Entrepreneurship in the Instagram age

The principal and CEO of Zambezi on the dangers of social media's grip on women in business.

It’s no secret that people post their best selves to social media. You’ll only see a picture taken in their living room after the floor has been vacuumed and the pillows fluffed. Sure, their children have temper tantrums, but we’ll only hear about it if it’s funny or somehow wrapped in a humble brag. The week they spend at the beach rates hourly pictures of ocean views and palm trees, but the other 51 weeks are barely documented.

Life in the age of Instagram is carefully curated, if not downright choreographed, and that’s understandable. We would much rather draw attention to the highlights of our weeks or years than point out that much of life revolves around a daily routine of work, chores and temper tantrums (our own and our children’s). 

Years into the world of social media, however, we’re all savvy enough to know that under those fluffed pillows are some dirty socks, and that we’re all struggling at times.  

But I worry that when it comes to women in business, especially women entrepreneurs, we’re getting sucked into an Instagram-washed vision that shows the glory, but not the guts. We know that women are now slightly more likely than men to start a business, but by the time we really hear their stories, we already have their water bottles in our cupboards, shapewear in our drawers or velvet hangers in our closets. And they’ve already had to overcome tremendous obstacles, claim victory in the marketplace and be showcasing their wisdom in magazines and online.

I am a serial entrepreneur. I’ve helped to start and grow many businesses, including the ad agency I currently run, and I applaud anyone who is willing to take the plunge into these uncertain waters. But I’m not one to sugarcoat things (even on Instagram), and being an entrepreneur is very hard. Whether you are venture-backed or bootstrapped, you are starting on a journey that will be difficult, but, hopefully, also enlightening and motivating. One thing is for sure: it will be a journey of constant learning. 

Looking back at my own journey, I find that what I have learned can be distilled down to four words:

Passion

The fairy tale story is always about a business started out of an entrepreneur’s lifelong passion--the fashion designer who started sewing as a child, and now has clothing lines selling in Neiman Marcus and Target. Sure, some businesses do start like this. Baked by Melissa, the nation-wide chain of cupcake bakeries, grew out of a passion for baking, and its owner has been making her signature tie-dye cupcakes since she was a teen.

More often, however, businesses are started when an entrepreneur realizes there’s a need in the marketplace. The entrepreneur’s passion is not necessarily for the product itself, but for creating a successful business that can fill that need. S’Well’s Sarah Knauss wasn’t necessarily passionate about water bottles; she was passionate about the environment, and saw the need for a water bottle that was   aesthetically and functionally better than the disposable versions we were all buying and throwing away daily. 

This kind of passion is just as important. Passion for the product and the solution it provides will help you get through late nights, huge orders that need fulfillment help and missed product ship dates.

Team

I am always wary of people who start businesses, but have never had exposure to a startup, or even a small enterprise. It’s very different than working for an established company. Corporate existence operates with a different cadence and a bit of invisibility. At a startup there is no hiding. If one person isn’t pulling her weight, everybody will feel it. 

Pick your startup crew carefully. They need to be generalists who are comfortable wearing many hats and aren’t worried that some tasks are beneath them. When we were starting this agency, I was Chief Operating Officer and Chief Snack Officer -- in addition to all my other duties, I made frequent runs to Costco to make sure the office had coffee and the team wouldn’t go hungry during our many late nights. 

There are a lot of times, though, when the team required to start a business is not the team that can take that business to the next level. At some point--maybe sooner than you think--you will want to go from generalists to specialists with experience. Human Resources (HR) is always a good example of this. Many people who start businesses think they can’t afford an HR specialist, but I’m here to tell you that businesses are about people. So, if you are going to take a business from a startup to a grown-up, you will need to rely on the expertise of established HR professionals. 

Pivot

Companies are started to fill a customer need, but those needs change over time. When Netflix started, mail order DVDs solved a problem that consumers were having--the Friday night run to the video store was frequently plagued with indecision and short supplies of new releases. Sending DVDs directly to our mailboxes was the perfect service for busy movie-buffs everywhere. Today, of course, Blockbuster is dead. Our DVD players are in the basement next to the VCR and the TiVo, and almost nothing comes in the mail anymore. But Netflix is bigger than ever, having evolved into a streaming service and now a high-powered Hollywood studio. And this all happened in less than 10 years. 

In the case of Zambezi, we started off focusing on sports and entertainment brands, which allowed us to take hold in the industry and scale to a mid-size agency, but we pivoted when we saw the need to expand our reach. Now we strive to work with all kinds of modern lifestyle brands. Companies need to be willing to embrace the twists and turns that will inevitably be part of the journey, and not get too wedded to any one idea or solution.  

Onward

Grit and determination might just be the most important characteristics of an entrepreneur, and I remind myself of this by continually saying "onward." Every day there are new challenges to tackle; some will break your way, and some will not. Losing out on two prospective clients the day before we began the expansion of our office was certainly not what we had planned, but dwelling on it was not going to help us find business or pay rent. With this attitude, we were able to stay focused, and that year we hit a new milestone in our financial success. In fact, if I have some discouraging news to communicate to my staff, I always end the conversation or sign off the email with "Onward."  

Women are founding businesses at a historic rate. In 2017, more than 1,800 new women-owned businesses were launched every day. That’s amazing! And I would never tell a woman (or anyone else, for that matter) to put their entrepreneurial dreams on hold because it’s going to be hard. That’s one of the reasons to do it. I just want women to benefit from the experiences of others (myself included), and to understand how much effort goes in before the perfect Instagram entrepreneur is born.  

Onward!

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