E015 Natalia Bielczyk on Starting Your First Company as a PhD: Things That No One Will Tell You

August 16th 2020

Dr Natalia Bielczyk is an entrepreneur, researcher, and author. She graduated from the College of Inter-Faculty Individual Studies in Mathematics and Natural Sciences at the University of Warsaw, Poland, with a triple MS title in Physics, Mathematics, and Psychology. Thereafter, she obtained a PhD in Computational Neuroscience at the Donders Institute for Brain, Cognition, and Behavior in Nijmegen, the Netherlands. In 2018, she launched a public foundation, Stichting Solaris Onderzoek en Ontwikkeling, aiming to help early career researchers find new careers in the industry. 

She also owns Ontology of Value, a company developing new tools and practices to help professionals in navigating on the job market, and in finding/create their dream jobs. Even though she chose to work in the open market, she is still a researcher in her free time and has a strong belief in the compatibility of science and entrepreneurship. In this special episode of the open Sunday webinar, Natalia talked about entrepreneurship for researchers and starting her first company as a PhD. 

Is setting up a company as a researcher hard? Under what circumstances should you consider registering a business? What are the traps you might potentially fall into? A startup or a sole proprietorship? How was the Ontology of Value created? What’s the vision, and the plans for developing the company further? 

The episode was recorded on August 16th, 2020.


00:11 Hello, everyone, today we have a special episode of the Sunday webinar. And in this episode, I’ll be talking about entrepreneurship and especially entrepreneurship for researchers, and a little bit about the company. And the reason why I’m doing this is motivated by the fact that around 40% of all the people that contact me, looking for help with their careers after the PhD, are interested in running their own business either now or in the future.

00:41 Some of them are interested in taking a regular job first and learning about entrepreneurship from people who are already doing this and launching a startup later on. And some people interested in trying themselves right now. And in this lecture, I would like to touch on some very general principles of how to build a business and what entrepreneurship actually is.

01:08 And in the end, I’ll mention how Ontology of Value was created as well. So sorry, if this is material, it might be rudimentary for some because people are also on different levels. Some people who talk to me, they have never thought about the business, they don’t know much about it and some people are much more advanced. This is actually on a very basic level but I hope that it will be interesting for you.

My Story So Far

01:36 Let me show my presentation. Let me start from introducing a little bit about my story. First, I did three Master’s degrees at the interfaculty studies in Mathematics and Natural Sciences of the University of Warsaw, and I graduated from Medical Physics, Applied Mathematics and Psychometrics. Already midway in my studies, half with my studies, I already realized that I would like to do brain research in the future.

02:14 But before I went for a PhD in Neuroscience, I still pivoted a bit and I did some courses in Economics. And I passed the public exam for a young MBA title. It’s like a reduced version of MBA and that was fun. That was fun. And then I went for a PhD in Computational Neuroscience, the Donders Institute in the Netherlands, one of the best graduate schools in Europe that specialized in Cognitive Neuroimaging.

02:51 And straight after my contract, I actually, I wanted to take a gap year and rest because I was physically and mentally tired after my PhD. I took an unpaid position of Career Development and Mentoring Manager in the student Board of Organization for Human Brain Mapping. And as such, I was coordinating some mentoring program for young researchers.

03:15 I was blogging and writing articles about mentoring. And I was also organizing Symposia for the annual meeting and that was fun. Like, I thought this was much more fun than I expected. And in the end, I started thinking what else I can do in this direction, because my position was only for two years. In 2018, I set a public foundation Stichting Solaris, here in Nijmegen.

03:42 And the main objectives of the foundation are to help early career researchers with career development in general and with getting better mentoring, but also with getting more opportunities in the job market. We advise researchers online and that was fun as well. In the end, after two years since my contract expired, I started thinking about getting some source of income.

04:14 On one hand, I was looking for jobs at that point and I was exploring my opportunities. But at the same time, I started thinking that maybe this is a way of living for me. So maybe, since I enjoy advising people so much, career wise, maybe I should think about doing that for a living.

04:32 Then, in July 2019, I set (started) a company Welcome Solutions here in Nijmegen. The main objective of the company is to help professionals, PhDs and other highly educated professionals, in getting a better overview of their opportunities and choosing the right career for themselves and helping people navigate in the job market. I will tell you a little bit more about what company is doing at the end.

05:03 And in the end of 2019, I published my first book, it’s entitled, “What Is Out There For Me? The Landscape of Post-PhD Career Tracks” – And the second edition of this book is coming out soon. The book is all about the opportunities you have, on the different working environments are there on the job market, on the different tribes and different working cultures and how to recognize where you fit best. And what pitfalls you should avoid while thinking about your jobs.

