Entrepreneurs

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.

My rallying call to female entrepreneurs everywhere – it’s time for us to take positive action

St Marys College

Global Entrepreneurship Week at St Mary’s College Derry

At events or in interviews I often get asked: What should we be doing to address the lack of women entrepreneurs/women starting businesses/women accessing investment/women in tech/women in STEM/women in senior business roles/women in business generally? (delete and replace with your own soundbite as you see fit) and I’ve always been stuck to come up with a good answer or solution.  There’s plenty happening out there to address diversity inequality but with worrying reports about the numbers of women working in IT actually being on the decline is any of it really moving the needle and making a difference?  Don’t even get me started on the tiny percentage of venture capital finance that goes to female founded companies – thought to be somewhere between 3 & 5% of all VC investment and rumoured to also be declining.

Then a chance conversation with Stephen Keown, the vice principal of my local girls’ post primary school in Derry Northern Ireland, St Mary’s College, took place in the corridor as I was leaving the school during Global Entrepreneurship Week last month and it sparked a thought…or a series of thoughts.

Anyone reading this who knows me will know that while I admire the global changemakers and their big dreams I try to bring about positive change in the world by taking action closer to home and in ways that are within my own gift to make happen.  I’ve done this to date by angel investing in 6 early stage tech businesses (so far) and by having a stated preference for investing in startups with female founding teams.  I also spend considerable amounts of my own time pro bono to help other entrepreneurs – mostly informally but also formally by being one of the Entrepreneurship Experts with the Entrepreneurship Centre at Saïd Business School (University of Oxford) and locally by being one of the Entrepreneurs in Residence at Catalyst Inc (previously the Northern Ireland Science Park) and by being a board member of Young Enterprise Northern Ireland.

Whilst these activities are useful (I think) they don’t significantly address the issues in my opening paragraph and at best probably just tickle them a little around the edges.  My interventions are overwhelmingly biased towards early stage or established entrepreneurs – beneficial to those who’ve already made the leap and opted in; but not really helping to bring more girls and young women into the funnel that eventually becomes the pipeline.

I often think about how when my sister & I were teenagers growing up in a working class area of Doncaster there were no entrepreneur role models for us to look towards.  Hardly anyone we knew aside from the corner shopkeeper owned their own business.  Our father and uncles all worked for other people.  Our mother and aunts didn’t really have careers although they sometimes worked.  My older cousins followed their fathers’ footsteps or went to work “in the bank” or “at the council”.  It was the same for everyone else we were at school with.

Anyway, to cut a long story short I thought about the 860 girls and young women of St Mary’s for a few days following Global Entrepreneurship Week and then I sent a DM via Twitter to Marie Lindsay, inspirational head teacher at St Mary’s, asking her whether she’d be interested in me joining the wider school team as its first Entrepreneur in Residence.  A flurry of exchanges happened, a bit of dialogue occurred between Marie, the teaching staff and me and it culminated last week when Conor Lynch (Head of Business Studies) put the suggestion forward to the entire school at assembly.  At the time of writing we have over 100 pupils from right across the St Mary’s age range who’ve indicated that they’d like to be involved and we’re trying to figure out how to best accommodate that interest.  It’s such an exciting prospect and I can’t wait to start working with the students.

So what will a good outcome look like?  The honest answer is that at this moment in time we have no idea as we’re still brainstorming and I’m trying to figure out how to work with the school in a more structured way than perhaps I’m used to.  My plan is to find a way to augment the work already being done with pupils by great teachers such as Gavin Molloy and Clare Doherty and by Young Enterprise Northern Ireland by bringing to life some of what the students are learning in the classroom about entrepreneurship.  We’re launching our programme in the New Year and I’ll be documenting our progress, warts and all.  As far as we’re aware this is the first time an arrangement like this has been tried in Northern Ireland and we’ve even struggled to find examples further afield – so if you’re aware of any please shout up and connect me.

I’m hoping to achieve early doors:

  • Students better informed at an earlier age of what setting up a business really involves
  • Clarity for students around the sorts of qualifications that will be useful for the careers they’re interested in
  • Understanding about all the different types of business it is possible to start and the benefits & drawbacks of each
  • Demystify the process about setting up a business and given some exposure to the practicalities of running a business
  • An introduction to networking and building a positive online digital profile and personal brand

and further down the line I’ll be happy if this “connection” to me grows into a few mentoring relationships with students who do go on to start the sorts of business that I or people I know can help them with but maybe that’s a bit ambitious at this stage.  In truth if everyone in the school ends up slightly better informed that will be enough to make it worthwhile.

