25 Takeaways from Northern Ireland’s GovCampConnect

govcamp-timetableThis weekend I’ve been participating in Ireland’s very first Govcamp.  For the uninitiated, govcamps are unconferences for people who work in & (most importantly) around all levels of government.  The govcamp movement in the UK was started in 2008 by Jeremy Gould.  If you’re interested in knowing more about the history, there’s an interesting blog from Stefan Czerniawski here with a lot of relevant links.  Don’t be put off by the title!


L-R Dave Briggs, Jeremy Gould & Steph Gray – yep – you can tell who the sensible one is!

Regrettably I wasn’t at Jeremy’s first ukgovcamp but I’ve been to many of those that have taken place from 2009 onwards, the year the baton was passed to Steph Gray & Dave Briggs.  I love the informal & interactive format of unconferences – a polar opposite of the somewhat antiseptic TED talks where an “expert” or “personality” lectures us & then disappears without any challenge or interaction.  Yesterday was an inspiring and positive experience from start to finish and a great way to spend part of a weekend.  These are my key observations and positive/negative takeaways in no particular order.

  1. Surely this is the first ever govcamp to take place in a genuine castle; the beautiful and slightly decaying mock gothic Narrow Water Castle near Warrenpoint.
  2. We joined up with our colleagues at Govcamp Cymru via a Skype link for “randomised coffee trials” – a phrase coined by our colleague Esko Reinikainen who is a true one-off in every sense.


    Dave McKenna on the live videolink with Govcamp Cymru

  3. Govcamp (and any unconference) remains a great opportunity to catch up & interact with a lot of interesting people in a single day and to add a few new people to your network.
  4. It’s an easy way to get up to speed with anything of note that’s happening in government in your own locality; it was especially useful for me as I’ve been away from Northern Ireland for the past 4 years.
  5. All govcamps fall into two main factions as the day progresses – the data geeks and everyone else.


    The enthusiastic Open Data Institute NI gang – infecting us with their crazy data love – L-R Andrea Thornbury, Bob Harper, Lisa McElherron, Stephen Gray

  6. As usual there was scant senior civil service and local government representation and a complete absence of local politicians or ministers. Why is that?  They all say they want to embrace digital and they even make grandiose statements about using technology to close the divide between the haves & the have nots – but not enough it seems to come to Warrenpoint on a Saturday and engage with a grass roots community keen to help them achieve the practicalities of this.  Frustrating and disappointing.
  7. I learned a new phrase from Bill McCluggage – Steal with pride – I’ll be stealing that one Bill!rules
  8. A reminder of The Rules – surely not just for Govcamp but for all of life itself…see the pic.
  9. The phrase “this is just for within these four walls and is not for Twitter/not to be repeated” preceded a lot of interesting & juicy tales about government shenanigans – I wish we could change this environment in government & in Northern Ireland especially. We’ve come a long way but more honesty & transparency would be very welcome by a lot of citizens.
  10. I am personally bringing some of Northern Ireland’s (sensible) digital disruptors along to the next govcamp – top of my list is Matt Johnston, Roger Warnock & Barry Adams. I would’ve loved to have heard their take on some of what we discussed yesterday.  I’ll transport you all in the Fig if necessary J  That alone will be worth filming.
  11. Yesterday convinced me that the public sector should be forced to stay away from everything to do with smart cities until they have grasped the joined-up nature of what they are trying to achieve. Sad to hear about scores of expensive, over-engineered solutions being pitched to councils and the inevitable reinvention of the wheel that is occurring.  Another attendee whispered to me that in his view the Smart City initiative seems to be an elaborate money laundering scheme.    It isn’t sufficient for the public sector to be “engaged & willing”.  They need to make it their business to be properly informed and able to play their role effectively.
  12. I heard some great stories & attended a couple of really good sessions including Eoin McFadden’s on why failure matters & the difference between good & bad failure.
  13. Refreshing to attend a large event outside of the cities and it was so much fun to visit Warrenpoint.
  14. Despite the spotlight of recent years, public sector procurement is still a complete & utter mess, especially in Northern Ireland with the continuing usage & dominance of Central Procurement Directorate. Why is this allowed?
  15. Dave Briggs once said the day after govcamp is the most depressing day of the year. His rationale was that it’s the day all the changemakers have to go back to real life & face up to the daily frustrations of their job.  The challenge of doing something with all the “stuff” that’s discussed on the day remains.  LinkedIn, Slack etc are all woefully inadequate for continuing conversations.
  16. Money exists, at least right now in Northern Ireland, for small R & D pilots & innovation projects. See SBRI & #ODNI4EDU for starters.
  17. I enjoyed re-hearing some of Northern Ireland’s familiar government war stories – Eoin McFadden’s triumph with the chicken poo challenge is a particular favourite. You can read more here if you’re intrigued.
  18. I was reminded that there’s always a way if you have a network you can go to & discuss things if you’re stuck or struggling or failing – and that’s good to know as a lot of people battle away with projects on their own.
  19. Civil servants should be encouraged to be more open and transparent because the rest of us benefit enormously when they are.
  20. I learned a new word – pretotyping. Fake it before you make it.  More here
  21. The ones on the bus started imbibing at 2pm and that made them happy – well it was Saturday after all.
  22. Northern Ireland needs more people like the very articulate & totally on it Andrew Bolster. I award him my “Person of the Day” prize for his contributions to #gcc16 – thanks Andrew and thanks also for introducing me to Club-Mate … now all I need to know is where I can get more …
  23. Government to the innovator – “Sorry but your idea doesn’t match my programme”. Honestly – and excuse my language here but isn’t it about time we thought about how to change the f***ing programme.  How can this still be acceptable/happening?
  24. I have a lovely warm feeling today after spending 2 evenings and a day with the NI govcamp gang and I wish it could’ve been longer. This weekend has restored my love of the UK & Irish public sector and the people who work in it and yes I did use that phrase “if you cut me open I’d bleed public sector” in my own session.  Why?  Because it’s true & because I care.minecraft-kids
  25. The kids who pitched the last session of the day (a fabulous business case built in Minecraft for a new park in Newry) quite rightly owned the day. We are that awkward generation who aren’t true digital natives and all of this discomfort in government will soon pass.
  26. A bonus point – there are always some moments of complete hilarity on the day. Yesterday’s belly laugh was provided for us courtesy of Bill McCluggage.  It began with an audience member chipping in “As the author of that report…”  Hahaha – you probably had to be there for it!

