Interview by Marija Butkovic (@MarijaButkovic)
Paulina Sygulska Tenner is a serial entrepreneur, a TEDx speaker and a founder of GrantTree, started with a purpose to help tech startups navigate the complex world of government funding. In the last six years the team grew organically from 2 to 30, and raised over £50m for more than 600 technology startups and more mature companies using solely government funding schemes such as R&D tax credits. GrantTree is also an open culture company which pioneered open salary scheme, and an empowering workplace. Earlier this year GrantTree launched its own Professional Workspace with Soul - Treehouse - in central London to help spread its cultural values and create a brilliant working environment for other companies too. Paulina is also a seed investor and startup mentor, often featured as women in fintech speaker and panelist.
What is the idea behind GrantTree and how did you come up with it?
We support technology driven organisations that bring the future closer. Currently we do that through securing equity free funding that supports their growth and innovative projects. In the future we hope to also support them in other ways, such as creating the right recruitment / on boarding process so new hires can lift the organisation's consciousness and effectiveness to higher levels.
When did it all start and do you have other members in your team?
I started GrantTree in 2010 with my then boyfriend, now husband literally in a second bedroom. We've just gone over 30 full time staff members. We're very cosmopolitan as a team and have quite a few women in senior leadership positions which I'm proud of.
How long did it take you to be where you are now?
Personally - just over 32 years ;) Seriously though my personal development journey feels quite long (even though sometimes it seems to me I've barely scratched the surface!) and most definitely tied with the development of the business.
I was a completely different human being when we started seven years ago.
What was the biggest obstacle?
At the beginning most definitely gaining trust of our target audience given our brand was completely unknown and we were also quite green as entrepreneurs (despite the fact we've both been involved in other startups before). These days facing growth challenges like diversification and the dynamics of our market (which at least in the UK is quite mature) are crucial to our future success.
What are the challenges of being an entrepreneur in the niche you are in?
Scalability (services scale much less easily than products) and creating a competitive brand that wins on the ground of value it provides - and values it's associated with - other than price or decades long trading history.
How about being a female founder / entrepreneur?
It's a little difficult to imagine the opposite ;) Seriously though, I love my career and believe entrepreneurship can be an amazing place for women to develop and shine. Does it have challenges? Plenty, but so it does for men. What makes it more difficult for ladies (at least from my perspective) is the fact entrepreneurship - particularly creating a startup - is currently mostly associated with a pressure cooker type environment, meeting goals set by investors or other stake holders and pushing to the point of (and often past the point of) burnout. Women tend to prefer more nurturing and flexible work places. This is yet another reason for us to be active and visible on the startup scene and transform it, according to our energy, intuition and our needs, from the inside out.
What are your biggest achievements to date?
Switching from survival startup mode to purpose driven scaleup mode. Letting go of control (and greed!) and creating the open culture that we have. We are one of the companies on the forefront of what I see as a general shift to a more conscious and purpose focused capitalism. The way this looks in practice is that, as an example, we have completely transparent company financials, individual determined salaries and run Holacracy as operational and governance system which gives us tools to self manage. We're really passionate about how and why we do what we do. And about our own development in the process, brought on by commercial challenges that we face.
With its expertise, GrantTree also helped some emerging tech businesses, in IoT and fashion tech space. Could you tell us a little bit more about what are the main particularities, but also obstacles, when it comes to funding hardware businesses?
Hardware businesses are, in my opinion, in general harder to start up because of capital needed upfront and quite a few more problems/issues to solve than in purely software ventures. Because of that experience in running and scaling hardware businesses (either founder's or on your advisory board) is so important.
For reasons mentioned above some equity investors shy away from hardware investments. When it comes to equity free funding though (such as grants which we specialise in securing here at GrantTree), interestingly hardware businesses are often richer in sophisticated IP and therefore easier to fundraise for. Currently there are plenty of grants applicable to technologically complex hardware ventures, such as IoT.
It may be a bit more tricky in the area of fashion tech although we recently got a grant for Kymira, a smart fabric company specialising in performance and recovery sportswear. For more fashion driven companies I'd recommend crowdfunding since it allows you to create a significant social profile and a substantial fan base, which may prove even more important than cash as you scale.
What are the main challenges hardware founders are facing today, especially when it comes to fundraising, R&D, etc.?
Fundraising wise, founders - and female founders in particular - aren't often bold enough in seeking alternative forms of funding. This could mean R&D tax credits and grants but could also be crowd funding, debt, invoice financing and even simply balancing the product and service oriented offering to grow their companies organically.
If you have a feeling you may not have made the most of grants available to you or claimed the maximum you're entitled to when it comes to R&D tax credits, please reach out to us for some free advice. If you fill out a form on our website or shoot us an email on firstname.lastname@example.org, one of us, most probably a cool dude called Mike, will be in touch to schedule a chat so we can give you some useful tips.
What is the most important piece of advice you can give to all female founders and female entrepreneurs out there?
Trust your inner wisdom and the process of life and development. Forgive yourself. Don't forget that your energy and mental and physical wellbeing is the most important asset to look after.
This interview was conducted by Marija Butkovic, Digital Marketing and PR strategist, co-founder of Women of Wearables and Kisha Smart Umbrella. She regularly writes and speaks on topics of wearable tech, fashion tech, IoT, entrepreneurship and diversity. Visit marijabutkovic.co.uk or follow Marija on Twitter @MarijaButkovic @Women_Wearables @GetKisha.