Digital

Twin Twinterviews

The Twinterview is nothing new.  I did my first one for the @IoDNI back in 2013.  Having a limited number of characters in which to answer a sometimes quite complex question is good discipline.  Many of my readers will already know Susan Hayes Culleton – the Positive Economist.  Susan is a Dublin based entrepreneur, a published author, an accomplished speaker & legendary MC & like me a constant traveller, an investor in teenagers and young people, a fellow IIBN board member and a firm supporter of everything #GlobalIrish

Susan and me 1

Susan Hayes & Mary McKenna at the IoD NI conference in March 2018

Susan & I know many of the same people & over the years have made numerous introductions for each other across the globe BUT apart from occasionally speaking at the same events, we’ve never actually worked on anything together.  I was therefore delighted (and I must admit a tad nervous) when Susan contacted me about being the subject of her September Twinterview.  A lot of people enjoyed this live on Twitter but others have mentioned to us since that they missed it – so here’s the text below where we cover startups, collaboration, business failure, career paths, business mistakes, travel & much more.

SUSAN’s TWINTERVIEW WITH MARY:

SH Q1 – What separates startups from scaleups?

MM A1 #Startups in my eyes are still finding their way, seeking their niche, pivoting, testing the water; #scaleups know where they’re going & have the pedal to the floor. Need different animals at the helm as you move from chaos (fun) into order (boredom?)

SH Q2 – What characteristic(s) do you look for in a business collaborator (in the broadest sense of the word)?

MM A2 Collaboration is always where the magic happens, as many big cos are finding in working now with #startups – BUT – identifying collaborators & partners can be one of the trickiest parts of business & can take you from top of the pile straight into court – honesty is a good start

SH Q3 – What connotations do you associate with the term “business failure”?

MM A3 Many, many good people fail in business; the really good ones see that experience as a stepping stone & have another go better equipped next time around. In Ireland failure is seen as negative; not so much in the US. Success in life is more important

SH Q4 – What did you do differently in your 30s in comparison to your 20s when it came to your career?

MM A4 My career path is straightforward but weird – partied right through my 20s (networking?), went back to school in my 30s & qualified as an accountant (shhh – don’t tell anyone), then started my first business at the age of 43 – have never looked back since

Susan and me palace of west

Networking together in 2016 in the Palace of Westminster with people we met in the queue!

SH Q5 – Tell us about one mistake you avoided.

MM A5 It would be easier to tell you about the hundreds of mistakes I’ve made! The one I’ve chosen might be controversial but it’s electing to #bootstrap as a #startup rather than take investment – getting to your own revenue at lightning speed trumps finance (handouts?) every time

SH Q6 – How can hunger for business success turn from aimless energy to a strategic vision?

MM A6 If you’re serious about starting a business you’ll have measurable goals & one day the talking stops & action starts … you have to pee or get off the pot. Never forget that once you’ve thrown that dice it’s v hard to turn back – weigh up if the #entrepreneur life is really for you

SH Q7 – How do you always maintain relevance?

MM A7 Curiosity helps. The tech world moves at pace. I work hard. I network & read constantly. I’m out & about a lot & meet a lot of people – like a shark – always moving & looking for the next interesting snippet – lol. I can’t imagine being behind the times – it’s what I fear most

SH Q8 – Many people would agree (I’m first on that bus!) that you’re a role model. What’s your gut reaction when you hear that?

MM A8 My shyness makes me squirm but then I remember the importance of women & girls having tangible, real, touchable, available role models – especially in #tech & #STEM – & I carry on doing stuff way outside my comfort zone because we are still few – though our numbers are growing

SH Q9 – You travel LOTS and LOTS and LOTS! How do you keep it interesting?

MM A9 I lead a blessed life with lots of variety. Living on Ireland’s #WildAtlanticWay in #Donegal means everywhere involves travel. People are what interest me – people & opportunities. I only wish someone would invent healthy packed lunches for travelling businesswomen. Travel = writing

SH Q10 I agree with you about the healthy lunches! Salad bars, frozen yogurt shops and artisan producers certainly have improved the situation but yes, it’s difficult to be always good!

Complete this sentence: Work Life Balance is….