05:39 And there is a lot of self-discovery exercise in this book as well, to help you figure out better what you should choose. In fact, to find the right job, 80% of the effort is to find the right environment and the group of people who think like you. And only 20%, the remaining 20% is to draft your CV and a letter in a way to persuade those people that they should take you on board.

06:11 Most people actually invest most of the effort in their own activity. They only concentrate on the application documents and they don’t spend enough time researching the job market. And I actually wrote this book because I wanted to give people better tools to also get better information about what is out there and what you can choose from.

What Is Entrepreneurship? Starting Your First Company as a PhD

06:38 Now to the point. What is entrepreneurship? Everyone, every business developer probably will give you another answer to this question. But I think an answer that will come back, quite often, will be you need to produce value. Entrepreneurship is about producing value. And that means that, to put it straight, you have to produce something that someone wants to buy.

07:10 It must be a solution to someone’s problem – it’s either going to be a service that improves the quality of the life in some way, or it has to be a product that they are willing to use. And there are different types of businesses and they are different classes of businesses. The simplest and the most straightforward division would be that there are three types of businesses.

07:35 One is business to consumer (B2C), which means that you sell your product straight to consumers who for instance, you sell shoes, you sell Starbucks coffee, or you sell vacations to private individuals who are willing to pay for your product or your service. Second type is business to business (B2B). That’s when one company sells to another company.

08:00 For instance, if your company produces machines to produce computer chips like ASML and sells it to other companies such as Apple then this is a typical business to business. Or if your company is a cloud computing services and then other companies use your hosting services and your cloud computing services to do their operations. Or if you are a company who owns a building and then you rent offices to other companies, that’s typical business to business.

08:37 And the last class is business to government (B2G). For instance, army is one example. If you’re a company that produces some equipment for the army, then your client is basically the government. Or for instance, if you offer courses for universities, you are also B2G. Because the institution that is buying your products in this case or services in this case, university is a public institution by government.

B2C vs B2B vs B2G

09:10 Now I have an IQ test for you which is, which business model do you think is the hardest to effect? Is it business to customer? Is it business to business, business to government or are they equally hard? It’s a tricky question. If you have never thought about this before, I will give you a few seconds to think and then I’ll tell you, in my eyes, what is the best answer here.

09:51 In my eyes, the best answer is business to customer and this is for a few reasons. So firstly, most private customers are not very loyal. If you have an internet provider, and then you figure out that there is a cheaper internet provider next door, you’ll switch, right? And customers, they immediately choose their choice, anytime they spot a better option or option that they believe might be better for them.

10:21 Or they also like to try new things. Also, their choices are often irrational.Sometimes they just like buying stuff just because other people bought them before, bought the stock before, and the stock is fashionable at the moment. This decision-making in the market is often irrational and it’s a herd instinct often. And every single time you want to buy yet another product with another customer, you have to reach every single customer separately.

11:02 Thus, you have to find a way to build your marketing in a way that customers actually find you or you find your customers, and you have to persuade every customer separately. If your product costs 10 euros per piece, you have to spend unbelievable amounts of marketing because you have to target hundreds of 1000s of customers to actually make your company profitable.

11:29 You have huge marketing costs associated and do very heavy online marketing associate with your business. This is really difficult type of business. And people are also not that willing to spend their private money, they account every euro before they spend it. Whereas businesses and governments, they typically have some budget set aside for investments and for just trying new things.

12:05 They’re actually more willing to try new services just to try it out. Because they assume that and they always allocate some funds for it in their business plan; just general development budget. And they are actually more willing to experiment, while customers, they always spend their private money only on the things that they are certain have value for them.

On The Famous Shoe

12:34 It’s really, really hard way of making money if you have a business to customer type of business. And actually, one example why this is so, would be this shoe, which at first glance looks like just a sneaker. The question would be; what is the sneaker and do you know the sneaker? What brand is this and how much does this product cost? What’s the retail price of this shoe?

13:04 Just a few seconds for thinking and now I will give you the answer to the question. This is actually not just a regular sneaker. This is Adidas Yeezy Boost 350 V2 Tail Light sneaker, and its retail prices 882 Eur. And the reason why this is priced so high is because it was designed by no one else but a Kanye West himself.

13:31 And there are certain perks of being Kanye West apparently, that’s why everyone apparently wants to be like Kanye West. When this line of shoes was released, they were queues in the streets and people waiting for three nights to get the shoes at that price. That was not on a discount. The reward was that you had the right to buy it at that price.

13:55 It was absolute frenzy. And it actually shows best how people actually go after fashion and after what’s trendy at the moment, and what’s the influence of social media and how people are irrational with their decisions. That’s also why B2C is so difficult.

