When running a business, it’s tempting to want to be all things to all people. But there’s a reason why conventional wisdom says to identify a niche audience. Very few companies are Amazon and can work for everyone, and there’s a reason for that, too—it’s insanely difficult.
With that in mind, chances are you’ve already chosen your segment focus—or if you’re just starting up, you’re working on finding it. Here’s something that could help or make you consider a change: In 2018, businesses by women entrepreneurs built around serving female consumers and women-centric causes have never been better positioned to reach their peak power. And even early in the year, they’re already seeing dividends.
If you’re a woman reading this, it’s not hard to believe that entirely women-centric brands—in marketing, ideology, and business model—are actually fairly few and far between concepts. And for small business owners, watching businesses rise to fill this space is thrilling.
Substantial public reckoning with issues of female empowerment, equality, agency, and respect are dominating headlines and moving the needle in ways that were unfathomable only a few years ago. Of course, the conversation helps women stand up for their values, voices, and visions within their personal lives. But it also creates an unparalleled climate for female professionals to flourish, too.
So, if you’re passionate about helping women and the causes that serve them, you shouldn’t see starting a business geared toward female consumers as a dicey decision. It should turn into—and, in fact, it has proven to be—a sound financial decision for some companies.
Minnesota’s City Girl Coffee is a new sister company to long-established family coffee brand Alakef Coffee Roasters. In a recent article in the New York Times, the paper hails City Girl Coffee as “bold and risky, from its bright-pink logo and packaging to its business plan’s central tenet: fighting gender inequity in the coffee industry.” The company’s social mission is to source coffee from farms owned or managed by women throughout the world.
The idea that a company is taking a risk with a pink logo and a mission to fight gender inequity is debatable, sure, but it’s not exactly hard to see why the Times would take that stance. According to the article’s author, Dan Hyman, consultants told City Girl Coffee CEO Alyza Bohbot that “it’s great to have a mission, but it’s not enough to drive sales.”
Bohbot has proved those consultants wrong, though, with a huge boost in sales—success to the tune of a 300% year-over-year increase, as reported in the Times article—and, clearly, major press coverage to boot. And she’s not the only one reaping the benefits of going all-in on a company by and for women.
Nicholle Overkamp is the founder and owner of Wilcox Financial Group, based in Buffalo-area Williamsville, N.Y. She changed her company’s brand and mission entirely over the last year to focus specifically on getting women to take control of their financial futures. And saw a reported 40% increase in profits as a result.
“We made this distinct change to start focusing our practice toward working with women, empowering them and helping them to achieve their goals, versus doing a lot of the other general marketing and financial planning we had been doing in previous years,” Overkamp says via email. “We made this shift because we saw such a huge need for these types of services, and we can relate to these women so well.”
Now, Wilcox Financial offers full-service, fee-based financial planning—from starting with the basics to building a full retirement plan, as well as asset management and individual insurance products such as life insurance, disability insurance, and long-term care insurance. All of these services are focused specifically on Wilcox’s female clientele.
Here’s how Overkamp made the changes that transformed her focus—and her bottom line. And how you can do the same:
Overkamp started Wilcox Financial in 2012 after deciding she wanted to approach financial planning from a different angle—including getting away from sales goals for specific products.
She had to rethink—and reboot—the way Wilcox approached both their client interactions and the company’s marketing campaigns before she hit on what felt right to her.
“It turns out the clients I love helping most and get the most fulfillment [out of helping] are career-focused women,” she says. “Throughout 2017 we revamped and rebranded our company to specifically focus on and market toward empowering women to own their financial futures.”
This realization was informed by Overkamp’s own career arc. She spent years working not only for a financial firm that seemed to value sales over service but also in an environment where she, too, faced many professional obstacles common to ambitious women.
She recounts experiencing discrimination, demeaning comments, and an impenetrable “old boys’ club mentality” so deeply entrenched in much of finance. “I really had to fight to be taken seriously, and a huge reason why I started to change my direction and work with women is that we understand each other and are on the same page,” she says. “We fight in different trenches than men do and need to work together.”
Overkamp’s experience is an excellent example of why to start a business geared toward advocating for and empowering women: Her mission is personal and sincere. Overkamp’s decision came from years of struggle combating the very issue she hopes to help other women tackle. If your business has no real stake in that fight, your inauthenticity will be felt—and consumers will acknowledge it by taking their business elsewhere.
