Polis founder Kendall Tucker (Photo courtesy of Polis)

This week, a female entrepreneur asks for advice on how to succeed in male-dominated investment world. –Dan Beyers

The entrepreneur

At 16, Kendall Tucker was already involved in politics, knocking on doors for the candidates she supported in her home state of Massachusetts. By the time she was 19, she was managing state senate races. At 20, she decided to run herself and was elected to local office. After college, she had to make a choice to stay in politics or to pursue another path.

Frustrated that most campaign dollars are spent on television advertising rather than more effective door-to-door outreach, Tucker decided to take another path, joining the advisory firm Parthenon Group to figure out what was next. That road quickly led her back to politics.

While in her management consulting job, Tucker worked with some friends to put together a software platform called Polis, that automated much of what campaigns needed to go door-to-door and win. Tucker got seven local city council members to use her platform and they all won re-election by at least 20 percent. In 2015, the presidential campaigns of the Libertarian Party’s Gary Johnson and the Green Party’s Jill Stein signed on to use Polis, as well as 107 other political organizations. Polis had clear traction in politics, but, after speaking to a large security company eager to use the product, Tucker explored an even larger opportunity: Selling to corporations that rely on door-to-door marketing to make sales.

The pitch

Tucker, founder and chief executive of Polis

“Polis better connects people with the organizations they care about. Because consumers today are bombarded with impersonal ads, relationship-based sales methods such as door-to-door have never been more effective. Still, for organizations that want to sell face-to-face, it’s important that they pre-determine who to contact and what to say so that they are providing value to consumers and forming mutually beneficial relationships, and not bothering people who’d rather be left alone.

“Our platform takes basic demographic information, then overlays it with information about how likely a person is to be responsive at the door, how well they are connected to other people in an organization’s customer file, and what someone should say to those people to have the most effective interactions. All of that data is available in our software platform, where our clients can monitor analytics about their outreach. Also, sales reps can download our app and see a map of their current location with markers showing them where to go and what to say. After clicking ‘Get Started,’ Polis automatically generates the best routes to go door-to-door, then offers different questions or guiding statements at each door based on what will likely make the interaction with that individual most effective. Sales reps can also schedule follow-up actions through the app.

“We aggregate information to create our database. We sell clients door knocking data at a flat rate per record, which varies based complexity. We also sell subscription access to our software platform based on the number of reps using it. We brought on our first corporate clients in December 2016 and have on-boarded eight since then. We’ve identified tremendous growth in the door-to-door space and we’re excited about making it the best it can be.

“We are working on a building a strong sales team now and raising money to do so. As I go out to speak with investors, I face challenges as a female founder. Often, I find myself as the only woman in the room and people say I remind them of their daughter or they ask if I’m my investor’s wife or they say I’m a ‘great cheerleader.’ Often I hear that investors are looking for pattern recognition and it is difficult when there are few female tech founder role models who have traversed these paths before me. For every meeting, I wonder if it would have gone differently if I were a man.”

The advice

Sara Herald, associate director, social entrepreneurship at the Dingman Center for Entrepreneurship at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business

“This is a real problem for so many women who are starting businesses, especially in male-dominated industries. You’re in the cool but terrible position of being a trailblazer. This is one of the things not talked about enough in the venture creation world. We talk about the importance of diversity and different perspectives, but huge obstacles remain to seeing meaningful change. Research from the Kauffman Foundation shows that men are two-thirds more likely to access equity investments, and that women are starting companies with half as much money as their male peers. You could easily not raise the money a male founder would raise simply because you are woman, and that could be the difference between success and failure.

“One of the most interesting ways I’ve seen to overcome this is ‘owning’ the situation by addressing it head-on. You can walk into a meeting and say something like: ‘I’m a founder who is also a woman and I’m here to negotiate. Studies show that you are going to like me less because I’m going to negotiate. But I hope that now that we know that bias and acknowledge it, we can move past it and you can challenge yourself to not like me less as I negotiate.’ That’s been a really interesting tactic. It feels awkward to a lot of people – who wants to start a conversation that way? – but it seems to be working in some situations, at least anecdotally. Calling out the elephant in the room can help everyone move past it.

“Another tactic that can help: Try to identify and equip male allies. A good ally will time and again give credit where it is due and defer to you in meetings as the founder and head of the company. That can redirect the focus to where it needs to be and reinforce your role as the leader and decision maker.”

The reaction

Tucker

“I’ve never heard that head-on tactic before – it’s really interesting. I think it’s also really important for women to support other women. I think it’s difficult not to feel competitive when it feels like there are few spots to grab as a woman. But the better female founders do, the better we all do.”

Looking for some advice on a new business, or need help fixing an existing one? Capital Business and the experts at the University of Maryland’s Dingman Center for Entrepreneurship at the Robert H. Smith School of Business are ready to assist. Contact us at capbiznews@washpost.com.