On The Similarities Between The Lifestyle of Entrepreneurs and Researchers

14:17 Okay, and now a little bit about the similarities between a lifestyle of researchers and entrepreneurs. Because there are many similarities. Once you learn about those similarities, you will see that as an entrepreneur after graduate school. As an entrepreneur, you will already have some good grounds on how to build your life as an entrepreneur.

14:41 We both have a strong concentration of self-development. We don’t finish our education with getting a diploma. We actually have this mindset that life is about constant improvement and you have to always try to be the best version of yourself. And to always go beyond your boundaries, beyond your comfort zone. And this is a lifelong learning objective.

15:12 And second, we like mixing professional and private life. You probably noticed that some of the best research ideas you ever had, happened not in the lab meeting but rather at the drinks at the conference or at the barbecue. And this is because researchers actually keep friends and coworkers quite close. And often they are the same people.

15:37 Sometimes a party becomes research talk and sometimes the research talk becomes talks about life; and these two come very close. And the same is with business. Your friends sometimes become your business partners and your business partners become your friends. And there is no clear distinction between the two.

16:01 And we also have a lot of personal freedom, we have a freedom of how to plan our day, we have to plan our agenda by ourselves. And also, we can choose at least at some stage, we can choose people we work with. I mean, that can be a blessing or a curse, depends how good at self-management you are. But I guess after graduate school, we are all quite good with self-management, so that’s very useful in business as well.

16:33 And there is no comfort zone, there is no such thing as just a 9 to 5 job. Where you learnt enough and now you can just keep on working without worrying about the future. You no longer have necessity to be creative, to find new solutions. You can just peace out and chill out. And you’re safe.

17:01 There is no such thing in research. There’s also no such thing in entrepreneurship. And it’s all about constant troubleshooting. So of course, there are these happy days sometimes when everything you’re doing is basically creating new stuff and just joy of creation. But most of the days are actually days when nothing works, and you have to just a run from one fire to another and just cease (put out) the fire.

17:29 And it’s the same with research and it’s the same with entrepreneurship. Like most of the time you try things and things don’t work. And then, you have to change the strategy and keep on changing, keep on pivoting as long as it takes for the project to work. It’s all about proposing and presenting solutions to problems.

17:51 It’s very closely related to the previous point. You have to be innovative and you have to have a new insight, something that your competition doesn’t do. Some extra value that you provide, that your clients will appreciate. And it’s very competitive, both of these areas. It’s never that there are enough resources for everyone.

18:16 There will be a number of people who are able to live off from it, but you might fail. You have to really have a strategy and a way of networking, and it is really competitive. And it’s hard to deny. You can be absolutely sure that, once you are in an area where there is some money-making potential, then there will be competition. And that’s more than certain.

18:48 And there’s this risk/reward trade off. Once you start, once you choose your projects, you can go for those that are high risk, high reward, or those that are low risk, low reward. And, it’s good to actually mix the two and have a portfolio of projects and actually make sure that these projects are synergistic.

19:11 But some of them will be more, like safe bets that can give you some income but not necessarily make you a millionaire. And they are not as inspiring but at least they can allow you to make a living. While others will be more potentially moon shots that can make you a lot of income but they are riskier and there is less chance that they will actually get you there.

Hidden Talents

19:43 And I think many researchers have a talent for entrepreneurship but they don’t really know about it. Because no one told them. Because no one in their family does business Because no one in their graduate school did business and everyone went for postdocs around them. There is no secret knowledge. There is no gene of entrepreneurship that you have to have to be successful.

20:09 There is nothing. The difference between entrepreneurs and other people is that entrepreneurs took an active decision to start a company and they stick to it. And they were very consequent. And you can try, and there is some chance you will succeed. I always try to promote entrepreneurship among researchers, because I think there is a lot of undiscovered talent there.

Pros of Entrepreneurship

20:39 And a few words about pros and cons that I already noticed. A pro of entrepreneurship is that I think the way of spending time is really efficient. If you want to talk to your business partner, you talk about something. You don’t organize weekly meetings just for the sake of having weekly schedule like love meetings, where people sit and just look at the watch wheels. They just have to sit there for two hours just to show that they have good group spirit.

21:07 The whole point of the meeting is to meet and pretend that you care about each other’s projects. There are no such unproductive meetings in entrepreneurship, really. Every time you meet, you really want to make something out of the meeting. And you typically call if there is a problem or something you want to discuss or some idea to discuss.

21:29 Ever since I started the company, I feel that I’m spending my time in very productive ways. And there is no dead time, really. The time that I have to actually do something for the sake of doing it without any deliverables. And second, in this culture of failure is a success. Because if you fail with your company, but you start again, that’s a sign of perseverance and that’s seen in a very positive way.