MM A10 “Work life balance is … sensible & necessary but grossly overrated. Life is life. If you don’t love your work enough then do us all a favour & do something else” And that’s a wrap for today’s Twinterview folks – I hope you enjoyed it as much as @SusanHayes_ & me 🙂

Susan and me 2

At the IIBN conference in Dublin in November 2017

Anyway – we enjoyed that first one so much that we decided a rematch was in order, this time with me posing the questions to Susan.  We were more in the swing of things second time around & had learned from our mistakes – so for the second one we did a bit of advance advertising and we kept all the questions & answers in a single Twitter thread – which made it a lot easier for latecomers to find & read.  In this second Twinterview we cover when you should say yes or no to offers, the place networking plays in business, how to become a published author, how to be an excellent event MC and what it’s really like to work with your husband.  Here we go.

MARY’S TWINTERVIEW WITH SUSAN:

MM Q1 OK – ready to go – You have a lot of plates spinning Susan – author, entrepreneur, pundit, expert MC & more. What’s your personal elevator pitch in your own words?

SH A1 I’m the “Positive Economist”, a speaker that always focuses on what you CAN do, CEO of @becksearch, our evolving knowledge management business that we started this year and co-founder of @savvyteens focusing on careers, communications and confidence in teenagers.

MM Q2 – With such a varied portfolio & skillset, how do you decide what to say Yes to & what to say No to?

SH A2 Starting off, I said yes to everything (like #SavvyWomen) and that was the right thing to do. Today, I say yes to what I feel that we can do really well. I also say yes to what we can learn a lot from or what can be a great experience for our teams. That’s a #GlobalIrish mindset.

MM Q3 Love it Susan – I say Yes to far too much – next question will be interesting for many of our readers – You sometimes work closely with your husband. What are the pros & cons of doing that?

SH A3 Sincerely, it’s all a pro. I’ve always worked with @ArdleCulleton, even before we were going out together. We can share the highs, the lows, the lessons, the achievements. He is my mentor and I wouldn’t have it any other way. Our Friday board meetings are my fave time of the week.

MM Q4 Ha! I’ve heard tell of the Fri board meetings with @ArdleCulleton manys a time – Some people say they can see the value of #networking but they don’t have time for it. What’s your view on this? (looking forward to this answer!)

SH A4 There is no such thing as “having time” for it. Networking is building relationships, with your clients, stakeholders, staff, influencers, leads etc. It’s what we do as business people all day every day. It’s not just power breakfasts! I’ve learned a lot from how you’ve done it.

MM Q5 And a related #networking question – Do you have any stories about specific amazing things that have come to you from your network that you can share with us?

SH A5 So, SO many! I will never forget my first @IIBN conference where I met you Mary. That one day launched everything we’ve done in the UK, the work I’ve been privileged to do with @dfat and the #GlobalIrish and the #Brexit event I did in #NY with @maryannpierce. It was lifechanging.

MM Q6 The @IIBN conferences are completely unmissable – the next one is 8/9 Nov in Dublin folks (tickets here) – Susan – a lot of people will be wondering about this – How did your first book deal come about?

SH A6 #PositiveEconomics – the economics textbook was a fellow author’s idea and we rang the four publishers about how to get started. We wrote the “Money & Banking” chapter and by that Christmas, we had a contract! Our next one will be out in 2019. (My experience of #blogging helped).

MM Q7 So pleased you mentioned how #blogging benefited you Susan – here’s a related question that will be of interest to anyone out there who’s thinking about trying to get published – Is it worth the time & pain of becoming a bona fide published author?

SH A7 Absolutely. AB-SO-LUTE-LY. In the case of “The Savvy Woman’s Guide to Financial Freedom”, I wrote it as if I was having a good chat with friends and giving #SavvyWomen some advice. Lots of people have commented since that their reading experience has felt like that #DreamComeTrue

MM Q8 I heard @tulster speak about women’s freedom & knowledge of personal finance at 2017’s #Inspirefest – You’re the best all day conference MC I’ve ever seen Susan. Anyone who attends the @IoDNI conf in Belfast will agree. What are your tips for others hoping to improve?

SH A8 Thank you so much Mary! Be interested … in everybody’s story. Listen hard. Your job as an MC is to be the glue that binds the event together, to be a problem solver and to manage the energy in the room. Put those things right at the centre of your focus.

Susan cartoon

Susan caricatured in March 2018 – it’s pretty good!

MM Q9 And no requirement to be able to compose poetry on the spot! Yes – there’s no doubt prep is everything in business & probably life – here’s the next one – Be the best or it’ll do/it’s good enough – which of these approaches are you most a fan of & why?

