Interviews

Why 'old-school' networking may be the solution to the female VC funding gap

14 min read

14 May 2019

Features Editor, Real Business

Budding female entrepreneurs are all too aware of the disconnect between women in business and their ability to access VC funding. But Angelica Malin is trying to change all that. Her digital lifestyle platform, 'About Time' is going into the events space. 'The About Time Academy' brings women from across the sectors together to discover business inspiration, advice and to open the dialogue on the politics of VC funding.

Even the most groundbreaking business ideas can flounder if you fail to monetise the concept. Angelica Malin, the founder of lifestyle website, About Time, knows this all too well. However, she overcame the hurdle early and managed to build an online brand straight out of university that attracted 12,000 users on its first day of operation.

Since then, About Time has been named one of the top 50 female-founded companies in London. These days, Malin is facing new challenges in the digital landscape, but ever the ambitious entrepreneur, she is evolving to challenge them. We meet the woman behind the brand…

Starting the business on a shoestring

“I’ve never been someone that wanted to work for someone else,” says Malin, who is fit to burst with insatiable energy when we sit down to talk.

“I always had the vision of being my own boss, so I went out on a limb and started a lifestyle website. I built the team on a shoestring budget and roped in the services of friends, including a graphic designer mate who could help me out,” she adds.

“I built the website for £500 then we attracted 12,000 users on the first day the site went live.”

But what stopped Malin’s lifestyle website from sinking and getting lost in a sea of countless ‘lifestyle blog’ iterations online?

“The mission was always really focused, namely to provide readers with a concise list of things to do in London,” says Malin.

But what made it stand out?

“When people type “best things to do in London” into a search engine, they are confronted with long lists, such as ‘the 100 best burgers in London’, the result is overwhelming,” says Malin.

Cutting through the bloated lifestyle market

Malin is all too aware of the shifting digital landscape. Source: Medium

“Our content cuts through the noise by bringing readers ‘straight to the point’ content, and that’s why we’ve had such an overwhelmingly good response,” says Malin.

But how did she make the right contacts to get brands interested in the site?

“I acted as my own ambassador,” says Malin.

“I went out and met with PRs, I had to be confident, I had to work hard to convince them that my site was the one for their clients to be seen on,” she continues.

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But that was half a decade ago, and as we all know, the digital space, and the way goods and services are “sold” has changed irrevocably, (hello, e-commerce and the importance of online brand engagement levels).

So what does all this mean for the future of About Time? Furthermore, what challenges has Malin overcome to stay relevant in this ever-shifting space?

Navigating changes in the digital landscape

“When we launched, platforms like Instagram weren’t monetised yet,” she says.

“Of course you had advertorial ‘paid-for’ content as the main source for revenue, and brands weren’t spending money on influencers then, we had brands coming to us.”

But as Malin says, all that has changed massively over the last two years, and now, influencers dominate marketing budgets, “rather than going to editorial platforms such as ours, brands are increasingly going to influencers or engaging in ‘paid spend’, they are even going to Facebook and spending their own money,” she adds.

“In other words, the landscape has shifted massively, but we’re finding new ways to stay afloat to prosper despite these changes,” she adds.

The shift towards human connection and physical events

Among these ‘new ways’ to stay afloat include engaging the brand in event sessions, but how did Malin come to this decision? She started by re-examining her company mission, “we have over 100,000 users and we didn’t want to lose them,” says Malin.

“So we re-focused in on our founding mission, namely what is About Time about? It’s about the fact that our time, including our audience’s time, is precious. Is this content worth people’s time? Is this event something that people want to dedicate their time to? Those are the questions we constantly ask ourselves,” she says.

Malin explains that the shift from writing advertorials for brands to using events to monetise About Time was a move towards authenticity for her, “the best way of doing business is working backwards,” she says.

“Readers are asking us about where the cool events are taking place, and we have an established base on social, so the next logical extension was to host events ourselves to answer their needs,” she adds.

“Our events include things like hosting talks for PR agencies about how to pitch ideas to editorial platforms, to sessions for freelance journalists about how to build communities, it’s all business based,” she adds.

High profile entrepreneurs speak at The About Time Academy

Founder of health food brand Pip & Nut’s Pippa Murray, (centre right), has spoken at an About Time event. Source: Dose

“I believe that the future for editorial platforms is moving into the physical space,” says Malin.

