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I Pretended To Be A Man To Grow My Woman-Owned Company

Published on December 14, 2017 by   ·   37 Comments Pin It
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It’s still not easy to be a female business owner. I founded my company 7 years ago after leaving the nonprofit sector and a school I founded for homeless youth. I didn’t actually mean to start a new business, just to decompress after working with the homeless for a number of years. I thought people might like this quirky ceramic footed bowl I made decades ago when I was a ceramic artist. I had no idea they would actually love it, and after sending photos to a few design blogs, the little bowl on feet had gone viral. I found myself staring at $80,000 worth of purchase orders and a new business for which I was pretty unprepared.

My small ceramics factory in the US couldn’t handle the orders so I quickly taught myself how to manufacture overseas. Since this is an article on the difficulties of leading a company as a woman I’ll start by sharing that making goods overseas as a woman is not easy. The Chinese like dealing with women in roles of authority less than we do. They literally ignore you. I hired a sourcing agent who I likened to the Indiana Jones of manufacturing. I would follow along behind him even though I had the check book.

I also began to quickly realize that the entire world of international manufacturing was male-lead. I joked that to work in this industry your name could be no longer than 3 or 4 letters: Bob. Tom. Fred. From international freight to warehousing, men lead, women supported. So in 2011 I created a male employee. I won’t share his name because he “worked” for me for years and lots of my customers have done business with him. Personally, I loved being him because he could write emails that were more direct and didn’t require a lot of exclamation marks or smiley faces. He got stuff done. Or rather I did, as him.

I Pretended To Be A Man To Grow My Woman-Owned Company

Dylan Kendall (& some footed vases!)

For several years my company did well. I sold enough product to support buying new product. I wasn’t growing but I was breaking even. And then a deal with a major big box retailer went south and that put me in the financial hole. When you are at net zero every year – not losing but not making money – such a hole can be impossible to get out of.

People ask why I started fundraising so late instead of seeking out angel investments when I was selling a few hundred thousand dollars every year in product. In fact, I never stopped fundraising. I was always looking for money. I started with friends and family but I’m not from wealth. I told everyone I was looking for investors. I went on meetings, I made cold phone calls, I asked for referrals, I hired designers to make pitch decks after reading blogs about the best ten pitch decks ever, I sent those decks everywhere. I redid my financials, I redid them again. And again.

I talked to banks, the Small Business Association, private lenders from online portals to credit cards. I had no house to re-finance or a husband to lean on. I just had sales but not quite enough for traditional lenders. I looked again for angel money, I spent years looking for money. A few hundred thousand that could be put into marketing and manufacturing so my company could meet demand and grow.

Maybe it was because I made kitchen products (and moms, kids and pets are a such a small demographic to target), maybe it was because men don’t trust women with money. I was called a designer as if this was a negative and told my company would never scale even though at one point I was sending products to 7 countries.

Sugar Bowl On Feet, $12.99 @dylankendall.com

Sugar Bowl On Feet, $12.99 @dylankendall.com or on amazon

Ceramic Large Dog Bowl on Paws, $26 @dylankendall.com

Ceramic Large Dog Bowl on Paws, $26 @dylankendall.com or on amazon

 

Turquoise Ceramic Footed Mug, $7.99 @dylankendall.com or amazon

Eco Bamboo Dishes from Dylan Kendall Kids Dishes, $2.99 & up - sets for toddlers, babies, & kids! @dylankendall.com

Eco Bamboo Dishes from Dylan Kendall Kids Dishes, $2.99 & up – sets for toddlers, babies, & kids! @dylankendall.com or amazon (below);

I learned that it wasn’t just a fake male employee who could be helpful, but that it was also a good idea to always bring a man with me to meetings. Since I wasn’t married I had to lean on my small team, working for equity not cash. I hated asking them to juggle their own busy schedules with my need for a male chaperone who could validate me as a business.

Even with a man by my side or on the phone call with me, I still paid attention to a hundred more details – the tone of my voice on a call, to what I was wearing and my body language in meetings: was I leaning in too much? (too aggressive) or leaning back too much (too casual)? All for naught as I still couldn’t close a deal.

I finally raised money. Last year. To support the new eco products I was making with artist Martin Leon Barreto. I was so grateful for the cash I abandoned my best thinking. I followed the investor’s suggestions when my instincts were telling me otherwise. I had spent so long looking for money that I was afraid it would go away and I followed a plan I didn’t entirely believe in.

What killed my company? A bad decision was made. But it wasn’t a bad decision made by a man, it was a bad decision made by a woman. I trusted my sourcing agent to bring in good products. I couldn’t fly back to China to run the quality audit myself with the limited capital I had, so I trusted my Indiana Jones agent. He let bad container after bad container ship, never sending his staff to the factory to check the products.

Remember that financial hole and how hard it is to get out of it? This hole swallowed the company. I lost all the money I spent to make the products, ship them here and the income I projected against their sale. 22,000 defective units. The agent took no responsibility. I tried to sue but I didn’t have enough money to retain an attorney.

The investor walked away. We presented a patch plan, he still walked. I went back to fundraising. And I still have not succeeded.

I’m impressed with all the women coming forward in the #metoo movement, but gender discrimination doesn’t start or stop with physical contact. Gender discrimination is a movement, an attitude. It permeates every meeting, every business relationship and its particularly hard at the start-up stage when you are looking for money and you, the female entrepreneur, have no power.

I’m writing this for all women out there who have doubted themselves or their capacities as I have. I have moved containers around the world, I have worked deals with major retailers, I have failed and I have succeeded as every start-up founder. It took me a long time to understand that I have the same capabilities to run a company as a man, but it seems it will take longer for the world to see that.

Watch me tell me story here:

HOW TO SUPPORT DYLAN KENDALL HOME:

  1. Become a supporter and invest!
  2. Buy their products! Both on DK’s website and on amazon!
  3. Share this story, and get the word out! We are SUPER fans of everything this line makes here at GGA HQ! Her kids products, pet line, beautiful pottery and ceramics all blow our mind. She’s one of the most talented, kind, and visionary people we know. Support this woman!

Dylan Kendall is the CEO and Founder of Dylan Kendall Home; A kitchen products company making fun, functional, safe products your family can trust. She is a designer of social ideas and social objects.

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