At a Startup, Does Being the Only Woman in the Room Matter?

5/30/13Follow @pkfletcher

It’s hardly a secret that the male-dominated world of high-growth entrepreneurship doesn’t boast a treasure trove of women. Despite the fact that female-led start-ups have a track record of driving success, businesses founded by women account for less than 9 percent of venture funding. Considering that 50 percent of the people walking the earth are women, the dismal representation of women in high-growth entrepreneurship is a tough pill to swallow.

As a research scientist, I have studied women on boards and in high-growth entrepreneurship for the last seven years. As an executive in the technology industry for just over 15 years, I have first-hand experience of being the only woman in the room. The truth is that I never really noticed I was the only woman in the room until someone pointed it out to me.

This might seem a bit ridiculous.  How could I not have noticed? Turns out, other women in technology were latecomers to that “aha” moment too. With so media much hubbub around the lack of women in technology and entrepreneurship, is it possible that we’re focusing on the wrong thing?

When You are Heading a Startup, There Are More Important Things to Focus on than Being “The Only Woman”

In response to hearing the percentage of women who receive venture funding, Erika Trautman, founder and CEO of FlixMaster, seemed surprised: “Wow, those numbers aren’t good.” That almost made me wonder if she was unaware of how clearly the odds were stacked against her.

FlixMaster, a cloud-based video editing platform, is an Astia client. (I serve on the Astia Board of Trustees.) Founded in 2011 with a small team of male developers, Flixmaster has seen its revenue grow by a factor of 50 under Trautman’s leadership. Users have grown 500 percent in the past year. Trautman has raised $2.2 million in seed funding and an additional $1.1 million this past January.

When I asked Trautman what it’s been like for her to be the only woman in the room, she paused before telling me that it’s never really been her focus.  “I didn’t really pay attention until I started getting the questions,” she says.

Now that being “the only” has been brought to her attention, does she put more attention on it? “Women and men are different. It is interesting and meaningful. But, that’s not where I am focused. I grabble with questions like: Is the business good?  Do people want it?”

Growing the Best Business Will Level the Playing Field

Named one of Huffington Post’s 2013 Top Five Female Founders to Watch and Inc.com’s 2012 top Women to Watch in Tech, Trautman is at the helm of a market disruptor. And she knows it. Companies spend upwards of $5.8 billion a year on creating and publishing videos to communicate their marketing messages to the masses. For Trautman, the story that defines her success is not that she is a successful woman among men; it’s that her business is addressing a need better than anyone else’s.

“Right now, videos are absolute functional dead-ends and black holes that have been prohibitively expensive and challenging,” Trautman says. “FlixMaster is changing that.”

She believes the online video market offers two big growth opportunities: it’s a broad and deep means of audience communication, and the audience has the expectation that video should be as interactive as all other Web experiences.  Over 5,000 user accounts have been created on FlixMaster.  And retailers, who represent 30 percent of FlixMaster’s customer base, are seeing the value of turning interactive online videos from marketing engines to sales conversion machines.  They’re moving from brochure-ware ego metrics, such as the number of views, to what matters: time spent with the video and deals closed as a result. FlixMaster customers are seeing viewers triple and quadruple the amount of time they spend with their videos, according to Trautman.

FlixMaster’s B2B go-to-market approach targets small and large enterprises.  Trautman consciously built a mixed-gender team of industry experts and engineers to bridge content and packaging with technology. While Trautman is quick to point out that her hiring strategy remains focused on acquiring the best talent, she is committed to bridging the gender gap.

Her talent strategy has worked. The diverse team has attracted big names like Sony and Cinemax to the company’s customer base.  Cinemax recently launched a 13-episode Web experience for their new show “Banshee” powered by the FlixMaster platform. And there are no signs of a slowdown. A well-known SaaS company and many of the Fortune 500 companies are carving out a portion of their digital spend with FlixMaster.  FlixMaster’s piece of the online video pie just keeps getting bigger.

The Right Team, Authenticity, and Respect are Critical to Overcoming Potential Gender Barriers

FlixMaster’s founding team consisted of Trautman and a handful of male engineers. Now, 40 percent of FlixMaster’s engineers are women and other key positions are being filled by women too. Susan Keither Bleekman, the former senior vice president of sales strategy at MTV, is now heading up sales at FlixMaster. These women were not hired because of their gender. Trautman knows that in order to have the best business, she needs the best talent.

With that said, diversity of thought processes has become apparent. Trautman says the inclusive culture she established with her co-founders has been critical to getting the most from her team. It became apparent to Trautman in FlixMaster’s early days that the way she came to a decisions was far different than the five male engineers on her co-founding team.  “They are linear in their through process,” she says. “They focus on a goal and just go for it. I am far more radial. I look at how decisions will impact many different variables on the path.”

In order to reconcile Trautman’s relational decision-making with the male engineers’ need to focus on goals, the development process follows a methodology with 60-day target priorities and weekly re-evaluations. This method enables multiple perspectives and wiggle room for course corrections with a clear focus on an end-point.

Trautman respects her team and her team respects her.  That’s why the process works. Her authentic leadership style has kept the ball rolling. She may not address a problem or opportunity in the same way as her male employees, but they trust her to get the hard decisions made even if her way of getting there is different.

What Can We Learn from Erika Trautman?

One of the biggest reasons Trautman and other exceptional female entrepreneurs and executives succeed when other capable women do not comes down to mindset. Instead of focusing on the differences between herself and her founders, she accepted and analyzed the divergence as she would any other data point.  She didn’t take challenges to her decision-making personally. Instead she looked for ways to achieve success, given the data points, in a way that fit with her personal style and accommodated the other dominant work approaches. When you treat every barrier as a data point, it’s just a strategy waiting to happen.

Patti Fletcher is the head of cross-portfolio marketing at IHS. She is the co-founder and CEO of PSDNetwork and is a member of the board of trustees at Astia, a community dedicated to building more high-growth, women-led startups. Follow @pkfletcher

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