Marialyce: You are the founder of “wiseHer”, tell us your story. How did you start the company and why?
Kathryn: WiseHer was born out of a necessity challenge. I was a VP of sales on Wall Street almost 12 years ago, and the mortgage market melted down in one of the worst financial crises here in the United States. I was pregnant with my first child and was just about to give birth. Around the same time, my mom had a brain aneurysm. So I had a brand new baby, my mom was in the hospital in critical condition and I had no job!
To reinvent myself, like all good sales people do, I dug back into my Rolodex and I called all of my brokers. I asked them, what can I do to help you out? I can do some sales consulting, marketing and that kind of stuff. They all said they wanted their website to rank on the first page of Google. I thought to myself, how hard is that? I told them I would get back to them in a few weeks.
As it turns out, it was pretty hard! Especially when all you know about Google is how to spell it! I didn’t have any idea about Internet marketing and digital marketing was not a big thing back then, so I had to learn quickly.
I looked for folks to help me, but everybody wanted me to take their course or read their books and I didn’t have time to do that. I finally found somebody and I paid for his time. We spoke on the phone everyday for two weeks.
I opened a SEO (Search Engine Optimization) practice. Within two weeks, I got my first paying client and from there I parlayed that into successful social media consultancy and digital marketing and I ended up working for small and large brands.
But from the beginning, I wanted to work with women business owners, because I could see that they were struggling. What I didn’t realize was that they didn’t have the budget to hire me.
I started to serve that audience by writing books. I wrote nine books on how to use social media and digital marketing. I went to women meet-ups, and it seemed like everybody was doing really well. When I started looking at the statistics, there were close to ten million women business owners. Ninety percent of them were solo business owners, and a large significant part of that were under one hundred thousand dollars in revenue.
Fast-forward about a dozen years, and we have almost thirteen million women business owners, but with the same statistics. Ninety percent are solopreneurs and eighty-eight percent are under one hundred thousand dollars in revenue.
At the time, I had my sales and digital marketing consultancy built up to a point where I realized that I needed to scale and I didn’t know how. I got stuck in the same quagmire that so many other women did. I was a solo entrepreneur and I just didn’t have the tools.
So I pivoted, and I went back into corporate sales for a social media marketing automation technology company. I did very well there. At that point I decided that I had the tools to really help women thrive, and that I could leverage this extensive network that I built up.
What really propelled my business forward faster was finding an expert to ask. Coaches and mentors are great, but when you really need someone to talk to get some practical tactical advice, that’s not really a coach or a mentor’s job.
We wanted to provide women with easy access to the massive expert network that I had amassed over the last 10 years and to offer it at an affordable price. That’s how “wiseHer” was born.
Marialyce: Those are some amazing statistics! I had no idea that there were so many of us.
Kathryn: No one does! Everyone thinks they are alone.
We wanted to figure out what it is that we can do to propel our businesses forward faster, and how can we help each other rise. What we found when we started peeling back the onion was that women entrepreneurs have four main challenges.
One challenge is access to qualified advisors. At these women meet-ups, if eight or nine out of ten of the women that you are meeting with are in the same boat, it’s a feedback loop. The women who are running their businesses are so busy with their businesses that they don’t have time to mentor others. But they may be able to give someone thirty minutes of their time for a small fee.
The second challenge is education. We have either a real or perceived lack of education. Often women will wait until they have almost her entire business created before launching it, whereas a man will often jump off the cliff, and will grow his wings on the way down. Same with their career, women will wait until they have ninety plus percent of the job criteria before applying for a job. But men will apply when they have thirty or forty percent of the qualifications. That lack, or perceived lack, of education, that confidence gap can hold women back.
The third challenge that’s very unique to women is what we call cognitive or mental load. It’s all of the other stuff that takes our focus off of our business. There was a study done—this might surprise you—a single woman does 10 hours of housework a week but a married woman does 17 hours of housework a week. Just by getting married you nearly double your housework. It’s that cognitive and mental load that steals our focus.
Last but not least, is funding. Women raise only around 2% of the investment capital. To be fair, most women don’t start investable businesses. We are coaches or consultants or something where we could use the capital like anyone to get their business off the ground, but there is no 10X return. It’s much more challenging when you actually look behind the scenes.
