Women in Tech

How Networking & Collaboration can ease your Key Startup Challenges

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

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

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

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Our Belfast guests at The MAC

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

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

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Derry guests in the Playhouse

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

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

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

You all know the rules of networking but briefly:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

10 Reasons why DellWorld 2015 was Awesome!!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Selfie with Dell CEO Michael Dell

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

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

    Entrepreneur in Residence x 2

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

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

    Cupcake lorry at the John Mayer concert

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

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

    Gloria & Ana

    Gloria & Ana

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

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

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

Good Things Can Happen if you only say Yes!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Meeting Her Majesty the Queen in Buckingham Palace June 2014

Meeting Her Majesty the Queen in Buckingham Palace June 2014

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

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

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

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

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

Prized selfie with Michael Dell taken at DellWorld 2015

Prized selfie with Michael Dell taken at DellWorld 2015

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

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

Our wedding, July 2014 photograph taken in Glencoe

Our wedding, July 2014 photograph taken in Glencoe

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

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

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

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

Three is definitely a charm – my early stage angel investments

Today’s blog is a sister piece to last month’s “Angel Investment from this Rookie’s Perspective”. Last time around I wrote about what I was looking for in early stage startup companies when I was deciding which ones to angel invest in. This time I’m going to talk about what I liked most of all about the three startups I ended up selecting and investing in.

Before I begin, let’s recap on what my motivations are for angel investing in the first place. All angels will no doubt have different motivations. I am excited by the idea of putting something back in terms of helping some new early stage startups get moving. I wanted to use some of what I’ve learned starting and scaling my own businesses in the past to help a small number of other people get through their early growth stages less painfully than it was for me. After some thought in summer 2014 following my successful exit from Learning Pool, I reached the conclusion that I didn’t want to start another new business of my own and I knew I definitely didn’t want to work for someone else as a bog standard gun for hire (much as I enjoyed my 4 month sojourn in 2014 working with the vInspired Task Squad team – they’re doing really well – check them out) but I did want to carry on working.

This made the quest easier for me as I then knew that I was looking for companies where I could add value with some hands-on involvement and I also knew then that it was important for me to pay more attention to the founder/founding team as I was going to be working with them for the medium term. Let’s face it, in a startup the team or founder is far more important than the idea – ideas are ten a penny and most startups do pivot or at least swivel a little.

One surprising thing – I haven’t invested as part of any formal angel syndicate or group. I really thought I would but it hasn’t happened that way. That topic alone is probably worthy of another blog.

So what and who did I choose? All three startups are cloud based online platforms (a no brainer for me now that I come to think about it!), two of the three founders are female (this makes me very happy), all three founders share a number of important qualities and despite their differences they’re remarkably similar, two are companies based in England & one is in South Wales (disappointed that I didn’t find anything in Northern Ireland or Scotland this time around), all are involved with changing the way people do things – communicate, learn, organise. All three really care about their team culture as they grow and whilst they’re all focused on generating revenue and making profit, they all know that there’s more to life than making money. Finally, all three have a capacity to really scale quickly and without adding huge resource into the team.

First on my list is RunAClub headed up by fab founder and CEO Sally Higham. RunAClub has everything you could possibly need to run any sort of club or group, all simple to use, neatly packaged and stored in the cloud. Beautiful. Our customers so far are national sports organisations, local authorities, charities, community groups and individual clubs/groups. What do I like most about RunAClub? It’s such a useful product, everyone we speak to loves it and it’s so clearly scaleable. I love most things that truly save people time whilst remaining affordable and easy to use. As an investor, I like that RunAClub is scaling fast in its chosen core market but I also like that there are numerous other verticals for us to move into. An unexpected but very welcome bonus along the way has been that a really old friend has co-invested with me and this gives me a chance to work with him again.

RunAClub team last month in Sally's kitchen in Wiltshire - you don't have to be blonde but it helps!

RunAClub team last month in Sally’s kitchen in Wiltshire – you don’t have to be blonde but it helps!

I first saw Sally pitch at a Clearly So Big Venture Challenge event last summer. During her presentation she said – “what I really need in order to maximise RunAClub’s opportunity is another me” and that resonated strongly with me because I’ve been in that position so many times myself – so when she’d finished pitching I went straight over & introduced myself.

