Despite the Instagram filters convincing you otherwise, starting a small business is no walk in the park. The path to entrepreneurship is a lot more hard work and hustle but ask any founder and they’ll always say it’s 100% worth the sleepless nights and anxiety-ridden days. Why? Because this time the dream you’re building is yours, not someone else’s.
We tapped the shoulder of 19 female founders to answer this question: What’s the biggest challenge you’ve faced in your business and how did you turn it into an opportunity? Their answers are honest and surprising but in all cases, they’re real. Read on and take notes because you’ll want to prepare for these small business challenges before embarking on your own entrepreneurial journey.
Trinity Mouzon Wofford, Founder, Golde
“The biggest challenge I’ve faced so far has definitely been bootstrapping! I watch my cash flow like a hawk, and I have to be really conservative about what marketing opportunities we take on—everything has to drive a profit at the end of the day. All in all, I don’t regret it at all. Self-funding my business for its first three years has taught me so much about getting creative with limited resources. If we do ever take funding in the future, I feel like I’ll be really ready to handle that in a responsible way.”
Allison McNamara, Founder, MARA
“The biggest challenges I’ve faced in my business have all been production-related. There are so many variables that go into production–natural disasters and weather, ingredient shortages, and international holidays to name a few– that it can be hard to stick to a firm launch timeline. I truly believe the world has a way of timing things out for us and now being a business owner, I’ve learned to quiet my impatient side and adjust and adapt to timelines when they get pushed.
Last year, our Algae Retinol Face Oil bottles were en route from Korea and got lost in a massive storm and for two weeks. This pushed our timeline which ultimately worked in our favor because we launched amidst a retinol renaissance in the beauty industry, which led MARA to be included in round-ups with major brands like Neutrogena, Drunk Elephant and Estee Lauder in WWD.”
Stacy Garcia, Founder of the licensing firm and design house, Stacy Garcia, Inc.
“Becoming complacent because things are going well. We live in a world where cool today is forgotten by next week. What I did when I first started the company probably wouldn’t work as well today. But I have realized that reevaluating myself and my business is so important. And it has allowed me to find new opportunities that I otherwise would probably not have pursued.”
Arielle Loren, Founder, 100K Incubator
“Funding is the biggest challenge for most women entrepreneurs in the early stages of their businesses. It was certainly mine, and no one could tell me how to get funding unless I had a six-figure business. I decided to change that and created the 100K Incubator mobile app for women who need funding and scaling strategies, and are earning under 100K. We ended up being the first business funding app for women and helped these early-stage women entrepreneurs access over $1,000,000 in capital in our first year.”
Carina Chaz, Founder, DedCool
“Being a young female and self-taught perfumer in the fragrance space has been a huge obstacle. The art of perfumery has been around for hundreds of years. With that being said, having started as a 21-yr-old Los Angeles-based nose was sure to raise some eyebrows yet I pushed to continue to compose scents with my own craft create new fragrance conversations highlighting green beauty and non-gender normative ideals.”
Marcella Cacci, Founder and CEO, One Ocean Beauty
“As a new business, there are always challenges. One of the toughest for One Ocean Beauty was the formulation of our products. Our labs had not made a clean formulation before and there was push back that the standard of clean we were requesting was too high and difficult to follow. We were also advised strongly to put a fragrance in the product. We chose not to do this as ingredients in synthetic fragrance are not always transparent and even natural essential oils can be irritating to sensitive skin. We went with our gut and decided to make a clean product with no fragrance. We have since received overwhelming customer feedback that our decision was a good one. We’ve also found that the clean, fragrance-free formulations appeal to a growing number of male customers.”
Amy Liu, Founder, Tower 28 Beauty
“I didn’t have the personal finances available to start this on my own and didn’t know anything about how to raise institutional money. Frankly, it didn’t even feel like an option so capitalizing the business felt like a hard stop. In the end, a friend offered to be my lead investor and to date, I have raised money from angel investors only, including some of my best friends and former coworkers. I was extremely anxious to take money from people so close to me (for obvious reasons) but actually, it’s been hugely motivating for me. I am highly accountable to other people and it feels amazing to have my friends as investors – people who genuinely want to help and have my best interests in mind and the company, too. Nothing would make me happier than proving to them that believing in me was a good decision!”
Rima Minasyan, Co-Founder, Patrick Ta Beauty
“One of the biggest challenges I’ve faced and face daily is balancing business and being an active and involved mother. Having three girls, I always want to be sure they know that women are capable to do it all. It’s definitely more difficult for women, but it’s not impossible so long as you have passion and dedication. I want them to see me do it all and eventually understand that they can as well.
