Author: mmarymckenna

I'm a technology entrepreneur & these days angel investor. I co-founded wildly successful online learning company Learning Pool in 2006 on the back of a long local government career and a spell as a Silicon Valley dotcommer. I exited the company in May 2014 in order to get back into startup land. I'm interested in helping start & grow indigenous Irish & British tech companies and especially in working with young and female entrepreneurs. I'm one of Said Business School's (University of Oxford) Resident Experts, an Entrepreneur in Residence at Catalyst Inc (formerly the Northern Ireland Science Park) and a trustee of CAST (the Centre for Acceleration of Social Technology). I love the arts and have been a non executive director on the board of Derry’s Millennium Forum & Theatre for over 10 years. I'm also a trustee of the London based charities vInspired and the Social Care Institute for Excellence (SCIE). I sit on the London board of the Irish International Business Network and I'm proud to be a member of the Global Irish Network. In the 2014 New Year’s Honours I was awarded the MBE by HM the Queen for services to digital technology, innovation and learning - which you have to admit is pretty darned cool. Right now I'm interested in talking to people about non exec positions in tech startups or scaleups and I'm happy to speak at relevant events or write articles for publication on any of my specialist topics - how to build a kick ass network, how to scale your startup, how to build a digital business, how to build a company with a great culture ... I blog mainly about startup business and being an entrepreneur but also other things that I encounter in my travels that interest me. I've sat at Buzz Aldrin's feet & listened to his stories, I've disco danced with Leonard Cohen at Coachella and I've joined Robert Plant in singing gospel songs with Wanda Jackson at Pappy & Harriet's in the Californian desert. You can follow me on Twitter at @mmarymckenna

My top 10 takeaways (& one regret) from #Fintech20Ireland

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(L-R) Thomas Olszewski of Frontline Ventures, Mary McKenna, Pete Townsend of Norio Ventures, Alan Costello of NDRC

On Thursday I was delighted to participate in #Fintech20Ireland at UCD as a speaker/panel member.  The audience was a mix of experienced fintech and blockchain professionals working across the financial and insurance services spectrum in Ireland and beyond.  Some were startup founders, some were thinking about starting companies, some were well established and experienced practitioners.  Others were financiers, investors & sponsors.  Thank you to Simon Cocking, John Armstrong and the rest of the Irish Tech News team for running the event and for inviting me to speak.

I talked (honestly) about my own experience of angel investing from the angel investor perspective & I also covered the right & wrong ways to go about “bagging” an angel like me from a founder or startup perspective.  I do this talk because I see so many founding teams getting this so wrong.  I’ve written my tips on “How to Catch an Angel” up recently as a blog here.

We’re living in a time when there are so many events happening that it’s more important than ever to make sure that events you run or attend generate value for you so I thought it would be a good exercise for me to summarise the value I derived from participating & being at #Fintech20Ireland.

These were my key takeaways from the day:

  • Networking – this is always going to be top of my list because I believe that having the right network is the solution to most challenges encountered in business. #Fintech20Ireland allowed me to catch up with people I already knew, meet some new people and meet in real life a few people I’ve known for a while online.  If a few quality additions to your existing network is the only benefit you derive from attending a conference or event then in my view that probably justifies the time you’ve spent.
  • Following on from the previous point, I got offered some work by someone in the audience who’d been looking for specialist e-learning expertise – pure happenstance that I’d mentioned my own e-learning background briefly in my intro.  Serendipity is always nice.
  • I got to meet some other early stage investors that I didn’t already know. As I always say angel investing is a team sport so it’s good for me to meet other investors & hear what they’re interested in and more to the point what they’re investing their time and money in.  It’s good for me but it’s also good for my portfolio companies as investment is usually an ongoing process so it’s useful to be on the radar of a lot of different people.
  • Meeting & hearing from the numerous innovative Irish companies who are transforming financial services and who were present on the day. Giles O’Neill from Enterprise Ireland reminded us early in the day exactly what Ireland has going for it in the fintech space – an existing ecosystem, multinationals & startups working side by side, good & improving international links (I noticed 10 new US routes announced by Aer Lingus yesterday & don’t forget you clear US immigration before you even leave Irish soil), coverage of global fintech hot spots by the EI in-country teams, previous huge international success of some Irish fintech companies.  Giles didn’t make this next point but I will.  Brexit clearly offers huge opportunity for Ireland in terms of fintech and indeed financial services.
  • I met Barbara Diehl, Director of UCD Innovation Academy. Barbara used to work at Said Business School Oxford & I’m a member of SBS’s network of experts.  Colleagues at SBS had made an email intro for us some months back but we’d never actually met.  Barbara was also moderating an innovation panel on the day so I got to see her at work before we had our chat.  It’s always useful to see if there’s anyone else from your wider network you can meet who works in the venue where the event you’re attending is taking place – especially if it’s a large university or corporate or government building.
  • My favourite quote of the day came from Charles Dowd, CEO of money messaging app Plynk. The “tips for startups” panel members were asked what success looks like.  Always a great question to ask a startup.  Charles replied “Success equals doing what you love – but with metrics”.  I love it.
  • There was an incredible Gartner quote mentioned on the day. 30% of university accreditation will be done via blockchain by 2020.  It seems a little ambitious to me – not because of any blockchain technology limitations but because of the glacial speed that universities move at.  This merits more investigation so watch this space for a future blog on this topic as it’s one that interests me.
  • I heard some fabulous stories on the day – both from the public stage and a few more scandalous ones that were whispered quietly in the breaks. Stories are the other part of what makes the world go round.
  • I enjoyed the variety of the panel debates but especially the discussions about how to find & retain the right people for your team as you scale (there was a side discussion about ageism in the workplace and the massive missed opportunity this results in. See Greg Canty’s blog on this here if you’re interested in diversity in the workplace).
  • It was very useful to be reminded that most money can be made in fintech by focusing on the boring stuff – regulation, GDPR – and that early money in blockchain will be made addressing points in the ecosystem where trust is costly. I guess that’s why I’ll never be rich.  I can’t bring myself to work on boring stuff but I can see how it’s an opportunity.

