Women entrepreneurs in various sectors have been immensely successful, dispelling the old myth that they cannot handle businesses as confidently or assertively as men.
At Naaree.com, we love to understand what really makes them tick? What are their little secrets? And how did they get where they are today?
This month’s interview features Gillian Muessig, founding president of SEOmoz, providers of the world’s most popular Search Marketing applications.
Known as SEOmom throughout the industry, Gillian is a thought leader with her finger on the pulse of the future of the industry.
She has provided keynotes and sessions for conferences in North and South America, Asia, Australia, Europe, Scandinavia and the UK.
Gillian’s radio program, CEO Coach has a global listenership of several thousand entrepreneurs and marketers and airs Mondays at 10 AM PST on WebmasterRadio.fm, covering entrepreneurial issues from funding and finance to staffing, marketing, pricing models, and brand development.
She serves on the Board of Advisors for companies in four continents. We asked Gillian a number of questions and her openness and wisdom blew us away.
What inspired to become an entrepreneur? Did you always love it or was it something you got into?
I grew up assuming I would get a job, but I never visualized what that would be like. As a young graduate of college, I had a few jobs and enjoyed them.
But when I gave birth to my first child and moved 5,000 miles from New York City to Seattle, Washington, I began to consult. It seemed expedient: I could tend to a baby and work largely from home.
In truth, it’s when I felt I had truly found my place. I loved being my own boss, choosing my own hours to work, and providing a service with quality over which I had complete control. Once I experienced it, I never wanted to work for another company again.
When do you know that it is no longer just an idea in your mind, and that you can really turn it into a lucrative business?
I have told many people that in the early years of my company I was “glorified unemployed”, which translates to: “I was a consultant”. I worked as I was able. When family life was busy, I took on fewer jobs; when there was time, I took on more.
I raised three children “under my desk”, as it were. During the early consulting years, the company essentially generated only a modest income. When I hired the first 2 employees and began building websites, I knew I had to generate enough income to pay three salaries.
That created a turning point in my own mind. I not only wanted to bring in enough business to pay three salaries; I wanted to bring in enough business to hire more people and grow a “real” company.
The change in my mindset – going from being a lone consultant, or a “lifestyle” business to becoming an expanding company in a new technological landscape was the turning point for the business.
What inspired you to start out on your own or with your partners? What learning lessons can you share from your startup experience?
My first counsel is: Just begin! It doesn’t matter if it’s just you and a computer you use at a local library, community center or college. Begin today! Whatever you want to build will be built faster if you begin with what you have now, the time you have to devote to it now, and whatever customers you can find today.
My next counsel is, while you are doing whatever you can today, keep your eye on your ultimate goal. That means you need to attempt to close larger deals, test your skills at more difficult tasks, convince friends and colleagues to devote some of their time and skills to make it happen… whatever the next step is in building your dream company, always stretch a bit to achieve that next step.
Most often, it boils down to doing something that scares you or at least challenges you greatly every day until you achieve your goal.
Finally, I would counsel that if you want to build a truly great technology company, you will need a Wizard (the technologist) and a Businessperson. The purpose of the Businessperson is to protect the Wizard.
If your Wizard is thinking about anything except, “What’s next?”, you’re losing money. The Wizard must not worry about whether the tea has been made or whether it’s been purchased; they must not worry about whether the rent has been paid or whether it can be paid. That’s the job of businessperson.
And if you’re the technologist, choose your businessperson by choosing the person to whom you can entrust the financial lives of your children; that’s your businessperson. Not your best friend, another technologist, or an investor. Your businessperson may be one of those people, but the criteria is the important attribute.
What are some challenges that you faced initially when you started out? Do you have some examples to share and advice to women entrepreneurs on overcoming them?
There is still a glass ceiling and the imbalance of power means women are still taken for granted in the home and not taken seriously in the workplace. A man with conviction is described as “a man with conviction”. I woman with conviction is described as “difficult”, “pushy” or worse. It is sad, but true.
Therefore, although we as women do not like this reality, we must deal with it. My counsel is to speak elegantly, but with a firmness that clearly demonstrates that you are in charge.
