It's the classic entrepreneur's dilemma: the bank has called in its loan, and you have two weeks to find a sizeable sum of money. What do you do? If you're Rebecca Harding (pictured), you take the dog for a walk. The irony of where she ended up that day -- at Beachy Head, a famous spot for suicides -- was not lost on her.
"I had two weeks to solve a colossal problem. I wondered: does every woman have to go through this?" But by the time she got back to the car, she'd decided to use that question as the basis for a survey. "It was a defining moment. I realised the importance of being unique -- and that some of the uniqueness in the research and in the business was me at that point."
That was just one of the insights Harding shared with fellow women at a recent event. Harding's company, Delta Economics, is a data forecasting platform for banks and professional services firms that want to identify global growth opportunities. As digital start-ups go, it's pretty atypical: it's based in the UK, it's run by a woman, and she's over 30. But she still had the same challenges as other start-ups: persuading an investor to back her for the 18 months it took for platform to be developed, convincing her team to stick with her through long hours and no pay rises.
Her experiences seem particularly timely as Global Entrepreneurship Week comes to a close -- if only to dispel the stereotypes about what it takes to lead a business.
Here are some observations that stuck with me:
Entrepreneurs are not born Harding sees her journey as an evolution. "Delta's story is in some ways about me not knowing who I was. I was a somewhat reluctant entrepreneur who'd stepped out of a job for life background to start a tech company -- it was pretty terrifying." For her, it was partly necessity -- she's the major earner in the family -- and partly belief in her idea that kept her on course.
Good entrepreneurs aren't always good leaders It takes self-awareness to acknowledge your weaknesses as well as your strengths. "I think I'd been blown on the wind a bit about what Delta could -- and should -- be doing. I needed to learn to be very strong about my own mind, without being arrogant."
Under-confident women suffering from 'the imposter syndrome' are particularly prone to this. "You want to do well and you feel inadequate, so you'll always listen to others," she says. "There are good sides to this: it's likely you perform well, because you're always conscious of correcting your inadequacies and this leads to continuous improvement." But it can also leave you feeling compromised.
Equally, an aggressive and over-competitive leadership style can be unbalancing if it's all you use. "Learning to manage that assertiveness is something that comes with experience. I've had so many knocks in my life... but I also don't walk around with victim written on my face."
The truth is that any real leader needs a bit of both: you need to know when you're being competitive and when you're being compliant, and tune into those noises. Each may have its place, as long as you're conscious of what is influencing your decisions.
"People shouldn't get into senior management until they know what they want out of it: you need to have clarity."
Play the spaces in between "I like Debussy's idea that music is as much the spaces in between as the notes themselves. Every so often, I take that space: you need to connect with that sense of yourself. At one point, I found myself having that Sunday evening feeling, dreading work the next day -- and this was my own business! So I've made a conscious effort to do things that help me stay on course -- walks, yoga. If I'm walking, I try to do something physically challenging, where I have to concentrate and focus. It's almost meditative -- it helps you to focus on the here and now.
Be straight about finance An entrepreneur's enthusiasm for their idea can sometimes make them unrealistic about money. "We all have a tendency sometimes to hide behind bad news or difficult information, and money is a prime example. It's very difficult to be honest about it -- to tell your investors that you won't be making money for the first 18 months, or that people won't be buying your data at the moment because accuracy is more important than speed. It's hard enough to say it to yourself, let alone out loud to backers," says Harding.
"Leadership is fundamentally about honesty and self knowledge: honesty with people and honesty with money; facing things and understanding the consequences."
Show gratitude Letting the people around you know you couldn't do this without them is so important when you're running a start-up, says Harding: "I hate myself if I realise I haven't said thank you enough to someone."
Sometimes you just have to hold on It takes tenacity to run your own business. "You need to know where you're going, but sometimes it's just about holding on. It may be tempting to opt out, especially if you're in a 'safe' job with a partner who earns more than you. That wasn't an option for me."
(Photo: Delta Economics)