Interview with Bartłomiej Gola. Bartłomiej Gola is the Managing Partner of SpeedUp Venture Capital Group. It‘s a venture capital company. They have four funds and invest in early stage tech startup.
I started as an advertising guy. Right after finishing my studies, I worked as an account manager for a couple of agencies. After that, I and my friends founded our own agency. We specialized in below-the-line direct marketing and promotion-related activities. We were successful enough to sell the company to Omnicom, which is the biggest advertising group in the world. Then, we were responsible for developing Tequila brand in Central and Eastern Europe. Finally, in 2008, I created SpeedUp as my new venture.
What is the median age of founders you have invested in? How does age change your judgment on investment decision?
I would say that the average age of founders is around 30, but I think that one of the biggest misconceptions people have, is that startups are only for very young people. Of course, we all know the example of Mark Zuckerberg and other guys, who started their companies while still being at university, but these, in my opinion, are rather exceptions, not rules. I believe that startups are for grown-up men, those, who have already achieved something. The most successful companies we have, are these founded by people, who have very diversified professional backgrounds, e.g. entrepreneurs, who have worked for corporations, top managers; having these kinds of experiences, will increase your chances to succeed. Of course, the older you are, the more you have to lose. That’s why it’s so difficult for people to change their lives when having two kids, mortgage and many other responsibilities. It’s very risky to start a company at this point.
Generally speaking, the best founders, in my opinion, are people with big experience.
Do you use any criteria for measuring management effectiveness and risk awareness?
I’m not sure if I get this question right, but the main measure, for us as a fund, is return of investment. We invest other people’s money, so we have to give them back. Hence, our main effectiveness measure would be as follows: give us your money for 8 to 10 years, and we’ll give you back three times of what you invested in the fund.
The awareness of the risk is very high. The risk is high and the awareness is high. We know that most of our investments fail, however, it’s not our fault. It’s the type of business we do. Therefore, we focus on these companies, who can really succeed and grow to be strong enough to repay the fund – we’ve learnt that over the years of running the fund. Of course, this is something what we have to teach our investors, by telling them ‘do not worry if most of our investments fail because we will find one or two, who will repay the whole fund’. That’s the way we deal with risk.
Are investors investing in a company or its leaders?
The younger the company is, the more its founders matter. Because 99% of companies are not sticking to their initial plan, we mostly invest in their ability to change, adopt and, only then, execute the original plan. Therefore, we invest in market, leaders and, lastly, the solution, because the solution will change for sure. Therefore, we invest in the ability to change.
Entrepreneurial spirit: can you select 3 characteristics you are looking for in young entrepreneurs?
I’m thinking… determination. That’s the most important thing. You also need to be able to sacrifice everything and persuade the world, which will be against you. Everyone will tell you it’s impossible and point out your initial failures, because people will rather not be supportive of you, except for your family and friends, of course.
So I think – determination, then, I’d say, ability to sale – being a good salesperson, who’s capable to persuade others to their vision. I’m not talking about selling in terms of a process of convincing someone to buy your product, because if you’re B2C, you aren’t trying to get people committed to buy your products, at least not yourself. However, you have to be able to persuade the world to your vision; investors, people, media, employees – it’s also very important to hire the best people, even if you cannot offer them the best working conditions right away.
Summarizing, the first factor is determination, the second one is ability to sale and evangelize people with your vision, and the third thing is ability to listen. What I mean by this is that being an entrepreneur is a tough thing, because you are on edge; on the one hand, you have to be self-confident and sure of what you do. You obviously cannot let others to steer you, but on other hand, you still have to to listen to others’ feedback and adjust accordingly. It’s really hard to balance these two.
Bartłomiej Gola’s Advice
The best advice for entrepreneurs is to not go to investors as the first part of your plan. Develop your product, and go to your clients – these should be your first steps. Only then, seek the investors. People tend to mix these up, and they think that having an investor is doing the business – no, investors are only one of the elements you need in order to build your business. The most important part is to persuade your clients to use, or buy your product.