21:55 Whereas in academia, it’s often the other way around. If you didn’t finish your PhD, and you started over, then typically it’s seen as a failure. And I think this is a big mistake to see it as a failure. But this is the reality and this is how it’s often perceived. And in entrepreneurship, the sky’s the limit. If you work two times more and if you produce two times more products and reach two times more clients, then you earn two times more. And that’s simple arithmetic.

22:28 I think it’s a good way of incentivizing people, because in academia is sometimes that if you’re enrolled for a Ph D program, you get a salary and every PhD on the same program gets the same salary, and it doesn’t matter how much you work or how much you produce. You might produce 10 papers and be this hard-working student working behind closed doors and produce 10 papers, a student next to you might produce one paper in the same amount of time.

23:00 Because the they spend half the day sipping coffee with everyone in the canteen while you’re working. And then in the end, you don’t get a positive contract and they do just because they knew someone who knew someone. While you were working, there were just basically securing their next contract. And then in the end, you’re like, ‘Hey, like what’s happening here, I have a much better CV.’ And people like, ‘There is no money for you’, blah, blah.

23:25 And in the end, you’re screwed. I see that happening a lot. And also, I don’t like the fact that in academic environment, often you exert yourself with work because you fear. Because you fear that you will not have income anymore, that your contract will expire, that you will not find another contract. Your motivation is not to lose your job. That’s a very negative motivation.

23:55 In entrepreneurship, you work because you want to be better, you want to make progress and if you work more, you will gain more. When I started the company, I didn’t think about it as a way to become a millionaire and buy a yacht and sale the sea; Mediterranean Sea with it. And that was not my objective, but I like the type of this motivation that the more I do, the more I have out of it. It’s very proactive and it’s a very positive type of motivation.

24:33 And lastly, I would like to mention, it’s really nice that rewards in entrepreneurship reflect the way you produce for other people. As opposed to promising that you will produce value because what writing grants actually is, is promising. So once you write a grant, you promise to the government that you will execute the project that you proposed.

24:59 And you get money upfront with hope that you will actually do as you promised. And you know how it often is with grants. They are written by specialists, who are specialized in writing grants, and they are framed in a way that it’s actually saving humanity. Whereas in fact, it’s not, it’s just a wicked publication game. In fact, the society doesn’t get much out of it.

25:25 And in this case, if you’re a researcher, if you’re an entrepreneur, you have to first produce and then you get payment for it. Anytime someone clicks and buys my book or comes to the course, or asks about recruitment, I feel that means like I did well; I did produce value. Because if someone is willing to invest in it, their time, their money, that means that I gave value. And I also feel much more appreciated this way.

Cons of Entrepreneurship

25:59 And now, a few words about cons. First, you will have a long and bumpy start. Also, because, researchers are very idealistic and principled. And if you spend your whole life in academia, then the first time you go through entrepreneurship, you might be really disappointed with the amount of ‘common shit’ that you will experience.

26:23 Because there will be a lot of people who are good salesman, and they can frame themselves as people who are competent and doing things for humanity. Whereas, in fact, the only thing they are after is money but you will need time to actually figure that out. And they are really good at hiding their true intentions. And there is a lot of people who have different intentions that they say they have, which is uncommon in academia, so we are not prepared for that.

26:49 And there will be a lot of people who will ask you to do stuff for them and promise you stuff, but then run with your work. For us, it’s obvious that if you do something for someone, they will do something back for you. But many people who are in business are not like that, they will just thank you for your input and then run with your work. And that’s it. It’s really hard to find the right business partners from the start.

27:19 Because if someone is already successful as a business person; so they already successfully build a few companies, they already generate a lot of revenue, they are wealthy. Then they typically lean towards setting companies and new initiatives with people who are alike. Other people who also have a strong network, who already have success, so they flock together.

27:49 But if you’re a beginner, it’s unlikely that those people will get you on board as a cofounder of company. It’s possible, but it’s unlikely. Most of the time, if someone approaches you and they propose that they would like to start a company together with you, typically it’s a bad deal. It’s a deal when this person is like a business developer without any skill and they’re just hustling around.

28:14 And they don’t even know the details, technicalities, about any project. They just want to find more competent people than themselves to actually do the actual work, so that they can put the label of business developer on their name, but they are not really competent in any ways. And there’s a lot of people like that.

28:35 There is no free lunch. If someone tells you, ‘We want you on the project’, it’s usually a bad deal. To build a good team, you typically have to discover and approach people on your own. These good deals are not laying in the street, and no one will knock at your door and say, ‘Hey, we are starting this cool company, we want you as a cofounder’, that’s not going to happen. It’s really hard to start in that sense.