What else do I have to say on this topic.  The format & rules are key & not to be tinkered with.  I remember one excruciating event at a past UK govcamp when a certain much loved & admired civil servant announced to the organisers that he would be appearing to give a keynote speech at a certain point in the afternoon & it was permitted.  Why I don’t know.  I was saddened that the ecosystem that existed at the time meant they didn’t tell him he’d need to turn up at 9am & queue up with the rest of the pitchers.

I’d like to thank the organisers Brian McCleland, Stephen Barry & Jonny McCullagh and we’re all very grateful for the generosity of the sponsors for funding a great day.  You’ve proved once again that a small number of enthusiastic and committed people can make pretty much anything happen.

Special thanks to the people who travelled a long way to be with us yesterday.  Suraj Kika of Jadu, freelance agile coach Mark Dalgarno, Rebekah Menzies of the Carnegie Trust, Deirdre Lee of Derilinx, Vanessa Liston of CiviQ and Brian Marrinan of Journey Partners.  Apologies if I’ve missed anyone.  I hope you made a lasting connection to Northern Ireland and we very much look forward to seeing you all again soon.

My Top 5 Tips for Success for Women (or anyone!) in business

Network Dublin 2I was delighted to join the Network Dublin women in business gathering in June in the Intercontinental Hotel in Dublin’s Ballsbridge.  I was keynoting at their annual awards lunch.  There was a broad mix of women present from startup entrepreneurs and solopreneurs to seasoned small business owners to women from the corporate world.

Spending time with other entrepreneurs and hearing their stories is my favourite pastime – even moreso when it’s other women.  There are so many women out there starting and growing fascinating and profitable businesses that we just don’t hear about – either because they’re bootstrapping and don’t need external investment so the government agencies and venture capital providers aren’t involved or they aren’t large scale exporting or they just aren’t part of this month’s “flavour of the moment” sector.

Network Dublin with Barbara Moynihan

Great to bump into fellow IIBN member Barbara Moynihan of On Your Feet in Dublin – Barbara was up for one of the Network Dublin awards

At the event we had representation from niche childcare related businesses to owners of health & beauty businesses and spas to a dating coach, a number of specialist healthcare providers, the usual sprinkling of corporate marketeers and business development managers, life coaches and even a woman who promised to allow you to enjoy your morning meditation anywhere in the world through the magic of VR.  All had a story…or a number of stories.

You all know the saying – If you want something doing, give it to a busy person.  Well our Network Dublin group was made up of exactly those busy women.  Everyone I chatted with had a couple of jobs, a couple of side projects on the go, a couple of charities or causes they were involved with and a family to keep on track as well.

Before I move onto the advertised blog content, I’d like to give a quick shoutout to our charity partner of the day.  It was Hugh’s House in Dublin.  Wow – what a project.  The founder is Ade Stack.  During her own baby’s hospital treatment, Ade learned that overnight accommodation in Dublin’s Temple Street and Rotunda hospitals for parents and guardians of children receiving care was both sadly lacking and grossly inappropriate so she decided to do something about it.  In the past I’ve joked that Irish comedian Dara O’Briain was a nightmare to follow onto a speaking platform but it was much harder to follow Ade Stack’s 4 minute pitch from the heart.  There wasn’t a dry eye in the room.  It’s a fabulous charity so if you can volunteer or help out in any small way then please do.

The main substance of my talk was 5 Top Tips for Success for women in business written from my own perspective and experience.  It was incredibly hard to get the list down to 5 but without further ado, these were the ones I chose:

1 Take a #GiversGain approach to business and life

There are so many elements to this but it’s a theme fundamental to how I operate and have always operated and it works for me and many other people.  Also called paying it forward, paying it back, karma and a multitude of other titles – but I like the #giversgain label that Camilla Long introduced me to.  The basic premise is to help other people and do so on the basis that you will receive nothing back in return.  The reality is if you give to the world, it gives back.

So – have a mentor but be a mentor too.  When networking, be generous with your introductions or give some of your content away without the expectation of something in return.  Positivity breeds positivity.  Enjoy yourself at work and in business and do the things that feel right to you.  In networking I’ve always just collected interesting people that I get on with and like.  I’ve never targeted people that I think might be able to do something for me – that just doesn’t work and I’d feel uncomfortable doing that anyway.

At the end of the day, people buy from people they like and as all opportunities are attached to a person or a group of people, goodwill will take you a long, long way – be it in procurement or recruitment.

Always help the people that you’re a bit further ahead than and remember Madeleine Albright’s words – “There’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women”.

2 Work Hard – I’m sorry but there are no shortcuts

At least none that I’ve ever found.  Whether you’re scrabbling your way up the corporate ladder or starting a business, putting in the hard yards in terms of time and commitment is critical, especially in your startup’s early days when you’re the main resource or in the early part of your career when you don’t have much of a track record.  I can remember sitting next to a young entrepreneur at dinner one evening and I asked him how he would cope when his only option was less sleep & he said to me – that won’t happen because I’m capping my working week at 60 hours.  He was really annoyed when I replied – Your startup will fail.

Obviously it isn’t about working 100 hours every week but you must accept that success requires work and work takes time.

There are plenty of people out there who will sell you books or courses telling you something other than this but in my experience there is no substitute and those shortcut peddlers are either lying or much smarter than me.

My own worst example of this, and one that I’m not proud of in retrospect, is joining a 1 hour sales Skype call on my wedding morning in 2014.  However, I made a call at the time that it was necessary to be in the conversation and the government agency we were pitching to refused point blank to move the date.  Worse still, we didn’t win the work.  You will know your own reasonable limits and these are different for us all.


