This question originally appeared on Quora: What advice would you give to young women who want to become entrepreneurs? Answer by Gina Bianchini, CEO and founder of Mightybell.
I’m going to base my answer on Silicon Valley technology entrepreneurship. That includes a 50-mile radius of where I’m sitting right now in Palo Alto.
I watched this 60 Minutes interview a few months ago with Lin-Manuel Miranda, the creator of Hamilton. He said something that stuck with me: “I picked a lane.”
Miranda was talking about going to a highly competitive high school in New York City. He knew that to excel in this environment he had to focus on one thing: theater. And, he had to kick ass — which he did by ultimately creating not one but two Broadway-changing productions.
Fast forward to 2017, and Silicon Valley has become the single most competitive professional environment on the planet. Whereas 20 or 30 years ago the “masters of the universe” went to Wall Street to make their fortunes, today the same unapologetically ambitious people (primarily, but not exclusively, men) make their way to Silicon Valley.
When it comes to this group of startup founders who arguably make up 0.0001% of the most competitive humans on the planet, they will do anything they can to keep out additional competition. It’s human nature.
The same competitive founders become competitive venture capitalists, and they evaluate new founders with the same level of scrutiny they used to evaluate competitors. Founders who were once formidable competitors may now look like good investment opportunities.
This is the arena.
It’s not an arena that’s easy for anyone. However, given this context, you can see how technology entrepreneurship among competing “masters of the universe” is especially challenging for women and people of color.
I don’t have to tell you this; the social science research and basic statistics do the work for me.
But it also isn’t the point. The only question an entrepreneur should ask is: “What do I need to do to win in the arena?”
Here are a few things that I believe make it possible to compete effectively, even when you don’t fit the dominant pattern, or weren’t born with every opportunity and the expectation that you could be the next Bill Gates:
Pick a lane
Don’t just start a tech startup to start a tech startup. It’s too hard. Rather, go deep on a mission, market, or domain that captures your curiosity, and that you can imagine working on for the next 10 years. Get extraordinarily good at what you do. Be so good that people come to you for your expertise.
Put down the playbook
The startup playbook is fed by endless posts from newly minted venture capitalists about what they look for in entrepreneurs, what they think makes a great pitch, how you should talk about your market, and what growth hacks work today. The audience for this playbook fits a certain profile of entrepreneur who will be judged on their potential more favorably than you will be as a woman or person of color. That’s not meant to be a bummer. It’s a fact.
As an entrepreneur, you figure out how to hack around facts.
Control your own destiny—use shortcuts and as little capital as you can to start generating revenue
To hack around the facts, I believe the most important question to ask yourself is, “How do I get them to come to me?”
Adi Tatarko at Houzz created a company with her husband before taking a dollar of investment. She saw the opportunity to bring together the supply of professionals and home decorating enthusiasts that makes Houzz special. She and her husband created something people loved. Including investors. They came to her.
When I look at success stories like Houzz, or SurveyMonkey and GitHub, who both bootstrapped their way to revenue before raising money, they all figured out how to show massive growth and revenue without capital. It’s possible.
This is a different playbook and I believe will be how women and people of color create massive, billion-dollar companies that need to exist in the world.
Work smarter, not harder
This is the most non-intuitive observation I will probably make. I work hard. I also mentor amazing entrepreneurs who happen to be women or were born a different color than I was and work twice as hard for half the credit.
If you want to compete in the arena, hard work isn’t enough. And judging yourself on how hard you work, rather than how smart you work can be fatal.
If you value hard work alone, you’ll think it is an entrepreneur’s job to slog out a 10-month fundraiser to get a $250,000 or $500,000 check, when an entrepreneur who fits the privileged pattern just raised $5,000,000 in a few weeks with a competitive process.
Your job as an entrepreneur in this situation is not to say, “I’m going to just keep going.” It’s to say, “What can I do to show results or build the thing I am passionate about bringing into this world without needing anyone’s money?”
This is your chance to work smarter. You can find shortcuts that allow you to serve your market and show amazing results before you have to raise a dime.
If you work smarter, you’ll win.
It might mean a Kickstarter project, hacking together something yourself or with friends (but beware of bad MVPs), tapping a Mightybell Network to validate the opportunity for a new kind of network around a shared identity or interest, a MailChimp list to build the next TheSkimm with sponsors, or a Dwnld app to start a new media company.
Although, if we’re giving advice, don’t start a new media company.
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