Kickstart My Startup
News, Summer 2015
How female entrepreneurs can turn inspiration into enterprise
BY SARAH WENGERT | PHOTOS BY DEBRA S. KAPLA
Most businesses start with a problem, closely followed by an individual compelled to provide the solution. But to hear many female founders talk, entrepreneurial desire is typically seeded long before all that — when things such as business plans and financing are nothing more than the proverbial twinkle in a founding mother’s eye, so to speak.
That was certainly true for Megan Hunt, cofounder of Hello Holiday, a charismatic Omaha boutique and online shop, which she says solves the problem: “How do we dress the new female voice, the female leaders, the cool girls, the brave girls, the girls we aspire to become?”
“As I look back through my life and think about who I am and what I believe, I can see that following my passion to become an entrepreneur was the only thing I really could have done,” Hunt says.
Innately an “impulsive, decisive, resourceful” compulsive creator, Hunt says that growing up she never prepared to do anything but start something. Prior to launching Hello Holiday with partner Sarah Lorsung Tvrdik, Hunt founded Princess Lasertron, a boutique bridal design company, as well as CAMP, Omaha’s first co-working space.
“I never wanted to have a boss, I’m very motivated by opportunities to solve problems and I also like to rock the boat,” she says. “I like to over-work, over-execute and test lots of different strategies. So, I have this foundation that compels me toward entrepreneurship, and the rest is just experience and learning from relationships I have with people I admire.”
Jeannie North, co-founder and director of operations at Kick Punch Creative, a web design and creative agency based in Omaha, felt similarly compelled towards entrepreneurship, and was also influenced by her mother Bettie Holmes’ various ventures.
“Some of my best childhood memories are of helping her make silk-flower bouquets for brides, slideshows for weddings, or setting up booths at expos and festivals,” North says.
About eight years ago, while continuing to work full-time elsewhere, North launched her first venture, offering websites to local businesses in the small beach town of Pacifica, California, where the Omaha native spent a portion of her 20s.
“From that first taste of entrepreneurship, I knew I wanted more,” says North, who co-founded Kick Punch Creative with her husband, Bryan. “I always have these ideas that I become really passionate about and know I have to make them happen. After my website business, I went on to create a hula hoop business, Shine Art Designs (an art boutique powered by Etsy), and now our current business, Kick Punch Creative.”
Entrepreneurs such as Hunt and North are in great company in Omaha, especially considering the recent State of Women-Owned Businesses Report, commissioned by American Express OPEN, which indicated that sales growth at Nebraskabased, women-owned companies is projected to heavily surpass the national rate from 2014-2015. The sales forecast for 2015 is roughly $8.65 million, which would mean more than a 9 percent increase, while the national projection is just 3.7 percent. If the forecast is accurate, this would mean that since 1998 Nebraska’s women-owned businesses have seen an annual sales increase of nearly 91 percent.
What’s more, according to a May 2015 Omaha
World-Herald article on Nebraska’s female entrepreneurs, “Nebraska ranked No. 1 among all states in terms of women-owned business growth since the recession, when compared with the fiveyear period preceding it.”
In short, it’s a great time for women to be entrepreneursin Nebraska.
So, let’s say you’ve got the entrepreneurial spirit and passion. How do you transform your brilliant ideas into a business?
According to Leslie Fischer, co-founder of Together a Greater Good (TAGG) and co-founder of Ladies Who Launch Omaha (LWLO), first you need a highly defined plan in terms of strategy, finances and support.
“Before quitting your job, make sure you have a business plan,” Fischer says. “You can throw it out after you are done and never look at it again, but you will learn so much in the process.”
She also advises seeking feedback from people who will be brutally honest; even poking holes in your business plan in order to help you improve it.
“My husband and I had always talked about owning our own design agency; it’s what we know and love most,” North says. “We spent a few strategic months planning it out and brainstorming, making sure we had everything we needed to be successful. We knew it would mean a completely different lifestyle and less money for a while, but we knew it would be worth it in the end.”
In terms of a financial plan, Fischer advises considering that it can take three to five years before your venture gives you a consistent salary.
“If you reach profitability earlier, awesome! But plan for at least three years without a consistent paycheck, and understand how that impacts your family and your finances,” she says. “Also, whatever you think you need to start, triple that number. Things always take longer than you hoped, and you will be learning and likely tweaking your product as you go, which costs more money.”
Hunt and Tvrdik made a pretty major tweak a couple of years into their venture.
“When my partner and I set out to start Hello Holiday as an online store, we had absolutely no intention of getting into brick-and-mortar retail,” Hunt says. “But as our need for space and staffing continued to grow, we decided it was time for our business model to expand as well. Staying flexible as entrepreneurs and following where the opportunities took us led us to opening our first physical retail showroom in 2014, which taught us an entirely new set of logistical and strategic lessons.”