“When we started Patrick Ta Beauty, I took this as an opportunity for personal growth to be able to meet the demands of both mom and business. This has allowed me to be a better entrepreneur and businesswoman because it has forced me to make the absolute best use of time. Knowing that at the end of the day I have my kids waiting for me at home sets a mindset for the day to give as much as I possibly I can to my time at work.”
Sarah Belzer, President, Coconu
“One of the biggest consistent challenges we face at Coconu is that we are a fully organic, all-natural product which means we don’t have a ‘forever’ shelf life like some products that include preservatives. That means you better get busy and use it! But we hate the notion of our customers having the expired product on their hands. So we’ve embraced a campaign around scheduling time for intimacy. It’ll help you stay close to your partner and assure that your Coconu will never go bad!”
Jin Soon Choi, Founder, JINsoon
“My biggest ongoing challenge has been balancing the creative side of the nail world with the business reality. Although I enjoy both, it is a constant struggle to maintain balance when I am so busy doing photoshoots, runway work, my nail lacquer line, and running my four nail salons. But each side supports and enhances the other creating an opportunity for superior results.”
Dara Kennedy, Founder, Ayla Beauty
“Our shopping experience is meant to feel quite different from the experience you have shopping for beauty elsewhere. We want our customers to truly feel seen and empowered and valued for who they are; everything we do has that goal in mind. So finding the right team for our front lines, the people who deliver that promise directly to our customers was critical. We’ve ended up hiring a team that is almost entirely composed of women who have never worked in beauty before. And it has been one of the best things we’ve ever done, not only because it makes the experience at Ayla feel refreshingly different, but also because it helps us build deep, authentic connections with our customers. I learn so much from our team and am so grateful to them all.”
Nikki Bostwick, Founder, Editor-in-Chief, thefullest.com
“Starting a media-based company is challenging because you rely heavily on advertisers to support your content, and as a wellness-centered publication we often find it difficult to find advertisers that have the budget outside of their paid social campaigns, who also align with our overall message. I recently heard that about 40% of all venture capital money makes its way back to facebook and Instagram in the form of advertising. While paid campaigns are at their all-time high, this isn’t so great for media companies like ours. The advertising landscape has changed a lot in the last 5 years. This meant we needed to pivot our business model and diversify so we don’t just rely on one revenue stream. And it’s been the best experience for me because I realized our brand is more than just a content-centered business.
“As a wellness lifestyle platform we have so much more to offer our community, and our saffron based product line was born. Once I was clear on our messaging, which is that ultimately, our barometer for wellness comes down to our overall happiness, I was able to develop an entire range of products that reflect our message and support our overall mental health and well being. It has also been a blessing because I’m able to share a space that is used often in my culture for culinary purposes, and share the wonderful mental health benefits when taken daily in medicinal doses. Our products have been so well received I’m finding myself in awe of what growth we have been able to experience out of a necessity to pivot.”
April Gargiulo, Founder,Vintner’s Daughter
“For us, the biggest challenges have come from not adhering to industry norms. Coming from the wine world, I was unaware of how the skincare world worked. As a result, I ended up doing things very differently and that has presented many challenges starting with finding a world-class lab. You see, every bottle of Vintner’s Daughter takes between 21 to 35 days to produce. That is active formulation time in an industry where the norm is six hours or less. When I took our formula to labs I was quickly dispatched and told that was not how it was done. I was encouraged to use lower quality powders and extracts rather than our powerful whole plants because extracts and powders were ‘faster and cheaper.’
“It took a long time to find a lab partner that shared our vision for time-honored formulations. Similarly, when I began talking to retailers, very few understood how to merchandise or talk about a single SKU brand. It was at the height of the Korean 25-step routine. I was told to call them back when I had more products. One retail expert even encouraged me to ‘quickly slap my label on 5-10 more products. I only want to create game-changing, category-defining products that offer transformations change to my customer’s skin and lives. Slapping labels on things is not what we do. I firmly believe that skin is better served by fewer, better-made products. This philosophy also serves our planet better because at the end of the day, what is more sustainable than less?”
Laura Rubin, Founder, AllSwell Creative
“One of the biggest challenges I’ve faced as a serial entrepreneur is burnout. I’m so passionate about what I’m working on and I grind hard, giving it all I’ve got. That’s my ‘immigrant work ethic programming’ and it often serves me well in a professional context. But it sometimes comes with a price tag, one my body has paid. When you have to take a step back and rest, it provides a meaningful opportunity to gain perspective. You value things differently, reassess what’s most important in the professional (and personal) landscape and I always end up being more creative for taking the needed downtime.”
