This is the 3rd of a series of interviews featuring remarkable women founders from all walks of life. They are a part of GiveGetWin’s yearly initiative, where they will host sharing sessions to raise funds for charity.
From working in corporations and startups to leading companies, Sarah Selhi has always had an affinity for media. With 15 years of experience in the field, Sarah’s specializations in sales, marketing and operations has given her the Midas touch for business. It was only a matter of time before the founder bug bit — now, Sarah is the founder and CEO of SpaceIShare, what she envisions to be the world’s biggest platform for home-space sharing.
Gwen: Your range of professional experiences is astounding, Sarah. Did you think you’d ever end up in startups?
Sarah: Well, I’ve had several starts towards entrepreneurship throughout my life: I started a film and TV distribution company (RainTree Entertainment), a T-shirt company (BadMother Tees), and a brick-and-mortar business (Fit Body Boot Camp). I even helped my husband start his online business!
More recently, after a couple of years on maternity leave, I was offered the position of General Manager at a new startup, MainStream Media (MSMU). In a nutshell — they put TV on the Internet. There, I became immersed in the world of start-ups, working with an phenomenal group of developers and a visionary CEO. Unfortunately, the CEO and I didn’t see eye-to-eye, and I eventually left, but my love for tech startups was permanently ingrained.
Sounds like a silver lining to me! How did you eventually take the leap to start SpaceIShare?
Well at the time, my husband was starting up his own online business, so I had to take up a well-paid position with Olive Media. Although I LOVED my coworkers, the idea of selling media to brands and agencies wasn’t fulfilling.
It was around that time that the idea of “space sharing” started to become a burning desire. The more I thought of the idea and shared it with friends, the more I felt it was something I had to do.
One night, when lamenting to my husband for the umpteenth time about wanting to take the leap to ‘start-up’, he simply said, “Decide tomorrow!”
“Make a decision tomorrow? Absurd!”
But I rolled over in bed, looked up at the ceiling, and said to myself:
“Okay, God, I need a sign. Not a little sign, but a BIG. FUCKING. SIGN.”
I walked into work the next day…
And the company announced it was shutting down.
That was as big a sign as they come. So, I quit… and the rest is history!
What an amazing story! Truly divine intervention. What was it like when you were first starting out? Any challenges you faced?
Well, my first challenge was to find co-founders. As a solo founder, I knew it would be tough not having anyone else to lean on. I had been told that three cofounders was a good number, so while working at Olive Media on contract I started the process of searching for co-founders and creating a MVP.
Fortunately, with the company shutting down, I quickly found co-founders in my two colleagues. Soon, other challenges started to crop up:
- As sales and marketing people, we didn’t have any technical expertise and needed someone to develop our site. We solved this by hiring a development agency.
- We had a lot of technical challenges with the open-source platform we were using, specifically with recurring PayPal payments. Time, persistence and technical expertise helped us overcome this.
- Many of our potential users were concerned about trust and insurance issues. So now, we’re currently exploring a user-based insurance policy.
Awesome insights! Thank you for sharing how you overcame each challenge. What do you think it takes to found a successful startup?
Successful tech startups need a few things:
- Money — to see you through the tough times;
- Persistence — it takes constant effort to move your product forward;
- Vision — a company with no vision or direction will just move with the waves, instead of forging ahead toward an end game;
- A thick skin — you will be told many times by many people what to do, what not to do, what you’re doing wrong, you shouldn’t be doing it at all, the list goes on. It’s VERY important to not take anything personally.Consider what everyone says, but don’t just pivot based on opinions.
- No ego — egos can kill a company. Yes, you might persist through and get the job done, but nobody wants to work for an ego-maniac. It blinds you to great ideas and keeps you from hiring smart people. That being said,
- Hire people that are smarter than you — Henry Ford may not have completed high school, but he was smart enough to seek out brilliant engineers and advisors. Whenever he needed info, he’d ask them. Despite the odds, his persistence and common sense helped Ford succeed.
Great break-down. Those are definitely things everyone should keep in mind. What role do you think being a female plays in this equation?
Being a female founder of a tech startup is awesome. Although I get some sideways glances from people when I tell them I’m the CEO, it’s still great.
I still find that people try to “talk tech” to my husband thinking that HE’s the one that will get it, but the best you can do is decide that you’re changing the norms, one person, one company, one success story at a time.
That’s so inspiring, Sarah. Can we dive deeper? What would you say are the pros and cons of being a female founder?
Sure, I’ll give you three each.
- There are a LOT of accelerator programs and start-up groups that want more female founders in tech. While they’re not explicitly changing their requirements, they’re welcoming more women to be part of their cohorts.
- There are also a lot of funders who are looking to support women-led companies. This gives you more options when the time comes for you to shop around for an angel investor or a venture capitalist.
- Women who get funded have a better chance of succeeding than men. It’s just statistically true.
- You’ll need to deal with sexism and stereotypes every step of the way, including questions that would never be asked of a male entrepreneur (i.e. how you manage home and family life; commitment-to-the-job).
- Between 1997 and 2013, women-led businesses increased by 59%. The bad news is that women still receive 80% LESS funding than men.
- You’ll have to work extra hard to get where you want to go; with 90% of startups failing, it’s a tough uphill battle.
Perfect. Last one: What would you like to tell aspiring female founders?
As a woman, you need to understand that you need to be better, more resilient, and able to receive judgment more harshly than your male counterparts. That’s just how the world works.
However, even though you’re the minority in a sea of male tech cofounders, you bring to the table a unique set of skills that makes you stand out.
So go forth. Be the change you wish to see in the world.
Develop a thick skin, define clear objectives, then roll out your plan.
Fail fast, fail quickly, and get back up again.
Don’t let your gender ever stop you.
Make your story the most compelling, and your drive the strongest.
If you were inspired by Sarah, sign up for a 1-on-1 mentorship package to unlock your entrepreneurial potential. Sarah loves helping women who are just getting started in entrepreneurship, and she will give you personalized, step-by-step guidance for your own startup journey. Only five slots available.
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