Having successfully raised several rounds of equity finance for her own entrepreneurial business, Julia Elliott Brown decided to share her fundraising experience with other female-led high growth potential start-ups. Julia explains what she looks for in a business and the attributes people need to succeed.
Where did the idea for Enter the Arena come from?
Enter the Arena is all about helping female entrepreneurs to raise equity finance.
The idea came from my own start-up business experiences. My last business was called Upper Street, where women could design their own shoes, which I started in 2010 and ran for six successful years. Along the way, I sought finance from a number of different classic sources: we put money in ourselves, money from friends and family, from angels, from the bank, from VCs and from crowdfunding. This experience made me pretty good at raising finance.
It wasn’t easy, though, and I made a lot of mistakes along the way. When I was raising finance I felt very alone. I sought advice from others, researched online and went to workshops. There were advisers around who specialised in particular parts of raising finance, for example producing financial models and making introductions to investors, but I found that those advisors I came across had never been entrepreneurs themselves, didn’t know what it really felt like to be in my shoes and also couldn’t help me with the whole holistic approach of raising finance.
I felt that there was no-one looking out for my interests or guiding me through the process.
I found my own way and, in the end, I was successful, through a lot of hard work, blood, sweat and tears! Following my success, I was always happy to have a coffee or lunch with other entrepreneurs who were starting out on the fundraising path, to give them the best chance of success, as I could see they were crying out for help. But initially, this was just something I did on the sidelines.
Roll forward a few years and, by the end of 2015, we sadly decided to close the doors on Upper Street as the business was struggling to get out of its successful niche and achieve material growth in the mainstream. At this point, I knew that I wanted to stay working in the start-up industry and felt that there was a real opportunity to provide the kind of fundraising support I wish I’d always had to other entrepreneurs. To be firmly on their side and help them navigate their way through the process - which is where Enter the Arena came from.
How does Enter the Arena work in practice?
Effective coaching is never just about helping someone with the fundraising process alone. It’s much broader than that: you need to understand a business, taking them from early stage through to growth, as well as working with them on the critical fundraising strategy and skills that the entrepreneur needs.
When I look at a business, I’m making a million different small decisions about whether an idea has legs:
- Are they proving traction? That proves that there’s a problem that they can solve effectively.
- Is there potential to scale significantly? Without that, the business won’t attract investors.
- Is there going to be a route to exit? There’s no point trying to raise equity if the owner won’t want to exit or there isn’t a strong route.
People are much more important to me than the business. I look for three things:
- Belief: Entrepreneurs are like mirrors: everything that they believe is reflected back at them. If you don’t believe your business has potential, then why would investors back you? If entrepreneurs believe that there’s traction and potential to scale, then they have a real chance.
- Integrity: I find it very difficult to work with people who lack integrity: who give over-blown forecasts, who have inflated opinions, who fudge on certain issues. Investors can’t work with them either. I’d much rather work with someone who believes in their potential but isn’t sure how to achieve it.
- Coachability: When you’re helping somebody to raise finance, they’ve got to be able to understand where their strengths and weaknesses are, reach out for help, listen and implement the advice you’re giving them.
Challenges facing female founders
The first thing is: not enough women seek funding. Women often don’t think big because they have been conditioned not to take too many risks. If you ask a female entrepreneur how much revenue they want to be making in five years’ time, they’ll say: “£5 million.” Ask a male entrepreneur the same question, the answer will be: “£50 million.” Partly, women don’t want to fail, so they have a tendency to set their ambition lower, particularly in the UK.
This is also because women don’t have enough success stories to relate to. Female entrepreneurs in the media are all big hair, power shoulders, spiky heels - they look at that and think: “I don’t want to be like that.” Thinking big doesn’t necessarily mean becoming that.
As a consequence of not always thinking big enough, female entrepreneurs often underestimate the funding they’ll need, feeling that they might seem ‘greedy’ to ask for more. They might get smaller amounts of funding, taking them to the next milestone, but they won’t be thinking far enough ahead. When you get women who do want to fund and grow their business, they look at it from the outside and think: “God, that looks really scary and impenetrable!”
A lot of (not all) the businesses that women set up are in the lifestyle or creative industries.
They see the world of finance, which can be male-dominated and intimidating, as totally alien. The media can also put women off. There are a lot of statistics reported showing that women struggle to raise funding, which can dent confidence.
In part, this is due to the types of businesses on offer, but there is also proven gender bias. The world of finance does not recognise this and is not working hard enough to really examine the decision-making processes: how to attract and then assess entrepreneurs. There’s too much ‘gut feeling’, which opens up unconscious bias. That’s very hard for women entrepreneurs. Unconscious bias can be overcome by speaking the language of investors, understanding how they think and presenting strongly. That’s where I can help.
50% of my work is in building confidence: in your solution, in understanding your consumer, the market potential, the forecast, approaching investors, meeting with them. If you’re not confident or you’re unprepared, you’ll struggle.
When you radiate confidence because you know that your business is brilliant and you’ve done your homework and preparation, you will draw investors, because they will want to be part of it.