There’s no glass ceiling for female entrepreneurs; there’s a “sticky floor,” says Danielle Tate, the founder CEO of MissNowMrs and author of Elegant Entrepreneur. We talk making the leap from corporate to startup, living a life of no regrets, and the mindset you need to soar.
Melinda Wittstock: Welcome to WINGS Danielle.
Danielle Tate: Thank you so much for having me Melinda.
Melinda Wittstock: I am excited to talk to you because not only have you written a wonderful book “Elegant Entrepreneur” for women starting out in business, but you've also created a company that is growing and sustaining. Tell me, when was the first moment when you thought to yourself, “You know what, I'm going to be an entrepreneur? I'm going to go out there and create something new, grow the business, and just go for it?”
Danielle Tate: I struggled with the word entrepreneur early on. I do not have a business background and I didn't have a family of small business owners or really any exposure to the business community. But I did have a problem when I got married and I had a lot of trouble changing my last name. I took a day off of work. I was a sale's rep for a fortune 500 company. So any minutes you're not working are 1,000s of dollars you're not making. It took three trips just to get my name on my driver's license. I was so frustrated at the waste of time, at the bureaucracy and that's sort of ‘the AHA’ moment. I was like why isn't there something like Turbo Tax that automates this process for everyone? I didn't at that moment say, “Oh today I'm going to be an entrepreneur.” I did an agonizing couple of months of letting it rock tumble in my brain, and then doing some research, and looking through census data to see what the market size was. I wouldn't say I was full-fledged entrepreneur until almost eight or nine months after having the idea when I finally left corporate America to launch my startup.
Melinda Wittstock: It's interesting that you talk about not having exposure to this because I think sometimes women think, “Oh wow, I have to have some credentials for this,” or, “I should have gone to business school,” or whatever. I noticed a post recently by Reid Hoffman, one of the founders of PayPal and LinkedIn, and a big venture capitalist in Silicon Valley who was a philosophy major so that that was actually the thing that made him so much better as an entrepreneur.
Danielle Tate: That's really interesting. I think everyone comes from different backgrounds but the stereotypical coder in the hoodie; that archetype still exists and we're shaking that up. As you start to grow and realize, yes actually my diverse background makes me a better problem solver and helps me see things very differently than someone who has a traditional MBA. It takes time to get there so I think that hang-up still exists and it's something that we should all be working through.
Melinda Wittstock: But not to let credentials get in the way. What's interesting about your story is that you saw a real problem that was causing a real pain point for you and then you did the research. Wow, if I'm having this problem then there are probably a lot of other people who are having this problem, a lot of women specifically who are having this problem, and you went out and did the research and made it happen. What was is like though on that journey? Was it a little bit scary? You were leaving a well paying job, a gig in sales, was it scary to take that leap?
Danielle Tate: It was but I had that moment where I was like I don't want to be 85 on my front porch in a rocking chair and wonder what would have happened if I had just started that company, if I had run with that idea. When I looked at my life I was 24 and I said, “I can take this and do my very best with it and if it goes, awesome, I've created this entire company and this new way of living. If it fails miserably I will have learned something. I will pick myself back up and I would go back to selling things, not necessarily for the same company but it was something that I was good at.”
So I took the leap. I will not lie and say that it was easy. My parents didn't ask if I had lost my mind but they were concerned about my thought process leaving a six-figure sale's career and a company-issued Land Rover to start a startup.com after the bubble burst. I'm glad I did it. I wouldn't change anything.
Melinda Wittstock: That's interesting though where you mention about friends and family that can sometimes hold us back. Entrepreneurs look crazy to civilians because you have this idea, it's like oh man I have this crazy and sometimes friends and family are not necessarily the most supportive because they're looking out for you, it's their concern. But it's also their fear, it's not necessarily your own and how to guard against taking on other people's nay saying at that early stage when you're thinking, “Yeah, I have this really cool idea. I want to go for it.”
Danielle Tate: I have this picture on my desk and it's of constellations and it reminds me that entrepreneurs are connecting the dots. We see the end dot of where we're going but we also see all of the logical dots in between. Not everyone sees the between dots so we may look really, really crazy and risky to the people who don't see the dots but you need to find friends, and mentors, and other people that can see those dots too because once someone else sees the dots it's a lot less scary.
