Inside Fundraising Outside Silicon Valley | Part 2: Advice, Handling Feedback & Sexism

This post is one part of a series focusing on a first-time founders experience fundraising. Read the Introduction and Part I here.

The Google office had a photo booth; a great opportunity to show my serious demeanor.

March was the month I went out of my way to be judged. I wanted to test different styles of pitching and start putting our company, Vishion, in front of as many eyes as possible to learn how we can tweak our messaging to prepare for important conversations. Although I was spreading the word about my company, I fell under the microscope as well.

You’d assume I would have anticipated this notion… that I would be judged along with my company. But my past experiences (naively) led me to believe that my challenge moving forward would be communicating the value of our company… not the management of my image or presentation style.

The great news: the feedback and reactions to our company have been amazing. If there is commentary, it’s typically from experts in our vertical about industry-specific strategy or futuristic considerations (because we are early-stage).

Based on the conversations I’ve had and the things I’ve learned so far, one element has become very clear: all founders need an advice strategy.

One thing I’ve done well is obtaining advice. What I should have put more thought into is:

  • how to decide which advice to take
  • how to handle advice that hits like a stab to the heart
  • how much should I change personally to avoid perception barriers that come with being a woman

Advice & Advisors

The first thing I did as a founder was identify my weakness and find talented cofounders to fill my voids. During one of our early meetings, I had my cofounders divulge their weaknesses too. We used these voids to create a list of “dream team” advisors that would help us as we build our company. We used this list to find Vishion’s five advisors (seen below), whose expertise range from e-commerce strategy to color management.

Learn more about our advisors at www.vishion.co/advisors

Many founders have asked me how we obtained our advisors. Two we knew personally. The other three we met through research and outreach on Linkedin. We gave a small amount of equity for their assistance, calling on our advisors as opportunities and challenges arise. We have a quarterly meeting to have an open dialogue about initiatives and connect weekly as a group through email to make sure everyone is always on the same page. While it’s tough to give equity in any situation, their guidance and assistance when dealing with unchartered territories can’t be understated.

There are so many aspects of running a business, it’s essential to get expert opinions to better guide your startups’ strategy. If you’re looking for help on a smaller topic or something that is only relevant in the short-term, reach out to an expert for a quick call. I have had multiple one-off conversations with some of the most intelligent minds and it only cost me a cup of coffee. Another thing I have found during this experience is that you can learn a lot by simply speaking with other founders. This blog has instigated many of those amazing conversations.

Nick reached out to me after seeing my fundraising post on his forum, Founders Live.

Just this week I spoke with Nick Hughes, founder and CEO of Founders Live. His web and mobile application provides a forum for entrepreneurs to connect and discuss their day-to-day thoughts and issues.

Reading my last two posts, Nick gave me some feedback and offered to provide help wherever needed. One piece of advice that sang to me, especially because it’s something my team and I have been discussing, was how to measure traction. He sent me an article that had helped him in the past.

“Measuring the number of people interacting with your application isn’t the only way to quantify traction,” Nick said. “You just need to show movement in the market towards what you’re offering.”

His advice forced me to take step back and look at the problem from another perspective. I don’t suggest you act on all of the advice you are given. I do recommend constantly gathering and considering other viewpoints, sitting on the advice for at least one night and consulting your team before making an strategy changes. Hearing an intelligent opinion from someone outside the situation can be unbelievably helpful.

“You need a thicker skin”

For those who are following my posts that want to learn about the success of my door-to-door sales effort: I dropped 12 letters at VC firms to specific investors, received three follow ups and one rejection. I have deemed my fundraising trip to San Francisco as a success based on this initial response.

The trip was more than just an 8-mile walk to spread the word about Vishion. I also competed in two pitch competitions. I sampled two styles of pitching, one day I used a memorized pitch and the next was more free-style. I tried the memorization method because I only had 3-minutes for each and worried about fitting the information in.

I will never go the memorization route again. It caused unnecessary stress. I know my baby… I don’t know why I felt the need to rehearse a monologue to describe her. Both pitches went well, but I felt way more comfortable during the freestyle version. I was able to show my personality, which admittedly is more showman-style in nature. I like to engage the crowd, but I learned after that acting like myself seemed to be the wrong move.

Getting a feel for the room pre-pitch

After my second pitch, I got a lot of great feedback about my company. This was overshadowed by the fact that I got second place in the competition. I couldn’t quite figure out why I didn’t win. You can assume it’s a typical loser mentality… I needed to know why the guy who had a city-based project and never checked with the local government about the cost or logistics of his concept won.

