Two local businesswomen share their advice for women who want to start up in Denver.
—Photo courtesy of Shutterstock
In April 2015, Forbes named Boulder, Colorado, the best place in America to start a business. People listened. More than 101,000 individuals moved to the Centennial state in 2015, which has, of course, made traffic worse and raised home prices. But it’s also created a more diverse market for startup businesses—especially for women.
Overall, the Denver metro area is a great place for business (so says Forbes, yet again), and for women, there are few other U.S. cities that make starting one such an accessible dream. But what, exactly, makes women here so successful?
We talked to Debbi Warden, a longtime local business owner and winner of the Denver Business Journal’s 2015 Outstanding Women in Business award; and Nicole Smith, founder and CEO of the three-year-old Mary’s Medicinals and a finalist for the DBJ’s 2015 Outstanding Women in Business award. Their journeys are markedly different, but their experiences reveal a path to success for any woman looking to own and operate a business in Colorado. Here, they share four tips for budding female entrepreneurs.
Like many big ideas, Smith’s business—which develops and distributes clinical-grade cannabinoid products such as patches, gels, capsules, and topical compounds—sprung from a conversation between friends at a party in 2012.
“I met a grower who asked what my thoughts were about the cannabis industry—prices were going down, and it was a commodities market at the time—and what I would do, if anything, in the industry,” she says. “I suggested making a patch, because I’d worked with a couple of vitamin patch products in the past and thought it would elevate at least what my perception was of the cannabis market, which was people fighting for cannabis as medicine.”
By April 2013, Smith had outlined a concrete idea for an adhesive cannabinoid (CBD) patch that could provide up to 12 hours of pain relief. After collaborating with experts in transdermal film technology, Smith made her first sale in November of that year. Today, Mary’s Medicinals products, which range from patches and capsules to gels and topical compounds, are available for medicinal use at 1,200 stores in seven states, including Arizona, Colorado, California, Oregon, and Washington. (Some products are also available recreationally where marijuana is legalized.)
Before starting Mary's Medicinals, Smith ran a marketing firm focused on helping small businesses succeed and witnessed firsthand the power of networking for these up-and-coming companies. “Anyone can start a business, but running the organization is where you need to seek help and advice,” she says.
Warden, who recently linked up with the accounting and consulting firm RubinBrown LLC to further her services as a certified public accountant (CPA), agrees that support is key to any entrepreneur’s ascent in the business world. “When you’re a sole proprietor, sometimes you just need some validation,” she says. “You need someone to say, ‘Yes, go do it,’ or ‘Let me caution you on that.’ Many wear too many hats within their business, and seeking resources outside of your reach can be helpful.”
Both women cited casual networking and local business associations as productive, noncompetitive spaces to share ideas, but they expressed even more appreciation for incubators and co-working spaces. Local versions of these include the Commons on Champa in Denver (where Smith and Warden participated in a February panel targeted to women entrepreneurs) and Spark Boulder. These organizations offer exposure and can also create temporary legitimacy before a company reaches brick-and-mortar permanence.
“The atmosphere of a meeting is 30 to 40 percent about the professionalism you portray and what environment you set up,” Smith says. “Use those conference rooms. Go to those places and capitalize on them.”
Create (or Find) a Culture That Goes Beyond Work
Before joining RubinBrown, Warden ran The Business Manager LLC, an accounting and consulting firm. She decided to merge with a larger company to gain access to corporate resources, but she didn’t want to lose her original flexible company culture—one that worked for both men and women. Luckily, RubinBrown fit both needs.
According to the American Institute of CPAs’ (AICPA) 2015 trends report, 48 percent of accounting graduates (BA and MA combined) are female, and new hires are essentially split down the middle. Yet only 20 percent of partners in 100-plus CPA firms are women. Although that percentage goes up as a firm’s size goes down, Warden would like to see equal numbers in the future. “[Men and women] are not the same, and it’s better when we come together,” she says. “We bring different things to the table.”
For Warden, building a workplace that blurred traditional gender roles was a must. But the flexibility also had to go beyond staffing.
“Women have traditionally been held back by wanting to be a parent,” Warden says. “At a point in their career it’s a bit of a ‘Y’ in the road. When you talk about what culture is right, it’s a culture—and it doesn’t matter whether you’re male or female—that must be flexible when life changes outside of work.”
Sole proprietors often work seven days a week, and for many female business owners, juggling maternal responsibilities, relationships, and a company can cause one or more areas to suffer. For both Smith and Warden, the key to success was blending the professional and personal. “The time you spend in your work environment becomes part of your identity, and if it doesn’t, you’re in the wrong place,” Warden says.
Get Your Credentials—and Flaunt ’Em
To get ahead in any industry, you have to become an expert. Warden’s path to her CPA was a long one that included a design degree from UCLA and a business degree from Metro State. Passing the certification tests were vital to her credibility, but so was her confidence. “There is a natural tendency among [women] to apply for jobs that we feel 100 percent qualified for,” she says. “It’s typical for men to be more aggressive and apply for those positions they might not be qualified for. If you don’t portray confidence in yourself, others can see that.”
Smith never saw her gender as a challenge in the cannabis industry, where women hold 36 percent of executive positions on average, compared to 22 percent across all U.S. businesses. “People tend to overlook or underestimate women until it’s too late,” she says. “[Mary’s] had grown into a major competitor before most people even noticed. So it’s all about perception. If you perceive yourself to be ‘less’ somehow, you’ll always set yourself back.”
All business owners are expected to produce a great product. But Warden believes women have an edge in cultivating relationships, which keeps clients coming back.
“Get yourself the right education—and that doesn’t necessarily mean degrees—to propel yourself toward what you’re passionate about,” Warden says. “Understand what the world wants from you, your niche, your area of expertise, so that you can deliver in the manner that people will want to pay for it. Then go above and beyond that baseline.”
Be Receptive to Industry Changes
When starting Mary’s Medicinals, Smith originally pitched her products as a discrete way for people to get high. But once she did more research on cannabinoids, she realized she could help people suffering from chronic pain and illness by developing safe, accurately dosed cannabis products. After receiving positive feedback and hearing success stories from her customers, her moneymaking venture became her passion.
Flexibility is important to Smith’s continued success, especially given the nature of her business. If marijuana gets rescheduled on a federal level or even legalized, Mary’s Medicinals could face major competition from pharmaceutical companies (or become an attractive acquisition target). By diversifying her offerings to include hemp-based and ancillary products, Smith is proactively finding balance, so if the company is threatened in one area, another can achieve long-term growth. “Now, a lot of our goals come with the understanding that we may not be able to do this forever,” she says. “It’s all about foresight, without spreading yourself too thin.”
For both Smith and Warden, the passions that sparked their careers grew organically, and neither could boast a straight path to success. Warden suddenly recognized her passion sitting in her first accounting course as a business student. Even then, she assumed that she would become a teacher but didn’t end up doing that, either. Starting a business would become the outlet she needed to find what she was looking for, and every prior experience she had became relevant when she was trying to get The Business Manager off the ground.
“I like that my path was not straight. I have all this varied experience and it’s unexpected how much I use it,” Warden says. “When you’re small, you can be more flexible and responsive as your industry changes.”
—Embedded photos courtesy of womengrow.com and Debbi Warden