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Opinion

4 lessons I’ve learned as the female founder of a multi-million-dollar business

In 2014, after moving to Melbourne from China, I started my own textile company, Ettitude.

Our mission: to radically improve sleep quality, and do it in an environmentally sustainable and responsible way.

In the time since, I’ve taken the company to the United States, setting up a second office in Los Angeles and establishing new internal logistics to service the market.

It was a bold move, and it’s paid off – in the 18 months since launching into the US, our revenue there has grown 10-fold, far outpacing the rate of growth in Australia. Market size and access to capital has propelled our growth in the US market in ways I could only have dreamed of previously.

But Australia played a pivotal role in preparing me and company for our success – from teaching me about the value of perseverance to harnessing the positive attitudes towards businesses pushing for change.

Here, I share the top lessons I have learned – from blindspots and opportunities to the inherent differences in attitude – as a female entrepreneur running a multi-million-dollar business across two markets.

Be the bridge between workplace cultures

Ettitude operates as a hybrid business across both Australia and the US. This split-operational approach means we can tailor our sales and marketing strategies to each region, but it presents us with the challenge of how to unify the overall company culture.

Upon moving to Los Angeles, I noticed the different pace of the US workplace. It took me a while to shift my mindset towards one that required me to be available around the clock, seven days a week. Compared to Australia, which has a more evolved attitude towards work/life balance, this was a hurdle, both personally and professionally.

To effectively manage teams across separate countries – each with different attitudes, energies and expectations of their employers – I’ve had to find ways to create more equitable standards for all my employees.

By law, Australia has 20 paid vacation days and 10 paid public holidays. Meanwhile, the US has no regulated paid vacation days, so Ettitude has implemented it own structure. Our US employees receive 10 company holidays, 10 vacation days and unlimited sick days to prevent burnout.

Implementing weekly check-ins with both teams, as well as each individual, allows me to provide the entire company with a baseline of information. This bridges any gaps and ensures nothing is lost in translation, mitigating the risk of a fractured company culture.

Acquiring VC funding for women-led business is tough everywhere

Starting a business in Australia as an immigrant – and a female one, at that – brought into focus the power of government in supporting entrepreneurs and young start-ups. There’s an energy within the Australian mindset that can help foster enthusiasm for young businesses. This extends to government initiatives, and it’s starting to catch on with venture capitalists looking to invest in new business in Australia.

2018 was the best year on record for VC-funded start-ups in Australia, jumping 36 per cent from the previous year to a $1.25 billion high. And in the US, the capital raised was US$2.3 billion. But, of that amount just 2.2 per cent was channeled to female-led start-ups.

In Europe, the difference is even more stark: European-based female-founded companies on average tend to raise just half the funding of their US counterparts.

According to a report by Crunchbase, in 2014, global dollar volume for startups with a solo female founder (or at least one female founder) was 10 per cent. So far in 2019, despite more deals and available dollars than ever before, the share of cash going to those same groups is 14 per cent.

Achieving growth and investment for Ettitude demanded a mix of Australian-like energy and US-minded networking and participation.

Start-up accelerators not only provide the initial investment required to get a business humming, but also should provide invaluable networking and training opportunities. It’s all about finding a gap and then maximising it to your advantage.

You need boots on the ground

When I first decided to expand into the United States, I knew I needed to partner with somebody who could bring the necessary insight, energy and local knowledge to crack what is an enormous and saturated lifestyle market.

Ettitude’s president, Kat Vorotova, a successful serial entrepreneur, came on board with an excellent knowledge of scaling start-ups but, most importantly, she was passionate and believed in the company’s mission of transforming how we sleep through our sustainable textile innovation. She has been integral in the expansion of the business. In addition to Kat, we have made some other great hires.

I am a big believer in hiring local talent to bring local insight to a company. This extends from PR, marketing and partnerships right through to tax and administration. As a foreigner, the United States tax system is complex and requires detailed understanding to navigate, particularly for a business. Hiring a CPA allowed us to streamline our process and maximise efficiencies.

Most importantly, it’s vital to hire talent you feel you can trust. I have found Angel List to be a useful tool in seeking out future employees who want to work for start-ups, which – let’s face it – require unusual levels of agility, pro-activity and energy. It’s impossible as a CEO running a global business to be everywhere at once, so implement teams that you have confidence in.

Advice isn’t always there to be taken

Ironically, this is probably the most important thing to remember when starting a business and seeking out knowledge from other business owners. Nobody knows your business like you do, and the biggest growth happens when we work through complex questions or processes on our own.

Be picky about the advice you adopt while being actively aware of your blind spots. In today’s saturated retail climate, it takes guts to believe you can bring something valuable to the market. But it isn’t impossible, provided you stand for something and really believe in it. Allow your values to guide you, first and foremost.

Phoebe Yu is the founder and CEO of sustainable bedding brand Ettitude.

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