The One Surefire Way to Market to Women

Last Updated Jun 12, 2011 7:23 PM EDT

Last week, I spent three glorious days in Rio de Janeiro at Dell's second annual Women's Entrepreneur Network Event (DWEN), where I moderated a panel on GenY entrepreneurs. Full disclosure: Dell paid all expenses and, like all conference participants, I walked away with a shiny new laptop. But frankly, it takes more than a few caipirinhas, a sandy beach, and new tech toys to keep 125 top women business owners happy and engaged, and this was a very happy group, indeed. Why? Because they came together to learn from one another, to network, to find mentors, to forge strategic partnerships, to get inspired, to pitch new businesses, to land financing, to vent, to get "unstuck."

Sure, Dell's branding and its execs were prominent, but there was no heavy-handed selling, and no overbearing corporate messaging; the focus was clearly on the women in the room and on giving them a forum to connect and learn. So what's the one surefire way to market to women? No, it's not "take them to Rio." It's this: Don't market to them. Find a way to position your brand at the center of something they are deeply passionate about, stand back and listen, and then act upon what you hear. Here's just a fraction of what I heard at the conference - a few gems of wisdom applicable to all business owners, women and men alike.

  • Trust matters. In a video interview with conference host Moira Forbes, Arianna Huffington noted "we are facing a world where there is less trust in our leaders, in the ability of political leaders and business leaders to do the right things. So people are trusting their peers more." If your company lives on line, find a way to enable your customers to have civilized conversations with another. Huffington Post, she says, pre-monitors all comments (10 million last month alone!). "Self expression is the new entertainment," said Huffington.
  • It takes a village to build a company. But you need to populate your village carefully. Amy Millman, president of Springboard Enterprises, which accelerates women entrepreneurs' access to equity markets, said "equity financing is not for everybody" and that CEOs need to consider their "control profile." In other words, what's your tolerance for giving up decision-making control and equity in your company? Angel investor and serial entrepreneur Lauren Flanagan, who runs Phenomenelle Angels Fund, told the group that "I made the most money on my bootstrapped companies that were profitable in the first six months, and I made the least on the one that got $23 million in venture capital." Sometimes less is more.
  • Trust your gut. Leila Velez grew up in the favelas (slums) of Rio and wanted to start a beauty salon to serve poor women. "We had no money or investors because no one believed in salons specializing in curly hair, serving women at the bottom of the pyramid," she recalled. But Velez believed in her idea, and in the power of the products she had developed to help increase self-esteem among women. So she sold her car to finance her startup. Now, her company, Beleza Natural, has 26 salons in Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo, serves up to 1,000 customers per day, and has also developed a complete line of hair care products. Velez is now setting her sights on opening a salon in Manhattan and says she's already chose the street she wants it to be on.
  • 800-pound gorillas have blind spots. Yes, it's tough to compete with big companies. The solution: don't compete; look for niches that they just don't see. That's what Carley Roney did back in 1996 when she started The Knot, a wedding planning website that's now a publicly traded company with a market cap of $311 million. "It was chutzpah," she said of her initial plan to start the company. "Conde Nast had titles in the bridal space. But there are blind spots with the 800-pound gorillas. They did not recognize the value of the Internet." By the time the big players woke up, The Knot was already a trusted brand that spoke to brides "in the spirit of an older sister." The company built on that trust to create more brands, like The Nest (for newlyweds) and The Bump (for new parents).
  • You can do well and do good at the same time. On my GenY entrepreneurs panel, we talked about how this younger generataion of business owners is extraordinarily socially responsible. Take, for example, Reina Otsuka, the 30-year-old founder and CEO of the Japanese eco-friendly e-commerce company Eco+waza. To support victims of the tsunami, many of them who are elderly women living in emergency shelters, Otsuka started a campaign to help them earn income. She provides acrylic wool and a knitting stick so they can make kitchen sponges, which Eco+waza buys for cash then sells on the website. Each product has a tag with the name of the person who knit it. Customers are asked to write a message to the person through the website. "It is not totally charity, but rather a social business," says Otsuka.
At the end of the conference, Steve Felice, president of Dell's Small and Medium Business division, announced that next year, based on a poll of attendees, the company would gather the DWEN tribe in India. There was a huge round of applause, but I think a tweet by Cindy Gallop of IfWeRanTheWorld summed up the general consensus: "I voted for Australia. But I'd seriously go to my living room to hang out [with] these brilliant women."

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