Month: September 2012

What makes us different?

Edge of CliffThe amazing photo on this week’s blog is of Norwegian extreme artist Eskil Ronningsbakken.  Why am I using it?  Because I heard a saying about startup entrepreneurs a couple of weeks back that I liked.  It was “if you’re not at the edge, you’re taking up too much room”.  Other sayings  I like on this topic are “If the wheels don’t come off, you’re not travelling fast enough” and also “If you can’t code and you can’t sell, get the f*** out of my way”.

I think a lot about why it is some people can cope with running small businesses and others can’t.  In my view it comes down to 3 things.

The first is a stronger ability than most people to be able to compartmentalise stuff.  What I mean by this is that you can carry on doing what you need to do at that point in time (be it get up on the podium and pitch to investors, focus on getting a tender response finished or complete a sales call) when something else distracting is going on – either in your business or in your personal life.  Being able to compartmentalise in this way also allows you to block out other bad stuff that you would otherwise worry about.  When bad things happen, as they do from time to time, I think about them and if there’s nothing I can do right this minute or today to address them, then I put them out of my mind until the time is right to deal with them.  I don’t lie awake at night worrying.  I put them out of my mind in a locked box that I open when the time is right.  If I couldn’t do that, I’d never get anything done.  I’d be paralysed with fear.

The second is resilience.  I’ve seen a couple of entrepreneur buddies in the last couple of weeks who have really been under the cosh recently.  If they weren’t so resilient they’d have given up, one in particular many times over.  What is resilience?  The official definition of resilience is an ability to bounce back into shape.  In a work setting it means being able to continue functioning & making sensible decisions in the face of adversity – which could be a one off event (like a disaster) or longer term (like always being tired from working long hours consistently).  Resilience is what you need when the 10th bank you’ve spoken to that week won’t lend you money & you don’t have enough to cover payroll right now, it’s the quality that makes you get up at 3am to go & catch a plane even though you only got home at 10pm last night, it’s what makes you sit down & start working on another response to tender when you’ve just had a rejection letter in from something you thought was a dead cert.  In summary, this is the quality that keeps you going & you either have it or you don’t – so be honest with yourself.

Last on my list is the big one.  I used to think the big one was resilience but I’ve changed my mind.  It’s also the one out of the 3 that I think you can learn or at least improve.  It’s the ability or willingness to make quick decisions.  I make a lot of decisions in my job. Some days it’s all I do.  But there’s more.  It’s the ability to make decisions when you have no or certainly less than perfect information and it’s the ability to make a decision and move on.  If everyone worked in an environment where they were encouraged or allowed to do this, the world would be a much better place.

I’m sure everyone has their own views about what should be in this top 3.  I look forward to your comments or questions as always.

10 quick questions to find out if you have what it takes to be a startup founder?

Today’s blog takes the form of a quiz to help you determine if you have the right qualities to be a startup founder or small business owner.  Not everyone does and this is a topic I’ve written about often in the past.  You all know the drill – it’s like one of those magazine quizzes everyone’s so fond of filling out in secret.  All I ask is that you’re at least honest with yourself…

1) You’ve been thinking about developing a new product and have done a couple of months market making.  You’re in a taxi between meetings in London when you receive a phone call from one of your spies who tells you a competitor is thinking along the same lines as you.  Do you:

a)      Phone the competitor and tell them to back off – it was your idea first

b)      Ring your bank, pitch your idea to your bank manager & see if he or she will lend you the money you need

c)       Scratch that idea and move onto the next one on your list – you have loads of ideas anyway

2) You badly need a Sales Exec to help your startup business cover more ground.  You engage a recruiter to help you find someone.  The next day you get a call from the recruiter – he’s decided he wants the job himself and he pitches to you on the phone.  You like the recruiter but he knows nothing about your sector.  Do you:

a)      Carry on with your original plan and interview according to the schedule – you’re sure to find someone with the right background and experience

b)      Decide to give the recruiter a chance – at least you know he will pitch and what’s the worst that can happen

c)       Look for a different recruitment firm that employs more professional recruiters

