Transparency, creating your own job and the saleswoman from hell!
This week I hosted Paulina from GrantTree for my Female Founders lunch. I left my lunch with Paulina feeling both inspired and as if I had learnt considerable lessons both for life, and in startups. Paulina is exhilarating to be around and made me feel giddy with anticipation for what my entrepreneurial journey may have in store.
Let’s start by talking about your journey leading up to GrantTree.
I’m known as a “saleswoman from hell”, which I'm actually proud of. It's something that is incredibly helpful if you want to start your own business. Let's be honest, the two main things you need to succeed as a first time entrepreneur - not to scale the company though, that's a different story - are hunger and determination. I was born in Poland and I came to the UK as I had won a scholarship to study at UCL. I think when you’re in a completely new environment you have the opportunity to get to grips with who you are and what you want to do with your life which was awesome. So after I completed my MA I decided I really wanted to get into an advertising agency to be in an environment, I thought, where the most wacky and creative folks hang around. Back then I had no real idea about the startup scene. I remember going to bars in advertising clusters with a large copy of the Campaign, hoping to be chatted up by a Saatchi MD, hilarious. I would sit all evening sipping one drink because the bars were posh and I could only afford one. Finally one night in Canary Wharf a random 'suit' came up and asked me why his beers hadn't arrived yet and I had to explain I didn't really work there. My god, was I let down. It got to me though that perhaps the tactic wasn't right. I decided to go through a standard interview process after all. I almost got into Ogilvy but my feedback after the interview (which I got via the 'back door' as I knew someone I could ask) was “half of the people think that you’re a genius, and the other half argue it doesn't really matter since you’re completely unmanageable - so it’s a no”.
When I was looking for these jobs I created a video CV, before anyone was doing it and I had various shots of me hanging from a tree and saying that I am flexible and on the running track and saying that I am always ahead of the competition. Totally stupid but relatively effective. I've never had a problem about sticking out like a sore thumb. Back then I was completely uncompromising though. I’d like to think that I still have a little bit of that in me but now it’s more toned down to what I know the outside world is likely to accept. I'm definitely more patient, and if still a tad grandiose then at least more down to earth about it.
So after I was rejected from Ogilvy I started working with a big software company in Poland. They didn’t really have a job for me in the first place but I created the job for myself. I approached some of the biggest software exporters in Poland and said, “Guys, I see you’ve got some international exposure and you’re doing interesting things but you don’t know anybody in the UK. You need a UK Country Manager and I can do that job for you.” Bear in mind back then I had absolutely no experience apart from working in a dodgy pub in Sheffield - out of all places - during one of my university holidays. Anyway, two of them said “sure, let’s talk” and one of them hired me. So I became the UK Country Manager for a huge software company that sold millions of pounds worth of software. That was an interesting experience!
After that I did a couple of other stunts with other companies operating internationally and in need of a bit of a sales push. One of them was a tech company in London that now happens to be a client of GrantTree. I also manned the (sales) phones for a German hardware company building their UK market presence. I was working from home which was a bit boring so I would usually get out in the evenings to grab a pint at some random geeky meet-up and would end up happily pissed with unshaven guys rambling on about product-market fit (and all sorts of things I had no clue about). That's when it finally became clear that by applying to work for advertising companies I was looking for weird mavericks in a completely wrong place.
I got the startup bug and that was that, no way back. I soon met Paul and started my first company.
What was your first company?
My first company was Dreamstake, I’m not part of it anymore but I was there at the beginning. I think it is a great initiative which has developed in an interesting direction but, probably not the way I saw it when it started. Paul, who I began Dreamstake with, is still running it. I am incredibly grateful to him, a lot of things I still do in business I first learnt from Paul. Importantly, I also realised what kind of business I wanted to run and what kind of setup wasn't right for me. After two years of doing that together, I realized I wanted to do something independently and the time has come for me to separate from my mentor. Paul was always more of a mentor to me than a co-founder.
GrantTree - The Story
So how did GrantTree begin?