The RunAClub team is the liveliest and most can-do bunch of people that I’ve met in a long time. Their enthusiasm is infectious and I’m genuinely looking forward to spending time with them, growing a successful and valuable business.

My next is Captive Health. I love that I’ve known the founder Andrew Cockayne for years. He used to be one of my Learning Pool customers many moons ago and I’m so pleased that he’s become an entrepreneur himself and also that I can continue to work with him. Captive Health is the most mature of my 3 investee companies and in truth is more of a scaleup than a startup.  The company provides the health sector with a platform that allows richer interactions with and between their staff and their patients. Staff can access information and network within their teams when they’re on the move (only 40% of people working in a hospital have access to a desktop). Patients can use Captive Health to provide feedback and information about their choices and preferences. Hospitals love the products and we already have five as customers with many more in our pipeline.

At the recent PEN Awards in Birmingham with Andrew Cockayne & Leena Shaw of Captive Health & one of our progressive customers, Jo Wood of Ipswich Hospital

At the recent PEN Awards in Birmingham with Andrew Cockayne & Leena Shaw of Captive Health & one of our progressive customers, Jo Wood of Ipswich Hospital – I’m working on their footwear!

I heard Simon Stevens, Chief Executive of NHS England, speak at last month’s e-Health Week 2015 Summit. His opening gambit was “No industry has ever re-invented itself on the scale that the NHS needs to over the next 5 years without smart use of technology”. Captive Health’s product set offers the NHS some affordable tools with which to get ahead in dealing with their huge challenge and I’m pleased to be part of that mix.

Last but not least is Caerphilly based Noddlepod. Noddlepod is like a Slack for your learning communities. It’s a social learning platform that allows you to easily share your files and search for resources with the same degree of immediacy and familiarity. I met founder Ollie Gardener at a tech event in Buckingham Palace hosted by Her Majesty the Queen. Ollie was wearing Norwegian national dress. You can guess the rest. We’re very grateful to Neil Cocker of Cardiff Start & Matt Johnston of Digital Circle for allowing us to meet!

Noddlepod is my earliest stage investment of the three but it’s grown out of a number of years of considered reflection by the founding team on where learning is going next and Ollie has corralled some very experienced and well know global learning experts onto her Board including our Chairman Charles Jennings and fellow non exec Nigel Paine. Edtech continues to create frenzied excitement in the investor space and we’re encouraged (!) by the recent $1.5bn sale of Lynda to LinkedIn. Great that LinkedIn now has access to all that content but I wonder if they’ve thought about how to deploy it coherently to their millions of users?

With Ollie this month - outside my London Southbank "office" - having tea & more tea

With Ollie this month – outside my London Southbank “office” – having tea & more tea

Until LinkedIn or similar comes a-knocking, we’re focused on bringing Noddlepod to corporate universities and business schools worldwide. I love most that as a Norwegian, Ollie thinks way outside of the four walls of the UK in her growth plans and that she has a number of overseas investors and a pipeline already full of European opportunities.

So that’s my three. Exciting times. I’m certain I’ll prove all those people who advised me against making early stage angel investments wrong. As always I’m interested in hearing your questions, comments, observations. Check us out. Startups always need a helping hand and you all know it makes sense to work with small, growing businesses jammed full of bright, ambitious people with great tech – it helps our local economies and it keeps you sane.

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

Nathan Gold the Demo Coach

Nathan Gold the Demo Coach

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

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

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

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

VP + (SAME)2

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

Value Proposition Matrix from Nathan Gold

Value Proposition Matrix from Nathan Gold

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nikki Watkins

Nikki Watkins

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

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

Anne Winblad as quoted by Nathan Gold

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

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

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

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

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

10 under 30 – female fire starters to watch

My gift to you today is a list of the 10 young women under 30 in my own network that I admire immensely and believe are ones to watch.  This blog is loosely connected to my other posts on women in tech and is also a nice precursor to a couple of events I’m speaking at over the next few weeks (Create: 2014 at CultureTECH in Derry on 17 Sept and Digital Women Teacamp at the NAO on 9 Oct).

I don’t think anyone else out there will know ALL the remarkable women on this list so this blog will allow those that are listed to find each other and it will alert everyone else to their existence – so that you can all find and follow them.