Nancy Schnoll, Founder, Reflekt 1 Daily Exfoliating Face Wash
“The biggest challenge I’ve faced thus far has been staying true to my original vision for Reflekt. I purposely launched with one product Reflekt 1—a twice-daily cleanser that gently exfoliates and hydrates the skin. More people than I can remember told me this was a mistake and that I needed to add at least two to three more SKU’s and create a capsule collection. Since Reflekt 1 is a pioneering concept of exfoliating 2x/daily, I felt it was critical to first get the message out that the key to healthy balanced skin is twice-daily exfoliation when done with a properly formulated product. Launching the next 3 SKU’s will come when this concept is more widely understood. Recently this has become a great opportunity because rather than being told this was a mistake people tell me how ’smart’ it was to launch with one product and do it perfectly!”
Nicole Dean, Founder & CEO, KOLLO
“Creating what we consider to be a high-value, super-premium product line, means that we have to justify the price-point and value-add relative to less expensive products in the category. Consumer education in any business is an essential piece, but in the ‘super-premium’ or luxury category this can be a very slow process. In the beverage space, it is common to expand quickly and aggressively, and this has just never been an option for KOLLO for many reasons. When I first launched the brand, it felt very isolating to move much more slowly than other new products as you are constantly comparing yourself, but many wonderful opportunities have come based on this forced slow-growth.
“Our initial traction has been very much based on word of mouth, and our customers are our best evangelists for the benefits of the product. As much as we wanted to aggressively market our product to consumers and accounts, we found that KOLLO being more of a ‘discovery brand’ allows for the product to find its best fit naturally and have a better chance at thriving.
“Additionally, forced slow-grow has done wonders for giving us time to refine the brand look and feel. There were so many times in the beginning stage that I would be waiting weeks for product or packaging samples to arrive and felt like I was not doing enough ‘work’ to scale, but this was also the time that I felt the freest and creative in terms of developing brand direction. Having less task-based work to do, left me time to be inspired by other industries, brands, and imagery which ultimately shaped the brand as you see it today.”
Camilla Marcus, Founder,west~bourne
“For employers, finding and keeping great talent is the holy grail; it is also the most formidable hurdle to maintaining a successful business in hospitality. What became readily apparent through opening west~bourne was that affordable, accessible childcare would mean more team members could enter, stay and grow in our field, ultimately narrowing the wage gap, creating a more stable middle class, and boosting the economy. It’s a win-win-win, so I knew we had to find a solution. My dear friend Dana Cowin connected me to a city official who then introduced me to Vivvi’s founders, Charlie Bonello and Ben Newton, right when they were in the early stages of starting up.
“That initial conversation turned into a meaningful partnership through which I was able to advocate for restaurant workers and together create the first of its kind, democratic access to high quality, developmentally-focused, employer-sponsored childcare near restaurant employees’ places of work in Soho—at hours that actually fit within their jobs. My sincere hope is that accessible, high-quality childcare that accommodates hospitality teams becomes the norm, through Vivvi. This program just launched so we are in the very starting phases of rolling it out to our team. As a mission-driven company, we are passionate about taking care of our community—team members and guests alike—with mindfulness, intention, and purpose.”
Sonia Deasy, Co-founder, and CEO, Pestle & Mortar
“Appearing on QVC in America for the first time was a challenge for me. It was live television and I was a complete novice. I remember thinking, ‘I just wanted to create a clean beauty brand that people can trust—I didn’t sign up for this!’. Anyway, just as I was about to walk onto the set, I turned to the presenter and said, ‘I don’t think I can do this’. She literally pushed me out in front of the cameras and there I was in front of millions of viewers!’. I consciously decided to just be myself—nervous, a little unsure but passionate about the brand I had created. It worked—we were the only Irish Skincare company to sell out on QVC in under eight minutes! I learned a lot from that challenge but mainly I learned that in order to make your dreams come true, you have to do things that make you feel uncomfortable.”
Cortney McDermott, Best-selling author, TEDx speaker, and educator
“My biggest challenge early on was building a team. Fears around not having the resources—time and cash—to find and hire the right people were keeping me stuck in a very limited vision. Even if I knew doing it all myself wasn’t sustainable, it took two critical insights to reframe.
“The first was the idea that I wouldn’t pay someone my hourly rate (or earning potential) to do, say, admin or web dev stuff (booking appointments, uploading blog posts, etc.), but that was exactly what I was doing by taking all that on myself. I had to think bigger and trust more.
“The second insight was that I could start slow and find talent in unlikely places. One of the ways I found to hire early on was to seek out part-time, project-based university interns who were interested in my work. This turned into a top talent pool I still source from today.”