Melinda Wittstock: It's interesting Danielle when you talk about connecting the dots that we really see opportunities sometimes where other people do not. What is the disconnect? For a female entrepreneur explaining her idea that's so clear, I suppose, so clear to us but sometimes others don't necessarily understand it including investors. There can sometimes be a real disconnect there. What goes wrong?
Danielle Tate: It's one of those things where many times the problems you solve are personal problems. So if you're a woman entrepreneur you may be solving a problem that women face and we all know that the majority of investors are men. Something I have learned along the way is to use analogies. If you're talking about fashion tech, if you're talking about women's health, if you're talking about things they don't understand on a day to day basis they may not understand the pain so they can't understand the motivation for the market to go after this product and embrace it.
For example, a friend of mine in fashion tech was talking about a platform that allowed women to shop in each other's closets and sell designer goods. She could just see eyes glazing over and this guy's like, “Well why would anyone buy a used handbag?” And my friend looked at him and said, “Well, would you buy a mint condition vintage Maserati?” And he said, “Of course I would,” and he got it. She actually got the investment by using the analogies. By painfully connecting the dots and making sure that they make sense across gender, across culture sometimes may be a great way to help people see those hidden dots.
Melinda Wittstock: That is so astute. I think it's curious too because as women we have a really developed empathy gene but we have to have empathy for the people that we're approaching, whether it's a sale's deal or whether it's asking for money. So somehow getting inside the head of the dude's always, usually, sitting around the table, and really bringing it home to them. Otherwise you're right, they're not really going to see the opportunity. What's interesting too though is that women have such spending power so it always confounds me when they don't understand the size of the market or how much money women actually spend online, or the fact that women really drive most purchasing decisions.
Danielle Tate: It's true, it's very true. That's why I'm really excited to see more and more venture funds focused on women and more women, angel investors, and hopefully some more women VC firms. If we can't make the analogies work then perhaps we need to fund the businesses that make the most sense to us.
Melinda Wittstock: Right, that's so true. I love the idea of being able to create an ecosystem where women really write checks for each other. That's beginning to happen a little bit more, although there is research that women tend to be very generous when they're giving philanthropically, so write big checks to nonprofits but not necessarily writing checks to other female entrepreneurs. I find that really curious.
Danielle Tate: Oh I hadn't heard that. That is really interesting.
Melinda Wittstock: It's really true and I don't know whether our risk profile, or what we perceive is just a little different or whatever. But my intentions certainly with this podcast is trying to create that ecosystem where we really buy from each other's businesses, help each other's businesses, give shout outs to each other's businesses, and write checks for each other.
Danielle Tate: Absolutely.
Melinda Wittstock: Going back to the creation though of MissNowMrs … did you get investment for that or was it a bootstrapped company?
Danielle Tate: That was bootstrapped and profitable from month one.
Melinda Wittstock: Nice.
Danielle Tate: I've used customer funding to do all of our iterations, and build outs, and sister websites, and platforms extensions, then strategic partnerships with industry leaders has also been a big proponent of our ability to stay privately funded.
Melinda Wittstock: Well it's a much nicer way to go because no only do you control your company, you're not it giving away, but you also do keep control of the destiny of the company. Talk to me about that. How did you get creative around making sure that you had customers right from the beginning? Did you just say you were profitable in month one?
Danielle Tate: I was. I went from red to black in the first 30 days.
Melinda Wittstock: Okay, that awesome. How did you do that? That's phenomenal.
Danielle Tate: It was a very small bootstrapped effort. I didn't obviously pay myself for the grunt coding that went into the back end database development but having researched the problem so much and realizing there's 2.3 million women getting married in just the U.S. annually, 88% of them change their name.
The fact that it was a very small amount of dollars that went in and a lot of sweat equity that went into it. I did all of the back end coding and I did all of the customer service when we launched the company. By being so intimate with our customers and really having my fingers on the pulse point of why are we issuing refunds, let me ask, what were you expecting, what could we do better? Then as we iterated and came up with exactly what we were looking for then I would ask customers, “We're considering building this, this, or this. Which of these options would you pay more for? Which is of most value to you?” People love to hear that they're being part of building a company, and become brand advocates for us, and referred all of their friends. Then we also did strategic partnerships with industry leaders and that also was a big part of becoming profitable so quickly.
