Donate your time and money to organizations helping women. There are lots of great organizations that already exist to help women get ahead. Maximize their impact by volunteering as a mentor or ask them if you can sponsor an event. Before I started Fantasy Congress, I volunteered with a local non-profit that helped women learn to code and change careers. We relied heavily on corporate partners to donate their space for our classes, and sometimes employees would take time out of their day to volunteer with us. When organizations made an effort to partner with us, it told our students “you are welcome here.” As a result, many of them wanted to work for these companies.
As a part of our series about “Why We Need More Women Founders”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Allison Seboldt.
Allison Seboldt is a software engineer turned founder building Fantasy Congress: an online fantasy sports game where players draft politicians and learn about U.S. government. Since its launch, Fantasy Congress has been enjoyed by thousands of players and is a growing staple in American classrooms. As a bootstrapped solo-founder, Allison has grown Fantasy Congress to profitability entirely on her own.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
My story is kind of all over the place. In college I majored in Political Science and wanted to work on political campaigns. After a short stint in the field I decided it wasn’t for me and eventually chose to transition my career to tech. I taught myself how to code and entered the industry in 2014.
Around that time, I was invited to join my first fantasy football league and ended up loving it. One night while watching football, a friend and I began to wonder if the structure of fantasy sports could be applied to other things. Then, I had an epiphany: What if we applied fantasy sports to politics? That’s when I came up with Fantasy Congress.
Initially I thought Fantasy Congress would be a fun side project for my portfolio. After a few years trying to get it off the ground and failing, I realized making this dream a reality would require my full attention. Given the current state of politics, I thought making government easier to understand and follow could do some real good in the world. So much so that in 2018 I quit my cushy corporate job to pursue Fantasy Congress full time.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
When I first started Fantasy Congress, I thought of it as a fun game for me, my friends, and people like us. Fast forward to labor day weekend 2018, I took a little vacation back to my hometown for a family wedding. Fantasy Congress didn’t have much traction yet, and I was questioning if I should continue the project or throw in the towel. I randomly decided to check the site just in case anything interesting had happened. To my surprise, Fantasy Congress had seen a sizable increase in signups the night before.
This was very unexpected because I wasn’t running ads or actively promoting it at the time. The next day, I had more new users. The trend continued to the point where I had to pause sign-ups because the website couldn’t handle the traffic!
Eventually I found out Fantasy Congress was shared in a Facebook group with over 4,500 government teachers, and the people crashing my site were their students. Turns out the game really resonated with kids and provided tons of value as a supplementary teaching tool. After this, I pivoted to focus more on educators and this has made all the difference in Fantasy Congress’s success. It’s crazy how one fateful Facebook post made all the difference in my journey.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
Early on, I tried to hire an assistant to help me promote Fantasy Congress so I could focus on building it. I hired a young branding and social media expert who was just starting out. Her experience was mostly running instagram accounts for restaurants and nightclubs. She also had no personal interest in government or politics. Naively, I assumed creating content for social media was a breeze and she would have no problem adapting her tactics to my audience. Of course, I didn’t even know who my target audience was at the time! Regardless, I expected her to come up with a full blown social media strategy while working part-time for slightly more than minimum wage. The result was some really awkward social media posts, and the whole ordeal cost me more time than it saved.
The number one lesson I learned from this experience was don’t assume something is easy if you haven’t done it yourself. After we parted ways, I took up the reigns and quickly realized content creation is time consuming and difficult. Even with my in depth knowledge of politics, I had a hard time coming up with meaningful things to post. The whole experience was humbling and gave me a new found respect for social media marketers.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
I’m especially thankful for my partner and all the support he’s given me through this journey. He’s always eager to hear about my latest idea or lend a hand. And as an outsider, he has a unique perspective that catches opportunities I otherwise wouldn’t notice.
I’ll never forget the first year I ran Fantasy Congress when I kept having problems with the draft. The application I wrote kept crashing and I was racking my brain trying to figure out why. My partner, who also has a technical background, sat on the couch with me for hours trying to help me troubleshoot. He was so calm and reassuring. We bounced ideas off each other, and using our combined expertise eventually figured out the root cause of the issue.
As a solo-founder, things like this can quickly become overwhelming. Having someone in your life who’s willing to pull up their sleeves and jump in the trenches when things get rough makes the bad times a little more bearable.
Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
The E-Myth Revisited has impacted me the most so far. It covered so many problems I struggled with but couldn’t articulate. Especially when the author discusses being a “technician.” That’s who I was. I was someone with a valuable skill who wanted to be their own boss. But skill alone isn’t enough to make a business successful! I struggled with this for a good year before I read The E-Myth and learned to think of my entire business as a product.