29:05 And it’s a race against time. Again, if you stand in place, then you will go in backwards. You have to always think about how to improve, how to make your product better, how to expand your operations. You have to think 50 steps ahead. There is a good book by Patrick Bet-David recently and it’s that as a business person, you have to think like a chess player. You have to really plan ahead and just have a vision; go forwards. You always have to go forward.

29:44 And also, there is a lack of respect for idea ownership; that’s sometimes a problem. Business people are paranoid for a reason. They are paranoid and they don’t reveal their cards too early and they don’t talk about their plans openly. And that’s for a reason, because there is much less respect for ideas and idea ownership in business.

30:09 Many people have that assumption that if the idea is not patented, then it’s nobody’s. Everyone can pick it up. If the hear your idea, from you, they might just as well pick it up. If they don’t have a better idea by themselves, they might just take it and do whatever they want with it.

30:28 This is really, indeed a danger. And you have to always have a system; what you’re willing to talk about and with whom. Because if you don’t talk about what you’re doing at all and about your plans with anyone, then you also lose opportunities because you have no one to collaborate with.

30:49 Therefore, you have to know whom to talk to. And you have to have a sense of being able to reach people and be able to tell whom to talk to and on what occasion, and when you should keep silent. For instance, I can tell you what my rule is.

31:06 If I meet someone who is themselves very hardworking, and very competent, and they are very creative by themselves, and at the same time, they are very well connected; I often talk about my ideas. Because those types of people who are creative by themselves and very hardworking, they typically don’t steal ideas, because they have so many ideas on their own to do list.

31:34 They don’t even have time to steal an idea of someone else, because they have just not enough time to for their own ideas even. and if they are well connected, then there is a good chance they will connect me with the right people. So then, there is good reason to share. But if I meet someone who is not very accomplished, like in a conversation doesn’t really give a feel for being a very creative person by themselves.

32:03 Just someone who has very generic knowledge and just is in the field for a long time. That’s why they basically make income because they somehow they stayed for long enough to make their business works in some ways. But they’re not very inspiring people. And I don’t really feel anything like special or any inspiration from talking to them.

32:28 And I don’t feel like I’m talking to someone who is like a leader or like innovative person, then I usually don’t share. Because I feel this is the type of people that might potentially take other people’s ideas just because themselves, they are not very creative. This is my rule. And if you are in business, you have to come up with your own rules.

32:52 And it’s often, of course, it’s about reading people. There is no algorithm. You talk to someone, you either trust this person or you don’t, you have to kind of figure out your own rules for that and it’s sometimes subjective, of course.

33:09 And lastly, you need to sell all the time. You cannot miss an occasion to sell. Sometimes you go to a party, you want to rest, but you start talking to a person and figure that the person might be interested in what you’re doing for a living and maybe might be a potential client. And then all of a sudden, there’s the switch in your brain that switches and you start a business speech.

33:29 Like, this is what you have to do as a business person. If that’s hard for you, then either you have to push yourself or you have to set the business collaboration with someone who is a good salesperson, because you can’t avoid this, you will have to sell 24/7. You have to find someone who is good at this, if you’re not good at this. Okay.

The Hardest Decision

33:57 And I think the hardest decision is to try. For me, it was also a hard decision. Even after I already set the company on the Chamber of Commerce, I still didn’t really make that switch on my mind that this is my main identity right now. I still identified myself as a research of a company, not the other way around.

34:17 Now a year later, I identify myself as a entrepreneur who is a researcher in free time. So my identity, my perception of my identity changed in the process. But it was a process, it didn’t come immediately on and it was a hard process. Now I feel great about who I am. But it wasn’t easy and it’s a hard decision. But I think if you have that type of personality that fits this picture here then I think it will be a good decision for you.

34:53 And many people asked me if doing research and entrepreneurship together is possible, and I think for many reasons, this is tricky. And I think the main reason is because both of these activities are very intellectually engaging. And it’s just hard to rest from one of them, doing the other one but it’s tricky. I wrote a blog post about it about a month ago. And you can find it on my blog, if you’re interested. And I give some ideas there, how you can potentially match research with entrepreneurship. But again, it this is not not the easiest thing to do.

How To Mitigate Risks As an Entrepreneur?

35:37 There is the stereotype that entrepreneurial lifestyle means risk. And to some extent, yes, it’s true. But there are many ways of doing entrepreneurship and not every one of them is the same risky. If you start a startup; you take cofounders on board, you find investors, you get employees, and then it is risky indeed.

36:03 Because this is working 24/7; you have many stakeholders, you have clients, you have employees, you have investors, and you have to circle around them and make everyone happy. You’re serving 2, 3 goals at a time. And your company might still go bust. You might end up, after 3 or 5 years of your life gone, having nothing.

