12 questions to:

Dorota Puchlew-Grzelak

Founder of House of Cotton and IQ Grower

Efficiency champion, founder of businesses with million zloty turnover and a fulfilled mother. Join me in my discussion with Dorota Puchlew-Grzelak on how to constantly develop, turn your worst day of your life into business success and importance of innovation in business. If you want to know if a career on capital markets or running your own business is for you or you are interested blue ocean concept in business, be sure to read!

Let’s start with your successes as a student. We met at the Warsaw School of Economics (SGH) and we immediately won E&Y mathematics contest together. You are the only person I know who has completed three university degrees and written three masters theses. Tell us how to achieve it?

You just have to pass the exams and write three master theses 😊 SGH allowed students to choose their own subjects. So you could use the five years of study in your own way, there were no bachelor theses at that time.

I am ambitious, and I have not heard of a person who completed three master studies – I wanted to be the first. I like to plan, analyze and structure, so writing three theses was not a big challenge.

One path of study was not diverse enough for me, did not encompass sufficient knowledge and opportunities. I wanted to have the broadest possible theoretical basis. I was aware of the importance of practice. I willingly applied for internships to companies. Although in those days the internships were not paid, I used them to learn and absorb knowledge. Our internship at E&Y, which we won, was my only paid internship.

After university successes, professional ones followed. You have inspired many girls, including me, to obtain CFA (Chartered Financial Analyst) charter and start a career on capital markets. How did you do it? It was not an obvious career for a woman at the time.

Already in my third year of studies, I knew I wanted to work on capital markets. I have completed internships, in dealing room and in brokerage house. My involvement during the internship in a brokerage house and further development (including CFA certificate) were appreciated and I was offered a job as an equity analyst. I felt that it was an exciting career full of challenges and with no repetitive tasks. Even then, I realized that routine office work from 8 am to 4 pm was not for me. Although initially my salary was insignificant, I knew that thanks to my commitment and development it would quickly change. And so it did.

What elements of work as equity analyst you liked best?

Most probably lack of routine – I am a rebel and for me freedom is very important. I enjoyed learning new elements, meeting interesting people, including CEOs and CFOs of the largest listed companies, or managers of multi-million funds. I was impressed when newspapers quoted or the television broadcast my comments – those of a girl in her twenties.

The work itself was fascinating and intellectually demanding. It consisted not only of analyzing numbers (and I love excel), but also of synthesizing all information about the company, market, prospects, sensing people running those businesses, and assessing corporate development opportunities in this way.

It was important for me that I was developing. In order to constantly improve my qualifications and polish the analyst’s skills, I changed my job twice. The first time to cover larger companies, and the second time to work at an international brokerage house with extensive background and experience.

A decade ago, as female equity analysts on the Polish capital market, we were a minority. Was it noticeable to you?

It was hard not to notice and at first I was a little afraid of how I will find my way in the male world. But I have never felt discriminated, diminished or patronized. Of course, there have been misogynists, but I suspect that such individuals can be found in any industry. In this type of work, your knowledge and intellect counts, and although I know that I was probably judged in other respects, I never felt it. I even think there were advantages to being one of the few women 😉

The job of an equity analyst is quite demanding, both in terms of working hours and, in those days, travel. How has motherhood influenced your professional career?

Motherhood changes everything, but most of all your mindset. It’s just that priorities are completely reorganizing. All the glitter of foreign trips and media comments ceased to be important.

To spend quality time with my child, I switched to part-time. It didn’t diminish my productivity. A person is able to work effectively for a maximum of 6 hours and I did it – just like before, when I had to spend more hours in the office – only on my own terms.

I was also increasingly bothered by the corporate culture and rigid rules at work that were more and more difficult to reconcile with my libertarian nature. But the job was well paid, and I was planning to expand my family, so I kept working …

Despite your success and recognition, your over 8-year-long career as an equity analyst came to an end. I still remember that day when you left the office – we worked together then. Share with us how to find strength after such experiences?

Exactly – I should not have complained! Honestly, it was the worst time of my life. After I was let go, I found out that I was pregnant, so I could hardly go to work elsewhere. I was entitled to social security support but only in the „starvation” rate and only until delivery, later: nothing.

I have never had to save money before or wonder how am I going to pay my mortgage … these down-to-earth problems can be really devastating when you know there is not much you can do because you’re pregnant!

At some point it struck me, however, that I was no longer happy working as equity analyst. I felt that like doing something meaningful, giving people real value. And then I remembered my earlier idea for an on-line store – shelved for ” someday later”. And that day has come! I started a company and became an entrepreneur.

And what an entrepreneur! Tell us how to choose a business model so that it turns out to be a success right away?

The basis of a successful business is finding the customer’s severe problem and proposing a solution. A few years earlier I became interested in sewing and it quickly evolved into a passion of mine. I realized that the Polish market lacked high-quality cotton fabrics with beautiful printed patterns. Back then, only gloomy haberdashery with wool for suits and expensive silk were available, as well as on-line stores with beautiful, but expensive cotton imported from the USA.