Final word on this point – you do need to stretch yourself.


Muhammad Ali – Dancing in the Lights

Cruising along in a well worn and comfortable spot will not bring you the success you’re capable of.  Remember the late Muhammad Ali’s words when someone asked him what it was like being in the ring.  He replied “Out here I’m just dancing in the lights; the real work is done in the back room”.  Enjoy your moments in the limelight but don’t neglect the grafting that needs done.

3 Celebrate All Your Wins – big and small

At the end of every working day, write your greatest achievement of the day in red pen at the top of your paper diary.

Gene with cake

My nephew Gene on one of his birthdays

Some days it might be a big win such as hearing you’ve successfully secured that promotion or received the £50k sales order you’ve been chasing and other days it might be something small such as getting to the end of the day without giving up or clearing those admin tasks that’ve been bothering you for weeks.  As the weeks and months go by, you have a visible and tangible record of your achievements and if you’re ever feeling a bit low or in need of some encouragement, you can flick back through your diary, see how far you’ve come & relive some of the glory of your past successes.  I pinched great idea this from my friend and IIBN colleague Susan Hayes, The Savvy Economist.  In her TEDx talk (5 Key Ways to Define Yourself & Turbo Boost Your Career) Susan describes how she used to do this in the very early days of starting her own business, but it works for many different scenarios and it’s both effective and very easy.

In the early days of your startup, make sure you work towards and measure some milestones, however small.  Ensure everyone in your small team shares and knows this week or this month’s goals and when you get there, take a short break to recognise and mark your collective achievement.   If it’s a Friday evening, take everyone out for a quick drink or a bite to eat and celebrate what’s gone well that week and what you’ve achieved.  Take the time.  It matters and you’re worth it.

4 Don’t Procrastinate and always move things along at pace

Procrastination is a savage thief of time and so much more.  I read a really good (long read) blog about this topic recently and I recommend a read here if this is something you know you’re prone to.  If it is, this blog will scare the life out of you.  I’m not too bad.  Life in an early stage startup improves the speed with which you make decisions and reduces the amount of information you require before a decision can be made.

For years now I’ve managed my own working life using the Eisenhower matrix (the Important/Urgency grid) but the trick you mustn’t miss is to remember the Important/Not Urgent box as this is the one that drives your long term career or business strategy.

The bigger the organisation is that you operate within, the more need there is to spend time formalising and streamlining your decision making processes.  The glacial pace of decision making was what drove me out of the public sector years ago.

Keeping things moving along on a daily, weekly, monthly & yearly basis according to a plan in your head or on your wall or shelf is a real skill but one that’s definitely worth perfecting if you can.  Teach your newbie team members how to make swift and good decisions and you’ll have a much happier and productive workplace.  Everyone likes to see and feel progress.

5 Have a Plan

I like the Sheryl Sandberg quote “Option A is not available so let’s kick the s*** out of Option B”.  Sheryl Sandberg used to annoy the hell out of me with her Lean In preaching but I feel better disposed to her after the way she has subsequently revised some of her earlier recommendations for women in business since her own sad personal tragedy happened.

It’s good to have a plan, but it shouldn’t be fixed in stone.  You need to incorporate an element of flex and you also need at least a Plan B – but probably a less fleshed out Plan C & Plan D as well.  We live in uncertain times and technology has introduced a pace of change into many occupations that would previously have been difficult to imagine.  My Network Dublin talk happened on the day that the reality of the Brexit referendum outcome began to emerge.  Prime Minister David Cameron had literally just resigned and my audience & I mused over what his Plans B & C or D might have been as he went to his bed the night before.  Indeed – we wondered if he had any!

I hope you’ve enjoyed this blog & please do send us your own Top 5 Tips in the comments below.

I Am in My Mother’s House

Anyone who knows me well will know that our move back to Ireland has been on the cards since way before Christmas.  At first we were going to move in March, then it was April and eventually we booked the Liverpool – Belfast ferry for 17 May because we knew that without a firm marker in the sand, the drift would continue.  London is a hard place to say goodbye to but the pull of Mother Ireland is very strong.  In my case there was another strong driver – a desire to spend more time with my own (nearly) 87 year old mother.

Mum in kitchen

Mum back from hospital at her kitchen table

I increasingly felt as if I’d short changed my Mum in recent times.  During the Learning Pool years my Mum used to say to me that she’d seen me more frequently when I’d lived in London – even though my Derry office was only 10 or so miles from her home.  That’s one of the realities of building a successful startup I’m afraid.  The amount of time it consumes really takes its toll on your family.

Then on the morning of 13 May, just as I was about to walk into a board meeting on my last planned working day before the “big move”, I received a phone call to say that my Mum had had a fall in her home the night before, had been lying on the floor all night long & was just being taken by ambulance to Letterkenny hospital.  I spoke to my sister who jumped into her car & headed for Donegal.  As I made that call my stomach turned over and I felt the guilt that had been hovering somewhere in the back of my mind for the last 12 months or so land with a thud.

St Patrick

St Patrick

Fast forward a month.  Mum is out of hospital and I’m living with her in her house in Donegal.  I’ve been here since the day I stepped off the ferry in Belfast.  I spent a 2 week stretch here before back in 2013 when Mum was recovering from a hip replacement operation.  That was the longest period of time I’d spent with her since leaving home for university in summer 1977.  I don’t know if anyone else reading this blog has returned to live with an elderly parent.  I think it’s more usual for the parent to make the move – but my Mum doesn’t want to go anywhere else.  She’s happy here in her own home, with her dog and surrounded by all her own things and I can understand that.

To say it feels strange is an understatement.  I’ve swapped the life of a carefree flibbertigibbet and social butterfly – dipping in & out of stuff as I please – for someone who needs to be solid & reliable.  Someone who needs to be the same calm, patient, pleasant and well-organised person every day.

