Women in Tech

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

Lemn and Callie

Lemn Sissay with MOMO Ambassador Callie

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

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

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

Closing the gap

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

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

Good news for Lemn personally

Lemn Yvonne Jill Mary

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

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

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

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

Mary Fusion Fest 1

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

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

St Marys College

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

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

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

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

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

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

Back for Business

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

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

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

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

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

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

St Marys College

Global Entrepreneurship Week at St Mary’s College Derry

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’m hoping to achieve early doors:

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

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

Why am I doing this?

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

Why did I choose St Mary’s College?

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

What can you do?

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

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

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

ah-invest-ni-visit

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

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

ah-with-flags

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

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

ken-robinson-with-lp-mug

Sir Ken Robinson in Derry with his mug on a mug

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

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

ah-with-amb-hennessy

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

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

ah-with-nicola-blackwood

Jennifer and Leeann presenting to Nicola Blackwood MP at our stand

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

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

ah-dr-mohammed

Three of us with Dr Mohammad

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

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

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

ah-with-min-breen_alan

With Minister Pat Breen TD at the Enterprise Ireland networking event

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

ah-mary-and-eithne-in-dubai

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

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

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

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

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

My Top 5 Tips for Success for Women (or anyone!) in business

Network Dublin 2I was delighted to join the Network Dublin women in business gathering in June in the Intercontinental Hotel in Dublin’s Ballsbridge.  I was keynoting at their annual awards lunch.  There was a broad mix of women present from startup entrepreneurs and solopreneurs to seasoned small business owners to women from the corporate world.

Spending time with other entrepreneurs and hearing their stories is my favourite pastime – even moreso when it’s other women.  There are so many women out there starting and growing fascinating and profitable businesses that we just don’t hear about – either because they’re bootstrapping and don’t need external investment so the government agencies and venture capital providers aren’t involved or they aren’t large scale exporting or they just aren’t part of this month’s “flavour of the moment” sector.

Network Dublin with Barbara Moynihan

Great to bump into fellow IIBN member Barbara Moynihan of On Your Feet in Dublin – Barbara was up for one of the Network Dublin awards

At the event we had representation from niche childcare related businesses to owners of health & beauty businesses and spas to a dating coach, a number of specialist healthcare providers, the usual sprinkling of corporate marketeers and business development managers, life coaches and even a woman who promised to allow you to enjoy your morning meditation anywhere in the world through the magic of VR.  All had a story…or a number of stories.

You all know the saying – If you want something doing, give it to a busy person.  Well our Network Dublin group was made up of exactly those busy women.  Everyone I chatted with had a couple of jobs, a couple of side projects on the go, a couple of charities or causes they were involved with and a family to keep on track as well.

Before I move onto the advertised blog content, I’d like to give a quick shoutout to our charity partner of the day.  It was Hugh’s House in Dublin.  Wow – what a project.  The founder is Ade Stack.  During her own baby’s hospital treatment, Ade learned that overnight accommodation in Dublin’s Temple Street and Rotunda hospitals for parents and guardians of children receiving care was both sadly lacking and grossly inappropriate so she decided to do something about it.  In the past I’ve joked that Irish comedian Dara O’Briain was a nightmare to follow onto a speaking platform but it was much harder to follow Ade Stack’s 4 minute pitch from the heart.  There wasn’t a dry eye in the room.  It’s a fabulous charity so if you can volunteer or help out in any small way then please do.

The main substance of my talk was 5 Top Tips for Success for women in business written from my own perspective and experience.  It was incredibly hard to get the list down to 5 but without further ado, these were the ones I chose:

1 Take a #GiversGain approach to business and life

There are so many elements to this but it’s a theme fundamental to how I operate and have always operated and it works for me and many other people.  Also called paying it forward, paying it back, karma and a multitude of other titles – but I like the #giversgain label that Camilla Long introduced me to.  The basic premise is to help other people and do so on the basis that you will receive nothing back in return.  The reality is if you give to the world, it gives back.

So – have a mentor but be a mentor too.  When networking, be generous with your introductions or give some of your content away without the expectation of something in return.  Positivity breeds positivity.  Enjoy yourself at work and in business and do the things that feel right to you.  In networking I’ve always just collected interesting people that I get on with and like.  I’ve never targeted people that I think might be able to do something for me – that just doesn’t work and I’d feel uncomfortable doing that anyway.