Do you have a favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life or your work?
“Well-behaved women seldom make history.“ — by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich
The most common interpretation of this quote is actually very different from its original sentiment. Regardless, I still love it. I’ve always been a bit rebellious, and this has helped me push past insecurities and take risks. I wouldn’t be where I am today if I was “well-behaved.”
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
I firmly believe that if you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention. And that’s what I hope to fix with Fantasy Congress. I want people to understand how government works and be better informed about what government is doing. My hope is that this will create a world where government is held accountable to the needs of its people.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. According to this EY report, only about 20 percent of funded companies have women founders. This reflects great historical progress, but it also shows that more work still has to be done to empower women to create companies. In your opinion and experience what is currently holding back women from founding companies?
I think a lot of women are held back by a lack of exposure. Most entrepreneurial circles have very few women. You can see this in conference speakers, forums, and who gets promoted the most on social media. It’s disproportionately men. But there’s no shortage of women wanting to start their own business or be their own boss. Yet, most men can look to their peers for examples and advice on how to start a business, whereas most women can not.
Women are less likely to know someone personally who has started a business, or feel welcome in the male dominated start-up community. Because men have more exposure to mentors, investors, and other founders they build confidence in their ability to run a successful venture. Lacking these resources, women are less likely to see a path to success for themselves.
This was something I struggled with a lot with when starting out. I ended up carving out my own path and eventually stumbled upon a supportive network of people doing the same. But I constantly battled the feeling I didn’t belong in business and was doomed to fail.
Can you share with our readers what you are doing to help empower women to become founders?
For the most part, I try to surround myself with entrepreneurial women so I can leverage my knowledge and personal network to help them. I’ve offered to facilitate introductions and always make an effort to respond to questions by women on forums or social media. And when I see a women owned business or their content, I try to share and promote it. Of course, if I have the chance to purchase form a women owned business, I do that too!
This might be intuitive to you but I think it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you share a few reasons why more women should become founders?
The freedom and autonomy that comes from being a founder has dramatically changed my life for the better. So much of the 9–5 grind clashes with the needs of women. When you become a founder, you have the opportunity to tailor your life to you. I think a lot of women would benefit from being their own boss.
Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. Can you please share 5 things that can be done or should be done to help empower more women to become founders? If you can, please share an example or story for each.
1. Systematically promote women founders. For example, commit yourself to having a women founder on your podcast at least once a month, or require that any panel you speak on has at least one woman speaker. Program supporting women into your everyday life. The more you shine a light on female founders, the more women will feel like this is a viable path for them.
2. Follow women business owners on social media and engage with them. Be sure to like, share, and respond to their content. This simple act has helped me build deep, meaningful connections with other female founders. It’s also my number one source for finding new women to network with. Because women tend to follow and support other women, I’ve discovered a lot of budding female founders in the comments section of successful ones.
3. Donate your time and money to organizations helping women. There are lots of great organizations that already exist to help women get ahead. Maximize their impact by volunteering as a mentor or ask them if you can sponsor an event. Before I started Fantasy Congress, I volunteered with a local non-profit that helped women learn to code and change careers. We relied heavily on corporate partners to donate their space for our classes, and sometimes employees would take time out of their day to volunteer with us. When organizations made an effort to partner with us, it told our students “you are welcome here.” As a result, many of them wanted to work for these companies.
4. Share your experience with women who aren’t founders. Personally, I never considered my friend group to be entrepreneurial, but they love hearing about the latest ups and downs of running Fantasy Congress. Eventually, I started to ask a few of them if they had ever thought of starting their own business, and I was surprised to hear some of them had! It goes to show, don’t assume someone isn’t interested in being a founder just because they’re currently on a different path.
5. And lastly, we need to invest more money in women owned businesses. The same EY report cited above states that since 2016, year after year, only 13% of venture dollars invested went to start-ups with a woman founder. Meaning, investors are taking a chance in more female led companies, but those companies are increasingly getting less money compared to their male counterparts. If we want real change, investors need to embrace their risk and take a chance on women. Of course, most of us aren’t venture capitalists. So in the meantime, buy from women owned businesses when you can.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
I’d like to see more people starting “lifestyle” businesses. These are small businesses that value employee and founder time over their profits. Lifestyle businesses make enough money to be healthy and sustainable, but usually sacrifice growth to protect people’s life outside of work. I think we would all feel more satisfied with our lives running and working for a business that values our life outside the office.
We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.
I’ve been following Whitney Wolfe’s journey for a while, ever since I heard her story on the How I Built This podcast by NPR. Her company, Bumble, recently had a very successful IPO. I love her product and tenacity, and I think she would be fun to hang out with!
How can our readers further follow your work online?
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.