Every morning at breakfast I can clearly see my great-grandfather’s teacup in the display


Great grandfather’s teacup

cabinet – and he died in 1934.  I stumble across random things from my childhood several times a day – my plastic radio moneybox from the early 1960s stashed next to the weed killer in the garden shed, a dusty pink bonnet I can vaguely remember wearing for best as a 3 year old – now faded but still with its quality lining and fake fur trim intact.  People who were dead long before I was born stare back at me from frames on the walls.  I look for the family resemblances in their faces.


My moneybox from 1963

When I wake up in the morning, the first things I see include St Patrick in all his glory and then a photo of my Mum, my sister & I taken in November 1986, heading out for my Dad’s 60th birthday celebrations.  On that evening he had less than 18 months to live but none of us knew that at the time.

So what have I learned so far.  The time has been brief but the lessons are big ones.  I’ve learned that sometimes the things that seem important aren’t the things that are important.  I’ve learned to slow down – on any number of fronts.  I’m having to learn that patience is my friend.  Patience is something I’ve never had much of or thought I had much need of – urgency has always been my motto.  I’m learning not to over analyse and to take each day as it comes.  I’m learning to accept that someone else comes first and that their needs are far more important than mine.


My bonnet – still pretty

I’m learning to appreciate the little things – a story long forgotten suddenly retold, the fun of a fox coming down the hill and through the fence and so close to the kitchen window that we could see its whiskers, the daily magpie versus jackdaw battle over the breakfast leftovers, the relief of listening to someone you’re caring for getting a decent, unbroken night’s sleep, a brief walk along the shore with Mum’s dog, reading real books late at night (there’s no broadband here).  There’s a lot to be said for remaining in one place for a period of time.  I watch the ever changing views of Lough Foyle and the moving colours of the hillsides and the big Donegal sky through every window.  I inspect the strawberries, tomatoes, gooseberries and bilberries every day for progress.  I go to the back door in the evening & look at the glorious Donegal sunsets.  Everything has slowed right down to a snail’s pace.

It’s not all good.  The standard set of hospital tests conducted in the days following her fall identified the presence of a tumour in Mum’s right lung.  I will never forget the 20 minutes I spent with the kindly, nervous doctor as he explained the significance and likely consequences of that to me or the phone call afterwards with my sister from Letterkenny hospital car park.  I didn’t intend to tell her on the phone but I couldn’t help it.

I thought I was coming home to enjoy the company of a less independent parent who’d just given up driving so was more housebound than she likes to be.  To drop in a couple of times a day in passing for a cup of tea and a yarn.  To collect my Mum to nip to the shops in Derry or go out for lunch.

Turns out I was wrong.  My role instead is one I am sharing with my sister.  We are learning to be a perfect tag team.  Good cop and bad cop.  Happy and sad in equal measures.  Decision makers and gatekeepers.  Our shared role is that of final companions, comforters, amateur nurses, cooks and cleaners, encouragers, tea makers and entertainers of visitors, providers of conversation when there isn’t much going on.  We are the oil that keeps the various wheels turning as time slowly passes.  It’s a role that we, as many others before and after us, are embracing to the best of our ability – grateful to our spouses and families for their support, grateful to circumstances that mean we have the time and opportunity to be of service in this very special way, grateful to the Irish health service for everything it and its agents are doing for us, grateful that we have each other.

Selfie in hospital with Mum

Hospital selfie – Mum, Trish & me

It makes me sad when people say to us “Your mother has had a wonderful life”.  We have a saying here in Ireland – the longer you have them, the longer you want to keep them.  And that’s the place I’m inhabiting right now.  A place of transition that’s neither one thing or the other.  A place that isn’t quite real or of our usual world.

I have no knowledge of the road that lies ahead but I’m scared of it.  I’m scared that I won’t cope or won’t be good enough or strong enough.  I don’t want to let my mother down.  I don’t want to let my sister down.  Deep down I know we will manage.  We always do, don’t we?

If you’re still reading, be a bit kinder to those nearest to you today.  At the end of the day, all of that other stuff is of no consequence.  It’s people that really matter in this life.

Why did I write this blog?  Three main reasons – maybe some of you will have some words of wisdom for us, maybe it will help another person in some small way and lastly, it’s less painful than telling everyone I know individually on a one-to-one basis.  Thank you for reading.

Addendum – 26 August 2016

We lost Margaret last Friday morning, 19 August.  She passed away peacefully in Letterkenny Hospital on the morning of her 87th birthday.  Trish & I were both at her side.  She had a remarkable life full of adventures and laughs.  We had an incredible last summer with her in Donegal.  We went out most days for a drive and for lunch, entertained a lot of visitors and most of all we had a lot of fun.

We’re very fortunate to have been able to spend that precious time with Mum & it’s brought us closer together as sisters.

Thank you to everyone who’s read & commented on this blog & on my Twitter feed or on Patricia’s Facebook.  Thanks also to everyone who came to the wake & funeral & to the people who’ve kept us going since May with support & love.  We appreciate each and every one of you.

Last but not least, thanks to the nurses of Surgical 1 in Letterkenny.  Despite your resource shortages you never let that get in the way of your care for Margaret or the incredible kindness you extended to us.

What’s In A Day?


In just under 6 weeks time we move back home to Northern Ireland after spending the last 4 years slap bang in the centre of London.  I’m a little panicked by the thought of everything I still have to do in my remaining 42 days…or is it now 41…or maybe even 40.  The last time I glanced at the list in my book there are some 50 or so people I’m hoping to catch up with for a coffee before I go and I have another list on the go of places & restaurants I want to visit.  All of this got me thinking about how we choose to spend each of our days.  UK life expectancy is currently 81.5 years and that equates to just shy of 30,000 days on earth.  Seems like a lot doesn’t it?  Indeed, one of the most chilling questions I’ve heard posed recently was at TedXBrixton a couple of years back when Peter Cochrane, futurologist, asked the audience what quartile of their lives they considered themselves to be in.  (I’m hoping & praying I’m in my 3rd & not 4th).

