Personal

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

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

Barry Adams

Barry Adams in his usual mega cheerful & positive mode

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Trish & me

My sister Trish & me at Buckingham Palace

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

A short blog about swimming…and nakedness…in Iceland

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

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

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

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

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

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

Laugardalslaug

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

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

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

rekjavik_swim

Helpful diagram showing you where to wash!

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

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

laugard-steamy

Steam rising from the tubs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Personal Tale of Two Years

mbe-family-pic

Mum, Trish and me at Buckingham Palace 4 March 2014

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

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

mum-with-mbe-medal

Mum with my MBE medal; larking about as usual!

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

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

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

So what have I learned?

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

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

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

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

I’m so lucky to have my sister.

Appreciate everything you have and everything you experience.

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

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

I Am in My Mother’s House

Anyone who knows me well will know that our move back to Ireland has been on the cards since way before Christmas.  At first we were going to move in March, then it was April and eventually we booked the Liverpool – Belfast ferry for 17 May because we knew that without a firm marker in the sand, the drift would continue.  London is a hard place to say goodbye to but the pull of Mother Ireland is very strong.  In my case there was another strong driver – a desire to spend more time with my own (nearly) 87 year old mother.

Mum in kitchen

Mum back from hospital at her kitchen table

I increasingly felt as if I’d short changed my Mum in recent times.  During the Learning Pool years my Mum used to say to me that she’d seen me more frequently when I’d lived in London – even though my Derry office was only 10 or so miles from her home.  That’s one of the realities of building a successful startup I’m afraid.  The amount of time it consumes really takes its toll on your family.

Then on the morning of 13 May, just as I was about to walk into a board meeting on my last planned working day before the “big move”, I received a phone call to say that my Mum had had a fall in her home the night before, had been lying on the floor all night long & was just being taken by ambulance to Letterkenny hospital.  I spoke to my sister who jumped into her car & headed for Donegal.  As I made that call my stomach turned over and I felt the guilt that had been hovering somewhere in the back of my mind for the last 12 months or so land with a thud.

St Patrick

St Patrick

Fast forward a month.  Mum is out of hospital and I’m living with her in her house in Donegal.  I’ve been here since the day I stepped off the ferry in Belfast.  I spent a 2 week stretch here before back in 2013 when Mum was recovering from a hip replacement operation.  That was the longest period of time I’d spent with her since leaving home for university in summer 1977.  I don’t know if anyone else reading this blog has returned to live with an elderly parent.  I think it’s more usual for the parent to make the move – but my Mum doesn’t want to go anywhere else.  She’s happy here in her own home, with her dog and surrounded by all her own things and I can understand that.

To say it feels strange is an understatement.  I’ve swapped the life of a carefree flibbertigibbet and social butterfly – dipping in & out of stuff as I please – for someone who needs to be solid & reliable.  Someone who needs to be the same calm, patient, pleasant and well-organised person every day.

Every morning at breakfast I can clearly see my great-grandfather’s teacup in the display

teacup

Great grandfather’s teacup

cabinet – and he died in 1934.  I stumble across random things from my childhood several times a day – my plastic radio moneybox from the early 1960s stashed next to the weed killer in the garden shed, a dusty pink bonnet I can vaguely remember wearing for best as a 3 year old – now faded but still with its quality lining and fake fur trim intact.  People who were dead long before I was born stare back at me from frames on the walls.  I look for the family resemblances in their faces.

Radio

My moneybox from 1963

When I wake up in the morning, the first things I see include St Patrick in all his glory and then a photo of my Mum, my sister & I taken in November 1986, heading out for my Dad’s 60th birthday celebrations.  On that evening he had less than 18 months to live but none of us knew that at the time.

So what have I learned so far.  The time has been brief but the lessons are big ones.  I’ve learned that sometimes the things that seem important aren’t the things that are important.  I’ve learned to slow down – on any number of fronts.  I’m having to learn that patience is my friend.  Patience is something I’ve never had much of or thought I had much need of – urgency has always been my motto.  I’m learning not to over analyse and to take each day as it comes.  I’m learning to accept that someone else comes first and that their needs are far more important than mine.

