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Jessica covers Australia's technology start-up scene, writing on breaking news and trends in entrepreneurialism, media and marketing. She was previously named Australia's best New IT Journalist for 2011.

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The secrets of capital raising for women entrepreneurs

Published 12 October 2012 10:31, Updated 18 October 2012 00:51

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A panel discussion on the challenges faced by women entrepreneurs. Hmm... As a conference goer, given the chance, I would usually choose to go to an alternative panel that was on at the same time or sneak out for a coffee. But when you’re hosting the panel, you’re kind of obliged to be there. And boy I’m glad I was.

This week I facilitated a panel at TieCon Sydney. The reason I was initially hesitant to be involved was sometimes I find the debates on gender in business boring, pessimistic and to be honest, sometimes a bit whiny. (I reckon this outlook has a lot to do with the fact that I’m still relatively young, without children and progressing pretty quickly through my career. I’m sure my perspective will change should I smash into that proverbial glass ceiling.)

But I’m a big believer in the idea that if there is a problem, there also must be a solution. And who better to offer real-life inspiring solutions than four successful women who were to join me on the panel: Jennifer Zanich of Paloma Mobile, Emma Lo Russo of Digivizer, Catherine Prosser of Stagebitz and Wendy Simpson, who is heading up the Australian efforts of the entrepreneurial accelerator network for women, Springboard.

One of the big challenges faced by women is access to equity capital. Simpson says anecdotal data from The Australian Private Equity and Venture Capital Association, suggests women-led businesses account for 3 to 5 per cent of all venture-backed companies in Australia. In the United States, that proportion is 10 per cent, but it’s still minor.

And even if the capital exists, women are not always skilled or experienced capital raisers. We had a great discussion on this issue. It was in parts funny, parts tragic. But most of all it was practical.

I thought I would share what I thought was the best advice.

1. Raising capital is completely dependent on networks

“I’ve got a very strong network and I work it really hard,” serial tech entrepreneur Zanich says. “I’ve only ever received money from people that I know... People can pick up the phone and talk to somebody very quickly who knows me, has worked with me or has invested in me before.”

“When I talk to those funding entrepreneurial activities, they say the best deals never get shopped around,” Simpson says. “There’s an inner circle of people who say next time you’re doing something let me know. I want to be in it. So that’s the challenge for women, to be in that group.”

2. Women need to rethink how they network

Forget the canapes and champagne, Simpson says. The networks that have capital are your university alumni and people who you have served on boards, committees and business associations with. “People have to be able to look at you sideways and go, not just I’ve seen you at another networking event but I actually can predict how you’re going to behave,” she says.

Before starting Digivizer, Lo Russo was working in a big corporate that had a foreign focus. To have a successful local start-up she had to restart her network. “I quite strategically chose to go back to uni and do my MBA, which meant I would be in a very current business network,” she says. “That has been extremely beneficial for new business development and partnership development.”

3. Get visible, even before you’re ready

When Prosser began showing up at technology conferences and angel investment pitch dinners, Stagebitz was in its early days. But continually pitching helped her to both get feedback to refine her presentation and also become well known in the community. “People see you coming back again and again and they get to know you,” she says. “You don’t have to have a million-dollar pitch or be ready to head over to Silicon Valley right from day one.”

4. Be aware of your weaknesses and address them

Zanich says one of her best ever moves was to get a male mentor who taught her to ask ‘what would a man say?’ Instead of asking a venture capital fund manager ‘How much would you be willing to invest?’ Zanich says a more forceful approach is to say ‘This is how much you will need to invest to secure a stake in this business’. “We [women] just say things differently or we’re too apologetic,” she says.

5. Take advantage of the positives

The woman agreed that they were all strong managers of people. “As soon as you as a mother have different children, you are more individualistic in your approach to people,” Lo Russo says. “You can couch things in their terms so they deliver their best and I think that’s something that comes really naturally, maybe more instinctively.”

6. Be bold

Simpson reminded the women entrepreneurs in the audience that the capital they need is probably not in their social start-up meet-up groups. Instead they would need to get out of their comfort zone. “Sometimes you’ve just got to be bold and ring up someone and say ‘I’m going to take you to lunch’,” she says. “Then it’s just you, no noise, no other entrepreneurs trying to put their business card under the nose of the person you’re trying to talk to. Because that’s what the boys do, they take people to lunch.”

And here Simpson gave some advice that I plan to live and work by: “Never lunch alone”.

Now who’s got the bill?

Do you agree? Write and tell me your views?

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