SH A9 The latter and then the former. You have to learn, test and tweak by trying a product or service out with real people. No hiding behind useless perfection.  You have to get market research and sometimes that comes in the form of rejection.  After that, it HAS to “be the best”.

MM Q10 Hell yeah – also great advice for software developers – I love your practice mentioned in your #TEDx talk of writing down the biggest achievement of your day so that you can easily look back at progress. Where did you come up with the idea & do you still do it yourself?

SH A10 It’s a variation of something I’ve learned from @brianbuffini. Most progress is incremental and unless we enjoy the small things along the way, our levels of resilience to absorb the tough stuff may not last. I always reflect on serendipity and the actions that really mattered.

MM Q11 Ooh – must check out @brianbuffini – I can’t wait to see your answer to this next one – Do you ever procrastinate & if you do, how do you combat it … or if you don’t, what advice would you give to those that do?

SH A11 I used to until I learned about “tagging”. Tag something that you procrastinate about with something you never question. For example, I have a call with @vveurope every Monday at 4pm and then I started tagging that with going to @DCUSportsWellbe . An exercise habit was formed!

MM Q12 No doubt it’s worth investing time in creating good habits! OK Susan – we’re getting thru these well – You’ve achieved an incredible amount for someone who’s still in their early 30s. But do you have any advice that you’d give to the you of 10 years ago?

SH A12 Expect GREAT things to happen. We often worry about what could go wrong, but my Mam responds to this often with “what if it goes right?”. Synchronicity often has wonderful surprises in store. Work on the small steps and be open to the big ones.

MM Q13 Paying attention & being open will always generate rewards – 3 more questions left – What would you like to be doing in 10 years time?

SH A13 I want my mind to be so much further open, my portfolio of business ideas to be so much further advanced, and my network to be so much more diversified than I could possibly have imagined or dreamed today. The hashtags #SavvyWomen #GlobalIrish should mean so much more by then.

MM Q14 I’m glad you mentioned business expansion – would you like to tell us more about your new venture @BeckSearch

Susan Sinead me

Breakfast in the Westbury Dublin last year with Sinead Crowley

SH A14 I’ve been so fortunate to have had breakfast with you and @Scrowley88, chats with @denisemcquaid, invaluable insights from @irelandinnz and the connectivity of @gaaasia. Person-to-person #km accelerates careers & businesses. I’m passionate about making that happen #WatchThisSpace

MM Q15 Watch this Spaces are my favourite! Last question for you is this Susan & I’m sure anyone who knows you will be wondering the same – Do you ever relax & if so what do you choose to do with your free time (business planning doesn’t count – lol)?

SH A15 I do. I really do because “being kind to yourself” is a true competitive advantage. I love spending time with family and friends. I love to read and immerse myself in international cultures. I love simply being alive and being aware and sharing it with @ArdleCulleton!

MM Exactly the answer I expected to receive from you @SusanHayes_ & I knew that @ArdleCulleton would be the recipient of the last words!

Phew – we covered a lot of ground in those 25 questions.  Some priceless little nuggets in that exchange, even if I do say so myself.

I hope you enjoyed participating in our Twinterviews or reading the transcript if you missed them.  If you’d like Susan or I to help you with anything you know where to find us.  Any questions you have – as usual post them up in the comments & we will do our best to answer.  Thanks everyone!

A Tale of Three Networkers – everything in life & business is about people

all_three

(L-R Rachel Rath, Draven McConville (& Winston), Denise McQuaid)

In this longish read I ask three awesome networkers from my own inner circle to share some of their secrets and to give their opinions on a few of the more controversial aspects of what makes a good networker.

The three are independent film maker and producer Rachel Rath, tech entrepreneur and Klipboard founder/CEO Draven McConville and serial CEO & business strategist Denise McQuaid. All three just happen to be Irish.

Read on if you want to start building your own network or if you just need a bit of validation that the time & effort you’re already putting into networking is going to generate a worthwhile long term return. You may wonder why I chose entrepreneurs and self starters & my rationale is that they’re more likely than most to recognise early doors that there’s no alternative to building a network. There are just too many moving parts involved in creating a successful business to do everything yourself and you just never know when you (or someone else) is going to need a bit of help.

We’ll start with Rachel Rath who has recently returned to Ireland after many years living in Los Angeles. Rachel is an actress, film maker, performance artist, screenwriter, director and comedian.