3) You’re at the airport when you run into a friend.  You’re chatting away when the person he’s at the airport to meet arrives.  Turns out he’s a visiting US venture capitalist.  You’re tentatively looking for investment.  Your friend introduces you and with no warning invites you to pitch to the American investor.  Do you:

a)      Give him your business card and say you’ll send him some information about your company and give him a call the next day

b)      Trot out your elevator pitch as confidently as you can whilst shaking a bit inside

c)       Make your excuses and get the hell out of there as fast as you can

4) It’s Christmas Eve and your business partner rings you to say he’s just had a call from the bank and they’ve turned you down for the loan you thought was a dead cert.  It’s the 4th bank you’ve talked to during December and they’ve all refused to lend you any money.  Do you:

a)      Do nothing – you’re sure it will all work out ok come the New Year

b)      Carry on with your shopping, take Christmas day off (it’s Christmas after all) but on Boxing Day, get on the phone with your business partner and start writing a new business plan for the next bank you’ll be calling

c)       Cancel Christmas and make your entire family miserable

5) You get evicted from your London “office” – ok it was an apartment and you’ve breached the terms of your lease by running a business out of it.  You have a small team and they need desks.  Do you:

a)      Call an estate agent and start looking for an office – they cost a fortune but hey – it’s one of the overheads of running a business right?

b)      Ring a friend whose office you were in the other day.  You noticed he had 3 desks but was only using one of them

c)       Have a little cry

6) You’re developing a product for market and badly need to generate some revenue to bolster up your pitiful cashflow.  The product’s only about 20% complete.  Do you:

a)      Phone around and see if anyone else you know wants to pitch in and share the risk/reward

b)      Call a few prospects and cut them a special deal for being an early adopter of your new product

c)       Stop development whilst you scrabble about to raise the cash to continue

7) You come out of a long day of meetings in London where your phone has been on silent.  You have 26 missed calls.  There’s been a serious security alert and all the London airports are closed.  You have an important meeting in Northern Ireland at 10am the next morning which you cannot miss.  Do you:

a)      Go and find a hotel before they’re all booked up.  You’ll get a plane ok in the morning with a bit of luck

b)      Run like billy-o to Euston and jump on the first train to Scotland.  You know you’ll get an overnight ferry and be able to persuade someone to pick you up at the port in the morning

c)       Call and cancel the meeting.  It’s perfectly reasonable to reschedule in the circumstances

8) You receive an abusive letter from a supplier who’s threatening you with legal action for non payment of an invoice.  You haven’t paid it because the work they did for you was woeful and you’ve explained that to them.  Do you:

a)      Ignore the letter and hope they’ll go away

b)      Call them and make a reasonable offer for the work they’ve done; if they won’t see reason put it out of your mind on the basis that most people who threaten you with legal action never actually follow through

c)       Panic and call your lawyer straight away

9) You go and pitch to a VC and they send you a term sheet which you believe doesn’t represent the true worth of your company.  Do you:

a)      Go back to them and do your best to negotiate a better deal

b)      Go back and pitch again, receive an improved term sheet and then turn that one down – you know your company is worth more and those guys are likely to put it down the toilet anyway

c)       Take it anyway.  You’re desperate for the cash and you’re unlikely to get a better offer

10) You’re 2 years into your startup and at last you can take a bit of money out and get away for a brief holiday.  On the day you pay yourself your Mum’s dog gets run over by the postman and needs an operation which just happens to cost the same as your holiday money.  Do you:

a)      Have the dog put down, tell your Mum there was nothing could be done for it and buy her a new (similar) dog for a fraction of the price of the operation

b)      Pay for the bloody dog – there has to be some karma in this world

c)       Jump on the plane as fast as you can leaving your Mum to sort out her dog

Ok – so by now you’ve guessed that these are all real life situations that happened in my startup in our first couple of years.  For every one of the 10 scenarios above, we or I did (b).  Be interested if you agree whether or not we made the right choices.  I hope you had fun reading this.  It gave me a good laugh writing it and brought back a lot of happy memories from our early days.

Interactive art doesn’t have to be 21st Century

Yesterday I joined one of the National Gallery’s tours.  The excellent Steven Barrett, one of the National Gallery’s lecturers, took us on a whistlestop tour of the gallery & showed us 5 significant paintings.  The one I’m going to focus on for the purpose of this blog is Holbein’s “The Ambassadors” painted in 1533 and depicting two French dignataries visiting the court of King Henry VIII.  My reason for choosing it is that the painting is one of the earliest examples of interactivity in art and because of that I find it incredibly interesting.