My one regret of the day is that I missed Thomas Power‘s future trends talk in the afternoon but it was great to see Thomas in Dublin.

I’ll leave you today with a question one of the delegates asked me in the morning coffee break. I have £10k set aside for a new kitchen…should I spend the money on a new kitchen or invest it in a startup? I’ll leave you to decide what my answer was.

“Business is about people; network every day of your life & learn how to hustle, not hassle”

That was my key message on Saturday at the 2nd annual Ada’s List conference in London.  It was also Ada’s List’s 4th birthday.  If you haven’t come across it yet Ada’s List is a global & supportive community of women in tech.  Currently membership is highest in London (2,800 members) and New York City (500) but there are pockets all over the world & all of them are growing.  If you’re a woman in tech I urge you to sign up & get involved.  The community is run by a group of volunteers and is seeking additional people to volunteer around content creation and community management and like all not for profit groups any financial donations would always be most appreciated.

Girl gang

My own girl gang representing the 4 proud provinces of Ireland – Sinead Crowley, Mary McKenna, Mary Carty, Denise McQuaid (L-R)

I’ve been a member of Ada’s List since the start but this was my first experience of real life engagement with the community & it was such a positive and joyful day.  It was also an honour and a privilege to be selected to present a short talk to the conference.  My talk was “How to Catch an Angel” – but more about that later in this blog.

The day was an upbeat mix of talks, workshops, sharing of personal stories and networking.  I was there with my own “girl gang” – Sinead Crowley, Denise McQuaid & Mary Carty – and we had a great day – listening & chatting (& laughing) in equal measures.

Highlights for me were the two keynotes that bookended the day – Shefali Roy’s about her own career & personal choices and Debbie Wosskow’s about the things in life that she considers important and what drives her.  A couple of nuggets to pass on from Shefali are how despite being a true high flier she’s never worked a weekend in her life.

Shefali Roy

Shefali Roy addressing the Ada’s List Conference

Speaking as someone who pretty much works every day I found that astounding and it’s really made me think about how I spend my own time.  She also (hilariously I have to say) conducts an annual cull of her network – online & offline.  Again – something I would never do.  Mine just continues to grow with new additions falling into the many concentric circles of closeness to me.  I’m too scared that one day one of those “weak ties” out in the outer limits of my Saturn’s rings might be THE ONE.  Debbie talked about the 3 Gs she relies upon to keep the wheels on as she powers through life at a terrifying pace and indeed what she looks for in the teams she invests in – graft, grace & grit, and an extra one for good measure – her girl gang.  Every woman in tech or woman in business needs one of those!  Her principles are pretty self explanatory but they can also be interpreted as hard work (I’ve written & talked about this a lot – there’s really no escape from this as an entrepreneur & anyone who tells you anything different is quite simply a liar), being nice (again, karma is something I refer to a lot & it’s unbelievable how far just being nice to other people will take you) and grit or resilience – the quality that makes you keep going no matter what.  If you don’t have grit you’ll never make it as an entrepreneur so be brutally honest with yourself.

The other speakers were great too & covered topics like how to keep your high performance culture when you’re scaling up (trust me this one is easier said than done!), using VR to improve behaviour towards women in the workplace and an interesting talk on how technology is & isn’t fuelling growing intolerance in society – very relevant with hate crime in London up by 29% in the last year & no that isn’t a typo.  Sadly I missed the workshops because I was conducting a couple of confidential entrepreneur 1-2-1 sessions but reports about them were glowing.  So – definitely one for your diaries next year & please do engage with the Ada’s List community in the meantime.

Mary as accountant

Yeah I used to be an accountant; anyone can change career if they want to badly enough

Anyway – on to my own talk.  Instead of a personal story I elected to give a brief 15 minute primer on how to practically go about finding suitable angel investors to bring into your fledgling business.  I chose this topic because as a female angel investor I’m often at the receiving end of startups and entrepreneurs who are getting this wrong and that can lead to a lot of frustration and bad feeling on both sides.  Before I start a quick proviso – this is a blog around my own personal experience…other angel investors may well behave differently.  Really the title of this blog tells you all you need to know about this dark art in a nutshell and it’s important when you’re seeking investment to keep in mind that angel investment is usually a team sport.  I’ve angel invested in 6 early stage tech businesses and only once have I gone in solo, with the other 5 I’ve either brought in other investor friends of mine or they’ve brought me along.

What I look for

So, in a startup I look for a female on the founding team, a product or service I can imagine using myself, usually something I can add considerable value to by either introductions to my network or by merit of my own experience, an element of tech for good (or else there’s no point IMHO), authentic & honest founders, deep domain knowledge & understanding of the challenges they are solving and awareness of competitors & where they are in their development, the tech in house or if very early stage an ability to bring the tech in house, honesty about traction, founding team resilient & able to pivot and a founder who can front the business without being arrogant & smartass.  Finally I need to like them.  I assume we’ll be working together for 3-5 years, maybe longer, and life’s too short to do that with people you don’t like.

Stuff that makes me run for the hills

A know-all founder who is uncoachable, unrealistic valuation, founder not authentic or a feeling that they are dishonest, discovery that the founder has more than one focus (in a band, would rather be deep sea diving, is unrealistic about the amount of work that’s going to be required), a founder who a few months into our relationship shows they are unable to respond to change or pressure, a founder who is anxious, needy, deluded, arrogant, ego-driven, greedy, selfish, brattish, indecisive…there’s probably more.  Top of the list is that the idea is simply a bad idea.  There are loads of those about!

What startups/entrepreneurs should do and shouldn’t do when “shopping” for angels

Do your homework and have a strategy.  I’m always amazed when strangers pitch to me without knowing anything about me.  Why bother?  Are they just hoping I will let them practice their pitch?  Check out who is actively investing & who’s interested in your space.  Most important is to get warm intros to the people you want to talk to and that requires that you spend a lot of time building out your network.

