E-commerce, however, is leveling the playing field by opening up opportunities to entrepreneurs everywhere – regardless of gender. That said, a successful e-commerce business of course also needs the magic ingredients of a great idea, plenty of ambition, and an engaged customer base.
So, let’s take a look at some inspiring female business owners, and the lessons we can take from their successes.
Ultimately, you’re looking to fill a gap in the market with something that no-one else offers – your unique selling point. For Malala Bryan, founder of Malaville Toys, this USP was born out of a hobby which turned into a passion for changing outdated traditions:
"The journey started when I began collecting dolls; I realized that there was something missing from the market – more dolls of color. Dolls that represented not just people of color, but also people with albinism. I design dolls based on my personal experience and based on what it is that I know a lot of people like me are going through. I just felt like a lot of the bigger brands had failed to understand what the environment is and what's really needed. So, I took it upon myself to see what I could do to fill that gap."
For other entrepreneurs, business ideas have been more practical – in fact, women are more likely than men to launch businesses based on previous experiences of either using or making a product, something which Cadenshae founder Nikki Clarke can attest to.
In 2013, as a personal trainer and first-time parent, she struggled to find activewear that she could feed in any time of the day. That inspired her to start maternity activewear brand Cadenshae, which gives women access to the same style, quality and variety they loved to wear before pregnancy.
Nikki’s belief that the brand would fill a neglected area of the fitness market spurred her to overcome the challenges she faced in the early days:
"The biggest challenge when beginning was my lack of experience in fashion design. I had never designed any clothing before – let alone a nursing sports bra, which is quite technical! I did a lot of reading, researching and met with people who could help me in what I was trying to do, and I got there…eventually! Our first bra took about two years to come to fruition…we’re a lot faster now!”
A great idea is one thing, but the reality is that unless you have a plentiful supply of savings tucked away, you’re going to need to raise some capital to get your business off the ground.
Yet, a study of US-based small- and medium-sized companies found that in 2020, the women-to-men borrowing ratio for business loans was 27% female vs 72% male, whilst the average loan size for women-owned businesses was 33% less than male-owned firms3.
Some female founders, such as Vicky Pasche of Dapper Boi, turned to online crowdfunding platforms instead – an avenue which has the benefit of allowing owners to retain more control over their businesses:
"After our very first product launch on Kickstarter back in 2015, we had enough money for the production of our product, but it sold out quickly and we really didn't have any cash flow to invest in more product – or anything else, for that matter. We had quite a few conversations with very interested investors, but right before these deals were about to be made, they would pull out and let us know that they wanted to wait to see how we would do on our own. This didn't leave us with many financing options, but we were not ready to give up. For almost a year without very much inventory, we thought we were going to go out of business, but with a lot of passion and creativity, we bootstrapped our own crowdfunding business."
Despite your eagerness to get your product to market, finding the right supplier(s) shouldn’t be rushed; there may even be several false starts until you get it right – something which Numi’s founder Michelle Shemit discovered:
"When I first started Numi, I worked with a production company based in New York and the product was made in China. After one production run overseas, we moved all our manufacturing back to Canada, where we are able to visit our factories on a regular basis to maintain our high level of quality control. Because we were being surcharged for our low minimums in China, we were able to achieve similar pricing locally. We were also able to make smaller production runs, more frequently, to better manage cash flow. And working with local suppliers meant we were able to ask for terms with our suppliers so cash was not tied up in advance of being able to sell the product".
The pandemic has had a transformative effect on supply chains. Many businesses which relied on a single, overseas supplier saw their production slow or even stop, and many have since switched to domestic manufacturers. Though this may cost extra, it’s worth considering the protection this gives your business in the event of global disruptions.
Branding is about more than just the product – it’s about how the product can make your customers feel they’re buying into a certain lifestyle.
