Entrepreneurs

What’s In A Day?

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In just under 6 weeks time we move back home to Northern Ireland after spending the last 4 years slap bang in the centre of London.  I’m a little panicked by the thought of everything I still have to do in my remaining 42 days…or is it now 41…or maybe even 40.  The last time I glanced at the list in my book there are some 50 or so people I’m hoping to catch up with for a coffee before I go and I have another list on the go of places & restaurants I want to visit.  All of this got me thinking about how we choose to spend each of our days.  UK life expectancy is currently 81.5 years and that equates to just shy of 30,000 days on earth.  Seems like a lot doesn’t it?  Indeed, one of the most chilling questions I’ve heard posed recently was at TedXBrixton a couple of years back when Peter Cochrane, futurologist, asked the audience what quartile of their lives they considered themselves to be in.  (I’m hoping & praying I’m in my 3rd & not 4th).

So – how do you spend each of your days?  This is what I did with mine yesterday:

6.30-8.30am Woke up, listened to R4 Today programme (even though it makes me angry & I do sometimes end up shouting at the radio – any credible alternatives gratefully received) & read online – news, articles, email, Twitter.  My favourite piece on the radio yesterday was hearing John Caudwell (founder of Phones 4U & famous for being the UK’s biggest ever tax payer) preaching about tax avoidance in the midst of the #PanamaPapers row.  I don’t agree with John’s politics or his stance on Europe but I do believe that everyone should pay their fair taxes.

8.30am-midday I spent this time making a number of connections for entrepreneurs I’ve met with this week & last.  One of the most important parts of networking is not attending events & collecting business cards for yourself; it’s making useful connections for others & bringing people together for the greater good of the group.  All the best networkers I know – Oli Barrett, Marc Ventresca, Denise McQuaid, Tom Holmes, Sinead Crowley – all operate along the same lines – in order to get it back, first you have to give it away.  This month for me is all about blockchain (I’m looking at potential applications of blockchain for the wider public sector & have a few interesting meetings coming up so watch this space) and social prescribing so this morning I had a great Skype call with the guys at Bitnet Technologies in Belfast & another Skype call with a couple of Irish entrepreneurs who’ve got an interesting community driven social prescription model & solution.  I also answered a large number of emails – my least favourite part of yesterday – and I noticed that the UFI Trust have this week announced their VocLearnTech Fund 2016 so I had a quick Skype with Sarah Axon to find out a bit more about it before promoting it out to my networks.  It’s open until 12 May & you can find more info here if you’re interested in applying.

Midday-1.30 Time for a swim.  I try to swim a mile every day if I can.  I’m lucky in that there’s a 20m pool in the basement of the apartment block we’re renting in.  I treat it like meditation – no phones, no emails – just your own head & your own thoughts.

Laugardalslaug

The 50m outdoor pool at Laugardalslaug in Reykjavik

It’s an incredible way to settle your head & solve problems or challenges you’re struggling with.  I had the pool to myself yesterday which is always a bonus.  I’m a slow swimmer but that’s ok.  When I started back in the pool on 29 December my time for a mile was 1 hour.  Yesterday it was 49 minutes.  I like visible improvement, even if it’s gradual.  My best swim this year so far was in the outdoor 50m pool at Laugardalslaug in Reykjavik.  It was January and in the middle of a fierce snowstorm – but the water in the pool is geothermally heated to the temperature of a warm bath and it was amazing to feel the icy snowflakes landing on your shoulders and back.  Swimming is a real pleasure these days as it was something that I had to give up when I was in a startup – I just couldn’t spare the time.

1.30-4pm Phone calls with associates, new people in my network, a couple of people that I’m working with, a chat with my Mum (very important to make that call every day), a nice call with the team from the Centre for Entrepreneurship at the University of Oxford that I’m hoping to work with this year.

Maxine

Nice to run into my friend & fellow Northern Irish lass Maxine Mawhinney last night

I believe it’s important to chat with people on the phone or via Skype.  You don’t build meaningful relationships with anyone via email.  A couple of interesting emails dropped into my inbox yesterday afternoon – one unsolicited from a high end recruiter asking me if I’d like to apply to become a trustee of a charity that I’m already well known to.  It did make me wonder why they’re paying good money to recruiters to bring them people that they could just lift the phone & call but hey-ho.  That’s a discussion for another day.

4-6pm Wrote this blog, got ready for a dinner at the Irish Embassy & caught the bus down to Belgravia.  An evening in the Embassy is always one of my favourite nights out in London.

Liz welcoming

Liz Shanahan, IIBN Global Chair, welcoming last night’s dinner guests

I see lots of people that I already know but also meet interesting new people as there’s no shortage of them passing through our Embassy.  This is largely down to our Ambassador – Dan Mulhall – who is a remarkable mix of diplomat, historian and story teller & who along with his extremely interesting Australian wife Greta hosts the most welcoming & eclectic of gatherings.  Last night was no exception.  I sit on the London board of the Irish International Business Network and, like any organisation that cares about succession planning, we run a Future Leaders programme.  Last night’s dinner was to celebrate the success of our latest cohort and 4 of our young people stood up & shared their stories.

Tom Court

London Irish rugby player & former international, Ulster & Grand Slammer Tom Court, now an edtech entrepreneur

It was incredibly moving to listen to them – one is a rugby star turned tech entrepreneur, one is a former social innovator turned healthy food producer, one is a lawyer and one has left his City career behind & is starting a property portfolio – and we have 50 more like them.  As the Ambassador said at the end of the evening – “We can all relax – our future is in safe hands”.  The Irish diaspora is an amazing thing – I often wonder how people who aren’t Irish manage.

10.45 I left the Embassy with a head buzzing with ideas from the conversations I’d had, caught the bus home & went straight to bed, thanking my lucky stars that I’m part of such a wonderful set of networks.

I’m fortunate in that all my days are different from each other & these days I have a lot of freedom in how I choose to spend my time.  It’s a great gift, although there’s no doubt it took many years of hard work to unlock it.

Make each one of your days count.  None of us really know how many of them we have left…

How Networking & Collaboration can ease your Key Startup Challenges

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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).

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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.

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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”.

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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.

