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More women than ever are starting their own businesses. They’re willing to embrace the title—and the risks—of “entrepreneur.”
A 2019 study commissioned by American Express showed that in the previous five years the number of women-owned businesses in the U.S. climbed 21%, while all businesses increased only 9%. Total employment for women-owned businesses rose 8%, while the increase for all businesses was only 1.8%.
The trend is not new. Between 1972 and 2019, the share that women-owned businesses represent of all businesses has skyrocked from 4.6% to 42%.
Dr. Charlene Walter can tell us a thing or two (and many more) about entrepreneurship. She’s author of Launch Your Inner Entrepreneur. The book’s subtitle offers a peek at what’s inside: 10 Mindset Shifts for Women to Take Action, Unleash Creativity, and Achieve Financial Success.
Although the book is aimed at women, it’s brimming with smart, practical, and realistic advice for aspiring entrepreneurs of either gender. This is not just a rah rah treatise on how to start and run a business. It’s an action-focused guide with worksheets and other tools to help you translate your good ideas into a successful business.
Rodger Dean Duncan: In highlighting the importance of mindset, you describe entrepreneurship as “an inside job.” In this context, what does that mean?
Walters: So much about one’s ultimate success or failure as an entrepreneur has to do with changing the way that you think and developing the right attitude. That holds true for anything that you want to be successful at. Without working on your mindset so you will be able to overcome obstacles and develop tenacity, confidence, and persistence, you won’t have the strength to be in it for the long haul that’s required for your business (and you) to thrive.
Duncan: Under the category of silver linings, what opportunities has the Covid-19 pandemic created for entrepreneurs?
Walters: There have been many opportunities that have resulted from Covid-19. In general, businesses had to expand their product and service offerings, adapting to morphing customer needs and finding creative ways to get their products to people. These new processes, products and services will continue to be offered after we begin to normalize and come out of Covid. This is a bonus as they will keep generating added revenue.
Additionally, a number of industries have gained traction as a result of Covid-19. For example, those related to homeschooling, safety, healthcare, repair, home décor, tutoring, counseling, outdoor entertainment, virtual events, and more. I expect there will be additional opportunities related to hospitality and entertainment as we begin to normalize and start to travel and get out again (people will be eager to indulge in these activities). Also, individuals who have been furloughed or laid off have had the chance to dream up new startups during their time at home. And I, for one, can’t wait to see what they’ve come up with.
Duncan: What are the keys to transitioning strategically from a side hustle to a full-time commitment as an entrepreneur?
Walters: The key is setting a goal related to when you want to make it happen, whether it’s a monetary milestone (such as a benchmark for sales) or a period of time (i.e., after being in business for six months). Additionally, I always suggest having a certain amount of money stashed away as a nest egg or backup before giving up your steady paycheck. This extra stash will come in handy if you encounter any unexpected obstacles (and chances are that you will).
Duncan: You recommend that entrepreneurs begin by developing and launching an MVP—or minimum viable product. Can you give us an example of that approach?
Walters: Yes. When entrepreneurs are first working on their product development, they should utilize the least complicated version of a product they can make (the MVP) to gauge interest and feedback from their target audience before going into a full launch. Something as simple as a teaser page (which is a webpage that gives details about the product or service and seeks to generate buzz and interest) can be utilized for doing so. Or you can also create a working prototype of the product that potential customers can test and give input on. From there, you’ll take that information and use it to further refine your product or service before offering the final version to your target audience.
Duncan: What are the keys to developing and delivering an effective “elevator pitch” for a product or service?
Walters: When working on an elevator pitch, think about what sets your product or service apart from competitors—your USP (unique selling proposition)—and how you can convey that in a way that’s easy for people to understand. Your pitch should be 3-4 sentences long and must clearly communicate your value proposition and how your product or service solves a problem for potential customers (i.e., what’s in it for them). You should have this pitch memorized so you can rattle it off easily when the need arises (and it often will).
Duncan: Many people cringe at the thought of selling or self-promotion, but of course those are critical skills for an entrepreneur. What’s your advice on cultivating those skills?
Walters: It does take an adjustment to get comfortable with touting one’s accomplishments. But with a mindset shift and a little practice, you will become more at ease when doing so. A lot of it comes down to understanding that as a business owner, you are the face of the business and you must put yourself front and center in order to network and grow your company. A good way to begin is by developing yourself as a thought leader, easing your way into it.