"Branding was – and has always been – the most important aspect of my business,” says Monika Trojanowska, founder of Aftersocks. “It took me a while to discover and develop my brand’s voice and persona, but once I found it, I have religiously stuck to it. One of the things we have done to build a strong brand is start a charity. With each pair of Aftersocks sold, we donate one to the homeless. We are doing good, and our customers feel they are helping the less fortunate as well by buying our products, which creates a positive feeling towards our brand and is something the customer will remember."
To build your brand, you need to invest the time to engage your customers in what your company stands for, as Melody Godfred of Fred and Far explains:
"While I’ve explored various digital marketing strategies – like Facebook/Instagram advertising, Google advertising, celebrity and press outreach, and email marketing – my single greatest marketing initiative has been cultivating a loyal, engaged customer base that lives and breathes our mission; that base serves as my biggest group of advocates. Each day, I personally DM, comment, share and connect with my Self Love community...this is the kind of brand loyalty you can’t buy with marketing dollars."
It may be hard to let go of complete control of your business, but having a strong, passionate team around you will help propel it forwards and bring new ideas to the table.
Nikki Clarke: "Right up until 2017, my husband and I did everything in and for the business…it was full on! Eventually, both of our parents came on board to help with packing, and now we have 14 staff on board, managing various parts of the business. Slowly but surely, as we grew more profitable, we could hire and delegate. It was hard for me in the beginning to let go, as I had done everything and this was my ‘business baby’, but the only way to grow is to hire the best people and let them do their jobs – once you’re happy with how well you’ve trained them (you’ve got to train them well!) The right attitude is far more important to me than a plethora of qualifications."
Always plan ahead, too – when the time comes to expand, you want to hit the ground running…
Michelle Shemit: "We have grown our team slowly, but very thoughtfully. Having a clear idea of your organizational strategy and job descriptions is important. It's also best to always be interviewing so that when the time comes to fill a position, you’re ready."
The importance of your last-mile deliveries cannot be underestimated. Did you know, for example, that 46% of consumers4 will abandon their online shopping carts if the estimated shipping time is too long? Or that 86% of customers5 are willing to pay more for products and services from companies that offer a great customer experience?
Simply put, you should offer your customers flexible and fast shipping options at checkout, otherwise they won’t return – or worse, abandon their shopping carts before completing the purchase. This is where partnering with a logistics expert like DHL can pay off, as these business owners have discovered…
Monika Trojanowska: "Using a well-known logistics leader like DHL Express can help to reassure your customer that the order placed will get delivered to them. We provide both options on our webshop – a cheaper one without a tracking code, and a more expensive option with track and trace. We see that most of our customers choose the option with the track and trace, so they are always able to see what their package’s status is. This is not only convenient for our customers, but saves us a lot of customer service questions – as most of those are shipment-status related."
Kateryna Panchenko, MyClover: "Our start-up has a limited number of resources, so we needed the delivery service to do the maximum. The biggest challenge we faced came during the delivery process. When we shipped our first bags, we didn’t know about the regional tax – different countries have different taxes. The first customer who received the bag in Germany was asked to pay the local tax, and refused the package altogether. Now, we have signed a direct contract with DHL Express where we discuss individual tariffs. DHL Express is our main partner, friend and assistant – allowing our business to grow rapidly."
So, are you feeling inspired to become the next big female e-commerce entrepreneur? Apply for a DHL Express account today to get started.
Whatever your business idea, it’s only going to be a success if there’s demand for it. This can mean entering an already saturated market, but at a lower price point than your competitors; or it could mean offering something particularly niche to a dedicated fanbase.
"What would you do if you weren't afraid?" asks Sheryl Sandberg, American business executive and philanthropist2. With an impressive CV that includes stints as Chief of Staff for the US Treasury and COO at Facebook, she knows a thing or two about aiming high.
