledge of unconscious-bias, the gender funding gap in VC, and the subtle sexist commentary in daily conversation, these things will catch you off guard, knock your confidence, and leave you unnecessarily questioning the fundamentals of your business. 

Across the board, the stories I hear from both founders and investors is that female founders raise less at a lower valuation than their male counterparts, having often proved much more before raising. This is the reality we are pitching in. 

It is incredibly frustrating but unsurprising. It echoes the gender pay gap. Women doing the same – if not more – work, and getting paid less to do so. 

Knowing and acknowledging this gives you agency to determine the value of your business – and what you need to raise to succeed. Do this with the support of mentors or advisors. Research fundraising norms across your industry and start-ups at your stage in general.

Without knowing the value of your business yourself, you allow VCs and investors to determine the value for you – whether it be a true representation of your idea and work, or not. 

TOP TIP: This stuff is heavy. I’ve found it incredibly cathartic to learn about the patriarchy through the Guilty Feminist Podcast (and Book!). No better way to wipe away those founder tears than laughing it off. 

January Ventures also do a great (in terms of analytics, not results) report each year on the landscape for female founders. Here is their 2021 report

2. Understand the Female Founder journey. Less glass ceiling smashing, more salmon swimming.

I’ve grown up with the concept of the ‘glass ceiling’. It was always a bit unnerving to me.

In the most practical sense, I didn’t like the idea of finally getting to that ceiling, only to have to smash it with my bare hands and have shattering glass cascade all over me – maiming both myself and all the other women coming up behind me.

I was also not looking forward to clambering through the glass, landing on the floor, looking and feeling absolutely rubbish while men in suits just stood there, having assumedly walked through the door – no glass smashing needed. 

Although it’s an apt description of the real difficulty it takes to progress as a woman in a patriarchal society, I feel the idea of ‘smashing the glass ceiling’ puts all the emphasis on the breaking point at which you finally ‘arrive’.

For start-ups especially, but for all progress in general, the journey is long and winding. I have anticipated so many points of ‘arrival’ while building Nuw, before realising these milestones simply slip themselves into the continuous, turbulent journey – and progress continues. 

I decided I better identified my female founder journey with the life of a salmon. 

Salmon start their life in a river, but pretty quickly head to the sea. When it’s time to return to their river to reproduce, they use the magnetic field of the earth and their scent of home to guide them upstream. 

The magnetic orientation is genetic, within them. The smell of home is learned, and when they get that smell, it stimulates them to swim upstream: no easy task for a fish taking on cascading water.

If they go off course and lose their trail of scent, their drive to swim upstream decreases, they travel downstream again until they encounter their scent and the drive to swim upstream increases once more. 

The journey upstream is perilous. They are constantly battling the forces of nature but so utterly aware of their true north, their final destination. 

That’s how I feel as a female founder. I know exactly where the end goal is.

The journey is gruelling and constant, full of uphill challenges. You go one step forward, only to have a wave wash you two steps back. You can constantly find yourself going off course, but your mission centres you – and the motivation and drive returns when you find yourself back on the right track. 

TOP TIP: Most importantly, the journey of a salmon as it swims upstream is tough – no matter how many others have gone before. But they are built for this. They have the capabilities to get home and the belief of that is instinctive. It never waivers. Remember; you have this too. 

3. Learn to Negotiate 

I’ll tell you a story.

I was pitching for my first ever lead investor. They would be putting in £100k (*faints with excitement*) but the offer came with a low valuation. Having spoken with advisors and mentors, I knew the terms were not ones I could move forward with, and I knew the terms and valuation I had to get to in order to close. 

In the run up to the meeting, I spent about 3 days aimlessly staring at the wall, contemplating the myriad of ways the conversation could go. Think Eminem ‘palms sweaty, knees weak, arms are heavy’ but minus the vomit on my sweater as my Mom was not there to cook me spaghetti. 

The night before, in the process of getting myself psyched up for the next day (when I would confidently announce to a room of investors the valuation we would take) my boyfriend came in for my daily brain download of all things Nuw. 

I talked him through what I was going to say in the meeting. He looked at me curiously and said ‘How are you going to get to those terms?’

‘Ask for them?’…. 

‘OK…. so you don’t have a negotiation plan?’

Oh crap. I had no idea how to negotiate. 

Negotiation is one of those things where you only realise how much you are missing out on when you finally learn it. Everyone needs this skill, especially founders. 

The night before the pitch, I did a three-hour crash course in negotiation. I wouldn’t recommend it, but that’s a classic start-up story. Learn everything on the job. 

Understanding the fundamentals of negotiation not only allows you to navigate better deals – but it gives you an understanding of your own base line of fairness in any given situation.

You’ll grasp an understanding of what the person on the other side of the table truly wants, and you’ll have confidence in your own boundaries of what you will and won’t accept. 

With this base line of fairness, you can also spot when you are being taken advantage of – and confidently assert yourself in those situations.

It helps you to avoid being pressured into terms you are not comfortable with, simply because you feel the investor may walk away if you do not accept. You might have even been made to feel inexperienced or incompetent for not accepting the terms they have deemed as ‘fair’. 

