Business Insider has a story about entrepreneur Nikki Durbin, 22-year old founder of 99dresses.com. The story reports that as a woman she felt she wasn't always taken seriously in the start-up world. The story gives two examples to back that point.

Durkin said an investor at a fundraising event asked her if she knew what an angel was. Durkin said to Business Insider, "I just remember thinking, I'm at this event of course I know what an angel is. I just found it really odd, and I don't know if he would say the same thing if a guy was talking to him."

That DOES sound condescending, if not downright sexist.

But of course it is out of context.

Here's some context.

I have a degree in economics, an MBA from Berkeley, and over 30 years of business experience. Do you know what question I hear in Silicon Valley nearly every time I meet with potential investors for CalendarTree?

"Do you know what an angel investor is?"

The first time I heard the question I thought That is terribly condescending. This person knows my background. OF COURSE I know what an angel investor is.

Then I found out I didn't know what an angel is. The definition has evolved.

The old definition of an angel was an investor who made high-risk investments in start-ups that had not yet demonstrated organic, viral growth. That sort of investor no longer exists, as far as I can tell. Maybe it never did.

Today an angel investor is, for all practical purposes, a bank that looks at virality instead of cash flow. If your start-up is already growing quickly, at least in terms of users and clicks, an angel will be happy to fund you to even faster growth. But if all you have is a great idea and beta product, no angel is interested. Nor should they be, because it is well-accepted that no one can pick an early stage winner in the start-up space.

The investors who do put money into unproven start-ups are typically friends and family. Silicon Valley lore says there are such things as seed investors that invest in the unproven start-ups of strangers, but I have not yet met such a person. Nor have I heard the name of such a person. It is a bit of a Bigfoot situation.

Today, an angel investor is similar to a venture capitalist, with the only distinction being that the latter invest higher dollar amounts. Otherwise they are the same thing. Angels and VCs prefer to invest exclusively in businesses that are already growing quickly. In the world of the Internet, fast growth is assumed to be something that can be monetized in the future.

Business Insider gives another example of the patronizing attitude that Nikki Durbin experienced. At a networking event - where math skills are high and social skills are low - a man asked if she had modeled. The article is accompanied by a photo of Durbin in a stylish outfit, posing like a model.

I don't doubt that Silicon Valley's male-oriented culture is hard for women to penetrate. But I do question whether it is worse than any other business environment. If I had to guess, I'd say Silicon Valley would be among the easiest for women to penetrate because the average age for start-ups is younger, and most start-ups would strongly prefer hiring additional women. Or even one woman. The problem from their perspective is supply.

Scott Adams
Co-founder of CalendarTree.com

Author of this book


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Jul 2, 2014
So, what are you called when strangers ask you to invest in startups that haven't gone viral yet?
Jul 2, 2014
I did not know the definition has changed. If it has, then I can understand why people ask about it. It also sounds like a way of telling people: you aren't viral enough.
+3 Rank Up Rank Down
Jul 2, 2014
you said 'penetrate'

*insert beavis and butthead laugh*
Jul 2, 2014
There are two things worth saying about this story:

1. women definitely do suffer from sexism in the workplace, get condescended to and suffer inappropriate comments about and get judged on their appearance.

2. this particular story is a terribly bad example to pick if you're trying to make point (1), for all the reasons other posters have already enumerated.
+5 Rank Up Rank Down
Jul 1, 2014
When I started my business some 7 years ago, I tried like the dickens to get some type of funding. I went to VC's, angels, networking, I tried to recruit friends and hell, I even tried to give a way a piece of the action for free just to get some help in starting it up and get it going, all to no avail. So, I did it myself. All of it. Wrote the code, designed the website, I was the sales, tech support, account, bookkeeper, intern and janitor. I did it all. I used credit cards and sh!ty loans to get the ball rolling. Could I pay it all back in time? No. I filed bankruptcy and stuck it to the Man. But I kept the business and kept at it.

I now have 2 employees and cleared just under $500K last year in sales. I've reinvested everything back into the business and have worked harder than any job I've ever had. I still don't consider it a success and I still don't sleep much.

Not sure what the point was that I was trying to make, but I think it has something to do with not relying on others, including money people, but what it does take is a lot of sticking to it and making it through the tough times.

I define success as "Perseverance and luck, it's a sliding scale.". So far I've had lots of perseverance, not a lot of luck.
Jul 1, 2014
Melvin - He was absolutely trying to compliment her! And for all of the "math geeks have no social skills" comments, it's generally true that "Have you done any modeling?" is far less likely to result in having a drink thrown on you than "Wow! Your body looks amazing!" or something like that.
+4 Rank Up Rank Down
Jul 1, 2014
I don't quite agree with your definition of angels. For starters, perhaps in Silicon Valley, most start-ups are tech firmw, but here in Boston they come in all flavors. So your concept of viral growth often doesn't apply.

