Diversity advocate and marketer Lija Wilson recently took home the first prize in a pitch competition aimed at female startups for her business Puffling, a platform connecting senior talent with organisations that endorse flexibility.
Wilson says the business idea came from her own personal experience questioning how to pursue her career while raising kids, and was then validated by plenty of people in her network who have shared similar frustrations about sustaining seniority while working part time or flexibly.
“As someone who had spent 15 years building a career I loved before having kids, I simply wasn’t able to return to the same opportunities or level of seniority or salary on a part-time basis,” she says.
Below Wilson shares more on her business, as well as insights into the start-up culture for women in Australia.
The Pitch Comp component was run by Marisa Warren (CEO & Founder of female entrepreneur community ELEVACAO), and saw 15 female founders presenting their businesses to a panel of industry leaders.
In a nutshell, what was the business idea that you pitched?
Puffling is a platform aimed at improving Australia’s gender diversity at senior levels. It provides businesses with access to flexible work solutions and an amazing pool of experienced candidates.
Why did you think it was important to pitch this idea?
Working on a start up is really hard. Working on a start up as a female ( and especially a mother also juggling family life ) is exceptionally hard. Puffling was created as a result of personal experience. As someone who had spent 15 years building a career I loved before having kids, I simply wasn’t able to return to the same opportunities or level of seniority or salary on a part-time basis. I wanted to pitch Puffling and showcase the solutions we have developed in supporting women returning to work or anyone wanting to work flexibly at senior levels.
How long had you been thinking about this idea, and what were the first steps you took once you formed the idea in your head to crystallise it?
The idea behind Puffling was validated after personal experience and similar challenges by friends, peers and colleagues. The MVP (Minimum Viable Product) launched pretty quickly after the idea was conceived and the platform was sketched out. We wanted to validate our assumptions and we did this via testing the product initially to one industry segment in one geographic market.
We followed lean principles and a test and learn methodology, which was very lucky for us because so many of our original plans and assumptions have been altered or canned after testing the product and market fit.
Building a startup is hard work, especially when you’re already busy personally. How do you stay motivated?
The greatest motivator for me stems from being a mum to three children. My expectations on myself and what I want to achieve comes from my family. I want to build a bit of a legacy around flexible work and the future of work, so becoming a changemaker in a pretty exciting time is what motivates me each day.
What were some were some of the other inspiring pitch ideas you heard on the day and why did they stand out for you?
Honestly, every single one of the 14 other pitches I watched through the coaching and workshops had me thinking ‘Wow, that is such a brilliant business idea – this will be huge’.
Lisa Qi who pitched Share with Oscar has an incredible style and the most fantastic business idea addressing such a pain point. Kym Hunter from Champion Life blew me away with both her passion for health and fitness in children and what she has achieved nationally. The first time I heard Sarah Cummings pitch Teach Ted I had tears! The greatest combination of passion and purpose when supporting parents with children with medical needs or treatment requirements.
You’ve had an extremely successful career so far in marketing, including working in the online dating world for eight years. That sounds interesting! Tell us a bit about that experience!
It was quite early on, pre-Tinder, so there was so much opportunity for positioning and building the category. The biggest challenge back then was to remove the stigma associated with using an online platform to find a date or partner, it was a huge barrier for setting up a profile, especially for women.
So, fast forward to Puffling, when we started interrogating the challenges we faced in finding senior part-time roles via our own experiences and the barriers we had faced, it seemed logical to look at the parallels – the same principles of matching for dating were applied to finding a job partner for sharing a senior role. This approach has become the unique offering in Puffling – matching two, highly experienced senior women for Job Share.
I’ve always felt I have had to work very hard and fight hard in my career to be successful. I can’t say I can relay any clear benefits of being a female in the corporate world, it has been very tough at times. Being a female founder is also a a pretty challenging path to navigate, it can be very lonely at times and imposter syndrome can often creep in.
I have been fortunate to have had some exceptional mentors along the way and have been taken under the wings of amazing managers so I would love to be able to pay that forward to young women in corporate or startups – especially those juggling with young children.
What do you see are the top three reasons holding women might back from pursuing entrepreneurial projects?
Imposter syndrome, financial considerations and the difficulty in accessing investment.
If you could speak to your 21 year old self, what advice would you give her?
Tune into your gut instincts, listen to them and follow them closely. A career mentor will be the best work move you ever make, at every stage of your career. Forget all the high heels and handbags, just buy a shitload of Google shares.