So – how do you spend each of your days?  This is what I did with mine yesterday:

6.30-8.30am Woke up, listened to R4 Today programme (even though it makes me angry & I do sometimes end up shouting at the radio – any credible alternatives gratefully received) & read online – news, articles, email, Twitter.  My favourite piece on the radio yesterday was hearing John Caudwell (founder of Phones 4U & famous for being the UK’s biggest ever tax payer) preaching about tax avoidance in the midst of the #PanamaPapers row.  I don’t agree with John’s politics or his stance on Europe but I do believe that everyone should pay their fair taxes.

8.30am-midday I spent this time making a number of connections for entrepreneurs I’ve met with this week & last.  One of the most important parts of networking is not attending events & collecting business cards for yourself; it’s making useful connections for others & bringing people together for the greater good of the group.  All the best networkers I know – Oli Barrett, Marc Ventresca, Denise McQuaid, Tom Holmes, Sinead Crowley – all operate along the same lines – in order to get it back, first you have to give it away.  This month for me is all about blockchain (I’m looking at potential applications of blockchain for the wider public sector & have a few interesting meetings coming up so watch this space) and social prescribing so this morning I had a great Skype call with the guys at Bitnet Technologies in Belfast & another Skype call with a couple of Irish entrepreneurs who’ve got an interesting community driven social prescription model & solution.  I also answered a large number of emails – my least favourite part of yesterday – and I noticed that the UFI Trust have this week announced their VocLearnTech Fund 2016 so I had a quick Skype with Sarah Axon to find out a bit more about it before promoting it out to my networks.  It’s open until 12 May & you can find more info here if you’re interested in applying.

Midday-1.30 Time for a swim.  I try to swim a mile every day if I can.  I’m lucky in that there’s a 20m pool in the basement of the apartment block we’re renting in.  I treat it like meditation – no phones, no emails – just your own head & your own thoughts.


The 50m outdoor pool at Laugardalslaug in Reykjavik

It’s an incredible way to settle your head & solve problems or challenges you’re struggling with.  I had the pool to myself yesterday which is always a bonus.  I’m a slow swimmer but that’s ok.  When I started back in the pool on 29 December my time for a mile was 1 hour.  Yesterday it was 49 minutes.  I like visible improvement, even if it’s gradual.  My best swim this year so far was in the outdoor 50m pool at Laugardalslaug in Reykjavik.  It was January and in the middle of a fierce snowstorm – but the water in the pool is geothermally heated to the temperature of a warm bath and it was amazing to feel the icy snowflakes landing on your shoulders and back.  Swimming is a real pleasure these days as it was something that I had to give up when I was in a startup – I just couldn’t spare the time.

1.30-4pm Phone calls with associates, new people in my network, a couple of people that I’m working with, a chat with my Mum (very important to make that call every day), a nice call with the team from the Centre for Entrepreneurship at the University of Oxford that I’m hoping to work with this year.


Nice to run into my friend & fellow Northern Irish lass Maxine Mawhinney last night

I believe it’s important to chat with people on the phone or via Skype.  You don’t build meaningful relationships with anyone via email.  A couple of interesting emails dropped into my inbox yesterday afternoon – one unsolicited from a high end recruiter asking me if I’d like to apply to become a trustee of a charity that I’m already well known to.  It did make me wonder why they’re paying good money to recruiters to bring them people that they could just lift the phone & call but hey-ho.  That’s a discussion for another day.

4-6pm Wrote this blog, got ready for a dinner at the Irish Embassy & caught the bus down to Belgravia.  An evening in the Embassy is always one of my favourite nights out in London.

Liz welcoming

Liz Shanahan, IIBN Global Chair, welcoming last night’s dinner guests

I see lots of people that I already know but also meet interesting new people as there’s no shortage of them passing through our Embassy.  This is largely down to our Ambassador – Dan Mulhall – who is a remarkable mix of diplomat, historian and story teller & who along with his extremely interesting Australian wife Greta hosts the most welcoming & eclectic of gatherings.  Last night was no exception.  I sit on the London board of the Irish International Business Network and, like any organisation that cares about succession planning, we run a Future Leaders programme.  Last night’s dinner was to celebrate the success of our latest cohort and 4 of our young people stood up & shared their stories.

Tom Court

London Irish rugby player & former international, Ulster & Grand Slammer Tom Court, now an edtech entrepreneur

It was incredibly moving to listen to them – one is a rugby star turned tech entrepreneur, one is a former social innovator turned healthy food producer, one is a lawyer and one has left his City career behind & is starting a property portfolio – and we have 50 more like them.  As the Ambassador said at the end of the evening – “We can all relax – our future is in safe hands”.  The Irish diaspora is an amazing thing – I often wonder how people who aren’t Irish manage.

10.45 I left the Embassy with a head buzzing with ideas from the conversations I’d had, caught the bus home & went straight to bed, thanking my lucky stars that I’m part of such a wonderful set of networks.

I’m fortunate in that all my days are different from each other & these days I have a lot of freedom in how I choose to spend my time.  It’s a great gift, although there’s no doubt it took many years of hard work to unlock it.

Make each one of your days count.  None of us really know how many of them we have left…

How Networking & Collaboration can ease your Key Startup Challenges


L-R Mary McKenna, Clare McGee, Connor Doherty, Gemma Milne

This week I’ve spent a couple of days in Northern Ireland with Clare McGee of NORIBIC, Connor Doherty of CultureTech & Gemma Milne of Ogilvy Labs (@ClareNORIBIC @Culturetechfest @GKMilne1).  We’ve hosted a couple of events in Belfast & Derry & invited all our creative & digital industry colleagues to join us in order to discuss whether there’s any appetite in NI to create an industry led independent body to represent our sector & as part of that facilitate networking & collaboration.  The hashtag in case you want to look back at the Twitter conversation is #CACHE

In this blog I’m going to outline some ideas around how networking & collaboration can help especially digital & creative industry startups get around the key challenges identified in the recent Tech Nation 2016 report (collated & produced by Tech City & NESTA).  NI respondents identified 2 key and common challenges to scaling up their startups here in Northern Ireland & those are access to finance/investment and working within a limited talent pool (in my experience of growing a tech business in Northern Ireland, tech & sales people are especially difficult to recruit when you’re in startup mode).


