Are Startups Better as Single-Gender Affairs?

Last Updated Aug 3, 2011 7:12 PM EDT

Let me be clear: This post is not "lifestyle businesses." A lifestyle business and a startup are two totally different things. A lifestyle business grows slowly, the founder has total control over it, and it creates a nice life.

Startups grow fast, investors control them (at least in tandem with the founders), and they create a crazy lifestyle.

Most women don't want to do startups. If you want to know why women don't do startups, read this post, which I originally published on TechCrunch. If you want to know why startup life makes founders crazy, here's a post I wrote when my company ran out of money and how I raised money the day before the investors shut us down.

If you want to know why you shouldn't do a startup with women (if you're a man), read on.

It's a distraction.
I have done three startups and each time it has been with a male co-founder. And each time, the fact that I am female has been a distraction to us. It has been a source of friction. When I was young, people thought my co-founder and I were a couple. (This is not surprising. The majority of male-female co-founder situations for a funded startup have a sex component.)

The problem is that men and women are different at work, and the intensity of a startup magnifies these differences ten-fold. In my last company, Brazen Careerist, I had two male co-founders. Sometimes I'd cry. Or throw a fit. And the guys would say I was so difficult. I am a woman who has been in tech startups for 15 years. I thought, if anyone can deal with men, it's me. And still, I was too emotional for these guys. You know what? Most women cry at work. And most guys throw a fit.

I don't blame the guys. We tried hard to get along. We had to. If we couldn't get along we'd have to shut down the company. That's how high the stakes are at the beginning of a startup. This is all drama that you don't need in the beginning stages of a company.

Startups need speed and focus -- not diversity.
The Harvard Business Review devotes a lot of space to evidence that diversity is beneficial for corporate America, and companies with diverse management teams have better returns on the stock market. Articles like "Diversity as Strategy" and compendiums of diversity case studies have put the debate to rest: Diversity is good for corporate America.

The role of a diverse team is to put the breaks on the singular focus (usually also a boys club) and to challenge accepted principles. This is why Fortune 500 companies with diverse boards deliver better returns for stockholders. This is why teams of people with diverse backgrounds come up with more solutions than homogenous teams.

Diversity brings:
  • More creativity
  • More reality checks
  • More options for ways of getting something done
I'm not saying startups never need any of these things. Once you have a proven business and more than a handful of people, all of these things become important.

But early on in a small organization, too much creativity, too many reality checks, and too many ways of getting things done are too stressful to be beneficial. Once there is a good idea in place, good enough to get funding, the founders just need to focus and move. This singular focus is what makes a startup so intoxicating and exciting to the team.

Diversity only works where there is time to consider alternatives to the status quo. A Fortune 500 company has lots of wiggle room in terms of taking extra time now to get to profits later. Startups don't have this luxury.

If the founders have very different opinions about how things should move forward then it's hard to move forward. And things get slow and more difficult. Check out the book "The Medici Effect: What Elephants and Epidemics Can Teach Us About Innovation." It includes an in-depth study about diversity. And in an interview with the author, Frans Johanssen, he told me that diversity is great for larger companies but a hinderance to smaller companies because startups need focus. At the time, the book was controversial, but now, not so much.

You'll be happy to know that Brazen Careerist is doing great now. We got about $3 million in funding, and the company moved to Washington, D.C., where it has become a force in social media recruiting.

And guess what? I replaced myself with a male CEO. He's a great guy, and whenever the team needs a contrary point of view, they schedule a conference call with me.

Flickr photo courtesy of @nick, CC 2.0

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