Trailblazing Women: Paulina Sygulska, Co-founder GrantTree

Trailblazing Women: Paulina Sygulska, Co-founder GrantTree
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This interview is part of a series on Trailblazing Women role models (Entrepreneurs and Leaders) from around the world and first appeared on Global Invest Her. You have to see what you can be.


"All in all, being an entrepreneur is an absolutely fascinating journey of personal and professional self-discover, incomparable with any other career path. I'll do my absolute very best to support others who are thinking of taking that journey. The more entrepreneurially-minded people we have in the world, the brighter the future".

Paulina is a serial entrepreneur, a philanthropist and a cofounder of GrantTree. In the last five years the team grew organically from 2 to 30, and raised over £30million for over 500 clients using government funding schemes such as R&D tax credits and Innovate UK grants. GrantTree is also an open culture company which is pioneering concepts such as total transparency (including salaries), trust, power, non-hierarchical self-organisation, and freedom.

Visit her website and follow her on Twitter @Payah and @GrantTree

Who is your role model as an entrepreneur?

I never had any formal training in business, and have learned everything I know about our business by working with and being around people I looked up to. That started 7 years ago with my previous business partner who taught me a lot and gave me a lot of confidence - that it's possible and fun to be an entrepreneur. In the early days I also went to a lot of Meetups with geeks. It gave me the insight that this is a bunch of people who want to change things and have a certain vision of what reality should look like, then actively go pursue their vision. I thought to myself, this is amazing, I want to be part of this world. Other than Richard Branson, I also look up to people who are closer and more accessible to me, that I have met on my journey. Recently I was mentored by Shaa Wasmund, a very productive, dynamic entrepreneur with great values. She is definitely an inspiration along with Eileen Burbidge (Fintech thought leader). I've always looked up to women who are able to tap into both female and male qualities when leading a company. In GrantTree we try to have a 50/50 gender split because I find that more conducive to a great working environment. Alistair Lukies talks about how he believes women leaders will change the world. We need more men like him sharing that key message, who appreciate the qualities and perception that women bring to the table.

What is your greatest achievement to date?

I think it's incredible that in 5 years I have come from working from the kitchen table to working with a team of 30 people in Clerkenwell. We have an incredible company culture. There are challenges every day but when I take a moment to look back and see what we have built together through a great team effort, built from nothing to a great place to work, it makes me very proud. Grant Tree has helped over 500 clients raise more than £30 million in government funding and in many cases this money has made a big difference to the companies in either helping them restructure their business, change their offering, or bridge cash flow to move from surviving to thriving. The fact that we have grown organically and that this company exists in the shape it does is my greatest achievement in the professional space.

What has been your biggest challenge as a woman entrepreneur?

I think it's all a matter of perception, so I consciously choose not to think that things are going to be harder for me because I'm a woman. In the beginning, being a girl with a strong eastern European accent (I'm from Poland), hanging around Meetups with programmers, looking a bit out of place was a bit challenging. Then again, I chose not to look at is as such. I never minded standing out a little bit. When GrantTree started and I was talking to male tech leaders twice my age, some of them felt it was a bit weird to be speaking to a woman - they were expecting to speak to someone else, and they got me! I made sure to use my personality and knowledge to win them over. Nowadays I'm more relaxed about it and don't have as much insecurity about coming across as someone who is on a level playing field with them.

What in your opinion is the key to your company's success?

First of all, the fact that we have been very commercially focused in the business from the very beginning. We grew organically so it was very important that the business tapped into a real need. I had the insight that there was a lack of knowledge in the market about equity free funding and those companies that did know about it saw it as a complex maze to navigate (which is still partially true). Even those that had looked into it at some point, felt guilty that they should have done it earlier. Because we had found a real pain-point and focused on the customer need, we started making money early on and we needed to. These days, even though we are a scale up, we still have great adaptability when it comes to looking at the market to see what we should be doing to evolve to meet our clients needs better.

Another key to our success is our culture. We rejected traditional hierarchical authority and set things up so that all the business information is transparent, including complete access to financials, salaries, dividends, etc. Everybody on the team, no matter how junior, is empowered to make and implement any decision through something called the "advice process". For example I send an email to the team saying I want to make a decision to purchase a service for X budget and outline the reasons why I think it would be good for the business and invite the team for feedback. I listen to their advice and take it into consideration before making whichever decision I believe will be good for the business. That powerful approach also goes for salaries, with some tweaks. We have a salary committee every 6 months where we do a pay review of the team members across the company, looking at the market, getting feedback where each of us had 3 people to review depending on mastery, complexity of the role and experience. Everyone takes the process very seriously, even though it's often very difficult to get right and is emotionally loaded, and I am so proud about the way we do things.

