Business angel

Sherry Coutu – entrepreneur, investor, philanthropist, mentor & role model

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It’s been a while since I’ve told you about someone interesting I’ve encountered in my travels so this blog is all about Sherry Coutu, award winning entrepreneur and a successful angel investor.  She has the smarts (MSc with Distinction in Economics from the London School of Economics & an MBA from Harvard), the track record as a practising CEO (her first start up was acquired by Euromoney plc and her second was floated via an IPO in 2000 when Sherry was five months pregnant and it was later valued at $1 billion), a successful investment track record (she’s invested so far in over 35 companies, one of the most recent being Artfinder) and the network (she sits on the boards of LinkedIn and Zoopla.com as well as being an investor in two VC firms).  Are you impressed yet?  There’s a lot more.  Sherry also has 3 young children and aims to spend one day per week putting something back via philanthropic pursuits (she’s on the board of Cancer Research UK, a trustee at NESTA, a non exec at Cambridge & Harvard universities and she works with NSPCC on a programme for disadvantaged teenagers).  I suspect on the philanthropic front there’s probably a lot more.  I know for a fact on the professional front there’s an awful lot more.  Wired Magazine voted Sherry one of the 25 most influential people in the wired world in May 2011.

I hate to tell you this but Sherry Coutu is also very understated, very cool and very nice.  I met her first a couple of months ago when Learning Pool was selected as one of the 9 SME finalists in the Cabinet Office’s Innovation Launchpad competition.  Sherry has been the driving force behind this initiative which seeks to improve in a practical way government engagement with SMEs.  I snapped the pic accompanying this blog when Sherry was delivering her presentation last Tuesday to the 120+ civil servants gathered at BIS.  We’ve been lucky to have her input and insight into our Big Society School idea as part of the Launchpad process.

My favourite Sherry Coutu quotes that I’ve come across so far are “I think the most important question for any startup is “Is what they’re aiming for going to change the world somehow? Is it going to make it a better place?”” and about working in the technology space “it’s a great industry that we’re a part of … being able to peer into the future and to invest in things that are likely to change our world. … It’s a huge privilege”.  In one video interview she tells how her father waved a bunch of fibre optic cable at her when she was 5 years old & told her it was going to change the world.  Life is all about those moments, isn’t it?

I’ve always thought I was a decent enough plate spinner and until I met Sherry, I’d never been envious of another person’s career.  I now realise I can surely do more.  Sherry’s tutor at the LSE talked to her about considering becoming an entrepreneur…I turned down my place at the LSE when I was 17 because I didn’t feel ready to move to London.  I wasn’t brave enough.  I’ve wondered over the past few days about how different my life may have been if I’d grasped that particular nettle – but then I also got to thinking about all the good things I might have missed and I’ve concluded that life really is too short for regrets.  It’s only in Kurt Vonnegut novels that we should visit those forks in the road & examine different outcomes.

I’ll leave you today with another great Sherry Coutu quote “As entrepreneurs you’re either seeking to disrupt something, or as a dominant market player, you’re seeking to retain your position. You know, you have to ask yourself, “Where’s the puck going to be in 25 years?”  Yep – the gal’s still a Canadian!  Sherry – it’s been a privilege to get to know you.

 

Entrepreneurs are story tellers…so says Doug Richard

I’m so glad that I took yesterday out to attend Doug Richard’s excellent “Starting & Growing a Successful Business” lecture in Letterkenny.  Learning Pool’s now an established business (when do you stop being a startup I wonder?) but most entrepreneurs have one eye on the next opportunity – it’s part of our condition…

Doug’s a man I could listen to all day.  He sounds exactly like the wonderful architect Frank Gehry (a Toronto man who’s also lived in LA for a long time) and he doesn’t mince his words.  I knew a bit about Doug already & I expected him to be like his reputation – ferocious, blunt to the point of rudeness & flashes of vitriol.  Instead – he’s a caring pussycat trying to impart his vast experience of being an entrepreneur to those folks that are just starting out.  Impressively, as part of his School for Startups social enterprise, he’s spoken to 7,600 entrepreneurs or would-be entrepreneurs in the last 2 ½ years.  He says he does it to show it can be done & to prove the government wrong – he thinks the way UK government supports & starts new business stinks.  I think most startup businesses we network with (and there are an awful lot of those) would wholeheartedly agree with him.  So – he’s a sort of energetic entrepreneurial avenging angel.

