How to Strengthen Your Business as a Feminist Entrepreneur
Jennifer Dziura is the founder of Get Bullish and the annual Bullish Conference, which provide feminism- and justice-minded work talk from someone who believes in examining our relationship to corporations.
Read on if you want Jen's advice on:
1 - Planning your long-term career strategy as a freelancer or solopreneur
2 - Deciding how to prioritize your work as a multi-passionate entrepreneur
3 - Developing a more realistic money mindset
Stephanie: What's the story behind Get Bullish?
Jen: My youth happened in reverse. I had this web development company with eight employees by the time I graduated from college at the age of 21. But that company did eventually fail. And when it did, that's when I decided, oh, I'm going to be a stand up comedian. And I'm also going to teach test prep classes and have a marketing agency on the side. There were all kinds of things I dabbled in and experiment with in my 20s. When I finally figured it all out and developed a successful career, I had a lot of things that I wanted to share but no platform for doing that. So I made some notes on a napkin. It was an actual -- not a proverbial --napkin. The notes were for a book I wanted to write, called How To Make Money Without Becoming a Republican.
I never got around to writing that book. But it was right at that period where I said, ‘I have these things that I want to share that I think are important. And I don't have anywhere to share them.’ And that's when I dragged my sorry ass to a networking event, which is not something I enjoy doing. I have a lot of strong opinions about networking. I don't do a lot of just showing up. But I did. In this particular case, I showed up at a networking event. And it was actually a compliment on something that I was wearing that led to a conversation with a woman, Jennifer Wright, who was the second-in-command at the Gloss.
So I ended up writing a column about careers in business for what was essentially a beauty and fashion site. So my work was appearing in a counterintuitive place, read by people who weren't going to Fast Company or Wired. I was getting a lot of really positive feedback from people who had gone to a site to read about eyeshadow and celebrities and had also read some encouraging and practical articles about taking charge in your career.
I named the column Bullish. I was living on Wall Street at the time, right around the financial crisis in 2008. All the real estate down there got pretty cheap. I moved into an apartment that was probably vacated by a banker, which was great for me. And I was living the freelance life, running my own my own businesses. I was wandering around in the day and experiencing the old Dutch architecture. The Wall Street Bull is right there. I think everybody has seen photos of it at least: this snorting symbol of aggression and masculinity, and therefore commerce, which is ridiculous. There's this idea that this testosterone-fueled, very agro kind of animal represents how we should do business. I thought that was very silly, so I made my logo a bull with a unicorn horn, rainbow-colored and genderqueer. It's a bull unicorn, a bullicorn, and it's whatever gender it wants to be.
I love that, and I'm also stuck on that book title: How to Make Money without Being a Republican. What's your philosophy on that?
I find that lot of people who are progressive have conflicted ideas about money and about people who have money. First off, it's helpful to grapple with that in a nuanced way. Think about people you admire who are very well-known and the fact that most of them are not poor. You can go to Google and you can look up something like "Toni Morrison net worth." Do you have a problem with Toni Morrison? Because she's got a lot of money, as well she should.
Money doesn't make you a bad person. Money magnifies who you already are, and it gives you more power in the world. I really believe in power. I think that it would be great if nobody had any power over anybody, but that's not realistic. We live in a world in which power runs everything. And if power has to be had, it might as well be had by you. I'm very uninterested in a lot of rhetoric directed towards women about empowerment. The word empowerment doesn't frighten anybody. It doesn't scare people in power. Empowerment is like, ‘I'm using the right skin cream, I feel empowered.’ If it doesn't frighten assholes, then it's not useful to me. I believe in having actual power.
So how did you grow your audience around Bullish and eventually spin it off from a column on The Gloss into your own business?
When I first started writing Bullish, it was a passion project. I was getting paid a little bit of money to write articles, but I was basically just being a freelance writer. And my career was really in education, writing GMAT books and designing curricula, teaching classes mostly for the GMAT. I was doing other things, of course, but I was just writing Bullish and living my life.
I first thought of making it a business when I wrote a series of articles about negotiating, and they really took off. I started getting emails from people saying that they had gotten $10,000 raises based on my advice, and things like that. I started adding up the numbers, and I was like, ‘Oh, like, I wrote some articles that helped a group of women collectively get over $200,000. Good for me.’ It was really a special time. So that's when I thought of making my own website for Bullish.
So, I started writing Bullish in 2010. The first thing I really did to make it a business was in 2013, when I started the Bullish Conference. The first ever Bullish Conference was in Miami, at a beautiful hotel, and I had speakers who were all talking about issues at the intersection of careers, business, and feminism. It was a beautiful thing. The first conference was 20-something people. Now we're going into our sixth year, and last year we had about 100 people. This year, our sixth year, we're in Palm Springs, California, from September 30 to October 3, 2018. There are freelancers, business owners, and people working in a traditional job who want to max that out.
We also have an online membership society called the Bullish Society, in which we have a professional accountability coach who runs a group accountability program. And we have an online retail store. When I first started the online retail store, it was around the time of the 2013 conference. It was a small handful of tote bags and T-shirts, mostly just with a bullicorn on them. I wasn't trying to sell things to people who didn't already know what Bullish was.
Then, one year, I got a whole bunch of orders for the holidays. It was surprising to me, because I didn't really think I sold anything that would make a good Christmas gift. The idea that someone would buy 12 of them and give them to their friends was surprising to me. I started adding products to the store, and long story short, the Bullish store now sells probably about 3,500 different products. We have a warehouse here in Brooklyn, which I am in right now. And we now sell not only on our website, but on Amazon, Etsy, and lots of other platforms. So we are here in a warehouse sending out orders every day, Monday through Friday, to customers all over the world.
Is e-commerce your main revenue driver now? And if so, what was that transition like from Bullish being a column to being not a conference and community, but also a store?