The people who come up to you after a pitch are always the people who liked you and your company, so I actively searched for criticism from others in the room. What I didn’t prepare for was handling stabbing feedback about me and my presentation style. I didn’t get upset as I was receiving the feedback, but I definitely voiced my feelings to friends afterwards.

Many people know me to be tough and intimidating, so seeing me as I deconstructed comments like “you were too bubbly” or “you seem like a CEO now, but a journalist when you were up there” wasn’t what they expected. My friends ended up telling me that I “ needed a thicker skin”.

It’s perfectly rational to get upset around your closest confidants when you’ve received a hit. The concept of not getting emotional is completely unrealistic. Tell someone they or their child is ugly and see how unemotional they are. They were telling me to shake it off, but they also reminded me not to take everyones feedback seriously. I should know when to let sexism just wash off of me and not get upset. After all, I am rubber and they are glue… right?

It took me way too long to jump to the conclusion I should have had immediately: the people I spoke with had no credibility. Why was I taking the feedback I was receiving from strangers so seriously? They could have been business-savvy savants or baristas, but I didn’t know and never took the time to ask.

The best things I’ve learned from this experience: recognize the worthiness of the feedback-giver and know how to respond to negative feedback and sexism before it happens.

One of my friends suggested that I have a canned answer every time someone gives me sexist feedback. Something like, “That’s such an interesting thing to say, but can we focus on what you think about my company instead of me personally?”

If someone says something overtly sexist like, “are you planning on having kids soon?” this can still technically work. And yes, someone did ask me this question.

The Uncomfortable Reality of Subtle Sexism

Vishion Founder & CEO, Sam Smith

Sexism is a topic I was going to avoid, but when it comes to initial interactions or receiving advice I’ve faced too many moments that made me think, “would this have happened to a man?”

I assumed the majority of these issues would arise from investors, but it’s been extremely prevalent in the feedback I’ve received from male founders as well.

Its become extremely obvious how an individuals’ sex can skew their perception, which is more prevalent for our application because our target market is women. If the investor has never felt the pain I’m saying women face, they have a harder time coming around to the fact that it is a problem. I realize now that I have to take additional steps to overcome bias when I present, while simultaneously explaining a need felt by women to a group of (primarily) men.

If you’re wondering why this is an issue, it’s not because our feelings are being hurt. If someone is focused on anything but our message, our point isn’t being understood. Opportunities are lost. Investments aren’t being made. Instead of focusing on how great Vishion is, we’re focusing on how I presented the facts. In addition, if you can’t put yourself in a woman’s shoes right away, you won’t see the value that is so obvious to the hundreds of women that I’ve spoken to.

You have 10 seconds to convince someone to listen to you. If they are thinking about anything else in that time period, you’ve lost.

I want to note that I have had multiple men go out of their way to include me in startup events or ask how they can become more inclusive. I’ve had men mention the concerns of meeting women outside the office for coffee or beer, inquisitively asking how they should navigate those concerns (especially if they are married). It’s a phenomenon women call being “Mike Penced.” A ridiculous notion that men should be worried about meeting women outside of the office… like women are going around trying to seduce or sue you while building their companies. I use the term ridiculous because the only party that typically engages in impropriety is the party that holds the power.

I didn’t feel comfortable discussing sexism in a blog post because I wanted to avoid associating the issue with my name. After a lot of consideration, I decided it that would be unfair to the women that will be or are currently dealing with this issue. I promised full transparency and unfortunately this comes with it.

I would love if the men reading this are already contentious about how they can proactively try to avoid these mistakes. Just in case, here are the steps you can take:

  • Ask female founders how you can help. I practiced my pitch with an investor that connected with me on Twitter because he was offering to help eight female founders for Women’s History Month.
  • Make sure women are invited to and included at your events. You might not know what it feels like to walk into the room as the only woman… but I can tell you it doesn’t normally feel welcoming. I have had influential men go out of their way to invite me to events or ask how they could improve their female turn-out (and they should be commended).
  • MOST OF ALL when you are about to say something to a female founder, ask yourself if you would say it to a man. Then take the additional step and make sure your commentary focuses on her company or concept.

We are starting a female entrepreneurship group in Charlotte that will include sessions on how men can navigate these waters to be more inclusive. Follow or message me on Twitter or Linkedin if you’re a local interested in participating or have thoughts on this post. Lastly, follow this series for the post mortem on my efforts. I’m going to describe the entire fundraising process, from pitch through negotiations.

Sam Smith, Founder and CEO of Vishion

Follow me: Samantha SmithTwitter | Insta | Linkedin

#SVoutsider

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