Over the past 20 years, I have worked around the world in and around startups and big business. In that time, I have been honored to work with many female leaders that really have impacted and stuck with me. From Program Managers that get things done through direct action and cutting through the noise, to Partners in management consulting firms that tear up proposals in front of 50 person teams because they just ‘didn’t get it’ then go on to lead those teams to win $30 million deals, through to the quiet, and strong, CEOs that drive company profits up and up while creating incredible culture.
So, it still surprises me that there are not more female founders in the startup world here in the Pacific Northwest. We need great leaders more than ever and, let’s be honest, us guys need people to look up to and learn from (and we’ve had enough of learning just from other guys).
As I look in Vancouver, down to Seattle, Portland, and San Francisco, I have started to notice more and more female founders pop up with dynamic businesses that are trying to make real change in the world. And, that’s why I wanted to dig a little deeper to find out a little more about what makes some of Vancouver’s female founders tick so that others could see that anything is possible when challenges are accepted and opportunities are created. I connected with three dynamic founders to find out more.
First up is Danielle Lovell from BLANKSLATE Partners. I met Danielle through an entrepreneur group in Vancouver called The Marlin Club. She has been hugely supportive of me and others there, and steps up to help whenever she can. She’s a connective, personable, and driven founder that brings a human experience to the outsourced HR (aka: people solutions) industry.
Next we have Michelle Martin, CEO of NXT Level You, a company that’s building the world’s first evidence-based self-development and team cohesion engine. I met Michelle at Vancouver Startup Week in 2015 when she had just sold her previous company – Arts Ally – to Kabuni and was working out the size and shape of her next venture. Michelle is a born entrepreneur. She’s a dynamic, radical thinker, with a work ethic that would put 99.9 percent of the population to shame.
And finally, we have Sarah Main. I met her in 2015 when I lectured on growth at Launch Academy. Sarah, and her co-founder, approached me for a little advice on building growth in their startup, REACH. She graduated from The Next Big Thing Foundation and is aiming to connect students in a whole new way in real-time in their classes to make information sharing and commenting easier (think about a hyper-focused Slack for students).
I wanted to dig deeper to find out how these three operate and continue to lead and build their respective companies. I talked to them about some of the insights they’ve gleaned from starting and building their companies.
Founders and their teams are often swept away with great ideas and want to get building and defining the business. I asked them for one or two things they wished people told them before starting their company.
“Do not start a company unless you are completely driven by your passion behind it, because passion will be the fuel that keeps you going every day, and when things don’t go the way you want them to.”
– Sarah Main
“Everything takes twice as long and twice as much money,” Sarah shared. “Do not start a company unless you are completely driven by your passion behind it because passion will be the fuel that keeps you going every day and when things don’t go the way you want them to. Without the passion, it is too easy to give up.”
Michelle spoke to business maturity through listening. “Male funders and founders have been more likely to accept my larger vision and growth trajectory, while female funders were more likely to encourage modesty and small bootstrapped steps; amidst this range of advice, the art I learned was to listen respectfully, but selectively,” she said.
Danielle had a conversation that changed everything early on. “My brother said, ‘when are you going to stop that contracting stuff and get a real job’? Then I met my business partner, Isabella (Izzie) Egan, who shared Eric Ries ‘Lean Startup’ to help us understand to help build a scalable and repeatable business. We joined forces and here we are.”
Each founder also spoke to the challenge of access to great talent and advisors with a good level of experience in Vancouver.
“About a year ago, Izzie and I both became Activators with SheEO, and being part of that community of radically generous women has been worth every penny,” said Danielle. “We also got lucky and found Vancouver Startup Week last year, and through our volunteering and attendance at events met some wonderful founders are similar size and stage to our own company, as well as service providers who have helped us grow as rapidly as we have.”
“I have a phenomenal advisory board,” Sarah said about getting REACH up and running. “I believe the people I have surrounded myself with have been key to my growth and success as they have been able to share their breadth of knowledge and experience as I dove into a field that was completely new to me. Having a strong advisory board was the first bit of advice I received. The people who support you establish credibility for investors and clients and also helps when hiring as people are not only working for a young CEO, they will be working alongside top names in their respected fields. ”
“At NXT Level, we’re a team of lifestyle junkies who consider meditating at meetings business-as-usual, so Vancouver is the perfect place for our team to find our flow between work and play,” Michelle added.
“Surround yourself with men and women with T-shaped personalities, generalists with deep subject matter expertise in one area.”
– Michelle Martin
Danielle knows the power of her network. “Building a tribe of peers has been invaluable and helped both of us through some of the harder times in our first years,” she said. “Having friends who understand the entrepreneurial hustle to workout with, celebrate with and commiserate with has made a huge difference for our mental health.”
And finally, I asked them for a piece of advice to other founders looking to take their dreams into a new venture.
“Confidence is key and always be on top of your game no matter what situation,” Sarah said. “I started a career in an industry where I had no tech or business background yet I made sure that every meeting, event or conversation I had I was fully prepared to talk about every aspect of my business and the industry. My confidence and preparation have overshadowed my lack of experience and have helped get to the position where I am at. At the end of the day, people invest in people.”
“Surround yourself with men and women with T-shaped personalities, generalists with deep subject matter expertise in one area,” Michelle said. “The knowledge you’ll gain through osmosis and the network you’ll build will fuel your dream into reality with time and tenacity.”
Overall the thing we can take from all of this is to be focused, creative, and motivated by the great people around us. Capture information and exploit it when we need it. Seek out your mentors, trusted clients, investors, and customers with certainty about what you stand for. Use the tools, technological and otherwise, and you’ll go a long way in building the future.
You can connect with Danielle, Sarah, Michelle, and myself at Vancouver Startup Week which runs from September 26 to 30 in venues across Vancouver.