The lack of women in tech startups seems a perennially hot topic. I’m keenly aware of this problem because I see so many founders, and so few of them are women. I’m delighted to have 6 women at YC this winter (including an all-female founding team!) but the overall percentage of female founders we fund has remained constant over the years at about 4%.

We’ve found that the number of females we’ve funded is a reflection of our applicant pool. Anyone with access to the Internet can apply to Y Combinator, but few females do. (1)

Several months ago Mike Arrington wrote an article called “Too Few Women In Tech? Stop Blaming The Men.” He suggested that the lack of women is not due to discrimination but “that not enough women want to become entrepreneurs.” Since our applicant pool seems to bear this out, it seems a likely explanation.

So why don’t women want to start startups? I wonder if it’s not that not enough women want to start startups, but that not enough women even consider it as an option. I was one of them.  I wish now that I’d started a startup in my twenties instead of wasting those years in a series of boring corporate jobs. But the idea never occurred to me.

So I decided to conduct a thought experiment: now that I know more about startups, what advice would I give to myself as a 25-year-old, and how likely would I have been to start a startup even with the benefit of that advice? (2) Some of my thoughts seemed so surprising that I wanted to share them.

(Remember, this is advice I’d give to myself at age 25. My background: I had a B.A. in English, lived in NYC, had a pretty active social life, and had an unrewarding job at a financial communications agency.)

Save money

As strange as it seems, the first bit of advice that sprang to mind was: never be in a position where you’re dependent on a paycheck to survive in the short term. Don’t get into debt, and try to have a nest egg—no matter how small. Though I had a decent salary, I managed to spend more money than I made and got into debt. If my weekly paycheck had suddenly disappeared, I’d have been screwed.

Having savings makes you less dependent on your employer and gives you some flexibility to think about pursuing other things. When you first begin working on a startup, it’s hard to convince investors to give you money. So the longer you can live on your savings, the more time you’ll have to figure out your idea and get users.

Duh. Of course no one should live beyond their means. But I’d never thought about the implications of that when I was 25. I was very shortsighted. Living cheaply enough to save money would have meant giving up all sorts of creature comforts like my one-bedroom apartment on the Upper West Side or festive dinners out with friends. As embarrassed as I am to admit it, downgrading my quality of life would have been a significant barrier to starting a startup. (I have no idea if women generally care more about quality of life than men, but it was certainly true for me.)

Learn more about startups

My next piece of advice would be to understand what being a founder is really like. The media often glamorizes successful founders and makes their paths seem easier than they actually were.

At Y Combinator, we recommend reading all of Paul Graham’s essays about startups and I give each team a copy of Founders at Work at the first dinner. There is so much information about startups online these days.  

Grab coffee with anyone you know who is involved with startups and ask them what it’s like. Ask them to tell you war stories. What was the hardest part about doing a startup? What was it like day-to-day? You may discover that some aspects of founding a startup are not things you want to endure: rejection, the daily emotional roller coaster, a general sense of uncertainty, etc.

Find a co-founder. Someone technical if you aren’t.

Finding a technical cofounder would have been difficult for me. I was an English major and didn’t know any computer programmers.

The best advice here is to get out and network. If someone in your IT department is actually good, befriend them. Ask friends of friends if they know talented programmers. Read Hacker News. Go to meetups or other similar events. This may feel uncomfortable but it won’t be the first uncomfortable thing you have to do if you want to start a startup.

Finding a programmer to work with if you don’t already know one will be a challenge. Merely judging if a programmer is exceptional vs. competent will be very hard if you are not one yourself.  When you do find someone, work together informally for a while to test your compatibility. Cofounders will endure so much together that their relationship is often compared to a marriage. 

Learn to program

I wish I had learned to program when I had the luxury of spare time. Now I’d tell myself: take a class or get a friend to teach you. Even if you aren’t very good, it will make programming seem less foreign and terrifying. It will help you to understand the world in which your cofounder works and should ultimately give you a better vision for the product. Having even a basic grasp of programming will help you fathom what’s possible or not technically, too.

Build your own brand.

LinkedIn’s Reid Hoffman talks about how people are now their own brands. It’s really true. Anyone can blog, become a respected commenter in forums, produce videos, etc. One of the most frustrating professional problems I had in my 20s was not having enough “experience.” I wanted to do x, but no one would hire me even though I was capable because I didn’t have sufficient experience in x on my resume. (This is a problem that starting a startup can solve, by the way.)

So create your own experience! If you think you want to do a startup in a particular area, become an expert on your own. Create a blog on the subject filled with useful advice, tweet insightful comments—do anything that teaches you more about this subject and lends credibility to your own personal brand.

Do a test run

I never thought I’d say this because I believe it takes complete dedication for a startup founder to succeed but, the advice I’d give to myself as a 25-year-old would be to work on a startup on weekends at first. If you aren’t sure whether you should be a founder, test things out for a little while without actually burning your boat. (3)

Founders at Work began as a side project. My job was unchallenging and filled with a lot of bureaucratic crap, so I worked on Founders at Work as an interesting project to help keep my spirits up. Once I got a book contract though, I did decide to quit my job so I could work on the book full-time.

No life

Startups are a huge amount of work. If you have a successful startup, you will most likely need to give up many of the “softer” things in life. You won’t be able to date as much. You won’t take long vacations. In fact you might find yourself working almost every day of the year. Your family and friends will complain that they never see you.

