The corporate ladder. Do you look at it and realize you don’t have any feelings for it anymore? What happened to our drive? There’s something about our current career trajectory that doesn’t ring true to our souls like before. (Probably because we don’t relate to people in leadership, but that’s a whole ‘nother story.) If you’re like me and decided to jump off the ladder to pursue your side hustle, and now want to turn it into a business, here are tips I wish I had known when I started.
I’m Mara, the founder and CEO of Secret Code, and a recent Girlboss Foundation Grant winner. I was a creative director working in advertising for 12 years, and realized I had the solution to the problem I was facing. As one of 11 percent of female creative directors, I realized I wanted to see more female representation in powerful careers that affect our world. The thing is, you don’t suddenly become an industry leader overnight. It has to start young. Studies show that stereotypes impact children’s aspirations by the age of 6. And what are children exposed to? Children’s media. I wanted to use my image-making and technology skills to plant a seed in girls’ formative years—and make them literally see what they can be.
In 2016, my team and I launched a customizable children’s book that stars your girl as a tech hero in order to make technology fields aspirational for girls of all ethnicities. It was a side hustle, we got traction, investors got interested, I quit my job, I got in an accelerator, and now we’re kicking off our first fundraiser. Here’s my secrets on how I did it, and some things that I wish I’d know along the way:
Start with a pitch deck
This will help you tell your story in a compelling and concise way, practice your pitch to friends who can introduce you to people who can move your business forward, and understand your side hustle’s business model.
Your deck should tell four key things:1. Why do people care (a.k.a why will they spend money on this), include stats and context; 2. What’s the idea.; 3. How does it work.; 4. Why are you the best person to solve this problem.; 5. How are you going to make money.
Keep it short and visual and make the deck exciting. Investors see thousands of pitch decks a week. They’re tired. If you do something pleasant that stands out, you’ll be that more memorable. Every word needs to fight for its life. Every slide should be a poster for what you’re trying to convey, not a Wikipedia page.
Find a designer to sex your deck up. A friend, or someone from Upwork, Dribble, Fiverr, or WorkingNotWorking. Spend a few hundred dollars on a deck template. It will be your template for the next few years, so you don’t need to worry about it again. Make your deck first, and have the final version designed.
Test your business model
There is no magic combination that a perfect marketing person will announce to you one day. You’re going to have to try things, and whatever brings the most ROI is the business you should go after. First, conduct interviews with friends/potential customers on what they’d be willing to spend. What is too low or too high for them? Test those numbers out.
This is where you should be prepared to spend money. I heard you need to be ready to throw $10,000 outside the window on Facebook ads to test what works. I didn’t do that—but just sharing some underground founder hearsay.
Build your network. Ask for intros. Build your advisory board.
Talk to everyone about your business. Meet entrepreneurs. Go to meetups. Everyone has a friend who has a friend who can lead you to your next stepping stone. It is insane how entrepreneurship is about timing and serendipity. Make serendipity happen. Don’t be afraid to ask, “Do you know anyone in the _____ industry that I could talk to and hear advice from?” (And don’t ever ask to “pick people’s brain.”) You should talk to the experts of the industry you’re trying to disrupt. They will provide amazing tips, mistakes they made that you can avoid, intros to people who could invest in you or you could potentially hire, or could be great advisors to take your business to the next level.
I currently have a group of 10 founders with whom we group text each other every week to share challenges and tips. It is so important to have your trusted group of female entrepreneurs to learn from and vent with. You’ll need the support to keep going!
For advisors, keep in mind they are taking time off their busy schedules to help you. They don’t always need to be compensated in equity, but here’s an example breakdown. Average commitment can range from 30 min every quarter to 1 hour a week, for 0.1-0.25% equity, depending on their status. If they’re super famous, then maybe it’s just about intros and no work. If they’re up-and-coming, they can work for you every week.
Barter your skills. Do favors to get favors.
Relationships are like a bank account. You need to put some money in before taking it out. I naturally want to help people out and I’ve realized that a lot of positive things happened to me because at some point in my life, I helped that person out. It has to be genuine, of course, and you shouldn’t expect anything in return. It’s for your own pleasure to see your friend blossom with your help—but life is usually made in a way that people do want to give back. Are you great at design and your friend is great at numbers? Design her deck and she can look at your projections. Are you great at negotiating and your friend has great connections? Train your friend to negotiate, and she can give you her connections.
