Natalia Fedulova on Transformative Decisions in Business and Life
Natalia Fedulova is the CEO & co-founder of Fundraising Bootcamp and took some time out to share the wisdom and experience they gained during pivotal moments in life and in business.
Can you start by telling us a bit about yourself and your journey as a leader in your industry?
I am an expert in strategy and fundraising with over 15 years of experience working with startups and venture capital and private equity funds. During my career, I have worked with over 1,000 startups. In 2022, I led the effort of launching 500 Global, Georgia’s first VC fund in the region, which will invest in 120 startups and strengthen the country’s innovation ecosystem.
I started my career in a private bank, leading customer support for over one million retail customers and tripling the customer experience satisfaction rate over two years. Later, I joined Aton, an investment bank, as the Head of the Department of Remote Service and Sales. In 26 months assets under my managment grew fom 0 to $16 million.
Midway through my career, I realized that my job was dedicated to making rich people richer, which did not add any value to my life. Consequently, I decided to switch my career focus and start helping entrepreneurs who were seeking assistance to grow. As a result, I moved to San Francisco to help source startups for future deals. As a part of 500 Global, I organized and managed all aspects of startup acceleration programs in the US, Korea, Russia, Georgia, and India, and led the launch of 500 Georgia, a new fund and acceleration program created in partnership with the Government of Georgia and the Bank of Georgia.
Driven by the mission to help others, and my passion for working with high-energy entrepreneurs, in March 2023, I launched a San Francisco-based Fundraising Bootcamp for international early-stage founders, with the purpose of helping them raise their first round of funding in Silicon Valley. Combining my deep knowledge of the venture market together with my wide network, I crafted a top-notch experience, which educates founders about cultural differences, explains the key principles of fundraising, and provides valuable advice on pitchdecks. It also offers exclusive access to a network of venture funds, business angels, mentors, and advisers.
What specific experiences or decisions in your journey do you believe have shaped your approach to business and leadership?
During my time working for an investment bank, there was a moment when I couldn’t find two out of three middle managers I was supposed to have, and ended up with 25 sales managers reporting directly to me for one whole year. Now, as you might know, investment banking is a very fast-paced and time-intensive industry. There are the people who prepare pitch decks, those who build LBO models, those who revise the models and make adjustments based on ongoing meetings with prospective customers, and more. And, because it is on the sell-side, there needs to be an army of people who ensure that there’s always enough deal flow. Hence, I was forced to learn very fast how to hire, onboard, delegate, motivate, and fire in the most efficient and effective of ways. I learned not only multiple techniques of coaching, influencing, and persuading, but, most importantly, I developed my own incorporating my values and way of doing business. In my case, my natural way to lead is to be straightforward, which involves tough love and a lot of humor. I found that people can instantly feel that you’re being true to yourself, and this makes the process of building trust much faster and also more effective. Without trust, we cannot genuinely lead, and especially in the startup world, the company’s success highly depends on whether the leader–in this case the founder or CEO–is able to inspire action and rally their team to achieve a higher purpose. So after this experience, I reinforced my commitment to building trust with any team I led. Once we all trust each other, we can accomplish amazing things.
Can you share a story of a pivotal moment in your career that led to a significant transformation in your business or personal life?
The decision to move to San Francisco was one of the most important in my career and my life. Everyone knows that the Bay Area is the epicenter of the startup world, not only in terms of the number of tech startups that have launched from there, but also, and most importantly, in terms of venture capital. Access to capital was and still is a main reason why new ventures flock to the San Francisco-San Jose corridor. Also, I had read about Silicon Valley’s culture, which is so different from most of the world. There is this appetite for risk and a tolerance for failure that I had not seen anywhere else. So I made a plan to go there and learn what this was all about. Almost right after arriving, someone introduced me to a General Partner at a VC fund in Silicon Valley, and I just loved his story and the job he was doing. This inspired me to take more time to learn about the venture scene, and what followed was an unstoppable hurricane of events and new connections that led me to one of the most interesting jobs I’ve ever had. For example, learning how the venture capital industry works–from the fundraising process that funds follow to how they allocate their capital–and the way they support portfolio companies helped me translate this knowledge to other ecosystems where there were entrepreneurs eager to come to Silicon Valley. I realized that there could be an opportunity to build a bridge between these international founders with great ideas, solid MVPs, an attractive TAM (total addressable market) and a need for funding, and the ecosystem where that funding was available. Also, this could give investors in the Valley exposure to regions that they otherwise would not be familiar with. This, in some way, helps them diversify their portfolio and tap into the potential of new markets.
All in all, this decision of moving to San Francisco was an inflection point for me, and I cannot imagine my life without everything that stemmed from there, the value that we have been able to create, and the lives we have impacted because of that choice.
What factors did you consider when making that critical decision, and how did you weigh the potential risks and rewards?