It is. And I never really planned it that way. It's really exciting to me because when I ran my first web development company, I had to spend a lot of time selling clients on projects. I'm sure a lot of your audience can relate. You write a proposal, you sell the client on the project, you finally get 50% down. And then you go through this project and no matter how many times you write the rules like, ‘We're going to have three rounds of revisions,’ or, ‘I need your approval on this by such and such a date,’ it's like pulling teeth to get the client to move forward and to finally agree that the project is done. After running this kind of business, where you’re reinventing the wheel every time and then waiting for those payments, it's very refreshing to me to sell people a pair of hilarious socks. They pay for it, we mail it to them. It's amazing. It’s also really gratifying to run a business where you essentially make money every day. When you run an e-commerce business you’re very diversified. You're not all hung up on one client. Right now, we're selling things to thousands of different customers.
What advice do you have for other women who are multi-passionate and juggling multiple business lines or creative pursuits? How do they measure if it’s sustainable or not?
This is a bit of a lifelong struggle for me, but I feel that I have managed it well. I have a lot of things that I want to do and am doing at any given time. What's important is to look at all these things and map out the endgame. For example: I want to write a screenplay. Okay, so what happens after that? I'm going to physically go to LA and try to have meetings with people? What am I going to do with the screenplay? How am I going to get that to its end point, and what is that endpoint? Or let’s say I start a dog walking business. Is the idea that I keep the super easy for myself and just walk dogs and make money so that I can work on my creative career? Or is the idea that I'm really building a clientele and keeping people happy, so that I could have employees walk the dogs in the future? Always determine that end game.
If you have five things that you want to do, I would say pick the one that's going to give you the most financial freedom. Put that on the main burner. I've always had a to-do list with 5,000 items on it. And of course, a to-do list of 5,000 items on it is not an effective to-do list. A to-do list should have 3 to 10 items on it, because then you actually know what you're supposed to do when you get up in the morning. If you're in a situation where you say, 'All right, there are five things that I really care about, but right now, I'm not financially secure,' you know what needs to go on the front burner. That way, when you wake up in the morning and you're not sure what to do, you go to the front burner.
What's missing from a lot of advice, especially advice given towards women and people starting their own businesses, is that there's an opportunity cost to everything. I don't think that helping everybody and encouraging everyone to pursue every dream they have is financially productive. In a lot of cases, you want to mix that thing you love with something that other people find frightening or difficult. That's where you're going to find an idea that's actually lucrative.
In your bio, you have a line that really intrigued me about selling expensive things to rich people. I interpret that as selling premium services to people who can more than afford it, so that you can finance your own creative passions, which wouldn't be financially sustainable otherwise. But what did you really mean by that?
In terms of getting started providing a service, if you can meet a few rich people and get started selling them something, it's a lot easier than shouting into the darkness of the Internet. If you're going to make $1,000, it's less work to make it from two or three people than to make from 100 people. The fewer customers involved per amount of revenue, the easier your life's going to be. There's also the sense that with wealthy people don't buy based on branding or advertising. What they're looking for is usually a personal relationship and recommendations from someone they know.
How do you reconcile the competing impulses to, A) sell premium services to rich people, and B) build a business that benefits communities who are actually underprivileged and in need?
I don't think it's an either or. I think that it’s really helpful to expand your acquaintance circles. Expand your groups to include people who will happily be your customers and have the money to spend. It's helpful to have contact with people who are very different from you, but who have power and money. There are plenty of people who have a really different background and situation from you but who share some of your values. When it comes down to, ‘I want to create a program that provides dance classes to underprivileged children,’ you'll know someone who will fund that project. Do you want to try and apply for a grant from some kind of organization where you're just one of a million Word documents they get every day? Or do you want to try to get a grant from knowing wealthy people?
How do you recommend going about expanding your acquaintance circles in this way?
Networking makes a lot of us very uncomfortable. Some people just don't like standing around at physical networking events. Also, and this is my introvert self talking, I don't like having conversations with people with no context. I'd rather talk to somebody who's already read something that I've written. I've put myself out there enough with Get Bullish that that is my networking. Not everybody's a writer, but I think that you can use intellectualism to your advantage. If you were good at school, you were good at writing papers, you were good at academics, then you can use that to your advantage in your career as well.
You can also build a network of other people who hate networking. In many cases, that's a great idea. Those other people who hate networking have fairly small networks. Therefore, when you become part of their network, you become a larger part of it. If you make that your goal, you're going to build a network full of other people who are on your team. These are people who don't necessarily like to schmooze but so enjoy subscribing to a really thoughtful newsletter. You can absolutely use that.
In my view, networking through communicating online and writing is more meaningful. I don't really care if I just shook hands with somebody and had a brief conversation about the cheese cubes. I care when I read something that somebody wrote that’s insightful, and I know what their values are. When you meet someone in person at a networking event, you don't usually find out what their values are. You read their work online, and you do find out.
If you could boil it down to one piece of advice you would want to share with feminist founders, what would that be?
The number one piece of advice I have for founders is to try to sell things to people who are actively looking to buy that thing right now. You don't want to put yourself in the position of trying to convince people they need a thing that they have never heard about. If you were the Apple Corporation, you could do that. You could try to tell people, ‘Oh, here's a new device you never heard of. You didn't know you needed it, but you need it.’ But you're not the Apple Corporation. So you want to try to make your life easy by selling something that people are already looking to buy, to people who have the money to buy it right now. I always say in business, you should try to make something so easy, it's like cheating. It'll still be more complicated than that. It's kind of like being in a relationship. Sure, relationships are work, but they shouldn't be work on the third date. You should be with somebody where the third date and the 15th date are easy. That way when life gets harder later on, you can persist. It’s the same with your business.