Even if you don’t mean to blow everything off, you will become so consumed with your startup that it will occupy most of your waking thoughts. Andrew Mason of Groupon spoke at YC last summer and told us that he sometimes didn’t feel like he was part of the human race for the past few years. I understood what he meant. Paul Graham always said having a successful startup is like condensing 40 years of working into 4 extremely stressful ones. This deal just isn’t for everyone.

Thick Skin

Founders face all sorts of rejection in the early days. You are suddenly in a world where you get slapped around a lot, so if you take slaps personally it is going to be distracting. People will dismiss your idea, complain about the functionality of what you’ve built, or publicly criticize you.

At Y Combinator, we advise startups to launch early. Launch as soon as you’ve built something with a quantum of utility so that you can start getting feedback from your users. Though we and the founders know there is a much larger vision for the product, launching early often leaves you vulnerable to criticism from trolls and other naysayers. Constructive feedback from users is valuable, but uninformed and nasty remarks should not take up space in your brain.

Lots of founders find the fundraising process totally demoralizing, too. When you have a hard time raising money it’s hard not to start believing yourself that your company is lame. But even successful founders often have to meet with lots of investors before finding the one that agrees to invest.

Even if some types of rejection/criticism are warranted,you’ll find people are more direct about it in the startup world. In a big company, bad news is often couched in euphemisms. In the startup world, people just give it directly. So just be sure that you don’t take rejection personally.

Make something people want

Y Combinator’s motto is “Make something people want.” We believe it is the single most important thing in building a successful startup. As I’ve said before: by nature, startups are very non-discriminatory. As a founder, your success is directly tied to the success of your product. You must please the market. And if the product is actually good, the market will reward you.

We can help.

We’ve tried to make Y Combinator a great option for anyone who wants to start a startup. Twice a year we have open applications for our 3-month funding cycles. Here’s more about what we do in the 3 months, but essentially it’s like first gear for a startup.

We tend to fund technical founders, but we like to take risks on different types of people, because part of our model is to be able to take more risks by making the cost of failure low. The only thing we require is that you come to Silicon Valley for 3 months.

I’d encourage anyone who wants to start a startup to fill out our application. In fact, we designed the application to serve as a valuable exercise in itself. Even if you never hit the submit button, it will help you formulate your thoughts and think strategically about your idea.

Boxed in

So would I have started a startup at 25 if I’d known more about it? To be honest, I’m really not sure I would have. The biggest obstacle would have been the lack of potential co-founders.  I might have started a startup if I’d had the right co-founder, but I just didn’t know the right people when I was 25.

I often regret not having at least worked at a startup, but then I remind myself that it truly never seemed like an option when I was younger. I was 34 when we started Y Combinator and even then the hardest part was telling people about it, because it did not seem like a “normal” thing to do! Lots of people were skeptical, but that’s always true when you do something that hasn’t been done before. Don’t ever let others put an upper bound on your professional aspirations. This can happen without you even realizing it. So you have to make a conscious effort not to get boxed in.

Level Playing Field

It’s been true in the past and probably is still true to some extent that investors discriminate against women. Not necessarily consciously, but their models of the ideal founder are current successful founders, who are mostly men.

But while your ability to reach customers may be limited by the difficulty of getting funding, the customers themselves don’t care. So if you work on something that doesn’t require lots of money to get started, you really do have a level playing field. And fortunately startups require less and less money to start.  

There are so many ideas you can do for cheap that even if investors are skeptical, that’s not going to stop you. What’s more likely to stop you is what would have stopped me: not realizing that a startup founder could have been someone like me, and not knowing any technical cofounders.  But unlike the skepticism of investors these are things that are completely under your control.

 

Learn to program (for anyone in NYC): http://girldevelopit.com/


(1) We don’t know the exact number of female applicants because we don’t ask people their gender on the application form. But we have a general sense judging from their names.

(2) That was 15 years ago.

(3) But make a decision fairly quickly whether you want to do it full time, since it’s really hard to have a successful startup “on the side.”

 


Comments

sey
01/26/2011 13:19

So did you have an idea at 25?
I'm 22 (female) and considering a start-up in the long run (studying physics right now) (and be it for the experience), but I'd need a good idea I believe in..

01/26/2011 13:29

Maybe it's just that not enough women have the boom or bust mentality required to try for venture capital funding.

I deal with female entrepreneurs constantly. Almost every freelance designer I work with is female. I'm a member of a micro-business forum in Australia called Flying Solo - the membership there is skewed towards females.

01/26/2011 13:32

Loved the post Jessica. Rather than making broad generalizations, you approach the topic from a personal and hyper-relevant perspective. I love that.

BTW - SEOmoz's co-founder/President, our COO, our VP of Engineering, our VC board member and 30%+ of our staff at SEOmoz are women.

I have to say, my favorite part of your piece was this:

"Constructive feedback from users is valuable, but uninformed and nasty remarks should not take up space in your brain."

I've been thinking about how to phrase my thoughts on accepting criticism without letting it have an adverse impact. I think you've phrased it wonderfully.

Hope to see you again sometime - loved my trip to YC and would be thrilled to help out again.

01/26/2011 13:38

THANK YOU JESSICA! I've read a lot on the subject and I think you're correct in assessing the reasoning behind the lack of female start-up founders. The numbers speak for themselves.
I'm like you in that I also wish I started back in my twenties (I was stuck in corporate hell, too) but I can't imagine how much more difficult it would have been without the wealth and depth of information that is readily available online. Without social media, it would have taken me so much longer to find those trusted advisers and network within my local entrepreneurial ecosystem.
Kudos for you to encourage more women to get out there and take advantage of what this has to offer. I hope to be in the position to attract and cultivate young women but I doubt I will have time time until I move on from the start-up that I'm launching now.
Thanks for blogging about the topic and providing such good advice for those who might not have considered it.
Very best,
Wendy

dsl
01/26/2011 13:43

I see a lot of women wanting to be founders. A number of them have tried to rope me in to be their technical "co-founders," which is code for "do all the work."