As a film maker you operate internationally.  How do you go about building a network from scratch when you relocate to a brand new location? 

I’ve lived in Dublin, London, Los Angeles and New York and every move feels like starting over. I find it best to hit the ground running by having coffees with anyone and everyone who will meet me. These contacts usually come recommended by my current network. It’s relatively easy to meet film industry people. I concentrate on attending film markets, festivals, arthouse cinemas and seminars. Sometimes it can be difficult in a new city to hear about good networking opportunities so I create Google Alerts for my niche in each city. If I read in the trades that I’ve missed out on an event that might have been good to attend, I’ll make a calendar entry to make sure that I’m there next year. If I have a dry spell and feel a bit out of touch I search for “film” on the local invite sites, such as Eventbrite or Facebook, and scroll through until I find what looks like a quality opportunity. Before attending a market/festival I will search tags on my social media feeds, e.g. #Sundance, to see if I’m linked with anyone attending and connect with them. I post on social media in advance that I’m going to be attending and that usually spurs connections introducing me to others going too. I also like to get involved in my local community – I sat on the international committee of Women In Film Los Angeles, the board of Irish Equity, founded The Attic Studio, an arts organisation in Dublin, and I currently work with Irish Screen America New York and Los Angeles, so I’m not afraid of hard work and getting stuck in to rallying people together. Each of these networks has kept me inspired and kept bread on my table.

A lot of people choose to make most of their networking effort with other people in the same line of business. Good or bad idea?

It’s easy to get caught up in the comfort of your own circles but variety is certainly best. It’s great to meet people from all walks of life to inspire you and align you with your target markets. You get to hear about projects from their point of view. I really believe in the idea that in life you look for your family, people that are great fun around the barbecue and that you may one day collaborate with. I find art gallery openings great. They are more relaxed and most people are there to appreciate fine surroundings and are more willing to chat. This year I met the most interesting person at an airport – he’s from Belfast and works for Tesco, but is an amateur local historian and was able to give me insight into a project that I’m working on that other official sources didn’t list.

I’ve heard even very sensible people say networking takes up too much time & effort. Is it worth it?

I understand this viewpoint – networking can be exhausting and not all rooms are equal. In any business it takes a collaboration of experts in various fields. If I didn’t get out there and meet people I’d never have met the expert entertainment attorneys, sales agents etc. that are so important to the success of my business. I very much believe in the adage “Just show up.” I met my closest friend at an event I almost didn’t turn up to. For me it’s important that I don’t go to these events with the thought “Tonight I’m going to get that deal.” This causes too much pressure. Yes, it’s important to know what it is that you need and have that short intro pitch ready for the “So what do you do?” question, but, when you attend with a more relaxed attitude you will undoubtedly be easier to talk with and you won’t be seen to be suffering from the rubber neck syndrome – looking around to see if there is someone more important to connect with. I’m choosy about the events I attend though. I will research speakers, the venue, or, check out the attendee list if possible, only because it is easy to suffer burnout in this game. Sometimes it’s OK to allow yourself to take a night off every now and again!

What are your top 3 “rules” or tips to pass on to others Rachel?

  1. Look out for the brave soul who’s at the event on their own – you’ll recognise them as they’re the ones lit by the glow of their mobile phone screen. They are there to network too. Assuming they don’t look like a crazy person, say “Hi”.
  2. Have a business card that can be written on so your new contacts can make notes about meeting you.
  3. Be a gracious networker. If someone gives you their pitch and then another person joins you, pitch the first person you met to the new person. They will love you forever for it.

My next interviewee is Draven McConville, founder & CEO of London based software company Klipboard, a job he says is a privilege to have the opportunity to do.  Draven originally comes from Northern Ireland but these days lives in London. He loves art, travel, architecture & anything design & is a total car & motorcycle fanatic – he rides a Harley to work every day with a Miniature Dachshund called Winston in a backpack! (see the photo above – well – what did you expect from my friends).

We first met when you were thinking about moving from Northern Ireland to London.  What are your top tips for anyone else in the same situation?

