Lyn Johnson & Sara Sparhawk
Co-Founders / CEO & COO
Location / Year Founded / Industry:
Los Angeles, CA / 2019 / Consumer Saas
What is West Tenth:
West Tenth curates the best local, micro-businesses not found on Yelp or Google searches. Through its robust online marketplace, you can discover and hire newborn sleep consultants, seasonal decorators, personal gifters, home bakers, organizers, family vacation planners, photographers, and more.
Why it matters:
The gender wealth gap starts when women have children and is exacerbated when women are funneled out of the workforce to be primary caregivers. With 98% of the businesses on West Tenth being women-owned, the platform enables female founders to re-establish financial well-being and independence by turning their home and family management expertise into businesses—supporting families in their own communities while they do it.
Why you should care:
West Tenth’s financial platform will help small business owners access capital—one of the biggest barriers to growth for all female businesses, particularly for micro-businesses that start in the home—around the world, while also alleviating the burdens of women who remain in the workforce. West Tenth marketplace will allow women to outsource many of the home and family-related tasks they are saddled with to a local expert just around the corner.
Most people know about the gender wage gap—that women earn about 80 cents to every dollar that men earn—but fewer people are familiar with the gender wealth gap—that women accumulate, in financial assets, about 30 cents to every dollar that men accumulate. The wealth gap is the biggest barometer of financial well-being, something West Tenth co-founder and CEO Lyn Johnson hopes to change with her hyperlocal service-based marketplace. “I was incredibly discouraged by all the data around gender wealth inequities,” says Lyn, a former CFO of a private financial advisory firm, and Oxford MBA graduate. “Women are agitating for opportunities to bring in additional income and use their skills, and for the most part, they’re trying to monetize their domestic skills. Yet there’s no tech platform that’s currently capturing or supporting that activity.”
West Tenth currently serves over 3,500 home-based businesses in Los Angeles, Salt Lake City, Phoenix, Austin, San Antonio, and Tampa, with Atlanta, Houston, Kansas City, and 15 more cities soon to follow. “We’re targeting the types of businesses that are predominantly women-owned—for example, organizers, decorators, home bakers, family photographers, sleep consultants, doulas, wedding planners, and balloon installation artists,” says Lyn. “You can think of us as an Etsy for local services and local-only custom goods. We make it easy to discover, compare, work with, communicate with, and pay these local home-based businesses all in one place.”
You both met as undergrads in college and started your careers together in New York at Price Waterhouse Cooper. What was the genesis for launching West Tenth together?
Lyn: As a finance professional, I couldn’t ignore the gender wealth gap in the U.S., where the number one driver is women’s time outside the workforce. Even if they spend two to five years caring for children over the span of a 40-year career, that has a huge impact on their earnings and savings potential. So in 2017, I went back to graduate school in the UK, and I uncovered this treasure trove of economic activity that’s happening in the home when women leave the workforce. They intuit that inflexible employment isn’t their best option, so they start these incredible businesses from home. Crucially, a lot of women are monetizing skills they developed while mothering—they’re becoming professional organizers, starting bakeries out of their kitchens, or they’re doing things for other people in their community that they did for their own families: planning birthday parties, planning vacations. People in the paid workforce need access to these talents because our time is spent bringing home a paycheck, but not developing these other skills that really enhance home and family life. So in 2020 I reached out to Sara and asked her to join this journey with me!
Sara: I was really excited about the mission behind the business for a couple of reasons. First, my mom was a stay-at-home mom and had a home business as a party planner. Eventually, she shuttered it because the marketing piece was too tough. If West Tenth existed, her business would still be around. Second, I have many friends with children who left the workforce and fell into the MLM trap—it’s a predatory space where you have to buy the inventory upfront. A lot of them burned their social and monetary capital, losing money and friends. I saw West Tenth as a great opportunity to give them a new platform where they can take their talents and skill sets to start businesses, using their social capital to increase their wealth instead of making someone else rich.
When Lyn reached out, I knew I had the skill set needed to start a company from the ground up. After seven years in finance, I ended up in the Bay Area and pivoted to an HR talent acquisition role at a tech startup to hire and grow the team. I was able to witness the necessary components to get a business off the ground and was then approached by Amazon where I built out a team that hired 6,000 software engineers in the U.S.
How does West Tenth work?
Lyn: Over the last couple of years, business formations have skyrocketed, most of which have been led by women—and when women start businesses, the overwhelming majority are starting them out of their homes because they don’t have proper access to capital. One-third of these women are starting product businesses—handmade goods that they’re selling on Etsy and Amazon—but two-thirds are starting either service-type businesses or local custom goods businesses. On the services side, that’s the organizers, the family photographers. On the local custom goods, that’s home bakers who are making custom-themed birthday cakes or installers who are creating balloon arches. These businesses are being formed in droves, yet they tend not to be on local discovery sites nor on Google Maps because they don’t want to publicly list their home address.
For the most part, these women are getting business through word-of-mouth referrals and large community social media groups. (Think Moms of Facebook or a PTA group.) This means, for most of us, they remain completely invisible and inaccessible. Even for those who know how to find them, it’s an inefficient mess: finding someone on Facebook, texting with them, calling them, then using PayPal or Venmo. You’re going through four or five platforms to work with one home-based business, which is where we come in. West Tenth makes it easy to discover, compare, work with, communicate with, and pay these local home businesses all in one place.
