Only about 20% of funded companies have women founders. But why is that and what are the things you need to succeed as a woman founder? Co-founder and CEO of Dagsmejan Catarina Dahlin shares her experiences with Authority Magazine.
This Article appeared in full length in Authority Magazine on 30 August 2021. Interview by Candice Georgiadis
Starting a business requires a certain amount of naïve confidence. If you don’t believe that you can do it, no one else will either. Focus on the core of your business, i.e., what value it brings to customers. I wasn’t sure if we could design and produce smart sleepwear that really helped people to sleep better. But, I never doubted that there was a need for many to sleep better (...).
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
I was born in a small village in Sweden, but from an early age I knew that I wanted to see the world. I first ventured out at 19 years-old when I moved to London for 6 months with only a return ticket and suitcase. This gave me a taste for what I wanted but also what I didn’t want and as I returned to Sweden to finish my obtaining my Master’s in Business Administration before embarking on an international career that led me to 7 countries across Europe and Asia.
I never had a 10 year plan, or even a 5 year plan. For me, it was always clear that there were many different paths that could be great for me, so instead I always tried to keep my mind and eyes open for new opportunities. For several years I had the dream of starting my own business and when my co-founder and I came to think about how we could sleep better, the idea of Dagsmejan was born.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
Every day is interesting when founding a company, but one of the most exhilarating periods was actually going live with our webshop. After 2 years of product development and production delays, we were finally ready to ship Dagsmejan sleepwear. We had done extensive testing with our research partners but this would be the first time we would find out if real customers would also sleep better with Dagsmejan. It was the most nerve-wrecking experience ever, thinking, “what if people won’t like it?”
To this day, my biggest motivation remains the positive feedback from customers and to hear about how they really are sleeping better. I get an email notification alerting me of each product review and I read every single one of them. Nothing matters more as a founder than understanding our customers’ experience.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
I remember very vividly the first textile fair we attended in Paris, with football fields of suppliers of yarns, fabrics, trims, etc. As I walked in, I was hit by the magnitude of it all, starting to realize fully how little I actually knew. As we walked from booth to booth of suppliers, who had zero interest in talking with us and quickly identified us as total amateurs, I started to feel despair and decided hide out in the café spending a good hour to finish an espresso.
This was the moment that I went from subconscious incompetence to conscious incompetence and my biggest learning lesson became, “you don’t need to know it all, but you should know what you don’t know. Or at least try to figure that out as quickly as possible!”
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
Starting a business has led to many positive revelations. One of the most encouraging being, realizing how many people are willing and happy to help you out without getting anything in return. I remember for example, when we were about to launch our Kickstarter campaign, I reached out to 3 start-ups in Switzerland who had completed successful campaigns in apparel. Within 2 hours, the founders of two of those companies got back to me and I had several calls with them learning more than I could do in several weeks from trying to research online. For me, it was not one person but rather a village of people in different areas who gave us insights and opened their network to us. So, don’t be afraid to ask. Most people are excited to be able to help!
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. According to this EY report, only about 20 percent of funded companies have women founders. This reflects great historical progress, but it also shows that more work still has to be done to empower women to create companies. In your opinion and experience what is currently holding back women from founding companies?
I believe what is holding a lot of people back — both men and women, is the fear of not making it. This is always a real risk when starting a business but it doesn’t have to mean that it’s the end of it. Many successful founders have failed and tried again.
Another aspect holding women back in entrepreneurship and business alike is the difficulty at times in combining business with family life. Childcare might be difficult to access or very costly, and short parental leaves mean that some families feel they need to choose between work and being there for their children.
Can you help articulate a few things that can be done as individuals, as a society, or by the government, to help overcome those obstacles?
Sharing more stories of female founders is a starting point. I think it’s important to not only share the success stories but also the failures — to show that making mistakes and even failing is not the end, it’s one step on the way to success.
As a society we should focus more on enabling affordable childcare, having reasonable parental leaves for both mums and dads and a school set up that is supportive of working couples.
This might be intuitive to you as a woman founder but I think it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you share a few reasons why more women should become founders?
