On March 11 the League of Extraordinary Women hosted Australia’s largest all-day women’s tech conference called Tech-Formation: Run the World; an entrepreneurial event aimed at women in the technology space.
As the editor-in-chief of this fast-growing sustainability site and the founder of a digital content marketing agency, I very much consider myself a woman in tech.
So when my friend Kira Simpson founder of e-commerce site The Green Hub invited me to come along to this conference, I didn’t hesitate. I was ready to get my geek on, listen to amazing stories from inspirational women and network with other like-minded female entrepreneurs. Plus, my business to-do list was enough to make even a grown man cry, much less myself, and I needed a break from it.
So I went, I saw, I learned. It was a gallant effort by the team over at The League of Women and worth the time away from my MacBook Pro.
Here were my 10 key takeaways from this amazing conference:
1. Rejection is part of entrepreneurial life.
In 2000 and at the age of just 21, Kate Morris decided to start an online beauty store – Australia’s first – in her garage. Her youthful idealism aside, it wasn’t as easy as she thought it would be.
“I got a lot of doors slammed in my face,” recalls Kate Morris, CEO and Founder of Adorebeauty.com.au. “Some of [the beauty brands] were nice about it, they just sort of said, Oh no honey, no one’s going to want to buy beauty products online. Ever. And some of them were actually really awful about it. I still have a rejection fax from a brand and it’s 14 pages long and the first page is a letter of them telling me how I had offended them by even daring to approach them with my proposal.”
Fast forward to today, and Adore Beauty is a multi-million dollar medium-sized company with an enviable distribution model. Had Kate allowed rejection to consume her, she may never have reached the level of success she’s achieved today.
2. Don’t be put off by what other people say.
One of Australia’s top female entrepreneurs under 40 and in 2016, listed as one of Forbes 30 under 30 Asia emerging entrepreneur to watch in the e-commerce and retail space, Holly Cardew CEO and Founder of photo-editing company Pixc is indeed an inspiring young woman. Building a successful tech business without knowing code is no easy feat, but Holly has proven where there is a will there’s a way.
“In my first year of business somebody said to me – who’s from Silicon Valley when I was in Sydney – Your business is going to fail, nobody needs your product. And I bumped into him but he doesn’t remember who I am because he only met me for five minutes near Silicon Valley at the Global Entrepreneurs Conference… and I really want to message him because our latest app is doing a million photos a month.”
Don’t worry Holly. There’s such a thing as karma.
3. Running a business is hard.
“If you take anything away from my talk today it’s that, you know what, business is hard,” admits Kate Morris, founder of Adore Beauty. “It does not look like the shiny stories of instant success that you see on Instagram. That is not what it is actually like and so if that’s not what it looks like for you, you’re not necessarily doing it wrong, that’s just business. Business is hard. And it’s a slog and for me it was most definitely a slog.”
No one understands the monumental effort it takes to launch a business and run a business. Personally speaking, there have been many times in the past year where I’ve cried from sheer exhaustion, fought with my partner (who also happens to be my business partner), cursed my overflowing inbox, and worried about cash flow. Upon hearing Kate admit business is tough, I let out a huge sigh of relief. Thank goodness I’m not the only one who’s going through it! I thought.
Business is tough, and in my case, the mountain I am climbing is turning a blog about sustainability into a sustainable business and in the not too distant future, my organic farm into a profitable business. But as Kate has demonstrated, if you put in the hard work, stay committed to your vision, are driven by purpose, have a little faith – then it might all just fall into place.
Now I’m not the religious kind, but I’m praying that it does.
4. Put customers first, always.
“Everything that you do, every decision that you make, the first thing you think about, the number one criteria for whether that’s a good decision is: does this add value to my customers?” Right on Kate.
My version of this question is this: does this article/essay/piece add value to my readers?
5. Don’t do something you love, do something you care about.
“Everyone talks about doing something that you love,” says Holly Cardew. “But actually you have to do something you care about.” Holly advises attendees to be cautious when deciding to do what they love as it might not be enough to pull them through when the going gets tough.
“The reason why I keep going every day is that I really care about e-commerce store owners and I really do not want them to be ripped off. That’s it. And so no matter what product we build or no matter whatever our service is or our software, as long as I’m helping those business owners making their business more efficient then I’m happy to get up everyday and keep doing it. So I may really love fashion, but I may not care about it… I’d be really cautious about what you decide to do.”
6. It’s all about mindset.
Kate Morris offers up these words of wisdom: “Never ask yourself can I? or can we? because sometimes the answer to that could be no… If you think, how can I? The answer to that is where things start to get creative. The answer to that is where you start thinking, is there a way? To start to rack your brain, to think of all the possible things you could do.”