36:30 So that is risky, because it can eat many years of your life and there is no guaranteed success. Indeed, this is the riskiest thing you can do. But there are other things you can do. For instance, if you have savings, and most people who are full-time highly educated, highly qualified employees. After 10 years or 15 years, they have typically few 100,000-euro savings or investments.

37:01 And with that amount of money, you can do so much. If a startup is in a seed phase, even like 20,000 euros, huge amount of money for them. They will definitely take an investor on board who has the money. If you have savings, you can also invest in startups and then you also become some part of the team.

37:20 But you don’t have to put all your life on the line, you have to chip with some cash. And then, you can get involved to certain extent. But you can decide how much time you want to spend on the project. You can spend one hour per week, maybe one hour per month, some people spend more, some people like to spend one hour per one day per week, depends on what your arrangement with the team.

37:47 But in this way, you also get actively involved in entrepreneurship, but you don’t invest all your life in it. Another thing you can do is freelancing. We can set a sole proprietorship and this gives you a lot of flexibility. You’re not dependent on anyone. You have much less stakeholders, you just have clients and yourself. And you can also change the scope of your activity anytime you want.

38:16 So unlike in startup, where you basically have to wrap up the statutory document and sign it at the notary and everything. The point of the company and the goals of the company are set from the first day. In freelancing, you can change the scope anytime you want. If tomorrow, you find out that Turkish carpets are fashionable this season and you want to start importing and selling Turkish carpets in the Netherlands. Why not?

38:50 You can with just a few clicks you can add this activity to the operations of your company online and off you go. You can start importing carpets. You can do whatever you like, you just do what is best for you at the moment. You can pivot at any moment and it’s much more flexibility and in that sense, much less risk than when you start a startup.

39:16 In freelancing, if at some point you find out that what you do is not profitable and will not be profitable for a long time or is even making you losses then you can start something else day one. You don’t have to have investors, you don’t have cofounders, you don’t have employees. You have much more mobility, and that’s much easier.

39:47 And you can also do side hustle. You can keep your day job and just switch from 5 days a week to 4 days a week or 3 days a week and in the remaining time, start a company. And don’t do it full time for as long as it takes before it’s actually profitable. And many people do it, it’s a safe way of doing things, and it generates much less stress. And and if you already have a day job that is decent, then might be actually a preferred way of doing things.

Things That No One Told Me About Running a Company

40:31 It really takes all this mental burden and the stress from your shoulders. So ever since I started the company, I already learned many things about entrepreneurship and about running a company that I never read in any book. No one ever told me that that’s going to happen but it’s really interesting. Some of these points, I would like to share with you.

40:58 One thing is, there are a lot of new fears that you get. For instance, like I see, every day, hundreds of hackers or malicious bots are trying to break into my company website. I guess this is common. This is like what every website basically experiences; these army of bots. But it’s still scary. If you look at the logs nd you see that every single day there are hundreds and hundreds of trials to basically destroy your business, from you don’t know whom.

41:37 I have called sweat when I see this.

41:40 Second thing is, you become non-fungible. Non-fungible means that you’re irreplaceable. So for instance, if you have to go give a workshop, you can’t get sick. You can’t say to your clients, ‘Oh, sorry, I have a cough today and I will not come.’ When you work as a researcher, if you give a lab meeting and all of a sudden you get a fever, you just pardon everyone and you say, ‘I apologize, I will do it next week’, and everyone will understand.

42:12 But if you have clients, that paid for the service, like you’re not allowed to get sick. And actually, ever since I started the company, I had to start taking cold showers to increase my immunity. And indeed, I didn’t get (catch a) cold since then. That’s better for my health. But I really, I had to start caring about my health much more.

42:36 Now, indeed, I’m a much stronger physically but it’s all for the sake of the company. I never cared about my health before and now I do. And for the whole 15 years, ever since I became an adult, I used to drink alcohol, quite excessive amounts. And I used to drink a lot of coffee, a lot of caffeine and now I don’t. I moved to decaf and I stopped drinking.

43:03 And that’s because I know that every single moment, I represent the company and I have to be on form. I cannot come to an event with a hangover and I have to be focused every time I talk to someone about business. Like, I can’t have these weak moments when I’m dizzy or not on form. I’m much more health aware.

43:29 And it came on its own by itself; I didn’t really have to persuade myself. It was like my company actually needs me. No, thank you, I don’t need to drink. Just bring me some water, please. It’s almost a reason to feel proud. It’s not a difficult decision and I think it’s really interesting. I couldn’t foresee this, but it’s true.