Our Belfast guests at The MAC

Let’s start with networking.  I was quite pleased when I asked the room last night “who enjoys networking?” and quite a few hands went up.  Usually people pull faces & shuffle a bit when they think about entering a room full of 200 strangers & starting conversations with them.  Then again, we Northern Irish folk are famed for our friendliness.  The other common barrier is that startups think they are far too busy to network.  I know that because that’s how I used to think too when I was working 7 days a week early doors in my own startup.  But here’s the thing.  It’s nigh on impossible as a startup to persuade good people to leave their comfortable, steady, well-paid jobs & join you if they don’t know you and they’ve never heard of your company.  As for raising finance, don’t even bother trying to do this cold.  You are wasting your time.

Cache2As an aside, in the 2 weeks following the publication of this year’s Maserati 100 List in the Sunday Times newspaper last month, my inbox & LinkedIn quickly filled up with messages from entrepreneurs and startups cold pitching me.  After some consideration I’ve sent them back a version of the following note.  “If you don’t have enough of a network to get introduced to me, then I’m not going to read your cold pitch because you aren’t going to make it.  One of the key elements of startup success is an ability to nicely hustle”.  Harsh?  Maybe.  More about this later.


Derry guests in the Playhouse

Remember that all opportunities in business are attached to a person or people – and if you aren’t on that person or team’s radar, your chances of accessing or winning that opportunity are lessened.  Even in the strictest public sector procurement exercise you have a better chance of success if you are known to the procurer.

So – having accepted that networking is a good idea – how is it best to get started?  Here’s my quick primer:

  1. Think about who you already know, especially if you are raising early stage finance. Most of that comes from friends & family (& if you really want to finish the sentence – fools!).
  2. Join some networking organisations – formal & informal. There are loads & loads of these.  Ask around to find out which will be best for you.
  3. Use LinkedIn & Twitter effectively & if you don’t know how, then learn.
  4. Maybe consider joining an accelerator – access to networks is by far the greatest benefit. There are 3 in Belfast & a brand new one within the Northern Ireland Science Park in Derry called Growing Startups.  Hundreds more in London & many specialist ones emerging across Europe & the US that more & more Irish startups are accessing.
  5. Research industry notables local to you & work out how you can have a useful interaction with them. No stalking please.  Try & see what’s in it for them as well as you – not everyone in this life is pure & good although many are.
  6. Recruit already networked people into your small team. I’d take connections over experience any day of the week.  Remember the famous Sun Microsystems quote – “No matter who you are, most of the smartest people work for someone else” – let’s face it – especially true if you only have 3 people in your team!
  7. Build out your own personal brand. This will help your startup when it’s small.  You can figure out later on how to shift the spotlight away from yourself & that’s a nice problem to have.  There are loads of ways to do this.  Publishing content on your own blog or LinkedIn & accepting all public speaking opportunities are a good start.
  8. Simplest of all – do a bit of homework before you bowl up to conferences & events. Find out who else is going.  Contact people beforehand & arrange to meet for a focused chat about something mutually beneficial.  Ask one of the speakers if you can interview them for your blog.
  9. If you’re in NI or Ireland, don’t forget there’s another island next door & less than an hour on the plane that has 10x the population of the island of Ireland & it’s a lot less hassle to operate in than trying to do business in the US.

You all know the rules of networking but briefly:

Be brave and approach strangers – what’s the worst that can happen; be friendly and pleasant; have a 30 second elevator pitch and be ready to trot it out; related to the last point recognise the part played by serendipity & always be watchful for connection opportunities without being overly pushy, be ambitious in who you reach out to – especially online – hardly anyone ever says No (I can only think of one single person who’s refused to help me with something in the last 10 years – DM me if you want to know who it is!); remember this is a two-way street & karma plays a part – pay it forward & pay it back – no matter how little you have there’s always someone else who is worse off.

Onto collaboration.  This is nothing new.  Members of the City of London guilds have been collaborating for over a thousand years.  I found a great Bill Gates quote on this:

“Creativity is less of an individual characteristic than it is an emergent property that surfaces when people convene around a problem”.


Me with the totally bonkers Gibson Girls of Red Earth Designs – fresh, innovative, fun!

I love that.  Our events this week attracted film makers, artists, actors, publishers and journalists, software & game creators, photographers, ceramicists, artisan food producers, musicians, digital generalists, chocolate makers, people from the fashion industry, STEMettes, all sorts of fabulous creative & digital companies & entrepreneurs.  Jim Murray of Troll games summed up creative collaboration beautifully last night in Derry as he described people with different skill sets & end games working together in a shared space, brainstorming ideas & dipping in & out of different projects in different parts of the industry.  We’d simply like to facilitate this happening for our creatives & digital people on a much bigger scale.

Competition is old hat.  It makes me think of gung ho alpha salesmen in shiny suits driving Ford Mondeos.  Ugh.

Going back to a startup’s ability to recruit for a moment, by 2020 Millennials will make up 50% of the workforce & 88% of them say they prefer to work in a collaborative environment not a competitive one – and you have to make your workplaces Millennial friendly if you’re going to attract the best of the best.

Northern Ireland is populated by thousands of micro businesses.  Collaborating with each other helps you go further & bid bigger – if that’s what you want.  So – if you like the sound of this, complete the NORIBIC survey here and have your say.

We’re launching the Northern Ireland branch of London’s Irish International Business Network at the Digital DNA conference in Belfast on 7 & 8 June.  I’m going to be driving this in Northern Ireland when I return home mid May.  But the good news is you don’t have to wait until then to join IIBN, you can join now & get your international networking kicked off pronto.

