“Education, fool!” – start-ups are all about people

Agnieszka Skala PhD

“One of the most harmful stereotypes in the world of start-ups is the conviction that one does not need anything more than an idea, and that it is the idea which is the basis of a start-up. That is not true. The fundamentals are people and conditions allowing those people to act” – Agnieszka Skala, PhD, Assistant Professor at the faculty of Transport of the Warsaw University of Technology, co-author of reports on Polish start-ups talks about whether money solves all problems in business and what to do in order to implement the ideas of our inventors.

In the past if one wanted to develop a business, one was referred to as a budding entrepreneur. Nowadays such person is “running a start-up”. Many treat this simply as another playground for children of rich parents.

Start-ups are an especially attractive topic. Unfortunately the media tend to confuse a lot of facts. The public opinion is cluttered with expressive slogans which in some cases do not have much in common with the reality. One of them is that start-ups are established by young people searching for their place in the world of business. Our research proves that most start-ups are established by people with some professional experience – mostly in their third decade, but also older. I have been part of this environment since 2010 and I can say that the changes introduced since that time are enormous. When it comes to the density of this area, its maturity, the maturity of the industry itself, the alterations are profound. I noticed that more and more older people participate in the workshops I host.

Well, it seems logical – how would 20-year-olds acquire the money needed to start a business? Research shows that 50-60 percent of start-ups are being financed exclusively by means of their founders’ own funds.

The times in which funds for an idea or a concept had to be acquired have passed, never to return. Now, in order to get external, even public, funding one has to already own something and be in the process of conducting activity. More stages of start-up development have to be financed from one’s own pocket. Companies are applying for financial aid on later stages of activity. At the same time it is becoming common knowledge that the later one starts to externally fund a project, the better.

It is said that failure is part of running a start-up. The constant need to start from the beginning, to seek for new solutions. Does bringing up a new generation in the spirit of needing to succeed favour such an approach? Are we ready for it?

From the earliest age children are taught in school that there is the one and only way to reach the one and only answer. The educational system does not prepare us for failing. Scientists feel a great burden of time. Doing business in start-up mode clearly resembles experimenting…

… scientists should be prepared for that. They should be used to it.

So, if one wants to commercialise science or conduct business in the digital industry, one has to constantly be on the lookout, open for changes, new ideas and realisations. It is inseparably related to the notion of failure. Angry Birds were the fifty second game marketed by Rovio. Who is even mentally prepared to try something fifty one times? Are we teaching that in schools? I think that the answer is no. We teach that we only have one shot at something. That way it’s easier.

In view of the above, what are the chances that a start-up comparable to Facebook or Google will arise in Poland?

Instead of a single unicorn I would prefer having 100 companies which I could compare to a parade of elephants. Sure, from the point of view of the media a success as big as Facebook’s is more attractive, but it simply is not the aim here. Aside from that there are modern companies with a decent market cap in Poland which sell cool products globally, e.g. CD Projekt, LiveChat, Brand24. However, there is an abyss between digital industry start-ups and those which try to commercialise science. I personally think that the reason for this difference lies in access to personnel. I still stubbornly claim that start-ups are all about people, and not ideas. We all have to wait for the emergence of people experienced in realising those types of projects – financial, executive and legal experts.

What should we do to change all this? Can we explain everything with the lack of adequate funds or personnel? Or maybe there is another factor at work here?

We need education in scope of entrepreneurship which could encompass at least the super-creative representatives of the world of science, the crème de la crème of the students of the University of Technology. Such education exists but, its scope is insufficient. We need to introduce it on a massive scale and ensure that it is of the highest quality, rather than the lowest price. Besides, there’s also the eternal issue: if one is an inventor, one wants to remain an inventor and not to become a businessman. On the other hand, the fact that we are in an engineering school makes it even more desirable to find a practical use for all those inventions and other solutions. That such use is not being found is not only our problem. Europe in its entirety struggles with this issue. There is no universal system for transferring new technologies to the industry.

To create such solutions and support those implementations would require massive investments. And here we go again – it’s all about the money.

I do not support the assertion that in order for something to succeed one should just throw money at it. This is just the easiest way. What really counts are people who labour and put their knowledge to use for the benefit of the business. This cannot be overstated – we need to begin with education. Lack of knowledge and use and consolidation of stereotypes lead to creation of closed ecosystems in which mutual distrust thrives. In Poland a common belief is that entrepreneurship is tantamount to living by one’s wits. We need the business and scientific environments to mix, to share experiences and knowledge. People should be sent abroad to feel the different atmosphere, to see that some things may succeed. Of course the trick is in bringing them back to Poland. Participation of our students in international competitions is a great thing. Universities should not skimp on funds for those types of activities.

Well, this all sounded really pessimistic, didn’t it? Did Poland fail to measure up to succeeding in business?

No, that is not the case. There already are some interesting initiatives on the Polish market. First and foremost we should learn to be patient. These are on-going processes which lead to something great – I am sure about it. This modern entrepreneurship is much more forgiving to human weakness. It does not need us to succeed after the first attempt. It rewards cooperation and sharing knowledge, bringing back the traditional academic model of mentor – student. Let’s give ourselves some time. I myself see the enormity of the progress we have made in the world of start-ups. Now it is time for universities to join us.

 

Agnieszka Skala – doctor of economics, graduate of the Warsaw School of Economics, assistant professor at the Warsaw University of Technology, co-founder and president of the SPIN Innovation Nest School of Entrepreneurship (Szkoła Przedsiębiorczości Innovation Nest). Host of start-up management courses at the Warsaw University of Technology and at the Kozminski University. Conducts academic work in the field of education and development of high-tech entrepreneurship. Member of the Programme Board of the Startup Poland Foundation. Initiator and coordinator of Polish start-up research. Supporter of valuable educational initiatives linking science and business.

 

Monika Bukowska

 

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