Elemental story

I never get tired of sharing the Elemental story

Don’t settle for people who behave like assholes.  Respect yourself & your business idea & keep looking for more suitable investors.  I promise you that anyone who behaves badly pre investment will be much more badly behaved when they’re one of your shareholders.  Don’t send pitch decks by Twitter DM to people you’ve never even met.  Don’t send pitch decks cold by email or via LinkedIn.  Learn how to hustle nicely.  You must have a warm intro.

Of my 6 investments, two I’d already known the founder for years, one I had a year long mentoring relationship with one of the founders before investing, one I saw at a pitching event but I spent a year getting to know her before I invested, two came through my network.

What I’d like to see more & less of

I’d like to see less badly researched ideas or solutions for non existent problems and less “me too” companies.  I’d like to see more startups with customers & revenue, more real innovation around new tech, more stuff for women that isn’t health/beauty/fashion/lifestyle, more startups tackling big social challenges.

I mentioned in my talk that one of my investee companies, the female founded social prescribing leaders Elemental Software, raised £300k this summer in only 43 days from first pitch to money in the bank – you can read the story of how they did that here.

I hope this blog is useful for anyone considering accessing angel investment.  It’s very much about people & chemistry & personal preference – we aren’t VCs and many of us are motivated by more than money – so keep that in mind when you’re doing that homework I mentioned earlier.  Final word – you can find out more about Ada’s List and join here.  I look forward to your feedback/comments.

Startup CEO – a perfect job for the jack-of-all-trades who’s also able to focus

This interview of me by my friend Barry Adams (@badams) appeared in the December 2016 issue of the NI Digital Expert interview on the Polemic blog.  I realise it’s a bit weird to feature it on my own blog but I know a lot of my readers are thinking about a change of career or thinking about starting a business & I thought it might be a useful long read; especially for anyone who is perhaps having doubts and needs reassurance from another person about how they’ve done these things without the world subsequently ending.

Barry Adams

Barry Adams in his usual mega cheerful & positive mode

If you don’t know Barry already then I recommend you check him out.  He’s a Dutchman living in Northern Ireland who is well known for his digital expertise and strong opinions that he isn’t afraid to voice.  Barry’s been building and ranking websites since 1998 and he’s the most awesome SEO expert I know. As the founder of Polemic Digital he delivers world-class digital strategy services to clients worldwide and you can find out more about Polemic’s services here.

Here’s Barry’s interview with me – if you have any other questions you’d like to ask me about my career journey or about my own experiences founding & growing a tech startup then just post them up in the comments section & I’ll answer them if I can:

Tell us about yourself and your journey into digital: how did you discover tech and become so involved in it?

Like many people I didn’t have a traditional route into digital. I suppose my first “tech” job was working as part of the then very small British Telecom Mobile Communications team within BT back in 1987 where I was the proud owner of one of the first car phones (the battery filled the entire boot of the car and pretty much every phone conversation I had started with “You’ll never guess where I’m ringing you from…”). That team eventually went on to become Cellnet and then O2 of course.

After that I spent the next 12 years in London, clambering my way up the greasy corporate career pole & by the year 2000 I was a reasonably successful Finance Director. By the age of 39 I had itchy feet so when the headhunter called, I was more than ready to leave the safe, comfortable job that I could do in my sleep to move to Belfast to join a high tech startup which was a spin-out from Queens University Belfast. That company was Amphion Semiconductor and we created semiconductor IP – the code that makes chips in just about everything work. At the time Amphion’s engineering team was immersed in the JPEG & MPEG technology around enabling text & photo messaging on mobile phones for a Japanese client. We used to chuckle daily in our Belfast office at the idea that anyone would ever use their phones to send photos to their friends. 3 weeks after joining I found myself catapulted into the heart of Silicon Valley and all the madness of the Valley in the early 2000s. The learning curve (both about what we did & what my part in that was) was nearly vertical but luckily I learned quickly and I was bitten by the technology bug.

I guess my point here is that you don’t have to be a coder to work in the tech industry. Understanding the value and business benefits of tech and being able to explain that to others is a very useful skill to have.

Bryan Keating was Amphion’s chairman and I was very lucky to spend the best part of 3 years learning a lot from him. He’s one of Northern Ireland’s most inspirational and wise business leaders and of course he’s Learning Pool’s chairman today.

You’ve got a degree in Business Economics, which doesn’t have much to do with technology. If you could go back, would you choose to study the same at university, pick a different topic, or skip university altogether?

I like the quote from Alexander Graham Bell that goes “When one door closes another opens; but we often look so long and so regretfully upon the closed door that we do not see the one which has opened for us.” 

Because I’m an open door looker the past isn’t somewhere I visit too often so this question has really made me think. I’ve sometimes joked that if I had my time over again, I’d be a tax accountant and by this point would be a long time retired.

I believe that nothing you ever learn is wasted. I temped for 2 years in my mid 20s and did some terrible jobs (complaints desk for a large US oil company, processing industrial injury claims for a trade union) but it’s remarkable how many times I use something I learned back then today. University at best formalised my natural curiosity tendencies and it set me on the path for lifelong learning.

When I was 17 I turned down a place at the London School of Economics choosing instead to study at a regional university in NW England. I was the first person in my family to attend university and the day I went to the LSE for my interview was the first time I’d ever been to London. At 17 I couldn’t figure out how to move to and get established in London and there was no-one who could help me so I chose the easier option. If I’m honest, I partied more at university than I attended lectures and that is something that I did used to regret when I was starting out in the world of work at the age of 21 with a 3rdclass degree. These days I can see that all those parties I went to was the start of collecting people and building my network and in truth, my network is what’s been useful to me over the years. I’ve only ever applied for a job formally once in my life. As everybody knows, everything in life and business is about people.