Brainstorm about the skills, qualities and accomplishments that you want to be known for and then start positioning yourself by putting out content related to them on a regular basis. You can do this through blogging, podcasting, contributing to articles, speaking, and engaging on social media. It can be intimidating at first, but with time, you will enjoy doing so and gain traction as an authority in your field.
Developing a selling mindset is also vital as an entrepreneur. The best way to start is to address any negative connotations that you have related to sales (i.e., that you are bugging or annoying someone). Reframe the way that you think. You have a valuable product, service or message, and you are actually helping people by sharing it. Don’t tell yourself otherwise. Also, ensure that you have frequent, dedicated time on your schedule for revenue-generating activities. That sales focus is essential and will ensure the continued traction of your business.
Duncan: A lot has been said recently about the so-called “impostor syndrome.” How does that affect some entrepreneurs, and how can they overcome it?
Walters: Impostor syndrome is that feeling that you don’t really belong or that you have only gotten lucky when it comes to your success. It’s been said that about 70% of people suffer from impostor syndrome and that it’s more prevalent for women and those embarking on new projects. The thing about impostor syndrome is that it’s nonsense and all in your head. Tell yourself that you can do it! Tell yourself that you are not an impostor! Make a list of all your accomplishments and hang it somewhere in your office where you can see it when you are feeling inadequate or insecure. It can also help to practice and prepare more when you are pushing yourself or tackling something new. That way, you’ll feel more confident when you find yourself rising to that new challenge.
Duncan: Your book is aimed primarily at women. What challenges do female entrepreneurs face that are less common among their male counterparts?
Walters: Women are more likely to suffer deficits in certain areas that are vital for entrepreneurial success. They frequently need extra support when it comes to boosting confidence, cultivating their money mindset, avoiding self-sabotage, improving work-life balance, focusing on self-care, becoming more comfortable with risk-taking, building visibility, growing their presence and more.
Women are often taught to be humble and don’t like to broadcast their achievements out of the fear that they will be seen as bragging or boasting. But as business owners, female entrepreneurs need to overcome this resistance and shine a spotlight on themselves as they steer their company forward. Women also need more support when it comes to work-life balance and self-care because the bulk of household duties often falls on them. As counterintuitive as it may seem, the more they put their self-care needs first, the more their businesses will thrive. Time management strategies and improving their productivity will also enable them to do more in less time.
Duncan: For an entrepreneur, what are the keys to establishing a distinctive personal brand?
Walters: It’s important to brainstorm and think about the qualities and expertise that you have that set you apart. They make up your personal USP and should bring together everything that you know and are passionate about. Compile them in the form of a list and then refine it to pinpoint those areas that you want to be known for.
Once you have finalized your list, craft a positioning statement for yourself—a few sentences about your value in the marketplace as if you were any other product. Make it crisp and clear so people will immediately understand what you bring to the table. Next, create a tagline (i.e., The Gourmet Donut Guru or The Friendly Financial Fixer) and incorporate it into an elevator pitch that you can use for yourself when you’re meeting everyday people or building visibility online. Then, put yourself out there and add value to those in your network by showcasing your thoughts and expertise.
Duncan: For the hard-working entrepreneur, burnout can be a show-stopper What do you see as early warning signs of burnout, and what practices seem to work best in dealing with it?
Walters: Some early signs of burnout include making mistakes, losing joy for activities that you normally love, forgetting things, an inability to concentrate, and losing patience or becoming irritable.
One strategy for dealing with burnout is to identify your major stressors and come up with a plan to address and deal with each. Rank them from most stressful to least stressful and then formulate your method of attack.
It can help to delegate, simplify, outsource and reduce. Perhaps you can hire a virtual assistant to help you. You should grab hold of your schedule and put an emphasis on self-care. Push the reset button and take a break so that you can come back to your work more refreshed and productive. Get outdoors, take a nap, meditate or plan some time with friends to give yourself a mood boost when you recognize signs of fatigue or burnout within yourself.
Duncan: Why is helping entrepreneurs and women in business important to you?
Walters: At a certain point in my career, I fell in love with entrepreneurship as a method for enabling people to change their lives. Through business mentoring, I’ve witnessed this impact firsthand and I really enjoy helping people to achieve their goals. Supporting women is also important to me because more than 40% of women are the primary breadwinners for their family. As someone who became a single mom when my husband passed away unexpectedly when my children were toddlers, I want to help other women who may be in similar situations. Further, some 2.2 million women left the US workforce in 2020 and need our support now more than ever. I believe entrepreneurship will be a great option for many of them, and I’m here to help.
This column was first published by Forbes, where Dr. Duncan is a regular contributor.