10 Reasons why DellWorld 2015 was Awesome!!

Dell senior team on stage during the press conference, answering questions from the audience

Dell senior team on stage during the press conference, answering questions from the audience

On the last morning of DellWorld 2015, Mona Charif, Dell’s VP of Marketing & Communications, asked me during the Influencers’ breakfast what was the one thing that had surprised me most over the course of my couple of days at DellWorld. It was such an easy question to answer. Without any hesitation I answered that it was the quality of the Dell team & the way that their CEO, Michael Dell, is adored by everyone inside & outside of their organisation.

All the other bloggers have written plenty about the technology they saw at DellWorld 2015 and the EMC deal so I’m going to take a slightly different tack & tell you instead my 10 reasons for why being there this year was so awesome:

  1. Meeting lots of other geeks (about 8,500 of them – but in friendly Austin, Texas (home of SXSW) instead of more impersonal Las Vegas which is where many of the other big US conferences take place). Austin is where the Dell mothership is based & it’s great to see the company putting so much back into the local economy.
    In a De Lorean on Back to the Future Day with a hover board - awesome!

    In a De Lorean on Back to the Future Day with a hover board – awesome!

    I also got to sit in & be photographed in a De Lorean car (made by an American in Belfast I might add!) on Back to the Future Day, with a hover board – how could anything be better than that! Awesome.

  2. Meeting Dell CEO Michael Dell, telling him a story & getting to take a selfie with him as a result. What was the story? It was the one about how my friend & former colleague Tim Ramsdale persuaded our mutual employer to buy a Dell server in London in 1989, which wasn’t as easy at the time as you might think.   What did Michael Dell say? – He said in that case you were one of my very first London customers… Sorta makes the rest of it worthwhile doesn’t it…Michael Dell doesn’t really do selfies but after that story it was quite easy – & who can blame him. In my humble opinion & as a person who has started a number of companies in my time I was humbled to meet a man who started his business at the age of 19 & who is still heading it up at 50 – and not just heading it up but is clearly everything from commander in chief to best joker on the block.
    Selfie with Dell CEO Michael Dell

    Selfie with Dell CEO Michael Dell

    Michael Dell is on message across all parts of his business, completely engaging whatever he’s discussing, confident in Dell’s future (just listen to him talk about why he bought Dell back out of public ownership in 2013) & making a massive statement of intent re Dell’s recent purchase of EMC;

  3. Finding out how many members of the Dell senior and middle management team are Irish – that made me very happy & indeed is awesome;
  4. Getting a glimpse early doors of some of the innovations that Dell has in the pipeline via the Whisper Suite demonstration – but sadly I’m under an NDA so I can’t say too much about that. Suffice to say that I loved what Dell is planning on Internet of Things…;
  5. Meeting Dell’s Entrepreneur in Residence, Elizabeth Gore, & finding out we have a lot in common – although Elizabeth is both far more glamorous & far more diplomatic than I am.
    Entrepreneur in Residence x 2

    Entrepreneur in Residence x 2

    We decided that both of us have a “licence to meddle” which is really quite nice. Here’s the link to Elizabeth’s Huffington Post piece about what an Entrepreneur in Residence actually is, in case you’re interested – and yes – she is awesome.  In a strange turn of fate I’m looking forward to meeting Elizabeth’s Dell predecessor Ingrid Vanderveldt at Digital Week Ireland in West Cork next week – it really is a small geek world.

  6. Being at Pitchslam & experiencing Michael Dell turning up last minute as one of the judging panel as a nice surprise for the 5 startup entrants. Honestly, it was lovely of him to do that but if I’d been pitching I’d have died – right there on the spot. Well done to the winners, Goal Control – proof that with a good pitch in the right place you can still win despite pitching soccer to an American audience & having the worst Twitter account on the planet. Must be some lessons in there for all of us;
  7. Observing Americans at play at the John Mayer concert & jamboree on Night 1 of the conference – that was so much fun.
    Cupcake lorry at the John Mayer concert

    Cupcake lorry at the John Mayer concert

    Thank goodness I ignored my long suffering mother in law & didn’t bother packing a dress… Last year’s entertainment was Duran Duran – I’m saying nothing.

  8. Getting up close & personal with the Dell team – universally & consistently fabulous & what a great way to showcase them – put them in front of 8,500 members of your community, customers & partners for 3 days. Here’s a pic of two of my favourites – Gloria Cedeno & Ana Coreas, both are from Panama & both work in the marketing & comms team at Dell, Ana in Austin & Gloria back in Panama as part of the LATAM team.

    Gloria & Ana

    Gloria & Ana

  9. Finding out about all the stuff that Dell does around the outside of core business – I signed up for the entrepreneurship, women in tech & edtech streams at DellWorld but when there I heard about so much more that the CEO & company does from Michael Dell’s work as the United Nation Foundation’s first Global Advocate for Entrepreneurship to the work being done with SMEs. Some of it could be called CSR but again there’s so much more. Also – I stayed in Austin for 3 days after DellWorld & everyone I talked to in town from taxi drivers to bar owners (you can immediately see how I roll!) was full of praise for their local big employer.
  10. Attending the Women in IT lunch with 240 other women and hearing from Carey Lohrenz about her experience as a woman in a traditionally male world – she’s a former fighter pilot in the US Navy.  It was really special to spend time with so many other women in IT & the air was buzzing with conversations, and quite a lot of whooping in response to some of Carey’s very amusing comments.  Check her out – she’s awesome.
  11. Receiving confirmation that all the customer facing things we ever did at Learning Pool in the early days were right – from holding an annual conference that was all about connecting customers & showcasing our own team to listening to Michael Dell ask a Pitchslam pitcher this week – But has this ever been done in another industry? & wanting to shout out from the front row – Yes – Learning Pool did that for the online learning space back in 2006…Reinforcement from an industry giant sure feels good! Ok – DellWorld 2015 had a few more delegates than Learning Pool Live but I’m still certain they copied a few of our ideas…

I’ve been a Dell customer for the last 26 years so I really enjoyed being at DellWorld 2015 & learning more about how Dell develops products and partnerships.  The 3 days were informative, interesting & fun.  If you get a chance to attend DellWorld 2016 my advice is Go – you won’t regret it.

Disclaimer: I attended DellWorld 2015 as a guest of Dell & Dell paid for my travel & accommodation.  All of the above views, however, are my own.

Good Things Can Happen if you only say Yes!

