How to Make Your First Million: Tips from Julia Pimsleur
Julia Pimsleur is the founder and CEO of Little Pim, a method for teaching small children a second language. Research shows that the best time to learn a language is between the ages of zero and six; yet she couldn’t find the service for her own son. This personal need prompted Pimsleur, a bilingual speaker herself, to start the company. She took everything she learned developing her multimillion dollar company and turned it into a new book, to help other women: Million Dollar Women: The Essential Guide for Female Entrepreneurs Who Want to Go Big. Julia spoke to Like a Boss Girls about how her business got started, and shared her advice on growing a business over the million dollar mark.
What were the first steps you took to start the company?
I did not quit my day job, which was fundraising for a nonprofit– I did Little Pim on the side. I started doing lots of storyboard sketching during my time at home with my baby. While my son was napping, I’d be sketching the ideas for Little Pim. I eventually decided to create a pilot of what I thought the program would look like–a little five minute video example of Little Pim–and then it really took off.
I hired a producer to produce the first three videos, and then once they were produced, I hired one person, one day a week, who I found on Craigslist, to help fulfill orders. That was the company for about a year. At the end of that first year, it was doing well, and I decided I needed to take the plunge and quit my day job and go full time at Little Pim.
That’s when I went out and raised my first real money, which was about a million dollars, in what’s called a Series A round. That is an investment round with angel investors who each put money into the company. I think I had ten or fifteen of them in the first round. That’s how I got the company off the ground. Because of my background as a fundraiser, I was comfortable going out and raising the money. This wasn’t the kind of company where you could do it on your savings–at least not on my savings–because I was competing with Disney and Nickelodeon and Fisher Price–really big companies that had multimillion dollar marketing budgets. I had to at least have the money to make a high quality product and to really market it.
As time went on, I needed greater and greater coffers in order to keep growing the company, and so I raised more and more money. About four years in, I hit kind of a wall, where I had been working so hard, and I was so tired, and I didn’t see the growth that I wanted. It was growing, but it wasn’t growing at the rate that I wanted. I got very exhausted and burned out. I had two little kids at home, I was a working mom, and I just didn’t know what to do next with the company.
Right around then, one of my advisors suggested that I go raise venture capital and be able to scale up the company. At the time, I found that proposition terrifying. I was like, “I do not want to go raise venture capital.” Raising the angel money was pretty informal, but venture capital, what little I knew of it, was going to be a room of guys in suits, speaking really complicated financial language that I don’t speak. I did not want to do it. I basically said no but after a couple of weeks, I realized that he was right, and this was my moment of, ‘Go big or go home.’ I decided that I wanted to grow my company more than I wanted to stay in my comfort zone. Even though I had raised a couple of million already, and had been a professional nonprofit fundraiser, raising venture capital was the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life.
What was so hard about it?
It was hard learning the whole financial language, putting together the spreadsheets, finding out how to pitch… it took about nine months to figure out how to even approach a VC. Then I pitched about thirty times. At the end of nine months, I figured out how to go about it. I learned what I now call the “fundraising dance,” and I went out and raised 2.1 million for my company. That allowed us to scale up.
We converted our whole product line from DVDs to digital, we hired a senior professional team, we increased our marketing budget, and within the first year, we had practically doubled our sales. It really paid off, but it was so hard. I also found out along the way that only 4% of all venture capital is invested in women-run companies. Women get a very tiny sliver of the big money in the investment world. When I got through the eye of the needle, I looked back and said, ‘That was just way harder than it had to be.’
I think that’s where my women’s studies background kicked in, and I felt like, I may not be able to solve world hunger, but this is a problem that I can help with. I know why only 4% of women raise venture capital. We’re not learning that dance, that fundraising dance, and then it just seems too intimidating to go into that world and pitch. I wanted to make it easier for other women to raise money. I started a boot camp in my conference room called Double Digit Academy, where I started teaching ten women at a time to raise angel and venture capital. Over the course of three years, I’ve trained about fifty women, and they’ve raised about ten million dollars collectively. I’m super proud of them. A lot of them have become friends. They inspired me to write the book, because I realized it just takes three things to raise money and take your business big. You need the right mindset, you need the right skill set, and you need the right network.
I always say the hardest of those three is the mindset, because you have to believe that you can be the CEO of a multimillion dollar company. You have to be able to picture your company running at scale, meaning, not where you are today with two people, but what’s this going to look like when it’s twenty people and it’s throwing off five million in revenues three years from now? You have to be able to picture all that–that’s the mindset. Believe me, you can do it. I think as women, we sometimes struggle with self-limiting beliefs, and that’s part of what I work on in my workshop, is for us to address the self-limiting beliefs. I talk about mine in Million Dollar Women, because I think there are things we need to say to each other as women, and help each other work on.
Why do you think women entrepreneurs aren’t making the big bucks?