In the course of what I do today I encounter a large number of young people who skipped university choosing instead to go straight into a startup. They’ve missed university and the solid foundation that goes along with working for a few years in a more traditional organisation. They’re now onto failing startup No 3 and at the age of 22 or 23 find themselves more or less unemployable and their lack of a wider education is very evident when they get up to speak. I’m generalising of course but for most people university gets you off to a good start if you use your time there wisely. I didn’t but university opened my eyes to a lot of possibilities.

With the benefit of hindsight I guess the right thing to have done would be to have been braver and take the place at the LSE but it’s too tricky to call. I’ve always loved those time travel sci-fi stories where someone goes back in time and changes one tiny event and this leads to far flung never imagined consequences. I’m pretty happy with my life and my career so far so I suppose I wouldn’t change a thing.

My advice to young people starting out today though is pay attention to the changes in work that are coming fast down the pipe and choose something that’s going to be useful in the new world of work. If you do decide to go to university and can afford it, choose a course that encourages problem solving and fosters a questioning outlook. It’s about more than just getting a degree. Keep your options open. A lot of today’s steady and well paid jobs will be gone sooner than we think. I saw a recent statistic that said 65% of children starting primary school now will leave school to do jobs that don’t even exist today. I’m not sure if I believe that (it could be 90%!) but there’s no doubt that the world is changing fast.

You’re most well-known in Northern Ireland as the co-founder of Learning Pool and a startup investor and mentor. What are some of the most valuable lessons you learned from your Learning Pool experience?

This is something that I’ve thought about a lot and written about from time to time on my blog. It’s hard to distill it down into something that’s easy to read so I’m going to focus on what I believe are my own key learnings.

My first point isn’t really a lesson. It’s more of a statement of fact and it’s about the importance and value of prior experience. Learning Pool was the 5th startup I’d been part of. The first 2 startups I worked in were founded by other people and both were successful in their own way. Both were acquired by much bigger fish, one after I’d left and one when I was working there as CFO. The next two were businesses that I started. The first was a business turnaround service and the second was a boutique management consultancy business, Agility Consulting, with Paul McElvaney who went on to be my Learning Pool co-founder. I made plenty of money in both of those companies but they were lifestyle businesses and not in any way scaleable. Paul & I used to talk a lot in 2005 & 2006 about generating revenue in a business while you sleep and Learning Pool was our solution.  Having plenty and varied prior experience makes it so much easier because a startup CEO needs to know quite a lot on a wide number of topics in order to scale a business fast. It’s a perfect occupation for a jack-of-all-trades who’s also able to focus! My advice is that it’s a lot cheaper to acquire that knowledge and experience on someone else’s time and money so if you want to start a business, go and work in a few startups first. A number of our early days Learning Pool employees eventually left us to start up on their own & I was always happy to see people do that. It’s how the ecosystem works. As long as you’ve had decent value from them in the time they’ve been with you wish them luck & let them go in a positive way and with good grace.

I was 47 with a solid background in finance, four startups behind me and a wide network when we started Learning Pool. You’ll find that successful startups with young or inexperienced entrepreneurs as founders usually have someone like me lurking very close by in the background.

We bought Learning Pool as a failing business. It started life as an expensive project carried out badly by one of my government clients when I was running my business turnaround service. A lot of people obsess about having an idea but really that isn’t important at all. It’s never about the idea. It’s always about having a clear plan and you and your team’s ability to execute against it. It’s also about being able to recognise an opportunity when it presents itself – the best opportunities don’t usually carry a big sign saying “Back Me!”.

My next point is the biggest lesson I learned. I completely underestimated the incredible

Trish & me

My sister Trish & me at Buckingham Palace

toll that starting and growing a successful business takes upon the founder or founding team and their close family, especially in those first 3 years you are trading. For the founder there’s a mental, physical and probably spiritual toll to pay that’s very real and shouldn’t be underestimated.

It’s all encompassing. Once you’ve thrown the dice & got started there’s no easy or good way to turn back. That pressure lasts until you are stable and profitable and the company has moved through all those early pivots and found its purpose. It will take much longer than you think it will. I’m lucky to have a very supportive other half and I have to mention my sister here too. She did a lot of heavy lifting for me in the early days when I was working 7 days a week. My mum used to say that in the first 2 years of Learning Pool she saw less of me than she’d done when I lived in London – and Learning Pool was 10 miles away from her home in Donegal.

I had a conversation with one of my mentees about this very thing the other day. She asked me if it was normal to be thinking about her startup when she takes her teenager to his sports matches on a Saturday. I just laughed and said – Oh yeah – that’s completely normal. That facade of going through the social motions on the outside whilst on the inside you’re planning your next marketing campaign or going through your sales pipeline.

I know in my heart I was a nicer person on 1 August 2006 when we started Learning Pool than I was 7 years later when I decided to exit. In the 3 years that have passed since then I’ve worked hard to repair a lot of that damage and I’m a happier person today as a result.

My last key set of lessons is around building your team. Building a team and creating the right sort of culture for your organisation is the hardest bit about starting any business and it’s one of the most important jobs of the startup CEO; it should never be abdicated to someone else. I’ve interviewed thousands of people and I can still get appointments wrong because recruitment is a dark art. Be clear at the outset what sort of company culture you are going to create and as founders really live that yourselves and show a good example.

In the early days it’s easiest to go fast with people you already know and have worked with before. As your company grows and that intense startup pressure lessens, seek to diversify your team as that will take you further.

When recruiting, satisfy yourself in the first 5 minutes that the candidate really wants to work in your organisation for the right reasons and has a clear view of where and how they can add value. Reject all show-offs, clowns and mavericks, no matter how interesting or compelling they seem. Believe me – all they will bring to you is a huge time sink and disharmony in your team. Occasionally take a flyer on a wildcard. My best recruits over the years have always been those people that I’ve been a little uncertain about but have taken a chance with.

Having said all of that there’s no getting away from the fact that it’s incredibly difficult to recruit decent tech talent into a small business or startup and this was something we really struggled with in the early days.