This is the same pitfall that a number of men get into as well, having an "idea" and expecting someone else to put in all the long nights and weekends to get it done. In a less than five person company, saying that you will handle "PR and marketing" or "business development and strategic relationships" is just insulting.

You want more female founders? Teach them a programming language and give them a desire to create amazing things.

01/26/2011 14:09

Well said, Jessica.

I am also guilty of waiting too long, mostly because I never considered it as an option while I was frittering precious time at a "boring corporate job".

I hope your words can inspire more women to join the fray.

John
01/26/2011 14:46

Very long article, but may go a long way to explain the evolutionary reasons: http://www.psy.fsu.edu/~baumeistertice/goodaboutmen.htm

01/26/2011 15:56

<em>Thick Skin / Founders face all sorts of rejection in the early days.</em>

I actually wrote a longish comment on Hacker News regarding precisely this issue. Norah Vincent's book <em>Self-Made Man_</em> discusses how men and women experience rejection, since she's in some ways been on "both sides." In the book, Vincent spends a couple months dressing and acting like a man, and she goes around living life as a "man": i.e. she makes male friends, goes on dates, and so forth. The first time she approaches a group of women in an attempt to get to know them, Vincent is shocked by their indifference and what to her eyes looks anew like callousness. In this passage, her friend Curtis is in on the ruse and takes her out to meet women):

<blockquote>Simple enough, right? A brush-off. No biggie. But as I turned away and slumped back across the room toward our table, I felt like the outcast kid in the lunchroom who trips and dumps his tray on the linoleum in front of the whole school. Rejection sucked.

"Rejection is a staple for guys," said Curtis, laughing as I crumpled into my seat with a humiliated sigh. "Get used to it."

That was my first lesson in male courtship ritual. You had to take your knocks and knock again. It was that or wait for some pitying act of God that would never come. This wasn't some magic island in a beer commercial where all the ladies would light up for me if only I drank the right brew.

"Try again, man," Curtis urged. "C'mon. Don't give up so easily."</blockquote>

She hadn't realized the sheer amount of rejection most men experience on a day-to-day basis in interacting with women. I suspect most women don't; I also suspect that most men don't understand how many implicit or explicit sexual offers many women get every day, and how that can become wearying too. In dealing with what I'd call the facts of dating life, Vincent says this:

<blockquote>"How do you handle all this fucking rejection?" I asked Curtis when we sat back down for a postmortem.

"Let me tell you a story," he said. "When I was in college,
there was this guy Dean, who got laid all the time. I mean this guy had different women coming out of his room every weekend and most weeknights, and he wasn't particularly good looking. He was fat and kind of a slob. Nice guy, though, but nothing special. I couldn't figure out how he did it, so one time I just asked him. 'How do you get so many girls to go out "with you?' He was a man of few words, kind of Coolidge-esque, if you know what I mean. So all he said was: 'I get rejected ninety percent of the time. But it's that ten percent.'"</blockquote>

And this isn't true only of dating life, but of startup life and many other fields (including my own: writing). I actually teach a chapter of Self-Made Man to my freshmen (I'm a grad student in English at the U of Arizona), and part of the reason I do it is for what she says about rejection (and about empathy).

Most of the comparisons between men and women in startups, ability, and so forth are, I think, complete bullshit. But I do wonder if men don't have an advantage in persistence because of early dating experiences, where if they're to have any success whatsoever they *must* learn to accept and cope with rejection. This isn't because men are somehow born to be more persistent, but I think that, by the time they've been through at least a couple of relationships in which they have to be the ones who make the first move, they begin to get the idea that a) rejection is okay and b) they need a thick skin.

Obviously women can experience rejection in a variety of ways too, but as far as I can tell very few women approach men in the interest of sex or relationships in the same way men approach women. This kind of training in dealing with rejection might help men deal with rejection in other fields too.

(See the Amazon link to Self-Made Man if you're curious: http://www.amazon.com/Self-Made-Man-Womans-Year-Disguised/dp/0143038702?ie=UTF8&tag=thstsst-20&linkCode=as2&camp=1789&creative=390957 . If you want the chapter I teach to my freshmen, from which the above quotes are drawn, send me an e-mail -- seligerj [at] gmail [....dot...] com)

Fatih
01/26/2011 16:21

John, your link is very informative! Thank you.

01/26/2011 16:35

I am a female startup founder. I wholeheartedly agree. I'm using my old startup's lessons to help my new startup, in an unrelated field succeed. I also applied at YC for the March round of funding. I've printed this and taped it on the wall. (yes, old technology paper-and-tape visualization helps me to reach my goals!).

01/26/2011 17:31

Great article. I am so glad I came across it. I have wanted to start a start-up for 3+ years now and this article helped me see some things that were standing in my way.

Now that they have been pointed out, I can walk around them now. Thank you.

