When entrepreneurs Penelope Gazin and Kate Dwyer had trouble getting men in the business world to take their startup seriously, they came up with an innovative solution.

The two women added a male co-founder to their company's executive team. He was named Keith Mann (get it?).

You see, Mann doesn't actually exist. But "hiring" him solved the problem.

Gazin and Dwyer run Witchsy, an online artsy marketplace that's like Etsy, but for the bizarre, dark or slightly raunchy. They sell things like patches that say "We all die."

The Los Angeles-based entrepreneurs, who are artists themselves, felt that their business was often met with condescension because it's run by two females.

"I think because we're young women, a lot of people looked at what we were doing like, 'What a cute hobby!' or 'That's a cute idea,' " Dwyer said.

They sold about $200,000 worth of art in their first year, making a small profit. But they still ran into hesitation among outsiders, who were mostly men. They were slow to respond to the founders' e-mails and took a condescending tone, responding with phrases such as "OK, girls."

One web developer even tried to delete everything he'd done for them after Gazin rejected his offer for a date.

Keith Mann to the rescue.

Gazin and Dwyer started using Mann as their e-mail contact. The change was instantaneous.

"It was like night and day," Dwyer said. "It would take me days to get a response, but Keith could not only get a response and a status update, but also be asked if he wanted anything else or if there was anything else that Keith needed help with."

Other women in the tech industry have not been surprised by Gazin and Dwyer's story. Last year, less than 17 percent of venture capital deals in North America backed a company with at least one female founder, according to PitchBook. And women increasingly are speaking out about the inequality they say they've experienced in Silicon Valley.

As for Mann, he might be in line for a raise.