Four years ago I started GrantTree with my boyfriend at the time, which horrified all of my friends. They said “this will be an absolute disaster, you’re going to split and in a month’s time we’re going to have to decide whether we are your friends or his!”. My mind was up about starting a company though and I realised it would take me months to build a working relationship with someone I could trust to share my vision and values, and simply to put in the effort needed. That's when I made an executive decision to, despite friends' advice, actively implement the YOLO (you only live once) methodology. Daniel was just out of his previous project and had complementary skills as well which is crucial. Plus I could always bug him about doing this or that within the business he previously committed to - over supper, on Sunday morning or in bed. The motivation to start GrantTree came from frustration in wanting to do something effective for entrepreneurs that delivers real value (and what value is more real than equity free cash?!). Plenty of organisations facilitating startup growth these days don't deliver value that's tangible and I wanted to do something about that. However, the need to create some income - I got tired of being constantly skint! - and the urge to build something I could be proud of were the primary motivation that got things moving. I would encourage people to think in that way when they first start; focus on the first step of getting something out that will sustain you financially. Make sure the "big vision" doesn’t overshadow the pragmatic reasons why you wanted to start the business, particularly when it's still very unstable.
The first time some real money came into the business was eight months after we started which was a bit of a financial stretch but it was definitely a reason to celebrate. We've proven the model for goodness' sake! Then about eighteen months after we started we employed the first UK based person full time. I was terrified we were going to lose control over hard earned clients but, surprise surprise, things became easier - and clients happier - instead. That's when we knew the business was not going to be just an exercise in survival but something much bigger - at least big enough to justify expanding the team - and I got the bug of team building. It's possibly the most satisfying thing about a scaling startup. It's one thing to build something that works and yet another to get others bought in enough to sit in a confined space next to you for five days a week which isn't exactly true - I'm on the move at least half of the time!
There’s sixteen of us now and we have over one million turnover. I am really proud of my team and the way it has evolved. I honestly think I’m in the best position I could be at this stage of my career. That’s due to intensely learning and stretching myself but, at the same time, being comfortable enough to think “Ok let’s not worry about where the next £10k of revenue is going to come from but the next few million. And about what difference we actually want to make on the scene".
Have you always wanted to run a company?
My parents were always encouraging of pretty much whatever I wanted to do but entrepreneurship wasn’t that much in their mindset. My dad is a lawyer, he runs his own practice, and my mum is an academic and a writer. I always saw myself working for a cool company. I wanted a place where I could express more than just what you are normally allowed to express in the business world. When I look back I see that I've always had some entrepreneurial qualities but I didn’t recognize it at the time. Since I don’t come from an entrepreneurial background, it was definitely a step for me to feel that what I am doing is ok. I needed to stop comparing myself to friends in banking jobs and stop feeling guilty that I wasn’t working nine to five and getting a regular salary. It was humbling when my business was very early stage and my friends would buy me beer when we went out. I'm buying tonnes of beer for others these days though. Sometimes, we've even ordered whole kegs for a startup party in our office!
Did you ever think that you might not be able to do it? Or just wanted to throw the towel in?
Paul Graham says one of the key entrepreneurial qualities is to be 'an animal' and when you look for a co-founder you should look for someone who has an animal in them. I think I am an animal when it comes to perseverance. When I want to prove something to myself then I’ll do whatever the fuck it takes. But I have had enough plenty of times. Admittedly, proving that you will do something "whatever the fuck it takes" can be really hard in practice. I have burned myself in the process a few time and an important thing that I learned is to watch out for your own energy resources. That is the most precious resource that you effectively have in your business. Your own energy and how you manage that are absolutely crucial. Also the good relationship between you and cofounder(s) is something to save you when things get rough.
How do you manage your energy and time?
It’s become easier because I have got people who will do lots of stuff I'm not great at and help me expand on my efforts. At the start I was absolutely obsessed with going to five networking meetings in a day because that was where I had a remote chance of connecting to future a remote clients. I had no reputation, no case studies, no relationships. Building those was the first crucial push I had to make, and there wasn't much time and energy left to look after myself. These days I make sure to have other things that I do, unrelated to the business, which keep me going and make life - and your own development - more multifaceted. It is really important to have something that you do just for yourself, be it sports, hanging out with non entrepreneurial friends or a crazy hobby. While I like all free I tend to be a particular fan of the last. I used to perform burlesque and right now I dance Argentine tango. While I have no problem to take colleagues to a cabaret show, it’s something that's just my own.