43:57 The second, next thing is the taxes. If you start a company, there are a lot of taxes you have to be aware of. And actually, you have to become a tax pro because the penalties for not doing the taxes properly for companies are much higher than for private residence or citizen. And the reason is because if you start a company, you do it consciously and you should be aware of the consequences and responsibilities.

44:33 That’s the responsibility. And every company is equal in the eyes of the law. You’re equal with IBM, you’re equal with Apple and you will get the same penalty for the same mistake in your taxes. If you make too many mistakes, you can get busted just because you’re not good enough of the taxes. For the first time in your life, sometimes you have to really become conscious of the tax law.

45:05 And I personally experienced that I’m better with prioritizing. Every project looked shiny for me and I was often spending time on like, unnecessary side projects, just procrastinating my main project. But now ever since I started the company, I have a very simple utility function. Like, every single time there is a new idea, my first question is, is it in line with what my company is doing?

45:35 If that activity is not synergistic with any of the projects that I’m already doing for the company or planning to do, then I just don’t do it. I’m like, I don’t have time for this. It’s very simple. All of a sudden, prioritizing things became really, really simple and natural, and it was not the case before.

45:55 And lastly, I can also experience that I’m learning faster. So surprisingly, to myself, I often learn things that I could never predict I could learn, or I could learn as fast. For instance, I was always very slow with learning how to program; like learning how to program in MATLAB and Python took me years, and I always felt weak.

46:17 And it’s like, I learned very slowly, I was prone to making bugs and mistakes. It was taking me ages to debug my own codes and that was just not my favorite activity. But now, ever since I started the company, whatever I need, I just learn what I need to know. So actually, a week ago, I had a session over the weekend when I was learning for my company website. It’s in WordPress.

46:49 I wanted to do customized forums, and to do it without packages, because they have very limited options. And I found out that I need to learn JavaScript, PHP and MySQL to succeed, to build environment for that. And I was shocked at first, I was like, it will take me ages, like, it’s not possible. I have to find someone else who can do it, I won’t be able to do it.

47:22 But then, I just sat down in the morning, like, 9am in the morning and until 9pm in the evening, I had all the environment working. So, in the first 6 hours, I basically learned three programming languages and then I built an infrastructure. And I built a minimal working solution so that now I can build any custom form I want.

47:44 The results are registered in the database in MySQL and that was awesome. I was like, I cannot recognize myself, like how is it possible? Like I learned three languages in one day and actually something works here. It’s not as difficult, of course. Once you can program, this is not very difficult. So the outcome codes doesn’t look very complex.

48:07 But for the first time, I was doing it for the first time, so I had to know how this integration works and I just catch it very quickly. And again, like I would never tell that I can learn so fast. But apparently, for a company, I would even swallow a wet carpet. I would do so many things that I would never do otherwise and that’s really awesome.

48:37 And one important thing in business, in general, whatever you want to do, you can never do business alone. And even if you do sole proprietorship, so you start a company all by yourself, you still need to acquire clients. You need very strong networking and personal network. You can’t do business alone. That’s just not possible.

49:04 And you have to put a strong focus on networking, even if you formerly don’t have cofounders. And if you’re not very good with networking, then you will not do well. You have to take it into account that many of your working hours will not be doing the actual work but also the networking part. And you have to be prepared for that.

About The Business Plan Behind Welcome Solutions

49:30 And now a little bit about Ontology of Value. The strategy I chose for building company, was to start small. Initially I had the idea to build a startup. My original thinking was more of a like a standard way because that’s what they teach us at the courses in entrepreneurship. If you want to have a company you have to write a business plan.

49:52 You have to go to a startup accelerator or find investors and just get their cash and then employ people to execute the business plan, etc. And this is the usual way; this is the way they teach us. But this is so not true that this is necessary, it’s like, it really depends what you want to do. When I thought about it one more time, I realized that I don’t have to start big, I can start small.

50:24 In fact, it’s possible that I don’t even need investment for my business because I can build products with my own hands and I don’t need a team of developers in this case. Thus, you only need developers when you build a platform, purely peer-to-peer platform, with some new service that needs some new software solutions.

50:49 But if it’s anything else, then most of the time, there are ways to get away without a team of developers because there are so many automatized solutions, or semi automatized solutions these days. Or platforms that are just so user friendly, like WordPress, you can do almost anything there without much programming skill.

51:15 And it was really important for me to have a control over my company at first. Because I really felt, at that point in my life, I really felt like I needed to regain control over my own life and that was very important for me. And that was for a few different reasons. One reason being that, in the end of my PhD, I was really burnt out.

51:38 And during my PhD, I was pressed to do projects that I didn’t find valuable. I had discussions about this with my superiors, but they were pressing on me to do projects where I knew already that the project has absolutely no chance of working, then there is no point. And it was so futile, and I felt really frustrated, being pushed to do those projects.