Two recent trigger events prompted me to write this blog. The first was this tweet last week from Sam Missingham (@samatlounge) “Women of the world, if you are asked to speak at an event or appear on a panel say Yes (especially if you don’t really want to)”. The second was seeing Carey Lohrenz speak at Dellworld 2015 & listening to her talk in depth about (generally) how women don’t put up their hands until they’re sure they can do 120% of what’s being asked of them. Carey (& I) think you should put up your hand when you can do 75 or 80% & figure the rest out from there.

Badass Carey Lohrenz addressing the Women in IT lunch at DellWorld 2015

I know this topic has been done to death a bit in recent years but I’ve never written about this from my own personal perspective so I thought I’d do that in case anyone finds it interesting & maybe it will encourage a few more people to be brave.

It’s about 2 years since I made the decision to exit from my startup/scaleup Learning Pool, sell my half of the business & go & do something else. As CEO of a small growing business your default position when presented with most decisions is No. It has to be. In order to focus on growing your business, meeting payroll every month & moving the needle significantly in the right direction you need to eliminate as much distraction as you possibly can from your business & your life.

You say No to most conference attendance opportunities, most business social and networking events (especially if they involve travel or an overnight stay) and most requests for you to speak at other organisations’ events. Unfortunately, when you’re in a place where you sometimes wonder if you could function with one or two hours less sleep at night, you don’t have a lot of time to mentor people inside or outside of your organisation either – the smart ones learn by running along beside you.

One thing I did manage to make time for as Learning Pool grew was speaking to students at local schools about careers in STEM, usually through Young Enterprise NI. As entrepreneurs, business owners or people with careers in STEM we all need to do a bit more of this.  The other was chatting to other entrepreneurs who were a few steps behind where we were – I knew from experience how useful this had been to us when we were in startup mode.

I guess the most extreme example of me saying No was the night (it was International Women’s Day 2011 – the 100th anniversary of IWD) when I received a late call from someone in government inviting me to join the Northern Irish delegation to the White House to meet President Obama on St Patrick’s Day. What was my response? I said “I can’t possibly – our year end is end of March & I’m too busy”. There was a brief silence at the other end of the line & then the very sensible person said – Mary – when someone asks you in 5 or 10 years time, what were you doing on St Patrick’s Day 2011 which would you rather say – that you met the President of the United States or that you were doing spreadsheets… I made the right decision in the end!

So – for the last 2 years I’ve been running my own private social experiment in which I try to say Yes to most things that are presented to me – within reason of course. Below are some of the positive things that have happened as a result (to date there have been no negative outcomes).

Sam Sparrow & me (& the Mannequin Pis) in Brussels May 2014 for the final of the European Social Innovation Competition

Sam Sparrow & me (& the Mannequin Pis) in Brussels May 2014 for the final of the European Social Innovation Competition

I said Yes to Terry Ryall, vInspired’s founding CEO when she asked me to help the charity launch Task Squad. This gave me the opportunity to work in a charity for the first time in my career & the insights that gave me have allowed me to since make a contribution in a number of different ways to how charities and not for profits can better benefit from technology. I also connected with an entire new network of people (including the fabulous Sam Sparrow), charities and funders and learned all about social impact investment. This eventually led to me meeting Sally Higham and angel investing in her software platform business for youth & sports clubs, Run A Club.

I said Yes to John Knapton when he asked me to join Northern Ireland Science Park in Belfast as one of their Entrepreneurs in Residence. As well as being a lot of fun, this has led to me formally mentoring one young entrepreneur for the past 6 months and offering advice & help to a number of other startups. Best of all, I got to meet Her Majesty the Queen in Buckingham Palace in June 2014 and on the same evening met Norwegian entrepreneur Ollie Gardener & 8 months later angel invested in her social learning platform, Noddlepod.

Meeting Her Majesty the Queen in Buckingham Palace June 2014

Meeting Her Majesty the Queen in Buckingham Palace June 2014

I said Yes when my colleagues at the Irish International Business Network asked me to run the SharkTank at our November 2014 conference in New York City and by doing so met wonderful Canadian entrepreneur & angel investor Kelly Hoey.

With my favourite co-conspirator Kelly Hoey before our SharkTank in NYC

With my favourite co-conspirator Kelly Hoey before our SharkTank in NYC

We had a lot of laughs on the day, found we have a lot in common & since then we’ve helped each other on a number of things and are on the road to becoming firm friends.

I said Yes when the Research & Educational Network Norge asked me to deliver a talk on the Future of Learning to 200 people in Oslo, even though I can’t speak a word of Norwegian and the prospect of doing something like this was terrifying. You can read more about my Oslo experience in a previous blog here if you’re interested. Suffice to say it turned out well despite my fears!

Prized selfie with Michael Dell taken at DellWorld 2015

Prized selfie with Michael Dell taken at DellWorld 2015

More recently I said Yes when Will Pritchard of AxiCom PR asked me to follow him back on Twitter so that he could DM me about something. Before starting my Yes experiment I could possibly have responded quite rudely to Will’s request. This led to me attending DellWorld 2015 as a guest of Dell, meeting tons of fabulous people, meeting Michael Dell who’s one of my all time top business champions and finally realising my dream of visiting Austin, Texas after 15 years of being too busy to attend SXSW. Michael Dell doesn’t really do selfies so I had to trade him a story. I told him how my friend Tim Ramsdale persuaded our employer CIPFA to buy a Dell server back in 1989, shortly after Dell had started up in London. Michael loved the story & the selfie speaks for itself. I later told another story to the Dell senior team. It was how when Learning Pool was 6 months old we were evicted from the flat in London that we were secretly using as an office. The final straw was when our nosy neighbour opened the door to a courier who was delivering 6 large Dell boxes to us. She rang our landlord to report us & we were immediately evicted. The guys agreed I should have told Michael that story too because he would’ve loved it!

I said Yes a couple of weeks ago when Dee Forbes rang me & asked me to speak at the Digital Week Ireland event that’s happening in Skibbereen 3-8 Nov – more details here. November’s pretty busy so I was tempted for just a moment to say No – but I thought to myself, why not. I haven’t been to West Cork for years & years & it will be so much fun and a good thing to do. Watch this space or come & join us.

