Sweaty Palms & Weak Responses
Early spring 2018, I walked into the building of a startup accelerator program I had been accepted into. Armed with only confidence and a genius idea, I was eager to start level one. I had no idea of what to expect, but I knew I needed help. Somehow with life's journey of twists and turns, this former successful event planner was now about to blindly walk into the tech industry and tackle on a problem that too many women entrepreneurs had faced.
I sat directly across from the program founders, smiling ear to ear as I explained the then concept for HerHeadquarters. Underneath the table, I rubbed my sweaty palms on my pants, the anxiousness and excitement was getting the best of me. I rambled on and on about the future collaborating app for women entrepreneurs and all the features it would have. They finally stopped me, asking the one question I had never been asked before, "how do you know your target audience even wants this product?".
Taken back by the question, I responded, "I just know". The question was powerful, but my response was weak. While passionate and eager, I was unprepared and naively ready to commit to building a platform when I had no idea if anyone wanted it. They assigned me with the task of validating the need for the platform first. The months to follow were eye-opening and frustrating, but planted seeds for the knowledge that would later build the foundation for HerHeadquarters. I spent months researching and validating through hundreds of surveys, interviews, and focus groups.
I was dedicated to knowing and understanding the needs and challenges of my audience. I knew early on that having a national collaborating app for women entrepreneurs would mean that I'd need to get feedback from women all across the country. I repeatedly put myself on the line by reaching out to strangers, asking them to speak with me. While many took the time to complete a survey and participate in a phone interview, there were some who ignored me, some asked what was in it for them, and a few suggested that I was wasting my time in general. They didn't need another "just for women" platform just because it was trending.
I hadn't expected pushback, specifically from the women I genuinely wanted to serve. I became irritated. Just because HerHeadquarters didn't resonate with them, doesn't mean that another woman wouldn't find value in the platform and love it. I felt frustrated that the very women I was trying to support were the ones telling me to quit. I struggled with not taking things personally.
I hadn't expected pushback, specifically from the women I genuinely wanted to serve.
The Validation, The Neglect, The Data, and The Irony
The more women I talked to, the more the need for my product was validated. The majority of women entrepreneurs in the industries I was targeting did collaborate. An even higher number of women experienced several obstacles in securing those collaborations and yes, they wanted easier access to high quality brand partnerships.
I didn't just want to launch an app. I wanted to change the image of women who collaborated and adjust the narrative of these women. I was excited to introduce a new technology product that would change the way women secured valuable, rewarding products. I couldn't believe that despite that rising number of women-owned businesses launching, there was no tool catered to them allowing them to grow their business even faster. This demographic had been neglected for too long.
I hadn't just validated the need for the future platform, but I gained valuable data that could be used as leverage. Ironically, armed with confidence, a genius idea, and data to support the need for the platform, I felt stuck. The next steps were to begin designing a prototype, I lacked the skillsets to do it myself and the funding to hire someone else to do it.
I Desperately Need You and Your services, but I'm Broke
I found myself having to put myself out there again, allowing myself to be vulnerable and ask for help. I eventually stumbled across Bianca, a talented UX/UI designer. After coming across her profile online and reaching out, we agreed to meet for a happy hour. The question I had been asked months prior by the founders of my accelerator program came up again, "how do you know your target audience even wants this product?".
It was like déjà vu, the sweaty palms under the table reemerged and the ear to ear smile as I talked about HerHeadquarters, only this time, I had data. I proudly showed Bianca my research: the list of women from across the country I talked to that supported that not only was this platform solving a problem they had, but it's a product that they'd use and pay for.
I remember my confidence dropping as my transparency came into the conversation. How do you tell someone "I desperately need you and your services, but I'm broke?". I told her that I was stuck, that I needed to move forward with design, but that I didn't have the money to make it happen. Bianca respected my honesty, loved the vision of HerHeadquarters, but mostly importantly the data sold her. She believed in me, she believed in the product, and knew that it would attract investors.
From Paper to Digital
We reached a payment agreed where Bianca would be paid in full once HerHeadquarters received its first investment deal. The next few months were an all-time high for me. Seeing an idea that once floated around in my head make its way to paper, then transform into a digital prototype is was one of the highlights of this journey. Shortly after, we began user testing, making further adjustments based off of feedback.
The further along HerHeadquarters became, the more traction we made. Women entrepreneurs across the U.S. were signing up for early access to the app, we were catching investor's attention, and securing brand partnerships all before we had a launched product. The closer we got to launching, the scarier it was. People who only had a surface value introduction to HerHeadquarters put us in the same category of other platforms or brands catering to women, even if we were completely unrelated, they just heard "for women". I felt consistent pressure, most of which was self-applied, but I still felt it.
I became obsessed with all things HerHeadquarters. My biggest fear was launching and disappointing my users. With a national target audience, a nonexistent marketing budget, and many misconceptions regarding collaborating, I didn't know how to introduce this new brand in a way that distinctly made it clear who were targeting and who we were different from.
I second guessed myself all the time.
A 'Submit' button has never in life been more intimidating. In May 2019, HerHeadquarters was submitted to the Apple and Google play stores and released to women entrepreneurs in select U.S. cities. We've consistently grown our user base and seen amazing collaborations take place. I've grow and learned valuable lessons about myself personally and as a leader. This experience has taught me to trust my journey, trust my hard work, and always let honesty and integrity lead me. I had to give myself permission to make mistakes and not beat myself up about it.
I learned that a hundred "no's" is better than one "yes" from an unfit partner. The most valuable thing that I've learned is keeping my users first. Their feedback, their challenges, and suggestions are valuable and set the pace for the future of HerHeadquarters, as a product and a company. I consider it an honor to serve and cater to one of the most neglected markets in the industry.
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"Bare down and push like you're taking the biggest dump of your life," were the wise words of my midwife during the last leg of labor.
My husband and I had sat in traffic on the George W. bridge for close to three hours on a Sunday night while I bellowed God-knows-what during erratic contractions. Deepak Chopra whispered sweet nothings into my ear by way of our car's speakers. Side note: if you don't listen to Deepak's meditations, you should. Between bursts of stab-like contractions, I'd say adorable things such as, “honey, the stars look beautiful tonight, don't you think?" and “wow, the new flowers in front of our townhouse are incredible."
Now it was 3 a.m. on Monday morning, and wisps of euphoria had transformed into savage rage.
I'd spent most of the pregnancy crippled by headaches and nausea. By the last trimester, my pelvis had cratered, I could barely walk, and the baby slept upright over my bladder in a permanent ninja kick. This was not an optimal position for my daughter's debut exit from my uterus. Eventually, she turned head-down, but I knew long before her delivery that it would be an arduous back labor. Despite this, I had timidly and thoughtfully committed myself to an all-natural birth. I had determined that our existing medical care system was a little too trigger-happy with its knives. The epiphany to experience boatloads of undesirable pain came with a lot of firsthand research, coupled with the belief that excruciating temporary pain was better than risking preventable permanent damage. This was, of course, out of the ordinary in my geographical location, even amongst mothers whose pregnancies were highly healthy and, for lack of a better word, easy. Many young mothers I spoke with prior to my own newborn's delivery had one horrific labor story after the next, and their opinions echoed the pervasive research indicating that the medical system was failing healthy pregnant mothers as a method to prevent less likely outliers. So, I made a choice. No IV. No epidural. I found a wonderful midwife who studied on the farm with Ina May Gaskin, and had successfully delivered thousands of babies, and I committed to an all-natural birth.
“What? Who sh*ts like this?" I blurted, and clenched my abdominal muscles as though I were about to push out a Ford pickup–a sturdy American car.
“Just touch her head!" my husband instructed, elated. “Feel it. She's almost out."
I clamped my body back against the handicap rails above the toilet. “I can't."
“Honey, come on, feel her head," he said again.
