Million-Dollar Maybe

Why so few women-owned businesses hit seven figures

Back Longreads Jul 1, 2011 By Christine Calvin

Today, there are more than 8 million women-owned businesses in America, generating nearly $1.3 trillion in annual revenue. Women continue to launch enterprises at a faster rate than the national average, according to the latest Census data. In fact, women have been launching and growing businesses faster than men for the past two decades.

Still, while women-owned firms account for 29 percent of all U.S. companies, they employ just 6 percent of the country’s work force, remain smaller than those owned by men, and, as of 2007, just 1.8 percent of them had reached the $1 million revenue milestone. By comparison, three times as many American businesses owned by men hit or surpass the $1 million mark.

Clearly, many women have the vision and aptitude to build prosperous companies — particularly in California, which leads the nation in the number of women-owned businesses (1.08 million). So why are so few of them keeping pace with their male counterparts?

“The first difference are the growth goals,” says Sharon Hadary, former executive director and founder of the Center for Women’s Business Research, and principal of Sharon Hadary & Co. in Bethesda, Md.

Women, she says, often don’t set high goals for growth because many don’t plan to grow at all, assuming instead that their endeavor will always be small or on the side. Men, on the other hand, being more natural risk takers and less likely to be hindered by parenting, tend to think big from the get-go and envision their future companies as breadwinning.

Then, when the children start going to school or the primary job fails to inspire, opportunity for growth presents itself and many female business owners aren’t prepared with the necessary relationships, records and resources.

“If you set out high goals for growth, it influences how you set up your business and how you monitor operations,” Hadary says. “Maybe the first two years you are going to be really happy just establishing a $100,000 business, but after three years, when the kids are in school, you may want to have a $500,000 business or a $750,000 business. It’s like building a house: It might start out as a one-floor house, but one day when you have money it might become a three-story mansion.”

It’s important to have proper systems in place from the first day. After just a few years, most businesses begin to need capital investments or access to financial products. Without three to five years of sparkling records, banks might have trouble understanding the company’s credit.

Because many women don’t plan for their business to grow, they don’t keep immaculate financial records, so appropriate financial products become harder to vie for, Hadary says. It’s also important to have an accountant, not just a bookkeeper.

Among the successful women-owned business clients I have, I see that what has led to ongoing success and sustainability … is experience, a mentor, financial stability or leverage and the fortitude to find that financing,” says Gretchen Hritz, vice president, small business regional sales manager at Tri Counties Bank in Granite Bay. “First and foremost I look for financial data. At the bare minimum, anything business related needs to be kept separate from your personal accounts. I look to see how you are currently keeping track of the money you’re earning. And at the minimum you need a six-month review of financial statements.”

Julie Pulos is the president and majority owner of Retech, an El Dorado Hills company providing technology, installation and facilities services to telecommunications carriers, cable providers and the government. It’s her fourth business — and the fourth to surpass the $1 million revenue milestone. Her largest business grew to more than $100 million a year servicing backbone networks for phone companies. She is also a former stockbroker and CPA who counsels small-business owners in the Capital Region.

She rests most of her companies’ financial growth on her savvy and thorough budgeting.

“I do a one-year, a two-year and a three-year financial plan,” Pulos says. “Then, every quarter, even though I already have a budget, I sort of true it up. Are the customers delayed on their payments? If you have a financial plan and you are moving toward it, things fall into place as far as the capital assets you need to purchase, the amount of advertising you need. And that determines what kind of loans you need.”

She says it’s also imperative to start a record for your venture by separating business and personal finances, even if the financing for the business is coming from personal savings. Bankers don’t like mixing business with pleasure.

“I am a big advocate of not co-mingling personal and business finances because if you do, it raises a concern for anyone who is investing in you — they want to know that you are treating this as a business and not as a hobby, and then there is also a line that is drawn. I pay a salary to myself, and it is very clear that way,” Pulos says. “It is all about presentation.”

But creating a watertight financial record is only one step in smart-growth planning. Business owners also need a trusted banker to present that package to, and that relationship is one often lacking in women’s professional circles. Not so with men.

