Running a small business is rife with demands like finding customers, staying up to date with licensing, and filing taxes. Women-owned small businesses face a unique set of challenges. Not only do women have trouble getting fair access to capital, they’re also far less likely to hire employees.
Thumbtack recently hosted a panel of four female small business owners who shared strategies for overcoming challenges faced by women, specifically those of being an employer. Moderated by Jaime Nack of the National Women’s Business Council, the panel featured Heidi Gibson, co-founder and Commander-in-Cheese of The American Grilled Cheese Kitchen; Wendy Lieu, who co-founded Socola Chocolates at the tender age of 19; hairstylist, makeup artist and photographer Chantelle Hartshorn; and registered nurse Karmi Soder, co-founder of Newborn Solutions. As they spoke to a room full of women business owners, we collected their top five strategies for success.
1. Take Care of Your Customers
“It’s important that customers are well cared for. That includes responding right away and dressing the part,” explains Chantelle Hartshorn. All business owners know that looking after your clients is paramount, but there are countless ways to go about it.
Take half an hour to sit down and think about your client base and their needs. What do they expect from you? What could you do to go above and beyond those expectations? How can you begin to provide that in a sustainable way?
2. Take Care of Yourself
“It’s important to protect the asset. You are the asset,” says Jaime Nack. “How do you maintain balance?”
Wendy Lieu does pilates. Heidi Gibson, who is married to her business partner and realized that all they were talking about at home was grilled cheese, began scheduling date nights “with a rule that you can’t talk about the business!” Hartshorn says, “I take care of myself by not doing the things I don’t like doing.” She simplifies her life by taking cabs everywhere to avoid parking. She eliminated mundane tasks to focus on the business by employing a housecleaner and scheduling shampoos and blowouts, because after spending her days doing other people’s hair, she’s not so keen to deal with her own. Master candy-maker Lieu suggests, “Eat a piece of chocolate every day!”
3. Consider Hiring Employees
Women are phenomenal at wearing multiple hats and making it all work. But in part because of this, “women-owned firms are less likely to have employees than other firms – across all industries,” says Amanda Brown of the NWBC, citing research they had done with the Small Business Administration. And trying to do it all yourself can be detrimental to a successful business.
“If we could remove the barriers that make hiring so intimidating for women, the nation would be at full employment,” says Nack. If women hired at the same rate as men, the hiring percentage increase would almost exactly match the current unemployment gap, effectively closing it. Yes, the process can be complex. You need to follow the proper legal procedures and find employees who not only can do the work but mesh with the company culture. Heidi said that she went through three separate managers at the American Grilled Cheese Company who were competent at the job but who ultimately didn’t work out because they didn’t fit with the identity she and her husband were trying to create for their restaurant. One way to dip your feet into the hiring pool is by using contractors, a less overwhelming process that can greatly enhance your business – but as Soder pointed out, be careful that you don’t run afoul of the IRS rules that distinguish a contractor from a full-time employee.
4. Use Your Resources
Small business resources used by panelists include Renaissance Center, Docstoc, Zirtual, Inner City Advisors, and SBDC. Some of these services are provided at no cost and many are under-utilized by small business owners who are just starting out. When she was starting her restaurant, Heidi said she took every course she could in running a small business, and the help has been invaluable. But don’t forget the less obvious sources of support. “I involve my family in what I do,” says Soder. “My kids ask, ‘Who did you hire today?’”
5. Do It Anyway
“There’s a moment when you’re opening a business when you just have to close your eyes and step off that cliff,” says Gibson. Research has shown that women are often more likely to consider the risks and consequences of opening a new business – and may find themselves bogged down by what might go wrong. But opening a new business is rarely a disaster scenario, even when the odds feel stacked against you. Sharpen your gaze to see the true risks rather than letting yourself be swamped by groundless fears. As our panelist Lieu observed, overcoming this fear is one area where youth may be an asset: “At nineteen, I was a little more fearless,” says Lieu. “I didn’t know what could go wrong, so I did it anyway.”