Why I Founded My Company in Poznan, Poland Instead of London

Here are my tips for launching a business outside of a startup hub.
Why I Founded My Company in Poznan, Poland Instead of London
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CEO and Co-Founder of Cognifide
7 min read
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I've been a "tech guy" since the dawn of the internet. With a degree in computer science from the University of Warwick, I started working life in the era of CD-roms, eventually becoming one of the "nerds" within a big creative, marketing-led London agency. While it was a great, energetic atmosphere, it always seemed to me that technology was the afterthought rather than at the heart of the marketing infrastructure. I felt that we could go further with tech if we could be entirely focused on that and, over a Christmas drink after work with my colleague Stuart Dean, we made a New Year resolution to set up on our own in 2005.

Related: This Founder Used His Last Pounds to Buy a French-English Dictionary. Last Year, His Company Raised £1.2 Million.

And that's all we had. No business plan, no clients and no money to speak of. We knew nothing.

Well, actually, we knew one thing. There was no way we would be able to afford to set up in London. Our next dilemma was where in the world we should go. In the end we decided to "go where you know," which meant either Budapest, where my partner had family, or Poland, where my mother's family is from.

1. Start with what and where you know and build from there.

It may appear a naive approach but to us, it made perfect sense. We knew that we would be outsiders and having a local network to point us in the right direction was going to be invaluable. With that, Dean and I hopped on a flight to Poznan for a weekend of research, which involved outdoor raves, fire pits and copious amounts of vodka. Horror films have had more promising starts. One of the new friends we made told us of a garage with storage space above, which was to become our first office.

2. Nurture young talent and invest early.

So, we had an office. And a hangover. Now we needed staff. Well educated, English-speaking, cost-effective staff. Through a family connection, I was able to go to Poznan University to give a talk to the computer science department about a healthcare IT project I was working on in the U.K. It gave me the chance to pitch the idea of working for an exciting new startup in Poznan (not that we'd started up yet) and drum up talent at the source. At the time, there were very few tech jobs in Poznan and even fewer interesting startups, so we certainly created a lot of intrigue among a young, talented group of graduates who would go on to form our first development team.

To date, we still maintain strong links with the University and have invested more broadly into the wider community. Nowadays we are considered one of the bigger, more established players having got in early and watched demand for tech talent in the area explode. As a result, we have much more competition now but our early mover advantage still plays in our favor.

Related: How I Made the Most of the Hungarian Mindset to Grow My Business

3. Be brave.

It was only then that we returned to London and, heart in mouth, quit our jobs, informing our employers that we were setting up in Poland. He wished us luck and promptly hired us back, this time as our own agency. Now we had our first client. Our former coworkers put their trust in us and our track record, which meant that they were happy for us to deliver our work from wherever we wanted. This marked the formal change from employee to business owners.

4. Get local. Get help.

Going from a busy London office to our garage in the middle of the Polish countryside was a definite culture change. I still have fond memories of conference calls with clients with the noise of gunshots from our landlord shooting at pigeons outside. Yet, still it was us who were perceived as the eccentrics from England.

It was being confronted with the big book of regulations that governed every aspect of working life in Poland that convinced us that we really needed local expertise such as lawyers, accountants and an office manager to navigate the myriad rules that were completely alien to us. For example, in the U.K. a receipt usually suffices for expense claims. In Poland you need the VAT number and full details of the company for every transaction. Our accountant eventually gave up and spent a few days driving us around to collect proper receipts from everywhere. There are also specific rules about uninterrupted rest from work -- 35 hours a week in Poland compared to 24 in the U.K. And, holiday entitlement is calculated on how long an employee has been working for (in total, not just for an employer) and includes education, meaning a university graduate starts off treated as having eight years employment! 

In our first year of business, we were burgled and our experience with local police was very different to anything we'd known before. For starters, they actually caught the thieves and took them to court -- albeit almost a year later when we'd collected the insurance payout and put it behind us. We even got some of the equipment returned to us and, to date, still get about £30 a year in compensation from the culprits!

5. Plan.

I'll be the first to admit, we didn't really have a plan when we set out. To start with we had no idea how to recruit, how to win business and, crucially, how to price our services. I think we started out with figuring out what a job cost and just adding an arbitrary £50 on top. At the beginning, our aim was to bring in just enough cash so one of us could work on a project while the other could focus on getting another client. It was only when we brought in some of the key leadership team (many of whom are still with us today) that we began to formulate a proper strategy and drive the growth of the business.

Looking back, there are some obvious business startup tactics we could have employed straight from the "Big Business Book for Dummies" such as looking for locations in development zones where we might have secured funding from local authorities, or tax breaks, or some much-needed business coaching. Any or all of these considerations at the planning stage would have accelerated our growth much earlier.

Despite not having a clue where to start we've now grown from our garage in Poznan to more than 300 staff in offices around the world. We work for some of the world's biggest brands, delivering multimillion-pound solutions and, in 2014, we joined the WPP family as their go-to marketing technology consultancy. Our journey has gone full circle as once again we find ourselves in the heart of a big creative, marketing-led agency network. But, this time technology has moved on, the digital landscape has changed beyond belief, the tide has turned and we are very happily here on our own terms.

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