Why Do So Many Women-Owned Businesses Struggle to Make It to $1 Million?

Why Do So Many Women-Owned Businesses Struggle to Make It to $1 Million?Bloomberg Businessweek recently featured a fascinating interview with Nell Merlino, the founder of Make Mine a Million. The program, which Merlino founded in 2005, had a goal of helping 1 million women-owned businesses reach 1 million in sales by 2010.

Merlino didn’t achieve that goal, but she’s looking at the positive side: “We’ve raised $10 million and helped women generate $100 million in revenue and create 6,000 jobs.”

As BloombergBusinessweek columnist Karen E. Klein notes, “Between 1997 and 2006, businesses that were fully or majority women-owned grew at nearly twice the rate of all U.S. firms.” Since then, however, the numbers haven’t changed. Currently, there are some 10 million women-owned companies in the U.S. with a total of $1.9 trillion in annual sales. What slowed women-owned businesses’ growth? According to Merlino it’s the same thing that’s stymied everyone: the recession. She says, For a lot of women, their top goal over the last couple of years was just to survive.”

Merlino hasn’t given up on her goal: She still wants to get 1 million women-owned businesses to $1 million-this time, by 2045. Though that seems like a long time from now, for today Make Mine a Million is focusing on regional events. Last year, the program’s $100,000 online competition attracted 1,500 entrants. The top 54 companies from the contest grew an average of 59 percent in 2009 compared to 2008, and increased employment an average of 113 percent.

Despite the popular stereotype that women entrepreneurs want to keep their companies small or have “lifestyle businesses,” Merlino says a survey of women-owned companies with revenues of $150,000 to $700,000 showed that 87 percent wanted to grow. So what separates those that do grow-like the 54 women in the contest-from those that don’t? Merlino’s advice:

  • Get guidance. Attend seminars, Webinar and conferences. Hire a business coach.
  • Think big. Merlino uses the hot trend of cupcake businesses as an example. “Do you want a retail shop, or do you want to figure out how to sell to Starbucks?” Companies that reach $1 million in sales do so by selling to as many customers as they can. While women with corporate backgrounds know the best way to do this is reaching out to corporate customers, women without that background often don’t think that way.
  • Hire. In the survey mentioned above, Merlino notes, 54 percent of women entrepreneurs thought they could grow their companies without hiring. Women tend to fear hiring, Merlino says, because they fear giving up control, not making payroll and having people rely on them. Others think doing everything themselves makes their companies more manageable. In reality, the opposite is true: Merlino points out that delegating duties frees you up to focus on long-term strategy and truly grow your business.

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Rieva Lesonsky Rieva Lesonsky is a Columnist for Small Business Trends covering employment, retail trends and women in business. She is CEO of GrowBiz Media, a media company that helps entrepreneurs start and grow their businesses. Visit her blog, SmallBizDaily, to get the scoop on business trends and free TrendCast reports.