Avoid shrillness, which is belies a lack of sense of command of a situation. And avoid dressing and speaking as men do; imitation has no place here.
Seek out women who are successful and study the cadence in their voices and their choice of language. Learn the language of persuasion and power.
Secondly, it is hard to be an entrepreneur in any country, for either gender. Seek out entrepreneurs, join or create entrepreneur groups. Hang out with entrepreneurs who are several steps ahead of where you are today.
You need mentors – people who have walked your current path and can counsel you on how to get to the next stage. Hanging out with people at your current stage won’t do that for you.
At the earliest stages, no one will believe in you. Your parents will want to know when you’re going to get a job. Your spouse will want to know why you don’t play cards with the neighbors or participate in other inane activities.
Staying steadfast to your purpose is easier if you have others who understand what you’re building. That’s why the keeping the company of other supportive entrepreneurs – and supporting them – is so important.
What are all the things that a woman entrepreneur needs to keep in mind? I.e. apart from your great idea, what do you need to be armed with?
This is something all entrepreneurs need to keep in mind, male or female:
Great ideas are born every minute. The question is whether you have a great idea that can be brought to market. Do you have an actionable go-to-market plan? Will people really part from their hard earned cash to obtain whatever your great idea is?
Remember, there is a difference between running a small standard business and being an entrepreneur. Anyone can open a little shop and sell things that everyone is selling in the next street or neighborhood.
It is the plan to create more than just a little shop or selling stand that defines the entrepreneur. If you open a little shop to sell cupcakes in a city that has had no such shop before and plan to franchise it all over India, you’re an entrepreneur. Entrepreneurial thinking is different from ‘salary’ or ‘making a living’ thinking.
As a woman entrepreneur, I think it is specifically important to keep in mind the propensity for women not to take power or to give it up. If you are taking on a partner, be aware of this tendency and speak and plan mindfully to keep control of your growing company. Do not let your idea slip into becoming someone else’s company.
If you are a woman Businessperson in a startup with a male Wizard, again, be mindful of your role – the Wizard may be the CEO, but you should demand the title of COO. Watch the video of Sheryl Sandberg on why we have too few woman leaders.
Do women entrepreneurs find it tougher to get funding for businesses? If yes, why do you think that is?
I don’t have a firm answer to that question. I do know that far fewer women get funded than men. The questions you should be asking include whether women have fewer fundable ideas than men, or whether they have the ideas but don’t act on them because it’s not socially acceptable, or whether they have ideas and a man brings it to be funded, or whether ideas presented are not presented as powerfully or convincingly as the same ideas presented my men and so on.
There are so many variables and possibilities. As a woman, it is wise to dress appropriately for funding meetings. This does not mean dress like a man. It does mean, dress for power. Again, observe women in power and follow suit, always maintaining your own sense of style as well.
Stand up straight, speak with clarity and dignity, clearly demonstrate your passion for the subject and the idea, and clearly demonstrate your capacity and willingness to achieve the financial goals of your potential funders.
That last piece is more important for women because of the assumption that women will quit their other pursuits to manage a household. Be sure your funding parties understand your focus and ability to see this project through to the end.
Is it beneficial to have a mentor when you’re starting out on your own? What does a mentor bring to the table?
It is crucial to have mentors, not just one. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t begin to build your company in the absence of mentors. It means you should begin and one of your first and ongoing goals is to obtain mentors along the way.
In the beginning, simply having another person who is doing something similar – building a company at the same stage and perhaps in a similar sector as you are – is very helpful.
Look to your graduating class at the university to find others who have started companies and seek out their company to talk about being the CEO (Chief Executive Officer) or GM (General Manager) or your own businesses.
Always seek out the company of people whose companies are one to two stages larger and more mature than yours. They will help you negotiate leases, introduce you to funding sources, share their insurance agent contact with you, show you how they manage this or that employee issue, etc.
Mentors are people who have done it before. But they are not necessarily people who have built businesses in another era. Be aware that building a technology business is not like building a real estate business in 1970. Find mentors who are pertinent to the business you are building today.
Seek out Angel investors and learn how they think. What are they interested in, what things should be in your pitch, what turns them off, what makes them put their money on the table, what they want in return. Become friends with them and learn to meet the needs of funders.