“You just have to look to the likes of Stylist and Cosmopolitan magazines, they are blending their online brand with experimental, ‘real life’ events, customers are expecting more from the editorial community,” she adds.

“People want a return to human connection,” says Malin.”We find that a lot of people go to our events to meet other people, I’m convinced that it’s not always about the topic being discussed,” she says.

But this isn’t just lip-service on Malin’s part, she experienced this powerful effect first hand, “recently, we organised a talk about how to start a food brand, we had Pip Murray, the founder of Pip & Nut there as part of the panel discussion, I went myself for the talk, but found myself there for about two-hours after networking and meeting people!”

Women and the VC funding gap – Malin’s thoughts

On from ‘human connections’ to female ones, what are her thoughts about the venture capital funding gap for female entrepreneurs?

“One of the main barriers to female entrepreneurship in the UK and worldwide is access to finance. The average starting capital of female entrepreneurs is 50% below the men’s, and this is made worse by the fact that fewer women personally know an entrepreneur,” she says.

“This affects their access to contacts and potential funding leads, and so they are effectively locked out of a predominantly male, closed community of existing entrepreneurs,” she adds.

“Clearly something has to be done, but it’s great to see women already coming together to form tight-knit but broad communities. We’re seeing female-founded VC funds popping up, women-only member’s clubs, and all-female workspaces and business accelerators. And then, of course, there are event series, like the About Time Academy, giving a platform to some of the most interesting women working today.”

Being the boss today: Managing emotion

On the topic of founding company missions, does Malin believe they should undergo metamorphosis as a business grows, or stay true to its origins?

“I’ve interviewed so many founders and CEOs, and they tell me there is a sweet spot between strong internal communication and positive outward messaging. But finding that sweet spot is a challenge,” adds Malin.

“You can keep on repeating mission statements and putting quotes on office walls, and in a small team it’s fine, but it depends on each business, for example, in 15+ offices, it won’t work as well,” she says.

What early mistakes taught her

At this juncture, I’m keen to take Malin back to the days before commercial success was inevitable for About Time, does she have any near-disaster tales to share with me?

“A hairy moment for me was when we were doing the web redesign, and we hired someone externally to do it. But it didn’t go to plan, and that was because my brief wasn’t clear enough in the first place,” admits Malin.

“What I learned from that experience in a general sense is the importance of slowing things down when it comes to things like onboarding external people who are there to help your business,” says Malin. “Communicating what you want can be a challenging thing, but they are expensive mistakes to make,” she adds.

What Malin learned was that ultimately, as an SME owner, the buck stopped with her, “I had to learn to write better briefs,” she laughs.

But what about the aspects of business leadership that you can’t simply learn, such as dealing with people?

“The ‘people aspect’ of running a business is not something that anyone teaches you,” agrees Malin. “I’ve had to let people go, and like many owner-drivers, I’ve had to deal with uncomfortable work circumstances.”

How to stay strong as a boss

“You have to become emotionally resilient and mentally strong, most importantly you have to walk into that office every day and lead,” she says.

Whilst Malin is young, energetic and successful, she admits that her experiences haven’t been immune from negative self-assessments such as imposter syndrome, (the feeling that you’re inadequate and consequently ‘an imposter’ in your role), “of course I’ve had wobbly moments,” she says. “I’ve had those self-critical thoughts, such as I can’t lead this team, I’m not good enough,” she adds.

“The key is not to avoid those difficult conversations,” she says.

“That’s the unique aspect to running a small business, it’s a challenge for founders to show a bit vulnerability to staff, you want to show you’re human, but you don’t want to freak them out either,” she says.

“There’s a sweet spot between being vulnerable and being tough,” she adds.

Business founders: Is there ever an ideal age to start?

Considering her ‘fast-lane’ experience with About Time, does Malin feel like there is an ideal age to start a business? If so, what age would she have chosen to become a founder in an ideal scenario?

“I knew I had to start the business whilst I was young,” she says. “I couldn’t have done it now at 28, why? Because financially I’m in a much better place now, back then I was straight out of university with no kids, no mortgage, now I feel more financial pressure,” she adds.

“There is something about starting a business young because if you’re in a  company too long you freak yourself out about leaving the security of a job,” she says.

“But in my case, I don’t know any different. Being on the payroll is like a safety blanket, but when you work for yourself it’s all on you and you have to financially support your staff,” she adds.