Speaking of going global, today we’re absolutely thrilled to be chatting with Paulina Sygulska Tenner: cofounder and director of GrantTree based in the United Kingdom! GrantTree was founded in 2010 to help innovative UK-based companies access funding without giving up equity. This includes: Research & Development Tax Credits, UK government grants, EU grants, and other Innovation grants. Since its inception, the company has helped raise over £65 million in government funding for startups, scale-ups and bigger companies.
Let’s tune in to what Paulina has to say:
Marketing and product development can be real challenges for a startup. What advice do you have for founders?
A lean startup model is a great starting point! Before you even build your product, have multiple conversations with potential customers to ask if your product is something people would pay for. Ask questions like: Is this valuable? Does it solve your problem? Get detailed feedback on the idea. It is very important that product development should happen in parallel with marketing. Every step should be aligned. Product development should be driven by customer and market insights. So remain in touch with your customers throughout the process of developing your product.
What advice do you have for founders when it comes to fundraising?
Consider all options when it comes to fundraising. Be objective and realistic while exploring different options – whether it’s government funding, crowdfunding, equity based, and other sources. It’s possible that you don’t require external fundraising at all and can grow with help of customer revenues (at least up to a point). This option is actually the most sustainable for your business.
We noticed you put a lot of emphasis on your company culture. Any tips for early-stage founders when it comes to building an organisation’s culture?
Think about what kind of company you would like to build and why. What do you like to see in the world? What values do you want to represent? What often happens is that early stage founders focus on product development and sales to begin with and can’t afford to spend any time on setting the culture and developing the vision of what they want the company to look like. As time passes and more people join the team, the organisation. becomes its own beast. Founders often look back and realise that culture just “happened” randomly without their input and doesn’t really represent the kind of workplace they aspired to build. So make time to set the vision and values early on and become their guardian as the company grows.
What is the startup scene like in UK?
It’s an exciting time in London. The startup scene has really developed and consolidated here over the past few years. When I started out there was no such thing as a ‘tech city’. Currently, London is one of the important startup hubs in Europe and continues to attract entrepreneurs and innovators internationally. It definitely has good conditions for starting businesses with experimental or unproven business models. It remains to be seen how this might change after Brexit though.
Being an entrepreneur isn’t an instant success but a long term career, and more and more people on the London scene recognise this. The perception of failure is starting to shift and there is more investment available to early stage startups too, due to schemes such as SEIS (Seed Enterprise Investment Scheme).
What are one or two books, or resources that you’d highly recommend our community should read?
London Startup Digest is a great newsletter to sign up to if you’re interested in local events which is probably the best way to get a feel for the London startup scene. I personally like reading about alternative ways to build companies particularly in the space of culture. Great stuff I’ve read in this realm includes ‘Delivering Happiness’ by Tony Hsieh (founder of Zappos), ‘Maverick’ by Ricardo Semler and ‘An Everyone Culture’ by Robert Kegan. In terms of online communities, Hacker News or Reddit is a good place to start.
When you are starting out in this industry, I’d recommend to go out, meet like-minded people, listen to their pitches, and immerse yourself in the scene. Building a startup can feel lonely, since the majority of your friends are likely to be pursuing corporate careers (and, obviously, making way more money). Surround yourself with people who will support you as your struggles are their struggles too.
How do you go about keeping it all together with a positive work-life balance while running a startup?
Self-care comes first for me these days – if I don’t invest in myself to begin with, I won’t be able to invest my energy, time and effort into the business. I value my personal development incredibly high and that can come from physical activity, meditation, coaching and therapy. Hobbies and creative activities are also very important, ideally completely unrelated to what you do during the day; at some point I took up burlesque dancing! Do something that feels creative, fun, and freeing. That gives you a space to come back to who you are outside of the business context. Find things that nourish you and give you perspective.
We saw your team is growing. What do you look for in an ideal team member?
As a founder, you tend to attract people with similar personality traits which isn’t always helpful. In the early days of hiring we asked applicants for videos and this ended up drawing more extroverts and not people who were, for example, analytical and detail oriented but too shy to create a good video. We realized this and decided to strive for more balanced team. Currently, our recruitment process is not based on personality. We begin with an open culture interview which could also be understood as self-leadership assessment. We are looking to find out if a person is likely to thrive in this challenging environment which is all about self management and ownership of your work and relationships, within the framework of holacracy which we use as governance and operational system. It’s not just about being a self-starter. It’s how you communicate, collaborate, handle conflicts, and contribute to our values, helping take the company to the next level. It’s about being able to hold space for others, and for yourself. Being great at something must go hand in hand with humility, openness to feedback and being continually and consciously on a journey of growth and development. My new passion – and a new project we are piloting – is helping founders design recruitment processes in a way that attracts people who are awesome but humble and thrive in self-managing environments. If you are interested in this, give me a shout. firstname.lastname@example.org
“Paulina ‘Pow’ Sygulska is a serial entrepreneur, event promoter and philanthropist. She is also co-founder of GrantTree – government funding specialists who enable people and businesses to fulfill their potential. In 5 years, GrantTree has helped 650+ innovative firms obtain over £65m worth of government grants. When not involved in successful businesses, Pow performs as a cabaret artist and organises events such as Unconventionalconvention.com, often for charitable causes. Charities she supports include MIND, DiversityInCare, Women at the Well and Forward (fighting Female Genital mutilation).”