You recently closed a $XM Seed round. We know that only 2% of venture capital goes to all female-founded companies. What was your fundraising experience like?
Sara: I have so much to say. Where do we even start?
Lyn: We should start by saying that if it wasn’t for the work of The Helm and other female investors to tackle this problem—and tackle the underrepresentation problem on the investor’s side—we wouldn’t have recieved any funding. Period. One of our earliest believers was a female MD at Techstars who immediately saw the need and the potential. Fundraising was a slog.
Sara: During our Pre-Seed, we hit the statistics of women founders needing to have more than 100 meetings to get funded. Getting introductions was really tough There’s a lot of legwork just to get a meeting with funds.
Lyn: Anytime we talked to someone about the fundraising process—most of them were male, particularly, white males—they’d always skip the part about getting meetings: “We had 40 meetings in a month and we got two term sheets out of that.” I’d always ask, “Well, what was your process to get the meetings?” They’d look at me like, “I don’t know what you mean. Our network got us those meetings.” We quickly realized we were outside of that network. Ninety percent of our fundraising time was spent sourcing meetings, not actually meeting people. And when you don’t have a concentration of meetings happening all at once, it’s hard to create the FOMO everybody talks about. The biggest hurdle for us was trying to break into those networks.
Sara: We had some instances where it would be the final meeting—to meet the whole team at a fund excited about what we were building—and the male partners didn’t show up. The female partners would have to gather assistants and marketing people to fill their spots, and we were just like, come on, we’ve met with you seven times. Of course, we didn’t get an investment from them. That was really disappointing. Another instance was with a university fund, where the students are learning how to be investors. We were closing our first $1M and had a deadline to meet. We were happy to move forward with the fund’s diligence process if they were able to give us a decision within our timeline, which was several weeks out. The fund’s GP, a male professor, said we were “extremely unprofessional” for setting such boundaries, and that he “wanted to invest in women-led companies but this showed our inexperience.” We re-read our email exchanges with him, which were all so polite. It was really discouraging because we thought we had done something wrong and had ruined our chances of ever getting funded. We had to take a moment to really realize, no, this is just bias and a bad experience.
Lyn: Essentially, we disappointed him because he needed more female founders to show the university students. He was legitimately angry at us that we would politely turn him down.
What was most helpful to you during your fundraise?
Lyn: When we got a rejection, we would always thank the investor for their feedback and time, and then ask them if it’s okay to make introductions to other founders who might be a good fit. That way we continued to communicate with those investors, while at the same time, we were able to ask other founders to make intros for us. Connecting with other founders has been one of the biggest positives for us in getting meetings. It’s also about paying it forward. Women struggle with that, putting their networks at risk or asking their networks to action for them.
We know that 65 percent of startups fail because of co-founder conflict. You were friends before going into business together—how do you balance that friendship as co-founders and divvy up responsibilities?
Lyn: Do we keep friendship and business separate, Sara? [Laughs]
Sara: We’ve known each other for so long and have worked through some very stressful circumstances, long hours, and urgent projects. Our cubicles were next to each other at PCW for three years. It’s very enjoyable and rewarding to work with someone you love and have so much fun with. You get to solve hard problems, experiment, and lean on each other. If someone’s struggling and having a bad day, the other one knows how to lift them up. We have complementary strengths and split up our business responsibilities accordingly.
Lyn: It also helps when your co-founder is one of the best humans on the planet. For instance, during the fundraising process, it can be really discouraging. You get a lot of no’s or you’re trying to get meetings that don’t materialize. Sara always encouraged me by reminding me that it’s a hard process; she pushed me to keep going but she would never blame me if an investor fell through. I always feel supported by Sara—she has an incredible talent of being able to put structure and processes around things but also has flexibility about those processes, which is a unique skill set required for startup life. We pair really well because Sara puts some structure around my oh my gosh, there’s so much opportunity here and we’ve got to do this—she helps temper that, allowing me to focus.
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How do you usually work through disagreements in decision-making?
Lyn: Generally, we’re on board with one another and come to a consensus. But if we can’t, it depends on whose realm it falls under. I’m product and fundraising, and Sara is go-to-market and team. We understand who has the decision-making authority in that area, or who has more experience, and we’ll support it. Just the other day, I made a difficult decision that I was on the fence about and Sara said, “This is my opinion, I think this is the way we should go, but at the end of the day, it’s your call—whatever you want to do, I will be fine with.” It never causes a major riff or we learn from it.
What is the larger vision for West tenth? Where is the company in 10 years?
Lyn: We have a three-tier vision. Phase one is building out the marketplace where these home businesses can be accessed really easily. Phase two is offering education and business management tools so they can run more efficiently and grow. Phase three is launching a financial platform to help them access capital—one of the biggest barriers to growth for all female businesses, particularly for these kinds of micro-businesses that start in the home. In five years we will be national and in 10 years we’ll be global. This isn’t just a U.S. problem. We’re here to solve this issue in many, many markets across the world.