At the end of the day, people buy from people they like and as all opportunities are attached to a person or a group of people, goodwill will take you a long, long way – be it in procurement or recruitment.

Always help the people that you’re a bit further ahead than and remember Madeleine Albright’s words – “There’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women”.

2 Work Hard – I’m sorry but there are no shortcuts

At least none that I’ve ever found.  Whether you’re scrabbling your way up the corporate ladder or starting a business, putting in the hard yards in terms of time and commitment is critical, especially in your startup’s early days when you’re the main resource or in the early part of your career when you don’t have much of a track record.  I can remember sitting next to a young entrepreneur at dinner one evening and I asked him how he would cope when his only option was less sleep & he said to me – that won’t happen because I’m capping my working week at 60 hours.  He was really annoyed when I replied – Your startup will fail.

Obviously it isn’t about working 100 hours every week but you must accept that success requires work and work takes time.

There are plenty of people out there who will sell you books or courses telling you something other than this but in my experience there is no substitute and those shortcut peddlers are either lying or much smarter than me.

My own worst example of this, and one that I’m not proud of in retrospect, is joining a 1 hour sales Skype call on my wedding morning in 2014.  However, I made a call at the time that it was necessary to be in the conversation and the government agency we were pitching to refused point blank to move the date.  Worse still, we didn’t win the work.  You will know your own reasonable limits and these are different for us all.

 

Final word on this point – you do need to stretch yourself.

Ali

Muhammad Ali – Dancing in the Lights

Cruising along in a well worn and comfortable spot will not bring you the success you’re capable of.  Remember the late Muhammad Ali’s words when someone asked him what it was like being in the ring.  He replied “Out here I’m just dancing in the lights; the real work is done in the back room”.  Enjoy your moments in the limelight but don’t neglect the grafting that needs done.

3 Celebrate All Your Wins – big and small

At the end of every working day, write your greatest achievement of the day in red pen at the top of your paper diary.

Gene with cake

My nephew Gene on one of his birthdays

Some days it might be a big win such as hearing you’ve successfully secured that promotion or received the £50k sales order you’ve been chasing and other days it might be something small such as getting to the end of the day without giving up or clearing those admin tasks that’ve been bothering you for weeks.  As the weeks and months go by, you have a visible and tangible record of your achievements and if you’re ever feeling a bit low or in need of some encouragement, you can flick back through your diary, see how far you’ve come & relive some of the glory of your past successes.  I pinched great idea this from my friend and IIBN colleague Susan Hayes, The Savvy Economist.  In her TEDx talk (5 Key Ways to Define Yourself & Turbo Boost Your Career) Susan describes how she used to do this in the very early days of starting her own business, but it works for many different scenarios and it’s both effective and very easy.

In the early days of your startup, make sure you work towards and measure some milestones, however small.  Ensure everyone in your small team shares and knows this week or this month’s goals and when you get there, take a short break to recognise and mark your collective achievement.   If it’s a Friday evening, take everyone out for a quick drink or a bite to eat and celebrate what’s gone well that week and what you’ve achieved.  Take the time.  It matters and you’re worth it.

4 Don’t Procrastinate and always move things along at pace

Procrastination is a savage thief of time and so much more.  I read a really good (long read) blog about this topic recently and I recommend a read here if this is something you know you’re prone to.  If it is, this blog will scare the life out of you.  I’m not too bad.  Life in an early stage startup improves the speed with which you make decisions and reduces the amount of information you require before a decision can be made.

For years now I’ve managed my own working life using the Eisenhower matrix (the Important/Urgency grid) but the trick you mustn’t miss is to remember the Important/Not Urgent box as this is the one that drives your long term career or business strategy.

The bigger the organisation is that you operate within, the more need there is to spend time formalising and streamlining your decision making processes.  The glacial pace of decision making was what drove me out of the public sector years ago.

Keeping things moving along on a daily, weekly, monthly & yearly basis according to a plan in your head or on your wall or shelf is a real skill but one that’s definitely worth perfecting if you can.  Teach your newbie team members how to make swift and good decisions and you’ll have a much happier and productive workplace.  Everyone likes to see and feel progress.