Despite her own ambitious nature, she believes that women often hold themselves back in their careers: “We lower our own expectations of what we can achieve.”3
To overcome this mindset, "women need to shift from thinking "I'm not ready to do that" to thinking "I want to do that – and I'll learn by doing it” […] Feeling confident – or pretending that you feel confident – is necessary to reach for opportunities. It's a cliche, but opportunities are rarely offered; they're seized."4
"You see, it really all begins with trying to know as much about yourself as possible. What do you care about? What will you fight for? Then, give it your whole heart. Through your strength and perseverance, you will succeed." – Dr. Jill Biden, First Lady of the United States5
They say if you do something you love, you’ll never work a day in your life. Many successful businesses are born out of passion – indeed, during the pandemic, a wave of aspiring entrepreneurs took the leap to turn their hobbies into fully-fledged businesses. But, before you rush to quit your full-time job to join them, check out our tips for side hustle success.
Progress against inequality only happens when those who notice it do something about it. When Mala Bryan, founder of Malaville Toys, saw there were very few dolls of color on the market, she didn’t get angry, she got productive.
"The journey started when I began collecting dolls; I realized that there was something missing from the market – more dolls of color. Dolls that represented not just people of color, but also people with albinism. I just felt like a lot of the bigger brands had failed to understand what the environment is and what's really needed. So, I took it upon myself to see what I could do to fill that gap. I design dolls based on my personal experience and based on what it is that I know a lot of people like me are going through.”
This mantra is something Whitney Wolfe Herd can attest to, too. In her early twenties, she landed the impressive role of VP of Marketing at Tinder6. Yet, within a couple of years she resigned amidst sexual harassment allegations against the company7. Undeterred, she took her experiences and founded a female-friendly dating app called Bumble8, which has gone on to achieve enormous global success and a US$13 billion valuation9.
Opportunities won’t fall into your lap – you must go out there, find them and seize them. As Whitney Wolfe Herd says: “How does a queen bee behave? However she wants to. But please don't wait for someone to hold the door open for you when your own arms work perfectly fine – do it yourself.”10
Wise advice, backed up by Katia Beauchamp, co-founder and CEO of cosmetics giant Birchbox11: “Whatever it is that you think you want to do, and whatever it is that you think stands between you and that, stop making excuses. You can do anything.”12
E-commerce is leveling the playing field for female entrepreneurs – after all, anyone with WiFi access can make a start with online selling. However, there’s still the issue of funding – and that’s where women are at a disadvantage.
A study of US-based small- and medium-sized companies found that in 2020, the female to male ratio for successful business loan applicants was 27% vs 72%, whilst the average loan size for women-owned businesses was 33% less than those owned by men13.
A good tip is to research some of the funding schemes available specifically for female-led start-ups. The UK-based Women in Innovation Awards14, for example, is a government-backed funding competition which awards successful applicants with business grants and a bespoke package of mentoring and coaching.
The path to business success rarely runs smoothly – it requires unlimited reserves of determination and resilience. The key is to remember that every mistake you make is an opportunity to learn and grow. “Expecting it can be done exactly right is a recipe for disappointment. Perfection is the enemy,” Sheryl Sandberg says15.
Sara Blakely, founder of women’s shapewear brand Spanx16, agrees: “My dad growing up encouraged me and my brother to fail. It’s really allowed me to be much freer in trying things and spreading my wings in life.”76 Her embracement of failure clearly works: in 2012, she landed the cover of Forbes magazine as the youngest self-made female billionaire in the world.
Feeling inspired? Discover more tips for business success with our guide, 10 ways to be a more effective entrepreneur.
1 - Peterson Institute for International Economics, May 2020
2 & 4 - Sheryl Sandberg, Inc, accessed April 2022
3 - Sheryl Sandberg, Forbes, March 2013
5 - Dr. Jill Biden, Women Deliver, March 2017
6 - Tinder
7 & 9 - Whitney Wolfe Herd, Wikipedia, accessed April 2022
8 - Bumble
10 - Whitney Wolfe Herd, 365 quotes, accessed April 2022
11 - Birchbox
12 - Katia Beauchamp, SBBC, accessed April 2022
13 - Biz2Credit Women-Owned Business Study, Yahoo Finance, March 2021
15 - Sheryl Sandberg, Good Reads, accessed April 2022
16 - Spanx
17 - Sara Blakely, CNBC, October 2013