Hans Holbein’s The Ambassadors, National Gallery London

Placed in the bottom centre of the painting is a strangely distorted surreal looking object which is an anamorphic skull.  The artist has used perspective to carefully distort it so that you can only see it as a skull when you view it from the right hand side of the painting with your eyes about 1.5m from the floor – from that perspective the skull pops into view & the rest of the picture disappears.

We think Jean de Dinteville (he on the left in the furs) hung the painting on his staircase back in France and the skull would jump out to people descending the staircase when they reached that crucial point and give them a shock – reminding them of their own mortality.

So – this is an early example of interactivity in art.  The way the artist has created this piece requires the viewer to do something & shift position to a different stance in order to fully experience the painting, to see worldliness disappear & the memento mori spring out.

Interesting eh?  I like also the contrast between the forensic detail of the rest of the painting and the distortion of the skull at the bottom.  Don’t miss the strangely angled crucifix in the top left corner.

Loads more written about this painting online including a couple of the National Gallery’s videos on youtube that explain the geekiness behind how the artist did the distortion accurately with the instruments he had available to him at the time.  The National Gallery is free to visit and a wonderful national resource.  I’m sure many of you pass it all the time, rushing to & from other places.  You really should take 15 minutes out & go and look at something beautiful or thought provoking.

For those that are interested, the other 4 paintings we saw were:

Paolo Uccello “Battle of San Romano” – an early attempt to create an illusion of 3D space

Carlo Crivelli “The Annunciation with Saint Emidius” – another early example of improved perspective in Medieval art

Joseph Wright “An Experiment on a Bird in an Air Pump”

Vincent’s “Sunflowers” – beautiful now but so controversial when it was painted.

I enjoyed the complete immersion in the hour long tour and listened to every word that Steven said.  It was possible to do this despite the crowds on a busy Saturday.  Thoroughly recommend it.

Pure Irish Gold…London 2012 Paralympics Celebration

Last night I was lucky enough to be at the newly opened & absolutely elegant St Pancras Hotel to celebrate the achievements of our 49 Irish Paralympians.  Here’s the entire team – looking good.

Paralympics Ireland Team 2012

For a tiny little (bankrupt) country on the periphery of Europe our athletes seem to have done overwhelmingly well in the London 2012 Games (8 gold medals, 3 silver & 5 bronze) over the past couple of weeks.

I apologise right here & right now for being biased towards my own tiny corner of the island of Ireland but 5 of those 8 golds are from 3 Northern Irish athletes including our local Eglinton man Jason Smyth.  Here I am snapped with Jason and his two (very heavy) gold medals at last night’s party.

Jason Smyth with me


I think he couldn’t believe it when I mentioned to him about us being based in Clarendon Street in Derry.  I also told Jason about being in the Olympic Park last Saturday, watching him pick up his gold on the big screen as the Irish anthem blasted out in the evening sun & about how proud I was.  I didn’t tell him about hiding my eyes from the friends I was with so that they wouldn’t see my tears.


Great to see everyone plus their families and friends enjoying themselves last night; having a few drinks & dancing the night away.  It was also interesting to hear from Paralympics Ireland CEO Liam Harbinson about how sponsorship for the team had increased from a single sponsor in Beijing four years ago to 18 sponsors for London 2012.

The Irish dancers take the stage


Chatting to a few people over the course of the evening the Irish team are already thinking about Rio in four years time and as so many of them are very young indeed, we should be well placed to pick up more than our fair share of medals.

My sister Trish chatted to one of the coaches as we were leaving the party.  He had been coaching 10 athletes for London 2012 & all of his team had attained new personal best times in London.  He told Trish that was his equivalent of a gold – 100% success with his team.

Jason Smyth and Patricia McVeigh


Here’s Trish with Jason too.


Cherry on the top news at the party was that Michael McKillop (also from Northern Ireland) is to be the recipient of the prestigious Whang Youn Dai Achievement Award as the male athlete who best exemplified the spirit of the Paralympics at the Games in London.  McKillop was selected because of the work he does with schoolchildren in Ireland.  Two great guys, room mates & friends as well.  Lovely to see them both last night being so gracious and generous to all the people who wanted photographs with them & to have a bit of chat & craic & to examine their gold medals etc.

