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It’s no secret that Silicon Valley has a gross underrepresentation of female-founded products and female-identifying investors. Just look at the latest statistics regarding how many female-led startups land investment money. According to Fortune, only 2.2 percent of all venture capital spending in 2019 went to female founders. Part of this issue is systemic, and reflective of the gender representations of the venture capital firms themselves. CNBC reported that female venture capital partners solely comprise 9 percent of all venture capital partners. This has an undue influence on the types of startups that are given investment opportunities.
Specifically, female-led startups that create products made for women are facing trouble in explaining their value proposition to overwhelming male venture capital boards. And companies led by men appear to be clueless as to how to appeal to female buyers. Just think of Mel Gibson in the film What Women Want. Two decades later, the same stereotypes hold true, which is why it’s so important to understand how to create products that solve problems women face and market to them appropriately.
“Make It Pink”
Here’s a marketing riddle: A marketing manager enters a meeting and tells his team to make a new variation of their product that appeals to women. What ideas are thrown out? Well, the mantra tends to be, “Pink it and shrink it,” because they believe that this is what will appeal to women.
Alyssa Mertes writes for Quality Logo Products Blog that, “This strategy involves taking an everyday product, producing it in a Pepto-Bismol-pink shade, and making it smaller for women to use. This method is implemented with razors (the most common offender), earbuds, drills, tool boxes… The main issue with this strategy, though, is that the real problems are rarely addressed. The reason razors are the most common offender is the simple fact that shaving your legs is a lot different than shaving your face.”
In other words, these products tend to miss the mark on actually solving a female-identifying consumer’s problem or need. A product made for a male that is just pink and smaller won’t do the trick. Proof? The companies that have shifted away from the “pink and shrink it” strategy “have noticed an increase in female shoppers and a 40 percent increase in [one month] alone,” according to Mertes.
Identifying Real Problems
The reasoning behind this 40 percent increase doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out. The companies that are getting ahead are doing so because they are serving women, who have been drastically underserved in product selections for decades.
As Michael J. Silverstein and Kate Sayre posit in a Harvard Business Review article, “Companies continue to offer them poorly conceived products and services and outdated marketing narratives that promote female stereotypes. Cars are designed for speed — not utility, which is what really matters to women. No SUV is built to accommodate a mother who needs to load two small children into it. Or consider a recent ad for Bounty paper towels, in which a husband and son stand by watching a spill cross the room, until Mom comes along and cheerfully cleans up the mess.”
What’s required to identify real problems is to simply listen. Mimi Millard is the founder of De Lune, an all-natural, research-backed solution to period pain. Conceptually, solutions for period pain present yet another massive business opportunity. Instead, common ibuprofens tend to be suggested and marketed as a blanket solution. Millard began De Lune after being hospitalized due to a bad reaction to a popular painkiller, and she realized she wasn’t alone in experiencing debilitating period pain that wasn’t readily mitigated by standard over-the-counter medication. In creating De Lune, she wasn’t just solving a problem for herself, but countless others.
Creating Real Solutions
Real solutions don’t answer to gendered stereotypes — they answer to data. “Over 90 percent of people with periods experience monthly symptoms,” Millard shared with Grit Daily. “Currently, the status quo treatment option for period pain and other common symptoms are over-the-counter painkillers, or Non-Steroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drugs (NSAIDs). Although these drugs are well-researched, they have not advanced since the 1970s and come with a host of well-documented side effects, some of which are potentially severe.”
This presents an incredible market opportunity for a real solution , one that is vastly overlooked by male business owners and entrepreneurs who prefer to a one-size-fits-all approach. Ultimately, the only way to fill the gap in the market and serve female-identifying consumers aptly is to have an open dialogue. This is the approach that Millard and her cofounder took. “We’ve learned how to talk about periods openly and passionately, so that even those who don’t menstruate can understand the harsh reality of the monthly pain, dizzying mood swings and host of other chronic symptoms,” Millard explained. “Period symptoms aren’t often discussed in the workplace or even among family and friends, so sufferers have to deal with these realities privately and without much empathy or support. It takes a real toll not only on one’s general health, but also on their self-esteem, finances, relationships, productivity and quality of life.”
These conversations must continue openly and honestly in investment decision-making rooms, too. In many cases, these conversations will center around real data and research, something that founders of products for females know well. To properly illustrate the problem that needs solving to male investors, the data must be there to prompt the conversation — real, black-and-white numbers to solve real problems. No pink necessary.