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These Women Entrepreneurs Created A Fake Male Cofounder To Dodge Startup Sexism

Sep 03
P 1 witchsy

When Penelope Gazin and Kate Dwyer decided to start their own online marketplace for weird art, they didn't expect it to be easy. After all, the L.A.-based duo of artists were bootstrapping the project with a few thousand dollars of their own money and minimal tech skills. But it wasn't just a tight budget that added friction to the slow crawl toward launching; the pair also faced their share of doubt from outsiders, spanning from the condescending to the outright sexist.

"When we were getting started, we were immediately faced with 'Are you sure? Does this sound like a good idea?'," says Dwyer. "I think because we're young women, a lot of people looked at what we were doing like, 'What a cute hobby!' or 'That's a cute idea.'"

Regardless, the concept seems to be paying off. Witchsy, the alternative, curated marketplace for bizarre, culturally aware, and dark-humored art, celebrated its one-year anniversary this summer. The site, born out of frustration with the excessive clutter and limitations of bigger creative marketplaces like Etsy, peddles enamel pins, shirts, zines, art prints, handmade crafts and other wares from a stable of hand-selected artists. Witchsy eschews the "Live Laugh Love" vibe of knickknacks commonly found on sites like Etsy in favor of art that is at once darkly nihilistic and lightheartedly funny, ranging in spirit from fiercely feminist to obscene just for the fun of it.

In its first year, Witchsy has sold about $200,000 worth of this art, paying its creators 80% of each transaction and managing to turn what Dwyer says is a small profit. Earlier this year, they received a small investment from Rick and Morty co-creator Justin Roiland and are working with him on creating some Witchsy-exclusive products. Gazin and Dwyer aren't gunning for massive scale or fortune, but rather just want to offer a sustainable platform for artists to sell their work without censorship or too much extra noise. So far, it seems to be going well.

But along the way, Gazin and Dwyer had to come up with clever ways to overcome some of the more unexpected obstacles they faced. Some hurdles were overt: Early on a web developer they brought on to help build the site tried to stealthily delete everything after Gazin declined to go on a date with him. But most of the obstacles were much more subtle.

After setting out to build Witchsy, it didn't take long for them to notice a pattern: In many cases, the outside developers and graphic designers they enlisted to help often took a condescending tone over email. These collaborators, who were almost always male, were often short, slow to respond, and vaguely disrespectful in correspondence. In response to one request, a developer started an email with the words "Okay, girls..."

That's when Gazin and Dwyer introduced a third cofounder: Keith Mann, an aptly named fictional character who could communicate with outsiders over email.

"It was like night and day," says Dwyer. "It would take me days to get a response, but Keith could not only get a response and a status update, but also be asked if he wanted anything else or if there was anything else that Keith needed help with."

Related: How Women Are Swiping The Weirdness Out Of Online Dating

Dwyer and Gazin continued to deploy Keith regularly when interacting with outsiders and found that the change in tone wasn't just an anomaly. In exchange after exchange, the perceived involvement of a man seemed to have an effect on people's assumptions about Witchsy and colored how they interacted with the budding business. One developer in particular seemed to show more deference to Keith than he did to Dwyer or Gazin, right down to the basics of human interaction.

"Whenever he spoke to Keith, he always addressed Keith by name," says Gazin. "Whenever he spoke to us, he never used our names."

Rather than deterring them, these types of encounters just gave Gazin and Dwyer more motivation to push forward, and an opportunity to have some fun at the expense of tech bro masculinity everywhere.

"I think we could have gotten pretty bent out of shape about that," Dwyer says. "Wow, are people really going to talk to this imaginary man with more respect than us? But we were like, you know what, this is clearly just part of this world that we're in right now. We want this and want to make this happen."

The imaginary startup entrepreneur Keith Mann will come as little surprise to many women who have worked in tech (not to mention other industries), or anybody who has been keeping up with the news out of Silicon Valley lately. High-profile cases of sexual harassment in the VC world and the controversy over an ex-Google employee's anti-diversity manifesto are just two of the most recent, notable storylines in the media. Earlier this year, the story of how a pair of male and female colleagues switched email signatures and experienced radically different encounters when dealing with higher-ups and clients went viral. Evidently, email-based sexism in the workplace is something that resonates with more than a handful of people.

Gazin and Dwyer have retired Keith for now, but they concede that they can see a role for him in Witchsy's future.

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