From the start, Felena Hanson has had big dreams for Hera Hub, her female-focused coworking-space business. But exactly how she will realize them has shifted, proving the wisdom of treating failure as feedback on the way to success.
“Our favorite word in the startup world is ‘pivot,’” Hanson told us in an interview this summer about her bumpy efforts to scale up. It says that, when something isn’t working, you just need to learn and adjust.
When we first profiled Hanson in December 2013 she was operating three Hera Hub locations in San Diego and offering a range of programming to help its 300 members succeed. Hanson was also working on a large-scale international expansion using a franchising model. The idea was to add 200 locations and, this way, reach her ultimate goal of helping 20,000 women entrepreneurs launch and grow businesses — an objective born of a “life-is-short” moment and search for purpose in the aftermath of a near-fatal car crash.
Fully committed to franchising, Hanson succeeded in collecting about 70 leads over two years, 45 to 50 of which were qualified. Yet she inked only one franchise deal. The legalities of the application process proved onerous and a turn-off for prospects, she says. “It’s like it’s your third date, and you hand someone a 300-page prenup.” Some had negative impressions of franchises and associated them with chains like McDonald’s. “It didn’t fit the culture of community and supporting women” that was central to Hera Hub’s brand, she says.
Certain she did not want to open more locations herself, which would mean managing a far-flung real estate portfolio, this April Hanson pivoted to a licensing model, a looser partnership with a lower fee. The approach generated immediate interest, she says. In just 8 months, she has signed agreements with operators in Stockholm, Sweden, Washington, D.C., and the Phoenix-Scottsdale area. She expects to sign another in Baltimore in the next week and has two more deals in the pipeline.
“I feel really strong with the decision we made” to adjust the model, she says. “We’re getting the right feedback.”
Meantime, the Hera Hub empire has expanded in another unexpected way — through the work of Silvia Mah, Hanson’s business partner. Mah purchased an equity stake in Hera Hub in January 2013, providing funds that helped finance Hera Hub’s third location and development of a replicable coworking model.
Today, in addition to sitting on Hera Hub’s advisory board, Mah leads two offshoot organizations: Hera Labs, a 2-year-old nonprofit accelerator for women entrepreneurs that has won grants from the U.S. Small Business Administration, technology company Qualcomm and the City of San Diego, and Hera Fund, a one-year-old fund for female angels who want to invest in female founders. The fund also organizes the Hera Venture Summit conference series.
These sister organizations and Hera Hub’s budding licensing business now give Hanson the confidence to say she and Mah will impact 20,000 women entrepreneurs by 2020, though Hera Hub may never reach 200 coworking locations. She says they have touched more than 3,500 women to date.
“You have to change based on the market,” she says. “You’ve got to listen, and you’ve got to pivot.”
Watch our 2013 video profile of Felena Hanson below: