In honor of Internation Women’s Day, 50inTech @Balderton capital held a panel discussion on this topic which is really close to my heart.
We were 5 startup founders to talk: Chris Morton from Lyst; Pip Jamieson from The dots, Matt Wiggins from Mojiworks and Hélène Guillaume from @Wild.ai — I must say this is one of the most fun panel I’ve been on, ever!
We agreed before the panel that we would just “tell it like it is”.
Huge thanks to Mike Butcher for making this touchy conversation, very fun and educational. I personally learned a lot.
I can’t do justice to all of the interesting points that were made and the fascinating and brave questions that the audience asked — but because the event was oversubscribed and we didn’t live stream it, I’m sharing a short recap of my story, and the answers questions I was asked, hoping that it will give confidence to other female founders that it can be done !
Foreword : The reason I decided to act-up and take part in this panel is because I was surprised and shocked by The State of European Tech by Atomico showing that 93% of VC funding in 2018 went to all male founding teams. I am worried that there aren’t any positive narratives about female entrepreneurship let alone female founders being parents and fundraising at the same time, and if I was a few years back that stat would have scared me and made me question entrepreneurship as a career option. Why bother if the odds are really against you? Our company aiden.ai is in the 7%. And for once, it’s not something you want to brag about. It’s preposterous.
We’re in 2019: and it’s time to change.
Introduce yourself. How old/ what stage your firm is at?
My name is Marie, I’m the co-founder and CEO of an AI startup called Aiden.ai . Our product is an AI powered marketing analyst that helps large B to C marketers work smarter by relying on automated optimisations and performance predictions across Facebook adwords Snapchat and Twitter.
The company was started 2 years ago in London, with my (male) cofounder PJ.
My daughter is 1 year old. We were pre-revenue when I fell pregnant, and we had 3 employees. Funding wise, we had closed an angel round of $750k.
Today we’re 11 people we have raised a total of $2.3m , $1.6m of which were raised between my 6th month of pregnancy and until my daughter was 4 months old, which is when we closed the round.
We were also pre-revenue when we raised that second round.
As a founder and CEO of your company, even before you have kids, do you discuss your plans? And when you fall pregnant: how do you address this with your team/investors?
It’s a personal choice, and one that you can choose to share or to keep to you and your partner. I would find it weird that people felt obliged to share plans for having kids, if they don’t feel comfortable doing it. You’re the boss.
My plan was to have no plan until 12 weeks of pregnancy. My attitude was to be transparent, unapologetic, to the point and manage expectations in terms of next steps.
The first person I told at the company was my cofounder — and he was of course very supportive and happy.
The one thing that your team and your investors want to know is “have you got this?”.
Breaking the news to our investors
I told them in a monthly investor update, in the team section “I’m expecting! Baby is due in March. PJ and I will share details of the period where I will be taking a leave when we finalised the details”.
I don’t recommend you leave the door open as in “ if you have any questions let me know” Hell no! If people have questions they need to take their courage and ask you. You shouldn’t open an investor helpline just because you are pregnant.
Telling the team
Same as with the investors: I’m expecting! We’ll have a plan in place, let’s go back to building something people want!
Being an entrepreneur can put a lot of pressure on someone. How did you cope when you were pregnant? And after you had the baby? What strategies did you find effective?
When I was pregnant:
- I was blessed with a “comfortable” pregnancy. Meaning after the first 3 months where I wished there was a special place in hell for people wearing musked fragrances and eating chinese takeaway in our office (= guaranteed nausea), I felt great.
- I was traveling between London and SF quite a bit to see our beta clients, and also intervened at TC Disrupt Berlin when I was 7 months pregnant, both on the main stage and in panels. That wasn’t a part that I recall as being difficult physically.
- We started fundraising when I was 6 months pregnant. Fundraising can get intense, for anyone, so I won’t pretend it doesn’t get tiring when you are pregnant. It’s a great excuse to plan ahead, get organised, and line up meetings one after the other, to maximise the momentum and close fast. Set expectations and be transparent about deadlines. Don’t take “maybe” for an answer — get to yes and close. Or to “no” and shoulder shrug it! Move on, fast.
After the birth of our child:
2 things I did to control the pressure:
- Don’t compromise
- I choose to have it all. Start and run a company, grow a family. Which means I choose to spend all of my energy to make this work, with the enormous support of my husband.
- Of course, there are lots of challenges on the way: lack of sleep, some things that I will purposely censor because it’s gross, but as an entrepreneur you should have the capacity to rally people around you and get them to help. There’s an African proverb that says
“ it takes a village to raise a child”
My village is my spouse, my colleagues, my family and my friends. We have a flexible work environment and are setting an example for our employees who want to have a family and a challenging job.
- I don’t apologise for having a family and running a company at the same time. The best-kept secret is that you need to make this a team effort. The pressure mostly emerges when you refuse to share the load.
- I will not choose between being an entrepreneur and being a parent.
2. Manage expectations
- I told the team I would take 8 weeks of maternity leave, and I made it super clear that I would not show up on Slack during that time, and I could not be expected to be here. I wanted to enjoy my 8 weeks with my newborn as much as I could. Then my advice is to listen to yourself — if you need more time (because you had a c-section or complications), take it without thinking twice!!
You were fundraising when you delivered your baby. How did you handle this?
- The pressure on the company was at its peak for our company when my daughter was born. She came 3 weeks early. We had 5 months of runway left, a term sheet, a lead investor for 70% of the round, but the other investors were dragging their feet. We were pre-revenue, AI startup = cash intensive at the beginning+ the CEO was absent. But despite this grim picture, I felt strong and confident, and the reason for this is: I had full support from my spouse, my cofounder, and our existing investors.
- Officially I took 8 weeks off from work for my maternity leave. But given those circumstances, 3 weeks into having our child, I understood that the other investors we started conversations with before the birth (and new ones in between) couldn’t make a decision without seeing half of the founding team. So I showed up to VC meetings, with my newborn.
- I didn’t ask potential investors if I could bring my baby to the meeting. I just did, because if you want to be a part of this you need to accept all of it.
- I took 6 in-person meetings with VCs in London between the time my daughter was 3 weeks old and 6 weeks old (she only came to a couple as my family were visiting from France). I wish I hadn’t. It was awful. But that’s what happens in fundraising: it doesn’t always go as you plan, and you have to come up with a plan B.
- When I realised that those meetings were a waste of time and of my maternity leave, I called off all of the meetings, walked away from the ones that hadn’t yet reached a conclusion. I called a few of our existing investors and they were very supportive: they increased their stake in the round and we closed it.
Special thanks to:
50inTech, Laura connell @balderton
Many people in the audience came up to us after the talk to share brave stories of founding companies whilst expecting or being a single dad and an entrepreneur. Those stories are a breath of fresh air to many who are still at the “should I do it” stage. You should, it can be done.
Happy IWD 2019!