Last word – if you’re cold pitching to the people who accept cold pitches, Gemma Milne’s excellent advice is to keep your cover note to the length of two tweets max, don’t include pitch decks and business plans, maybe include a really short explainer video, don’t send generic – think about how what you have is of interest to who you’re sending it to.  Oh & whatever you do, don’t send them to me😉

I’d love to know everyone’s thoughts around this topic so please do include them in the comments section.

An Evening with Willie Walsh

BA aviva

Willie Walsh’s photo of a BA plane skimming over the Aviva Stadium in Dublin during The Gathering

This week at London’s branch of IIBN we were lucky enough to have Willie Walsh, CEO of International Airline Group (parent company of British Airways) as our keynote speaker at one of our regular business networking events.  A New Year boost to start the business year and what an opportunity – to hear the great man address a 200 strong Irish business audience.  Some might say a tricky enough crowd!

There’s been plenty written about Willie Walsh in the 15 or so years since he was first appointed CEO of Ireland’s national airline Aer Lingus but on the night I was more interested in seeing what makes the man himself tick.  He didn’t disappoint.  Alongside business chat and the expected slides about performance of IAG he told plenty of personal stories (I won’t publish them here – you’ll just have to go & hear him speak yourself) that were amusing but also gave some insight into the man behind the headlines.


Willie Walsh keynoting at IIBN

The keynote covered IAG expansion (the usual big corporate stuff about world domination), a very useful explanation of how the fall in crude oil price hasn’t cut costs for European airlines due to adverse movements on the currency market (IAG still spends €1.6 billion on fuel per quarter), his work as Chairman of Ireland’s National Treasury Management Agency (it was particularly interesting to get insight straight from the horse’s mouth into some of the areas the Ireland Strategic Investment Fund is investing – domestic life sciences companies, several areas of new technology and also a housebuilding joint venture to address acute housing shortage in Ireland), Brexit (he’s against it, along with most other CEOs of large UK corporates) and Heathrow expansion (“I don’t believe this UK government will tackle the issue of airport expansion and this provides a great opportunity for Dublin”).

But what did I like the most.  First of all, Willie Walsh is a great live speaker.  He’s very natural, entertaining and articulate but there’s an underlying seriousness and real substance to his delivery.  I could have listened to him speak for much longer.  It’s the confidence that comes from having deep, deep knowledge of your subject matter; something you don’t see so much in business these days.  He reminded me of Michael Dell, another great business leader that I heard speak a number of times in 2015 – except that Willie is far more irreverent!  And he probably uses “richer” language than Michael Dell would ever do…but both of them have the gritty determination of people who’ve seen everything their chosen industry has to offer or throw, both command the respect of the entire room and both are and always have been hard working to the extreme – you can just tell that by listening to them.

Cool Beans

Cool Beans co-founders Isolde & Sarah with Willie Walsh

Before the keynote started, we had a 3 minute startup pitch as is usual at IIBN.  We like to give our newer entrepreneurs and future leaders a chance to have their voices heard and to expose them to potential investors, partners, customers.  This week it was the turn of Sarah O’Connor and Isolde Johnson, co-founders of the Cool Bean Company.  It was a great pitch and the girls rather cheekily finished up with a photograph of a British Airways plane (long haul flights & beans – I’m not too sure about that!) and a smile over to Willie.  Let’s face it – you’ve gotta pitch when you get the opportunity.  It was great to see Willie Walsh chatting with Sarah & Isolde afterwards and also that during his own keynote he commented what a good pitch they’d given.

A lot of what he said on the night was aimed at people new to business or young people starting out.  He said that he himself has never really applied for a job and told the story of how as a 17 year old at school in Dublin he casually went along to an open day at Aer Lingus and how that led to him becoming an apprentice pilot instead of going straight to university.  He said he’s shocked by how afraid people are of making mistakes and (rolling his eyes) recounted a few of his own.  The message was that if you don’t push yourself so hard that you make a few mistakes, you’ll never reach your potential as you won’t know where your boundaries lie.  Of course, as everyone knows, the cardinal sin is not learning from your mistakes or making the same mistake twice…and the Holy Grail is the knack of learning from other people’s mistakes, although I’ve yet to meet anyone who can do that successfully!

He also talked on the topic of finding a business personality that you own and are comfortable with.  Fortunately, we don’t have too many Michael O’Learys – although you have to admit that it’s worked for him.  Willie Walsh went back to himself as a 17 year old & said that of the panel that interviewed him on that day, three thought he was smart and self confident but the fourth person thought he was cocky.  I guess he had a bit of luck with him on the day that the balance didn’t go the other way – but the point he was making is that it’s a fine line and one that only the individual can find and get comfortable with themselves.

So – I’m a fan of Mr Willie Walsh.  I like people who care a lot about what they do, who work hard, who believe in their mission and have strong opinions.  I like people who are generous to others that are a bit behind where they are and I like people who are able to admit to and take responsibility for their mistakes.  I like people who dream big and aren’t afraid to go after the massive goals and targets that most people would run a mile from.  I like people who’ve come from humble beginnings but who through their own ability and hard graft are able to shimmy up the greasy career pole despite most of the odds being against them.  I like people who do public service and find the time to give something back.  I like people who take the unconventional road.  And the rest of the audience – they liked him too.  Most had seen him speak before and were very impressed that he used a completely different set of stories and jokes this time around.  I’m with them – there’s nothing worse than people who get up on stage and trot out the same tired old stuff over and over again.

Final word from me today.  Check out Cool Bean Company when you get a chance – we might only be half way through January but they’ve already announced a contract this year with all 135 Waitrose stores so I think we’re going to be seeing a lot more of Sarah and Isolde.

10 Reasons why DellWorld 2015 was Awesome!!

Dell senior team on stage during the press conference, answering questions from the audience

Dell senior team on stage during the press conference, answering questions from the audience

On the last morning of DellWorld 2015, Mona Charif, Dell’s VP of Marketing & Communications, asked me during the Influencers’ breakfast what was the one thing that had surprised me most over the course of my couple of days at DellWorld. It was such an easy question to answer. Without any hesitation I answered that it was the quality of the Dell team & the way that their CEO, Michael Dell, is adored by everyone inside & outside of their organisation.