01/26/2011 18:43

Jessica I think this is a good, honest list that a lot of women will relate to (I certainly do). I'm a female founder (launching in a few weeks). I'm also an English major and a 40 year old mom of two, so not your "typical" internet entrepreneur. But I've worked in start-ups since my mid-20s and thus have a pretty good idea of what I'm getting into. That's one suggestion I would make to anyone, male or female, coming at this from a non-technical background. Get into a start-up with the skills you have and then take every opportunity to learn what other people do and take on new challenges that will expand your skills. I started out doing PR because that's what I could do and quickly moved on to broader marketing roles, learning as much as I could along the way and proving myself up to any task put in front of me. Start-ups will afford just about any learning opportunity to someone who is smart and works hard. When one of the start-ups I was working for was bought by HP, the company's founder asked me to take on product management even though I'd never done it before. So I jumped at the chance, and spent the next three years managing a team of engineers and designers building online experiences for partners like MySpace, AOL and Facebook (no pressure!). You certainly don't need to spend as much time on the learning process as I did. I started my company now for many reasons (I had the means to bootstrap, I had an idea for something I was really excited about, etc.). Even a year in a start-up would give a 20-something non-technical person a hugely useful education in what it takes to build a product and start a company. I'm sure it's possible to do it without this experience, but you should get it if you can.

01/26/2011 19:39

Great thoughts! Thank you, Jessica.

I am a founder of a startup and there is also something to be said about women seeking inspiration from other women. The few women in Y Combinator may be self-perpetuating. I considered applying, but have to admit that I was not excited by the prospect of joining a mostly young male crowd. This no knock on the wonderful program that Y Combinator offers. I think it's just that women tend to take the leap into entrepreneurship later in life, for better or worse, and so the typical Y Combinator demographic of mostly male and mostly under 30 can cause some women to hesitate. I ended up joining women-led organizations like Astia and Women 2.0. I believe in the value of diversity in age, culture, and gender, but if given the choice between a predominately young male crowd or a predominantly more mature female crowd, I'd choose the later given my experience. For this reason, I would guess that there are probably more women-led startups than the Y Combinator applications would reveal. The great news is that through posts like this and the growing chorus encouraging women of all ages to join the startup fray, this conversation will soon seem silly. Thank you for helping in that effort!

01/26/2011 19:47

Thanks Jessica, good to know you've got your girls' backs. I'm applying to the March cycle at YC and as a female I appreciate your suggestions and comments.

01/26/2011 20:05

Thank you, Jessica, for such an inspiring post! I am a founder of a startup that I began a little over two years ago with an idea that drove me day in and day out. I have a background in computer technology but am not a programmer yet have successfully built a web-based horse farm management software.

I had to do a lot of research, interviewing and learning as I grew but I am now at the point of successful production. I am in search of a co-founder that I can work well with to continue to develop and fine tune the software. I have so many more ideas that I want to incorporate and am so excited to keep going. Everyday is a creative adventure. I absolutely love it!

01/26/2011 20:52

Thanks so much for taking on the topic, Jessica. It's so important!

Last summer I wrote an Op Ed called XX Combinator. It started as an offhanded comment in a blog and snowballed from there into a substantial conversation.

It was rooted in my experience, as a mother of two from the East Coast who'd been told by some folks to apply for YC. (I have startup experience, thick skin, had savings) My network did not provide me access or exposure to the names associate with YC. But looking at the website, it was immediately clear that the program involved pulling my kids from school for three months. That's just not possible.

And I asked around among other mom entrepreneurs and they'd drawn the same conclusion, and did not bother applying.

So it caused me to ask the question -- is there some way to extend the exposure and attention that YC showers on its companies, to people who simply, logistically can't be there the whole time?

It seems in this age of digital connected worlds, it's worth some consideration.

Curious if YC would ever explore alternatives which allow other types of people to select in for applying. Because right now we select out.

Thanks!

01/26/2011 22:03

Some excellent suggestions, Jessica. And great to see this topic being discused!

In terms of how YC can help, back in 2005 Paul Graham said "One advantage startups have over established companies is that there are no discrimination laws about starting businesses. For example, I would be reluctant to start a startup with a woman who had small children, or was likely to have them soon." If he no longer believes that, it would be great for him to discuss his evolution. And if he does believe it, then it would be great for you and the other YC partners to help him see that attitudes like are a big issue for female founders -- and help contribute to YC's 4% ratio.

jon

Andrew
01/26/2011 23:12

This is a great post, Jessica, and does a really good job articulating many of the things I had struggled with in my own thinking previously (e.g., "How can I start a startup given that I'm not super technical? Given that I don't have startup experience?"), and also coming to the recognition that, actually, there are many valuable skills even a non-technical founder can bring to the table in a founding team as well, especially if she has the motivation to learn a little bit of programming to be able to talk knowledgeably about some of the technical nuances of product and engineering issues. And it is absolutely true that one owns the responsibility of "building one's own brand" -- even if that means being super enterprising and creative and determined to create your own experiences to solve that "chicken / egg" problem. Moving to the Valley has been a great step for me in that regard, because the opportunities to meet potential (technical) co-founders is significant, and the startup ecosystem here is the best in the world (in many ways through social infrastructure and support from orgs like YC). Thanks!

01/26/2011 23:59

Jessica, in crowdfunding, women are already leading 42% of the projects.

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/kevin-lawton/democratizing-venture-cap_b_792498.html

In VC backed businesses, it's a single digit percentage. Why not back a crowdfunding platform?

01/27/2011 00:52

First, thank you for writing Founders at Work. I wish something like that had existed in 2002. I do realize that most of the companies you featured didn't know if what they were doing in 2002/2003 was going to lead to success or failure. They were few ways to generate revenue at that time, so starting a consumer-focused company seemed crazy. Even though I created a Dropbox-like system for my 2002 Yale senior project, I shelved it and went after a job at a profitable company (Expedia) because I couldn't see how I'd ever get paid and thought I would learn something about running a profitable company.