Melinda Wittstock: That's wonderful. Really talking to your questions. Sometimes people are afraid to talk to their customers. Maybe it's … I don't know where that fear comes from because your customers are the ones that, well without customers and without happy customers you don't really have a business. What stops people from talking to their customer like you did?
Danielle Tate: I think people are afraid of hearing the bad stuff, the complaints, the refunds, the angry person. By insulating yourself with more and more customer service and more and more tiers between you and your customer you can feel better but living in that ivory tower you don't hear the voice of change, of need, of want of the customer. If you ignore that long enough someone else will come, and listen, and build what they are looking for. So listening and understanding that yes there's a percent that's satisfied, 2% of the population is going to hate whatever you put out there, those people you just issue a refund. The other people that call in want to help and if you give them a sense of power in helping build a company or change the direction of a company they're usually very excited to be a part of that journey.
Melinda Wittstock: I think that's so true because they become advocates. When people feel included they feel special and when you make your customers feel special … I love the story of the was Flickr launched where the founders of Flickr stayed in touch on an almost daily basis with their first 100 customers and really learned from this. I think this is also true about the way Sara Blakely built SPANX also. So it's very smart. How did you find your customers to begin with?
Danielle Tate: Google AdWords was just coming out. I'm dating myself a little bit there but by embracing this new form of advertisement we had our first customer within 30 minutes of AdWords and it just ramped 30% annually after that. We tried door-to-door mailings which we thought would be great, these little postcards with the bride explaining the problem and the solution. We barely broke even that. So by having the Google Ads in place, SEO, and of course strategic partnerships where large industry leaders recommended us to their customers that was our magic combination.
Melinda Wittstock: That's a really good one, direct to consumer but also through a channel partner of some kind because it also gives you … These are your potential exits as well. MissNowMrs is still going, what's your plan for the company?
Danielle Tate: So MissNowMrs continues to grow and expand. We now have sister properties, getyournameback.com for divorcees, Name Change Next Step for legal name change. We have a platform called the Married Name Game that is an algorithm with a patent pending on it that helps women determine their ultimate name change option based on key points within their lifestyle as well as data that we have from our 400,000 customers. We continue to build. We have an app coming out this spring that I'm not really allowed to talk about. We're chugging a lot. I would think an acquisition is in the future. We either need to acquire or be acquired to continue to sustain our growth.
Melinda Wittstock: Now that's a very interesting fork in the road there too. I think for a lot of women who have had exits, I think for men too, exits can be kind of tricky especially if your self-identity is really wrapped up in your company. It is very much who you are. For a woman it's kind of like your baby and so there's an emotional aspect to that as well. When you set out to build it did you have clarity about what you wanted to actually build? Did you say I want to build this massive, massive business, or I wanted to exit, or I wanted lifestyle, what was your original thought about MissNowMrs and has it changed?
Danielle Tate: Sure. To be completely honest, which is something I value in all entrepreneurs, a lot people can tell you the good story because it matches with what's really happening. MissNowMrs was intended to be a three to five year flip and then there was an economic downturn and all sorts of lawsuits around intellectual property theft. So our numbers weren't beautiful for a while there. Then it's turned into a bit of a lifestyle company. As I wrote this book and ended up doing a lot of speaking and conferences all around the world I was able to backfill some of the things that I'd love to do for MissNowMrs but that other people do incredibly well and sometimes even better. It's given me perspective and the ability to disentangle. I still very much am involved and care about the company but it's made it more separate I guess. I've stepped out of completely MissNowMrs and now have multiple identities across many things. It's kind of an interesting thing.
Melinda Wittstock: You mentioned that dip and we all have them with our companies. Often people don't talk about these heart stopping moments as an entrepreneur when you can't make payroll or something happens that's just unexpected that you can't even control. Or you hire the wrong person and they mess up something, they mess up your technology, there are so many things I have such a long list of stuff that can go wrong, and it does, it does to everybody. I don't care who they are we all have these heart stopping moments. What was one of yours and how did you get through it?
