As part of our women in agencies series, member of The Agency Collective and agency founder Xenia Muether wrote about her experience of launching a business within a male-dominated industry. 

It’s been almost two years since I took a big leap of faith and left the comfort and predictability of full-time employment to start my own business. Taking on the role of female founder in a traditionally male-dominated industry has certainly had its challenges, but the wins have made it more than worthwhile.

How often do you hear your friends—especially women—say how much they’d love to be their own boss? Entrepreneurship among women is growing, and I know there’s an increasing desire (and, during a pandemic, necessity) for everyone to work more flexibly and autonomously. While it can be an incredibly rewarding career move, no matter your age or gender, I know first-hand that launching your own company as a young woman can feel like an uphill battle, particularly at the start.

This is why I want to share my experience: I genuinely believe it’s been the best decision I’ve ever made for myself personally as well as professionally. But I would have loved to have someone give me a little pep talk in the beginning to reassure me that I was doing the right thing. So, if you’re reading this and need to hear it: YOU can do it too. You have what it takes, and you will learn so much along the way. I definitely have.

I genuinely believe it’s been the best decision I’ve ever made for myself personally as well as professionally. But I would have loved to have someone give me a little pep talk in the beginning to reassure me that I was doing the right thing. So, if you’re reading this and need to hear it: YOU can do it too. You have what it takes, and you will learn so much along the way. I definitely have.

From entry-level employee to company director

When I got my first job working for an education company nearly a decade ago, I had a lot of misconceptions about what the industry was like. I assumed education was basically a government-funded non-profit sector. However, I soon discovered that schools are actually businesses—they have sales targets they need to hit to remain viable. 

When I felt that I could no longer grow in my “in-house” role, I decided to branch out as a freelancer. I quickly realised how much demand there is for digital marketing expertise in the world of education. Because I had a good understanding of how these companies were run, I saw a great career opportunity. This is when I decided to register my company and begin setting up my own digital agency. 

But while I knew how to run targeted advertising campaigns on Facebook, running my own business was something entirely new. Until that point, I never had to think about cash flow and taxes, or hiring, quoting for work and drawing up contracts. It was a pretty steep learning curve, to say the least!

Pitching for business and fighting imposter syndrome

Through a former colleague, I was connected with my first potential big client. I vividly remember my initial video call with them. When I dialled in, I was faced with three men about twice my age. And the first thing they asked was whether we were going to wait for my boss or just get started. I’ll admit this wasn’t the best for my confidence at that moment, but these sorts of comments eventually fueled my drive to succeed.

Although I don’t think anyone on that call was intentionally ageist or sexist, they didn’t see “the boss” when looking at me: a girl with long blonde hair that I wore in a bright red headband, rather than a businesslike bun. Unlike them, I wasn’t in a suit. I was in my twenties. And I was a woman. I just didn’t fit their expected image. In education, like many industries, men often outnumber women higher up the hierarchy.

When you’re just starting out, I think it’s normal to feel like a bit of a fraud. But getting the sense that you’re not being taken seriously can be a huge blow. For a while, I found myself second-guessing what I looked like and the image I was putting out there. Would the next client take me seriously if I wasn’t wearing a dark suit or didn’t have my hair tied back? Was I wearing too much makeup? Maybe my voice wasn’t sounding “powerful” enough? I’m sure I’m not the only woman who has ever felt this way at work, but it was an entirely new feeling to me.

More often than not, on calls with Deans, VPs, Sales Managers or Admissions Directors, I was trying to sell my expertise to men much older than myself. And while it’s not true to say that every Sales Director in his 50s doesn’t take young blonde women seriously, I certainly ran into a few along the way. I found—and sometimes still find—these sorts of individuals intimidating. But I believe that these experiences can also inspire the determination needed to grow a successful business as a woman.  

On seeing youth as an asset and standing my ground

With time, I learned not to let imposter syndrome get to me too much. I knew my agency would deliver great work, and that was all that counted in the end. Occasionally, I would get comments about my age, but I started to use this as a selling point. I am a digital native, and my generation grew up with social media. While I can easily put myself in the shoes of a prospective student, someone much older might struggle to see why it’s worth investing in ads on Instagram or TikTok.

As a German, I want to believe that I always knew the value of being direct and standing my ground. But when it came to my own business, this was difficult even for me at first. Sometimes I would have preferred to cave in and avoid confrontation or difficult conversations, particularly when it came to negotiating contracts and rates. I soon realised the necessity of standing firm, despite the risk of push back, or worse—a potential client deciding not to work with my agency. 

In the end, confidence and straight-talk won the respect of good clients and probably saved me from potentially bad ones. If a company wanted my time but didn’t want to commit to a fair payment arrangement, I straight up told them, “Under those terms, I cannot ensure the quality of work will meet our agency’s standards, but I’m sure you will find someone else to work with.” Often, those were the clients that came back and could suddenly “shift budgets around.”

Happy clients, growing my business and power-dressing for myself

From day one, I made sure every single client wasn’t just happy with our work but was impressed by it. And when they were, I asked them to write a short review we could use on our website or LinkedIn page. Impressed clients are the fastest way to grow a business. I eventually got to the point where I started hiring contractors and then full-time staff. I am so proud to say our business tripled its revenue in 2020, and we are growing quickly. 

While there was a time when I felt like maybe I needed to look and behave a certain way to be a “business person” and be taken seriously, I now wear my pink suit, makeup and headbands with pride. If people don’t expect me to be someone who runs a business when they first see me, I love the look on their faces when I tell them what I do for a living. 

I also know that I have been very fortunate on my journey. I’ve been lucky enough to work with some incredible businesses, run by both men and women, who have helped me grow in confidence. All of my current clients are wonderful people and not a single one of them has ever given anyone in my team the feeling they are superior to them. I think this is how good businesses work: accepting that you don’t know everything and respecting each other, regardless of age, gender or anything else.

In conclusion, I’d like to share 5 pieces of advice from what I’ve learned along the way. I hope this might inspire and reassure other young female founders looking to start their own businesses.

  1. Be prepared for the challenges of everyday sexism that still exists, especially in an industry that’s typically male-dominated. Let these experiences make you even more determined to succeed.
  2. Be true to yourself. If you like wearing pink suits or having turquoise hair or tattoos or whatever, go for it! The quality of work you deliver is far more important than fitting into someone else’s vision of what a “boss” looks like.
  3. Value your time and don’t undersell your expertise. 
  4. Consistently deliver the best possible work for your clients. Happy clients will be your company’s biggest asset.
  5. Build relationships with colleagues and clients based on mutual respect. Surround yourself with people who share your values.

Xenia is the Founder & CEO of Pink Orange Media, a digital marketing consultancy specialising in lead generation for companies in the education sector.

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