It’s not to say that those businesses are not as valuable as, say a technology startup. Those businesses are the ones that really drive the economy. It’s just getting to that next level. Also, as a coach or consultant, you may not want to build on a multi-billion dollar consulting company, but you would like to go on vacation! (Chuckles) So how do you build your business to scale so that you’re not always working all the time?
Marialyce: You know, there are few things that really strike me. Cognitive load…absolutely. For most entrepreneurs the first year is the hardest. What challenges did you face during your first year and then how did you overcome them?
Kathryn: Well, that’s like a two hour-long question! Part of it is just that you don’t know what you don’t know. I was not a coder, so I taught myself enough code to be dangerous. I worked really hard at learning how to translate my vision into requirements that developers build. A lot of people struggle with that product market fit and I think we did a good job with laying that foundation with wiseHer.
I could have started taking calls before the platform was even built, right? And that’s what a man would do. But women tend to want to have the platform completely done first. One of the ways I overcame that was actually a male mentor of mine who told me “Just launch it!” He was right and that’s what we did!
The biggest thing for me was constantly coming back to my mission: to give women the opportunity to move forward faster in their businesses or their careers, and amassing this group of experts that will want to help them to do that.
WiseHer is a social enterprise; profit for purpose is what we call it. We give a portion of our fee back in the form of grants for women business owners and corporate education for women. We’re providing them not only with affordable advice, but also potential funding because sometimes you don’t need a million dollars. Sometimes you need a couple hundred or a couple thousand to get you going.
Marialyce: What do you see as your biggest achievement with WiseHer so far?
Kathryn: Getting our first customer who wasn’t our mother or our sister. It was awesome! When we officially launched, within three days we had our first call scheduled. And the minute we did, we texted each other like, is this real?
It was a great call and the person gave us a wonderful review. I reached out to them afterwards and they said they had seen us randomly on Facebook or LinkedIn. She said she had a great experience and last line of her review was, “I am so grateful to this platform.” I would say was our biggest achievement.
Marialyce: What would you say is your biggest challenge right now?
Kathryn: Just like any tech startup, it’s funding. I am very fortunate because of the network that I have built. I bootstrapped this whole thing because I had built up such a good reputation all the years of leading in service.
We are very fortunate that we started taking investments right away. Not millions, but we don’t think we need millions. We want to make sure this grows in a very smart way. We are at the point now where we need capital investment infusion. That is the biggest challenge right now, to be out fundraising and just doing the business of the business.
Marialyce: In your experience, where do you see women struggle the most when it comes to having their own business?
Kathryn: I see a lot of confidence challenges. Many women start their businesses out of necessity, either by circumstance or by design. Mine was by circumstance and I feel the vast majority of women that I talk to started their business by circumstance. Either they were laid off, or they had a child and their company wasn’t very accommodating to them. They dealt with lot of challenges in their organization, such as misogyny or sexual harassment or whatever. So they decided to start their own thing.
I think a lot of us struggle with the basics and I think people are afraid to expand their business. At wiseHer we are trying to solve those confidence challenges by getting you unstuck.
Marialyce: What did you do personally to overcome these challenges?
Kathryn: I asked a lot of questions to a lot of people. I had to get over the fear that I was going to look stupid. I think that happens to a lot of women, the fear that if we ask questions, we will look stupid.
I think that it’s a societal thing. We live in a society that values self-reliance and where you are expected to know it all to succeed. That’s the biggest fallacy. We certainly can’t know everything. I had to get over myself and I had to ask a lot of questions and make mistakes and be okay with making mistakes. One of the biggest challenges is that we beat ourselves up.
Marialyce: I feel like I have a lot of conversations with women about just that. I would be interested to hear what some of the tools are that you used because part of it is asking for help but that doesn’t always keep us from negative self-talk.
Kathryn: We have this saying in our family that in 99% of the problems we face or the challenges that happen, no one’s going to die. Let’s try to put things in perspective
Sometimes it’s darkest before the dawn and I think the universe tries to mess with us before big things happen. It’s important to keep that perspective; okay, this happened, it sucked and now I have to move on. If you’re in this for the long haul, you have to be resilient. You just have to be. It’s not a straight line to success at all.
