Just past International Women’s Day on March 8, one expert voice that picked up some viral steam in India is that of tech entrepreneur Sarah Nadav. Nadav says that while the solution to the problem of having few women in tech has been educating women, the focus should instead be on educating men — co-workers, founders, and investors. The tech startup community needs more awareness about prevailing gender biases. The incentive for having more women in tech is clear: we need a diverse community of leaders to solve diverse local and global problems.
The underrepresentation of women in the Indian tech industry is particularly felt when the time comes to raise money for a startup. However, there is another side to being a founder of a tech startup, even if you are a woman. My experience has shown me that despite challenges of the status quo, the tech industry is possibly one of the best places for women to compete in today. The nature of the industry makes it more open to new ways of doing business than traditional industries. In a highly competitive and disruptive startup environment, doing things differently (and succeeding) can often work to the founder’s advantage regardless of whether they are women or men.
In 2012, I left management consulting to grow an idea that was seeded in the years I spent as a consultant. Even after I turned down the path of entrepreneurship, I continued to take on consulting work to bootstrap my new venture, Flexing It, a curated online marketplace that connects organizations to professionals and expertise on an on-demand basis for projects, consulting assignments, advisory roles and part-time resource needs. Distinguished by its high-calibre talent pool and selective vetting process, the startup has built a curated community of over 16,000 professionals with more than two-thirds drawn from tier-1 institutes such as IIMs, ISB, IITs, Harvard and INSEAD, to name a few, and of which more than 50% bring over a decade of experience. What’s more, about half of our community of independent professionals are women.
It was more than two years after the beta launch of Flexing It — and only once we had built up a strong product foundation and a high calibre pool of users — that we took on our first round of funding from angel investors. At present, on a faced-paced drive to scale up, I find that as a team we’re on a constant learning curve, and there’s not much time to take stock of learnings. But as a founder, there are some things I’ve learned that continue to be relevant at different stages of growth. Here are five:
When starting a business, pick issues and problems that you understand well, have a point of view on and have a vision about how to address them.
We’re a technology-driven company and constantly upgrading our product, but the premise of Flexing It is not technology; rather, the pervasive problem that we set out to solve, i.e. the white space that existed in the market to connect the demand and supply of flexible, project-based high-quality business skills. The reality is that in a tech startup, you will have to tweak and change the product many times, and the more deeply you understand the problem, the better equipped you will be to find better solutions.
A great tech product delivers on use-cases versus features.
We’ve all heard the hazards of ‘drinking your own kool-aid’. New features are exciting for customers, and let’s face it, for founders too. What else do most of us sign-up for if not endless opportunities to innovate and revolutionize? But at the end of the day, it’s the actual ease of use that always wins. Case in point: Google. No one cares how much work went into making the interface superbly simple, they just want to use it. The steep curve to success in the uber-competitive (pun unintended) tech space can be grueling, and failures are guaranteed, but a healthy obsession with strategic planning, and pre-planning, of how to make your product easy-to-use for the end-user is never a wasted effort. Ever.
You need to think ahead of your customers and define the solution to their problem.
Customer feedback: you can’t live without it, but often you don’t have the time to wait for all of it. It’s often the case that your customers aren’t the best people to give you a game plan for their future needs. It’s up to you as an entrepreneur, and your team, to look ahead and anticipate gaps, problems, and solutions. Sometimes important insights on imminent unmet consumer needs present a challenge. Customers themselves may not be open to them in the short term. But when you decide to go out and build a product, you have to be prepared that your long-term success and survival will depend on being a first-mover in presenting solutions to deeper-rooted problems. This may mean you have the difficult task of convincing customers that they need something they don’t know they need, of changing perception and behavior. If you don’t do it, someone else will.
Just as in any industry, you’ll encounter a glass ceiling (silicon ceiling in this case), but more so than in many industries right now, competence matters here. Results; results; results.
So, the answer to the obvious question is ‘Yes’, there is a glass ceiling in the tech industry for women and this needs to change. However, in my experience of transitioning from a more traditionally male-dominated sphere (IIM and management consulting) in India to a tech startup, I learned that while there are barriers and biases, if you have a great product with great traction, it is actually far easier to succeed here than in traditional industries, or large organisations.
Build a network of ‘start-up buddies’ to share the pain and be thought-partners.
It can get lonely being a startup founder. Your spouse, friends, and family can’t be there for you at all times. At the same time, you need to keep your team motivated and build a strong support system for them. From the beginning of your journey as a founder, start cultivating a network of fellow entrepreneurs who you can share your ups and downs with. In short, your buddies. Mine are 5–6 friends who are either close friends, batch-mates from IIM Bangalore, or ex-McKinsey colleagues — but are all part of the founding teams of startups, in very different phases of growth. We frequently meet, call or WhatsApp each other to compare notes and ask objective advice on things which can be as big strategic decisions like funding or hiring, or the small, seemingly insignificant issues which end up taking up hours of your day.