Startup Advice

5 Qualities of Startup Founders — An International Women’s Day Panel Recap

By: Michelle McNamara | March 14, 2018

Startup founders Laura Behrens-Wu, Mada Seghete, Heidi Zak, and Michelle Zatlyn

Building a successful company is no easy feat. In fact, only 40 percent of startups that closed Pre-Series A funding are expected to reach Series A. So, what special sauce do you need to “make it?”

For International Women’s Day this year, our CEO and co-founder Laura Behrens Wu joined a panel of female founders to shed light on what it takes to create a new product and start a company.

Between Laura and the rest of the panel — Mada Seghete, co-founder and head of marketing at Branch Metrics; Heidi Zak, co-founder and co-CEO of ThirdLove; and Michelle Zatlyn, co-founder and COO of Cloudflare (moderator) — they’ve collectively raised more than 338 million dollars for their companies and each employ tens to hundreds of team members.

They credit how far they’ve come to a few key characteristics and leadership strategies: stay learning, build a community, take risks, and be persistent and the hardest worker in the room.

They’re Still Learning Everyday

When asked what about their job was a surprise or misconception, the panelists agreed that people don’t realize how often they’ve done tasks where they didn’t know what they were doing.

For Heidi, it’s mostly about problem solving, “Every day [as CEO] you’re doing something that you don’t know how to do, and it’s very unpredictable,” explained Heidi. “Every day is unique. And, generally it’s one of us trying to figure out how to solve a problem.”

They Lean on their Community

According to Laura, “Know what you don’t know — that’s really important. There’s no shame in asking for advice. I think it’s a strength if you’re able to do that.” Laura taps her network when she needs advice. Her circle includes friends that are CEOs and co-founders, an executive coach, and our co-founder Simon.

Michelle shared how her partner supported her decision to be a founder, “It’s hard, but it’s possible to have two working parents in a household…For those of you who don’t have life partners yet, pick someone who is okay with it. My husband is super supportive of my career, and I’m super supportive of his career, and I feel lucky that I have that person at home. The most important decision is who you marry or who is your life partner,” said Michelle. “Another thing: when we had kids, my company was 60 people, and I lived across the street from my office. Things were growing so quickly, so I lived in a less desirable neighborhood to have no commute.”

They Work Incredibly Hard

Michelle asked an investor of each startup why they invested. One common theme: the hard work and tenacity of these co-founders.

Scott Sandell of NEA said the Branch team is the hardest working startup they have in their portfolio. Mada elaborated, “[People don’t really talk about] how hard it is to be a founder. I went to business school and I remember we went through cases and cases of successful founders. You don’t hear of the failures. We failed a lot before Branch. We failed for almost 18 months before getting to Branch.”

They’re Persistent

Union Square Ventures’ Albert Wenger said that one of the reasons they invested in Shippo was because of Laura’s persistence. And, she credits this persistence to why they succeeded, “We tried to get Albert to invest so many times and he kept saying no, so I’m glad he noticed that I was persistent.”

They Take Risks

Jon Sakoda of NEA said, “Heidi is passionate about the problem. Victoria’s Secret is a huge 800 pound gorilla in retail. Heidi is fearless about that. She knew women wanted something else.”

These founders’ drive and persistence haven’t wavered, in part because each of these founders focus on taking their company to the next level every day. Here at Shippo, we have a saying, “we haven’t won yet.” The panelists were happy to share the qualities that got them here, but it’s clear that “here” isn’t the end of their journey.

For more founder advice, check out our blog post sharing tips for starting a startup.


Shippo is a multi-carrier API and web app that helps retailers, marketplaces and platforms connect to a global network of carriers. Businesses use Shippo to get real-time rates, print labels, automate international paperwork, track packages and facilitate returns. Shippo provides the tools to help businesses succeed through shipping.

Michelle McNamara

Content Strategist at Shippo

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