The women on this list are very different from each other but there are a number of common threads that unite them.  They’ve all started something interesting of their own, or are poised to start something.  They’re all friendly but tenacious, busy but generous with their time, smart but hungry to learn more, successful but humble.

Anyway, without further ado and in no particular order, here’s my list:

Sheree Atcheson, Kainos

Sheree Atcheson of Kainos

Sheree Atcheson @nirushika
In her day job Sheree works as a software engineer at Kainos in Belfast. She founded Women Who Code UK as one of her many sidelines and she was one of the organisers of the Belfast Technology Conference earlier this year, attracting and engaging with speakers from the US and elsewhere. Sheree works tirelessly to promote STEM career options to younger people and she uses a quote on women in tech that I love – “in order to be in tech, you do not need to be a man, a “geek” or a “nerd”. All you need is to be interested.”
Sheree is an excellent role model for younger women and girls who are considering a career as coders and we’re working together in December at Queen’s University on just such a workshop.
You can find out more about Women Who Code UK & Sheree here http://womenwhocode.co.uk/tag/sheree-atcheson/

Serena McCrossan @serenamc
I worked with Serena at Learning Pool where she’s a Digital Marketing Exec.

Serena McCrossan Learning Pool

Serena McCrossan Learning Pool

Serena started her own business, Innov8 Marketing, in her final year of university when she was 21 and ran that for a few years. She wrote a very honest blog about her own startup experience that you can read here http://giveitsomesparkle.wordpress.com/2012/04/19/business-failure-is-never-fatal-a-story-of-bravery/ I like the way Serena managed to take the positives from her Innov8 experience and she’s definitely living proof that walking through treacle only makes you stronger.
Serena’s one of the most confident and self-assured young women I’ve ever met & she also knows more about SEO and web lead generation than anyone else I know. It’s great that she’s working at Learning Pool but a little bit of me wonders from time to time how awesome the next business she starts by herself will be.

Olwen Sheedy, PWC Dublin

Olwen Sheedy, PWC Dublin

Olwen Sheedy @OlwenSheedy
Where to start with Olwen! She’s the most organised person I know and a definite contender for the person who has achieved most, lived in the most places, knows the most people and is still well under 25. Hey – she’s even appointed her own “personal” board of directors. Isn’t that a cool idea – think of all the support you need in the various parts of your life & then slot people in. You don’t even have to tell them if you don’t want to!
I met Olwen when she was working for Enterprise Ireland in London, helping Irish businesses get a foothold in the UK market, but she already had a US track record under her belt long before she got here and she’s now joined PWC in Dublin. Olwen – London’s missing you already & I’m expecting great things from you.

Immy Kaur @ImmyKaur

Immy Kaur, Hub Birmingham

Immy Kaur, Hub Birmingham

Everything that Immy does is about using her own considerable personal energy to make positive change happen for other people and society. Her projects have all been deeply seated in social good and it’s remarkable to see such a gifted young person focus her energies in this way. The world would be a very different place if only there were a few more like Immy around.
In the short time that I’ve known her I can just tell she’s one of those people that gets things done very quickly without much in terms of resources – the best sort of person but one that’s in short supply.
She’s Co-Founder of Hub Birmingham – and I quote “Hub Birmingham is focused on making Birmingham more equitable, more democratic, more wondrous and a home for the 21st century. Made in Birmingham, Made by Birmingham, Made for Birmingham.” Keep on keeping on Immy – I can’t wait to see what you have in store for us when you’re the PM.

Charlotte Jee, ComputerworldUK

Charlotte Jee, ComputerworldUK

Charlotte Jee @CharlotteJee
Charlotte is senior reporter at ComputerworldUK covering government/public sector and how they use (and abuse!) technology. Like Elaine (see later) she gets to mix with and interview a lot of cool tech people in her job. Charlotte starting working whilst she was still at university, writing newswire (three-sentence ticker stuff you see at the bottom of Reuters screens) on the pharma industry for a couple of years.
I feel as if I’ve known Charlotte for years but that’s probably because she’s a networker and a party goer with her finger right on the pulse of government. I love that she calls herself a “government botherer” on her Twitter bio.
My hope is that Charlotte is going to collect lots and lots of scurrilous information about Whitehall personalities and then publish a no-holds-barred book for us all to enjoy.