Bonnet

My bonnet – still pretty

I’m learning to appreciate the little things – a story long forgotten suddenly retold, the fun of a fox coming down the hill and through the fence and so close to the kitchen window that we could see its whiskers, the daily magpie versus jackdaw battle over the breakfast leftovers, the relief of listening to someone you’re caring for getting a decent, unbroken night’s sleep, a brief walk along the shore with Mum’s dog, reading real books late at night (there’s no broadband here).  There’s a lot to be said for remaining in one place for a period of time.  I watch the ever changing views of Lough Foyle and the moving colours of the hillsides and the big Donegal sky through every window.  I inspect the strawberries, tomatoes, gooseberries and bilberries every day for progress.  I go to the back door in the evening & look at the glorious Donegal sunsets.  Everything has slowed right down to a snail’s pace.

It’s not all good.  The standard set of hospital tests conducted in the days following her fall identified the presence of a tumour in Mum’s right lung.  I will never forget the 20 minutes I spent with the kindly, nervous doctor as he explained the significance and likely consequences of that to me or the phone call afterwards with my sister from Letterkenny hospital car park.  I didn’t intend to tell her on the phone but I couldn’t help it.

I thought I was coming home to enjoy the company of a less independent parent who’d just given up driving so was more housebound than she likes to be.  To drop in a couple of times a day in passing for a cup of tea and a yarn.  To collect my Mum to nip to the shops in Derry or go out for lunch.

Turns out I was wrong.  My role instead is one I am sharing with my sister.  We are learning to be a perfect tag team.  Good cop and bad cop.  Happy and sad in equal measures.  Decision makers and gatekeepers.  Our shared role is that of final companions, comforters, amateur nurses, cooks and cleaners, encouragers, tea makers and entertainers of visitors, providers of conversation when there isn’t much going on.  We are the oil that keeps the various wheels turning as time slowly passes.  It’s a role that we, as many others before and after us, are embracing to the best of our ability – grateful to our spouses and families for their support, grateful to circumstances that mean we have the time and opportunity to be of service in this very special way, grateful to the Irish health service for everything it and its agents are doing for us, grateful that we have each other.

Selfie in hospital with Mum

Hospital selfie – Mum, Trish & me

It makes me sad when people say to us “Your mother has had a wonderful life”.  We have a saying here in Ireland – the longer you have them, the longer you want to keep them.  And that’s the place I’m inhabiting right now.  A place of transition that’s neither one thing or the other.  A place that isn’t quite real or of our usual world.

I have no knowledge of the road that lies ahead but I’m scared of it.  I’m scared that I won’t cope or won’t be good enough or strong enough.  I don’t want to let my mother down.  I don’t want to let my sister down.  Deep down I know we will manage.  We always do, don’t we?

If you’re still reading, be a bit kinder to those nearest to you today.  At the end of the day, all of that other stuff is of no consequence.  It’s people that really matter in this life.

Why did I write this blog?  Three main reasons – maybe some of you will have some words of wisdom for us, maybe it will help another person in some small way and lastly, it’s less painful than telling everyone I know individually on a one-to-one basis.  Thank you for reading.

Addendum – 26 August 2016

We lost Margaret last Friday morning, 19 August.  She passed away peacefully in Letterkenny Hospital on the morning of her 87th birthday.  Trish & I were both at her side.  She had a remarkable life full of adventures and laughs.  We had an incredible last summer with her in Donegal.  We went out most days for a drive and for lunch, entertained a lot of visitors and most of all we had a lot of fun.

We’re very fortunate to have been able to spend that precious time with Mum & it’s brought us closer together as sisters.

Thank you to everyone who’s read & commented on this blog & on my Twitter feed or on Patricia’s Facebook.  Thanks also to everyone who came to the wake & funeral & to the people who’ve kept us going since May with support & love.  We appreciate each and every one of you.

Last but not least, thanks to the nurses of Surgical 1 in Letterkenny.  Despite your resource shortages you never let that get in the way of your care for Margaret or the incredible kindness you extended to us.

What’s In A Day?

clock

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…

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.

In the White House St Patrick’s Day 2011, picking a winner in Hillary back then even!

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 who now runs Task Squad), 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’m running a startup SharkTank again this year at the IIBN conference at BAFTA in London on 13 November. We have a few tickets left if you’d like to join us – details here).

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

steve-jobs-quotes-perseverance-1444

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.kevin
  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.