Danielle Tate: I've had many. I've definitely skipped my paychecks many a time to make sure payroll happened. Done some crying in the shower over how to figure out how to not lay off people. My all-time worst was testifying in federal court eight months pregnant on an intellectual property theft case against someone who had taken all of the intellectual property of MissNowMrs. I was so scared. I was scared for my first baby, my company that we were going to lose all of the things that we built that made it successful. I was scared that I was hurting my unborn baby with the stress of this lawsuit. I was scared for the amount of money that was put into protecting the IP through this lawsuit. Instead of just crumpling up in a ball like I wanted to I just kept putting one heel in front of the other, and I sat there, and I told the truth, and I testified and the court ruled in our favor.
Melinda Wittstock: That's so important. A lot of women do talk about IP theft and often it happens in a slightly different way too. I have an amazing guest coming on the podcast in a couple of weeks who talks about how her ideas and her IP were actually taken and guys created whole companies that got funded when she didn't. It's a heartbreaking story. So to be really smart about that without being paranoid … The tricky thing is it's hard in the beginning because you're racing against time to get a minimum viable product out there, getting as many people as possible to see and buy into your idea and in those moments where you don't have a lot of resources it's difficult to also be thinking defensively when you're in that work mode.
Danielle Tate: Yeah I have a young and dumb factor. I was this nice Methodist girl from Pennsylvania. I've actually built a company, and you made your money, and that's how the world went round. I was very underprepared for that.
Melinda Wittstock: It is tricky. Especially, so you're sitting there and you're eight months pregnant, this raises a whole other issue about women and business when our babies are either not born yet or very, very young. With my second child one of my, I have many heart stopping moments as well, but one of mine was …I had an employee … three businesses ago who had embezzled money from the company and a lot of money from the company. In fact, it was so sophisticated the U.S. Secret Service got involved; she actually ended up going to jail. But I was pregnant at the time with my second child and I was going through that same thing. I was like am I really hurting, am I causing all this stress for my baby. It was a stress for the team as well because we were a really tight knit team and the distrust that happened as a result of this was really hard for the team, and it was hard for me. There are all kinds of things like that that you certainly learn from it. In that case, man, accounting systems, and reconciliations, and compilations and all that kind of stuff that goes on with my companies now.
Danielle Tate: Absolutely.
Melinda Wittstock: But we all learn I guess from these things. Talk to me a little bit about that with how you manage your business, and your book, and all your touring, and this speaking, and everything with kids.
Danielle Tate: So I don't think there's such a thing as true balance. There's this great saying that “I can do anything but I can't do everything.” I think in business and in family life delegation is an art form, not an easy one to master but something that has to be done. Going back to my advice earlier, begin with the end in mind. I knew that I wanted to be flexible. I wanted to spend time with my son when I wanted to spend time with him but I didn't want to exit the business and hire a CEO to be a stay at home mom. So we crafted, we hired a few people to help take over some of my role, hired a nanny, and split the difference that allowed me to be as much of a mom and as much of a CEO as humanly possible without just melting down. Of course there were some meltdowns throughout that.
I call my son my favorite startup. I just love watching him grow up and how he sees the world. He just read this book, there's this Who Is series about historical figures and current figures and he came running up the stores this morning, was like, “Ma! Is Richard Branson still alive?” Because he had just read his ‘Who Is’ book which I had picked out. I was like, “In fact he is and we have friends that know him.” I wanted to say that point that there's such joy that comes from having children.
It can seem impossible when you have a startup to have an infant. It is a struggle but it makes you a better person and there have been things that I have learned that have impacted the company as I've figured out women had this innate ability to nurture. When we have a business it's like our child and any mother would do anything to keep her baby alive. Women make that commitment to their companies as well. We also have this insane ability to multi-task. I think between those two things it gives us an actual edge it when it comes to actual entrepreneurship.
In business and in family life delegation is an art form, not an easy one to master but something that has to be done. #FemaleStartup #WomeninBusiness #WingsPodcat @Elegant_EntreClick to tweet
Melinda Wittstock: I think that's true. I think becoming a mother made me a better entrepreneur in a way. I learnt a lot from managing my kids. It sounds kind of a funny thing to say but they also really inspired me. They give me such a fresh eye, just as you're describing with yours. Then being an entrepreneur makes me a better mother too so they're very connected for me.
Danielle Tate: I completely agree. I've never discussed that with anyone either, that's an interesting topic.
