A red flag for a startup

(written by lawrence krubner, however indented passages are often quotes). You can contact lawrence at: lawrence@krubner.com

A friend of mine was looking for a job. She saw an ad for a front end HTML/CSS/Javascript person who could also design. She went to the interview. The company was a small startup focused on weddings. Their new twist was that they were bringing a social/community element to the site that other wedding sites lacked. Some guys came in to interview my friend. Everything went well. Towards the end they commented that they were glad she was a woman, because they really wanted a bunch of female designers, because they figure their audience is 99% female.

This is a tiny startup with 3 young males in charge.

How did they get funding? I’m assuming they stressed the word “social” enough, and said “Someone ought to do a wedding site with social features” and some investor was like, “Yeah, that sounds right” and wrote them a check.

My guess is that this startup would do better if the CEO was a woman. Or at least if they had one high level female manager.

I understand why these dudes want to hire female designers. I think they are sort of on the right track. But they need to go further: they need to fire themselves. As it is, they face a paradox of ignorance. Though they vaguely glean that there might be things about their audience that they do not understand, they have so far failed to put someone in charge who is close to their audience.

I should stop at this point and say I do not know much about these dudes. Possibly they know all there is to know about the other gender (though, then, why emphasize the need to hire female designers?). Possibly they have committed Deborah Tannen to memory. My comments here are meant in a general sense.

I’m guessing the paradox of ignorance will play out like this: these 3 dudes will get feedback from their (female) designers, but they will not know what feedback they should act upon. Or rather, they will act upon the feedback that conforms to what they think sounds correct, which will put them back in a situation similar to if they had never hired any female designers. It is tough to outsource core knowledge at a small startup. If the designers tell them something that conforms to their ideas about women (“The whole website should be pink!”) they will say “Yes, brilliant, good idea! Oh, we are so glad we hired female designers to give us this excellent feedback!” But if the designers give them some feedback that goes against what they believe about women (hypothetical: “We should have a special section for dealing with the jitters since all brides have second thoughts the night before the marriage.”) they may very well veto the idea, not understanding its importance.

My advice here is only relevant to new, small startups. And it is only relevant to startups that are targeted to a particular gender. But if we are talking about a new, small startup that is targeted to a specific gender, my guess is that the CEO or COO should be of that gender. I think it would help, and every little bit helps with a startup.