Women in Business – Surviving the First Two Years: ” My mission is to foster civility, respect, and integrity in the boardroom and beyond ” Interview with Michelle Horlbogen

Interview with Michelle Horlbogen, founder of The Gentlewoman Boss, on her experiences being a woman entrepreneur.

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Please tell us a bit about yourself, and describe your company.

I’m a life-long New Englander and I was raised with a strong work ethic.  My grandparents were dairy farmers, so I learned early on not to be afraid of hard work. I’ve also spent my life rooting and speaking up for the underdog and calling out bad behavior, which, unbeknownst to me, was leading me to the work I am doing today.  I founded my 2nd company, The Gentlewoman Boss, to create a safe platform and community for targets of workplace bullying and whistleblowers after my own unfortunate experience in the workplace. My mission is to foster civility, respect, and integrity in the boardroom and beyond and to help people who have been targets of workplace bullying and harassment find their voice by leading with transparency about my own experience, making myself accessible to them as a mentor, writing and sharing empowering material and content about workplace abuse and board accountability, as well as speaking publicly on the topic.

What has been the most challenging thing you have faced in the first two years of operating your business? How did you overcome it?

I launched on January 7, 2020.  Two months later, WHO declared a global pandemic and, like so many others, I had to completely revamp my business strategy.  My speaking sales funnel evaporated overnight.  Thankfully, I had launched The Gentlewoman Boss Podcast the first week of February 2020.  I focused my attention on booking guests who were experts in the field of workplace culture and bullying who could bring great value to my listeners. In return, my business and podcast were shared with their diverse networks and my audience grew.  In addition I made a lot of cold calls and pitched myself for virtual speaking opportunities, webinars, and interviews. I created content almost daily and shared it on LinkedIn, social media, and my blog. That led to an invitation to be a guest presenter to an MBA class on Leadership in Organizations. My mindset from the beginning was “People & Purpose Over Profit”.  I created my business to advocate for and be of service to others.  I knew if I focused on helping people and my purpose, that profits would eventually follow.

Can you highlight some of the digital strategies initially used to get your business off the ground?

To answer this question I went back through my business journal to my “Timeline” notes.  I purchased my website domain on October 30, 2019 and claimed my social media handles the next day. I was nowhere near ready to launch, so as I built my website, I committed to spending at least two hours a day on my digital footprint.  An often overlooked space is a LinkedIn business page for your company; it was one of the first places I began building a follower base.  I focused on creating content that would be of value to future customers and clients and shared it on social media with a strong focus on my LinkedIn platform.  My key strategy was customer-centricity; a long-term focused commitment to build rapport, trust, accessibility and transparency with my audience.  It’s a slow process, but over time, my audience grew as did my reputation in my field.  Launching The Gentlewoman Boss during a pandemic meant utilizing every possible digital option available and tracking the data to see what was or wasn’t working and who it was resonating with.  I use Google Analytics for data collection, and my podcast host, Red Circle, has a great built-in data tool that is incredibly helpful in tracking my podcast reach and audience. I’m also in the process of creating an original digital course for my customers and clients based on their feedback and the data I’ve collected.

What are some of the biggest digital marketing challenges you have faced to date? How have you overcome them?

There are a lot of tools and apps out there to help with digital marketing, but it can also be overwhelming. Being a one-woman-show, digital marketing eats up a big part of my day, so trying to find the balance there can be a struggle.  It takes self-discipline.  I try to be patient when something new comes along and wait for the data and feedback to help me determine if it’s something that would be worth my time and effort to implement.  Take Clubhouse, for example, the latest rage.  It wasn’t really an issue for me; I’m an Android gal and the app was only available to Apple users. I definitely see the benefits of using an audio only platform to connect with my audience, especially after a year of Zoom.  But as of February 2021, over 10 million people are on Clubhouse.  That’s a lot of noise to cut through, not to mention time, to keep it productive for business goals. I mean, if George Clooney is talking in a room, a data analytics room is not going to keep my attention! The reward for my patience is that LinkedIn is working on a similar feature on its platform; that will be a digital product I will implement to connect in a more intimate way with my 3,000 followers there.  Another challenge is  protecting IP; I create 99% of my marketing content from scratch and it’s shocking how often I see it show up somewhere else without credit or source.  I include my logo or watermark on all my media and graphics but they still show up with it cropped out.  It’s the nature of the beast of digitalization; and what’s that saying…”Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery”.