All the other bloggers have written plenty about the technology they saw at DellWorld 2015 and the EMC deal so I’m going to take a slightly different tack & tell you instead my 10 reasons for why being there this year was so awesome:

  1. Meeting lots of other geeks (about 8,500 of them – but in friendly Austin, Texas (home of SXSW) instead of more impersonal Las Vegas which is where many of the other big US conferences take place). Austin is where the Dell mothership is based & it’s great to see the company putting so much back into the local economy.
    In a De Lorean on Back to the Future Day with a hover board - awesome!

    In a De Lorean on Back to the Future Day with a hover board – awesome!

    I also got to sit in & be photographed in a De Lorean car (made by an American in Belfast I might add!) on Back to the Future Day, with a hover board – how could anything be better than that! Awesome.

  2. Meeting Dell CEO Michael Dell, telling him a story & getting to take a selfie with him as a result. What was the story? It was the one about how my friend & former colleague Tim Ramsdale persuaded our mutual employer to buy a Dell server in London in 1989, which wasn’t as easy at the time as you might think.   What did Michael Dell say? – He said in that case you were one of my very first London customers… Sorta makes the rest of it worthwhile doesn’t it…Michael Dell doesn’t really do selfies but after that story it was quite easy – & who can blame him. In my humble opinion & as a person who has started a number of companies in my time I was humbled to meet a man who started his business at the age of 19 & who is still heading it up at 50 – and not just heading it up but is clearly everything from commander in chief to best joker on the block.
    Selfie with Dell CEO Michael Dell

    Selfie with Dell CEO Michael Dell

    Michael Dell is on message across all parts of his business, completely engaging whatever he’s discussing, confident in Dell’s future (just listen to him talk about why he bought Dell back out of public ownership in 2013) & making a massive statement of intent re Dell’s recent purchase of EMC;

  3. Finding out how many members of the Dell senior and middle management team are Irish – that made me very happy & indeed is awesome;
  4. Getting a glimpse early doors of some of the innovations that Dell has in the pipeline via the Whisper Suite demonstration – but sadly I’m under an NDA so I can’t say too much about that. Suffice to say that I loved what Dell is planning on Internet of Things…;
  5. Meeting Dell’s Entrepreneur in Residence, Elizabeth Gore, & finding out we have a lot in common – although Elizabeth is both far more glamorous & far more diplomatic than I am.
    Entrepreneur in Residence x 2

    Entrepreneur in Residence x 2

    We decided that both of us have a “licence to meddle” which is really quite nice. Here’s the link to Elizabeth’s Huffington Post piece about what an Entrepreneur in Residence actually is, in case you’re interested – and yes – she is awesome.  In a strange turn of fate I’m looking forward to meeting Elizabeth’s Dell predecessor Ingrid Vanderveldt at Digital Week Ireland in West Cork next week – it really is a small geek world.

  6. Being at Pitchslam & experiencing Michael Dell turning up last minute as one of the judging panel as a nice surprise for the 5 startup entrants. Honestly, it was lovely of him to do that but if I’d been pitching I’d have died – right there on the spot. Well done to the winners, Goal Control – proof that with a good pitch in the right place you can still win despite pitching soccer to an American audience & having the worst Twitter account on the planet. Must be some lessons in there for all of us;
  7. Observing Americans at play at the John Mayer concert & jamboree on Night 1 of the conference – that was so much fun.
    Cupcake lorry at the John Mayer concert

    Cupcake lorry at the John Mayer concert

    Thank goodness I ignored my long suffering mother in law & didn’t bother packing a dress… Last year’s entertainment was Duran Duran – I’m saying nothing.

  8. Getting up close & personal with the Dell team – universally & consistently fabulous & what a great way to showcase them – put them in front of 8,500 members of your community, customers & partners for 3 days. Here’s a pic of two of my favourites – Gloria Cedeno & Ana Coreas, both are from Panama & both work in the marketing & comms team at Dell, Ana in Austin & Gloria back in Panama as part of the LATAM team.

    Gloria & Ana

    Gloria & Ana

  9. Finding out about all the stuff that Dell does around the outside of core business – I signed up for the entrepreneurship, women in tech & edtech streams at DellWorld but when there I heard about so much more that the CEO & company does from Michael Dell’s work as the United Nation Foundation’s first Global Advocate for Entrepreneurship to the work being done with SMEs. Some of it could be called CSR but again there’s so much more. Also – I stayed in Austin for 3 days after DellWorld & everyone I talked to in town from taxi drivers to bar owners (you can immediately see how I roll!) was full of praise for their local big employer.
  10. Attending the Women in IT lunch with 240 other women and hearing from Carey Lohrenz about her experience as a woman in a traditionally male world – she’s a former fighter pilot in the US Navy.  It was really special to spend time with so many other women in IT & the air was buzzing with conversations, and quite a lot of whooping in response to some of Carey’s very amusing comments.  Check her out – she’s awesome.
  11. Receiving confirmation that all the customer facing things we ever did at Learning Pool in the early days were right – from holding an annual conference that was all about connecting customers & showcasing our own team to listening to Michael Dell ask a Pitchslam pitcher this week – But has this ever been done in another industry? & wanting to shout out from the front row – Yes – Learning Pool did that for the online learning space back in 2006…Reinforcement from an industry giant sure feels good! Ok – DellWorld 2015 had a few more delegates than Learning Pool Live but I’m still certain they copied a few of our ideas…

I’ve been a Dell customer for the last 26 years so I really enjoyed being at DellWorld 2015 & learning more about how Dell develops products and partnerships.  The 3 days were informative, interesting & fun.  If you get a chance to attend DellWorld 2016 my advice is Go – you won’t regret it.

Disclaimer: I attended DellWorld 2015 as a guest of Dell & Dell paid for my travel & accommodation.  All of the above views, however, are my own.