North saw similar organic growth. “We softly launched in January 2015, offering services to friends and family. Then referrals started trickling in from word-of-mouth,” she says. “We were surprised at how quickly we became busy. We knew it would be hard to compete with some of the huge designs agencies in Omaha, but that’s not what we wanted. We wanted to be the agency that entrepreneurs, like us, could actually afford. So far we’ve realized there’s no better payment than helping people succeed in their passion.”
As for a support plan, Fischer suggests that entrepreneurs secure the support of spouses, partners, friends and family.
“You need their support because this will test you physically, mentally and emotionally,” she says. “Make sure you have a group of people that you can talk to, someone who is in your corner that you can confide in, bounce things off, and who believes in your dreams. And, come to an LWLO event, where you’ll meet lots of women who share in the dream of starting their own business. It’s inspiring and empowering.”
Fischer says she helped co-found LWLO in September 2013 in response to the scarcity of women she saw at local networking events and to give women an opportunity to “learn things that would help their business grow, network with like-minded women, get support and feedback, and be inspired to keep going.”
“Helping other businesses not make the same mistakes we did is one of LWLO’s biggest goals,” Fischer says. “We want to help all businesses—regardless of stage—save money, refer them to good people, make better decisions and help their business grow faster.”
North agrees with the importance of “surrounding yourself with like-minded women who want the same thing as you: freedom and the power to succeed not only as an entrepreneur, but as a person growing outside of their comfort zone and owning it.”
“Becoming an entrepreneur is such a scary and intimidating life change,” she says. “There will be plenty of times that you feel like you’re not good enough to succeed, or what you’re doing is unrealistic. Having people around you that are going through the same thing can help empower you and banish those kinds of thoughts.”
It was in that spirit that North and fellow entrepreneurs Rachel Golberg and Annie Pensick started She Means Business, a blog documenting their experiences as women business owners, which tackles topics like taking the leap into entrepreneurship, different approaches to networking, important steps to consider when naming your business and more.
“We just want to share our journey through entrepreneurship and hope it helps other women business owners or encourages those that are thinking about it take that leap,” North says. While Hunt certainly sees the need for womenfocused organizations and resources, she says she would “advise women to avoid any impulse to remove themselves from the mainstream.”
“Conferences and networking groups for women offer lots of benefits to attendees—I’ve attended many,” she says. “It’s important to have ‘safe spaces’ where people who share a feeling of alienation can talk and discuss and decide how to react to it. However, they aren’t disruptive enough and the mainstream doesn’t care. The urgency remains for people to keep pushing their industry leaders for a wide representation of speakers and experts in business. Take the seat at the head of the table. And pay it forward—help other women.”
Hunt answered the call to “help other women” recently, resulting in a frank, inspiring post on her Princess Lasterton blog titled, “An open letter to restless young entrepreneurs who can’t wait any longer.”
“Recently a reader—a single mother without a lot of support—wrote me an email asking if she should stay in school and study something she doesn’t really like, or set out to pursue an independent venture that she hasn’t quite figured out how to do yet. The letter was the catalyst for that post,” Hunt says.
The post is full of excellent personal and professional advice, and is a must-read for all “restless young entrepreneurs.” While Hunt strongly feels that “educating yourself is never a mistake,” she says she identifies with the frustration of having to wait.
Hunt advises entrepreneurs at any age to “work hard and work smart.”
“Leverage your resources—social media, professional connections, personal skills and strengths— to get your work in front of as many people as possible, and opportunities will come. Someone will pick it up and it just takes one little break, one great connection, to start the series of dominos falling,” she says.
And, of course, the earliest domino falls when you decide it’s time to take the plunge into entrepreneurship.
“One of my favorite quotes is, ‘If you don’t build your dream, someone will hire you to help build theirs,’” Fischer says. “If you have an idea, itch, or feeling that you want to pursue, do it. Our community needs more women starting their own businesses. Kiewit, Mutual of Omaha, Union Pacific and ConAgra were all startups once. I would love to see legacy companies in our community started by women.”
“I’ve always worked full-time alongside my interest in startups, which means I spent my days working and my nights working on my passions,” says North, who left a cushy job in corporate marketing to focus on her own company. “I’m grateful to have had wonderful positions at great companies where I learned invaluable skills that shaped me into who I am today; however, it always felt like I was going against my true path. I’d rather spend 12 hours a day working on my passion, than eight working for someone else’s.”
While planning and strategy are key for an aspiring entrepreneur, at a certain point, Hunt says, you have to stop preparing and just start starting.
