Month: November 2011

London Calling


I’m getting ready to move to London in the New Year.  There, I’ve said it.  Learning Pool started life in London in a rented loft in Crawford’s Passage in Farringdon before shifting our HQ back to Derry.  We used to call our London base Crawford’s Pass amongst ourselves because it made it sound more Irish.  In our early days we were paranoid about customers knowing we were a Northern Ireland company in case it was a barrier to us doing business.  As the last 5 years have progressed, we became less coy about our origins as we cemented our customer relationships although we hung onto our London phone number.  These days, our customers love the fact that we’re an Irish company and some of them have even been to visit us at our office in Derry.  Others have even been brave enough to join our team.

Our fabulous Head of Content, Deborah Limb, joined us from another more famous e-learning company.  Deborah had never been to Northern Ireland before her first day at Learning Pool.  She arrived at our office on a cold, wet, Monday morning in November 2007, clutching the remnants of a sopping wet map in her hand.  She still claims she never saw daylight during that first winter.

Now it’s my turn to go back the other way and it’s a bittersweet feeling that I have.  I lived in London for 17 years before moving home to County Tyrone at the start of the new millennium.  I left the pushiness of the city behind & moved right into the middle of rural Ulster.  I’ll never forget waking up that first morning & hearing no sounds.  Nothing at all.  I remember the relief I felt & ever since that day, I’ve half felt as though I’m on holiday – a sort of working holiday where you work harder than you’ve ever worked before but your colleagues & neighbours are so friendly that it somehow compensates you.

I quickly learned to be less brusque & more chatty in my interactions.  More talk about the weather & people you know & less focus on the agenda is the Northern Irish way.  Gradually the sharp edges from all those years spent living in the city were worn down a little.  Of course I’ve been back in London pretty much every week since 2000 – sometimes twice a week – but always as a visitor, staying in a hotel room, running for a plane home as soon as the meetings are finished.  I’m wondering how I’ll slot back into the hurly-burly of London life after the deep, deep peace of country living (quoted with a nod to Mrs Patrick Campbell).

So why am I as a person and why are we as a business doing this?  I guess we’re fed up with fighting for what’s right (that it should be just as easy to do business from Northern Ireland as it is from any part of the UK or indeed Europe) & accepting what’s reality.  Like it or not, London is indeed where UK government’s beating heart lies.  It’s also where a large number of our customers, a huge number of potential customers and some of the people we’d like to work more closely with are based.  On top of that, our Northern Ireland location is stifling Learning Pool’s growth as there just aren’t the skills here that we need to recruit in to grow our business.  We’ve raised this point many times with Invest Northern Ireland.  We’re further hampered by having an ornament of an airport 5 miles from us in Derry that we never use as the flight times aren’t conducive to being anywhere on time to do business – and the government agencies and politicians seem more interested in in-fighting & scoring points off each other than looking outwards & making Northern Ireland an easier place from which to operate internationally.  In summary, we’ve concluded we’re missing out on opportunities and holding ourselves back by not having a London presence.  And I think that’s a very sad state of affairs.  Learning Pool was recently confirmed by Deloitte to be Northern Ireland’s fastest growing tech company & the 6th fastest growing on the island of Ireland, but we have to look to London in order to continue our expansion.

Of course there’s plenty of upside.  I’m looking forward to being back in the heart of the capital for a six month period and I’m intending throwing myself into the whole London work/social scene and spending plenty of time with friends & colleagues, old & new.  I’m looking for somewhere to base Learning Pool London right now so watch this space & all will be revealed.

I know this is an emotive topic, especially for other Northern Ireland businesses – so I’m looking forward to your views & a lively discussion in the comments below.  Keep ‘em coming!


Forget Fight Club, what are the rules of Start-Up Club?


We all know the first rule of Fight Club – (shhh – don’t mention it) – but what are the rules of Start-Up Club?  These are the 10 Rules I’d suggest to someone starting out with a new business:

Rule 1 – Just Do It – the time will never be right & there’s no point in procrastinating, obsessing over the fine detail (you’ll find out soon enough you can’t control things anyway) or delaying.  Grasp the nettle & get going.  Entrepreneurs have many sayings but one that I like a lot is “Leap and a net will form”.  Well – it either does or it doesn’t but there’s only one way to find out.

Rule 2 – seek out a great name and then get a great strapline.  It might not be the one you start out with but keep looking.  All our companies (so far) have had great names including my very first company which was called Kicking Assets.  Keep thinking – it doesn’t cost you anything to think but this is stuff that makes a high impact.

Rule 3 – network like mad both online & in real life.  Not to the exclusion of all else of course but do work at it.  I’ve written a previous blog about networking which you can read here

Rule 4 – be well informed, there’s no excuse these days not to be – we have the internet!  Join the appropriate groups (online & real life, like Northern Ireland’s Digital Circle) & talk/listen to other entrepreneurs.  You have to work at this too.

Rule 5 – ask for help if you need it.  Most people are generous with their time & advice and everyone wants you to be a success.  When people help you out, be gracious & don’t abuse their good nature.

Rule 6 – look for innovation in your product or service, your product delivery channel and also your business model.  Innovation in your business model can be a real differentiator.  Again – this doesn’t cost you anything, you just need to think about it.

Rule 7 – don’t go it alone.  Find a business partner or a couple of non execs or perhaps seek out a mentor or join a collaborative network.  Starting a business is too hard for a person to do by themselves and a problem shared is a problem halved.  I have another blog about this specifically which you can read here if you want to know more

Rule 8 – get good advice.  Shop around for an understanding bank (we quickly moved away from our first bank when they wouldn’t support our growth strategy & these days bank with the fabulous Northern Bank) and once you find them, have an open and honest relationship with your bank manager.  Talk to other entrepreneurs and start-ups about the accountants and legal firms they use.  Look for modern professional advisers that understand online businesses and who use technology and social networking themselves.  Cut a good deal by promising them they’ll get a decent payback when you exit.  Agree all your fees up front.  Never get any of these guys out of the Yellow Pages or equivalent.

Rule 9 – work hard and always be open and alert to opportunity.  Usually it doesn’t come up & slap you in the face – you need to be watching out for it.  I’m afraid working hard has to be a given.  Without doing it you will fail and anyone that tells you anything different than that is a liar.

Rule 10 – have some fun.  Running your own business or working in a start-up is the most fun you will ever have at work.  Sure it’s hard work & the lows can be pretty awful – but the highs are AMAZING & you get to hang out with some great people in your own team.

Send me your own tips in the comments below – I can’t wait to read them.