March has been designated Women’s History Month, but in reality, women have always been — and continue to be — movers and shakers.
However, before the month is over, we wanted to stop and highlight a handful of phenomenal women tech entrepreneurs, find out how they started their companies, and share the lessons they’ve learned. (Also read: A Women in Tech Study: Motivation, Recruitment and Retainment.)
Use Failure is a Stepping Stone
Sukhi Jutla is the co-founder and COO at MarketOrders, an award-winning blockchain-based platform for the gold and diamond jewelry industry. MarketOrders, which was founded in 2016, connects retailers and suppliers, allowing them to source products without a middleman.
“We saw a gap in the market for a more efficient way of supplying gold and diamond jewelry on a global basis, and MarketOrders was created to be that solution so we can efficiently match the supply and demand for gold jewelry products in a historically traditional and opaque environment,” Jutla explained.
“Using blockchain technology, our platform makes processes and the supply chain more transparent.”
This isn’t Jutla’s first jewelry-related business. In fact, she says it’s her third attempt. “The first two didn’t work out, but I learned so much along the way that has enabled me to reach this point that I am at now.”
Without having those failed experiences, she says she wouldn’t have learned what she needed to know about the industry to create the right business model. (Read The Future of Women in Tech.)
“MarketOrders was the first online version of the business: it was the phoenix that arose from the ashes of the other businesses, which were more along the model of the traditional wholesalers,” Jutla said.
“MarketOrders is digitized, streamlined and the key for us is that we can buy in bulk and get discount savings — and everyone benefits.”
As a tech entrepreneur, she advises being cognizant of what you’re building and ensuring that it’s what your customers want. “Feedback and iteration are a vital part of building a tech business.”
She points to overcoming the unknown as a main challenge, but says it’s an inherent part of running a business. “The best tools I have found to overcome this is to stay determined to overcome any challenges, to persist to find a solution.”
Regarding women in tech, Jutla, who has also authored three books, says it’s important to showcase the different roles available in the industry. (Read 7 Women Leaders in AI, Machine Learning and Robotics.)
“Technology is a collaboration of several disciplines like art, design and engineering.”
In fact, she was a project manager, and she uses those skills to manage the company’s technology delivery.
“Your skills can contribute to many different roles needed for a technology company to succeed — and you don’t always need to know how to code to work in technology.”
Aim to Solve Problems
Nichelle McCall Browne is a venture-backed tech founder and serial tech entrepreneur. “I started my first tech company after seeing a need to help more students go to college, so I created a software to help students navigate the college application process.”
Browne was a non-technical founder, so she didn’t know how to create the software — but she knew how to fix the problem. (Read: Top Career Tips for Women Working in Technology.)
“So, I used that to get accepted into a startup accelerator and raised half a million dollars in one year.”
And now, she’s working on her second software company, Bramework, which helps small businesses create top ranking blog posts in minutes.
“We started this company because my co-founder and I were having the same issues a lot of entrepreneurs and digital marketing businesses have, which is how to increase brand awareness, get more customers to your website, and save time doing it.”
She says her co-founder and his team found a way to increase monthly views from 1,000 to 100,000 on their own business blogs within three months.
“All these other small business owners kept asking how they did it, so we took the manual process they created and made a software to automatically do it,” Browne explained. “It only made sense for us to solve this challenge together, given my previous experience founding a tech startup and his being a developer for over 15 years.”
Her advice for other women tech founders is to spend less time focusing on being a woman and spend more time building a solid business.
“If you have a good idea that solves a real challenge and you build a solid marketing strategy around it, your business can go farther,” she said. “Strive to build a business that can grow based on revenue and not investment, then the money will come.”
Pay It Forward
Another tech entrepreneur who set out to solve problems is Dr. Ximena Hartsock, co-founder of Phone2Action, a DC-based civic tech company that enables businesses and citizens to connect with policymakers.