I'm gay and also never felt like I belonged in the straight male culture that dominates most startups. The company I helped co-found (RealSelf.com) is evenly split between men and women. We hired a great female VP of Sales and she sought out great saleswomen who wanted to avoid the frat culture of other sales organizations.

For women who are still in college, the best advice is to take upper-level Computer Science classes. You'll have a chance to meet people who have aren't after a date (as can happen with networking) and will treat you as a true partner if you start a company. Computer Science has a reputation for men with poor hygiene, yet that didn't stop Marissa Mayer.

technical_entrepreneur
01/27/2011 03:47

Steps:

(1) Get serious about a career that provides financial security. Investigate, learn, think, pursue.

(2) If you pick computing as your career, then learn at least the basics of practical computing -- (A) hardware speeds, capacities, costs, and principles of operation, (B) operating system software principles, (C) communications principles, especially TCP/IP and associated practical topics such as DNS, DHCP, sockets, HTTP, (D) programming, including languages, interpretation and compiling and link editing, DLLs, design, debugging, testing, timing, documenting, (E) middle ware, especially Web servers and relational data base, (F) user interface principles and Web page design, (G) Web site design and operation, (H) system and network management and administration, especially right away data backup and recovery and later monitoring and reliability.

Nearly all of this stuff you have to teach yourself; school won't help much. You can learn the material from introductory books, working with your computer and the Internet to make little things work, reading on the Internet, e.g., at Wikipedia, and, especially, reading relevant technical documentation. Then you will round out your knowledge as you make things work. Having others around who know more and are willing to explain can help a lot.

These are highly practical topics, and academic computer science tries to concentrate on fundamental theoretical topics and is not the same or even very close.

(3) Notice that if you actually have some good ideas and are ready, willing, able, and eager to do good work, then you should be working for yourself in a business you own. So, learn the basics of business -- bookkeeping, accounting, taxes, picking a good business, delivering work many other people like and are willing to pay for, barriers to entry, fund raising, publicity, marketing, selling, keeping good customers, outsourcing work, e.g., accounting, leasing, negotiating, benefits, business law, hiring, managing, leading, training, firing people, work of a COB, CEO, COO, CFO, CIO, VP Operations, CMO, etc.

Next, if you go to college, then take the opportunity to learn some material that can help you, especially in business.

You can divide knowledge that can hurt you into (A) good knowledge you do not yet know and (B) bad knowledge you have learned, believe, and might act on. Far and away the most dangerous is (B). One of the best lessons in college is to study some of the very best knowledge, see what high quality is, become a critical consumer of knowledge, and, then, be able to reject (B).

College is expensive. So, mostly, if you go, then you need to get a good financial return on that big financial investment.

By a wide margin, the most solid and widely applicable subject in college is math. Next most solid are the physical sciences. Still very solid and also closer to practice is engineering. It's tough to find anything useful yet in the social sciences. In business, the main useful subject is just accounting which you can learn on your own, including a CPA if you want one.

Here's a blunt, *reality check*, *facts of life*, dirty little secret about college: The colleges are eager to teach ancient Greek if enough students will sign up. Just because a college teaches some subject does not mean you can get any value from studying it. The humanities are heavily misleading about reality and otherwise at best next to useless for anything except light entertainment and escapism.

The worst of the humanities is English, and an English major is making a loud public statement that they are lost, confused, helpless, dependent, self-destructive and need to be cared for by others. So, being an English major might be okay for a girl who has a father at least moderately wealthy and who has aspirations of being a stay at home wife and mother cared for by a strong, protective, at least moderately wealthy man eager to be a good husband and father.

Even for a career in screen writing, English is a poor start; successful screen writing needs lessons, techniques, and insights into people and society that academic English is determined not to teach.

The idea of an information technology (IT) startup with a "technical co-founder" is nonsense: Flatly, if you want to do an IT startup, then first learn IT, at least as outlined above.

Gina Valo
01/27/2011 07:01

Excellent post. I'd love to hear other thoughts on how women/people with non-technical backgrounds can learn surface level programming.

I'd also like to hear your thoughts on risk taking. Specifically, I'm curious what you'd say to a 25 y/o female who is worried that a failed startup would affect future opportunities.

01/27/2011 07:29

To echo another commenter: go work at a startup, even if it's "just" office manager / generalist. Then, learn as much as you can on the job (and after hours). There's always so much interesting things to be done, most founders will be glad if you expand your role into marketing, Web design, accounting, or whatever.

Get your foot in the door, make yourself valuable, then (if appropriate) ask for a larger or new role as the company grows.

Gabriel
01/27/2011 07:56

I am searching for a technical founder for a great business idea. I am in NYC and would love to talk it over whenever you are free!

Lisa
01/27/2011 08:15

All great advice but there are still plenty of obstacles for women. I'm a 40+ seasoned entrepreneur who is also a mom. My start-up is currently pitching VCs. When we speak with potential investors I have to make sure they know that the other female co-founder and I have reliable full-time childcare. The two male co-founders have never had to answer to that concern.

John Handelaar
01/27/2011 09:18

Sorry, but I'm obliged to mention that one of the things that stops female founders is <em>you</em>.

Single women with kids who don't already live in the immediate vicinity of YC can't uproot the child for three months, and that alone disqualifies them from applying.

01/27/2011 09:20

As a woman who served in "non-senior" but revenue producing roles at a series of startups in the 1990's and now has spent the 8 months or so surveying the tech ecosystem my experience and my recent observations confirm that most people who are profiled in the media are male, and fit the "model" of successful entrepreneurs. Interestingly, that is not what I see on the streets...at the meetups, at our co-working locations in NYC. There are lots of women in NYC trying their hand at starting a business. Many just can't do it. They have to work all day. The Moms (or single Dads), the ones whose parents are not still supporting them.