When I was working in private equity, I felt I had a lot of unrealized potential, and I knew I could do so much more. I loved (and still love) the power of finance to make the world a better place, but I felt I wasn’t applying my skills to something that was meaningful to me. As I said, by overseeing large and complex financial transactions, I was helping rich people get richer. And what called me about the startup world was that here, we were redirecting capital to causes that really mattered. We were helping those innovators with big dreams and an incredible idea to get the capital they needed to make this dream a reality, and we were supporting them in the process. So for me, this was an easy choice, because there was a lot more purpose in it. I’d rather be involved in transactions to fund what is going to change the world. Nevertheless, moving into a transitional period and changing careers was scary, but because of the above, I was more scared about not making the move. The formula “Big risk, big reward” was very clear to me. Bringing a great career to a halt, and facing the unknown as I embarked on a new beginning felt like a big risk, but I am so glad I took it. Otherwise, the opportunity cost (also referred to as “The Risk Not Taken”) would have been huge.
What challenges did you face during this transformative period, and how did you overcome them?
Challenges with curiosity and make games out of everything. Gamifying my experience helps me have fun, challenge myself, and keep things in perspective. I knew that networking was my weak spot, and I needed to put a lot of effort into it. I also understood, quickly, that the startup world is like every other in the sense that who you know makes a difference, and that if nobody knows you, it is more challenging for people to place their trust–and their money–in an idea that you are sponsoring. Therefore, during my first year in San Francisco, as I was looking to learn more about startups and further my language skills, I made up a game in which I needed to make 100 meaningful connections in one year. Today, it sounds funny, because the networking game has been on since then. I probably met 100 new people in the first few months of this year without any effort, and this has been pivotal to enhance our offerings at our bootcamps. I place a lot of emphasis on building authentic connections, because I know that once that bond exists, this opens up a door for all the entrepreneurs we are supporting, and gives them a chance to pitch their ideas knowing that they will be listened to.
Having said this, I believe that you have to be very optimistic and resilient to be able to thrive in an unfamiliar and ever-changing environment. That’s why helping immigrant founders is a personal passion of mine. They are extremely optimistic and have the best adaptable skills, which is why many immigrants end up launching extremely successful companies that disrupt the way we live, and that give birth to booming innovation ecosystems. Now, if in many cases, they have done so against all odds, imagine what they can do if they get help. For example, navigating the fundraising landscape is not easy, first, because of the trust factor, but also, because there are many nuances that make venture capital different in Silicon Valley compared to the rest of the world. For instance, an immigrant entrepreneur might come up with a brilliant idea, and if they don’t know how valuations work in Silicon Valley–at considerably higher multiples than almost anywhere else–they might find themselves getting an unfavorable term sheet. This not only jeopardises the founder, but also the overall viability of the venture. This is why I find it extremely rewarding to remind immigrant foudners that I am here to help them navigate these complexities, so that they can focus on what they do best, scale their business, and take it as far as it can go.
Looking back, what advice would you give to your younger self at that time, or to entrepreneurs and business leaders who might find themselves in a similar situation?
There will always be hard and difficult times, but those are the moments in which we learn the most. I’d advise myself to take challenges with gratitude, and to, in any situation, keep asking myself what I can learn from it.
The second piece of advice is to keep engaging and nourishing communities around your business and your interests. It’s the best possible source of knowledge, support, and inspiration, and whenever hard times strike, your community will be there and help you get back on track. This is the reason why every business now wants to build a community around them. Now, business has changed, and an audience or a customer base does not matter as much as a community. A customer base will potentially choose your competitor’s product if the price is better or if they receive an added benefit as a part of a promotional campaign. A community will not. And communities thrive on giving and taking–a bilateral dialogue compared to the previously-unidirectional communication strategy that most companies followed–so this really changes the business dynamics. I personally consider that to be fascinating, because now, instead of chasing every customer under the sun, we can gravitate to those people who align with our values.
How has that pivotal moment influenced the way you make decisions today, and what lasting impact has it had on your business?
Meeting people from different cultures gave me a whole new perspective on how teams with diverse experiences and backgrounds can be more effective.
Because of this, I value diversity in the team a lot more than before and make sure all people in the group have an opportunity to express their opinions. I believe that when people feel seen and heard, and that their opinions matter, there is no limit to what they can achieve. This is why we are seeing an increased focus on diversity and inclusion now, because it brings both social and economic benefits. Almost any big city in the world–and San Francisco is no exception–is a melting pot right now, and if we don’t know how to deal with various demographics and how to address what each of these market sub-segments needs, we are missing out on opportunities. But if we have a diverse team–one in which there are people that understand each of these segments of the population, because they are part of one–then we can know how to authentically build a connection with them, and this opens up many doors.
In your opinion, how important is it for entrepreneurs and business leaders to have these transformative moments, and how can they best prepare for and learn from them?
I think that the entrepreneurial journey is formed by a series of endless transformative moments, which happen one after another. By choosing this path, you’re accepting that you will be riding a roller coaster for a while. And to be ready for the ride, it is better to have a strong support system. You’ll need advisers in specific fields to give you a hand in areas you’re not an expert. It is also great to have a mentor who has walked this path before, and to connect with a group of fellow entrepreneurs for mental support and brainstorming. It’s impossible to predict the challenges you will face, but you can set up a support system that can help you. This makes it easier to overcome anything. One of the most common struggles I see entrepreneurs face is loneliness, especially at the early stages when they don’t have a stable team in place yet. This can take a heavy toll and ultimately compromise the company, because there is only so far the mind and the body can go.
So, by surrounding yourself with a supportive community, you will likely find support to keep going when times get tough, and also, you will have people to bounce off ideas with and come up with creative solutions to any challenge you are facing.