Our purpose is to help people and businesses achieve their potential. That has an impact on how we behave and strive to fulfil that. Giving people the space to grow and seeing leadership as a service to create that environment where people feel empowered to take responsibility, that's what leadership means to me.

If you could do 1 thing differently, what would it be?

In business, I would have encouraged myself to think bigger earlier on. It's a matter of confidence and having a better perception of what's possible. I also would have implemented some systems and processes earlier on to make it easier to scale things in the business. I made the most of the knowledge and skills available to me at the time. I am a positive person, proud of the way things turned out and believe that the challenges we face on the journey are there to teach us things.

What would you say to others to encourage them to become entrepreneurs?

I would tell them to go out and find other people to learn what work really means. Work doesn't have to be a chore. It doesn't have to be something that you do in order to have money to do other things. That perception is really changing, and you need to be on the right side of that change. Hang out with people who have created things, who have done a variety of jobs, to understand how people with more work experience feel about the importance of work. Perhaps you'll get inspired by people who have chosen to freely and confidently define work for themselves eg "I want to see this difference in the world", or "I want to do something to help me grow, and the best way for me will be starting my own company."

I encourage people to consider different perspectives and not just follow the path of their peers, or constantly compare themselves, like when you say to yourself that 'X is working in banking and making three times as much salary as me.' Be confident to follow your own path and base your happiness on how it's working for you. There was definitely a time in my career when I wondered whether it was ok for me work differently from my peers. For people who want to be entrepreneurs, I would tell them to get to grips with the fact that it's ok and great to have the confidence to redefine what work means to you. That's something to be proud of. The whole startup scene is kind of becoming a social incubator for change - seize that opportunity!

How would you describe your leadership style?

I think my colleagues would say I have a collaborative leadership style. I do not have a sense that because I have hierarchical power over you, you have to do what I say. We hire very smart, dedicated people in our company. It would be very silly of me to give them work to do and tell them they have to do what I say. As a leader, how much more could I benefit, if I say - "this is the vision of the company when we started, this is what we have done so far, how do you think you can grow this company?" To me it makes more sense that I share that leadership and tap into other people's skills and brains, as opposed to me setting the direction that everyone follows,. When you give people the information and space to use their skills, sometimes you can be really surprised about what can be created. Seeing people shine in that way gives me a lot of satisfaction. I try to give people space to grow and become better versions of themselves. I also like to energise the team and give them boosts of creativity and enthusiasm. I also make sure I take time to replenish my own energy and grow it within myself to then pass it on to my business.

What advice would you give to your younger self?

This question made me smile. I pictured my smart but troubled 16 year-old self, who wasn't very sure of her place in the world yet. The most important advice I would give her, would be to work on her self-perception. It was a big discovery for me, that being truly comfortable in your own skin, with all your differences, the ways you stand out, is a beautiful asset that will really help you in the future. Giving yourself that confidence is important. Trust your instincts, trust your inner wisdom. Focus on things you already have, in terms of personality traits, values, beliefs, as opposed to what you are lacking. Those will be your foundations in the future. I was always very organised and knew how to organise myself and my time. At that time, I didn't see that as something that might be connected to entrepreneurship. Now, looking back, I'm absolutely convinced that is a key personality trait that helped me. To young girls who may look at the entrepreneurial world as scary and inaccessible, I would say, focus on things you already have that can help you achieve that kind of lifestyle, and get inspired by others. Trust your own wisdom and dream big!

What would you like to achieve in the next 5 years?

At Grand Tree, we are working hard on diversifying our product offering, introducing a new service not yet available in the UK. One of the key pillars of our business is to help companies get R&D tax credits as a way to recuperate a portion of your development costs. We are introducing an option that will allow people to get the cash flow to get a loan against the Tax credit that's coming later. We are also introducing a new Grant offering around innovation consultancy, and also making filing tax credits easier and cheaper for our clients. There are a few teams in the company who have taken responsibility to explore different options. I am personally working on expanding the company to the North of the UK, so I'll be spending more time getting our brand name and presence known outside of London. In 5 years time I'd like to see GrantTree as a brand that is on every tech entrepreneur's mind when it comes to getting equity-free funding for their company. At that point, we will be a group of companies exploring quite a few different offerings around finance eg culture consulting. By letting people within the organisation explore their interests in line with those of the company, we will expand to create a group of brands working under one umbrella/vision, growing in different directions.

3 key words to describe yourself?

  • Persistent
  • Unconventional
  • Insightful


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