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How to pitch in a patriarchy

Fundraising tips from a female founder who has been there and done it.

Aisling Byrne, Nuw
Aisling Byrne

By Aisling Byrne

As a female founder, pitching in a patriarchy is something I think about on a daily basis. The future of my business and our team rests on my ability to navigate this environment. 

… no pressure. 

It’s no secret the odds are stacked overwhelmingly against female founders. Only 2.3% of venture capital went to female founders in 2020 and only 18% had a positive experience raising funding over the past 18 months. I am one of the 82% who has had a less-than-positive experience. 

But, accepting that investors approach men and women differently is empowering. And learning the rules of the game gives you the best possible chance to win regardless of the hand you have been dealt. 

Here are seven things I have learned about pitching in a patriarchy.

Navigating the patriarchy is a skill. Learn it like any other.

Understanding the dynamics that shape our society is key to navigating it. Without understanding unconscious bias, the gender funding gap, and subtle sexist commentary in daily conversation, these things will catch you off guard, knock your confidence and leave you unnecessarily questioning the fundamentals of your business. 

Arm yourself with knowledge. Research fundraising norms across your industry and for your stage. Without knowing the value of your business yourself you allow VCs and investors to determine the value for you whether it be a true representation of your work or not. Do this with the support of mentors or advisors. 

I’ve found it incredibly cathartic to learn about the patriarchy through the Guilty Feminist Podcast (and book!). Another good resource is January Ventures’s annual report on the landscape for female founders. 

Learn to negotiate.

I was pitching for my first ever lead investor who was offering £100k (*faints with excitement*) but with a low valuation. Having spoken with advisors and mentors, I knew the terms were not ones I could move forward with. 

I spent three days before the meeting staring at the wall contemplating the myriad of ways the conversation could go. Think Eminem ‘palms sweaty, knees weak, arms are heavy’ (but minus the vomit on my sweater as my Mom was not there to cook me spaghetti).

My boyfriend asked me how I was going to get those terms.

“Ask for them?” 

‘So you don’t have a negotiation plan?’

Oh shit. So the night before the pitch I did a three-hour crash course in negotiation. 

Instead, I’d recommend actually dedicating time to learning the art of negotiation. The best resource I have found on this is the work of Chris Voss. 

Studying negotiation helps you spot when you are being taken advantage of and assert yourself in those situations. It helps you to avoid being pressured into terms you are not comfortable with simply because you feel the investor may walk away if you do not accept or if you have been made to feel inexperienced or incompetent for not accepting the terms they have deemed ‘fair’. 

If an investor wants to build a long-term relationship then negotiation is a healthy part of agreeing on an investment. My rule of thumb is that you should always have two opportunities to counter an offer. Great if you can both agree in the first meeting. But it often takes a second negotiation to really nail down the perfect terms. 

Leave a bad offer on the table.

It benefits no one — not yourself, not your business and not your investor — if you accept terms that undervalue your business or make it difficult for you to raise in the future. Investors who back founders building unicorns are looking for someone who can stand up for their business, their team and themselves. Any investor offering a bad deal is unlikely to be someone backing unicorns. 

It’s when you’re given a bad offer that the trope of ‘the difficult women’ comes into play. Should you politely accept what it is you are being given? How does it reflect on you walking away from these opportunities or calling people out? This is the power dynamic of the patriarchy. 

But I don’t regret those investors I passed on. Bad terms or toxic relationships are not what your business needs. Leave those on the table and find investors you really click with. 

Pitch from a position of equality.

Power dynamics play a significant role in our comfort level when pitching. Especially if you are the sole person from your team in the meeting. These power dynamics are not always set up on purpose — they are the hangover from centuries of women not having a seat at the table. That’s why we find ourselves pitching to rooms full of senior, white men. And it can be intimidating. (Back to Palms sweaty, knees weak, arms are heavy).

Remember: the lived experience is different to the perceived experience. You have got into these rooms because you are a talented entrepreneur. But our level of comfort is so often informed by what we perceive to be true, especially when we’re the only woman in the room. 

In every conversation you have in life, be it an investor or anyone else, always approach it from a position of equality. Expect mutual respect by default.

You may assume because an investor has capital that you ‘need’ them. The truth is, they may have capital, but you have an idea and you are ‘you!’. It is their privilege to be a part of your vision as much as it is your privilege to receive their financial backing and expertise. 

Ask for what you need, not what you think you can get.

This one is for the first raise / first time founders, especially those who have not grown up around money or can easily pull together a friends-and-family round. I know it can be so awkward to raise money. 

How do you ask people for money? It’s very simple. Just ask! 

You don’t need to shy away from asking people to commit. It’s not impolite or awkward to ask for money. This is literally their job. 

Never ask for less than what you need. Let investors know what you are raising and ask for them to decide what ticket they can contribute. If you need a certain ticket size for a lead investor or if you have a minimum ticket size be upfront about that. 

In conclusion…

To all of the female founders reading this. Well done. This is not easy. 

I hope these tips can in some way help you along your own journey. Building and scaling a company as a woman is not about smashing glass ceilings, it’s a journey with ups and downs.

You will get there in the end.

Aisling Byrne is founder and CEO of Nuw. 

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Lucy Hall
Lucy Hall

The ever dazzling, ever talented Aisling. An inspiration to us all. Thank you for imparting just some of your wisdom from your funding journey, god knows we need to support one another.