Melinda Wittstock: Well there have been a couple times though where I think that my kids … They say that your kids learn more from what you do than what you say. So in a world where increasingly we're becoming much more of a gig economy, there's a stat that 40% of all American workers are going to be gig workers by 2020. That's not so long from now and gig workers by that I mean freelancers or just literally lots of side hustles going from one thing to another but not corporate, not like in a steady job. You have to be entrepreneurial. So teaching kids that kind of resilience and can do attitude I think they learn actually from watching you as a female entrepreneur. When we feel those guilt feelings like, “Oh I should be with my kids,” or I should be this, or this, or that, I've just learned to involve mine a little bit more in my process.
Danielle Tate: I do the same thing. My son has labeled post cards, he's asked all of these interesting questions. He just started his first company, his peanut butter company, door-to-door sales. My mother, the heart of the mom and the heart of the entrepreneur almost exploded with pride that by incorporating him and explaining things that we were doing whether they were fun or un-fun, he's got a pretty good grip on business. He's got a little bit more going than I did when I started mine.
Melinda Wittstock: That's so funny, because he's had mom to watch. I want to go back a little bit. What were you like as a little kid?
Danielle Tate: Very, very, very talkative. Apparently I just never stopped talking. I never met a stranger either. I've always loved talking to people, and asking questions, and learning especially people not from my tiny little town in Pennsylvania. I wanted to understand the world as a bigger place.
Melinda Wittstock: That's really interesting. Even if we're not really entrepreneurial as little kids there are these markers I suppose of what makes someone an entrepreneur, being endlessly curious. In your case you're obviously like an awesome sale's person, which is like a very, very big part of entrepreneurship. There's the innovation and there's the building of stuff but if you can't sell then there's no business. So did you know pretty early on that you were good at sales?
Danielle Tate: Yes and I am a fourth generation peddler of sorts. Many people in my family were engineers but they always ended up creating sales divisions of companies when they were designing and creating products for the company. So no, I was an outstanding Girl Scout sale's rep. Anywhere I worked I always managed to incent customers to do a little bit more or come up with a few ideas. While I intended to be a cardiologist and went to school and got my bachelor's in Biology and Psychology I did have that sales component and it has served me very well across many companies.
Melinda Wittstock: You started out and you wanted to be a cardiologist, where did that change come?
Danielle Tate: The not becoming the cardiologist?
Melinda Wittstock: Yes. Deciding to … Because what you're doing right now is so very different from being a cardio…
Danielle Tate: Wedding tech from biology is a big jump.
Melinda Wittstock: Right, so how did that happen?
Danielle Tate: I didn't get into medical school was the big door that shut. I missed it by three spots. I'd already picked out my apartment down by Baylor and go the phone call. That was the big fork in the road, my first big failure, there have been many sense. That was the first time I had really failed at something I had spent a young lifetime working towards. It made me a lot stronger. I ended up in a sale's position but I hated but I did not go home, I did not quit. I continuously moved forward and that's been a hallmark of my career and life in general.
Melinda Wittstock: That's right, being able to take failure like that, just even going back to what we were talking about with customers, being able to take that as feedback, or as some sort of interesting plan that the universe has for us to get us in alignment with who we truly. I think when we do find our purpose we soar. And so getting in touch with that, getting aligned with that, and being authentic to that is a critical part of success.
Danielle Tate: It's a journey. Back to the connecting the dots, the dots aren't in a straight line and anyone whose dots are in a straight line I question whether they are really pushing themselves and reaching enough. I've had a very non-lateral climb and each part of that jungle gym inside journeys have woven in something interesting that has helped me, that has changed me, that has made me better in some way.
Melinda Wittstock: So you've been willing to risk.
Danielle Tate: Yes.
Melinda Wittstock: A lot of women are not willing to risk or are less likely to. Why do you think that is and how can … What kind of advice can you give to women say, for instance, someone in their early 20s thinking of doing a startup, just where you were when you started MissNowMrs or a women who's say gone through the corporate world and is maybe a little bit older and is reinventing herself how to handle risk a little bit better?
