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Entrepreneurship

Women on Top in Tech – Paola Bonomo, Non-Executive Director of AXA Assicurazioni

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(Women on Top in Tech is a series about Women Founders, CEOs, and Leaders in technology. It aims to amplify and bring to the fore diversity in leadership in technology.)

Today’s interview is with Paola Bonomo, a tech investor. Paola has been a member of Italian Angels for Growth – the leading group of business angels in her country – since 2009. She is also active as a Non Executive Director at AXA Assicurazioni.

In 2015 and again in 2016, Paola was recognized as one of the Inspiring Fifty, the fifty most inspiring women in European technology.

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What makes you do what you do?

What drives me is helping new companies succeed. We live in the middle of an unprecedented disruption where new business models are created each day and a small team can seize the opportunity to radically reimagine a product, a process, a business. As angel investors, our group contributes not just capital, but also and perhaps above all our skills and our network. My main driver every day is meeting entrepreneurs, coaching them, helping them grow; and I often end up learning from them.

How did you rise in the industry you are in?

I had to make a major change in my life to pursue my dream of working in the digital industry. In 2005, after a long consulting career, I left McKinsey, where I had grown and become a partner very quickly, but where I would no longer progress enough to satisfy the Firm’s “up or out” rule. I have worked since then both at digitally native companies (eBay at first, more recently Facebook) and at traditional companies who needed to reinvent their customer experience (Vodafone). I would say that it took being humble, being willing to learn, and also to relearn each day. The Web I learned as a marketer in 2005 is no longer relevant today: the mobile revolution has gone full circle, browse and even search are no longer the dominant interaction modes, it’s all about scrolling feeds and communicating (placing orders, transacting) via chat. Video on mobile simply wasn’t a big thing three years ago, now it’s the future of creating and sustaining brands. So don’t go into this industry if the speed of change makes you uncomfortable!

Why did you take on this role/start this startup especially since this is perhaps a stretch or challenge for you (or viewed as one since you are not the usual leadership demographics)?

When I joined Italian Angels for Growth, the group only had a handful of women members. Today we’ve grown: we’re still only 15% of the group, but we have a Vice Chairwoman and many women active in screening and investing. Another advantage of joining an angel group is that, while in the real world I am somewhat of a veteran, in the investing world I am still considered on the young side!

Do you have a mentor that you look up to in your industries or did you look for one or how did that work?

I had a senior partner I considered a mentor while I was at McKinsey. After that, what I did ended up being too new for experienced mentors to understand, and I really had to start charting my own course.

How did you make a match if you did and how did you end up being mentored by him?

At McKinsey, the match happened quite naturally, based on a string of successful projects together, especially in the telecommunications industry. Several years later, he became a published author and I was behind the scenes of some of his books as an early reader, offering suggestions on working drafts and people for him to contact and interview. If I ever write a book, I’ll get him to read the drafts!

Now as a leader how do you spot, develop, keep, grow and support your talent?

I’m always on the lookout for bright young people. Sometimes it’s connections through mutual friends: I recently became an advisor to a fintech startup because I was introduced to the founder by a friend from Florence and I introduced him in turn to a London-based investor. The only way to keep those relationships going is really through loyalty, commitment, and always thinking about what would make sense for the talent. And because startups often fail, hold up the good work that they did and give them a second chance.

Do you consciously or unconsciously support diversity and why?

I am consciously very much of a diversity supporter, for many reasons including eradicating groupthink and fostering better team performance; at the same time, I’m also aware that, just like almost everybody else, I do harbor some unconscious bias towards those who do not share my particular type of privilege. I try to identify such bias when it happens, in myself or those around me, and bring it out in the open.

What is your take on what it takes to be a great leader in your industry and as a general rule of thumb?

Great investors are those who’ve had successful exits in their portfolios – I’m still working my way towards there. In general, being a leader isn’t about what you do, it’s about what you can get others to do. Remember that the smartest followers often get to choose their leaders. How do you get chosen? So, for example, if you’re investing in a hot startup, the founders probably have more than one option when it comes to whose money they’ll take. Think about your value proposition very clearly: what can I do for the company that will get me this deal? How can I inspire them towards what they don’t yet know they’re capable of? And if I’m the lead investor, but I’m not funding the whole round, who else do I want to invest together with me? Finally – just like in this example – you may lead when the founders need direction, and you may follow when the business is firing on all cylinders. If you get hung up on titles, labels, decision-making powers and so on, that’s a big distraction from truly leading.

Advice for others?

I’d like to see more women with the courage and drive to start a business and get it off the ground. I’m also concerned about the relative lack of women in the STEM education pipeline. In the European Union alone, by 2020 we will have 800,000 tech jobs to fill that don’t exist today: surely we don’t want to leave them all to men?


To learn more about AXA Assicurazioni, please see https://www.axa.it/.

I am a huge fan and cheerleader of Women Leaders — If you know of an AMAZING Woman Founder, CEO, Leader in Tech or you are one yourself — Write me here.
AMPLIFY Conscious Business Leadership with me.

Entrepreneurship

What Kills A Startup

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1 – Being inflexible and not actively seeking or using customer feedback

Ignoring your users is a tried and true way to fail. Yes that sounds obvious but this was the #1 reason given for failure amongst the 32 startup failure post-mortems we analyzed. Tunnel vision and not gathering user feedback are fatal flaws for most startups. For instance, ecrowds, a web content management system company, said that “ We spent way too much time building it for ourselves and not getting feedback from prospects — it’s easy to get tunnel vision. I’d recommend not going more than two or three months from the initial start to getting in the hands of prospects that are truly objective.”