Why am I doing this?

Primarily because it gives me an opportunity to influence the career choices of a large number of young women and open their eyes to a few options that they may be unaware of or uncertain about and maybe help a few of them to avoid career mistakes.  I’ll be on hand to answer their questions honestly and in relation to the real world of work.  The world is going to be a very different place by the time the 11-18 year olds I’ll be working with in the coming months and years leave school or university.  The job landscape is about to change dramatically and in ways none of us can really imagine, no matter how hard we speculate.  I’m worried that if more girls and women don’t embrace careers in STEM they may find themselves languishing in jobs towards the bottom of the work pyramid as the middle tiers get replaced by machines.  There are loads of other reasons.  I care deeply about this NW corner of Ireland and about finding ways that our young people can stay here and make their lives here instead of having to leave and go to the other side of the world looking for work.  Teachers do a really great job but the nature of what they do for a living means they’re in a bit of a bubble and I want to help them by bringing the real world into the classroom.  We are living in very uncertain times in this corner of Europe and it’s hard to prepare our young people for jobs that don’t even exist yet.  I’m happy to do anything that will improve their chances.

Why did I choose St Mary’s College?

I chose it because it’s local and because it’s a girls’ school but also because it has a strong sense of belonging and celebration of common success that is apparent from the moment you cross the doorstep.  I’ve been impressed by the enthusiasm and can-do attitude of the students and I love that the school is technology and STEM focused and that it’s led by a strong, inspiring and forward thinking woman and a great group of teachers.  (As an aside, the school was founded the year I was born and – well – it has a great name…)

What can you do?

Instead of sitting back and bemoaning the lack of women in x (insert your own word there) you too can go along to your own local school and offer your services.  Don’t wait to be asked as no head teacher would ever dare presume that a busy entrepreneur could spare the time or would want to volunteer in this way – but I know you can find the time!  Failing that you can help me by offering your support in ways that will no doubt become apparent in the coming months.

Thank you for reading.  I’m extremely happy to be joining St Mary’s College as its first Entrepreneur in Residence and the next time someone asks me that question I’ll be able to look them in the eye and tell them about what I’m doing practically to address the issues.

25 of my favourite startup quotes

Tim Smit with quoteI love quotes about entrepreneurs & startups.  If you don’t then don’t read on.  When you’re in the muck & bullets of an early doors startup it’s a good idea to take time out now & then to read about the experiences of other entrepreneurs that are a bit further ahead than you.  It gives you the push you sometimes need to keep going.

Below are my favourite 25 with a few extras thrown in here & there for good measure.  I haven’t attributed them.  Sometimes it’s hard to know who said it first anyway.  There’s a famous quote that’s attributed to Reid Hoffmann – the one about how being in a startup is like jumping off a cliff & assembling the aeroplane on the way down – but everyone knows that originally started life as a Kurt Vonnegut quote.  A few of them are my own – see if you can spot mine.

  1. Every opportunity is attached to a person
  2. Leap and a net will form
  3. The best startups come from somebody needing to scratch an itch
  4. Surround yourself with people who are better than you – even if that scares you to death
  5. If you want to go fast, start with people you already know; when you’re ready to go far, diversify your team
  6. If the wheels don’t come off, you aren’t going fast enough
  7. Sweat equity is the best startup capital
  8. All startups have to over deliver
  9. Every conversation you have with a paying customer is too short
  10. Better a hole than an a**holeEstee Lauder
  11. Focus on getting to revenue at lightning speed
  12. We can always sleep next week
  13. It’s never about the idea
  14. Just ask; hardly anyone ever says no
  15. When you’re starting out you might not measure much, so be careful what you measure
  16. As an entrepreneur, done is better than perfect
  17. The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago; the second best time is today
  18. If you can’t code & you can’t sell then get the f**k out of my way
  19. The only way to do great work is to love what you do
  20. When qualifying your startup idea, your mum is usually the wrong person to ask
  21. If you’re not on the edge, you’re taking up too much space
  22. Your product needs to be a painkiller, not a vitamin pill
  23. Remember that everything in life and in business is about people; successful people work that one out early on
  24. It usually takes 10 years work to be an overnight success
  25. It’s amazing how far just being nice will take you

steve-jobs-quotes-perseverance-1444

Please add your own favourite startup quote in the comments & I’ll look forward to reading them.

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

IMG_2564 (002)

(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.