Moving to London was always on my radar and eventually my business presented the opportunity to allow me to do so. The biggest challenge for me was arriving in a city where I didn’t know anyone. I put this down to not having gone to university where I would have begun the basis of a network with people that may also have ventured to London for their career. That said, I think anybody moving from Northern Ireland is going to find it difficult settling in London even if they know a few people, so building a network for support is important. With that in mind I had to begin grass roots networking again and what I mean by that is starting at the bottom and working your way through. My top tips are:

  1. The day does not end at 5.30pm. This is London and there is always an event to go to, get out there and go to them. Don’t be picky about the event, just make sure it is of some interest to you as that increases your possibility of meeting like-minded people. It doesn’t have to be business related. I don’t build business connections, I build friendships with my network.
  2. Be prepared to work hard, I had 23 meetings in my first week of living in London.
  3. You need to build trust, don’t expect people to make connections with you instantly. Be visible, reliable and importantly add value, no matter how small or big it may be.  This is a big city and it’s fast moving with a transient population so people typically lack time which therefore means building connections is not as easy as in Northern Ireland.

You’re an entrepreneur Draven.  Has networking helped you find investors for your business & if so how?

Great question! Simple answer is YES, with doubt networking helped me find investors for my business. I have 7 angels and a Private Equity fund based in Seattle that have invested $2 million to date into my business. There is no way that I would have had the opportunity to have these investors in my business if I had not networked. Investors really do work on a “referral” basis and not on a cold approach. My network helped me to get that warm referral approach. How? you ask.  I can give you the exact story and moment it happened for me.

I was at Somerset House meeting with some executives from Channel 4. After the meeting finished I was exhausted but instead of going home I went to a book launch across the courtyard in Somerset House. Within two minutes of arriving (and bumping into yourself and saying hello!) I got chatting to a guy. The conversation was fairly general and lasted no longer than 20 minutes. At the end of it he gave me his business card and at that point I noticed his surname. It was the same surname as another gentleman who’d been in my office a few weeks prior, so I said to him and he laughed and said it was a family relative. What was more amazing was that this tweaked his memory and he then told me his family relative had actually mentioned me to him – it helps having a strange first name!

We both went off on our separate paths but then later in the evening he came back and asked for his business card back. I joked by asking had we fallen out already! He wrote two names and email addresses on the card and told me to contact them. I didn’t ask why, I just did it the next day. I met those people and also continued to meet him over the course of 6 months for coffee and catch-ups. There were many more moments in this growing relationship but long story short, the day I told him I had a software product to release he sat up intently, listened and within an hour he had formulated a group of people I “must” meet. Those people are now my Chairman and group of investors.

Moral of the story…. be curious, explore opportunities.

Is it about quantity or quality of people?

Quality 100% for me. My network is expansive and not limited to entrepreneurs or high flying corporate executives, that’s not what is important to me. What is important is that I have conversations with my network that inspire, encourage and challenge my mind; those conversations only happen if you have good quality and like minded individuals in your network. I have high net worth individuals and a couple of billionaires in my network but I have just as interesting a conversation with the guy that serves me my coffee every morning.

He shares some fascinating stories and insight with me daily plus most people wouldn’t have the first idea of how well connected he is until they get to know him. One morning I was getting my coffee he told me to come back at lunch to meet his friend, I didn’t ask who, I just turned up. Not naming names, his friend was one of the most important British architects of our time. Why did he do that? He knew I loved architecture so connected us and that connection has not only benefitted me in a business sense but also a personal sense. The guy that serves me coffee knows the art of real networking.

I heard someone say at a recent conference that she goes through her network once a year & carries out a cull.  I’d be far too scared to do that as many of my best opportunities have come to me from my “loose” ties.  What’s your view?

Absolutely not! I’ve connected with the individuals in my network for a reason and engaged in conversations with them, therefore they have value to me and hopefully I have value to them. I think in her case she may just be connecting to everyone and anyone which goes back to the quality versus quantity question. One thing most people forget is that your connections have their own connections. If I was to cull one of my connections I’m potentially culling hundreds more therefore limiting any potential opportunities.

Last but not least we have Denise.  Denise is a close friend of mine & someone I admire immensely.  She describes herself as having a massive sense of curiosity about people, places, culture and technology. She loves networking, meeting new people and is inspired daily by brave and passionate entrepreneurs. She is passionate about the emerging technologies that affect us all whether we like it or not! and is fervent about women having the right to an education, a place at the board room table, diverse and inclusive workplaces and female founders gaining investment. Denise has worked and lived in the US, Ireland, China and she now calls London home.