As well as all the negatives I’ve mentioned there are lots and lots of positive takeaways too. Building a startup allows you to understand the limits of what is possible for you and it was a pleasant surprise for me to discover I am far more resilient and was able to achieve more than I thought I was capable of beforehand. For some people pushing yourself to the absolute limit is a challenge but I enjoyed it in some weird sort of way. Providing 80 other people with a challenging and satisfying career is very personally rewarding and at the end of the day, being master of your own destiny is very liberating after years of working for other people.

I could talk on this topic all day but I’ll finish by saying surround yourself with people who are better than you; learn from them and listen to their advice. Have a co-founder. If you’re serious about scaling there’s far too much for one person to do. Keep your ego in check, be nice and pay it forward whenever you can – karma is an amazing thing and people will do a lot for someone that they genuinely like.

Do you feel Northern Ireland has the right environment for technology startups? What can we do better here to encourage technology entrepreneurship?

If you want to start a tech business in a place where free money is easily and readily available and where an established friendly and helpful tech community already exists then Northern Ireland offers a great environment. There’s a lot of help available to get you started; maybe too much and that leads to a large number of unsuitable people having a go – although perhaps that’s okay too in the overall scheme of things. A quick fix would be to restructure the grants available away from startups and more towards scale-ups. The best startups of course don’t wait for grants…instead they get to revenue at lightning speed.

I think plenty of encouragement exists and I salute the work done by Young Enterprise NI, Catalyst Inc (especially through Generation Innovation and Springboard) and Invest NI (especially through supporting initiatives like Propel & Start Planet NI run by the amazing Diane Roberts).

Northern Ireland is still very Belfast-centric however and let’s face it, Belfast is still a long way (geographically and metaphorically) from the Bay Area, London or even Dublin. It’s hard to start a tech startup in a quiet backwater. I know that because Learning Pool was started in Derry; far away from our early customer base and impossible to recruit any job-ready talent. So it’s possible to do, but it’s much harder. You weigh up the pros & cons and you make your choice.

Northern Ireland is a long way behind our nearest neighbour in terms of the effort put into nurturing startups but the Republic of Ireland faces the same challenges of being Dublin or Cork-centric (try starting a tech business in rural Donegal and see what help you’ll get!) and they’re finding it tricky to scale the majority of their High Potential Start Ups beyond the magic 1m euro turnover figure.

I suppose nowhere is ideal outside of the top 3 tech startup ecosystems (IMHO Silicon Valley, London & Tel Aviv dependent on what you’re doing) for all the reasons we all know but Northern Ireland is as good a place as any to get started – just as long as the founder appreciates that the day will come a couple of years down the line when he or she is more than likely going to have to relocate to get the next growth phase moving.

It’s so important that we focus on the generations following us and from an education perspective Northern Ireland could be so much better than it is. Our schools and colleges continue to churn out young people better suited to a world that’s gone or fast disappearing and our Administration seems to be woefully incapable of turning this situation around quickly enough.

As an investor and mentor you see a lot of new startup ideas. Is there any new startup here in NI that really excites you at the moment?

I was lucky to be matched in 2016 as a mentor for new startup Elemental Software through Propel. Started by co-founders Leeann Monk-Ozgul & Jennifer Neff (both from Derry), Elemental provides an innovative digital signposting tool to make it easy for GPs and other healthcare professionals to implement social prescribing. I liked the founding team and product so much that I angel invested & joined the Elemental team as a NED in January 2017.

Tell us a bit about your hobbies outside of work; what do you enjoy in your life outside of the office?

Ha! I’m a great believer in the theory that if you love what you do you’ll never work another day in your life. My work hasn’t felt like work for the past 20 years. I’m a trustee of several charities and one of those is the Millennium Forum theatre in Derry. That’s been a great source of enjoyment to me over the years. I swim a mile most days. Swimming is like meditation and it’s impossible to make phone calls from the pool. I read a lot and I’m interested in art. I’d like to write a book. I’m toying with the idea of another startup.

It’s maybe a bit corny to say this but I’ve been happy recently to spend a bit of time travelling and hanging out with my husband, making up for lost time.

I still go to a lot of parties! These days I go home a bit earlier…

Lastly, give us one website or app that you feel is vastly underrated and deserves a wider audience

Rather than a website or an app I’d like to recommend to any UK readers with an interest in charity or not for profits an incredibly useful community that I’m involved with. It’s the Centre for Acceleration of Social Technology (CAST). CAST is running the UK’s first charity accelerator (called FUSE) & also the CAST Fellowship for charity CEOs & leaders. An invaluable set of resources exists within CAST for any charities, social enterprises or not for profits who want to get more comfortable with digital and understand better what it can do for them.

If you’ve enjoyed reading this blog & are based in or around Limerick, I’m going to be joining Pat Carroll of Startup Grind Limerick for a fireside chat on the evening of 25 May 2017.  More details here & hope to see you there!

 

A short blog about swimming…and nakedness…in Iceland

We’ve just returned from our third trip to Iceland.  Tourism in Iceland, as everyone knows, has been booming ever since the volcano Eyjafjallajökull erupted in 2010 with spectacular effect & people all over the world realised there was an unspoilt land of fire & ice that they could visit relatively easily.

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Now that’s what I call an ash cloud – photo credit Martin Reitze

In 2016, American tourists exceeded the Icelandic population of 340,000 people for the first time & 2 million tourists per annum are forecast to visit by 2020.

Just about everyone is interested when you mention that you’ve visited Iceland but, as a swimmer, one of the most frequent topics I am quizzed on is – “What’s the story around using public swimming pools in Reykjavik?  I hear you have to take a naked shower in public?…” and this seems to be putting a lot of people off.

This blog is an attempt to reassure those shy and nervous swimmers.

My pool of choice in Reykjavik is Laugardalslaug.  There are a number to choose from including Vesturbaejarlaug which can be reached on foot from all the city centre hotels.  I love Laugardalslaug because it has a giant 50m outdoor pool where the water is geothermally heated – and that means you can swim outside even if it’s snowing or blowing a gale.

