Friday Interview: Paulina Sygulska
Having studied at UCL, Paulina worked with large German and Polish tech companies building their presence on new national markets. Keen to work with fast moving tech startups, she launched a support network for tech media entrepreneurs on dreamstake.net and helped bring innovative products to market. In 2010 she launched a niche R&D fundraising consultancy, having recognised a major need for access to funding without giving up equity.
She founded GrantTree three years ago to help tech start-ups to get equity free funding from the government, and it has been going from strength to strength since.
Tell us a little bit about your business.
GrantTree (25 team members, £1.5m t/o) comprises of people literally from all over the world which gives us amazing diversity of ideas and opinions. We have an open culture which means a flat structure, self-management and transparent company data (including all financials). I’m really proud of my team and the things we managed to achieve both on the culture front and in terms of fundraising – we raised over £20m worth of equity free funding for 400+ tech companies in the last four years.
Your company specialises in helping other business find funding, but how did you first obtain funding to start your company?
I’m pleased to say we never raised external funding from investors. We did benefit from grants (such as Growth Accelerator) but apart from that, we grew organically (i.e. based on client revenues). We also got a comfortable enough financial position to be able to launch our own small debt fund we call The Power-up Fund (tax credit financing available to selected clients) and put down a deposit for an office building and co-working space, TreeHouse, launching at the beginning of August. I do encourage early stage companies to – as much as possible – rely on sales other than external investment which can provide a cushion against the harsh commercial reality of running a profitable business. I am though a believer in funding for expansion and as GrantTree we work closely with quite a few equity investors since grant funding goes hand in hand with equity finance.
When you first started your company with your boyfriend, your friends told you to give up because they thought that you would fail. But you were determined to build your company despite of their warnings. Can you tell us more about this why you were determined to start the business anyways?
I used to work closely with entrepreneurs as part of the business I co founded, DreamStake, and I reached a point where I wanted to be a part of that community myself. I Identified something that was within my Idea Reach that had a clear value add – securing equity free funding – that people would be willing to pay for right then and there. I wanted to prove a business based on this value add could be executed well and at scale.
What are the advantages or disadvantages to starting a company with someone you’re very close, like you did for GrantTree with your boyfriend at the time?
Starting a business is certainly not for everyone. However, I know of plenty of people who have done it, some with incredible success. Amongst the advantages are trust, similar goals and values – which will help get the business on the right track to begin with and to scale it up – and much more emotional support you are likely to get from each other. You will also be more aware of each other’s strengths and weaknesses and preferred working styles prior to starting up.
There are also considerable risks to be conscious of though. If you are starting a business with your other half or even a close friend, failure of this business could lead to a relationship breakdown. To prevent this, have a detailed discussion about what each of you are expecting to get from the new venture and at what point you would feel it threatens your relationship with the other person. In other words, as much as possible, find solutions to potential problems/misunderstandings before they occur. If this is the situation you are in, I recommend checking out Daniel’s post Starting up with a friend.
For you, what characteristics should a startup have to succeed ?
Firstly, a bucket load of productive energy and resilience. A team that is well balanced skills wise, communicates well and has a solutions oriented approach. You need to be adaptable and not easily put off. You need to be prepared for a journey where more or less anything can happen and not treat yourself too seriously while on it. Lastly, keep learning and have fun. Otherwise it’s hardly worth it, right?
If you would like to be involved in a social enterprise whose mission is to help migrants improve their lives by starting their own businesses, get in touch via email firstname.lastname@example.org.