You’re a legendary networker Denise with an international black book to die for.  I’ve lost count of the number of people we’ve introduced each other to but I bet you know the number as I know you have your own networking methodology.  Are you willing to share it with us?

Only for you Mary!

I’ve lived in the US, Ireland, China and now London and as my network grew I initially used LinkedIn. At the start I could nurture my relationships with this tool alone but as my relationships with my network developed I felt LinkedIn wasn’t enough, I felt I needed to add another layer.

As I was building my network across geographies, industries, personal interest areas through to areas that feed my curiosity I couldn’t manage it efficiently with LinkedIn alone. One thing that I felt very strongly about was remembering who introduced me, where the connection came from, was it a direct introduction, was the connection made at an event or through a network, if they were nurtured online or if I found them on LinkedIn and reached out.

I’m not sure what exactly drove me to do this but I was curious to know how my network was building. Knowing where the relationship started helped me to add more value, people also appreciate when I remember where we met and it also allows me to understand my networking habits, what was working for me and areas that I needed to develop.

As my network continued to grow, I added areas of interest to those connections, what drives them, what they’re passionate about not only in a work capacity but in their personal lives too which leads to more fruitful connections and my ability to add support and value to those connections on more than one level.

I now have a little personal CRM system which I review continuously, who’s moved job, who has added to their interests, who I haven’t seen for a coffee and a catch up and ultimately it allows me to understand how I can support my network further.

Doing this has given me a stronger network, unbelievable friendships, amazing opportunities and overall it’s given me the ability to give back, push forward and continue to build my network.

Random Linkedin requests – accept or delete?

My answer to accept or delete is that it depends! Mutual benefit is what I underpin my decision with.

But what I would state to anyone starting to develop their network online is don’t send blank requests, stop now if you do! It’s extremely lazy.

My working practice is as follows:

If I receive blank LinkedIn requests and if I don’t see the mutual value, I delete them. I feel very passionately that relationships only work if there is benefit on both sides and I don’t have time to discover what the benefit is if it’s not obvious. You shouldn’t need to be a mind reader or have psychic powers! This may sound harsh but London moves at speed and the volume of requests I receive is extensive and therefore blank requests with no obvious benefit don’t deserve any of my time.

But if I feel there is mutual benefit once I have reviewed the person’s LinkedIn profile and yet the message is blank I write back to them and ask what it was that triggered their request. I give people 48 hours to respond. I do invest the time in responding and this has led to some wonderful conversations, connections and opportunities. If people don’t respond I just delete them!

If people cannot take the time to introduce themselves and explain their reason for linking I don’t believe they will become a valuable connection where there is benefit on both sides.

When you worked at Enterprise Ireland’s London office a few years ago, what were the top mistakes you saw people or companies make when trying to establish themselves in a new city?

I feel very strongly that when entering a new market, you need to look like you are committed to that market, not dropping in and flying out again. My number one piece of advice is not to arrive at a networking event with your trolley case! People will invest time and energy in helping you if they know you are committed to the market. If they feel you are just dropping in and not valuing the time they’re giving you, they’ll turn their attention elsewhere. I appreciate entering a new market is an expensive process and people cannot be here for days but you must look committed and engaged in developing your network.

My second piece of advice would be, be very specific with your ask. Don’t waste people’s time.

Thirdly, if people are generous enough with their network make sure you respect it and follow up. I believe if you’re asking for introductions and connections understand that they didn’t come easily. They have taken many networking events, many late evenings to build and nurture, so respect who is making the introduction and who you have been introduced to. If I don’t believe the person will respect the introduction I don’t make it.

Last but not least, be aware of the colour you wear when networking, I try to wear a bold colour when networking, it makes it easy for people to point at you and say you should speak to Denise across a crowded room! Be seen even if networking doesn’t come easy to you the introductions and approaches will come.

How do you deal with that “Can I buy you a coffee & pick your brain” request?

I must admit I used to be much more generous with my time for these requests until I got burned and stopped! I will only now meet someone for a coffee of this nature if they have been introduced to me from within my network. I don’t take coffee from LinkedIn requests. If people really want to meet you they will find someone to introduce them. This approach has given me a lot of time back!

I feel so passionately about networking, connections and developing relationships, my approach may seem extreme and at times harsh but I am proud to say I can pick up the phone to all my Linkedin connections and have amazing relationships.