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The 50m pool in the foreground & children’s freeform pool behind

I swam there during a snowstorm in January 2016 and it’s been one of my enduring memories ever since – I often find myself thinking about it.  Also – if like me you’re used to swimming in a 20 or 25 metre long indoor or basement pool, it’s hard to imagine how different a 50m outdoor pool will feel.  But different it is.

The other point to mention is that as well as being comfortably and naturally warm, the water is far purer than we pool swimmers are used to and is only lightly chlorinated.  This is possible because the water is carefully and frequently monitored for bacteria but also because care is taken to make sure that everyone is properly clean before they get into the pool.

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Helpful diagram showing you where to wash!

So – don’t turn up with your costume on under your clothes because you have to strip off in the changing rooms & get showered with soap before putting your swimming costume off.  This process is supervised – not intrusively – but it’s someone’s job to watch from the background to make sure the rules are followed.

Briefly – these are the rules.  You turn up & pay your entrance fee.  We travel light so we also rent towels from the front desk. You’re given a rubber wristband that allows you through the entrance gate & also locks & unlocks the locker you select in the changing room.  There are completely separate male & female changing rooms.  Take your shoes or boots off outside the changing rooms in the corridor – there are racks or lockers to leave them on.  Inside the changing rooms, choose a locker, strip off & dump your stuff, grab your costume, head for the showers and give yourself a wash.  The showers have a rack outside for you to leave your towel or costume.  Put your costume on and run to the pool – literally if it’s snowing outside!

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Steam rising from the tubs

Everyone in Iceland has been doing this since they were tiny tots so the displays of nakedness are very matter of fact.  In the changing room you will see every shape & size of (in my case) woman and every age from toddlers to elderly women.  I noticed this week that they’ve cracked under tourist pressure & put in a few private shower cubicles – so if you’re very self conscious, use one of those.  Whichever you do, I promise no-one will give you a second glance.

Back to Laugardalslaug – as well as the 50m pool there’s a huge indoor pool (25m lanes), a big outdoor freeform pool with a slide for children, a range of cold & hot tubs (a cold seawater tub at 8ºC & then a series of more traditional hot tubs at varying temperatures going from 28ºC up to either 44ºC or 46ºC) and a couple of steam rooms (one appears to be for naked people only but I didn’t dare look in there). laugardalslaug-aerial We spent well over 2 hours there last week and it was very relaxing.  We took the No 14 public bus from the harbour & it costs 440kr (about £3) per person per journey.  The entrance cost for 2 adults including towel rental was about £20.

The Blue Lagoon is worth going to once in your life just to see it if you’ve never been.  It’ll cost you about £50 per person for entry and you must book well in advance as they’ve started doing timed entries to prevent overcrowding.bl  The water really is blue.  We went January 2016.  It’s a good thing to do on your way home if you have a late flight – the bus company will break your journey to the airport so that you can visit.  It isn’t suitable for swimming and is a bit of a mish mash of loved up couples in face masks standing about having cocktails and gangs of teenagers squealing and taking group selfies.  I found it busy, overcrowded and I felt as if we’d been well & truly processed.  If you’re a foodie, a London chef friend of mine says he had one of the best meals of his life in Lava restaurant at the Blue Lagoon.

For Reykjavik I have a couple of other recommendations.  We stayed four nights in the Icelandair Marina Hotel, up on the 4th floor with a balcony overlooking the working harbour and with views across the bay.  Comfortable and quirky with a friendly and helpful team and something for everyone in the hot & cold choices on the breakfast buffet.  We had a very tasty dinner one night in a small, not fancy, family owned place in the harbour called Sjavarbarinn.  Main courses of the freshest possible fish with soup, an unlimited salad bar and a beer came to £70 for two in a town where a burger will cost you the guts of £30.

If you’re thinking about visiting Iceland in the summer you might like my blog about our summer road trip experience here.

Back to public nakedness, my worst ever experience of this was in 1986 in a hotel in Chengdu in southern China. Hot water for a shower was available in a communal bathing room from 6-7pm only.  I opened the door and was faced with 10 bathtubs crammed up against each other in a small room – each one with a shower overhead.  All but one were already occupied so there was nothing for it but to strip off & get into the shower.  The 9 other girls all silently stared straight at me for the briefest period of time that I was in there.  Now that was embarrassing.

I hope you try the pools when you’re in Iceland.  As my friend Ann Kempster remarked on Twitter last night – it’s only a very tiny spell of nakedness for a lot of reward.

3 days in Dubai – jumping in at my new startup’s deep end!

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Day 1 on the stand, Leeann Monk-Ozgul, Mary McKenna, Jennifer Neff, Dr Ola Aldafrawy of Dubai Health Authority, Alastair Hamilton CEO Invest NI, Swathi Sri Invest NI

I announced a week ago today that I’ve begun the New Year with a bang by formally joining Northern Irish tech for good startup, Elemental Software.  I say “formally” because I’ve been the company’s mentor for the last 10 months via Northern Ireland’s excellent Propel programme.  For anyone else who’s old enough to remember the 1970s it’s been a bit like that old Remington ad with the smooth as silk American entrepreneur Victor Kiam… Joking aside I can thoroughly recommend working in a company as the best possible way to conduct due diligence prior to investment and would be interested to hear from any other angels who’ve done the same.

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The three of us at one of the parties – oops – I mean networking events

Elemental’s co-founders are Leeann Monk-Ozgul & Jennifer Neff & believe it or not they met through their mutual love of diagrams…which in my book is as good a way as any to identify a business partner. Both women have a strong track record in designing and managing community programmes and both have worked for many years in the tricky interface that exists between the private, public and third sectors. Even better, Jennifer and Leeann are both from Derry and it makes me very happy to continue supporting economic growth in the North West of Ireland by backing another local company that is without doubt destined for huge global success.  Indeed, the golden thread that links the three of us is no other than Sir Ken Robinson – yes – he of “schools kill creativity” TED fame.  Jennifer, Leeann and I were all at Sir Ken’s March 2011 talk in Derry but we didn’t know each other at the time.