Elaine Burke @CriticalRedPen

Elaine Burke, Silicon Republic

Elaine Burke, Silicon Republic

Elaine is a Dublin based tech journalist who works for Silicon Republic, Ireland’s awesome online source of technology news. She writes for traditional print media too and has authored a couple of chapters of a book coming out later this year on Dublin’s Silicon Docks. When she’s not writing about tech, she’s talking about it on the radio. Elaine was named Tech Journalist of the Year in the 2013 Journalism and Media Awards (also known as the JAMs).
We first met in real life when Elaine was interviewing me on camera about my views on women in tech. What a job as I hate being filmed. I was so impressed by Elaine’s thorough preparation, quiet composure and command of her technical team.
Basically Elaine has one of the coolest jobs in tech where she gets to meet lots & lots of tech startups, tech glitterati and even better, sample and review all the latest gadgets. I’m looking forward to seeing what happens when she starts something herself!

Sarah McBride, Create: 2014

Sarah McBride, Create: 2014

Sarah McBride @SMB_Business
Sarah is one of the youngest women on my list. I’ve worked with Sarah on the Create: 2014 conference that’s happening at CultureTECH festival in Derry on 17 September (it’s not too late to join us) and have been thoroughly impressed with her professionalism and level of ambition.
Sarah just got her “A” Level results this summer (I know she’ll hate me saying this but she got 4 As) and is starting at University of Bath next month. It’s wonderful to meet such a motivated young person and I have no doubt whatsoever that we’ll see Sarah starting her own business before too long.

 

Lyra McKee @LyraMcKee

Lyra McKee, Beacon Reader

Lyra McKee, Beacon Reader

Lyra is a Belfast based investigative and independent journalist. I first met her at a Barcamp in Derry back in 2009 when she was an achingly young startup founder & CEO but I was immediately struck by her passion and fire. At that time, Lyra had founded (and self funded with 3 of her friends) a startup called NewsRupt, an intermediary company that allowed news editors to bid on stories created by freelance journalists. I’ve since watched her get a number of her own ideas up and running as well as working in other people’s startups on the side to earn a bit of cash.
Lyra is full of great ideas and she’s forever rooting for the underdog. I know that one of these days she’s going to pull off something big. You can read her blog here http://muckraker.me/

Lily Dart, dxw

Lily Dart, dxw

Lily Dart @Lily_Dart
Lily is a graphic designer and front end developer for public sector web design business dxw. She describes herself as a “geek and feminist”. We’ve recently been working together on the preparation for the second #DigitalWomen Teacamp event that’s happening on 9 October at the NAO.
I first encountered Lily at one of the UK Govcamp events a couple of years ago and was impressed by her straight talking about what it’s like being a young female web developer working in a largely all male environment and her useful advice for other young women.
I love that Lily (like Charlotte) started working as a freelancer whilst she was still at university, earning money and building her network. We need more women like Lily in tech.

Emma Leahy @emsiememsie

Emma Leahy, Get Invited

Emma Leahy, Get Invited

I first met Emma when she was the Editor at Sync NI, Northern Ireland’s most respected technology, science and innovation magazine. I was bowled over by her energy and positivity. No wonder she was the person chosen to profile tech giant Steve Wozniak when he graced the Province with his presence and I will be forever jealous that she got to meet one of my absolute favourite entrepreneurs, Sir Tim Smit.

These days Emma is Marketing Manager for online ticketing and event registration startup Get Invited. The guys are going great guns and currently have almost 400 events advertised on the platform with gross ticket value approaching £3m – wow!

I’m always delighted to run into Emma at events because she has the sunniest personality and she knows all the best tech gossip!

Samantha Sparrow, Task Squad

Samantha Sparrow, Task Squad

Samantha Sparrow @SamRSparrow
I couldn’t write a blog like this without including Sam, even though she’s ever so slightly past 30 (sorry for telling everyone that Sam). Sam is a force of nature and a complete one-off. In my long and varied career, I’ve never worked with anyone else like her.
A lawyer and a social entrepreneur, Sam is the driving force behind Task Squad, a social innovation startup from national youth volunteering charity vInspired. Sam has worked in the 3rd sector for 10 years and daily brings to bear all the skills she gained as part of her legal training in a positive way to help bring about social change. For the first 4 months of this year the two of us met with hundreds of people across London and without fail, every single one of them said to me afterwards “Wow – she’s impressive!”

