Are women really more conservative with numbers?

We interviewed Helena Oettingen, co-founder of Metta Space, to learn how she conquered numbers to get funded as a female founder.

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Only 3% of venture capital funding goes to female entrepreneurs, despite the fact that they own 38% of the world’s businesses. In our interview with Helena, she shares how she went from noob to master of managing her startup’s finances to win over investors.


“As female founders, you have to be extra prepared. Investors will judge most of your decisions more harshly. They’ll question you more when it comes to finance because numbers and women are just two worlds that don't seem to ever overlap.” - Helena Oettingen

Tell us about Metta Space

My co-founder, Eleanor Manley, and I started Metta Space to help companies foster a safer workplace culture, free from harassment, discrimination and misconduct for their employees. We provide a safe and anonymous reporting tool for employees to flag incidents to HR and provide HR with a case management system that utilizes our geo-located knowledge library for step-by-step resolution with best practices to address and resolve reports.

When you started Metta Space, what was your biggest challenge?

Understanding how many skills we needed to learn to turn our idea into a business. You start off being driven by pure adrenaline and excitement, “yes, let's launch a startup”. You quickly realize you have absolutely no idea where to start. Our biggest challenge was to stop second-guessing ourselves and to trust the process.

Eleanor and I both started Metta Space straight out of grad school. We didn’t have much experience. But, we didn’t let that stop us. In the early stages, you are overconfident because you don’t know what you don’t know. Then you hit a huge, huge learning curve. We leaned on our mentors and ran many of our early decisions through multiple people.

Focusing on the financial side, what was most difficult?

In the initial stages of building Metta Space, Eleanor and I had a direct and upfront discussion on who would be responsible for managing the financial side of our business (neither of us came from a business background). Eventually, I decided I would take on the challenge and master a completely new skill that really scared me. I had not taken a proper math class since high school.

As it turned out, I discovered something that now I enjoy doing a lot. Having to go back into the mindset of learning a new skill (while building a business) was challenging at the beginning. But, once the numbers started making sense, everything was much clearer. I felt more at ease about what we were trying to build once I realized it was financially viable. It took a while, but I was really determined to just be the absolute best I could, as someone without any experience. I'm still working on it.

Can you share a story of when you were most frustrated with your financial model?

There are so many. But, a recent one was at South Summit in Madrid. I remember I needed to send our five-year financial projections to a VC. When I opened the financial model I had built in Google Sheets the numbers didn’t make any sense. Something was off. This was the first time I had built the model myself, so I was absolutely losing it.

In the meantime, my co-founder Eleanor was having important meetings. I couldn’t let her down, so I was texting our advisor Andrew Wong these long threads of frustration as to why nothing was working. I ended up sitting in the South Summit cafeteria for three hours going insane. The percentages were too high, revenue too low, things weren’t linking properly and #REFs were everywhere.

But, in the end, I finally figured it out. Suddenly, one small adjustment and the entire model looked perfect again.

You’re going to get stuck many times. You just need to keep your blue-light glasses handy because you're gonna get a headache from staring at the screen until you figure it out. But, the cool thing is, I’ve always figured it out, and so will you.

Left to right: Helena Oettingen and Eleanor Manley co-founders, and Nora Marji Chief Technology Officer.

What was the importance of having a mentor during that journey?

“You should always ask for help when you need it.”

There’s nothing worse than suffering on your own when there are tons of people that can help. I could not have gotten where I am without our advisor, Andrew Wong for example. He was so patient and guided me through every single step from the most basic Excel formulas. I became so eager to make him proud that I would spend all of my free time learning and researching how to do financial modeling and other basic Google Sheets tricks. I loved being able to then share what I learned with him, and how he’d inspired me.

Our advisors shared a lot of wisdom to prepare us. In the beginning, they told us to be extra prepared, as female founders, because investors, or anyone really, will judge most of our decisions and assumptions more harshly. Investors will especially question us when it comes to finance because numbers and women are just two worlds that don’t seem to overlap [relative to men]. Our mentors really helped us prepare to stand our ground on our financials. To know the numbers, but also how to project confidence in them and the opportunity ahead.

Were there any moments where you felt treated differently as a female CEO?

“According to a concept known as the psychological theory of regulatory focus, while interviewing male entrepreneurs, investors have a promotion mindset, meaning they are focused on hopes and advancement. But when they interview women, they’re more preventative, meaning they’re more focused on security and responsibility.” - Harvard Business Review (Heidi Grant, E. Tory Higgins)

“Our advisors told us to forecast more optimistically because women were perceived as being more conservative with their numbers than men.”

There was just a lot of hesitation from investors. When it comes to young women who are founders, people think that you're going to be too emotional, or you don't have the experience or the right skills. We faced a lot of nonsense really. Many people second-guessed the calculations that I made and funnily enough, it mostly came from people that weren’t even in the SaaS industry. Recently an investor even suggested we have a male CTO to seem more credible, and that was really fun.

What advice would you give to other first-time founders about to embark on their first financial journey?

“You need to know the numbers. But, even more important is being able to project confidence in your forecasts.”
  1. Know your numbers and be confident. You will get grilled on your assumptions and calculations. It’s important to get these right. It’s also important to not be swayed by those who have different opinions.
  2. Do your research. Watch all the YouTube videos. It’s my favorite resource for learning about finance. I watched countless YouTubers build out financial models live. Read blog articles and forums, where people discuss how to build out certain formulas. I had to Google every single tiny formula that I have ever used, but you’ll quickly realize you’ll end up on the same three or four blogs to get your answers. Sign up to CFO and Financial Modelling newsletters. It’s great to surround yourself with new formulas and knowledge in the sector without always having to go out of your way to find the latest updates!
  3. Find a mentor. Finding someone that can guide you through it is a blessing. If you find someone you're comfortable with and whom you can nerd out with about numbers on, you’ll be so relieved.
  4. Get ready to be frustrated. It's going to happen more frequently than you think. I’ve spent hours trying to figure out why my model was breaking and questioning every decision I ever made about it. But, I guarantee that once you figure out why, there will be few things in the world that feel more rewarding and relieving. Don’t forget to give yourself that time.

Are there any resources that you would recommend?

At Decipad, we are creating a completely new way for people and teams to create and collaborate with numbers. Do you have a story about becoming a “numbers person”? We’d love to hear it. Chat with us on Discord or email giulia@decipad.com.

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