Paula Skokowski is currently Chief Marketing Officer at Incognia, a cybersecurity company offering mobile fraud prevention through location behavioral biometrics. She is also co-founder and investment manager of the Oxford Angel Fund and a founding member of FirstBoard.io.
What is your background? What made you decide to become an entrepreneur?
I moved to the San Francisco Bay Area in the ‘80s, which I realise now was an incredible period of technology innovation. I’ve been interested in engineering and front edge technologies right from the beginning of my career and I joined a startup after graduating from Berkeley with M.S. in Robotics and Control. For me, entrepreneurship is very tightly linked with technology and I have a hard time uncoupling them.
My entrepreneurial journey has always been to join companies very early on, normally when launching their first product. I find the proof-of-value stage very rewarding, as you’re putting words to things that people have never done before. You have to maintain a flexible mindset and listen to feedback and adjust. It’s also about timing and aligning with market trends. For example, the way we buy goods has completely changed over the past few years, with the rise of online buying and contactless, and 2020 has been a catalyst for this.
What is your definition of entrepreneurship?
You can be entrepreneurial without starting a company; it’s about going into unchartered territory and envisioning a future that doesn’t exist today.
How and when did you know your idea was good enough to develop it?
All of the criteria that I use to evaluate whether to join a company are the same I use to evaluate whether to invest. Firstly, ask: “Is this actually going to work, and who will care?” I’m not a hype person. I want real impact. It has to be a real problem, with a workable, differentiated solution and an identified audience who will pay. There’s an extraordinary amount of effort required to create something and then get the first customer and then the tenth customer and so forth.
You have to have a plan for success. Of course, this plan doesn’t actually need to happen, but you have to have at least one viable path that could possibly work.
What would you say are the top 3 skills that needed to be a successful entrepreneur? Why?
Of course, people come in all shapes and sizes, but you need to be able to visualise where you’re going and project that. You need to be resilient and persevere – things will never go how they plan. And you need to inspire others, in order to build a team and scale up.
What is your favourite part of being an entrepreneur?
I love that creativity of imagining a different world.
What individual, company, or organization inspires you most? Why?
If you had 5 minutes with the above individual/company/organization, what would you want to ask or discuss?
What would you say have been some of your mistakes, failures, or lessons learned as an entrepreneur?
There are so many lessons… but as a marketing person, I’m well suited to optimism! They weren’t mistakes, they were opportunities.
Once we were marketing and getting traction. We kept adding features, maybe if a customer wanted it or we thought it was a good idea, and we realised we were really getting bogged down with having to take every single customer through the features’ menu and custom pricing structure. We were spending way too much time getting to the end point – you should make it easy for somebody to understand a product and buy it. Simple means speed for everybody.
There are also huge things that can happen in markets that can never be anticipated, like 2020 and its impact on Zoom and Slack versus co-working spaces. There can be transformational changes, like the launch of the iPad. These are perturbations in a world that you thought was going to be one thing and turns out to be another.
What is good about being an entrepreneur in Oxfordshire? Bad?
When I received the invite to join the Oxford Entrepreneurs Network in 2018, I’d never tapped into the Oxford alumni network before and it was one of the first few invites of that kind which I had ever received. Now it’s reached about 2000 people and has chapters across America, as well as in London. The quality of the members is really high calibre, perhaps because there are so many barriers and filters to surmount in order to end up in the Bay Area as an Oxonian entrepreneur.
The network is specifically for alumni, in part because there are so many student initiatives and opportunities for entrepreneurship in Oxford. My husband is now a visiting fellow at St Edmund Hall, so I’ve had the opportunity to tap into these resources. There’s Oxford Sciences Innovation, Oxford University Innovation, the Careers Centre, Enterprising Oxford and the many college initiatives.
If a new entrepreneur or startup came to you looking for entrepreneurship resources, where would you send them?
Many companies go through incubators or accelerators, such as the Oxford Foundry. There are some very famous ones that have a formula and culminate with a demo day, and they cover the real basics: cap tables, presenting, marketing and sales infrastructure. But it’s not necessary to go through these institutions – you can learn these things through tapping into other resources such as the OxLEP Entrepreneur Bootcamp.
Have you faced any challenges as a woman entrepreneur? If so, how have you overcome them?
Opportunities and challenges that I translated into opportunities! I have not felt that I have been held back, but I think it’s been unnecessarily difficult at times. I was one of the women engineers at St Edmund Hall, and in front-edge technology women are especially underrepresented at the executive level. If you’re sitting around a table and you are the odd one out, then it’s challenging.
But huge progress has been made. Teams are better with a diverse representation, because teams should represent their customers.
Do you have any advice for other women who want to be entrepreneurs?
It’s difficult because there is a cycle that has to be broken. I’m a founding member of FirstBoard.io, which aims to increase the representation of women on boards, and at the highest level of corporate governance and management. I hope that we’re experiencing a similar wave of equality in terms of founders, board members and VCs that happened for women in STEM in the ‘80s.
I would hope that any woman now coming out of college would think that there is nothing that is off-limits. You can absolutely be a founder. None of these challenges are insurmountable.
Any last words of advice?
Take this opportunity! There are some amazing women founders that I am working with and that I have in my network. I just think that right now is a fantastic and supportive environment. I would strongly encourage those who have that inclination or curiosity for entrepreneurship to get involved.