Dublin

My top 10 takeaways (& one regret) from #Fintech20Ireland

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(L-R) Thomas Olszewski of Frontline Ventures, Mary McKenna, Pete Townsend of Norio Ventures, Alan Costello of NDRC

On Thursday I was delighted to participate in #Fintech20Ireland at UCD as a speaker/panel member.  The audience was a mix of experienced fintech and blockchain professionals working across the financial and insurance services spectrum in Ireland and beyond.  Some were startup founders, some were thinking about starting companies, some were well established and experienced practitioners.  Others were financiers, investors & sponsors.  Thank you to Simon Cocking, John Armstrong and the rest of the Irish Tech News team for running the event and for inviting me to speak.

I talked (honestly) about my own experience of angel investing from the angel investor perspective & I also covered the right & wrong ways to go about “bagging” an angel like me from a founder or startup perspective.  I do this talk because I see so many founding teams getting this so wrong.  I’ve written my tips on “How to Catch an Angel” up recently as a blog here.

We’re living in a time when there are so many events happening that it’s more important than ever to make sure that events you run or attend generate value for you so I thought it would be a good exercise for me to summarise the value I derived from participating & being at #Fintech20Ireland.

These were my key takeaways from the day:

  • Networking – this is always going to be top of my list because I believe that having the right network is the solution to most challenges encountered in business. #Fintech20Ireland allowed me to catch up with people I already knew, meet some new people and meet in real life a few people I’ve known for a while online.  If a few quality additions to your existing network is the only benefit you derive from attending a conference or event then in my view that probably justifies the time you’ve spent.
  • Following on from the previous point, I got offered some work by someone in the audience who’d been looking for specialist e-learning expertise – pure happenstance that I’d mentioned my own e-learning background briefly in my intro.  Serendipity is always nice.
  • I got to meet some other early stage investors that I didn’t already know. As I always say angel investing is a team sport so it’s good for me to meet other investors & hear what they’re interested in and more to the point what they’re investing their time and money in.  It’s good for me but it’s also good for my portfolio companies as investment is usually an ongoing process so it’s useful to be on the radar of a lot of different people.
  • Meeting & hearing from the numerous innovative Irish companies who are transforming financial services and who were present on the day. Giles O’Neill from Enterprise Ireland reminded us early in the day exactly what Ireland has going for it in the fintech space – an existing ecosystem, multinationals & startups working side by side, good & improving international links (I noticed 10 new US routes announced by Aer Lingus yesterday & don’t forget you clear US immigration before you even leave Irish soil), coverage of global fintech hot spots by the EI in-country teams, previous huge international success of some Irish fintech companies.  Giles didn’t make this next point but I will.  Brexit clearly offers huge opportunity for Ireland in terms of fintech and indeed financial services.
  • I met Barbara Diehl, Director of UCD Innovation Academy. Barbara used to work at Said Business School Oxford & I’m a member of SBS’s network of experts.  Colleagues at SBS had made an email intro for us some months back but we’d never actually met.  Barbara was also moderating an innovation panel on the day so I got to see her at work before we had our chat.  It’s always useful to see if there’s anyone else from your wider network you can meet who works in the venue where the event you’re attending is taking place – especially if it’s a large university or corporate or government building.
  • My favourite quote of the day came from Charles Dowd, CEO of money messaging app Plynk. The “tips for startups” panel members were asked what success looks like.  Always a great question to ask a startup.  Charles replied “Success equals doing what you love – but with metrics”.  I love it.
  • There was an incredible Gartner quote mentioned on the day. 30% of university accreditation will be done via blockchain by 2020.  It seems a little ambitious to me – not because of any blockchain technology limitations but because of the glacial speed that universities move at.  This merits more investigation so watch this space for a future blog on this topic as it’s one that interests me.
  • I heard some fabulous stories on the day – both from the public stage and a few more scandalous ones that were whispered quietly in the breaks. Stories are the other part of what makes the world go round.
  • I enjoyed the variety of the panel debates but especially the discussions about how to find & retain the right people for your team as you scale (there was a side discussion about ageism in the workplace and the massive missed opportunity this results in. See Greg Canty’s blog on this here if you’re interested in diversity in the workplace).
  • It was very useful to be reminded that most money can be made in fintech by focusing on the boring stuff – regulation, GDPR – and that early money in blockchain will be made addressing points in the ecosystem where trust is costly. I guess that’s why I’ll never be rich.  I can’t bring myself to work on boring stuff but I can see how it’s an opportunity.

My one regret of the day is that I missed Thomas Power‘s future trends talk in the afternoon but it was great to see Thomas in Dublin.

I’ll leave you today with a question one of the delegates asked me in the morning coffee break. I have £10k set aside for a new kitchen…should I spend the money on a new kitchen or invest it in a startup? I’ll leave you to decide what my answer was.

An Evening with Willie Walsh

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Willie Walsh’s photo of a BA plane skimming over the Aviva Stadium in Dublin during The Gathering

This week at London’s branch of IIBN we were lucky enough to have Willie Walsh, CEO of International Airline Group (parent company of British Airways) as our keynote speaker at one of our regular business networking events.  A New Year boost to start the business year and what an opportunity – to hear the great man address a 200 strong Irish business audience.  Some might say a tricky enough crowd!

There’s been plenty written about Willie Walsh in the 15 or so years since he was first appointed CEO of Ireland’s national airline Aer Lingus but on the night I was more interested in seeing what makes the man himself tick.  He didn’t disappoint.  Alongside business chat and the expected slides about performance of IAG he told plenty of personal stories (I won’t publish them here – you’ll just have to go & hear him speak yourself) that were amusing but also gave some insight into the man behind the headlines.