Sam’s a blogger (check out the High Tea Cast) and a Hoxton Radio DJ, she ran the London Marathon for 2 children’s charities this year, she’s a chatterbox, a multitasker, a visionary and a livewire with a heart of gold. Cross her at your peril!  If we had more people like Sam in charity innovation the world would be a very different place.

Olivia McVeigh @omcveigh15 & Shelly McVeigh @mcveigh_shelly

Olivia McVeigh and Shelly McVeigh

Olivia McVeigh and Shelly McVeigh

At 16 and 17 respectively these are the youngest women on my list and they’re also the ones closest to my heart as they’re my nieces. To say I’m expecting big things from these two is an understatement. They’ve just received their GCSE results and are starting out with A Levels next. They’ve both been brought up to believe 100% that they can do ANYTHING with their lives and that opportunity exists at every turn in the road. I have no idea yet what Olivia and Shelly will choose to do but I know it’s going to be huge – and for that reason I’ve sneaked them in at the end of my list.

OK – the eagle eyed amongst you will have noticed that I’ve listed not 10 but 13.  I hope I haven’t missed out anyone from my circle…

Please continue the conversation and make your own nominations in the comments below.

Women and tech – will it take us another 250 years?

I wrote a brief piece on women in tech back in March for the Belfast Technology Conference magazine.  The gist of it was something like this.

Elisabeth Vigee Le Brun, Self Portrait in a Straw Hat, 1782

Elisabeth Vigee Le Brun, Self Portrait in a Straw Hat, 1782

As a woman working in technology in noughties Britain I compare myself mentally to a female artist in the 18th century.  I believe we are similar sorts of pioneers in our chosen field.  At that time significant gender bias existed in the art world and women artists encountered difficulties in accessing training, selling their work and in gaining recognition.  Although the Royal College of Art began admitting women in 1837 it was into a special “Female School”, it wasn’t really until the feminist art movement started in the 1960s that women artists became more mainstream. Even now they are paid less than their male counterparts and struggle harder with appropriate recognition.

Elisabeth Vigee Le Brun is widely recognised as the most successful female painter of the 18th century.  She became an artist because first her father and then her husband were both painters.  Really it was the only channel available to women at that time.  In the self portrait above she’s having a bit of a tongue in cheek laugh at us – showing us her palette (the tools of her trade) but dressing herself in a completely inappropriate outfit for working in oil paint.  The same woman caused a scandal in the art world of the time by breaking with tradition and releasing a self portrait of herself & her daughter smiling open mouthed (showing their teeth) – imagine!

Many prominent women in tech today are there because of early encouragement by their parents or by an enlightened teacher and this is a story that I hear over and over again when talking to my peers and indeed younger women.

I thought the comparison with the art world back in March was a good one – and then yesterday I was at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London for the Disobedient Objects exhibition and this poster literally stopped me in my tracks.

Guerilla Girls protest at the Met Museum

Guerilla Girls protest at the Met Museum

In case you can’t read it easily, the smaller text on the poster reads “Less than 4% of the artists in the Modern Art sections are women, but 76% of the nudes are females”.  Hmm.  Maybe the art world hasn’t made that much progress in 250 years after all.

A lot of activity is going on and money is being spent across the world right now to fix the women in tech “issue” and make technology a more mainstream career choice for girls and women. Of course it makes a lot of sense, but let’s not be the generation that allows this process of transformation to drag on for 250 more years!

In this GCSE and A Level results month, encourage the young women you know to pursue exciting, creative and independent careers instead of dashing their dreams and pressurising them to study boring but safe subjects.

I usually stay away from this rather controversial subject but I’ve chosen it as the topic with which to relaunch my blog because the women in tech that I know and work with are all incredible…I just wish there were a few more of us.  As a final point it’s also worth noting that even back in the 18th century, Vigee Le Brun’s portrait commissions commanded a higher price than Gainsborough’s.

As always, your comments on my blog are most welcome and I look forward to seeing what everyone has to say on this topic.