Take a look at City Girl Coffee. There’s nothing about the product or service that precludes one gender or another from being a shopper. The same goes for most products we think of as “exclusively” for women. Nothing stops a man, or someone who is gender binary, from buying makeup or a dress, whether for the women in his life or for himself.
Having a female-focused brand doesn’t mean you sell exclusively to women. What it does mean, however, is that you’ve identified women as the clientele you primarily serve—and, ultimately, will work to serve best. If other people end up a part of the equation, all the better.
For Wilcox Financial, men are still very much clients of the company. The husbands of Wilcox clients often come along to consultations and meetings.
“If women are married, they need to also fully understand the financial household and how it relates to their future,” says Overkamp. “We’ve found [that] it’s so important to a couple’s success to be on the same page about money and their goals. The more they play as a team, the more success they have.”
This still means that Wilcox is primarily trying to capture female clients, for reasons related to the company’s core business beliefs.
“It was more tradition in the past for women to just allow their husband to run the household financially, and that needs to change. Women need to be more confident and educated,” Overkamp says.
People can sense disingenuous sentiment from miles away. When a company tries to jump on the #MeToo or #TimesUp campaign, or begin a new initiative to donate money to female-focused charities at a particularly opportune moment, they will more than likely fall flat without a demonstrated history in that arena.
Some retailers trying to capitalize on #MeToo recently became the object of scorn when consumers could smell opportunism. Capitalizing on a hashtag can do more harm that good when chiming in on the conversation happens via a poorly thought-through tweet.
If you’re going to make a change, rid yourself of the idea that your pivot is all about unlocking your business’s potential for peak effectiveness. Committing to underserved women consumers, unaddressed needs particular to women, or female causes isn’t a marketing ploy. It’s a shift to your core business tenets.
“We changed our marketing, messaging, and website. We wanted all our marketing and brand to talk to individual women and make them feel like we understand their needs and concerns,” says Overkamp. “We’ve tailored our financial planning programs to integrate more hands-on education-based coaching, as well as looking at some of the psychological impacts of money personality traits.”
This education-based coaching, which is now a major part of the company’s day-to-day operations, is a crucial element of helping women both feel good about their financial choices and also understand those choices fully.
“I’ve learned that much of a successful financial plan and having positive emotions tied to money is mindset and confidence … we don’t have women leave our office thinking, ‘What is it I’m doing? What is it I own?’” Overkamp says.
Their social voice now speaks directly to the women they’re looking to serve. From Wilcox Financial’s Facebook page:
“Our marketing talked to women as individuals,” says Overkamp. “We stopped posting the traditional financial planning stuff on investing and insurance and posted more about feelings, and how we can transform their lives by getting a grip on money and accomplishing goals to reduce their stress and anxiety.”
As with any big pivot you’d make as a business owner, you might see results right away. But not all of them will be positive, whether any not-so-great effects show in the reception from your current customer base, or as a hit to your P&L. But real change takes time, and part of committing to a new focus, mission, and strategy is riding out any short-term bumps in order to see long-term dividends.
We’ll say it again: This can’t be something you do on a whim.
But you could also be like Overkamp and company. She saw an almost immediate uptick in business as the result of her focus revamp.
“By our efforts in targeting women and working with them, we’ve increased the fee-based planning we do,” she says, citing a 40% increase in profits since the middle of 2017. “Many women wanted the full comprehensive financial plan and help being educated and held accountable to not only investing but building a financial plan.”
Overkamp says the kind of fee-based planning they provide specifically appeals to her new customers for a few reasons.
“Women like knowing they have a support system and someone to have their back on specific decisions. It’s also helpful for them to have us tell them to ‘not feel guilty’ and plan for themselves vs. spending all their time and resources on everyone else,” she says.
Part of what spurred the creation of City Girl Coffee was founder Bohbot’s recognition that equity in the coffee business was totally skewed in the wrong direction, with women doing the most to bring coffee to market but not seeing representative profits. She started the company to help address that issue.
Similarly, Overkamp saw a void she needed to fill that went beyond the numbers. Her company’s mission also does their place to society move toward the larger goal of equalizing the power dynamic among genders.
“Imagine where we would be on a national level to have more women feeling confident and making better money choices,” she says.
If you’re feeling ready to make your mark, there’s capital out there waiting for women building great businesses. Check out a whole list of small business loans for women, apply, and make your mark.