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Willie Walsh keynoting at IIBN

The keynote covered IAG expansion (the usual big corporate stuff about world domination), a very useful explanation of how the fall in crude oil price hasn’t cut costs for European airlines due to adverse movements on the currency market (IAG still spends €1.6 billion on fuel per quarter), his work as Chairman of Ireland’s National Treasury Management Agency (it was particularly interesting to get insight straight from the horse’s mouth into some of the areas the Ireland Strategic Investment Fund is investing – domestic life sciences companies, several areas of new technology and also a housebuilding joint venture to address acute housing shortage in Ireland), Brexit (he’s against it, along with most other CEOs of large UK corporates) and Heathrow expansion (“I don’t believe this UK government will tackle the issue of airport expansion and this provides a great opportunity for Dublin”).

But what did I like the most.  First of all, Willie Walsh is a great live speaker.  He’s very natural, entertaining and articulate but there’s an underlying seriousness and real substance to his delivery.  I could have listened to him speak for much longer.  It’s the confidence that comes from having deep, deep knowledge of your subject matter; something you don’t see so much in business these days.  He reminded me of Michael Dell, another great business leader that I heard speak a number of times in 2015 – except that Willie is far more irreverent!  And he probably uses “richer” language than Michael Dell would ever do…but both of them have the gritty determination of people who’ve seen everything their chosen industry has to offer or throw, both command the respect of the entire room and both are and always have been hard working to the extreme – you can just tell that by listening to them.

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Cool Beans co-founders Isolde & Sarah with Willie Walsh

Before the keynote started, we had a 3 minute startup pitch as is usual at IIBN.  We like to give our newer entrepreneurs and future leaders a chance to have their voices heard and to expose them to potential investors, partners, customers.  This week it was the turn of Sarah O’Connor and Isolde Johnson, co-founders of the Cool Bean Company.  It was a great pitch and the girls rather cheekily finished up with a photograph of a British Airways plane (long haul flights & beans – I’m not too sure about that!) and a smile over to Willie.  Let’s face it – you’ve gotta pitch when you get the opportunity.  It was great to see Willie Walsh chatting with Sarah & Isolde afterwards and also that during his own keynote he commented what a good pitch they’d given.

A lot of what he said on the night was aimed at people new to business or young people starting out.  He said that he himself has never really applied for a job and told the story of how as a 17 year old at school in Dublin he casually went along to an open day at Aer Lingus and how that led to him becoming an apprentice pilot instead of going straight to university.  He said he’s shocked by how afraid people are of making mistakes and (rolling his eyes) recounted a few of his own.  The message was that if you don’t push yourself so hard that you make a few mistakes, you’ll never reach your potential as you won’t know where your boundaries lie.  Of course, as everyone knows, the cardinal sin is not learning from your mistakes or making the same mistake twice…and the Holy Grail is the knack of learning from other people’s mistakes, although I’ve yet to meet anyone who can do that successfully!

He also talked on the topic of finding a business personality that you own and are comfortable with.  Fortunately, we don’t have too many Michael O’Learys – although you have to admit that it’s worked for him.  Willie Walsh went back to himself as a 17 year old & said that of the panel that interviewed him on that day, three thought he was smart and self confident but the fourth person thought he was cocky.  I guess he had a bit of luck with him on the day that the balance didn’t go the other way – but the point he was making is that it’s a fine line and one that only the individual can find and get comfortable with themselves.

So – I’m a fan of Mr Willie Walsh.  I like people who care a lot about what they do, who work hard, who believe in their mission and have strong opinions.  I like people who are generous to others that are a bit behind where they are and I like people who are able to admit to and take responsibility for their mistakes.  I like people who dream big and aren’t afraid to go after the massive goals and targets that most people would run a mile from.  I like people who’ve come from humble beginnings but who through their own ability and hard graft are able to shimmy up the greasy career pole despite most of the odds being against them.  I like people who do public service and find the time to give something back.  I like people who take the unconventional road.  And the rest of the audience – they liked him too.  Most had seen him speak before and were very impressed that he used a completely different set of stories and jokes this time around.  I’m with them – there’s nothing worse than people who get up on stage and trot out the same tired old stuff over and over again.

Final word from me today.  Check out Cool Bean Company when you get a chance – we might only be half way through January but they’ve already announced a contract this year with all 135 Waitrose stores so I think we’re going to be seeing a lot more of Sarah and Isolde.

Billy Bragg…songwriter, activist & national treasure

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I’ve been a fan of Billy Bragg all my adult life – which is pretty much all his adult life.  The photo above was taken today & features my rather tatty but much prized Billy Bragg t-shirt bought in 1985 & survivor of so many wardrobe clear-outs.  I almost threw it away when we moved from London to Northern Ireland but I couldn’t bear to.  It reminds me too much of the miner’s strike & the stuff that went on back then.

Yesterday, the Learning Pool crew was breakfasting in the Gibson in Dublin following the Deloitte Fast 50 Awards ceremony on Friday night.  I don’t have to tell you how late we went to bed.  Suffice to say it was a similar time to when I often get up.  At breakfast, Billy Bragg was at the next table.  I couldn’t let the opportunity pass.  I did, however, have the decency to wait until he’d finished his breakfast & read the newspaper before I approached him for a chat.

He was exactly as I imagined he would be & I was delighted to hear he was heading over yesterday afternoon to the Dame St protests in Dublin to show a bit of support & play an impromptu gig on a makeshift stage assembled by the protesters & activists.  Good on yer Billy & good luck with your Irish tour.  Might see you Friday night at the Empire in Belfast.  Details are here if anyone else fancies it too http://www.billybragg.co.uk/gigs/gigs.php

Billy Bragg stories welcome via the comments as always.