[authors: Kate Isler and Susan Gates]
Kate Isler and Susan Gates met through a short-lived startup experience and discovered their shared passion for empowering women. They always knew they would build something together and that opportunity came during the pandemic when they founded WMarketplace, an ecommerce platform for women-owned businesses and women service providers and much more. Kate and Susan share how women-led businesses fuel the growth of the economy and what they are doing to ignite that growth.
Q: What inspired the two of you to found WMarketplace?
Susan: The story really starts with Kate and me and our relationship. Kate and I met over 20 years ago at another startup. Kate was on a brief hiatus from her career with Microsoft and was working at a tech startup with an international focus. After eight years at the International Trade Administration, I was hired by this same start-up to head their international business development and Kate and I worked closely together. Unfortunately, the business shut down shortly after we were both hired. Kate and I like to joke that although we didn’t get much out of that startup, we got each other. We’ve been friends ever since and always knew that at some point we also wanted to work together again because we are both passionate gender advocates and feminists. I’m a firm believer that when opportunity meets your passion, you should pay attention and do something about it. That opportunity came during the pandemic when we saw that women were losing jobs and their income. Online became the only way to shop, and there were so many women-owned businesses that needed to pivot to online sales. We thought we could create a better space for women-owned businesses to grow and thrive, and that was the beginning of WMarketplace.
Q: What kinds of women-owned businesses can benefit from being on your platform?
Kate: Our shared passion is to put money in women’s pockets so that they can grow their businesses. Women-owned businesses are an important economic development engine in the U.S. and in local economies. Studies tell us that when women’s businesses thrive, the contribution back to their local economies is very tangible. Ninety-eight percent of women-owned businesses fall somewhere in between an idea and $1 million in revenue, and that’s where we thought we could add the most value. We target businesses that have quality products and that will appeal to the shoppers on our platform. We also see a huge group of women in services, such as designers, accountants, bookkeepers, and coaches, and we realized that many sellers on our platform needed these services. So, we offer service providers a place to promote their services, which enables them to connect with potential clients and sellers on the platform. First and foremost is our mission to empower women to generate income and build wealth. As a result, we take only modest commissions on the sales on the platform and are intentional about not “nickel and diming” our sellers with fees and forced advertising spend.
Q: In addition to providing a sales platform, you also provide training through your accelerator programs. Tell us about that.
Kate: Like all entrepreneurs, we focused on achieving the ideal product market fit. We discovered that many women who were pivoting to online sales were fantastic at developing their product or service but didn’t necessarily have the skills or resources to be successful in the highly competitive digital landscape. We saw a huge need that we could fill. We started working with the Small Business Administration in partnership with their business development centers in Southern California and in southwest Washington and quickly put together a four-week course on how to build a successful ecommerce business. We covered topics like how to sell more cost effectively through WMarketplace, marketing tips and best practices, and pricing strategies. Our goal is to position these businesses to move into Walmart, Amazon, and other larger retailers when they are ready, or to continue to grow with WMarketplace. This early course evolved over the past three years into a 6-week ecommerce accelerator that is instructor-led and facilitated by ecommerce experts.
Q: You’ve mentioned that you earn relatively modest commissions from sales on your platform. How are you scaling your training programming?
Susan: Through connections I made and maintained from my career many years ago with the International Trade Administration, WMarketplace became an official strategic partner of the International Trade Administration. That partnership has created some amazing opportunities for us. As an example, we were invited to speak at a webinar to support Ukrainian women entrepreneurs, which led to a corporate sponsorship of an accelerator focused on training women entrepreneurs in the Ukraine to build and grow ecommerce businesses.
While that sponsorship was unique to Ukraine, we have many sponsorship opportunities domestically as well. We can design a sponsorship in a variety of ways. Some of our most popular are sponsorships in an industry vertical. For instance, we had a company that sells products to coffee shops sponsor a program for women coffee roasters. We have other sponsors who are interested in delivering resources and content to our sellers, like a company that outsources customer services, which sponsored a cohort and conducted a session on best practices in customer service for ecommerce businesses. And because we are an ecommerce platform, we can measure the results of these sponsorships.
Kate: We can show our sponsors tangible results. The women on our platform can immediately apply the lessons learned in these sponsored programs in order to sell products and earn income. We can provide the sponsors with that data, demonstrating that the sponsorship dollars are going to support the businesses and are directly helping the women business owners earn income.
Q: Companies that may not be suitable for venture capital financing often get lost in the noise around venture capital financing. What are the strategies for helping companies on WMarketplace scale?
Kate: Most of our companies are not at a stage where they are venture backable, but they still need capital to grow. Last year we hosted a virtual seminar to educate our community about different funding sources, including crowdfunding platforms like iFundWomen and equity crowdfunding options like Wefunder, and products offered by fintech companies and community banks. In our accelerators we focus not only on sources of capital, but also when to raise capital. For many women it’s hard to admit that they need money for their businesses, and we create a safe space to have those conversations.
Susan: The virtual seminar Kate mentioned is a really great example of how we’re delivering value through our accelerator. Community lenders and fintech companies have recognized the opportunity with small businesses, and we’re seeing a lot of creative ways they are making credit available. We just need to educate the entrepreneurs about the available options. One of our sponsorships also included a commitment to provide grants to the companies in that particular program. Women entrepreneurs need money to grow their business, and too often that money comes with a million conditions or a long process of competing with other small businesses for small amounts of funding. Our dream is to provide more direct, non-dilutive grants through our sponsorship programs.
Q: In addition to enabling women business owners to create wealth, what other outcomes do you see from WMarketplace?
Kate: Top of mind is creating a generation of business leaders who are empowered and confident, and we are very focused on leading by example. Susan and I are very public on social media and with our community about the way we make decisions and the mistakes we make and the successes we have. We never pretend to know everything. Instead, we share what didn’t work and how we adjusted to improve results.
Susan: We regularly hold community calls where we invite all of the sellers on the platform to join us for an hour. Every woman on the call has the opportunity to introduce herself and her business. This kind of community enables the women to develop personal and business connections and helps them see themselves as business leaders. The network effect of women supporting each other and recognizing each other as leaders is incredibly important. That’s something we actively foster at WMarketplace.
Kate: And we’re always thinking about the next generation of business leaders. We’re developing our teen collection, working with several teen entrepreneurs to help them sell their products.
Q: Your work at WMarketplace is multi-faceted – education, leadership development, and wealth creation. But it’s also about shopping. As we head into the holiday shopping season, what message would you like to share?
Susan: We have 500 women-owned businesses on our platform, and the number one way you can invest in women-owned businesses is to shop from them. You can imagine what it does for these small businesses, especially at the holiday season, to hear the virtual cash register ring. What’s unique about buying from small businesses – and especially from women – is that you will likely get extra attention in the form of a handwritten thank you note or really nice packaging.
Kate: The businesses on our platform generally realize 50% to 60% of their annual revenue in the last two months of the year. So, supporting these businesses with your holiday shopping dollars is especially impactful. This year, we are also donating a portion of our commissions on sales to the Malala Fund. Malala’s mission is education and economic development for women. When you shop on WMarketplace this holiday season, you support not only the women-owned businesses on our platform but the empowerment of women and girls around the world.
Susan: On a broader note, when you invest in women-owned businesses, the benefits ripple out far beyond that initial investment. When women have the resources to grow their businesses, they hire more people, and they invest in their communities. The basic goals of most economies right now are peace, prosperity, and sustainability, and women businesses are known for being engines of that type of growth.