Written by Corinne Garcia Tuesday, May 29 2012
Snapshot: Sue Malone, founder and CEO, Strategies for Small Business
For a woman looking for working capital to get a business off the ground, Sue Malone just may be your best resource and your tireless support system. Traveling 51 weeks a year, meeting or speaking with up to 300 small businesses each week and working most hours of the day, her motivation for helping women start and stay in business goes far beyond her daily duties as the founder and CEO of the San Francisco-based venture capital group Strategies for Small Business. She loves what she does, and 41,000 loans later, she wants to make sure that women don’t give up their dreams of starting a small business.
Womenetics: Can you tell me about the path and motivations that led you towards starting Strategies for Small Business?
Sue Malone: I’m what you’d call a serial entrepreneur. When you came out of college in my era, you were a teacher or a nurse. I started as a teacher, and I was making $13,000 a year, while those in business were making a million.
It wasn’t long before I went back to school and got a degree in accounting and a Masters in finance. I said, “OK, we’re going to try to go into the business world.” I didn’t have a real game plan, but I knew I liked finance.
I started out in commercial and industrial real estate and became VP of finance, and I was the only woman in the organization. I learned a great deal, and showed up every day in the standard uniform suit. The next generation of women came into the working world through technology. Technology was a game changer, leveling the playing field. Each generation of women helps the next, and we need to continue to do this for women.
Womenetics: What’s a typical workday like for you?
Malone: I travel 51 weeks out of the year. I speak or see between 150 and 300 small businesses per week. Today, for instance, I did a radio interview at 5:45 a.m., talking about a woman wanting to launch her book and state of small business lending. By 7 a.m. I’d taken 11 phone calls from the East Coast, all asking about the status of small business lending and where they can obtain working capital loans. At 9:30 a.m. I started in on email. I met with 22 small businesses in the afternoon, have a dinner meeting tonight, and I’ll come back to the office to catch up on email again.
Womenetics: What keeps you going?
Malone: I care about small business. So many of them just need to know there’s hope, direction and that we’re going to get through this economy. They’re not all looking for grants, but also hope and leadership. Many have done so many right things but got snagged by the economy.
Womenetics: How do they typically find you?
Malone: Usually through word of mouth, and I team up with different partners. When people call me or see me regarding capital, they walk away with something -- a plan of action, something that’s going to help them. If we don’t help each other, we don’t have a society. We need to continue to network.
Womenetics: How did you launch Strategies for Small Business?
Malone: I started out by speaking to the Small Business Association (SBA). We sat down together and said let’s develop a loan program that can really help a small business - one with less than 10 employees.
We went through the regulations and loan programs. We put together a group of leaders, and we pitched it a little different than it actually turned out. We presented it with a twist for both the lenders and the borrowers. It was always presented as a working capital loan for the small businesses. In four days, we have seven loans but needed to make some adjustment for the market place. Never would I have imagined in the 10 years we would have made 41,000 loans.
Womenetics: You hear thousands of pitches for business financing, what makes you say yes?
Malone: People often ask me what business they should get into. I don’t have a crystal ball that tells me what business will make it. But trends that I do see are people who understand what they’re getting into: a lot of hard work. I look for industry experience, what they’ve done in the past, if they have the perseverance, and I look at the tenacity. And I can tell after seeing this many. Sure, I’m hoodwinked every once in a while.
They also have to have decent credit, and I can help people get this in line. I don’t want people to give up because of that.
Womenetics: What was the most outrageous business plan you’ve heard?
Malone: I’ve had moonshiners, marijuana farms -- you name it! I’ve seen pop-top condom cans!
Womenetics: Are there times when you know it’s a fit right away? Why?
Malone: I do see that. I just met with someone, and I could see a market instantly. It was unique, and it had a niche, which is big for me. It was a perfect niche with a story to go behind it. It can’t be too complicated; you have to be able to communicate it. If you can’t, you can’t do it.
Womenetics: What prevents women from starting a business?
Malone: The worst four-letter word is “fear;” that’s what stops so many people. Who cares if you fail? Do you think everyone who’s made it hasn't failed? No one starts out as a big success; they fail along the way and learn from it.
Womenetics: Any advice we can offer our readers who are interested in seeking financing for a small business?
Malone: Don’t give up - there is money out there for you. It might be harder to find, but there is money. If I can help them in any way, to walk them through or talk them through, I want to. We need to work together as women.
We’ve got to quit sabotaging each other. I see it over and over with the jealous factor, and it’s such a shame.
We’re building an old girls’ network. We already have the old boys’ network.
Womenetics: Do you focus on women? Why is that important?
Malone: I have a huge focus on women because women have the hardest time getting access to capital. I don’t have an answer for why that is, but in the angel and the venture world it really shows up in the numbers.
Not enough women seek to pitch, and if they’re turned down once, they may not go back. They may take it personally, and you can’t. This is business.
My goal is to have a women’s venture fund run by women for women.
Womenetics: What struggles do you see women face when looking for financing?
Malone: Maybe the banker doesn’t think their ideas are strong enough. You need to find a lender that you’re comfortable with because it’s a relationship. Don’t feel like you have to take the first that comes along. Look at things like: is that lender making loans to that type of business? Maybe they already fund too much retail, and they’re looking for something else. If they say no, it could be for a whole myriad of reasons. It’s not always about you. Don’t take it personally, there is a lender out there; there is money out there. It’s just harder to find right now.
Womenetics: What do they need to do to successfully present their ideas to a person like you?
Malone: Believe in your idea. Be forthcoming; if you’ve got any hurdles such as credit issues, be up front. It’s so much easier to be proactive than reactive. Just be confident. And if they ask you a question, and you don’t know the answer, it’s OK to say, “That’s a very good question. Let me find out and get back to you.”
People get nervous. Believe in yourself, and then you can do anything.
Womenetics: What are some of your other entrepreneurial feats? Can you tell me about selling red Mary Jane's in Russia?
Malone: You know when I said it’s OK to fail? Well, I failed there. I’m still waiting for the Russians to pay me! When the iron curtain was coming down, I was looking at photos, and everyone was wearing so many dark colors.
Thirty thousand dollars later, I shipped red Mary Janes to Russia. Did I learn? Yes. Would I have done it differently? Yes. Would I do it again? Yes. It was a great adventure.
One of my favorites was a collaboration between a for-profit and a nonprofit. We taught inner-city teenagers to be entrepreneurs, and they started an ice cream parlor and ran it like a business. It was really great.
Womenetics: What do you enjoy doing away from work?
Malone: I relax. I wouldn’t be able to do this if I didn’t have such a wonderful husband. We have three children who have been very supportive. I love to play tennis, swim and garden. I’m not a one trick pony!
Womenetics: How do you do it all?
Malone: Sleep is so overrated. I have a metabolism that allows me to do it. Everyone knows what they can and can’t do and what their limitations are.
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Corinne Garcia is a freelance writer and editor living with her husband and two young boys in Bozeman, Mont. She has also written for Women’s Adventure, Christian Science Monitor, Northwest Travel, Pregnancy, Fit Pregnancy and Fit Parent.