If you run into Peri Pakroo on a normal day, you may see her as an editor working on her online magazine, Pyragraph, or you may see her musical talents shine as she plays with her band, Peri & the FAQs. But at her core you’ll see Peri the entrepreneur, juggling countless tasks as a publisher, coach, author, and mom.
Peri has started and helped others start small businesses for more than 20 years, and she's used her experience to write books such as The Women's Small Business Start-Up Kit and Starting & Building a Nonprofit.
We contacted Peri and spoke to her about the latest edition of her book, The Women's Small Business Start-Up Kit, and the changing landscape for women entrepreneurs.
WAHM: You’ve written both The Women’s Small Business Start-Up Kit and The Small Business Start-Up Kit. What are some challenges that women face when starting a business that men don’t?
PP: It's interesting that while the practical aspects of starting a business are pretty much gender-neutral—here I'm talking about legal and bureaucratic rules, financial realities, etc.—women consistently report different issues and concerns than men do. One big one is that women say they have a harder time raising start-up capital than men do. The worst part about this is that at least some of this disparity appears to be rooted in discriminatory attitudes towards women business owners; thankfully that is starting to change. Women-oriented lending programs have become widespread, including programs managed by the national network of SBA-sponsored Women's Business Centers, as well as women-specific programs within community-based financial institutions.
Women also perennially report the difficulty to maintain work-life balance as one of the top challenges of being self-employed. When asked, men report similar challenges but work-life issues typically rank lower on the list of men's concerns. It's likely that women struggle with work-life balance more because they tend to be more tied to family responsibilities than men do—particularly with responsibilities like child care and caring for aging parents. I offer some strategies in the book for getting back in balance when we inevitably feel stretched too thin. There's also a section on dealing with the transition to new health insurance when leaving a job with benefits—which is one of the biggest hurdles many women face when considering leaving a job.
WAHM: Are there any advantages that women have when starting a business?
PP: Without generalizing too much, in my observation women tend to be more natural networkers than men—and networking skills are a huge asset when you're self-employed. And again, at the risk of painting with too broad a brush, I think women tend to be master jugglers and are more comfortable with multi-tasking—even mega-multi-tasking—which is also part and parcel of being a business owner. I know some amazing multi-tasking men, but I must admit I know vastly more who are women. And this is a skill that every entrepreneur needs to master at some level.
WAHM: What’s the most common mistake you see being made by women? Not having a proper business plan? Not having a mentor or support group?
PP: I wouldn't call it a mistake, but I sometimes find that women set their sights too low when planning for growth. Statistics show women tend to start smaller businesses, including micro-sized "lifestyle" businesses, and in my opinion many of these could be even more successful with just a bit more planning and slightly higher growth goals. Don't get me wrong—I strongly believe in the value of staying small and growing slowly. I have been a happy freelancer for 15+ years, and for many of those years I absolutely didn't want the responsibility of any larger operation than myself and a tiny number of subcontractors. I totally get that. But sometimes I hear ideas that could easily be developed in a bigger way, with just a bit more planning and structure. Don't think too small!
WAHM: What’s the best way to receive funding when starting a small business?
PP: Commercial banks are notoriously tight-fisted with loans to entrepreneurs with little to no experience. If you're a first-time business owner, you'd be much better off approaching what's known as a community development financial institution (CDFI)—better yet, one that focuses on women or has women-specific lending programs.
Also, don't forget friends and family as a source of start-up funds. Many businesses have started this way. The key is to be business-like about the transaction and make sure to put important terms in writing. The basic document is a promissory note; there are plenty of templates out there. Observe the terms carefully—especially regarding paying off the loan—and make sure to generate statements regularly (say, quarterly or monthly) in order to keep things kosher. There is always a risk of unpleasantness when doing business with family or friends, so minimize that risk with clear terms and solid follow-through.
WAHM: What effects has social media had on small businesses?
PP: Social media has changed the marketing game for everyone, and has given a huge opening to small operations that don't have big marketing or advertising budgets. Perhaps the most significant aspect of social media is that it allows you to learn from and about your audience, so you can continually refine your messaging to improve effectiveness and engagement. You can develop a relationship with your customers via a Facebook page, Twitter feed or Instagram account for pennies compared to what used to be the norm: One-way advertising through expensive media like newspapers, radio and TV. If you're savvy enough to produce viral content, you can make real, lasting brand impact.
It's important to remember that engaging content doesn't grow on trees, nor is it free. It takes time and often money to develop good content, especially on a regular schedule, which is often critical to building audience. It's important to develop social channels thoughtfully and assign competent folks to do the job: people who can write well, take good photos, etc. When done with at least moderate planning and attention to detail, the results can be excellent.
WAHM: In the past 20 years, how has the landscape changed for women entrepreneurs? How can they continue to make progress?
PP: These days there are really so many resources out there that focus specifically on providing education, coaching and financing specifically for women entrepreneurs. Many of these programs are funded at the federal level and offered via Women's Business Centers (an arm of the SBA), and many are offered through private nonprofits and foundations like the Kauffman Foundation. Where a generation ago many women business owners felt the entrepreneurship path was a lonely one, now there's a huge variety of resources and networks specifically serving women.
WAHM: Many become WAHMs to achieve a better work-life balance. What are some steps they can take to achieve that?
PP: I think one of the best things you can do early on is to take the time to develop your vision of entrepreneurship and get really specific about your goals and expectations. Do you want to build an empire? Or do you just want a solid client base that keeps you busy with freelance projects? No matter what, self-employment does take a lot of work, so setting realistic goals is often step 1 in maintaining balance.
I also use and recommend sneaky tricks like making a point to put personal time in your calendar. Like if you want an afternoon off to read, don't just hope that a window of time opens up—calendar it! Same with family time. Most people get into self-employment because they want flexibility, and while it's folly to think you'll have tons of leisure time, it's much more achievable when you formally include it in your schedule.
Peri Pakroo is the founder of Pyragraph and author of The Women's Small Business Start-Up Kit. You can learn more about her here.