Female-run businesses grow on the Runet

August 8, 2011 Elena Novikova
Young Russian women find Internet start-ups an interesting prospect, but are they willing to face the realities of running a small business?
Alyona Popova. Source: alenapopova.com
Alyona Popova. Source: alenapopova.com

Tatyana Smolova, 30, never planned to open her own business. After graduating with a degree in philology, she worked for several years she worked as an assistant to the head of a small private company. Then she got a better-paid job with another firm. A month later, however, she realized she was pregnant, and was thereafter never paid her full salary. To return to her former job was out of the question. Where could she find a job that would enable her to bring up her son on her own? This question prompted her to start her own Internet business. Several months later, Tatyana opened an Internet store selling clothes for pregnant women. It does not bring in fabulous profits but it gives her a decent income and allows her to spend more time with her son.

The last two or three years have seen dozens of startups by women on Runet. Most of these have a distinctly female touch, offering goods and services for women in various situations, including clothes for pregnant women or breastfeeding mothers; children’s clothes and footwear; diapers and toys; and job boards for nannies and babysitters. For young women, especially young mothers, Internet start-ups offer the advantages of independence and a flexible timetable: Work from home can be done at any time of the day or night.

You are your own employer

Alyona Popova, 28, planned to be a journalist. After graduating from college, she landed a plum job with a leading national TV channel. But she decided to leave it to start her own Internet business. She now has 12 projects running. The best known is Startup Women, which has been around for three months and is essentially an online school for businesswomen, providing them with all the information and assistance they need to open up their own businesses.

Popova said that she got the idea for this project during the 2008 economic crisis, when most of her friends and acquaintances were left without jobs: “Companies started laying off people they considered superfluous, that is, PR and marketing specialists. In Russia, 70 percent of workers in this sphere are women, so a lot of my women friends found themselves out of a job,” said Popova.

In her opinion, it is more difficult for a woman than for man to find a good job, especially if she has children or is a single mother. She set out to prove that start-ups can be a way out for a woman who has been left high and dry, particularly in the Russian regions, where there are fewer job opportunities than in the major cities. Popova now travels frequently to the regions, addressing conferences and seminars and urging women to make more active use of the Internet.

Family or business

Yet Alyona Vladimirskaya, who owns one of Runet’s most successful start-ups, mistrusts start-ups run by women. “There are very few women who really do serious business themselves,” Vladimirskaya said. “Most of them have the business given to them by their men or simply pretend to do business. Just like in the old days, when there were interest groups where women met to embroider or to read together, so today it has become fashionable to get together and discuss how they would open their own ‘little chocolate shop.’”

Vladimirskaya set up her business – a headhunting agency called Pruffi – at 38, and she believes that when a woman is young and does not yet have any children or an understanding husband, she is taking both personal and financial risks in setting up her own business: the family breaks up because of the stress or the business goes bust or both. She works at least 16 hours a day, without days off or holidays.

“It is more challenging to work in a startup company than to work for hire,” said Vladimirskaya. “Here you are responsible for everything and you cannot say: ‘I don’t feel well, I’ll go home early today.’ You have to force yourself to work every day. But, in this country, for some reason people think that doing business is easy. People are not used to working hard and taking their projects to a serious level. The start-up culture in Russia is in its infancy”.

Many projects fail at an early stage. According to market participants, 70-80 percent of new Internet companies shut down in the first few months. Vladimirskaya believes that the main test for any startup is to remain afloat for a year and only a few manage to do that. 

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