“I can't," I repeated, unprepared for the realness of a child to congeal in my mind. “I want drugs," I pleaded for the umpteenth time to no avail.
My midwife took hold of the reigns. “Honey, open your eyes and look at me now."
“The baby's head is half way through your birth canal. She has twenty minutes or she's going to suffocate."
Suddenly I was confused. “Who sh*ts like this?" I retorted. “Do you sh*t like this? I don't sh*t like this."
We all snickered a little “no," and transferred to the bed. Several more pushes and something warm and smooth slid out of my body.
“Did I do it; is she out?" I asked.
My midwife scrunched her forehead and peeped under the blanket. “No honey, you just sh*t yourself. Let's get you cleaned up."
I cringed, and continued pushing as hard and as frequently as I knew how. With each push, the baby inched out a little further, but I felt as though it would never happen. “I can't!"
My husband and midwife encouraged, “Yes you can! You already are!"
I zoned back in. It was true. I was. “Help me with my legs," I told them. My husband held my legs behind me, and in several more pushes, a creature emerged from my body. Her name is Sydney.
I cried instantly, as did my husband, who recited, “You did it!" in pure bliss.
A few moments later, my midwife pulled out the placenta, which my husband later ate (kidding, kidding).
It was baller. Confetti fell from the ceiling. My makeup artist zoomed over to prepare us for our family photo shoot, and the Paparazzi eagerly stood in line outside waiting for a coveted chance to meet my newborn. I am being sarcastic, of course, but childbirth is no small feat–I was a hero on top of the world.
Yes, there I was holding my little one, thanking the heavens she was all right, but at that same time, I was also looking down at my deflated belly sack, trembling while my midwife stitched together what remained of my lady parts. My breasts filled with milk, a sensation akin to filling an over-stuffed water balloon with a hose, and before I could blink, people were pinching my nipples and trying to explain to me how Sydney was supposed to latch. The room then filled with residents and strangers who watched me in the nude as if I were their third-grade biology experiment. When I rose to pee, so much blood exploded from my nether bits that the cleanup crew had to throw away the mattress. I imagine this isn't unusual. I imagine many women have their own versions of the same story. Why? Because this is real life.
And business, my friends, is real life too. It's messy. It doesn't SWAAY too far one way or another, regardless of how you are wired or, in my case, MISSWIRED (a little homage to the terrific book I wrote in vignettes while cradling my newborn through her early years of life).
Why? Because in business and in creation, there are several truths that overlap. Here they are below. I hope you find them empowering.
1. Like pregnancy, the development of a new product or service is a long and arduous process with bursts of euphoria in between.
There's a saying, “nine women can't make a baby in one month." It's true, so find productive ways to expand the joy, such as meditating.
2. Pain can be temporary, or it can be long-lasting.
Do your research, factor yourself into the equation, and make a choice. Each decision you make in business follows the same formula. “How much temporary pain am I willing to endure today in order to prevent systematic pain later? Is it worth it?" Sometimes you'll get it right; sometimes you won't. But you're better off educating yourself.
3. Yes, you are powerful. But you are not self-sufficient.
You may be able to develop a significant portion of a product or business on your own, but not without quality help. Determine whom you want to have by your side–ideally someone compassionate and credible–particularly when you're in heat and nearing the finish line. They need to be able to help you pick up the slack when you think you just don't have a single iota of strength left.
4. If you can't get sh*t done one way, do it another way; adjust.
And by the way, pushing out crap is good; it allows your ultimate product the space it needs to find its way into reality.
5. Miracles are born in blood and tears. So are new services and products.
6. Once you deliver, the infrastructure you have to support your creation will, at first, be stitched together and deflated.
This is absolutely normal. You might have an idea of what you need, but until the real thing is available to you, you can't have it all figured out. That's when everyone and their mother will try to tell you what to do. They mean well, but you're the CEO. Listen to them, but trust your instincts. After all, it's your baby, and these are your nipples.
May all you mothers out there prosper in business; you're already doing the hardest of life's work.