Our wedding, July 2014 photograph taken in Glencoe

Our wedding, July 2014 photograph taken in Glencoe

Finally, on a personal note I said Yes when my partner of 23 years asked me to marry him in June 2014. We were married 6 weeks later in Fort William, Scotland on 21 July 2014, a joyous & sunny day.

I have literally hundreds of other examples, big & small. In the past two years my life has been enriched by the people I’ve met, the places I’ve been, the experiences I’ve had and the tons of new stuff that I’ve learned.

Not everyone has the same luxury of time that I do right now but I urge you to try this too, even if it’s just in some small way and especially if it’s something that takes you out of your comfort zone. Next time an opportunity presents itself to you & you find yourself about to say No, pause for a moment and ask yourself if you could say Yes instead. I promise you it’s worth it & I look forward to hearing about your experiences in the comments below.

I’ll leave you with a food-for-thought quote from Carey Lohrenz: “Too comfortable is a heartbeat away from being complacent, and complacent is a heartbeat away from being irrelevant”.  Take action & don’t let yourself become irrelevant!

25 tips for success for entrepreneurs…and pretty much everyone else

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I’ve been doing a bit of public speaking over the summer & the other day I noticed a number of recurrent themes.  Many are about success so I’ve gathered them together in a list that I’m sharing with you.  It isn’t exhaustive so please add your own top tips via the comments below.  Here we go:

  1. Network, network, network – this is the big one in my book.  Make your network work for you & if you don’t have one, start building it today.  Pretty much everything good that’s happened in my life has come to me from my network.
  2. Keep your eyes and ears open, opportunity is everywhere & if you aren’t paying attention, you won’t notice.
  3. Try and learn something new every day.
  4. Be gracious when things don’t go your way – no-one likes a brat.
  5. Set some goals and get off your arse.
  6. Keep your ego in check.
  7. Let your people (if you have any) get on with things.
  8. Be as generous as you can afford to be with your time, money, knowledge and experience.  Pay it forward & pay it back.  Karma matters.Edith Piaf quote
  9. Make use of your outside brain – or in old money – ask for help when you need it!
  10. Manage your personal & professional cashflow proactively; it makes things a lot less stressful.
  11. Give credit and praise where & when it’s due.
  12. Keep space in your day for some physical exercise – it makes you feel so much better.  I wish I could run but I can’t so I swim instead.
  13. Accept at least half of the random stuff that gets offered to or requested of you (I work on a higher ratio than that – probably about 70%).
  14. Deal with any issues as soon as they arise – don’t let them fester & don’t be confrontational.
  15. Appreciate what you already have – develop your own skills & promote from within whenever possible.
  16. Be aware of how you spend your time.  You may choose not to do things differently, but understanding where your time goes gives you great insight.
  17. Don’t believe your own hype.
  18. Go with your gut & if it feels right, occasionally take a flier on someone.
  19. Work hard – there are no shortcuts – no matter what all those books tell you.Estee Lauder
  20. Always take time to prepare; there’s nothing worse than people who aren’t prepared or who don’t have a plan.
  21. Be grateful.
  22. Be nice.  It takes you a long way.
  23. Embrace your personal stories and those of your team.
  24. Don’t waste stuff and stay scrappy.
  25. Know where your values boundaries lie well in advance of when you need to – and I hope you never have to cross them.

PS I thought of something else that’s important – I always send a hand written thank you card when someone has helped me or done something really special.

Angel investment from this rookie’s perspective

Beautiful carved wooden angel - photo by Wolfgang Moroder

Beautiful carved wooden angel – photo by Wolfgang Moroder

“I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free” – Michelangelo

Last month I made my first angel investment. I know many of my blog readers are entrepreneurs and startups and some of you are or will be seeking angel investment, so I thought it might be useful/interesting for me to jot down (from a poacher turned gamekeeper type of perspective) for you a few of the choices I’ve made along my own personal investment journey and why – in case it helps you.

To set the scene I’ll start with why I’m doing a small number of early stage angel investments in the first place and what my criteria have been. My main objective was to eventually select a handful (my final number is three) of early stage startups where I liked the idea but more importantly liked the founder or startup team. My motivation is to use some of what I’ve learned starting and scaling my own businesses in the past to help a small number of other people get through their early growth stages less painfully than it was for me. If I make any money along the way, I’ll celebrate that as a bonus. Making money is not my primary objective – which is lucky because many of the wise heads I know have gleefully warned me (a few of them several times over) that it’s impossible to make money by investing in early stage startups.

A couple of other bits of info make up the full picture. Although I’m a member of a couple of formal angel networks, I haven’t invested through them or as a part of any of their syndicates. So far anyway.

Finally, the startups had to be somewhere on the spectrum of my own areas of interest so that I can add value. This inevitably means software, X as a service or platform, community, scaleable, public sector, always something to do with people and how they can save time or money by collaborating, learning from each other or working together.

I’ve been talking to startups for years. It’s a natural part of what all entrepreneurs do. For me the night out that will always trump all others is one where I can watch other startup entrepreneurs pitching. I just love that initial rush of thoughts about another person’s ideas – working out the angles on the business models and the commercials…seeing if I can spot some opportunities that they’ve overlooked. As an aside, I love it even more if it’s something I’ve considered doing myself in the past but haven’t been able to work out the commercials or the logistics and then someone else manages to do that (for example, Northern Irish startup Send My Bag).

As a seasoned and successfully exited entrepreneur, people seek me out anyway for all sorts of reasons. Because of this it was fairly easy for me to start about a year or so ago to assemble a long list of 20 or so potential investee companies and kick off an initial conversation with the founders as a way to start my selection process.

This is what I was considering:

• Do I like the product or product idea and am I convinced it can scale?
• Would I buy it myself for my own (theoretical) organisation to use?
• Is the founder credible, articulate, stable and sensible but with a dollop of sparkle?
• Do I like them enough?
• Can I see myself working with them over the next 3-5 years?
• Are they resilient enough to keep things moving forward when times get tough and do they have the grit to sack bad hires quickly and stand up and fight for themselves and their company when they need to?
• Are they well-informed about their competitors and the way the market is moving?
• Can the founder front the business; are they likeable and convincing without being arrogant and smartass?
• Is their company valuation reasonable and realistic?
• Do they have a good overall grasp of what their next 2 years looks like in terms of back of the envelope targets, resource requirements, funding, effort needed, team, etc?
• Is the founder generally on top of their workload and easily able to articulate key messages and information?
• Are their targets and forecasts reasonable or complete pie in the sky?
• Can I clearly see how I can add value to both the founder and the company?