“Get the business cards later. Buy the perfect outfit later. Create the website later. Re-decorate your office later. You don’t have to have everything perfect to just begin,” she says. “All you have to do today is identify what steps need to be taken to see progress, and dedicate a small amount of time to one of them. See the freedom from judgment and failure in the act of beginning—you can begin over and over again, but if you never do it the first time, your project will never happen. No one can care for your ideas and dreams but you. That’s starting.”
Loans and Grants
Many fundraising solutions fall under the loans and grants umbrella. There are traditional commercial bank loans, Small Business Administration loans, and loans from friends and family.
“Banks want a backer, preferably, and won’t usually invest in a service company that has little or no assets,” Fischer says. “Grants aren’t really commonplace for businesses. They are typically used for non-profits, unless you have an extremely high-tech, high-growth idea.”
A good starting point is to schedule meetings with your banker and make contact with your local Small Business Administration. Entrepreneurs should also consider exploring services, loans, grants and tax-exempt bonds from state, county and city economic development agencies. If you accept a loan from a friend or family member, be sure to have a professional (attorney or accountant) help you create a written agreement specifying the terms of the loan and business relationship and have all parties sign. It may seem an unnecessary formality now, but it can help you avoid high-cost misunderstandings and preserve your relationships down the road. Finally, many entrepreneurs use business credit cards to help support their startups, but experts says this should be done only in conjunction with other sufficient startup financing.
Distinguish between the different types of investors out there, including private equity, venture capital and angel investors. You should be aware of the reality that you will, in some form and to some degree, depending upon the arrangement, answer to your investors.
“I think that investing in women right now is honestly very trendy, so although women might be more able to get pitch meetings with investors than they were five or 10 years ago, they have to be more vigilant about finding someone who can be a true partner in their businesses,” Hunt says. “Don’t undercut yourself—I think that the main gap between male and female founders is confidence.”
Because of this you should seek not just any investor, but specifically those who align well with your business. Use your personal and professional networks, business community and groups, trade associations and venture capital groups to find potential investors. Most investors get a lot of pitches, so having contacts in common who can connect you and even vouch for you can help get your pitch noticed. For the best results, make sure to know your investors well (their history, practices, focus, what they stand for, etc.), be thorough and confident in your business plan, and practice your pitch.
Crowdfunding is one of the many nontraditional sources for fundraising that are more cooperative, rather than appealing to a vertical hierarchy of rich and powerful investors. Indeed, while studies routinely show that men are given far more venture capital funding than women, a 2014 study by Jason Greenberg and Ethan Mollick reported that crowdfunding favors women-led ventures. The study notes that, “By removing traditional gatekeepers to finance, such as VCs, and increasing pools of potential supporters, crowdfunding potentially mitigates the social barriers faced by female-founded (or co-founded) ventures by ‘democratizing entrepreneurship.’ … The promise of crowdfunding is that by reaching out to a large pool of potential backers over the internet without face-to-face contact or networking, female founders may be able to overcome historical discrimination in accessing financing to start new ventures.”
There are two chief crowdfunding models. The first model of crowdfunding to emerge was donation-based crowdfunding, through which funders back a goal in exchange for a variety of promised rewards. New laws have now made way for equity crowdfunding, through which funders actually become shareholders in a venture. Equity crowdfunding is similar to traditional investor-seeking but through a new, democratized, online avenue.
While creative projects for the most part launched the crowdfunding movement, it now also caters to personal fundraising, social causes, inventions, startups and more. There are many crowdfunding platforms to choose from and many factors for entrepreneurs to weigh when deciding which one best supports their goals at various stages.
Resources, Networking and Education
Omaha offers an abundance of resources, programs and networking for entrepreneurs. There are also a variety of traditional and nontraditional educational opportunities.
“Don’t miss out on investing more education into yourself for your business,” says North, who attended Omaha Code School in 2015. “While you may feel like you know a lot and have a lot of experience, you can always be better. Learn more about business, marketing and your trade. It will give you an advantage over other businesses similar to yours. It’s never been easier to learn with the age of online courses and tutorials. Lynda.com, which is owned by LinkedIn, is an excellent learning resource for basically any topic. And bonus, if you belong to the Omaha Public Library, you can get Lynda.com membership for free instead of paying the $25 a month fee. Go OPL!”
After Nobel Peace Prize-winning Grameen Bank’s success abroad, Grameen America launched in New York City in January 2008. In an attempt to alleviate poverty, build communities, and help low-income women launch businesses, the Grameen model provides women with a peer network, training and support, and a $1,500 first-step microloan. According to Grameen America’s Greater Omaha Area first quarter 2015 report, “Grameen America has invested over $28 million in more than 4,500 low-income women entrepreneurs in the Greater Omaha Area as of March 31, 2015. We look forward to continuing our work empowering women with microloans, training and support to help them build small businesses, create better lives for their families and revitalize their communities.”