People working in a corporate office
Entrepreneurs need to start with a long-term exit in mind and identify ways to scale from the outset. Research

I have built two businesses and sold them for life-altering amounts of money, but as a female entrepreneur, I am in the minority. Why?

Women are massively underrepresented in UK business, but numbers are growing. Women run almost a third of UK small businesses, with 145,200 all-female-led businesses being incorporated in 2021 – nearly triple the number in 2018.

But, as with most small businesses, many do not successfully scale. Of the six million UK businesses in 2022, just 32,000 (0.01%) grow beyond 45 employees and only 8,000 businesses scale to the point that they employ more than 250 people.

What's more, 4.25 million UK businesses don't employ anyone other than the founder. These disappointing figures are skewed towards women, with fewer female entrepreneurs scaling and/or exiting their businesses.

Why do so few female-owned companies manage to scale and sell?

There are, broadly speaking, three different types of entrepreneurs:
1. Those who want the benefits of self-employment
2. Those who started their business to capitalise on a particular skill or idea
3. Those who set out to grow and exit a business

It's the last of these entrepreneurs who tend to scale because they start with the end in mind. Their aim is to grow, so that's what directs their business decisions.

Many women fall into one of the first two types. They have a skill or idea and want to earn some money doing it while having the flexibility and tax benefits of self-employment. Many women prefer the work-life balance that self-employment offers as well as being able to manage work alongside other commitments, such as childcare.

This flexibility can be a great thing. But finding ways to scale the business could help lead to an exit that can generate life-changing wealth, allowing whatever work-life balance you might want, and perhaps even setting up your family and children for the future.

Starting with a long-term exit in mind, entrepreneurs can identify ways to scale from the outset. They can keep costs low, minimise debt, scale the business, develop a name for themselves and then sell up for a decent sum of money. Then they can choose to retire early, use the profit as seed money for their next venture, or perhaps invest in other entrepreneurial women and help them grow and exit.

How can we support more women scaling and selling their businesses?

Inspiring Role Models: While men have a lot of role models to choose from, there are fewer high-profile businesswomen to look up to. What's more, many female-led lifestyle brands rely on curated social media content, obscuring many of the challenges and strategies that they've used to gain success.

What we need are more real-life role models for women to look up to and emulate. Women who share their success stories without shying away from sharing the challenges they faced and strategies they employed. With more inspiration, we can cultivate more belief in women that they will be successful business leaders, helping embed that important mindset from the very foundation of their business. I know I would have found my personal business journey from start-up to exit a lot easier with the right role models to inspire me.

Encourage Bootstrapping: Advice for entrepreneurs (of any gender) tends to focus on starting up a business and getting it investment-ready. Of course, this advice can work, but it drowns out other considerations and ways of growing organically. There needs to be more conversations about how to grow a business, especially without seeking investment. Seeking investment from the outset focuses the mind on chasing potential investors rather than trying to grow a loyal customer base and a good product offering.

It is often far better to keep costs down, bootstrap your initial product range, grow your customer base, develop products in line with feedback and progress from there. Then, if you decide to seek investment, you will have a far more attractive proposition. This way, you can continue to grow organically, keeping more of the business for yourself! Yes, it was a lot of hard work, but I am so glad that I focused on scaling my business rather than seeking outside investors – and I have certainly reaped the benefits as a result.

What can women do now to adopt a growth mindset?

One of the most effective ways of changing your mindset is to imagine what your business will look like in three years, five years, or 10 years. Where will it be without you? Does it work as a scalable business, and if so, what needs to happen to get there?

Try and look at it from all angles. What would you be doing? Who else would you need to hire Perhaps even work back from your target turnover to figure out how many sales you need? How can that be achieved in a realistic timeline?

Simply by asking and exploring these questions, you will begin to take on a growth mindset. You will also begin to set realistic goals, helping make the process feel more achievable. You can also begin to think of who might make a good mentor or who has succeeded in a similar field that you could emulate to help inspire yourself, grow your confidence and build on great ideas. The more women who successfully scale and ultimately exit their businesses, the more role models we'll have.

By Fiona Hudson-Kelly Fiona Hudson-Kelly

Fiona Hudson-Kelly has built two businesses and sold them for life-altering amounts of money. She now helps owners of small businesses scale and exit, enabling them to realise their dreams. In her new book, "Grow and Sell Your Start-Up: How to create a business you can sell for millions", Fiona explains how she did it, and how you can too. (