I've met plenty of angels at events sponsored by The Capital Network, Venture Cafe, District Hall, and myriad others. I even dated a CPA who does business valuations for start-ups. She's tall and attractive, and sees it as an advantage. It's quite helpful in getting precious face-time with angels. Then she can prove herself (which she does quite handily).

I would describe the angels here as fitting the standard definition. Think "Shark Tank" with financial statements and lots of rigor.

I also have clients in Silicon Valley who were funded by angels without viral growth. But they had proven management teams and differentiated, marketable products.
+11 Rank Up Rank Down
Jul 1, 2014
Re the modeling comment: her app is called 99dresses, and is about clothing. Modeling experience wouldn't be a stretch.

Or perhaps he was just trying to complement her. There's a pretty good chance the guy doesn't get to interact with attractive young women often.

Either way, she seems overly sensitive about it.
+23 Rank Up Rank Down
Jun 30, 2014
"I don't doubt that Silicon Valley's male-oriented culture is hard for women to penetrate."

You don't get a free pass just for being male. And she's obviously not a coder. Odds are, she has an easier time navigating that scene as a young hot woman than a non-technical older man would.
Jun 30, 2014
"At a networking event - where math skills are high and social skills are low - a man asked if she had modeled. The article is accompanied by a photo of Durbin in a stylish outfit, posing like a model."

Hilarious. Reminds me of many of my female friends on Facebook. 50% of their posts are about how guys are jerks who are only interested in their appearance, and the other 50% are selfies taken in bikinis with tons of skin and cleavage showing.
Jun 30, 2014
Back when I was working in Silicon Valley, we had a slightly different definition of an Angel than yours. An Angel Investor was a big-bucks individual who would invest in startups, as opposed to a Vencap firm that was a group organized to invest in startups using money raised from different sources.

But I'm sure a lot has changed in the past few years.

I have worked for Silicon Valley firms owned by men, and by women. Interestingly, one of the man-owned firms was purchased by one of the women-owned firms. Go figure. But then the woman-owned business was acquired by Computer Associates. Those old-timers like me will remember the woman's name: Sandra Kurtzig.

Women have come a long way since then. We all remember Carly Fiorina of HP, and of course Marissa Mayer of Yahoo! Were I a more sexist guy, I'd say 'hubba hubba' to the latter, but I am an enlightened, 21st-century metrosexual. Hee, hee.

In any case, good luck in your quest for funding. I'm sure there's an Angel out there somewhere for you, regardless of how you define it.
Jun 30, 2014
Hi Scott - The terms "angel" and "seed" investor get somewhat interchangeable use. Let's group them together. The difference between them and VCs comes with the stage that they invest (often earlier), and the % of the company they expect to own (less, often a minority).

There are high-net-worth (HNW) individuals out there who, individually or in groups, do high-risk early stage investing. Call them angels (some of them call themselves that) or seed investors (ditto). The concept remains. (I worked at one company that was funded over years, from cradle-to-(unfortunately)-grave, by a single HNW individual).

Yes, F&F also invest at this stage, but they don't have a monopoly by any means. (and many thanks & kudos to those HNW folk willing to gamble on a good idea - keep at it!, and hopefully your successes more than cover your losses).
0 Rank Up Rank Down
Jun 30, 2014
There, there.
+22 Rank Up Rank Down
Jun 30, 2014
From the article:
[Start article quote]
"Another person who also happened to be working that Saturday asked her how her company motivates her to work so hard on the weekends.

He was surprised, Durkin said, to learn that she was the company's founder.

"He just made an over assumption that Marcin was the founder because he's a man, and that all of the girls worked for him" Durkin said. "That got me a little riled up."

Marcin Popielarz is the co-founder of 99dresses, and he handles a lot of the backend technical duties that kept 99dresses running."
[End article quote]

I wonder if her statement of the root cause is speculation (assumption) or if she asked the offender. I doubt she asked. I have a hard time believing he would say "I assumed all of the girls work for him because he's a man", but that's me making an assumption. Also, Marcin is probably about 10 years older than Durkin. It could be age that led to the assumption, based on the other person's years of pattern recognition. She may live in a world of imagined slights.
Jun 30, 2014
"start-ups that had not yet demonstrated organic, viral growth."
"a bank that looks at virality instead of cash flow."

From everything that I've ever seen, "organic growth" (constant rate, slow and steady, like trees) are a good thing. "Viral growth" (exponential rate, like, well, viruses) are bad. Viruses spread fast, but then burn themselves out. Organic organisms, if they survive childhood, last for years and years. Viruses cannot usually deal with a change in environment; organisms can.

I'm surprised that a bank would be happy with something that viral. Something VIRILE, OTOH, would be a good thing. But a very different thing.

Then again, what an employee (or historian) sees as "good" (stability and contribution) and what an investor sees as "good" (make lots of money, then get out before the collapse) are two different things.
Jun 30, 2014
I would like to hire her as a model.
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