#Women In Tech: Think Like A VC

December 2, 2015

The prospect of getting in on the ground floor of the next “unicorn” may seem enticing to anyone, especially women with sophisticated technical skills in hot demand today. Start-ups are now the primary source of net job creation in the US, according to 2015 Start-Up Index report by the Ewing Marion Kaufmann Foundation. But the high stakes world of working inside an early stage venture requires nerves of steel since most start-ups fizzle out. That’s why Mary Holstege, Principal Engineer at MarkLogic, an enterprise database company, says women in tech should try to “control their destiny” by evaluating a start-up opportunity the same way hard-nosed venture capitalists assess a deal.

Holstege, who holds a PhD from Stanford in computer science and has worked at all kinds of start-ups from the proverbial two folks in a garage to “splashy and crashy” IPO’s, shared her advice with hundreds of women this fall in Houston at the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing, the largest gathering of female technologists in the world, where tech firms were on the hunt for new talent among the 12,000 attendees. As an angel investor myself, I thought her advice was spot on as she shared the types of questions investors use to assess a business that could help prospective employee make a more thoughtful and informed decision on an offer.

1. Can The Founders Execute?
Ask yourself, do you understand how this business makes money? If you don’t, ask the founders how the business generates revenue. For example, Holstege says, “users” do not mean “paying customers.” You should understand the difference and what it means to YOUR bottom line. And listen to your gut instincts about the founders. Do you like them? Do you believe in what they are doing? Do some research on them. Ask around. Do they have expertise in the space? If not, who are their advisers or other hires that will help them reach success?

2. How Much Runway Do They Have?
This is a delicate question to ask directly but doing some homework on the financial resources of the company is a smart thing to do if you want a paycheck for long. Look up the business up on CrunchBase to see how much they have raised so far, when and from whom. A potential investor wants to know how much “runway” the company has right now or how much cash they have on hand and also the monthly “burn rate:” how much money are “burning through” on salaries, customer acquisition, marketing and PR, etc? These are things that will all affect you as a new employee. And a key question to ask: When are they raising financing again?

Geek Girl Rising recently spoke with Maren Kate Donovan, the founder of Zirtual, a business forced to lay off all 450 employees in August 2015 when they ran out of cash and couldn’t make payroll. Donovan recently shared with the 2X Conference at the NYC tech incubator Grand Central Tech last month that by the time she realized the finances were in trouble, it was too late. She told the crowd of more than 200 female founders that if she had to do it all over again, she would have hired a CFO much earlier on instead of handling the books herself. Hers is a cautionary tale for both founders and prospective employees. More on our candid interview in a future blog post to come…

3. Financial Risk and Reward?
When investors size up a deal, they look at a variety of metrics to calculate the potential return and you should, too. Holstege says prospective hires should ask, how much of the pay will be based on current earnings? Will you receive stock options? How many shares are outstanding? What was the valuation when those initial shares were issued? “Do the math,” she entreated the crowd. You probably won’t be paid much in the beginning. Will the investment pay off later in your career? There may be upside even if the venture fails. Ruthe Farmer, Chief Strategy and Growth Officer for the National Center for Women in Information Technology (NCWIT) says having start-up experience on a resume, even being part of a failed start-up can be very helpful for young women, especially those who would like to be entrepreneurs later in life and plan on raising capital.

4. Is It A Culture Fit for You?
Finally, Holstege told the packed convention hall, look around and really consider, “Is this the right environment for you?” Make no mistake, working at start-up is all in. “A small company can’t afford anyone who isn’t contributing,” she said, “You will be doing great things. You will be doing everything.” Bottom line: Make sure it’s a place to you want to invest your valuable time and energy.

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