It took me a while to put the above list together as I’ve never written it down before. In case you’re wondering – yes – it is more or less in order of importance to me. I did say this blog was going to be about my own personal investment journey…

Only companies that passed the first 2 questions made it onto my long list of 20 companies in the first place and then between June and December last year I whittled those original 20 down to 3. I guess where it gets interesting is how I did that. I’m afraid it isn’t scientific for anyone who’s expecting a checklist and a spreadsheet.

A few fell at the valuation hurdle. If all you have is an idea and you don’t have any product built or any customers, your company in my eyes is not worth £1m. Simple as.

A few others fell by the wayside because of the founder. The trick here is to keep meeting with them until you’re either convinced that they’re the real deal or until they let their guard down and expose themselves to be anxious, needy, deluded, arrogant, ego-driven, greedy, selfish, brattish, indecisive or any of the many qualities you as an investor don’t want to see in a startup CEO or leader.

Some over time I just had a bad feeling about, or something told me that the founder wasn’t 100% honest – I could just feel it wasn’t good when I scratched the surface.

Others I lost because a few months in the product was no longer holding up or it became apparent that the founder wasn’t able to move at the pace required to get to market within their window of opportunity.

A couple went because the founder had more than one focus and it became apparent that they were spread too thin and weren’t giving any of their projects the attention they deserved.  A couple more because the founder knew it all and wouldn’t listen to any advice from me or from anyone else.

And so I was left with three – which was the number I was hoping for in the first place. Two of “my” founders are female and one is male. They all share a number of important qualities and despite their differences they’re remarkably similar.

This blog is part of a short series and I’ll write about the companies themselves next time around.

If you have any questions please ask them in the comments section below and I’ll do my best to answer.

Startup recruitment – reject show-offs, clowns and mavericks …

Bryan Keating - possibly the world's best Chairman

Bryan Keating – possibly the world’s best Chairman

From the warmth of my temporary California base this week I noticed with interest that successful scaleup Futuregov is advertising publicly for an Executive Chair. Why with interest? Well really it’s because these types of appointments are so rarely advertised in a scaleup or SME.

This got me thinking about small business recruitment in general and what a dark art it is. Staying with the Exec Chair campaign for a moment, I can understand fully why Carrie & Dom are going down this route – it widens the selection pool beyond their own (extensive) networks and it’s a more transparent, open and fair process. But will it get them the right or best candidate? I’m not sure. Inevitably, processes that open some doors also close others.

In my world, the more usual way to bring someone into your small business as Chairman or a NED is to go out to your network and then make direct approaches to people, or a person, that you think may be suitable. A number of conversations take place behind closed doors and the “target” individual will make a decision based on any combination of the following and more – do they like your business, do they like you, how much else have they got going on right now, does your opportunity complement or conflict with their other current activities, can they see clearly how they will add value, what are you offering them, how’s it going to look on their own cv, are your exit aspirations linked to their available forward timescales, etc

Many of the sorts of people that I might approach if I was seeking an Executive Chair would never participate in a public recruitment process. They wouldn’t wish to be open and transparent in their dealings or intentions and they simply wouldn’t compete in a public way with others – definitely not. So well done Dom & Carrie for being brave enough to run a process that rules those people out and good luck with finding the right person.

There’s a wider issue here and one that I’d never really thought about much – despite having spent an awful lot of my own time during the past 10 years actively recruiting people into my own teams. At a dinner in Dublin last year I found myself sitting next to the head of a very, very large software company’s 2,000 person development team. We chatted away and inevitably the conversation turned to how difficult it is for a small business to recruit decent tech talent. My dinner companion at this point happened to say to me that he has a rule whereby he never recruits people via recruitment agencies or headhunters. Never. No exceptions. His reason for this was simple and straightforward. He believes that only second rate candidates use their services. He recruits only via his company’s new graduate programme and he sometimes interviews people recommended by others in his network or team. His further rationale when I challenged him a little on this was that he may occasionally miss a good person in this way, but the amount of time he saves by not bothering with or interviewing “bad” candidates was considerable and the trade-off was worth it. It also saved him from the nuisance factor that recruiters & headhunters introduce into your business – once they’ve placed a candidate with you they continue dialogue with your employee so that they don’t miss an opportunity later to make more commission when they can persuade that person to move again.

Later on I thought about my own career path and realised that I’ve only ever formally applied for two out of the numerous jobs I’ve had in my working life – once as a new graduate (I got my first job by applying via an advert placed in the Guardian) and again when I was moving to a new country (Northern Ireland in 2000) and didn’t have an existing network. Everything else I’ve ever done has come to me through my network.

Recruiting the right people into your team is the hardest job of any startup or scaleup CEO. I don’t care what any recruiter or HR person says about this, recruitment into your team is a nightmare and often it’s completely random as to whether or not the appointment you make turns out to be a success. Drawing up endless criteria and scoring lists of candidates against them? For the most part a complete waste of time and energy and it turns the process into something akin to the very worst excesses of procurement. Recently I’ve heard of a couple of people in my own network who’ve been encouraged to apply for vacant posts by the Chief Executives of those organisations. Both have gone on to apply & attend interview and both were unsuccessful. What’s that all about? Were they being used as stalking horses by unscrupulous Chief Execs wanting to make up their interview numbers or was it that the panel had a scoresheet that had to be adhered to on the day and therefore the Chief Exec was over-ruled or outvoted and their preferred candidate ousted by someone who happened to interview better on the day. (Rookie startup CEOs – this is something else to definitely watch out for – the professional interview performers – great at interview but by the end of Week 1, you realise with a sinking heart what a dreadful mistake you’ve made.)

Instead, 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. Also, 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.

For me, this is an interesting topic because despite having built world class startup teams several times over on a shoestring, recruitment is something I’ve struggled with over the years. I’ll readily admit that some of the worst and most personally painful mistakes I’ve ever made in business have been recruitment related.

