How to Secure VC Funding When You're the Only Woman in the Room
Pitching your business idea to an individual venture capitalist can be intimidating for anyone, but when you're the only woman in the room and pitching to a half-dozen male investors, it can be particularly daunting. As a female founder who has raised over $40 million in funding (some while pregnant), I can tell you from firsthand experience it is a challenge, but entirely possible. Here are a few tips I've collected over the years pitching solo and with my female co-founders.
1. Do your homework.
It is a lot easier to pitch, and to tailor your presentation, when you know that the firm is interested in your category of business. In fact, it's a good idea to select the firms you'd like to meet with based on their investment theses, areas of interest and previous investments.
When we initially pitched our childcare marketplace, I spent a lot of time researching firms to target the ones that had invested in other marketplaces or businesses that similarly leveraged the social graph to establish trust. I also looked for firms with a track record of backing female founders.
2. Back your big vision with big numbers.
Begin your meeting by describing the massive opportunity or the big problem that you are tackling. And more importantly, back the opportunity up with numbers. This is particularly important if you are describing an idea that targets female consumers and you are pitching to a room full of men.
As you can imagine, most of the firms I encountered were all males who had never booked a sitter. One firm did make the concerted effort to invite a woman from the back of the office to the meeting, but didn't realize she wasn't a parent. Needless to say, I had to focus on conveying my exciting business opportunity with numbers rather than relying on the personal experiences of my audience.
If yours is a product or service that the investor wouldn't use themselves, it's important to get them excited about the size of the opportunity and the reasons why you are the team to build this and why your solution will win.
3. Make a comparison they can relate to.
Let's say you are pitching a subscription cosmetic business. Chances are, none of the investors in the room will be intimately familiar with the opportunity you are addressing. Use something they will know to provide perspective. "You may be surprised to know that the cosmetics industry is 30 times the size of the disposable razor business that Dollar Shave Club addresses. The average woman in the U.S. spends $250 per year on cosmetics, and 70 percent of that is replenishing and replacing what she has with the same brand."
I often try to compare my business with another brand in the firm's portfolio. For instance, if they've invested in Airbnb or Lyft, I'd draw parallels about my service bringing a new category from offline to online.
4. Listen and watch for cues.
This seems really obvious, but I've seen many entrepreneurs fail to listen. You probably have your pitch memorized, but if you are too much on autopilot, you'll miss important cues from the audience. I remember one investor, who ended up participating in a round, was distracted and on his phone until he suddenly perked up when I brought up user acquisition. Instead of proceeding with my usual pitch, I went into a deep dive on acquisition strategy that lasted nearly 30 minutes -- and I had his focused attention the entire time.
Questions are also a great way to gauge interest. Simply pausing to ask, "Any questions so far?" will move people from passive listening mode to engaged.
5. Remember, it's not an interrogation.
It is easy to get defensive when investors start peppering you with comments or interrogate with pointed questions. It feels even more like a firing squad when you are the only woman in a room. Remember, it's not personal. In fact, sometimes the most challenging meetings produce the best outcomes.
What I do is tune out the tone of the question and home in on the content. When an investor tells me, "I don't believe that you will be able to acquire customers as fast as you think. This model doesn't make any sense," I translate this in my head as, "What is your acquisition strategy, and how will it scale over the next five years? Can you tell me more about the assumptions built into your model?"
When it feels like the questioning is really dragging a meeting down, I hit the pause button with a statement like "It sounds like X is an area you'd like more detail on. Let's pause on this topic for now. I'll write that down as our first area to cover when I get through the rest of the deck."
6. Master the post-pitch follow up.
After a meeting, I always send a follow-up thank-you note to the main point of contact at a firm. You'd be surprised by how many entrepreneurs fail to take this extra step. I see it as my opportunity to address any questions that were asked and mention anything I felt was relevant to the particular firm that I may have left out, such as "So-and-so asked a good question about the freemium model we are using. I considered it as we left the meeting, and here are my thoughts ..." It's important to keep the conversation going and ensure your business remains top of mind with the firm long after you've left.
7. Don't dwell on it -- keep at it.
For better or worse, there's usually another meeting or another firm out there to meet. Spend a bit of time thinking about what you could do differently next time, but don't dwell on the negatives. Over the last eight years, I've made countless pitches in three rounds to secure funding from several venture capital firms and angel investors. I can tell you from personal experience, fundraising requires endurance, thick skin and a few terrible flops to produce a winning term sheet.