So – a few common themes throughout all three sets of answers and a lot of similarities to my own networking approach (including Denise’s answer on the coffee/pick your brain thing).  Be curious, look outside of your usual gang, do your homework in advance, actually go to events, it’s about quality of connections not quantity, put in the time and energy, add value to others, always follow up on introductions others make for you, pay attention, be gracious, be visible, take the odd night off! I hope you’ve enjoyed reading this blog & if you did, please do share it with your own network. As always, I look forward to any comments you may have.

“Success to me is being able to look in the mirror & know I’m OK”

Lemn and Callie

Lemn Sissay with MOMO Ambassador Callie

The quote above was how Lemn Sissay (poet, playwright, author, broadcaster) opened his keynote at the Mind of My Own (MOMO) conference in Birmingham earlier this month.  I’d been looking forward to hearing him speak again.  I first came across Lemn when he spoke at the Houses of Parliament TEDx back in 2013 – worth a listen whatever your interests.  There were a lot of outstanding speakers that day but he was the one I enjoyed the most – authentic, passionate & with a real story that he needed to tell & which deserved to be heard.

Lemn and MaryMOMO is a fast growing tech for good company that makes it easier for children & young people to express their views & feelings to the people that work with them and the conference was a mix of social workers, care leavers, young people still in care, local authority officers and other interested parties.

Lemn describes himself as a black Mancunian care leaver, although he also wears many, many more hats, including being the current elected Chancellor of the University of Manchester for a 7 year stint.  He talked to us on the day about the reality of being a young person in care concentrating mainly on the aspects of family life that young people in care miss out on – the constant reinforcements that happen in every family – and the effect this has on them as adults.  What are you going to do when you grow up? When are you going to get a job? Are you going to university? Where are you going to university? When are you getting married?  All the stuff that the rest of us remember hating being asked every day by our extended families when we were growing up. Through that consistent and constant questioning and power of suggestion we learn to improvise and this is something that’s missing from the lives children lead in care.  His own personal story is a heartbreaking one, but it’s one that we listen to and hear because he has a platform from which to tell it.

Closing the gap

Lemn Sissay keynoteI can’t in this blog replicate the passion & authenticity of Lemn’s keynote, although it was filmed so the link will soon be available on the MOMO website if anyone would like to watch it.  I can however collect some thoughts around his key theme which was how to “close the gap” between children in care & everyone else. When you think about it like this, how can it be beyond the collected brain power of all the people that work in and are connected to the care system to make it better and in doing so improve the adult lives of care leavers. He suggested that we need to find a way to fill the hole that’s created by not having an extended family, because even though all families are dysfunctional, they play an important part in turning us into fully formed adults. He described how on his first day back in care aged 12 having been fostered out since a baby, his social worker told him how he couldn’t get emotionally involved in all his cases or he’d have a nervous breakdown. The foster family he’d spent the previous 11 or 12 years with cut off all contact with him.

He talked about how later when he lived in a children’s home with 15 other adolescents, there were 16 red boxes with glass to be broken in case of an emergency.  If a box was broken, the process kicked off & the institution sprang into action – but there still wasn’t anyone who could give him a hug.  Nobody thanked them for not breaking the glass on a daily basis but everybody understood what to do when the glass was broken – “the keys are jingling, the process is in place, the reviews are done”.  The stark reality is that no-one judges their own children by their behaviour, good or bad, on any given day – but that was how Lemn & the other 15 young people were judged.  They lived in an unemotional structure that operated along the lines of “if you do or don’t do this or that then X will happen to you” and they were constantly reminded of how far they had to fall.

Good news for Lemn personally

Lemn Yvonne Jill Mary

Lemn with MOMO co-founders Yvonne Anderson & Jill Thorburn (photo credit Rob Freeman)

Lemn’s own story is a famous one & one that I won’t cover here but the good news is he now has a fully dysfunctional family of his own, just like more or less everybody else, and whilst he hasn’t yet figured out how to make birthdays better for young people in care he is tackling Christmas day for care leavers and you can find out more about how that works here if you’d like to get involved.  Christmas dinners began in 2012 and last year happened on Christmas day itself in 12 cities. Thanks Lemn for the great work you do and for caring about what happens to other people and speaking out.

I realise this is a topic that many people choose not to think about outside of fiction – Harry Potter, Superman, David Copperfield, James Bond, Spiderman, Lisbeth Salander, Pippi Longstocking – but in 2017 there were over 70,000 children and young people in care in England & Wales alone.  Surely between us we can come up with some creative ways to improve their lives.