Founding your own business is a crazy ride with so many ups and downs. There are risks involved but the rewards are even greater. You get to build out your dream, be in control of your destiny and you fast-forward your learning curve massively. Having your own business allows you to build your life the way you want it. It’s a lot of work but you are in charge of when and how you do it.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a founder?
Founders are always creative and always love a new challenge. When talking about being a founder and/or working in a start-up, it’s clear that some people have a ‘romantic’ view of start-ups. I find that people overestimate how much they dislike routine. Actually, a certain level of routine is a good thing. Constantly navigating unknown water and looking for new solutions can be exhausting. There are times when I’m delighted to be doing some basic excel work just so that I don’t have to be ‘creative’.
You are either a success or a failure. For most businesses it’s not a straight curve (either upwards or downwards), but rather an oscillation curve. You will have periods of failure and periods of success, and sometimes you are toasting to success and devising a crisis action plan just within days of each other.
You know it all and know where you are going. When we started Dagsmejan neither I nor my co-founder had any experience from the textile industry. We started with a need (to sleep better) and went from there. You don’t need to be an industry expert or have all the answers; sometimes not having experience means that you approach things with a fresh mind and see different opportunities that you might be blind to otherwise. Along our journey we also shifted paths many times; it’s more important to be agile than to have a 10 year roadmap detailing every step.
Is everyone cut out to be a founder? In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful founder and what type of person should perhaps seek a “regular job” as an employee?
The most important trait for any founder is resilience. You need to be able to see defeat as an opportunity for growth and to bounce back quickly. Starting a business is a rollercoaster ride and you need to be willing to be there for both the highs and lows. Other than that, there are no specific traits needed in my opinion. You can be an extrovert or an introvert, you can be great with numbers or barely be able to put 2 and 2 together. You just need to be able to surround yourself with the right people who complement your weaker points and those who make coming to work fun in good times and in bad.
Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. Based on your opinion and experience, what are the “Five Things You Need To Thrive and Succeed as a Woman Founder?”
- Resilience: As I mentioned above, this is for the most important quality for any founder, male or female. There have been so many moments where I’ve experienced lows and have been on my knees. You really need to be able to pick yourself up and keep coming at it with even more determination — time after time.
- A strong team around you: No one can do it alone — this applies to both our professional and private lives. I founded Dagsmejan with my partner in life, as well, and we complement each other in so many ways. Finding the right team who bring complementary skill sets is critical. You also need to make sure that you surround yourself with the right people privately; those who lift you up whilst helping you to stay grounded.
- Ask the right questions: You don’t need to know it all but you need to understand what your knowledge gaps are and how to fill them. We have benefited from support in so many areas — from federally funded research projects to asking for input from friends and family. Know what questions to ask and don’t be afraid to ask them.
- Agile learning: Constantly learning and adapting is the key to success. Rather than planning everything out in detail test, try and adapt. We have changed our business plan and our set-up many times along the way. With controlled experiments you can find out what works or not without putting the core of your business at stake.
- Believe you can fly: Starting a business requires a certain amount of naïve confidence. If you don’t believe that you can do it, no one else will either. Focus on the core of your business, i.e., what value does it bring to customers. I wasn’t sure if we could design and produce smart sleepwear that really helped people to sleep better. But, I never doubted that there was a need for many to sleep better and that what we keep closest to our skin for a third of our lives is what could make a big difference. That kept me going even when times got tough.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
The core of Dagsmejan is helping people to sleep better and live better, but also doing so in a natural and sustainable way. That’s why we only use the most sustainable natural fibers and ensure that each step of the process is done in an ethical and sustainable way with all of our production taking place in Europe. This leads to higher production costs but it’s a vital component of our business. We also support NGO’s in different areas, from reforestation to helping impoverished communities have access to clean water.
On a personal level, I always try to pay forward all the support we received in terms of advice, network, etc. Recently, I became a certified coach with a Swiss federal start-up organization, as well.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
Bringing education to girls across the world would make a huge difference, for women and families alike.
We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.
There are so many people that I would love to have a discussion with! Sara Blakely, for bringing innovation to a saturated industry (underwear), Sheryl Sandberg, for bringing the message that leaning in as woman isn’t a bad thing and Greta Thunberg, for showing that at any age you can make a difference!