52:02 I felt I wanted to be in charge of what projects I choose. And I don’t want to be influenced by someone who has enough share in my business to tell me what I should or shouldn’t do. This is very important at this stage. And second reason was that, in the end of my PhD, I also became interested in blockchains and I invested a lot of my private money in it.

52:28 And then, I met some, like I met wrong people on the way and I was really naive at that point. And I invested in some really speculative assets, and I lost all my money. And now, that was also why I felt that I don’t want to do anything speculative, I don’t want to do anything that I don’t understand really well. And I don’t want to “need to trust other people” that there is a value in projects where I cannot see that value by myself.

53:00 I want to do only things that I understand very well; where the novelty is, where the improvement is, what the value is. And I want to feel this value and be able to feel this all by myself without relying on external advice. And I want to build a company where the growth is stable, and basically justified by the value that is being produced and not based on some speculation.

53:35 And lastly, a few years back, I was actually dumped before the wedding by my fiancé. Ever since that happened; and that was without any warning. Ever since that happened, I feel that you never know even with people who you think you know very well. You never know 100% what is on their mind, like you can never.

54:00 And I’m a psychologist by education. So even I couldn’t tell that someone is planning a big escape. With businesses, like, it often happens that you can have a business partner and after 10 years figure out that this is actually a psychopath and would just run with all your money.

54:21 And so, I don’t really feel that I wanted to give away a part of my company. I just thought it should start small. I should start from something that I see value in and I have a voting control. And I can always take more people on board later; I can always invite cofounders; I can always invite shareholders later. It’s not a problem. It’s much easier to increase the team and invite more people later than get rid of someone who you invited before and who didn’t do a good job or didn’t do what’s promised.

55:05 That was the decision. And today, I work with subcontractors and I’m actually about to take some interns on board, but I don’t have employees yet. And again, the team will definitely grow but on its own pace. I don’t rush it. And I think basically, it’s best to focus on producing and increasing the network and getting to know more and more people.

What Do We Do Right Now?

55:37 And definitely with some of these people, I will want to work more in the future. I already have a lot of people with whom I would like to work more. The team will definitely grow at some point. What I do right now is career orientation courses for researchers, and I do it in Amsterdam once a month, and an online once a month.

56:00 And it’s a very intensive course, that is 50%, dedicated to information about the job market and 50% dedicated to self-discovery exercise. Helping people really figure out where they should go on the job market to excel and to find their tribe. And it’s very intensive and there is a lot of homework from it.

56:32 And then, the course concludes with one to one coaching session online, when we actually create a plan for where to apply precisely, what strategies to use and how to complete the application documents. It really ends up with a plan of action. And with action, hopefully. And then I’m also offering coaching programs.

57:00 It’s actually an offer meant for universities. But there is also, of course, there is a possibility to also book such a program privately. And what is actually under construction, I’m working on an up battery of aptitude tests to help people better recognize which direction they should go for on the job market. And because I feel this is very necessary to do at the moment.

57:32 And I’m also working on a recruitment platform, a recruitment program, that is meant for highly qualified professionals. In this solution, a more focus is put on the values and nonmaterial qualities that people are after, next to harden soft skills. Because hard and soft skills is the basis for recruitment in most recruitment agencies.

58:04 But in this case, we also think about cultural aspect and the mental aspect and the expectations and how you see yourself and what’s your relationship with your own job. And this very highly determines where you should or shouldn’t go and what position and what environment. This is a very important aspect of this recruitment.

58:28 The program is not running yet. Also because of the crisis, but if you’re interested and you would like to register in our database, then please contact me. And if you enjoy this type of content, I also write my personal blog. And it’s about in general, about science careers, but also just general about psychology, all sorts of topics.


58:57 And my first book is already online, and the second edition is coming soon. But I also have a second book in the pipeline. And the second book will be more about the job market in general and about dream jobs and how to find your way in the job market. And as mentioned before, there are courses for researchers and we do it both online and on site.

59:19 And if you think that your university might be interested in such a course also, please let me know in private. Okay, thank you. Thank you for listening and good luck with everything.

59:36 Okay, so let me conclude this talk saying that thank you for your attention. And if you have more questions, you can always contact me later and you can also comment on the movie. And all your questions will be appreciated. Have a nice day and thank you for listening!

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Please cite as:

Bielczyk, N. (2020, August 16th). E015 Natalia Bielczyk on Starting Your First Company as a PhD: Things That No One Will Tell You? Retrieved from https://ontologyofvalue.com/career-development-strategies-e015-natalia-bielczyk-on-starting-your-first-company-as-a-phd-things-that-no-one-will-tell-you/

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