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Sir Ken Robinson in Derry with his mug on a mug

They saw me taking photos and wondered who I was and they loved his talk so much that they eventually based their company name on Sir Ken’s book “The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything” – far more sensible than what I did as a result of meeting him which was put his face on a mug (or should I say a cult collectible!).

Elemental provides an early to market digital solution that eases and addresses an escalating set of health related social challenges. Social prescribing is described as a way of linking patients in primary care with sources of support within the community. It’s as simple as that and it gives, for example, GPs a non-medical referral option that will run alongside existing treatments to improve a patient’s health and well-being.

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Jennifer, Leeann & I with Ambassador Pat Hennessy, Irish Ambassador to UAE

This past week Jennifer, Leeann & I have been exhibiting at Arab Health in the World Trade Centre in Dubai.  Thank you to all those people who opened their black books for me and made introductions before our trip out there.  It was my first time visiting the Middle East on business and there was an awful lot to take in in a very short space of time.  Dubai itself is easily accessible from Ireland with 30 direct flights a week from Dublin and only a 4 hour time difference.  The city has the feel of a pioneer town and I can see why so many Irish and British people (young and old) are out there seeking their fortunes.

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Jennifer and Leeann presenting to Nicola Blackwood MP at our stand

Arab Health in itself was an experience and a half.  Vast doesn’t come close with 40 country pavilions and 20,000 visitors a day.  We were lucky in so many ways.  We’d been selected to participate in the Invest Northern Ireland stand and as one of our co-founders, Jennifer Neff, has already been working with potential UAE clients for a couple of years she was able to line up days and days worth of useful meetings in advance.  We weren’t so lucky on the accommodation front.  Booking.com let us down badly by cancelling our booking on the day of our arrival in Dubai and it was incredibly difficult to find somewhere to stay at such short notice.  However, in the spirit of making lemonade from lemons we embraced the opportunity to stay for a few days in a more authentic part of the old town and see some sights we’d have otherwise missed.

Elemental is about to roll out the first social prescribing programme in the United Arab Emirates region, connecting key stakeholders in diabetes prevention and supporting patients most at risk to make better lifestyle choices, enhancing their quality of life and reducing demand on health services.

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Three of us with Dr Mohammad

Being at Arab Health was an amazing chance for me as an investor and part time resource to meet some of our contacts face to face and to hear from them first hand how they love the simplicity of our platform and how they intend to use it.

We were also lucky to be selected as one of the UK companies that MP and Minister for Public Health and Innovation, Nicola Blackwood, requested to meet with when she was at Arab Health earlier this week. It was wonderful to have the opportunity to explain how our social prescribing platform will help improve people’s lives to someone who feels as passionately about social justice as Nicola does.

Around the edges of the conference we networked with our Irish business community friends and colleagues, attending a number of events including that hosted by His Excellency Ambassador Pat Hennessy, Irish Ambassador to UAE (and at which Irish Minister for Employment and Small Business Pat Breen TD and Dr Mohammad Abdulqader Al Redha of Dubai Health Authority spoke so well).

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With Minister Pat Breen TD at the Enterprise Ireland networking event

Dr Mohammad is an alumni of the Royal College of Surgeons Ireland and having spent 8 years in Dublin is truly an honorary Irishman.  It was great to also squeeze in an early morning healthcare focused business breakfast with the Dubai Irish Business Network, to manage to see our good friend Eithne Treanor a number of times over the course of a few days and to meet our friend Barry Lee Cummings who works with his Northern Irish counterpart Wayne Denner on a worthy mission to help young people better manage their online reputations and combat cyberbullying.

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With Irish powerhouse Eithne Treanor at the Dubai IBN breakfast – if you only knew one person in Dubai but it was Eithne you’d be ok!

They say a week is a long time in politics but I can confirm it’s also a long time in a busy startup.  For anyone out there who’s seeking their own angel and wondering why I picked Elemental from all the hundreds of approaches I get these are the reasons I’d have given you if you’d asked me last Friday – awesome female founding team, growing social prescribing market, powerful product that’s also simple to use and understand and the fact that it’s tech for good.  A week later I would add – co-founders that are both great on their feet, deep customer and sector knowledge and a level of commitment and hard work I’ve never seen in another startup.  Keep your fingers crossed for us and watch our progress.  Life in a startup is never easy – even when everyone’s on message, working their butts off and the planets all seem to be aligned. Comments welcome as always.

Interested in learning more about the benefits of social prescribing? Read Dr Marcello Bertotti’s expert opinion piece here

Elemental participated during 2016 in the Propel programme funded by Invest Northern Ireland and driven by the magnificent Diane Roberts. Any startups wishing to join a current and excellent accelerator in Belfast should consider Diane’s new venture, Start Planet NI

Interested in having a conversation with Elemental Software, contact us via Jennifer at jennifer@elementalsoftware.co

A Personal Tale of Two Years

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Mum, Trish and me at Buckingham Palace 4 March 2014

I really enjoyed scanning the New Years Honours list this morning.  I know quite a few of the people who’ve received a “gong” this year & it also allowed me to bask for a little while in the memories of my own special day at Buckingham Palace – 4 March 2014.  I still remember the thrill of the hundreds of Twitter messages that came through when the list was published on 30 December 2013.  I was walking through Lowe’s DIY store in Palm Springs & just happened to glance at my phone.  I had to go to a café & sit down & start writing notes back to all the people sending their congratulations.  It was such a good feeling and it continued on well into the New Year as people I hadn’t seen since as far back as university days tracked me down & sent a note.  My husband put all the “official” congratulations letters into a file – he’s very organised like that!

You’re permitted to bring 3 guests to the Palace with you and my guests were my mum, my sister & my husband – the three long standing pillars of my life.  We had a great day.  My mum & sister came over from Ireland the day before & the four of us went out for a lovely meal on the Southbank that evening.  The next morning we all got dressed up, jumped in a black cab and went out to enjoy ourselves.  The day was bright and cold but not raining.  It was the first time any of us had been in Buckingham Palace so we were very excited.  I was a bit nervous.