“A lot of women don’t see bankers as partners,” Hadary says. “We build relationships with everyone else, yet we never think about building a relationship with a banker. You can sit down with the person who handles small-business accounts at the bank. Interview them. What sorts of products and services do they have? Take a look at the banks doing programs in the community for women-owned businesses.”

“If you ask who the CPA is and they say ‘Turbo Tax,’ I wonder if they can’t see the value of [an expert].”

Gretchen Hritz, vice president, small business regional sales manager at Tri Counties Bank

Locally, a number of banks offer QuickBooks seminars, financial management courses for closely held business, succession planning workshops, workers’ comp seminars, human resource assistance and payroll training.

“When I talk to any business owners, and specifically women, my foremost question is: ‘Who’s your banker?’ More times than not, they can’t name someone.” Hritz says. “If you ask who the CPA is, and they say ‘Turbo Tax,’ I wonder if they can’t see the value of [an expert].”

If you are intimidated by the prospect of interviewing bankers or don’t know how to put together your financial presentation package, Pulos recommends bringing on short-term advisers, which are less expensive than board members and can guide you with their networks and experience.

But if it’s debt and financial products that are intimidating, Hadary says, you had better learn to get acquainted.

“At some point, you cannot grow just based on reinvesting your earnings,” she says. “It’s always amazing when women tell me they’ve never taken on debt. I think to myself, ‘They have limited their growth.’”

The conservative debt ratio Hritz suggests is 10 percent of gross revenues, assuming short-term expenses shouldn’t equal more than 40 to 45 percent of the business.

“For all of the small companies I have advised over the years, as well as my own, the thing I frequently see is that they have a great idea, and it takes off, and they are excited but the financial aspect is missing. Cash flow is the key factor,” Pulos says. “It’s how people get into trouble: They over-extend, they get into debt and then they are disillusioned and overwhelmed and it spirals downward. If you don’t have the cash, you have to wait until you have it. Sometimes you need infusions, but there are creative ways to do that.”

The U.S. Small Business Administration in conjunction with the Obama administration has increased federal contracting opportunities for women-owned small businesses in more than 80 underrepresented industries, beginning this year. Count Me In for Women’s Economic Independence Inc., a New York-based nonprofit dedicated to helping women grow their microbusinesses, offers annual events and grant awards to women who want to grow their revenue beyond $1 million. In addition, grant funding is available from numerous industry organizations.

If you need references or help shaping your business’s five-year plan, start networking. That doesn’t mean attending a mixer once a month. It means getting involved, making connections, taking the lead and following up.

“The more successful women with the larger, faster growing businesses join more organizations and a more diverse set of organizations,” Hadary says. “They may join an industry association, an association [with] potential customers and then also belong to community and women’s organizations. There are also those networks, particularly those that are financial, that get you access to markets and sophisticated financial products and services. Many times they are dominated by men, … but it’s important to get in and gain credibility.”

Once you’re in, it’s important to bring other women to the table and gain a critical mass. Then, take on a leadership position. As challenging as it may be, successful business leaders say it’s worth the time to find ways to increase your visibility and foster a good reputation within your industry and the business community at large.

The relationships created can lead to valuable business connections and can provide strong references for banks to call on when you’re seeking a loan.

For all the midnight oil it takes for women to expand their businesses — just to get them off the ground, let alone summit the million-dollar hill — many say they struggle to grow under the added weight of heading households and raising children.

“I don’t care what anyone else says, [women] are still the primary care givers, so it is a challenge,” Hadary says. “But one of the beauties of entrepreneurship is setting the culture so you can go to the school play and come in late. You have to integrate your personal goals, the family goals and your professional goals. … It can be flexible.”

Pulos and her husband have raised three kids while launching one business after the other. She says it’s hard to be tied to family stability and at the same time leave the kids when they’re sick or crying and she has to get work done. But for all the emotional drain, she says she probably wouldn’t have done things any differently.

“I have an entrepreneur personality,” she says. “I was president of the company and the PTA and the soccer coach. My kids are now in their early 20s, and they say to me that they don’t want to work as hard as I do, but yet I see them with that same work ethic.”



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