Apply to as many grants, accelerators, or pitch competitions as you can.
For 4 reasons: 1. Learn about business. 2. Get some money. 3. Get PR and open doors. 4. Build your entrepreneur BFF club. Do your online research and listen to podcasts. I was fortunate to win the Girlboss Foundation Grant, which opened a lot of doors, and two years later, the Project Entrepreneur startup competition by the Rent The Runway Foundation. Both I found out about listening to Girlboss Radio and How I Built This. Other great podcasts: Y Combinator (how to start a startup), Startup (the emotions behind building a startup), The Pitch (founders pitching to investors). Also, it sounds fantastic to have have the back of Girlboss and Rent The Runway. I want to caveat that I’ve applied to a bunch of other ones I didn’t get in! It’s a numbers game.
Manage your expectations (a.k. a numbers I wish I had known)
Early stage founders usually don’t pay themselves in the beginning, or make $50K/year once they fundraise. They can definitely pay themselves more, but that means that they have less runway. So, instead of being paid $100K for 1 year, they’d rather be paid the same amount for two years so they have more time to reach their goals. It’s really up to you. A lot of founders move back in with their parents, or have partners who can pay rent for a while, or have a ton of savings, or get financial backing from their family. Entrepreneurship is not glamorous. Starting a business is tough, crazy, and expensive. Are you tough and crazy? Then this is for you! Be prepared to spend double what you intended. When I won the Girlboss grant, I had planned for $15K first spend, and spent an extra $15K soon after. You’re losing a lot of money figuring out your business—it’s not a bummer though, it’s literally part of the process. You don’t become a world-class skater without breaking your legs once in a while. It’s normal—it’s encouraged. Chances are, your side hustle is innovative. And innovation doesn’t come in textbooks. So you have to test things out.
Funding explained: crowdfunding, angel, venture capital?
It took me a while to figure this out. As VCs were reaching out, I was seduced by the idea that VCs were interested in me. Also, you read everywhere about entrepreneurs raising millions from VCs and that sounds sexy AF, right?
VCs, they are here to accelerate your business in exchange of a large equity stake (at least 20-25%). They will give you money if you’re already making money, and/or you already have traction. They’re looking for their 10x return. Which is why tech companies are so seductive (one team can sell millions of subscriptions), and companies with high production costs (such as luxury handbags for example) can be a harder sell.
Angels: People who believe in your mission because they have a relationship with it, and who can help kickstart your business.
Crowdfunding: Women-themed companies do really well with crowdfunding. It gives you a nice head start to your business and creates a really passionate and loyal following. It also helps show your traction to future investors, so you have more leverage. Just know that the successful crowdfunding campaigns have had a lot of investment at the start. For example, stats show you need to reach a certain percentage of your crowdfunding goal on the first day to up your chances of success. To get there, you need to make an email announcement to a database of 20,000 emails on that launch date. To get those 20,000 emails, marketing agencies do lead generation (Facebook campaigns with email signups) and it’s usually $1 per conversion. $1 per email. That’s $20,000 spent on finding 20,000 emails.
Here’s a crowdfunding consultant I highly recommend, Vann Alexandra, she is recommended by the Kickstarter founders themselves. (It’s worth noting she doesn’t work for them and recommends other platforms for what makes sense with your business).
But first, bootstrap for sure. Self-fund your prototype and show that you have skin in the game. This page does a great job at explaining the differences between VCs, angels, crowdfunding and bootstrapping.
Don’t be paralyzed by all the contradictory advice you’re getting
Everyone has their own experiences and highly skilled people will tell you one thing and the opposite. Just listen to everyone and choose what you think resonates with you. There are no rules. Everyone is making it up as they go. Everybody is faking it ‘til they’re making it. There’s no right or wrong way, there’s one way or another. So, trust your gut.
If you’re looking to step up your side hustle—or just get started—we’ve got a whole track of programming at the Girlboss Rally dedicated to helping you level up your part-time passion project. Join us for actionable workshops and IRL advice by registering now at.