If you’re asking a closed question you’re limiting yourself to a yes or no response, and as humans we can tend to lean towards pessimism. By asking open-ended questions that facilitate creative solutions we open ourselves up to many more ideas and opportunities. The moral of the story? Always ask how something can be done.
7. Think big.
“What does your company look like as a global company and what is the market?” asks Holly Cardew, CEO and Founder of photo-editing company Pixc. “We have to start thinking global from day one. And if you’re building a tech company, you can have customers all around the world.”
Having spent time in Silicon Valley where entrepreneurs think big – as in ‘let’s-build-a-company-mining-the-moon-big – Holly realised that Australians think too small and encourages us not to limit ourselves to Australia’s small population but rather, consider thinking global, finding solutions that help people no matter their location in the world.
8. Failure is inevitable.
What I loved about Jessica Wilson, CEO and Founder of online shopping app Stashd is how animated she was when she shared her heart-breaking story of a failed app.
She tells of the time she competed on a Chinese TV show “similar to Shark Den” where the winning team would receive $2 million in US funding for their company. Her team made it to the finals, but didn’t win, instead walking away with a bronze trophy. Afterwards, they realised that the TV show would air to a Chinese audience of 15 million. So Jess decided to take advantage of the exposure.
After three months of developing the Chinese version of Stashd, uploading and submitting it to 10 different app stores (in the Western market, we only really contend with Apple and Android) the big day arrived: the first episode of the TV show was to screen.
“We didn’t sleep much, at all. I remember the time came and the first episode was airing. We were in the office. It was my friends, my family, my team, my developers, we had developers on-call. We had, like, six laptops with so many different analytics platforms ready to take a huge hit of downloads and we had a miraculous… 11 downloads.”
Jessica couldn’t hide her disappointment. “I cried. Naturally. And we were very down for like, 24 hours. I had to work very very hard to pick my team back up. Look, what are we going to do? Are we going to just let that opportunity go? Cut it off and leave it there? Or are we going to pick ourselves up and just see what we can do? And it was this quote realistically that gave me a kick up the butt:
“I stopped waiting for the light at the end of the tunnel and lit that bitch myself.”
As devastating as this whole ordeal was, Jessica learned an invaluable lesson. “The main thing that I learned throughout this whole thing is – stuff’s going to fail all the time. You’re going to try to do something and it’ll look as if it’s working out and then you’ll get 11 downloads when you’re expecting eleven million, eleven thousands downloads,” she jokes. “But what I’ve learned throughout this start-up process is that you’re going to fall. 100 percent you’re going to fall. But it’s just a matter of getting back up again and keeping everybody around you motivated. And I think if you can go in with that mindset and that persistence, then so so much is possible.”
Stashd is considered a top 10 lifestyle app in 5 countries and is about to hit the 1 million products milestone. Had Jessica admitted defeat, the online browsing and shopping of ‘swiping left and right’ that we’re used to now probably would never have existed.
9. Branding is essential.
When businesses gallop towards the finish line, important details are overlooked. Branding is one such detail. If not addressed however, it can seriously hurt your businesses’ bottom line. Adina Jacobs co-founder of SMT Goods a pioneer in the laptop and accessories space (she co-founded the business in 1998 with business partner Ethan Nyholm) admits they completely took their eye off of the branding ball:
Although the business was successful with global presence and that our brand was close to our hearts and meant so much to us, the brand didn’t actually mean much to people on a consumer level.
She went on to explain that while they were busy focussing on building products around the devices within the Apple ‘ecosystem’, they forgot about positioning their brand to the end consumer.
“It was awesome when we were a key player in a niche market, but when Apple started to change their distribution model and started going into the mass market and then so did we, our business grew on the corporate and education side of things but we became an unknown brand in the consumer electronics space,” Adina explains. “So we had placement on the shelves but traditionally people in that space don’t really shop on brand, they shop on the product on the shelves.”
The worst part is knowing that so many people purchase SMT products without even knowing they are, which is essentially a failure of their marketing team. “I’m going so far as to say that a lot of you out there probably have STM products but you don’t know it and you’ll go home tonight and go, I saw her speaking this morning, I do have one of her products and now I remember what she was talking about. And that’s not a good thing for a brand…”
Adina acknowledges that being so focussed on client relationships but forgetting the end-consumer really hurt business sales. A couple of years ago they went on a re-branding exercise and haven’t looked back. “We forgot about speaking to the consumer. It’s a different language and we got so wrapped up on one side of it, that we didn’t change our message as the consumer changed.”
10. Don’t just take, give.
“In San Francisco, everybody will end a meeting with “what can I do to help you?” This tip from Holly Cardew helps to connect and grow the business eco system faster. I’m going to give her advice a try the next time I find myself in a business meeting. Paying kindness forward? I say Hell yes! to that.