The early days of a startup can be challenging, but when entrepreneurs begin scaling a business, they face even more decisions: Who should I add to my team, how much money should I raise and what will my customers need in the future?
Three women who have seen their startups grow to fruition shared their advice at the Women’s Venture Summit on Sept. 14. They include Ashley Van Zeeland, vice president of business operations for Illumina, Oralia Alvarez, director of business development for local impact investment firm Founders First Capital Partners, and Nina Saberi, founder of Massachusetts-based fund Castile Ventures.
Learn to Delegate
Before joining Illumina, Van Zeeland helped lead two prominent biotechnology startups in San Diego. She founded Cypher Genomics, a company that could rapidly interpret genomic data, with the goal of helping kids with rare diseases reach a diagnosis. Her company was acquired by genomics startup Human Longevity, where she served as chief technology officer.
When she began growing her startup, Van Zeeland said building a strong team was the most critical aspect to its success. She sought to round out her team with members who had different strengths.
“I really had to be comfortable letting go of things — becoming a great delegator and finding people who are better at that thing than me, and watching them taking it into a whole different place that I never could have done myself. That was really critical for me on the business side,” she said.
Where other genomics startups failed when they tried to go it alone, Van Zeeland sought out partnerships as her company competed for contracts.
“We saw other little companies in the same space as us fight it out and they fell quickly,” she said. “Awareness of yourself and the company can be key.”
Oralia Alvarez grew her business as a real estate investor after college. She acquired properties, improved them and sold them, flipping over 200 properties before joining San Diego impact investment firm Founders First Capital Partners.
Since joining the firm, Alvarez has met with several female entrepreneurs. Many of them express self-doubt.
“Oftentimes I feel that we don’t have that confidence that we should have,” she said.
Alvarez recalled a time, three years ago, when she had the opportunity to pitch in front of a group of investors.
“I was thinking, ‘oh, I don’t know the financial modeling as well as they do, maybe I shouldn’t be pitching in front of them to begin with,’” she said.
What helped her get through her doubts was focusing on the mission behind her company — why was she doing this in the first place?
“When we have that ‘why’ it’s easy not to lose sight of what we’re doing,” she said. “Even if you fall, you’re going to get up. … At the end of the day, you’ve learned a little bit of a lesson there.”
Anticipate Customers’ Needs
Nina Saberi founded several telecom startups, and served as CEO of Netlink, before starting her own venture capital firm.
“It really started with me looking up, seeing a microwave tower and wondering how it was made,” she said. “I’ve been trying to be part of a world that connects people.”
What helped her stay ahead of the competition was focusing on serving a market over meeting a personal goal or proving a point. To do that, you have to listen to your customers, and anticipate their future needs, Saberi said.
“One of the things helps with scaling — the communication with the customer needs to be more purposeful,” Saberi said. “It’s not enough to know that they’re happy with the product and they’re using it in a certain way. You need to make them part of your dialogue so they can talk with you about what they may be needing in the future.”
That mentality helped Saberi when she led a network startup to help companies that had private networks and wanted to connect to a public network. At the time, those companies’ technology was becoming obsolete, but they didn’t want to invest in technology that was too new.
Saberi’s company helped bridge that gap as she anticipated what they would need years into the future.
“Our customers ended up becoming early adopters of our technology, even though they were very conservative,” she said.