As a successful serial entrepreneur, Bettina Hein has a lot to say about how to run a business. She and her partners sold their last venture, SVOX, a speech technology software firm in Switzerland, for $125 million. Before that, while pursuing a dual law-business degree in Germany and Switzerland, she founded START, a student entrepreneurship association that spread to six other universities.
Now she’s on to her next company, Pixability, a data-driven YouTube marketing software company based in Boston. And if that weren’t enough to keep her busy, she and Zipcar co-founder, Robin Chase started SheEOs, a Boston area networking and professional support a group of 130 female founders.
I asked Ms. Hein to expand on her management philosophy and the factors leading to her success today.
Q: Many women entrepreneurs consciously decide to implement management policies that are different from the “norm.” What are some of the policies you’ve installed that stand out?
One thing that I do in my company, and I don’t know if it’s a female thing or maybe it’s a European thing, is that I give everybody four weeks of vacation. But the way that I do it is that they have to take two weeks at a stretch, because I believe that if you can’t leave your job for two weeks and have somebody cross-trained on it or take care of things in a way that you can leave for two weeks, you’re doing the organization a disservice. You’re being too self-important if you think that the company can’t survive two weeks without you. You have to be in command of your team, have people cover for you, and if you can’t do that, you’re not organizing your work correctly.
I also think face time is really important for collaboration in startups, but my slant on that is that I don’t reward people who spend excessive time in the office. I really, really try to measure people by their output and not by the amount of time that they spend sitting around.
And finally, I coach people differently. Women often don’t ask for enough resources. They aren’t proactive enough about standing up for their position and standing their ground. They internalize their stress. Men are usually taught to fight back and women just want to smooth things over. If something bad happens, they dump on themselves and feel more responsible, whereas the men always say, “Well, it’s an external issue. I’m super, but these were the circumstances.” So, yeah, you have to manage them differently.
Q: In what way do you manage them differently?
You have to be more blunt with men. You just have to say, “Look, I set these goals for you. You didn’t reach them. I don’t want to hear excuses. Fix it!” But with many women, they’re already completely contrite in saying, “Oh, I know why this didn’t work and I’m sorry.” So my response is, “Okay, let’s learn from it. Let’s make sure it doesn’t happen anymore.”
Q: You’ve said that you admire Margaret Thatcher, a leader with an iron will. As a rare woman in the technology industry, how would you describe your own leadership style?
I kind of felt a kinship with her. I mean, she’s always been a female icon even though a controversial one, but definitely, when I was growing up she was a very strong woman in a sea of men.
I have this very strong moral compass. There are certain values that I would never compromise on – and my team knows this. We really have strong ethics. I would never ask them to do anything that is wrong, or that is morally questionable. I always tell them that I’d rather shut down the business here and now before I did something that was morally not right.
I sometimes do still have that sort of intimidated girl in me, but the thing is, as founder and CEO, I have this inherent self-confidence because I know the buck stops with me. I don’t really need to be threatening for people to understand that I have the power to make decisions. Externally, that’s a little bit harder, but I try to determine on an intellectual level the boundaries of what I’m willing to accept and what I’m not willing to accept. That makes it easier when making the hard decisions.
Q: Is there anyone who inspired your interest in becoming an entrepreneur?
My four grandparents were entrepreneurs in their own right. My grandmother on my dad’s side had her own pharmacy, which she ran. My grandfather worked there, but he also had businesses of his own. My grandmother on my mom’s side had a little mom-and-pop grocery store, and my grandfather had a coal wholesale business, which he was very successful at and made a lot of money with. In addition, both of my parents are self-employed. So I often say when I talk to groups, “I didn’t really know any better, I don’t know anybody in my family that did nine-to-five work. That was just not a pattern that I saw in our family.”
Q: What would you tell an aspiring woman who is stuck in a corporate job but has a business idea?
Just go out and do it, because it’s not going to get any better. I think that if you go and do it before you have lots of huge commitments, it’s easier. What’s the worst thing that can happen? I might use up these savings but then I could go back and get job X and replenish that. If you think through it, it’s not that scary.