Enter Founder Labs....Women 2.0 is bringing the gender balanced pre-incubator to NYC after three highly successful runs in the Valley. After work, five nights a week (if you can stand all that creativity) five weeks to create a start up...and then the work begins! Check it out...Founder Labs. Build something!

Derek
01/27/2011 10:14

To the women who say childcare is an issue, I know plenty of guys who don't start companies for the same reason.

And the ones who do definitely have to answer to VCs about it, but the question might be phrased differently. They ask whether the founder has a family and, if so, how they are supporting themselves. I don't have kids, but my co-founder does and one of my first questions to him before joining up was about how he would make ends meet.

I was a music major and know nothing about business when I got out of college. I knew a little about computers and was definitely comfortable them, but it wasn't until I started reading Inc Magazine and later the Wall Street Journal that I really got an interest in entrepreneurship.

One day I read an article that was kind of a precursor to Founder's at Work (great book, BTW). It talked about the early days of Motorola and HP. Specifically, how did they get started?

The answer is pretty mundane. The founders just wanted to be independent. Their ideas weren't especially good (I believe both companies' first products were obsolete within two years, and neither was a runaway success). They just figured they'd muddle along until they found something that worked.

It was then that I realized that every non-natural thing we see around us -- buildings, roads, gadgets, cars, reality tv shows, even the criminal justice system -- was the result of someone taking a risk and envisioning a better way of doing things.

01/27/2011 10:47

great article jessica! my response: http://mitalify.com/founders-not-at-work

01/27/2011 11:18

As a woman who was chief software engineer at DEC in the early 80s, I can map nearly every point here to what I'd have advised a woman engineer in the 80s. But my question, from this somewhat longer perspective, is whether the entire pressure cooker startup culture is necessary, or something (un?)consciously concocted by funders to exploit the energies of (mostly) young men? I have seen so many teams of young men give up thier lives and years of education and personal life to start a VC funded company, only to be judged insufficiently rounded to lead their company from startup to growth. It's taboo to say this, but maybe the young women are just too smart to buy into such a stunting and exploitative system? Maybe many young women just have a healthy appreciation of balance in their lives? I didn't (and don't! ;), and I don't regret it, but we may be drastically in error to see women passing on startup leadership as *their* problem, rather than the healthy reaction to a narrow, hyperactive, often antisocial niche career with huge burnout and failure rates?

Samyukta A.
01/27/2011 12:27

Thanks for sharing your perspective Jessica. I am a founder of a web start-up AND a techie and yet I will never apply to YC.

YC seems inordinately skewed towards young single men in their 20s, who have all the time in the world to post on Hacker News, vote on each others posts, and can afford to move on to the next thing if this doesn’t work out.

I am in my mid-30s and a mom. If I am awake, I am working on my start-up or on the job as a mom. These are my priorities. I simply lack the bandwidth to do much else.

Given this, the YC demographic and requirements don’t work for me on multiple levels and I have no option but to select out of even applying:

1. One of the “requirements" for YC is quality of contributions to HN. With my bandwidth issues, not happening.

2. Childcare. I simply can’t uproot my kid for 3 months to a new location with no support system in place, and I sure as hell can’t afford to pay traditional child care costs for 3 months out of my savings.

3. One reason I might apply to programs like YC is so I can find a co-founder. I am pessimistic that my ideal co-founder is going to be in the demographic YC attracts.

Dalia
01/27/2011 12:29

01/27/2011 12:36

Hello,
I am a female entrepreneur working on my second tech start up. I definitely echo most of these thoughts, although it is critical never to use that card in the process of developing your business.

I am going through fundraising process right now, and I can see that it is not very common for most women to go through this. I am constantly learning about myself, others and enjoying the process of building something. The best thing that keeps me going is sticking to goals and confidence. You must not seek validation or direction from others that you are doing a good job, you dictate that for yourself.

I have not met any female entrepreneurs in tech, and would love to!

eileen gunn
01/28/2011 06:22

01/28/2011 06:25

Hi Jessica,

Thanks for your very helpful article! I am an entrepreneur and founder of Slick Flick the photo stories app. Am, as Dahlia above, in the fundraising process at the moment. From reading your article and lots of other start ups advice over the past few months I have tried (and pretty much succeeded) to tick every box of a successful start up: find several significant market needs that our product would resolve, be potentially first to market, get a top tech co founder onboard, create a prototype, negotiate a deal with a key commercial partner, create a great business plan, scope out a great team, and more. But still find it challenging to open doors and get the right meetings with investors. Do you have any advice? And can one take advantage of YC if we are based in London? Thanks!


01/28/2011 06:42

I think it's a mistake to say women aren't starting companies. Women are hugely entrepreneneurial. They just do it without VC money.

There are a few reasons for that. For one thing, women generally don't start high-growth tech companies. The retail and service businesses they tend to found aren't necessarily what angels/VCs are interested in.

Also, the terms of getting VC money, build as big as you can as fast as you can and don't plan to sleep or date or see your apartment or friends much, is the same trade off you make to thrive on wall street or as a corporate executive. It doesn't work for women. If I can have no life and hit a certain business goal in 6 months or have a life and get to that same place in 12-18 months, I'll take the latter. And not taking VC money gives me that option.

Finally, yes, the VC-tech community is laregely peopled by guys who know other guys and if you've never worked for a tech company you probably aren't in that network. If you go to start-up events in NYC or SV they are peopled by investor guys in their 40s and founder guys in their 20s. I go to these things and can be amused by that but I also wonder what extra hurdles it would throw up for me if I sitting across from an angel or VC asking for money.