“In 2012 when I had the idea of Phone2Action there was no way to connect with lawmakers to express opinions on legislation,” Hartsock said. She founded the organization to close the gap between everyday people and their representatives.
“I was not trying to start a company at the time, I was just trying to solve a problem, so I was surprised when I learned that there were no tools like Phone2Action,” she said. “We got traction right away, and here we are today with more than 30-million people using our tools to connect with lawmakers.”
So, what’s her advice for women tech entrepreneurs?
“One of the best things you can do is hire other women — as well as men who open doors for women — and then, work with them to unleash their potential.”
Hartsock also believes it’s important to pay attention to women engineers who can get lonely on mostly male teams. At the same time, she warns against focusing on the negatives of being a business woman in tech.
“We all know that 98% of venture capital goes to men, but we can't let that paralyze us,” she said. “Focus on your customers, build traction and the investors will come.”
Don’t Wait for the Right Time
Sara Sutton is the founder and CEO of FlexJobs, a job site that provides remote and flexible jobs, including employee and freelance jobs and onsite jobs with alternative schedules.
So, what led her to found this company?
“Quite honestly, I was going through a job search myself, looking for a job that would offer some work flexibility — remote work options, a part-time or flexible schedule, or freelance work — but also something in line with my career.”
At the time, she was pregnant with her first child and knew that she didn’t want a job with a rigid traditional schedule or a requirement to be onsite when she could work just as efficiently and effectively at home.
“Quickly in my job search I became aware of the massive amount of low-quality jobs, scams, ads, and too-good-to-be-true jobs in this niche.”
In fact, Sutton says there may be 60 to 70 scam jobs for every legitimate telecommuting job.
She knew (from previous career experience), that there really were professional jobs that offered flexibility, but it was like searching for needles in a haystack.
“As I looked at the job landscape, I realized that there were millions of other people looking for flexible job options just like I was, and I believed there had to be a better way — and that’s when I had the idea for FlexJobs.”
Sutton says her experience has taught her that there isn’t really a “right” time to start a business.
“If you believe deeply in the idea for your company, and you’ve done your due diligence in evaluating the market and opportunity, then don’t let concerns about timing in your life stop you,” she recommended.
In fact, she says that both of the successful business that she’s founded or co-founded happened during inconvenient times in her life. (Sutton is also the founder of Remote.co).
“But despite the fact that I was about to become a first-time mother, I believed in the idea so much that I decided to go for it anyway, and in both cases, I am so glad I did.”
She also advises women tech entrepreneurs to listen to their instincts.
“This is a big one for me, and I believe it’s ultimately far more valuable than an MBA.” And she thinks this is a skill that comes more naturally to women.
“When I reflect on some of the times in my career that I feel I went off track, or lost my way, or didn’t have an edge, it is invariably when I was not listening to my instincts as well as I should have.”
Acknowledge Your Strengths
“I started Branch like most companies start — solving a problem I had as a mobile app marketer.”
Before Branch, she and her co-founders spent a year working on Kindred, a mobile photo printing app.
“While the app was great and we sold tens of thousands of photobooks and were featured by Google and Apple in the stores, we had a hard time growing the app in a sustainable way,” Seghete explained.
“Unfortunately, the power laws in today's mobile ecosystem are ruthless — the winners keep winning and growing, and it’s almost impossible for new players to get noticed and discovered unless they spend a lot of money.”
So, she started Branch to solve that problem. Seghete wanted to help companies of any size to grow and have their content discovered on mobile — and also better understand and measure their growth.
As a woman in tech, she admits there are a lot of challenges, but says there are also a lot of opportunities.
“Because we are and have been a minority, we tend to have tougher skins, we tend to build businesses that are safer and more sustainable investments, we tend to have lower egos and build stronger teams and we tend to have different perspectives and insights into problems that might not occur to men,” Seghete said.
She started investing on the side a few years back both personally and as a partner for Xfactor ventures. And it has given her an opportunity to pay it forward.
“My secret is that I only invest in companies with at least one woman founder.”