What impressed me most was his ability over the course of the day to really add value & give advice completely on the spur of the moment to people in the audience with businesses as varied as stainless steel catering equipment, online bridal directories, health clubs, micro-breweries, logistic businesses & distributors of artwork – so it must be true – business really is just business and entrepreneurialism can be learned – you don’t have to be born to it.

Doug’s written plenty of stuff & there are loads of good & free resources on his School for Startups website including his excellent blog – so I’m not going to regurgitate all that stuff again here in my blog,  Instead – I’m going to give you the quotes from Doug that I liked enough yesterday to write down – just to give you a flavour of the day and a flavour of Doug Richard.  Here we go:

Entrepreneurs are not born; babies are born

Some businesses can simply not succeed; entire industries exist that do not make any money (example he gave was the airline industry with the exception of our friends at Ryanair)

Some industries are harder to make money in; you need to know what industry you are in

A brand is a residue of what’s left; it’s a promise – you need to have a promise that you’re offering

Simple businesses are the ones that are most likely to succeed; but everyone does too much in their business – it’s human nature

You should make your promise accurate & narrow – how narrow can you get?

The story you tell as a young business is the most important thing – often you have nothing else

Entrepreneurs are defined by the story they tell

Risk & reward walk up together in a perfect continuum

Look elsewhere for tomorrow’s today (advice to go & check out other countries when looking for a business idea)

Government makes the measurable important instead of the other way around

You must delight your customers & exceed expectations – even by just a little – this will create word of mouth

If you’re building product, think about how you can include whimsy (he used the example of Apple’s “bounce” when you scroll to the end of the menu – utterly unnecessary but Steve Jobs felt it should exist)

Your family & friends are there to support you when you’re wrong so don’t ask them to appraise your new business idea

There is no conversation with a prospective customer that is too long, they are all too short

Every company should write a short profile of who their customer is – write it as a story – give them names

Most business expenditure is not driven by need but by ego (e.g. company cars)

Adults should only be rewarded for accomplishments, not for trying hard

Entrepreneurs are on a journey of discovery not invention – all the answers are already out there

Don’t stop at Page 1 of Google when you’re doing market research – there’s value in the long tail

You make more money from having an innovative business model than you do from having a great product or service

Business models matter & you should think about yours

Don’t overlook affiliate marketing (if this is your bag, Doug runs an 8 hour class on this alone)

Take the first offer – it might be the last offer!

Product doesn’t have to be better, it just has to be different (example used was skype – although of course it is also free!)

Just ask your minority customers why they don’t buy more from you (what a blindingly obvious idea – thanks Doug – we’re doing it)

A patent is not protection, it’s a hunting licence to protect (talking about the costs of defending patent breach)

No-one has ever started a company in Silicon Valley & ended up with what they thought they would – they are all Plan B companies

In an entrepreneur, resilience is so important (as an aside – in the very first conversation I ever had with Paul McElvaney many years ago, I asked him how resilient he was.  It’s something we as business partners return to from time to time to make sure we’re still resilient as – yes – you really need to be)

It’s a very, very rare business that succeeds with just one person – there needs to be a team

You have to be optimistic to be an entrepreneur

There were a few “funnies” as well that I noted – please be warned that there’s a small bit of bad language coming up:

I don’t speak “local” – when he couldn’t understand a few of the strong accents in our Donegal audience

I’ll take better, I’m good!

We don’t use the phrase “poison chalice” in the USA (talking about being Chairman of the Tory task force to review SME support in the UK)

I’m saving you an entire MBA today

Thanks for the validation…I was a bit concerned.  I know I’m obnoxious (to a member of the audience that told him he believed he was right about something)

On software development – Imagine selling a fridge where in v1 it just holds stuff

On Google rankings for your company – Do you know what we call the second page? – Siberia

On competitors – It’s not that you’re paranoid, they’re after you; they want to rip off your head & piss down the hole

On being an entrepreneur – Resilience, overcoming adversity, survival – they all pale into insignificance if you’re an asshole

In conclusion, a fab day where we learned a lot and Doug even made up a word – perfical (a perfect vertical).  Don’t miss him – he’s brilliant, warm & very well informed – and he’s running one of these again in Dublin on 16 Feb & a Belfast date is to be announced.  Come along with your questions & expect him to challenge you – he isn’t your mum & surely you’d rather know if your baby’s ugly.  I guess you want to know what I asked him don’t you?  I asked him how he decides on the one investment he chooses each year from the 3,000 business plans he receives.  He was candid & admitted that there isn’t a “one” from  the 3,000 – he decides what the next big thing is & goes hunting for a company to invest in.  All I can say is I hope he has an urge to invest in a public sector online learning community – come talk to me if you do Doug!

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