I think a big reason that there are so many solo-preneurs among women, and that women are not making the high revenue dollars that some male entrepreneurs are, is we’re not in the right circles. We haven’t necessarily put ourselves into the right rooms to meet the funders and partners who can help us take our businesses to the next level.
One of the smartest things I ever did was join the Entrepreneurs Organization, a professional organization for entrepreneurs. They have an accelerator program called EO Accelerator, and it helps you get to a million in revenues. Not only did I get a mini business school out of it, but I also got peers who were learning their businesses in different sectors. We did a lot of cross-pollinating among the business owners, and I had a mentor, and it also gave me access to top business speakers and coaches, some of whom became my personal coaches, and that’s really what helped me get to the next level.
What advice would you give someone who has a small business and wants to see it grow?
I would tell them to do three things:
1. Look at successful businesses who are using a similar business model to yours. We sometimes think we have to invent everything from scratch as business owners, but the truth is, you don’t have to invent how to do business. There are great models out there, blueprints that you can follow. When we created Little Pim, we studied Baby Einstein very carefully. What year did she make her videos? What year did they go from DVD to digital? When did she start adding flashcards and books? When did she sell to Disney? When was she ready to sell to Disney? How big was their team? Map out the whole timeline of some other successful company and follow that road map.
2. Surround yourself with people who are a little bit ahead of where you are in terms of business. Join a professional organization. Spend time with business owners, and learn from their mistakes. Entrepreneurs are actually very generous in sharing what’s worked and what hasn’t. Make sure you’re part of one of these entrepreneurial communities, so that you can learn from each other.
3. Really value what you bring to the table. Even if it’s the early days, and you’re not making much money yet, it’s important to know what you bring, and forgive yourself for what you don’t bring. I think as women entrepreneurs, we sometimes spend too much time beating ourselves up for what we’re not good at. You have to know what you’re good at, and make sure that you have a team that really complements your skill set. Even if they’re just interns in the beginning, build up the habit of surrounding yourself with people who complement you.
What cautions would you give a woman entrepreneur who’s just starting out? What should she watch out for?
One huge benefit I got from studying women’s studies is that I sometimes can catch myself doing things that I realize I’m socialized to do, as opposed to being my true nature. For instance, sometimes women have trouble being as assertive as we need to be as business people, because we’re socialized to think that being assertive means you’re not “nice” or you’re not going to be liked.
In Million Dollar Women, I told my story, and then I also interviewed seven women who built multimillion dollar businesses from scratch. They were just really passionate about their idea and had to figure the rest out. We all shared our ten mantras, and one of them is, ‘What other people think of you is none of your business.’ Think about that a minute. Every time you catch yourself leaving a meeting or a party and thinking ‘Oh, I shouldn’t have said that… now she probably thinks I’m an idiot,’ just don’t even think about it. It’s none of your business. I find as women, we waste so much time worrying about what other people think of us, and if you’re going to build a business, you’re going to be doing something bold and brave, and you’ve got to just focus all of your energy on pursuing your dream and making it happen.
Tough things are going to happen along the way. You’re going to have setbacks. Being an entrepreneur is about being able to be like water around rocks. When a boulder comes up, you have to find your way around it. You also have to cultivate a mindset that is very positive and very resilient, and part of that is not getting too caught up in what other people think. I wrote this book, because this is the book I wish I had had. I really craved hearing from other women on how they built their companies. I found a lot of male role models but very few women role models.
What do you wish you’d known in your twenties?
I knew I wanted to have a family, and I was very concerned on how to balance those things. One thing I don’t feel has been talked about enough is that the entrepreneurial life, for women, brings you what I call in the book, “the triple win.” The triple win is money, meaning and mobility. My theory is that a lot of men still define their success as how much money they make. Most women don’t define their success that way. So when I interviewed all these women and wrote the book, I gave a lot of thought to what success is, and why was I drawn to be an entrepreneur instead of going to work for a large management consulting firm as many of my college friends did.
I realized that this entrepreneur lifestyle really does bring you a triple win. You do make money, and it is hard, and there’s risk involved, for sure–you may lose a lot of money, too. The meaning part is that you’re doing something you’re really excited about and feel like you’re making a difference in the world. Often, women start companies that are to solve problems that they themselves faced. If you look at Jessica Alba with her line of eco-friendly baby products, it’s a common story for women to create a company to fix a problem they’ve had. There’s a great deal of meaning and satisfaction in that.
The third thing is one I think corporate life often doesn’t offer, mobility. Freedom. What if you want to go on your child’s field trip to go apple picking? You don’t have to ask anybody. You can stay up until 4 in the morning and finish the work you need to finish. That mobility piece is critical, and the entrepreneurial lifestyle– especially if you go big and get over that million dollar mark and have a thriving company where you’re more the manager than the doer-–provides you with that mobility that corporate life does not.