Interested to hear your views, hints and tips for others on small business recruitment so please do share in the comments section below. The photo above is of Bryan Keating, the best Chairman I’ve ever worked with or for. Although having said that I’ve always loved the story about how the founders of the Innocent drinks company used to employ a 50p piece in the early days that they referred to as “The Chairman”. They flipped it for a simple heads or tails decision when required. I don’t know if the story’s true or not but certainly food for thought Dom & Carrie?

Going the extra mile…or why the little things in life really do matter

Extra Mile - Palm Springs style!

Extra Mile – Palm Springs style!

Do you remember this poem from your schooldays?

For want of a nail the shoe was lost,
for want of a shoe the horse was lost,
for want of a horse the knight was lost,
for want of a knight the battle was lost,
for want of a battle the kingdom was lost.
So a kingdom was lost—all for want of a nail.

I was fascinated by this story as a child and it’s a theme I often return to when I think about startups or small businesses. As an aside, the idea of a small issue leading on to something much bigger lends itself to many aspects of life outside business too – but more about that later.

In my mind, there are two ways that smart small businesses elevate themselves above basic bog-standard delivery and every new business struggles with either or both. Those organisations that can get these two things right effortlessly, consistently & with grace are the ones most likely to succeed.

The first part is about making sure that nothing important gets dropped. I know there’s a saying in startup land – “if the wheels don’t come off, you aren’t going fast enough”. Ignore this sort of silly “bro” culture nonsense when you’re starting your business – startup chaos is never fun from a customer perspective. If you can get efficient delivery right with some consistency in the early days as you expand beyond your founder team and early doors customers then you have a chance. It’s always very difficult to instil your founding team’s customer service ethic into your employee team. Fact. You can devise methods of measuring and monitoring customer service standards until the cows come home, but in my view the better way to tackle this when you’re starting out & beginning to expand and grow your team, is to focus on bringing the right people on board in the first place. People who already share your values and have the right mindset.

It’s ok to make a rare exception (maybe someone completely new to the workplace?) but really take care with your early recruits as those first team members are the foundation on which you’ll build out the next layer as you expand and then the layers after that. Never, ever employ someone who in the first 5 minutes of a job interview can’t articulate to you why they really want to work in your business and what specific value they will bring to you. That “better a hole than an xxxhole” statement is very true and one that I wish I’d paid attention to a bit more closely myself on several occasions – because you do really know in your gut whether or not someone is right to bring into your team. It’s all about creating the right sort of culture in that first wave of team members. If you get this wrong you are lost. In the course of my career, the most difficult customer issues I’ve ever had to resolve have been minor situations made worse by lack of communication or people in my own team lying to customers in order to cover their backs.

Also – everyone screws up from time to time. This is ok. The important thing is to learn as a team from mistakes made and to fix things for your customer as quickly and painlessly as possible for them. If you get this bit right, you could find yourself in an even better position with your customer because they’ve seen how you behaved in a time of adversity and they will admire you more if you’ve been honest.

The second part of this blog is more fun – once you’ve figured it out. What does “going the extra mile” actually look like in your particular business? I once heard Doug Richard say “any conversation with a customer is too short” – and he’s absolutely right. Without knowing why your customers buy from you instead of anyone else and which bit of what you provide they value most it’s pointless trying to go any extra miles as you could be wasting your time providing them with something that doesn’t really delight them and may even annoy them. U2’s music for example!

Everyone knows that startups have to over deliver. It’s one of the ways to get your first few precious customers – the ones that will hopefully go on to become ambassadors for you. Subsequently, stories about delivering customer delight and the resulting karma are legendary in entrepreneur circles. Hearing these tales from other entrepreneurs is one of my favourite pastimes and in my anecdote kitbag I have countless stories of huge contracts won on the back of a small act of kindness delivered at some point in the past. One is about a sales guy getting home at night & receiving a call from a school he’d just delivered some computer kit to that day. The teacher called him because he was delivering a presentation the next day & the printer cable he needed was missing. The sales guy didn’t complain, quibble or argue – he simply grabbed a cable from the office, turned the car around & drove the 70 miles back up the road to take it to the teacher with good grace. Years passed and the small computer company had pivoted & grown into something much bigger and different. The teacher changed jobs too and when he was looking for a supplier to provide an airport security system, he went back to that same sales guy.

My own favourite is a Learning Pool story. Sam Barbee & I went to a large and remote unitary local authority to deliver a lengthy sales presentation to a big group of people in a most unsuitable room. It was one of those rooms used for computer training and many of the people were hidden from view behind computer screens. We didn’t know anyone in the group and introductions weren’t made. The council had recently become a unitary authority, swallowing up the district councils in the process. Many of those in the room had been through long drawn out rounds of local government restructuring and were feeling fragile and bruised. Sam & I soldiered on with the presentation. Suddenly a woman at the back got to her feet and announced that in her previous role she’d been a Learning Pool customer in one of the district councils. Without waiting for permission, she launched into a tale about how she’d been working one day as administrator on her Council’s learning environment and had got it into a bit of a muddle. Tired and fed up she went home. Next morning she came into work with a feeling of trepidation, knowing she had to undo yesterday’s mess. She switched her computer on and immediately realised that her Learning Pool account manager had noticed overnight that she’d got herself into a muddle and without waiting to be asked, had gone in & fixed it for her. She finished off by saying that in all her years of working in local government she had never worked with a more customer focused supplier than Learning Pool. It was incredible. Sam & I could have kissed her. The atmosphere in the room changed in a heartbeat and 6 months later, after jumping through all the usual procurement hoops, the contract was ours.

But where do you draw the line? And how do you know what your own extra mile is? This is the tricky bit. As a small company you have to find ways to delight your customers that don’t eat too heavily into your margin – but you can only do that if you know your margins on your various products and services and the dependencies between them. So – know your customers and know what they want from you, know your margins and be aware across your team of where you have a bit of space to give a bit more. Delivering the extra mile doesn’t have to cost you a lot of money but you do need to give this some thought. If you get it right, it will pay you back in spades and you’ll sleep easier at night. A good start is to make a vow never to nickel and dime your customers from Day 1 and to always extend the same high level of courtesy from everyone in your team to everyone you deal with – no matter who they are.

I’d like to hear any of your stories about instances of a small act of kindness in business paying back many fold so please do share in the comments section below.