5 Have a Plan

I like the Sheryl Sandberg quote “Option A is not available so let’s kick the s*** out of Option B”.  Sheryl Sandberg used to annoy the hell out of me with her Lean In preaching but I feel better disposed to her after the way she has subsequently revised some of her earlier recommendations for women in business since her own sad personal tragedy happened.

It’s good to have a plan, but it shouldn’t be fixed in stone.  You need to incorporate an element of flex and you also need at least a Plan B – but probably a less fleshed out Plan C & Plan D as well.  We live in uncertain times and technology has introduced a pace of change into many occupations that would previously have been difficult to imagine.  My Network Dublin talk happened on the day that the reality of the Brexit referendum outcome began to emerge.  Prime Minister David Cameron had literally just resigned and my audience & I mused over what his Plans B & C or D might have been as he went to his bed the night before.  Indeed – we wondered if he had any!

I hope you’ve enjoyed this blog & please do send us your own Top 5 Tips in the comments below.

How Networking & Collaboration can ease your Key Startup Challenges

Cache1

L-R Mary McKenna, Clare McGee, Connor Doherty, Gemma Milne

This week I’ve spent a couple of days in Northern Ireland with Clare McGee of NORIBIC, Connor Doherty of CultureTech & Gemma Milne of Ogilvy Labs (@ClareNORIBIC @Culturetechfest @GKMilne1).  We’ve hosted a couple of events in Belfast & Derry & invited all our creative & digital industry colleagues to join us in order to discuss whether there’s any appetite in NI to create an industry led independent body to represent our sector & as part of that facilitate networking & collaboration.  The hashtag in case you want to look back at the Twitter conversation is #CACHE

In this blog I’m going to outline some ideas around how networking & collaboration can help especially digital & creative industry startups get around the key challenges identified in the recent Tech Nation 2016 report (collated & produced by Tech City & NESTA).  NI respondents identified 2 key and common challenges to scaling up their startups here in Northern Ireland & those are access to finance/investment and working within a limited talent pool (in my experience of growing a tech business in Northern Ireland, tech & sales people are especially difficult to recruit when you’re in startup mode).

Cache3

Our Belfast guests at The MAC

Let’s start with networking.  I was quite pleased when I asked the room last night “who enjoys networking?” and quite a few hands went up.  Usually people pull faces & shuffle a bit when they think about entering a room full of 200 strangers & starting conversations with them.  Then again, we Northern Irish folk are famed for our friendliness.  The other common barrier is that startups think they are far too busy to network.  I know that because that’s how I used to think too when I was working 7 days a week early doors in my own startup.  But here’s the thing.  It’s nigh on impossible as a startup to persuade good people to leave their comfortable, steady, well-paid jobs & join you if they don’t know you and they’ve never heard of your company.  As for raising finance, don’t even bother trying to do this cold.  You are wasting your time.

Cache2As an aside, in the 2 weeks following the publication of this year’s Maserati 100 List in the Sunday Times newspaper last month, my inbox & LinkedIn quickly filled up with messages from entrepreneurs and startups cold pitching me.  After some consideration I’ve sent them back a version of the following note.  “If you don’t have enough of a network to get introduced to me, then I’m not going to read your cold pitch because you aren’t going to make it.  One of the key elements of startup success is an ability to nicely hustle”.  Harsh?  Maybe.  More about this later.

Cache5

Derry guests in the Playhouse

Remember that all opportunities in business are attached to a person or people – and if you aren’t on that person or team’s radar, your chances of accessing or winning that opportunity are lessened.  Even in the strictest public sector procurement exercise you have a better chance of success if you are known to the procurer.

