Women founders and web creativity

What I’m listening to while I type: Balls and Hello Love

Had a nice email from Poppy Dinsey last week, of the fabulous WIWT (What I Wore Today).

Dinsey, in what I suspect is fairly typical female founder self-deprecation, said it was too early to say what worked and what didn’t with WIWT: “we’re such babies still”.  But it’s an interesting project, not least because in its first incarnation, WIWT was very much about Dinsey’s personality and a simple idea with minimal tech needs.

I used WIWT in an earlier post as an example of founders who can’t code but who find creative ways to build their personal online brand into a successful business.

Women seem to be doing particularly well at this – building what are fairly traditional businesses at heart (selling products, ads, mags) on the back of a strong personal web presence. Think Natalie Massenet or Tavi Gevinson , but also women founders like Wendy Tan White who, after having children, switched direction from computing and tech to doing an MA in Textile Design and finding a new creative vision that revitalised her company, Moonfruit.

One of the things that particularly interests me is that creative element in relation to these women founders. Dinsey is a  great writer. I don’t believe that just sticking pictures of her outfits online would have worked without the writing and the personality that came through her blog and Twitter writing.

As Dinsey points out in this video, her web writing had already kick-started the large following that she took with her to WIWT:

Similarly, Massanet’s Net-a-Porter was as much about giving an authoritative perspective on fashion trends as about selling the clothes. As a fashion journalist, she understood what makes women spend £4 on a copy of Vogue, and the pleasure they get from windowshopping the magazine. She knew that content was integral to building Net-a-Porter as an experience worth the site visitor’s time.

Here’s Massenet (back in 2007) talking about how they fused scorching customer service with good content:

“We very much believe in investment in the experience and making it richer, having more content, more video, but always fused with this idea that there’s an end experience, an end user who’s going to be expecting a delivery.”

 Except, I have several problems with what I’ve written so far.

First, by talking about women’s business creativity (particularly as an alternative to tech skills) am I reinforcing the generally-held belief that women’s businesses are inherently soft and fuzzy and, well, female (ie selling frocks not gadgets)?

Or is the problem that the decision makers around them are a largely amorphous group of men: middle-class, white, educated, married…, who assume that selling, or even better building, gadgets is a safer investment bet than selling frocks

However apologetic the interviewer in the Massenet video is, he doesn’t show that he understands the market she’s successfully engaged in, nor seems to believe he should understand it – there’s not a lot of evidence of good prep in his questions.

(And, as an aside, while I’m pleased that Hu was pleased, how’s this for undermining a CEO when she’s working! A TechCrunch Disrupt proposal)

There are several great projects out there trying to get more attention for women founders in web-tech;  TheNextWomen and Women2 for instance. But the reality is that women face the same barriers to progress in starting their own business as they do in the corporate workplace – only 14% of UK businesses are owned by women and women are half as likely to be entrepreneurially active as men (source: Prowess 2)

That’s something I saw myself, doing the rounds of VCs and Angels in 2010, with events like Seedcamp – great though it was – still overwhelmingly male, white and under 30.

According to those Prowess figures, “the most entrepreneurial age group for women globally is 35-44”  but when was the last time you saw a women in her 40s pitching at Seedcamp? (Aside from me!)

Women are more likely to take a break from fulltime work to have children in their late 20s and early 30s and, either because we find we can’t just step back on the career ladder again on the same rung we stepped off it, or because we don’t want to (if ‘coding twists the brain’, try giving birth), we’re more likely to look for alternative career paths post-children because family life means living life differently.

I don’t agree with everything she says, but Penelope Trunk writes with authority about the combined pressure of serial start-ups and family life, including why women opt to slow the pace  (Women don’t want to do start-ups. They want children).

But, just to get back to the creative vs coding idea. I still think that web-tech founders should know how to code, at least a bit, if only because knowing some code makes it easier to manage the tech in your web start-up.

But I do worry that there may be too much emphasis being put on knowing code (yes – including from me) and that that in itself is creating another barrier for women start-ups.

Not because fewer women can code, but because coding is part of the tech thing, part of the guy web thing (not for nothing are porn, sport and gambling among the biggest online money earners).

The web is ubiquitous. We use it without thinking about the tech behind it – like we use dishwashers without thinking of the electronics, or watch TV without seeing the pixels moving.

So maybe the tech isn’t actually what matters on the web – it’s the creativity of the idea; coming up with a different way for people to use the web tool to do something they already want to do (surf porn, gamble, buy frocks) or to do something they didn’t know they wanted to do (tweet, fight, manage a cartoon farm…).

I’m not suggesting that’s something women are better at. I’m not making any generalisations about women and creativity (where’s the data?). But I am suggesting that the assumption that every web-tech start-up team needs a tech-hot partner  may be missing the point of the web.

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