I think the VC/angel path to startups is awesome and I hugely admire so money of the people I've met who are VCs and the founders who go that route. But lets remember that taking VC money has its downsides and it's not the right funding for every entrepreneur. The vast majority of companies in the Inc. 500 HAVE NOT taken VC money. If we think that women need to specifically start more VC-backed companies, let's work on getting them into the tech/science career pipeline. Otherwise let's find alternate models of funding that work for what women do and what they need.

01/28/2011 09:42

Alright, I'm in. Applying to Y Combinator in the next round.

We launched Galvanize (http://galvanize.us) in September, but it's crazy difficult to find developers who can work even on small projects at the moment in NY.

Thanks for the post!

01/28/2011 09:50

Although I think it's possible that more women need to be exposed in their 20's to empowering ideas about start-up, I also think many women may need to get into their 30's or later to discover what, exactly, they have the power to do.

I'm not making a feminist argument per se, but unless women are already in a tech-centered environment by their 20's, it may take them a little while to develop enough of a career path to have a launch pad to innovate on top of.

Also, there are very few high schools that make a big point of encouraging girls to take coding and development classes. That's just not part of girl culture in HS.

I think over the next decade we're going to see more and more women coming into tech. It's just taken us a little while to get here.

If we really want it to be an equal opportunity platform, those of us who do make something happen better start funding and supporting better access for young girls coming up in adolescence. The raw material is definitely there.

01/28/2011 11:29

Wonderful post. I actually have 3 people email it to me.

I'm the co-founder of www.gtrot.com. I left my job in the corporate world to take the full plunge into our NYC based startup when I was 24. You're post is a completely accurate look at the sacrifices you need to make and the skepticism and criticism you have to endure but also the incredible feeling of being passionate about what you do every day.

Would love to compare stories. I'm at @br_ttany

01/28/2011 12:06


Overall, this is the best post I've seen yet on the topic. Where were you when i was 25? Somehow, even without the crush of information available now, and despite a BA in Psychology, I ended up as one of the 4%, and I feel like I could write a book on this. But I'll hold back and address just one theme that runs underneath many of the comments: that there is some sort of right to have or work at a start-up. It doesn't exist. Building a high growth company is extraordinarily demanding, and you have to make sacrifices in other places to do it. That's the simple reality of life - in an early stage business every thing that happens every day matters, and there are never enough hours in a day to do what absolutely has to be done. It's the nature of the beast, not created by anyone, and those of us who do it love, live it. By way of illustration, as I was reading the post I was thinking that I might try YC for my next company - and I have 2 small children and live on the East Coast. I'd just make it work; if you can't do that, you can't do a start-up. No shame in it, it just isn't for you.

01/29/2011 04:17

Jessica - A start-up at 25? Okay, but I was in business school then finishing my education. Here's some food for thought. Many older women (45+) like me launch start-ups after their children are launched. It's a fabulous time in life to do so...one has time, money in the bank, a broader network of contacts, and the energy to start a new adventure. Leading a start-up full of 25 year olds when you're older is the best of both worlds.

01/29/2011 19:51

Excellent article. I'm co-founder of my business and even though I'm 28 many of your points resonated with me on a very personal level.

Thank you for this.

01/29/2011 21:19

Thank you, Jessica, for sharing your perspective and advice to your 25 year old self with us.

The Midwest is seeing the same thing. I'm hoping to change this though through my startup - Sassy CEO - a community for women entrepreneurs that will offer support, information and, in the future, angel funding.

01/30/2011 08:08

Thanks for this post, Jessica. We've found very similar things and run a program geared to the "older" set of women entrepreneurs (mid career - like Jan in the comment above) called ACTiVATE. We go beyond just the web-based and IT technologies as our graduates have done medical devices, pharma, clean energy, health IT, advanced materials, and more. We help women who don't have an idea find one (including tech transfer), those who have an idea, and those who maybe have a problem they want to solve but need a product. We even help them identify partners and have found that providing role models through our community of graduates and access to networks for resources and funding is key!

01/30/2011 16:51

When I founded my startup, Fashioning Change, over a year ago I began to seek out advice from a number of people. I was never told I had a bad idea but frequently heard “You’re too nice to be a founder.” My response was always a polite thank you (ironic, I know) and something along the lines of “I’m going to make this happen because it’s what I know I was meant to do. I’d love your support but will continue on either ways.” These days most of the people who said I was “too nice” now are mentors in some capacity. Most founders, regardless of gender, hear more “No’s” than “Yes’s.” It is SO important to have thick skin, a little stubbornness, and lots of persistence.

Additionally, it’s important to know what you don’t know and fill-in the gaps. I actually applied to the Y-Combinator for this reason. I never heard back but didn’t let that stop my search for a resource to help me fill-in the gaps. I came across the Founders Institute and have received access to amazing mentors and resources. Now one year into my startup I’ve started to grow my team. Together we’ve launched our first application and are working on releasing the BETA version of our core product offering this year.

One big point I think is missing in the post above is “Celebrate.” It’s a fact that most startups fail. Celebrating milestones and achievements like launching an application, finding a co-founder, garnering media placements, etc. is important for both personal and team morale.

Great post!

:) Adriana Herrera
http://www.fashioningchange.com


02/01/2011 04:04

Thanks for the article Jessica. You make some great points and so do many of the comments.

One thing you mentioned that resonates with me is the lack of role models and stories about women entrepreneurs. Practically every other post I have read about raising capital and startups is by men and about men.