2 – Building a solution looking for a problem, i.e., not targeting a “market need”

Choosing to tackle problems that are interesting to solve rather than those that serve a market need was often cited as a reason for failure. Sure, you can build an app and see if it will stick, but knowing there is a market need upfront is a good thing. “Companies should tackle market problems not technical problems” according to the BricaBox founder. One of the main reasons BricaBox failed was because it was solving a technical problem. The founder states that, “While it’s good to scratch itches, it’s best to scratch those you share with the greater market. If you want to solve a technical problem, get a group together and do it as open source.”

3 – Not the right team

A diverse team with different skill sets was often cited as being critical to the success of a starti[ company. Failure post-mortems often lamented that “I wish we had a CTO from the start, or wished that the startup had “a founder that loved the business aspect of things”. In some cases, the founding team wished they had more checks and balances. As Nouncers founder stated, “This brings me back to the underlying problem I didn’t have a partner to balance me out and provide sanity checks for business and technology decisions made.” Wesabe founder also stated that he was the sole and quite stubborn decision maker for much of the enterprises life, and therefore he can blame no one but himself for the failures of Wesabe. Team deficiencies were given as a reason for startup failure almost 1/3 of the time.

4 – Poor Marketing

Knowing your target audience and knowing how to get their attention and convert them to leads and ultimately customers is one of the most important skills of a successful business. Yet, in almost 30% of failures, ineffective marketing was a primary cause of failure. Oftentimes, the inability to market was a function of founders who liked to code or build product but who didn’t relish the idea of promoting the product. The folks at Devver highlighted the need to find someone who enjoys creating and finding distribution channels and developing business relationship for the company as a key need that startups should ensure they fill.

5 – Ran out of cash

Money and time are finite and need to be allocated judiciously. The question of how should you spend your money was a frequent conundrum and reason for failure cited by failed startups. The decision on whether to spend significantly upfront to get the product off the group or develop gradually over time is a tough act to balance. The team at YouCastr cited money problems as the reason for failure but went on to highlight other reasons for shutting down vs. trying to raise more money writing:

The single biggest reason we are closing down (a common one) is running out of cash. Despite putting the company in an EXTREMELY lean position, generating revenue, and holding out as long as we could, we didn’t have the cash to keep going. The next few reasons shed more light as to why we chose to shut down instead of finding more cash.

The old saw was that more companies were killed by poor cashflow than anything else, but factors 1, 2 and 4 probably are the main contributing factors to that problem. No cash, no flow. The issue No 3 – the team – is interesting, as if I take that comment ” I didn’t have a partner to balance me out and provide sanity checks for business and technology decisions made” and think about some of the founders and startup CEOs I know, I can safely say that the main way that any decision was made was by agreeing with them – it was “my way or the highway”. I don’t therefore “buy” the team argument, I more buy the willingness of the key decision makers to change when things are not working (aka “pivoting” – point 9).

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About the Author

This article was produced by Broadsight. Broadsight is an attempt to build a business not just to consult to the emerging Broadband Media / Quadruple Play / Web 2.0 world, but to be structured according to its open principles. see more.

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Callum Connects

Jasmine Tan, Director of Stone Amperor

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Jasmine saves her clients time and effort when doing kitchen fit outs with her biz Stone Amperor.

What’s your story?
I started working in the industry in 2003. I was in a marble and granite supplier company for 5 years. Even though I left the company, I still had customers calling me for my services. I referred them back to my previous company but they refused to because they loved the fast response service that I offered. I realised that customers do look at prices, however most of them prefer quality over quantity. Thus I have decided to establish a sole proprietor company also known as 78 Degrees which later rebranded as Stone Amperor in 2014.

What excites you most about your industry?
The kitchen countertop industry is a very confusing market. There are many brands, materials and prices to choose from. What excites me the most is my ability to help clients choose the best materials and brands within their budgets, whilst saving them time and effort.

What’s your connection to Asia?
I have been in Asia all my life and I love Asia. No matter where you go there is no place like home.


Favourite city in Asia for business and why?
I love Singapore. This is because Singapore has always been a stable country and it is great for doing business. However as it is a small country, it can be really competitive. I believe that if just do your best and give your best to your customers, you can overcome this.

What’s the best piece of advice you ever received?
“Take actions. Learn and improve continuously. An idea without action is just a dream.” This was really good advice that I received from my partner.

Who inspires you?
A very down to earth billionaire from Malaysia, Robert Kuok

What have you just learnt recently that blew you away?
Property is the foundation of every business.

If you had your time again, what would you do differently?
Own instead of renting property for my business.

How do you unwind?
I enjoy going shopping, watching movies and hanging out with friends. I am quite a simple being.

Favourite Asian destination for relaxation? Why?
I love going to Taiwan as I love the culture there. Everyone is so polite and the weather is great.

Everyone in business should read this book:
Sun Tzu, Art of war

Shameless plug for your business:
Perfect top, Perfect price, Perfect life from Stone Amperor

How can people connect with you?
Email me at [email protected]

Twitter handle?
@StoneAmperor

This interview is part of the ‘Callum Connect’ series of more than 500 interviews

Callum Laing is an entrepreneur and investor based in Singapore. He has previously started, built and sold half a dozen businesses and is now a Partner at Unity-Group Private Equity and Co-Founder of The Marketing Group PLC. He is the author two best selling books ‘Progressive Partnerships’ and ‘Agglomerate’.

Connect with Callum here:
twitter.com/laingcallum
linkedin.com/in/callumlaing
Download free copies of his books here: www.callumlaing.com

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