How a fake man helped two women get their start-up off the ground

When the two female founders of an internet start-up found themselves facing the industry's well-known culture of misogyny, they decided to create 'Keith Mann'.

Keith became the co-founder of Witchsy, a new online marketplace for weird art, alongside Kate Dwyer and Penelope Gazin.

But Keith was not a real person.

He was their very own fake male partner, designed to help them be taken seriously while trying to get their business off the ground.

Ms Dwyer said when she and Ms Gazin were at the idea phase of their business, simply receiving timely responses to emails was difficult. And when they did get emails back, they were often condescending and at times sexist.

"We just had this thought — why don't we see what happens if we have a man on our team, a 'Keith Mann'," Ms Dwyer said.

"We realised women just have a harder time in business, and especially in tech, because there's a magnifying glass on them."

She said before they brought Keith onboard, the emails they were receiving from people were "pretty unhelpful."

"It was clear that they thought it was a hobby or we were just bored," she said.

"Penelope and I used to joke about the fact that it was like 'Oh yeah, this is just our fun little business until we get husbands'."

'Everyone dropped everything to make sure Keith was happy'

Ms Dwyer said the difference in the way people addressed Keith to how they had been addressed was "such a stark contrast".

"You're like, 'Wow'," she said.

"What started happening is we would have people addressing Keith, acknowledging his ideas, making sure that they would throw any additional insight or feedback."

Ms Dwyer said while before they had been forced to wait days for answers to "very easy things", the minute Keith asked the same questions "suddenly everyone was dropping everything to make sure that they were responding and keeping him happy."

"It was very odd," she said.

But while Keith helped get Witchsy up and running, Ms Dwyer said he was "just a means to get everything started."

Once their site was built and they had something to show others and help prove themselves with, they were able to let him retire.

"The biggest thing we've discovered is that now that people can actually see it, things have been great, so we haven't needed Keith," she said.

But Ms Dwyer said the fact they needed Keith at all proved women in tech start-ups were expected to prove they could deliver on an idea.

"I've seen men that just walk into a room and say 'I got a billion-dollar idea', and they suddenly have funding and everyone's onboard," she said.

"But with women it's this entire other issue — having to just get to the place where people even take you seriously."

'People would assume I was the intern'

Australian entrepreneur and founder of the designer clothes shopping app Stashd, Jessica Wilson, said she was not surprised by the measures taken by Ms Dwyer and her business partner.

"I remember when I started people used to think I was the intern, rather than the CEO, and they would think my male intern was the CEO," she said.

"Being a female founder you have to give a lot of context."

Ms Wilson said when she was pitching her business to male investors, she found she had to impress them in different ways.

"Impressing them with statistics, market research, providing context," she said.

"There's a lot of additional work that needs to happen to wrap their heads around a context which might not be close to home as other businesses led by male founders.

"So it's a lot more work into setting the context and establishing that relationship as well."