I saw a niche and took my chances. The fashion for sewing returned then, interest in patchwork was growing, sewing accessories and clothes for children made of cotton were increasingly popular, because it is natural and pleasant to the touch.

Back then, finding cotton produced in Poland that did not deter you with a pattern was almost a miracle. Gradually, I found increasingly interesting patterns, I also imported fabrics from the Czech Republic, Germany, Great Britain and gradually filled my niche.

House of Cotton quickly became a success. Please, tell us how this success looked like from the inside?

When I founded House of Cotton, I had practically no competition in my price range and the demand for the product was huge. For the first year, I ran the company by myself, then I started to hire.

The everyday life of operating an on-line store requires running a fanpage on Facebook, contributing to the blogosphere, organizing contests for customers, etc. – these can be an alternative to marketing expenses. The store must stand out – I focused on professional photos, comprehensive descriptions, running a blog where I published sewing instructions how to use materials sold in my store. From the very beginning, I was focused on building a permanent customer base, with the use of newsletters – back then, they were not so common and it was easier to get people subscribed.

I tested new solutions, implemented fresh ideas – I always had more ideas than time to implement them – not all of them turned out to be successful.

Running a business can be very absorbing. Can you tell us how to achieve a work-life balance if you work from home?

I don’t know if it is possible at all 😊 especially if you really like what you do. Then you have the feeling that when you work, it is almost as if you are spending time on your hobby, and it is almost as if a free-time.

But that’s not true. After a while, you begin to struggle with exhaustion and even burnout. That is why it is important to be able to always carve out time for yourself, when you do something you like and it’s not a job! It is very difficult and I cannot say that I can do it.

The most difficult period for me was when my children were young and the company was dynamically growing. Then I decided to hire my first employee. Thanks to this, I was able to devote more time to my family, but also to developing the company itself. Until that time, I was working in my own company, not on it. This is a key distinction. For many aspiring entrepreneurs, like me, this has been a revelation.

Have double-digit sales dynamics always been recorded by House of Cotton? What actions had to be taken on a regular basis?

Nothing lasts forever and at some point I was surprised to find that the bars had stopped growing. Competition has emerged, offering the same goods, but at significantly lower prices. The economic bill at such low prices simply did not make sense – handling fabrics is much more labor-intensive than in the case of books or toys. The most aggressive competitor, which quickly took over a very large part of the market, after some time completely withdrew from the printed cotton segment. The market has already been ‘damaged’.

There is a concept of blue and red oceans: red is the one in which there is fierce competition causing companies to bleed out, while blue ocean has little or no competition. The key is to find your own blue ocean. I knew that competing with price is not an effective strategy. I decided that I had to stand out again – so I decided to offer my own patterns and to be eco-friendly. I have established cooperation with a printing house that prints fabrics on demand and sends it to the customer directly. This is in line with the #zerowaste philosophy, which is close to my heart.

You didn’t stop at one company. You are now developing another one related to children education and your own experiences. Tell us about it.

The idea of IQ Grower is older than the idea for House of Cotton. Years ago, I didn’t know how to go about it. Technological possibilities were also much different back then. Now, with much deeper business knowledge, I have decided to come back to it. My area of competence and passion is also education and intellectual development – this is where I can give most value to the world.

When my daughter was little, I discovered the Doman method that supports child’s development and intelligence and helps them reach their natural potential. Every baby is born with endless possibilities that just fade away when not in use.

The method consists of a couple-of-minute-long playtime with the child. However, in order for it to happen, the parent must spend long hours preparing for this time. At that time, it was too overwhelming for me, so I implemented the program with my daughter only partially. That’s why I have recently created a platform, IQ Grower, where these materials are available electronically. Any parent who cares about their child’s mental development can benefit from them.

Looking at your career, what three tips would you give to women who are considering starting their own business?

First of all, that running your own business is not for everyone and you should be aware of it. It’s not that everyone who loves to bake cakes and bakes them perfectly should start their own pastry shop. Such a business is not only baking, but also sales, marketing, procurement, accounting, employees, customers, maintenance of the premises – a lot of activities that not only may not be your area of expertise, but you may not even want to learn them. Besides, they will distract you from what you love: baking.

Second, never stop learning. If you are an entrepreneur, you need to be on top of many elements: keep an eye on trends, what the competition is doing, what customers want (and what they need, because they are often two different things), including how industry or accounting regulations change. First of all, learn marketing and sales, because if you are an entrepreneur, then you are a marketer – whether you want it or not. Read business books, take part in meaningful courses and trainings, find mentors – people who are already where you want to reach.

Also, remember to look at each event from a distance. The worst day of my life in which I was fired from my job was a great new start. The beginning that might never have happened if I hadn’t been forced to do so.

Similarly, my troubles with competition resulted in a new business model that not only made me independent of it, but also provided much more freedom and cost control, so on balance it only worked well for me.

Thank you very much for this powerful dose of inspiration and female strength. I wish you every success!

Thank you for inviting me. It was very pleasant to go on this journey through the past and remember how I was then and how I felt, thank you for it!

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