So – having accepted that networking is a good idea – how is it best to get started?  Here’s my quick primer:

  1. Think about who you already know, especially if you are raising early stage finance. Most of that comes from friends & family (& if you really want to finish the sentence – fools!).
  2. Join some networking organisations – formal & informal. There are loads & loads of these.  Ask around to find out which will be best for you.
  3. Use LinkedIn & Twitter effectively & if you don’t know how, then learn.
  4. Maybe consider joining an accelerator – access to networks is by far the greatest benefit. There are 3 in Belfast & a brand new one within the Northern Ireland Science Park in Derry called Growing Startups.  Hundreds more in London & many specialist ones emerging across Europe & the US that more & more Irish startups are accessing.
  5. Research industry notables local to you & work out how you can have a useful interaction with them. No stalking please.  Try & see what’s in it for them as well as you – not everyone in this life is pure & good although many are.
  6. Recruit already networked people into your small team. I’d take connections over experience any day of the week.  Remember the famous Sun Microsystems quote – “No matter who you are, most of the smartest people work for someone else” – let’s face it – especially true if you only have 3 people in your team!
  7. Build out your own personal brand. This will help your startup when it’s small.  You can figure out later on how to shift the spotlight away from yourself & that’s a nice problem to have.  There are loads of ways to do this.  Publishing content on your own blog or LinkedIn & accepting all public speaking opportunities are a good start.
  8. Simplest of all – do a bit of homework before you bowl up to conferences & events. Find out who else is going.  Contact people beforehand & arrange to meet for a focused chat about something mutually beneficial.  Ask one of the speakers if you can interview them for your blog.
  9. If you’re in NI or Ireland, don’t forget there’s another island next door & less than an hour on the plane that has 10x the population of the island of Ireland & it’s a lot less hassle to operate in than trying to do business in the US.

You all know the rules of networking but briefly:

Be brave and approach strangers – what’s the worst that can happen; be friendly and pleasant; have a 30 second elevator pitch and be ready to trot it out; related to the last point recognise the part played by serendipity & always be watchful for connection opportunities without being overly pushy, be ambitious in who you reach out to – especially online – hardly anyone ever says No (I can only think of one single person who’s refused to help me with something in the last 10 years – DM me if you want to know who it is!); remember this is a two-way street & karma plays a part – pay it forward & pay it back – no matter how little you have there’s always someone else who is worse off.

Onto collaboration.  This is nothing new.  Members of the City of London guilds have been collaborating for over a thousand years.  I found a great Bill Gates quote on this:

“Creativity is less of an individual characteristic than it is an emergent property that surfaces when people convene around a problem”.

Cache4

Me with the totally bonkers Gibson Girls of Red Earth Designs – fresh, innovative, fun!

I love that.  Our events this week attracted film makers, artists, actors, publishers and journalists, software & game creators, photographers, ceramicists, artisan food producers, musicians, digital generalists, chocolate makers, people from the fashion industry, STEMettes, all sorts of fabulous creative & digital companies & entrepreneurs.  Jim Murray of Troll games summed up creative collaboration beautifully last night in Derry as he described people with different skill sets & end games working together in a shared space, brainstorming ideas & dipping in & out of different projects in different parts of the industry.  We’d simply like to facilitate this happening for our creatives & digital people on a much bigger scale.

Competition is old hat.  It makes me think of gung ho alpha salesmen in shiny suits driving Ford Mondeos.  Ugh.

Going back to a startup’s ability to recruit for a moment, by 2020 Millennials will make up 50% of the workforce & 88% of them say they prefer to work in a collaborative environment not a competitive one – and you have to make your workplaces Millennial friendly if you’re going to attract the best of the best.

Northern Ireland is populated by thousands of micro businesses.  Collaborating with each other helps you go further & bid bigger – if that’s what you want.  So – if you like the sound of this, complete the NORIBIC survey here and have your say.

We’re launching the Northern Ireland branch of London’s Irish International Business Network at the Digital DNA conference in Belfast on 7 & 8 June.  I’m going to be driving this in Northern Ireland when I return home mid May.  But the good news is you don’t have to wait until then to join IIBN, you can join now & get your international networking kicked off pronto.

Last word – if you’re cold pitching to the people who accept cold pitches, Gemma Milne’s excellent advice is to keep your cover note to the length of two tweets max, don’t include pitch decks and business plans, maybe include a really short explainer video, don’t send generic – think about how what you have is of interest to who you’re sending it to.  Oh & whatever you do, don’t send them to me 😉

I’d love to know everyone’s thoughts around this topic so please do include them in the comments section.

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.