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Mum with my MBE medal; larking about as usual!

You don’t actually know who will be presenting you with your medal until you arrive on the day.  Mine was presented by Prince William, the Duke of Cambridge.  I was very pleased about that.  Afterwards we had our official photos taken and then went to the Savoy for afternoon tea.  Later that evening my sister & I went shopping together in the West End – a rare treat.  A perfect day.

2014 was a real red letter year for me.  I received my MBE (it’s for services to digital technology, innovation and learning in case you’re interested) in March, sold my half of Learning Pool in May, got married in Scotland in July, had a wonderful honeymoon in Croatia & Venice in September/October.  In December, Mum & I had a little 4 day holiday in Rome & I even arranged for us to see the Pope as that’s what she wanted.  I can’t think of another year when so many significant & good things happened to me.  In addition I was working for the first half of the year on the Task Squad project for vInspired with Sam Sparrow.  My first experience of working in a charity and one that was both challenging and rewarding – plus working with Sam was brilliant fun.

Fast forward to 2016.  As I write this short blog on the last day of the year I’ve been reflecting on what a dark and difficult year it’s been for my sister Patricia & me.  I moved back to Ireland in May.  My plan was to spend more time with Mum.  Having been fiercely independent for the almost 30 years since my father passed away we’d started to notice she needed a bit more support, even if she didn’t always welcome it!  Sadly it was not to be.  5 days after I arrived back in Ireland Mum was diagnosed with lung cancer.  We took her home from hospital and I moved into her house to care for her.  The 3 of us had almost 3 months together; an idyllic June & July of Donegal drives and lunches out, sunrise and sunset gazing, moments of humour and moments of sadness.  Some days it was like time itself had been suspended.  There’s a longer blog about our summer together here. Margaret passed away peacefully on the morning of her 87th birthday, 19 August 2016.  Her own particular circle of life tidily closed.

So what have I learned?

kurt-vonnegutFamily is more important than anything else in life.  I overheard a man in a café in Glasgow on Thursday telling someone he no longer speaks to his eldest daughter and I was heartbroken for them.  The New Year is a great time to build bridges and it’s never too late to put things right.

Time is your most precious asset so use it wisely and spend it with the people you love and doing the stuff you enjoy.

You are stronger and more resilient than you think you are.  When something big that you have to do presents itself, you will find the strength within to face it.

The friends who matter are there in the bad years as well as the good ones and you don’t even have to ask them – they just do what’s needed of them.

I’m so lucky to have my sister.

Appreciate everything you have and everything you experience.

I’m looking forward to 2017 but I won’t forget the lessons I’ve learned in 2016.

Well done to all those who’ve received an honour this New Year with two special Northern Ireland shoutouts.  First big congrats to Sandra Biddle who’s one of my fellow trustees at the Millennium Forum in Derry.  Sandra is an inspiration to everyone who’s lucky enough to know her and a great woman to have with you in your corner, fighting the good fight.  Second is my old boss Professor John McCanny who’s received a Knighthood.  Amazing & well deserved and thanks both of you for all the good work you do.

Mentoring one-to-ones up for grabs at #NDW16 in Skibbereen

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Anyone who knows me will know that the Kevin Spacey quote above is one of my favourites and I use it (overuse it?) often.  All the best people I can think of are those who extend a helping hand.  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 – 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.

When I lived in London the last time around, I used to run what I called Entrepreneur Friday every 2 or 3 weeks in my Southbank “office” – a booth in Le Pain Quotidien beside the Royal Festival Hall.  I found it an easy and convenient way to see the startup entrepreneurs and wannapreneurs that contact me to ask for a bit of help or guidance.  Also it was a good way to spend a bit of focused time with some of the startup entrepreneurs already in my network – the ones who would sidle up to me at a busy evening event and start talking to me about some incredibly important or private aspect of their business.  In the 3 1/2 years I lived on London’s Southbank I probably met with over a hundred early stage founders in this way and together we addressed some of their challenges.  Without giving too many secrets away, here are just a few of the topics we covered together:

  • Do you think this idea has legs?
  • How can I get my team to be more productive?
  • How can I reach out to a certain person & attract them onto my Board?
  • Will you help me revisit and improve my business model?
  • I’m not an accountant but I want to produce better cash flow forecasts (we did that one with large sheets of paper for starters; sometimes old school is best)
  • I am making a mess of recruitment; how can I get better outcomes?
  • Will you go through this investment offer with me and tell me honestly what you think?
  • Can my small company enter the government market without spending a fortune on consultancy fees?
  • I want to buy my partner out; where and how should I start?

It works best when the founder or entrepreneur comes along with a specific challenge or ask and we work through that together and maybe reach a conclusion or way forward.  Often the person knows the answer themselves and just needs validation or someone else to run it past in confidence or look at it with a fresh pair of eyes and add some finesse.

Without a co-founder, life as a startup CEO can be a very lonely place.

I’ve carried on doing a bit of this since I moved back to Ireland and I’m going to offer 10 x 30 minute slots to any entrepreneurs or people thinking about starting a new business attending National Digital Week in Skibbereen between 10 & 12 November.  You can find out more details about the event and get tickets here

I was lucky enough to be at last year’s NDW and carried out a very informal version of this exercise which resulted in some rather interesting conversations – so I’m hoping for the same or even better this year.  Conference attendees – the gauntlet has been thrown down…

Here’s the deal.  If you would like one of my 10 x 30 minute sessions to discuss in confidence any aspect of your business that you believe I can help you with, contact me via my blog, my LinkedIn or Twitter with a couple of sentences of background.  No business plans, pitch decks or NDAs please!  It has to be something that we can cover within a strict 30 minute window so the onus is on YOU to make that work.

But be quick.  I’ve had the first applicant already on Twitter whilst writing this blog.  It’s @CultureArk and the business looks intriguing.  If I receive more than 10 requests I’ll choose the 10 that I think I can add most value to on the basis of what you’ve told me.