Danielle Tate: On the flip side of risk is excitement, so looking at where you are in your 20s, or 40s, or 50s, or 60s, wherever you are in that. If where you are is no longer exciting, if you're just going through the motions, and that's not really living. Examine that and understand that, and decide if that is what makes you happy. I think that would be unlikely. Examine the risk; look at what you're trying to do, not focusing on the parts that could go wrong but the end part. What would it be like? Try on that day in the life of you as this alternate person doing that alternate thing in your startup or whatever you choose to do. How does that feel? If you can get that feeling that's going to build the excitement. That's going to make it real in your brain and it's going to help you overcome the risk. But also be intelligent. If you have nothing in the bank and a huge mortgage think before you leap. You may need to downsize your home, you may need to get a condo; you may need to start saving your salary aggressively to give yourself a cushion and some runway to get that idea off the ground.
Melinda Wittstock: That's really good advice. So much of it is mindset isn't it? It's really about having the right mindset, getting out of the way of any kind of limiting beliefs that you have. Some of those limiting beliefs you may know of and be conscious of, but others are unconscious drivers. How do you get around that? I think entrepreneurship sometimes is like therapy.
Danielle Tate: Unconscious drivers, if you don't know what's causing the problem that's when you hopefully have a circle of friends and mentors that can point it out and be like stop limiting yourself. Stop saying that statement. It's not true and if you keep saying it it's going to be true. You need to figure out a way around whatever your mental or emotional roadblock is. That's entrepreneurship at it's core, it's problem solving, it's coming up with interesting solutions that not everyone sees. So understanding that you yourself are in some ways a startup and are continuously growing, and iterating, and pivoting as you move through life. Sometimes using that lens makes it easier to work through those things.
Melinda Wittstock: As we start to wrap up this interview I'm curious, we talked so much about all the challenges that female entrepreneurs have but there's a lot that we bring to the table that's uniquely, I think, an advantage. What are some of those advantages that we can really double down on?
Danielle Tate: I think there are so many advantages to being a women entrepreneur. I think we talked about empathy earlier in this conversation and the fact that we empathize with our end users, with our customers. That is a huge benefit. The fact that we care about them and want to make them happy if that flows all the way up through to the founder level that's going to be a company that is always growing and changing to meet the needs of other customers. That's a company that's going to have a rich history of growth because they're meeting and exceeding their needs.
We don’t just hire an amazing team and great staff members, we nurture them, we build them. #WomeninBusiness #WingsPodcast @Elegant_EntreClick to tweet
Danielle Tate: Another thing that women excel at is nurturing, it's a need in us. We don't just hire an amazing team and great staff members, we nurture them, we build them. We build them into the next level of women executives, of women entrepreneurs and I think that's something that we can be incredibly proud of. We're not just building a company we're building all of the people that are a part of that community and that team.
Melinda Wittstock: This is so true. I love that and I think that we have so many insights too into markets and solutions that are untapped. When we go and talk, if we are running the type of companies where we need capital, we're bringing an opportunity that they might not have had. I think it's really important also for us to know our own value and really step into that.
Are there any other pieces of advice before we move on? I want to let people know where they can find you Danielle, and get your book, and work with you because I think what you're doing is amazing. Any last pieces of advice and how can folks find you?
Danielle Tate: My last piece of advice is actually a quote. I love quotes. It's, “She who dares, wins.” I dare all of the WINGS listeners to go out there: If they have the idea to pick the next step, to do the market research. If they've done that to make [inaudible 00:41:51 viable. Whatever it is I dare you to actually do it not just think about it.
Melinda Wittstock: I love that. Truth or dare, okay! How can folks find you?
Danielle Tate: I am on social media as Elegant Entrepreneur. Please come play with me, I'm forever posting things about female founders, business tips, of course some inspirational quotes as well. You can check out my website elegeantentrepeneur.co or pick up my book “Elegant Entrepreneur” on Amazon.com.
Melinda Wittstock: That's awesome. Do you have a special offer for any of our listeners today?
Danielle Tate: I certainly do. If any WINGS listeners want to go to elegantentrepreneur.co/wings we have a discount on the “Elegant Entrepreneur” book as well as the audio book.
Melinda Wittstock: That's fantastic. So elegantentrepreneur.co, no com, .co/wings.
Danielle Tate: That is correct.
Melinda Wittstock: Danielle, thank you so much for putting on your wings and flying with me today.
Danielle Tate: Thank you, it was amazing.