Gathering watches celebrity accordionist


Thanks Team Ireland for making us all so proud and for coming out for fun with us last night despite the fact that all of you must be exhausted after a month away from home and thanks to everyone who organised such a fabulous party (but especially Andy Rogers & Cat Casey).  Final special mention for Cat for being able to get up & do a bit of Irish dancing – no mean feat in the stratospheric heels she was wearing!

Rio – Bring It On.

10 things crowdfunding investors want most from digital media investments

Tim Brundle presenting at Culturetech

There was a lot to like about last week’s CultureTECH festival held in Learning Pool’s hometown of Derry.  So typical of Derry that our city’s event managed to combine both culture + technology.  Many attendees agreed it was the culture element that elevated the festival way above the millions of other web summits that every man, woman & dog hosts.  A lovely taster of some of the magic we expect to see for 12 months during 2013 when Derry becomes the first ever UK City of Culture.

I enjoyed listening to many of the speakers on Friday (especially Andrew Dubber (who advised us to invent the future rather than trying to predict it), Fiona McAnena, Sir Nicholas Kenyon and of course lovely Ben Hammersley) but the speaker who gave me the most insight into one of the topics I’m most interested in was Tim Brundle.  Tim is Director of Innovation at the University of Ulster where over the past few years he’s made investments of between £5k & £328m in over 60 tech companies & seen returns on investment of 0.8x to 42x.  I suppose what I’m trying to say is that he knows what he’s talking about.

It’s a well known fact that everyone suddenly wants to be in digital.  According to this presentation, by the end of 2011 87% of the top 100 VC firms had digital media funds or portfolio investments.

For the purpose of this blog I’m going to share with you the 10 things Tim believes people investing through crowdfunding schemes are looking for in digital media investments.  While Tim was talking I thought about our own company and how attractive we would have been starting out if we’d been scored against these criteria.

  1. Business Model is first up and most important – people want to believe that they’re going to get money back.  Giving thought to your business model & revisiting it from time to time is something every business should do & I’ve written on this topic before.  For new businesses and teams seeking investment it’s incredibly important to spend time getting it right as a small change in your business model can make big differences in the shape of and priorities within your eventual company.
  2. Location – most people seeking a project to invest in via crowdfunding look for something that’s local to them.  With the internet I’m not sure why that would be.  Even if you’re close by you won’t be able to influence what they do – but I guess it’s something to do with local knowledge & familiarity.
  3. What Tim calls True Grit in a team.  I heard him say a few times during the course of the day that early start up success does not necessarily guarantee success in subsequent ventures and because of this crowd fund investors want to try out with newbies.
  4. Goes without saying investors look for a Smart Idea.
  5. More interesting is that they look for an idea that will generate a Big Splash.  This means something that people think can be rolled out quickly, catch on fast & generate rapid user adoption.
  6. Investors look for a product that is Beautiful – doesn’t everyone?
  7. Kentucky Windage – a term which originated in rifle shooting & is about compensating for your shot when using a hinky shotgun by trying to second guess where the bullet is going to go.  In this instance it’s about how people try to second guess what the route to market of a new product is going to be.
  8. Personalisation – people base attractiveness of the investment around what the product or idea means to them, how it appeals to them & how they imagine use of it would enrichen their lives.
  9. The product itself is quite low down in the list of considerations but crowd funding investors are interested in whether or not it appears to be Authentic and Real.
  10. The last one I like.  Does the idea or product have a Future & Enduring appeal.  Tim told us the well known story about Zhou Enlai’s take when asked about outcomes of the French Revolution 200 years earlier – of course he believed it was “too soon to tell”. 

I’ll leave you with this pic of Tim & me taken on Friday night after a fabulous day at CultureTECH.  We’re very lucky to have someone like this in and around the Northern Ireland investment scene and so accessible to companies starting out.  I know Tim has been a great help to many fledgling startup tech businesses and like me, he love, love, loves to see teams pitching.

I’ll finish by expressing my thanks to Mark Nagurski and the entire Digital Derry Action Team for giving us such a great event last week and for sealing the exciting twinning deal with London’s Tech City.