Marialyce: What do you think is the future for American women business owners and maybe even women in the workplace? What do you think is in the future for us?
Kathryn: I am hoping that it gets better for us since we are still earning maybe eighty cents on the dollar. There is a lot of movement at real actionable things that are happening around pay equity.
I have been working remotely for almost twenty years now, before it became popular. But you can see how it’s changed over the years. It used to be that when you worked remotely, you worried about everything going on in the background. God forbid the dog barked or a child made noise. Now men and women are on Skype calls and kids pop in and no one freaks out!
I think the generation coming behind us, it’s almost expected that men are going to do a lot more than they have done in the past. I think if we infuse that into our culture, it will absolutely change things. It’s a movement that has caught fire and we need to keep that fire burning.
Marialyce: How do you find balance? How do you balance your work, your life and kind of keep it going, understanding we have this additional cognitive load? What do you do to take care of yourself in the middle of all this?
Kathryn: I like hanging out with my kids. To me, that’s fun. Having the time to watch my son play hockey and to watch my daughter play soccer, or do little things with them is such a joy for me. I feel so blessed that I am able to do that.
There are times when I need to decompress, I binge watch a show for a couple of hours, that sort of thing. I also try to get as much exercise as possible, when I can. I just try to keep it all in perspective.
There’s so much pressure and I have been very honest with my kids about that. But I think there is no real balance. Some days everything goes really well and some days it’s off the rails. I call it the “happy chaos” that is my life. It’s just constantly swirling and there’s nothing you can do about it.
Marialyce: It is refreshing to hear you say that; this idea that we’re going to have work life balance —maybe that shouldn’t be our objective.
Kathryn: Last year, there was a Business Insider article where they chronicled a day in the life of this HSBC Vice-President. It was a woman banker who gets up at 6 in the morning, drinks her smoothie and goes to the beach and does yoga. She gets to the office around 9:00 and then she takes a 90-minute lunch. That’s so unrealistic!
A lot of my friends emailed me the article, saying, “Did you see this?” I printed it out, and I showed it to my family. I said, “I’m going to do a spoof on this.” And, my son who was ten at the time, said, “You definitely should Mom, because this is not real.”
So in about 45 minutes, we spun up this spoof. It was pictures of me in my bathrobe with my hair teased out, shoving food into my kid’s faces, telling them to put their shoes on. It was like really funny!
I put it up on LinkedIn as a lark and a few people shared it. I went to Texas to speak at an event and about 10 minutes before I went on stage, I got a text from my friend. The CEO of LinkedIn shared my piece and it blew up. There were 200,000 views and still going.
The vast majority of comments were from women and men who thanked me because that original article made them feel bad about themselves. Those Business Insider people had absolutely no idea the impact that ridiculous article had on all these people.
Marialyce: I really appreciate that you have a sense of humor about yourself. It sounds like you’ve learned throughout this path of yours to not take yourself too seriously.
Kathryn: I feel too many people do. We’re so afraid of how we are going to look online. I think that we need more vulnerability and we need more honesty because it’s not a straight line to success. There’s going to be highs and lows. And it’s during the low times when we need to feel that we are not the only one going through it.
Marialyce: I want to end with a question about role models. I would love to hear about yours.
Kathryn: I would say my very first role model was my grandmother. My grandfather died when my mom was 11, so my grandmother had to raise three kids, my mother and her two brothers, by herself. She went to work in the factories during World War II like a lot of the women did because all the men went off to war.
She actually talked to our hometown bank into giving her mortgage when women couldn’t get their own credit. She bought a duplex for herself and her three children, and put my mom through nurses training and my uncles through college.
She never complained and always had a nice thing to say to everybody. I learned a lot from her. As Zig Ziglar says, “You can have everything in life you want, if you will just help other people get what they want.” I fully 100% embrace and live by that. She was my first role model.
And, of course, my own mother is a role model. Watching her with the struggles that she has had in the last ten years, but she still perseveres and gets up every morning being grateful.
I look at Malala Yousafzai, and I look at Greta Thunberg and I am like… oh my God! I don’t feel like I’m doing enough! I find such inspiration when people can take the challenges that life has given them and can still be grateful and still find ways to laugh and smile.