With the exception of Ben Horowitz's post here: http://bhorowitz.com/2010/05/30/how-andreessen-horowitz-evaluates-ceos/
where he refers to the CEO as 'she.' Reading this was very encouraging. It made me feel "I can do this!"

I think the importance of gender inclusivity in talking and writing about startups cannot be overstated. It is the difference between women thinking "I can do that" or "That's my type of person" or thinking that they are not part of the startup community.

02/03/2011 06:12

Thanks for a great article. Even with non-technical startups, there's so many grains of truth in here. In my FastTrac program, sponsored by the Levin Institute in New York, 3/4 or more of my fellow students were female, showing that we are interested in starting our own companies. I think some of us didn't realize how many women do want to run their own businesses and might have felt like a minority out in the bigger entrepreneurial world. There are layers of reasons why for that as the article and some of the commenters point out.

Piglet
02/05/2011 03:52

<i>He suggested that the lack of women is not due to discrimination but “that not enough women want to become entrepreneurs.” Since our applicant pool seems to bear this out, it seems a likely explanation.</i> Given that several women have commented above that they haven't bothered to apply to YC because of your program's conditions & demographics, does this explanation still seem as likely?

Rashmi
02/05/2011 08:06

Nice post. Yes - as women we have to make a choice. I was only too grateful to be able to continue my career in IT after having 2 kids. A lot of women I knew quit their careers after having kids. But now, at 45 - with my kids "launched" as Jan said above, now is my time to think about a startup ! I am a techie and am looking for ideas to implement !!

02/06/2011 08:09

I realize a lot of your advice is aimed at /yourself/ when you were 25, but it reads as if you assume a non-technical female founder.

02/06/2011 15:36

Remember, most of the conjecture of "why women don't do such-and-such" are the same conjectures as to why women didn't want the vote. Don't rehash the same old crap. Get to the data. See how women are treated in the work environment, how many have been physically threatened, technically ostracized, verbally insulted, etc. The word 'blame' is a weird word. Not all men are death-eaters. Very few are. But just enough to create havoc with a woman's career, just enough to walk around and tell everyone how this or that woman is a total bitch, or how this or that woman just drives him crazy, etc., so that questions about personality and "womanly concerns" about family, etc. are the root of the problem. Until men who know better tell the male death-eaters to shut up about the women on their team, then women will be the targets of insecure men, and the 'locker-room bravado' will continue to be taken seriously. Most women work because they have to, just like men. This 100-year old discussion about 'family' and 'children' is an option to women few and far between. Most women I know who work don't have the luxury to consider these issues for one moment. - Susan Spencer Conklin

02/06/2011 15:54

About becoming an entrepreneur... How can a woman dream of becoming an entrepreneur when she can't even get a promotion, barely gets a pat on the back, is'nt assigned to the teams that are visible, and is treated as "not knowin' nothin'" by insecure code jockeys? The majority of men know better than this, and need to have the guts s to tell the few males who are mixing things up to shut it. These few males will *only* listen to other males. Any female who tells this type of guy off will be publicized as just another bitch. This is no different than telling a gay basher to shut it.

Allyson Campa
02/07/2011 17:45

It's a good post, but you also seem to assume that only 25 year olds start companies. Maybe that's the demographic coming into Y-Combinator, but hard to imagine that's the typical profile of successful founder if you look behind a few high profile successes. Why not right a post about what advice you would give yourself right now. I started my first venture-backed company in my 30's and even that seemed young at the time. And so I think the advice would shift quite a bit based on where you re in your career and personal life. Research also shows there's a spike in businesses started by women once their own children get older.

02/09/2011 10:15

This is my 3rd time reading this article and everything still rings a bell in me. In my experience, doing a test run is probably the most worthy thing to do before you build your own startup because almost everything you mentioned would come to you when you work in a startup.
The success of YouTube and Facebook seems to bring young (really young) startup founders to the spotlight. However, I think age is not really that important. To me, I would consider the drive and desire in a person is more of a determining factor.

02/15/2011 10:13

This is a great article and I have to agree, there is ABSOLUTELY NO SHORTAGE of resources to start a start-up. However, I think that part of the reason why female tech entrepreneurs are not plentiful is because we don't feel we deserve to "own" vs. to "serve" a business - and this is not to demean us, just in the sociological/cultural upbringings makes it against our odds.

But for those that do want to start a start-up, there is no reason (male or female) that we can say "we can't." I may just say this because I live in NYC and the resources are abundant, it's simpler to network around because it seems that the start-up community is tight-knit community and there is plenty of advice to go around. My partners and I are starting our company and because of networking and really doing the due diligence to ask experts that run great events, workshops and networking events - we found our tech co-founders and an ample of resources. Unfortunately, funding is our major barrier, but we're working it through to get our first launch going in mid-2011 through the most elementary form of fundraising that Jessica mentions: moonlighting our way through and being picky about our spending. Through biz/tech Meetups and programs like FastTrac (www.fasttrac.org) on top of mentorships like YCombinator and Tech Stars, there is such a rich plethora of resources and support systems to help start-ups battle through their set of barriers.

Wen Guo
02/17/2011 16:07

Great analysis, Jessica. You are speaking my mind!

I'm a 20-yr-old female Cal student trying to build a web startup. I don't have a tech background, but I have a CS friend working on a Demo. I've spoken to a couple successful and experienced entrepreneurs about my idea, and I've gotten very positive responses from them.

I am planning on applying for YC this summer, but I understand that I can't completely depend on this. What do you recommend me to do to get my company started and running? Thanks, I would love to hear back from you.

Wen


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