Every time I felt exhausted and frustrated by the business, and those times will come for everyone, I tried to find whatever that one thing I needed to do for myself was. For example, I decided to do something that would be really cool and meaningful for my 30th birthday. I decided to throw an Unconventional Convention for an FGM (Female Genital Mutilation) charity Forward. I believe in femininity and I believe in female energy and for me FGM is a universal symbol of mistrusting that energy. So I decided to invite some awesome speakers (like my mentor Shaa Wasmund, founder of Smarta) and burlesque performers and basically have a ball! The reason why my journey has been as interesting, and so far quite successful, is mostly because of really cool, unique and inspiring people that have influenced me. I thought: what if I could get all these people together and maybe give them some kind of a platform to share their stories. It looks like it's all come together nicely and I'm very excited. In fact, I'm already thinking about running a regular event. If you are around on Sunday 28th do join me at my favourite bar in Shoreditch, to register donate £5 or more here: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/unconventional-convention-and-fun-fundraiser-tickets-5948294509?aff=es2
Mentorship & Team
So you mentioned these people who have influenced you, how do you turn someone you have met three or four times into a mentorship relationship?
It’s a bit like with investors, you never ask them for money but you do ask for advice. I think it is all about building genuine relationships with people and staying close to those that you look up to. The best way of getting closer to someone is by being useful to them. I keep coming across new people that inspire me and I do my best to surround myself with them. If you want to find a cool mentor, seek opportunities to interact with people you respect for what they've achieved, talk to them and - when it feels right - turn this relationship into something more structured. Basically, don't expect to get them into bed after the first date.
How did you start building your team? How did you hire your first person?
At first, I was totally terrified! There was money coming in, Dan and I were still working from home and we were really busy. Daniel started hinting that we should have someone manage all the clients while I get sales and he delivers the work. I came up with all sorts of reasons why it would turn into a disaster. “We’d need to get an office, who would manage that person, we would obviously need to pay them, and the business is still unstable. We can’t predict what is going to happen in three months, six months. We will have no visibility how those clients are getting handled.” When that person first appeared, the clients were in fact much better treated by him then they would have been by me because I didn’t have enough time to keep everyone looked after while hunting for new business. We were looking for someone relatively junior with tons of enthusiasm and we ended up hiring someone who had just decided to leave the corporate world after six years! I've never regretted hiring very experienced people who can hit the ground running in a role. It always pays off.
How has your role changed as the company has grown?
At the start it was incredibly hands-on, you do anything and everything that needs to be done and everything that you can’t get away with not doing. If you are not a techie it is kind of cool that you can pass on everything that is remotely technical to your cofounder. Then again if the business is not coming in it is all on your shoulders. This has actually changed, now that I have an outreach team I can afford to be much more strategic about partnerships and commercial opportunities. I’m still really keen on closing sales because I believe it is the lifeblood of any business. I don’t think that as long as I'm active in the company I will want to completely step away, but these days I am definitely looking more long-term in terms of commercial opportunities. Arguably, the most important job of a founder is to create a truly at-home environment for people - both in a physical and in an emotional sense - and to set out a vision people buy into. How you actually relate to them, guide them, and how you are with them on a daily basis has fundamental impact on whether you will create a rockstar company. People pick up on everything and ultimately pass it onto your clients. A few months ago I was overworked and in a bad mood. I said something that should not have been said and that created a ripple effect I had to stop quickly not to incur further damage. So I think you have to find a place in yourself where you are happy and content while at work for the sake of your staff, your clients and ultimately the future of your company. That is very important.
Successes and Challenges
What has been your biggest challenge in your journey so far? And how did you overcome it?
That’s a difficult question because there is a new challenge on your radar every day so I’ll take a general view. At one point it was definitely expanding the team, finding the right people. It is a massive challenge to build the type of culture you've envisioned for the company but I’m quite proud of how we handled it in the end. GrantTree is a company with an open culture, which means that people have a lot to say in terms of how the company is run and everybody can put forward their ideas through an advice process. The advice process means everybody can make any decision provided they’ve sought advice of all the people who will be impacted by the result of that. You don’t have to incorporate all the advice; you just need to have sought it and taken the feedback on board.
All our team have complete visibility of financials and salaries; we have a revenue-sharing scheme which means that at the end of every quarter half of what we make in the company (minus costs) is divided amongst the members of the team. To get to this culture was a difficult journey. When we first reached out for people management advice, we were told about the hierarchical structure and how to control, asess and influence people and their performance. It took us a while to realize that we were effectively building a company none of us would want to work for in the first place. It's a classic example of a situation when it hits you that the odds - of building a strict hierarchical company in this case - are good but the goods are odd. (Man I love that saying.) Finally we picked up the courage to change hierarchical management into a completely transparent, trust based approach, where our role as founders is simply to create the perfect environment for people to do great stuff. To achieve that though you need to start with a fundamental belief that people are really there to contribute and don't need to be scared into good performance. It took many books and conversations for me to let go of control and believe that it's practically possible not just to build an open company but to sustain that kind of culture at scale.