On a personal note, I keep a loose mental tally on favours I’ve done in business for others and favours I’m owed. I can’t help it – it’s the accountant in me wanting to classify everything in life into debits and credits. Don’t worry – I haven’t started noting it down in a ledger yet. I try to keep it so that I’m in credit with everyone in terms of favours I’ve done for them. I’ve done this all my working life and it’s only ever led to good things happening for me – and it means that when I really need a favour or need someone to pull me out of a hole, there are usually lots of people I can ask.

Pitching for success – some lessons from the Demo Coach Nathan Gold

Nathan Gold the Demo Coach

Nathan Gold the Demo Coach

Last week I attended my first Tech London Advocate Women in Tech event at the Telefonica HQ in Piccadilly and what an event it was.  We heard from a number of interesting speakers (Nikki Watkins especially) but the highlight of the evening for me was listening to Nathan Gold deliver a 30 minute version of his longer workshop called “Pitching for Success”.

Nathan is a San Francisco based demo coach.  He spends his life getting people or companies prepared and ready for high stakes pitches.  He helps people make their pitches and presentations more memorable and more compelling & his specialism is doing this for people who are in situations where they cannot afford to miss or fail.  Wow.  Think about that for a moment.  No pressure Nathan.

Anyway – I’ve listened to a fair few of these sorts of presentations over the years and would class myself as a hard to please audience member as well as a bit of a cynic, but honestly – Nathan was fantastic & I learned loads & loads of new stuff.  I’ve checked with him & he’s happy enough for me to share some of his hints & tips with you. Having said that – my recommendation is to go & see him yourself if you have any opportunity to do so and accelerators/regional development agencies/investment readiness programmes – book him now to run a session for your companies – it’ll be worth every penny.

Nathan’s methodology includes a lot of stuff that many of you out there who are getting ready for pitches yourselves won’t like, for a whole number of reasons – but mainly because you are going to have to do some thinking & also some work. More on that later … We start with a useful mnemonic:

VP + (SAME)2

You need a killer value proposition.  As well as forming the basis of your elevator pitch you can use this for so many other things – so it’s worth investing however long it takes to get it right.  Nathan uses Steve Blank’s “We help X do Y by doing Z”.

Value Proposition Matrix from Nathan Gold

Value Proposition Matrix from Nathan Gold

If you’d like to brainstorm this then you can use a VP matrix (see photo). I can’t tell you how useful & important this bit is.  Half the people I meet can’t explain their business to me in less than 5 minutes never mind in a single sentence.  Keep in mind that you have to get to a place where you’re going to be able to pitch your entire business in an initial investor meeting that may be no longer than 10 minutes.  Brief and simple is good.

Before I move on, a word on elevator pitches. Nathan recommends that you have three versions – a 30 second, 60 second and 90 second elevator pitch.  I’d never heard this before but it makes perfect sense and it’s very useful to have these rehearsed & in your kit bag, ready to trot out as required.

Still related to explaining what you do, use a Simile – “A is like B”.  Use this when you’re explaining in more & more detail & people still don’t get it.  Nathan’s own version of VP + S is “I help people prepare for high stakes presentations by rehearsing them as if they were in a Broadway show”.  See how effective that is.  Even if you’ve never been to a Broadway show you can immediately imagine how much work goes into the rehearsing.  When he said it, I imagined a couple of founders standing in a room in front of Nathan, going over & over & over their pitch until every word & image had been scrutinised, every aspect of it discussed in full and until their delivery of it was flawless!

Or if it’s easier, use an Analogy “A is to B as C is to D” – to illustrate this Nathan used the example of a company in San Francisco who’ve launched an electronic surfboard.  They explain it using this analogy “We do for surfing what the chair lift does for ski-ing” – see how easy that is to understand now as opposed to wondering what on earth someone would use an electric surfboard for…

A Metaphor works like “A is B” and the last bit of the first SAME is Examples – use them appropriately & drop in an S an A or a M to bring them to life.  Remember – investors see a hundred pitches a week, plus all the stuff they look at online & on video via the angel networks.  Out of the thousands of companies they see pitch, they invest in a handful.  The hardest bit when you’re starting out is getting noticed & being given an opportunity to pitch.  You will make it easier for yourself if you’ve really, really thought about your VP & how that sounds to the audience you’re presenting to.

Onto the second round of SAME.  When you’re presenting – whatever it is – start with a Story.  Don’t jump straight into factoids.  As your company grows, make sure you collect and share those stories so that everyone in the team knows them and can use them.  Nathan uses a Story Matrix to collate and classify the different types.  I like this.  We collected stories for every occasion as we were building Learning Pool.  They’re so useful.  Everyone loves a story and everyone warms to a storyteller – as long as you’re honest, authentic and real!  In the Story Matrix use the same layout as the VP Matrix.  Your column headings are Company, Sales, Support, Me, etc & your Row headings are story types – so Success, Failure, Fun, Legends, etc. Legends are the stories that are really hard to believe but which you can prove if challenged!

Nikki Watkins

Nikki Watkins

The next A is Adjective, and it’s the one you should add to your job title when people ask you what you do.  As well as coach, Nikki Watkins describes herself as adventurer, evangelist, believer.  I know they aren’t adjectives but this A is about being more descriptive about yourself upon introduction so that you will be remembered.  Nathan used a nice example “I am an entrepreneur with the soul of a dancer” – the entrepreneur in question has a dance related business.

Next we get onto one which is great when talking to customers but not so good for hard nosed investors…it’s a sprinkling of Magic.
The final E is Enthusiasm and your ability to communicate the passion you feel for your product, service, idea, company, life itself.  If you don’t have this then don’t present because this is the number one ingredient in your presentation.

Anne Winblad as quoted by Nathan Gold

Nathan left us with a great quote from Anne Winblad of Hummer Winblad Venture Partners “If the CEO doesn’t appear to be a good communicator we don’t fund the company”.

I’ll leave you with a famous story. During a visit to the NASA space centre in 1962, President Kennedy noticed a janitor carrying a broom.  He interrupted his tour, walked over to the man and said, “Hi, I’m Jack Kennedy. What are you doing?”

“Well, Mr President” the janitor responded, “I’m helping put a man on the moon.”

Really think about your messaging, especially when you’re pitching.

Thank you for your insights Nathan and for sharing VP + (SAME)2 with me.  I hope everyone finds this as useful as I did.