Do you have a preferred platform for marketing? 

LinkedIn, hands down.  One of the best things I did, even prior to launching my website, was to create a LinkedIn business page.  As a page admin,  there is a wealth of data you can collect on who visits your page, their job function, location, seniority, industry, and company size.  It’s a marketing goldmine. I’ve also made incredible connections on the platform I never would have made otherwise.  I have a diverse and amazing network that has enriched and supported me both professionally and personally.  It’s also one of the least utilized social platforms; according to a 2019 report, only about 1% of LinkedIn’s 260 million monthly users share posts, and those 3 million or so users net the 9 billion impressions. (Source)

Please tell us what led you to the path of entrepreneurship. 

My first experiment with entrepreneurship was as a new stay-at-home mother.  I had worked since I was 13 and for the first time in 22 years, didn’t have a job.  I was going a bit stir-crazy, so I decided to teach myself HTML & code and I built my first business and website, The Red Velvet Shoe Vintage. A daunting expense for entrepreneurs is health insurance, so eventually I did return to the workforce.  I worked in the nonprofit sector for almost four years until, one day, I reported some ethical concerns to my employer and two days later I was fired over the phone.  That was an unbelievably bad day that turned into a bad week and a few extremely difficult months. I was in a very dark place and I knew I needed to climb out of that hole before it consumed me.  I knew my daughter was watching and I needed to show her that it’s okay to get knocked down, as long as you get back up.  I’m a firm believer that there is more happiness in giving than in receiving, so I began to think about how I could turn what I had experienced into a way to help others. What did I need that would have helped me through that awful time that I could now offer to others? A few months later, The Gentlewoman Boss was born.

What are the three most important things every woman entrepreneur should do, when first thinking about starting a business?

First, accept the fact that not every great idea can turn into a profitable business venture.  Do your research.  Is there a genuine need for your product or service or is the market already saturated?  Look for the space in a small niche that is not taken and find out if that specific audience would be willing to pay for what you can offer.  

Second, understand that it may be some time before revenue flows in at a rate that can sustain you. You may have to hustle nights and weekends on your passion project while still holding down a full or part-time job.  If you have a spouse or children, will they be on board with you being unavailable to that extent? Those are must-have conversations; your journey will be much easier with everyone on board and with their full support.  

And third, as excited as you may be about your potential adventure into entrepreneurship, it may be best to keep a lid on it in the beginning.  Some of the biggest hurdles we face as entrepreneurs are fear of failure, lack of confidence and imposter syndrome.  Well-meaning family and friends may respond with every possible thing that could go wrong and all the reasons you shouldn’t give up your job security; why add that chatter to what’s already going on in your own head? Instead, promise yourself you will break the news at a time and date that you choose with all the pomp and circumstance and chilled champagne it deserves.  Just tell the curious and nosy you’re working on something exciting but that’s all you can say for now. Let them wonder!

Are there actionable steps a woman in business should take to ensure that her company is successful in two years?

Yes, but they will be different for everyone. An  important one is to begin by asking yourself “What am I awful at? What don’t I know how to do?”  That may sound like a negative start out of the gate, but it’s a powerful one.  Knowing and admitting your weaknesses tells you what your company will need to succeed in addition to you.  If, for example, you hate technology and have zero social media experience, you already know who your first hire will be.  You can’t expect to start a business in 2021 and not have a digital footprint; so you either need to learn to love it and figure out how to do it, or hire someone that can. If the year 2020 taught us anything, it’s that upskilling and keeping up with technology is critical for businesses to survive. Repeat that exercise until you are completely clear on where you are lacking, if there is a chance for you to fill any of those gaps within a reasonable amount of time with education and training, or if you’ll need to hire it out. 

I also think taking the time to figure out your “why”, writing a mission statement and then making sure those you invite into your business fully share and support your vision are critical steps that increase the chances of a successful company and culture.

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