Another challenge was on the commercial side, getting that first solid piece of good reputation and getting case studies to go to prospective clients with. If that's where you currently are, persevere! The success of your startup depends on whether you can face the wall of initial lack of credibility and smash it to pieces.
Right now the biggest challenge is being really clever about scalability, maintaining focus while at the same time thinking about what we want to do next in terms of new products and new markets. In the next five years I want to see us make the most of the opportunity which is significant, and of what we’ve created so far.
What do you think feel your biggest success has been?
At first, the triumphant feeling came when we I realized the company was going to work commercially. I still consider that as a success. I actually think it really helps to have been part of one, two or three projects or ventures that failed so you can spot things that actually work, react appropriately to them and to appreciate them as well. It really is true that you learn from nothing more than you learn from failure, as long as you take the lessons and pick yourself up of course. I always say you should treat entrepreneurship like a career, instead of a one shot chance. It's not about either building a parachute on your way down or crashing to pieces on the rocks. It's more like being a scientist in a laboratory, playing with different substances in colourful bottles. You get to see what works and what doesn't, measure things, analyse the results, and move on.
I would consider the culture that we’ve created one of our key successes. I went on holiday recently and I was really happy when I walked into the office after those two weeks. I thought “yayy I’m back” and having that feeling about entering your own office is just great. We’re at that level of trust where we really don’t care that much how, when and where people are working from, as long as they communicate with others, add to the team and deliver genuine results. Personally I feel successful as an entrepreneur when I see people grow, am able to step away from responsibilities and let people simply do their thing. It's beautiful seeing people step up and implement ideas you would never have thought of yourself.
I am also really proud of working with clients that we have gotten involved, such as Duedil, GoCardless, Kano or StackExchange. We learn a lot from them every day and it makes us a part of a bigger entrepreneurial community of great people doing great stuff. We are all on the same path really and it's fantastic to have our successful clients on that journey with us.
Women in Business
What do you think needs to change to encourage more women to start businesses?
There are already a lot of amazing women in business when you start digging. They aren't always as loud or as easy to find as a certain kind of ballsy male founders but there are more successful female entrepreneurs than ever out there right now. I think the more we can celebrate that and create networks of support, the easier it will become. We definitely need more of us to step up and actually talk about the joys and advantages of being an entrepreneur. I think this is the best career path to follow, even given all the risks and moments of uncertainty where shit hits the fan. All in all I wouldn’t want to be in any other position professionally, there is no question about it. No other career could give me this amount of personal growth, or set me on a straighter path towards fulfillment. The biggest difficulty at the moment, particularly for young women, is, I feel, to consciously give themselves permission to follow their own way. Looking at fellow female entrepreneurs - and aspiring entrepreneurs - I know I discover we tend to be naturally hard working, humble, socially intelligent and pragmatic enough to keep getting things that matter done. I think it is often down to confidence, and sense of entitlement to the kind of lifestyle and career you want to create for yourself, more than to anything else.
Time to step up, ladies, and embrace all shades of entrepreneurial awesomeness within you. Do it.
Tools & Books
What books do you recommend?
What tools would you recommend?
Final thoughts, what excites you most about the future?
Personal Fulfilment. I have tons of creativity, curiosity, passion for life and I love learning. I live in the moment where I feel fulfilled, and alive, where I can support those things in my life that are already working superbly well, or get out of my comfort zone and explore the truly scary shit (until it becomes less scary). In the name of "taking your edge to the edge" I tend to focus on good things and expand on them. I think that my future holds more and more conscious alignment with my ultimate vision. I think that your life and career - ultimately just a small part of it - are a constant journey and I see my journey becoming more and more clear, eventful, but at the same time cohesive. Particularly for really ambitious people who are good at many things it tends to a little bit chaotic in the beginning but then things really fall into place. If you are a budding entrepreneur, don't be afraid of exploration and a bit of a creative chaos, out of which that which is truly you is bound to finally emerge. As long as you then hold yourself accountable and are pragmatic enough to continuously make things happen, you will succeed. It's great to look back, and be able to say “I know so much better now what I am really about and what I've got to give to the world". I wish it to all of you.