Brand New Year; 4 Shiny New Projects; Bit of Help Needed

Mary Fusion Fest 1

At Fusion Fest NI in October (photo credit Stephen Latimer)

Happy New Year everyone.  After the dulling sadness of losing our beloved and adored mother in 2016, 2017 was a much better year for me & my family and one in which we moved at long last to Greencastle in Co Donegal on the magical Wild Atlantic Way in May.  As we now move into January and yet another new year … here’s a quick round up of the new projects I’m involved with for 2018.

St Marys College

With the St Mary’s College students during Global Entrepreneurship Week last year

Number 1 and most important on the list, I’m joining St Mary’s College (@stmarysderry), an all girls’ school in Derry’s Creggan, as their first ever entrepreneur in residence and I’m urging all other successful female entrepreneurs to find a school and volunteer to do the same.  If we want to move the needle significantly on the women in business and women in tech agendas then I believe taking personal action and doing this is key.

Since announcing the St Mary’s initiative a month or so ago there has been widespread interest across Ireland and I’m especially happy that my esteemed friend, Brian Caulfield, former Chairman of the Irish Venture Capital Association, said this back in December:

“I don’t think it’s a good idea, I think it’s a GREAT idea.  We need to find a way to scale it like @CoderDojo”

Thanks Brian for the vote of confidence.  If any readers are interested in what we’re doing at St Mary’s you can read more here.  Our launch is Tuesday 9 January so I’ll keep you posted on progress.  Anyone who’d like to help us (or copy us) please get in touch.

Next up, Clare McGee & I have launched 300 Seconds Ireland (@300Seconds_IRL) with the support of 300 Seconds founders Sharon O’Dea, Ann Kempster & Hadley Beeman.  Our first event is in Derry on the evening of 23 January.  Our purpose is to encourage more gender diversity into the Irish conference speaking circuit by helping specifically women get started with public speaking.  We are seeking modest sponsorship so if you’re a business in Northern Ireland or on the island of Ireland with a keen interest in promoting diversity and you’d like to get involved then please get in touch.  The evening of 23 Jan is free to attend and you can register for your ticket here and read more about 300 Seconds Ireland here.

Back for Business

With Paula Fitzsimons of Back for Business at the IIBN conference in Dublin in November

Number 3 on my New Year 2018 list is Back for Business, the Dept of Foreign Affairs and Trade’s programme to support returning entrepreneurs.  I’m the Lead Entrepreneur for Ireland’s NW region and my first entrepreneur round table is taking place in Letterkenny on 19 January.  I have a great bunch of entrepreneurs and founders in my group and I’m looking forward to working with them this year & seeing some great businesses emerge.

Finally and last but definitely not least, as Brexit dominates our daily news and thoughts I’m formally joining the EU as one of the entrepreneur members of the European Innovation Council SME 2018 jury.  More info in the official EU press release here.  I’m extremely proud to have been invited & selected and I’m looking forward to spending a bit of time in Brussels this year with the entrepreneurs, their projects, the EU EASME team (@H2020SME) and, of course, the other jury members.

I’ll be continuing in 2018 with my work at the Entrepreneurship Centre of Said Business School, University of Oxford and in my hands-on non exec director roles with Elemental Software and Knowledge Hub/PFIKS.  Also my charity/not for profit commitments on the boards of the Millennium Forum, CAST, SCIE, Young Enterprise Northern Ireland and vInspired.  I will of course continue to make time to help as many entrepreneurs informally as I can and I hope to be invited to speak at some interesting events and write a few tech or startup related articles in the year to come.  I took 72 flights in 2017 (yes – that isn’t a typo!) and choosing to live in beautiful Inishowen in County Donegal means I can expect 2018 to be the same.  If British Midland Regional would like to make me a brand ambassador and give me free flights from Derry to Stansted in 2018 that would be most welcome 😊

I’ll leave all the other entrepreneurs out there with a thought for this new year 2018 – in the coming year we’ll have good days and we’ll have bad days as entrepreneurs, but they’ll all be OUR days.

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!

 

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!

dave-jeremy-steph

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

    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.

    odini

    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.

How Networking & Collaboration can ease your Key Startup Challenges

Cache1

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).

Cache3

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.

Cache5

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”.

Cache4

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.