The 5 hardest startup lessons I’ve had to learn

One of my highlights of this busy past week was chatting with the Public Service Launchpad cohort of entrepreneurs & intrapreneurs in London and sharing with them a few of the hard lessons I learned as we were building Learning Pool.  Even though I probably scared the life out of everyone with my stories a few people have asked me to blog this session so here we go.  I’ve organised my thoughts into my 5 key learns – I’m sure other entrepreneurs out there will have more of their own to add.

PSLaunchpad-2

Lucy Knight’s amazing sketchnote of my talk.

Relentless execution is required to the exclusion of all else.  The odds are stacked against you in a startup.  70% will fail and won’t make it to the end of the first 18 months.  You have to move your project forward every day.  This means no distractions or other side projects.  No social life and the bare minimum in terms of spending time with your family.  I can remember my mum saying to me that she saw less of me in those first 2 years at Learning Pool when I was 20 miles down the road than she did when I was previously working in London 500 miles away.  If you’re only prepared to work 60 hours a week in your startup you might as well forget it as you’re wasting your time and everyone else’s.  You have to deal with exhaustion and sometimes the sheer boredom of it as you spend a lot of time doing stuff you don’t enjoy.  You have to use every minute productively.  Make all your phone calls when you’re hanging around.  Use time on planes to write blogs and website content.  If you go away on holiday, expect to work every day – even if you have a co-founder and team.  There’s no off button.  You’ll work 364 days in those first few years (everyone’s entitled to take Christmas Day off!).  You’ll also constantly iterate and pivot based on customer feedback, make endless decisions (often with insufficient info), do your damnedest to hit deadlines, overdeliver and do rework for customers without being paid for it (suck it up) and you’ll always be selling and doing a load of other stuff you’ve never had to do and are probably uncomfortable with.  It’s quite common to hear startup entrepreneurs talk about all the stuff they’ve gradually shed to make more time in their working week and in extreme circumstances that will include sleep.  I was discussing this with Mark O’Neill of Government Digital Service this morning & we concluded that kickstarting an early stage startup is like throwing cats against a wall and hoping some of them will manage to scrabble up to the top – not that Mark or I would ever do such a thing.  Also the knowledge that others out there might have cats with sucker pads instead of paws…

Financing – should you take investment or bootstrap.  Sometimes this decision is dictated by your product.  You can’t launch a new drug or build a semiconductor company without investment.  If you take investment, expect to be bitterly disappointed by the early doors valuations you receive and brace yourself for the late night calls and crazy demands of your investors.  They’ll all spin you that line about owning a smaller slice of a bigger pie.  If you bootstrap, be prepared for the pressures that will bring.  Complete focus on getting to revenue, constant running of your numbers, daily cashflow forecasts, making the awkward phone calls when you can’t pay your suppliers.  Having to borrow from the bank and then compartmentalising that worry.  Being really honest with yourself or yourselves about where you are against your business plan.

3.     Learning properly how to sell and all the boring stuff you have to do in order to sell successfully – scanning for tenders, writing responses, following up for feedback when you don’t win them, iterating your pitch, implementing and using a CRM (I know at least one startup entrepreneur who used to fire people for not keeping the CRM up to date), getting ISO accredited, building a brand, having a proper sales deck and collateral, constantly refreshing your website content.  The discomfort of making yourself pitch if you’re not a natural salesperson and (if you’re sensible) learning to sell in pairs.  Making smart decisions about what to chase with your limited time and resource.

My friends Martin Howitt and Lucy Knight from Devon County Council

My friends Martin Howitt and Lucy Knight from Devon County Council

        Dealing with your own people.  You can’t afford anyone experienced so you recruit for potential.  That then requires a lot of time (that you don’t really have) as the team doesn’t know much and therefore they run everything past you.  Not many people can write coherently so you’ll spend a lot of your time re-doing what others have done – usually after they’ve gone home or gone off on holiday.  I found a lot of time is spent trying to second guess the mistakes your team are going to make in some sort of order of priority.  In reality, not that much bad stuff happens.  It’s the excruciating moment when you see an email that’s gone out or overhear someone talking nonsense on the phone.  It’s useful to teach your team early doors how to make their own decisions.  If you don’t do that it will add to your own already massive decision burden.  Letting people go when they don’t work out.  This gets a bit easier over time and the interval between joining and leaving certainly shrinks dramatically.  Disappointment when people you’ve been good to let you down.  That doesn’t get any easier.  The realisation that you’ve become a worse person inside yourself over the years.

5.      Working out the people mix, building the culture you want and creating a cohesive team.  After all it’s your opportunity to create the sort of business you’ve always wanted to work in yourself.  Sticking to your values and not compromising on them.  It’s easy to own the moral high ground when you’re a PAYE person; you soon discover where your values limits lie when your house is on the line.  The stuff you find out about yourself that you may not necessarily like.  Burying that ego that’s been growing during your years in education and when you were climbing the career ladder.  As Jim Collins says in Good to Great, looking in the mirror when things go wrong & through the window when things go right (to see who else was involved in getting that good result).  The sheer amount of time you will spend with your co-founder(s) and team in those early years.

Gloria and Katrina from the Diverse Leaders Network, part of the PS Launchpad

Gloria and Katrina from the Diverse Leaders Network, part of the PS Launchpad

So – I hear you all ask – this sounds bloody awful so why bother?  That’s easy & I have 5 reasons why it’s worth it:

1.       The Prize – financial and other.

2.       The huge satisfaction you get from building something from scratch that you’re proud of.

3.       The highs are amazing.  When you make a big sale or you land a sale where you started out as the underdog.  When you win a big award.  I still remember how I felt the night the call came in telling us we were the Intertrade Ireland regional Seedcorn competition winners.

4.       Putting yourself out there as a startup entrepreneur means you meet some great people and have some incredible experience.

5. Nothing can touch being your own boss and taking control of your own destiny – no matter how terrifying that can be from time to time.

I h  I hope this rather long blog has been useful to someone out there and I’m dedicating it to all the people who helped us when we needed help – you know who you are.  If you have any comments or questions feel free to add them in via the comments section below and I’ll do my best to answer them.  Good luck to all the PS Launchpad projects by the way.  I’m waiting for you guys to connect with me via the usual channels!