How did you recruit your first team? How difficult was it to get people on board during the initial stages?
Our first employee was hired during a very hard recession. It was 2002, during the dot-com crash in Seattle. There were brilliant web developers and technologists out of work. They were willing to work for very low wages and stock in a new idea.
So we were fortunate to be building a business during hard times. Later, it became much more expensive to get people with the same skill sets because other technology companies were growing around us and they were now well funded and could afford to pay higher wages, pushing the cost in the marketplace up.
Initially, we knew we had very little money to offer, so we focused on other things: the excitement of being.
What are 3 key things that you have learned as an entrepreneur?
I have more assets and necessary attributes than I ever dreamed before I became an entrepreneur.
Cultivating the entrepreneurial spirit in every member of your company’s team is crucial to success. If only one is a 9-5 slacker, someone who simply mentally punches a clock, puts in the hours, and doesn’t have a stake in the group’s success, your whole company is hurt in many ways.
Regardless of all the nay-sayers who assured me and each other that I was either crazy or just a “silly woman”, it IS possible to create companies for th benefit of team members (employees), customers, and founders, rather than built on the backs of employees and customers for the sole financial benefit of the senior management. And it’s not only wildly successful for everyone, it’s a much, much better way to live.
How important is social media in building a business today? How has it played a role in helping you build yours?
SEOmoz was built entirely on Earned Media or Inbound Marketing. We built the company from inception to become the world’s largest supplier or search marketing campaign management software without placing a single paid ad.
Social media, which provides the platforms to get the word out about new content, ideas, and products played a crucial role in our success. If you beginning a company now, begin with social media. Produce extraordinary content (written, info-graphics, or video) and promote it to an increasing audience via social media.
Social media is the platform you use to create and mange your brand community. Your community is comprised of people who are engaged with your brand, know and like what you are creating and trying to achieve, and buy your products/services. They promote and support you – they spread the word for you.
Social media is where you start and it’s where you continue to return to spread the word as your company and community grows.
Can you share some tips for women entrepreneurs to maintain a balance between work and family life?
Now there’s a question few if any men ever ask. While it’s difficult to balance home and business life, it’s also very rewarding. It helps you build better companies – ones that understand the requirement to nurture the next generation while tending to the business needs of today’s generation.
As Sheryl Sandberg said in her TED talk, one of the most important criteria for successful businesswomen is selecting a supportive spouse. If your husband is not taking on a true half of the household and child rearing chores, you’ll need to be realistic about how much time you’ll have to devote to running your company.
If you are collectively making a sufficient amount of income to afford it, get household help immediately. Having someone available to clean, cook, and run the children to appointments will enable you to run the business without bailing out on important meetings to fill those needs.
The thing you cannot scrimp on is quality family time with spouse and children. Put those times on your calendar, just like business appointments. Keep them sacred. If you cut out quiet time reading to your children, taking them to the museum, the park, or other outings, you will have lost their attention and their respect.
Anyone can change a dirty diaper; only a mother can provide the sense of love, protection, and trust that establishes emotional health for children. Be there for those important evening and weekend times.
Take the children to the office to see what you do and to see you in a position of authority. It is good for children to know that you have a professional life in addition to a home life.
It is good for them to know that your relationship with your spouse came first and will remain after they are grown. This helps them to know their place in the home and not to become spoiled or self-centered.
When they are old enough, have them work a bit in the business if possible. It will teach them adult communication skills and give them assets to be successful in their own lives, whether they choose to become entrepreneurs or not.
We don’t like the imbalance of women’s work vs. men’s work, but I counsel you not to let it stop you. Begin your business anyway. Don’t delay.
I raised 3 children under my desk and playing on blankets behind me as I worked. With laptops and cell phones it is easier than ever to work and care for children. I had no maids, no chauffeurs, and no cooks. As Nike says, Just Do It!
As my children grew, so did my company. And their time spent in the business environment gave them a deeper appreciation of the power of women in the workplace as well as skills of their own that playing while I knitted or chatted inanely with other bored mothers on a park bench would not have given them.
There was still time enough for them to visit friends and have those friends visit at our home. Just get on with it. Time will reveal how things will come together for you and your family.