If an investor is right for you and wants to build a long-term working relationship, then negotiation is a healthy part of agreeing an investment. My rule of thumb is that you should always have two opportunities to counter an offer. It’s great if you can both agree in the first meeting. But it often takes a second negotiation to really nail down the perfect terms. 

TOP TIP: I’d recommended dedicating time to learning the art of negotiation. The best resource I have found on this is the work of Chris Voss. He does a session on the Masterclass site and has a book ‘Never Split the Difference’. 

4. Leave a bad offer on the table.

If an investor does not afford you the time to counter, or are overly aggressive or dismissive of this – are they the right investor for you?

Ultimately, if, as a founder, you accept terms that undervalue your business (or may make it difficult for you to raise further down the line) this benefits no one involved – least of all the investor holding the term sheet.

Investors who back founders building unicorns are looking for someone who can stand up for their business, their team, and themselves. If an investor would prefer to see a founder take a bad deal, it’s unlikely they will be the founder to build a unicorn.  

This is easier said than done. The hardest situations I have found myself in were saying ‘no’ to funding, and large cheques at that! I spent a lot of time agonising over the opportunities I had lost out on. Some I lost because the offer devalued the business far too much, others by blatantly standing up to bad investor behaviour. 

It’s never easy to be in that position and unfortunately, investors know this too. It’s these scenarios that the trope of ‘the difficult woman’ comes into play.

Should you politely accept what it is you are being given? How does it reflect on you if you walk away from these opportunities or call people out? 

These are questions that centre you as the person who must bend to find resolution – whether or not the person on the other side of the table would do the same. This is the power dynamic of the patriarchy. 

…. So, anyway – I didn’t get that funding. But I don’t regret it. 

TOP TIP: Bad terms or toxic relationships are not what your business needs. Leave those on the table and find investors you really click with. 

5. Pitch from a position of equality 

Power dynamics play a significant role in our comfort level when pitching – especially if you are the sole person from your team in the meeting.

These power dynamics are not always set up on purpose. They are the hangover from centuries of women not having a seat at the table. These days, they simply happen because there is no real thought put into the format.

Nonetheless, we no doubt find ourselves pitching to rooms full of men. They may all be senior white men facing a young female entrepreneur. This is intimidating. (Again, we are back to; Palms sweaty, knees weak, arms are heavy).

The lived experience is different to the perceived experience. You have got into these rooms because you are a talented entrepreneur. They are not unwelcoming. Some, in fact, are incredibly welcoming. But our level of comfort is informed by our experience, and being the only women in the room sets the scene that you, in fact, don’t organically belong here. And pitching from that position is hard. It takes guts. 

This is captured perfectly in the January Ventures report: 

31% of the female founders we surveyed in 2021 feel optimistic about the environment for female founders, versus 30% in 2020.

In contrast, 67% of male founders are optimistic about the environment for female entrepreneurs

This highlights a real disconnect between the perceived vs. lived experience of female founders.

I found these rooms incredibly difficult at the start, until I was given some advice that changed my perception of all situations. 

“In every conversation you have in life, be it an investor or anyone else, always approach it from a position of equality. Expect mutual respect by default. You and the person in front of you are equals.” 

As an entrepreneur, you may assume because an investor has capital that you ‘need’ them. This is a dangerous mindset to have. With this, you position yourself at the mercy of others and you put yourself and the business second to the demands of someone else. 

The truth is, they may have capital, but you have an idea and you are ‘you!’. It is their privilege to have the opportunity to be a part of your vision, as much as it is your privilege to receive their financial backing and expertise.

TOP TIP: Do not underestimate the wealth of experience, ideas, and drive that you bring to every room you walk into. You are the best person to build your business, because there is no one else as uniquely qualified and passionate about your idea as you. The best investors are genuinely delighted to be in your company and want you to succeed. 

6. Ask for what you need, not what you think you can get.

This one is for the first raise / first time founders. 

Raising money is difficult. The amount of capital it takes to get a business off the ground is far more than that most of us come across in our day-to-day lives. There was a time when we got our first £15k and as a recent grad, this was life-changing.

As the business and idea grows, you learn very quickly everything costs twice as much and takes three times as long – so raising what you need to get the best team in place is vital. 

For most first-time founders like me (who have not grown up around money / can’t easily pull together a friends and family round) the first raise you ever do is just…so awkward. 

How do you ask people for money? How do you pick up the vibe that they want to invest? Well it’s very simple. Just ask! 

It’s the job of investors to invest in companies. You don’t need to shy away from asking people to commit. It’s not impolite or awkward to ask for money. This is literally their job. They can’t get their job done if you don’t give them the opportunity to invest. 

Do your budget and find the funds and angels that can do the types of tickets you need.

TOP TIP: Never ask for less than what you need! Let investors know what you are raising, and ask them to decide what ticket they can contribute.

If you need a certain ticket size for a lead investor, or if you have a minimum ticket size, be upfront about that. If you have a certain amount left in the round that will allow you to close, ask the investor if they can commit the remaining amount to the round. 

In Conclusion

To all of the female founders reading this: well done. This is not easy. 

I hope these tips can in some way help you along your own journey. And the next time you find the start-up life getting tough, ask yourself:

‘What would a salmon do?’ I believe they would ‘just keep swimming’ with an unwavering belief that they will get there in the end! 

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