Lessons learned while pitching a business venture to VC partners and investors. Encompassing my unique entrepreneurial journey and the truth behind the #startuplife. Before we begin, let's get the acronyms out of the way! VC stands for venture capital and P&L stands for profit and loss.
When I set out to begin Leon, I knew one thing - I wanted to work in business but struggled to find clothes that made me feel confident while doing so. With little to no knowledge or experience in the tech and fashion industry, I ventured to conceptualize Leon, an eCommerce petite women's clothing brand. Through collaborations with my passionate team, YouTube videos, university courses, mentorship sessions and real time trial and error, I learned about business management, design making, supply chain operations and the inevitable ups and downs that the entrepreneurial journey ushers.
I thought to myself, what will be next? Do I find more mentors that will help me refine my business plan? Raise seed capital? Or, close the shop and venture out onto a new idea? Well, because my problem of finding petite clothing didn't vanish, I knew I had to make this work. I dipped my foot in the raising funds for Leon idea and was taken aback when I learned ...
2.2%!? Less than 1%? At first, I was excited to see this number, I've always liked a good challenge but then I let it sink in…
2.2%. What would my odds be? What would make my company stand out? And why was that percentage so low? Without an answer to this question, I was motivated to fortify Leon and joined Almaworks, Columbia University's Start-up Accelerator. The reason? To learn exactly what VC's were investing in and learn how I could lead Leon to a standard in which the 2.2% did not feel so intimidating. During this time, I met with engaging, intelligent and kickass mentors who would ultimately help me refine Leon's business strategy and make priceless relationships. During the last day of Almaworks, the cohort participated in Demo Day, where each company presented their venture to a room brimming with VC partners and investors. While pitching Leon, I recall feeling anxious yet prepared, nervous yet excited and the results? Invaluable experience, constructive feedback from top NYC VC partners and an immense sense of relief. While answering investors' questions with confidence and complete transparency, I learned a few lessons during this journey that I'd like to kindly share with women who find the 2.2% daunting and perhaps discouraging.
Remember your WHY!
What led you to begin your company? Was it a personal problem you were attempting to solve? Does it make a difference in your community, the world? Even during the toughest times, my passion for Leon hasn't waned. I believe it's vital to find your why and stick to it because it will get you through the ups and downs your venture will inevitably encounter. In terms of your business valuation, you have clarity as to how much you allow a VC firm to decide your company is worth. Honing in on your WHY can arm you with the confidence you need to firmly say no to a deal or enthusiastically ask for more with full awareness of your company's potential, purpose and impact.
Create and nurture your support system.
Let that be your communities, friends or start-up accelerators that support your vision and want to see you WIN! Nurturing this support system and seeking constructive criticism is vital to the continued evolution and success of your business. Leon's support system are friends, families, mentors and communities of like-minded individuals who enjoy creating solutions to problems everyday people face. Our communities like Latinas En New York and Almaworks help Leon stay focused and on track. We move forward because petite women motivate us to do and be better. It's encouraging to have a support system that is chanting for us to WIN.
You and only you are responsible for the success of your business, so make it happen.
Raising funds through an investor or VC firm isn't the only way your company can succeed. Tapping into other resources can empower you to lead your company in an authentic manner. In the earlier stages of Leon, I worked a part-time job during college to help grow Leon (bartended on weekends and invested that income to build Leon's first website) as well as gained the support of my family and friends who contributed as models, photographers, creative directors and advisors. Besides, VC funding, there are grants offered to minority business owners, crowdfunding campaigns, corporate partnerships and start-up accelerators that cater to under funded business ventures. Also, remembering the power of your community, family and friends is vital in the beginning stages of your start-up. You may have the privilege to raise funds within the community you serve and family and friends that support your vision.
Get good with numbers OR find a confidant that is.
If you are not an expert at P&L financial statements, you can learn. Getting scrappy by learning online, taking university courses (check out Stanford University's School of Engineering free online course, Entrepreneurship Through the Lens of Venture Capital) or Google's free resources, can set you apart and arm you with the knowledge necessary to get your company to the next level without overextending your budget. (Just like my confidant, my middle school best friend now investment banker who is always a phone call away).
Starting a new venture and leading it, is not EASY! At first it's exciting, so exciting and then its devastating, heart wrenching and down right upsetting but then it kicks up again and you're on cloud 9. To say the least, it's like a roller coaster and if you're like me and you LOVE your business and the problem its working to solve, you will stay on the ride until the very end. Reality is, there is no defined formula for the success of your business or that of anyone else's. It's all about trial and error. Being realistic about your businesses successes and failures makes you human and opens you to growth opportunities. For instance, noticing that your business is not on track motivates you to seek mentorship if needed. Or, if your company is doing well, sharing business advice to other women entrepreneurs venturing to level the playing field may serve as an opportunity to give back.
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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.