How Khaleelah Jones fought investor bias to build her business

Khaleelah Jones is the founder of award-winning boutique agency Careful Feet Digital and recently launched tech startup Dime.

We spoke to Khaleelah about starting her own business, meeting investors and using the lessons she’s learnt building an agency to launch a digital product.

What made you decide to start a business?

I got my first job after graduating from university. I really enjoyed being a copywriter but I didn’t enjoy working for other people. It was clear that I wanted to have my own business but I needed to get some experience under my belt first. 

I worked my way through a couple of different marketing roles and ended up as the head of marketing at a startup. That was an amazing experience to have at such a young age and at that point I thought, ‘I’ve worked in a couple of companies, I’ve done this raise and I’ve doubled a user base in six months. I have the experience, I can go off and start my own thing’.

Last year, after six years of work, Dime was born. I’d say start small, get really good at something, get to know the market and build on that. It takes a really long time.

What was your experience raising investment?

I tried to raise investment last autumn. In my first meeting, they offered me the full amount I was raising. But the terms weren’t great and there were a lot of issues at play. They actually asked me to take a massive salary cut and said, ‘You have a husband right? You can live off him’. 

That particular conversation was very much ageist and sexist. They looked at me and they thought, ‘This is a fairly young woman who just got married so this might be like a hobby’.

It felt like even though I was talking to them about an agency I’ve grown from scratch to six figures, they thought that this was some fun thing I do in my spare time. 

They asked me to take a massive salary cut and said, ‘You have a husband right? You can live off him.’

Khaleelah Jones, Careful Feet Digital

That made me see that I had two options: I could either work with people that didn’t align with my personal values or I could grow slowly but sustainably. I’m so happy I went for the second option. There are a tonne of tech startups that never reached profitability because their investors were pushing them to grow too fast.

What was it like moving to a product-based business?

The biggest learning I’ve made is bringing the same people working on the agency to the product-based business.

This isn’t to say people should go around firing their team if they’re trying to make this transition. However, I think it takes really different mental states to be good at offering a service and creating a product.

People feel like they’re spread too thin when the roles aren’t clear. That can be extremely stressful, so I’d say to hire well for people who are working on a product vs. a service.

What advice do you have for founders launching new products?

I think at the beginning of a launch, every little step has to be done with the founder pushing it along. It’s not scalable at all, but the scalability of your marketing approach at the very beginning isn’t something you should be focused on. 

In the future you should have that in mind, but at the start I think it’s important to put your name behind it. That way, people will be much more willing to use it and you’ll get that sense of goodwill.

Asking customers for feedback might take up a lot of your time, but people appreciate it. They love the idea of creating something with you. They’ll remember how you made them feel, even if they didn’t have the best experience ever. It’s almost like they’re the co-creator in making it better.

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Holly Sawyer
Holly is the Marketing Manager at Inkwell, the company behind The Pitch.

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