entrepreneur

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.

An Evening with Willie Walsh

BA aviva

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.

WW

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.

Cool Beans

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.

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!

Angel investment from this rookie’s perspective

Beautiful carved wooden angel - photo by Wolfgang Moroder

Beautiful carved wooden angel – photo by Wolfgang Moroder

“I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free” – Michelangelo

Last month I made my first angel investment. I know many of my blog readers are entrepreneurs and startups and some of you are or will be seeking angel investment, so I thought it might be useful/interesting for me to jot down (from a poacher turned gamekeeper type of perspective) for you a few of the choices I’ve made along my own personal investment journey and why – in case it helps you.

To set the scene I’ll start with why I’m doing a small number of early stage angel investments in the first place and what my criteria have been. My main objective was to eventually select a handful (my final number is three) of early stage startups where I liked the idea but more importantly liked the founder or startup team. My motivation is 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. If I make any money along the way, I’ll celebrate that as a bonus. Making money is not my primary objective – which is lucky because many of the wise heads I know have gleefully warned me (a few of them several times over) that it’s impossible to make money by investing in early stage startups.

A couple of other bits of info make up the full picture. Although I’m a member of a couple of formal angel networks, I haven’t invested through them or as a part of any of their syndicates. So far anyway.

Finally, the startups had to be somewhere on the spectrum of my own areas of interest so that I can add value. This inevitably means software, X as a service or platform, community, scaleable, public sector, always something to do with people and how they can save time or money by collaborating, learning from each other or working together.

I’ve been talking to startups for years. It’s a natural part of what all entrepreneurs do. For me the night out that will always trump all others is one where I can watch other startup entrepreneurs pitching. I just love that initial rush of thoughts about another person’s ideas – working out the angles on the business models and the commercials…seeing if I can spot some opportunities that they’ve overlooked. As an aside, I love it even more if it’s something I’ve considered doing myself in the past but haven’t been able to work out the commercials or the logistics and then someone else manages to do that (for example, Northern Irish startup Send My Bag).

As a seasoned and successfully exited entrepreneur, people seek me out anyway for all sorts of reasons. Because of this it was fairly easy for me to start about a year or so ago to assemble a long list of 20 or so potential investee companies and kick off an initial conversation with the founders as a way to start my selection process.

This is what I was considering:

• Do I like the product or product idea and am I convinced it can scale?
• Would I buy it myself for my own (theoretical) organisation to use?
• Is the founder credible, articulate, stable and sensible but with a dollop of sparkle?
• Do I like them enough?
• Can I see myself working with them over the next 3-5 years?
• Are they resilient enough to keep things moving forward when times get tough and do they have the grit to sack bad hires quickly and stand up and fight for themselves and their company when they need to?
• Are they well-informed about their competitors and the way the market is moving?
• Can the founder front the business; are they likeable and convincing without being arrogant and smartass?
• Is their company valuation reasonable and realistic?
• Do they have a good overall grasp of what their next 2 years looks like in terms of back of the envelope targets, resource requirements, funding, effort needed, team, etc?
• Is the founder generally on top of their workload and easily able to articulate key messages and information?
• Are their targets and forecasts reasonable or complete pie in the sky?
• Can I clearly see how I can add value to both the founder and the company?

It took me a while to put the above list together as I’ve never written it down before. In case you’re wondering – yes – it is more or less in order of importance to me. I did say this blog was going to be about my own personal investment journey…

Only companies that passed the first 2 questions made it onto my long list of 20 companies in the first place and then between June and December last year I whittled those original 20 down to 3. I guess where it gets interesting is how I did that. I’m afraid it isn’t scientific for anyone who’s expecting a checklist and a spreadsheet.

A few fell at the valuation hurdle. If all you have is an idea and you don’t have any product built or any customers, your company in my eyes is not worth £1m. Simple as.

A few others fell by the wayside because of the founder. The trick here is to keep meeting with them until you’re either convinced that they’re the real deal or until they let their guard down and expose themselves to be anxious, needy, deluded, arrogant, ego-driven, greedy, selfish, brattish, indecisive or any of the many qualities you as an investor don’t want to see in a startup CEO or leader.

Some over time I just had a bad feeling about, or something told me that the founder wasn’t 100% honest – I could just feel it wasn’t good when I scratched the surface.

Others I lost because a few months in the product was no longer holding up or it became apparent that the founder wasn’t able to move at the pace required to get to market within their window of opportunity.

A couple went because the founder had more than one focus and it became apparent that they were spread too thin and weren’t giving any of their projects the attention they deserved.  A couple more because the founder knew it all and wouldn’t listen to any advice from me or from anyone else.

And so I was left with three – which was the number I was hoping for in the first place. Two of “my” founders are female and one is male. They all share a number of important qualities and despite their differences they’re remarkably similar.

This blog is part of a short series and I’ll write about the companies themselves next time around.

If you have any questions please ask them in the comments section below and I’ll do my best to answer.

10 Cardinal Rules of Business Networking for entrepreneurs (and others)

GIEF Crowd

Assembled crowd in Dublin Castle when I arrived

In my world it’s quite common for entrepreneurs who are a bit further ahead than the rest of us to put something back in terms of the people following in their trail.  This can happen via formal networks (Digital Circle, Irish International Business Network, Global Irish Network, Chambers of Commerce, CBI, etc – we all have plenty of groups we’re members of) or it can be more informal – people you already know or meet along the way or via events that provide access to the Great & the Good (Culturetech in Derry is a recent example of a fabulous event that was bunged full of tech world glitterati as was the EBN Congress event run by NORIBIC in May with illustrious keynote speakers such as Steve Wozniak and Tim Smit).

Being able to ask questions of the people further ahead is mission critical to an entrepreneur (and corporate world managers I guess).  Even better is using networking to find yourself a small number of mentors and advisors with whom you can start an ongoing relationship.  Having personal access to leaders with proven success is a well known piece of the entrepreneur puzzle and one which significantly improves a startup’s chances of making it to the end of that all important first year.

Yesterday I attended the 3rd Global Irish Economic Forum in Dublin Castle.  It was hosted by the Taoiseach & the Tanaiste and is a biannual gathering of 250 of Ireland’s most influential & successful people.  This year the Tanaiste decided to include some Northern Irish businesses amongst the 100 SME businesses that are invited & that’s how come I was there.  It was terrifying.  I only knew two people there out of two or three hundred when I arrived.

One of the most frequently used phrases I heard yesterday was “I will help you if I can” – but as an entrepreneur how do you respond to and action that offer in order to get most benefit out of it for your company.  I thought about this a lot on the way home last night & decided to write a quick blog.  As usual, the list below is not finished or complete so please do add your own tips in the comments section & we’ll all be pleased to read those later.

  1. Have an elevator pitch and be ready to trot it out anytime & anywhere.  Keep it brief or you’ll lose your important audience.  Be able to flex it so that you can give a different version dependent on what sort of person you are pitching to and what country they are from – are they a potential door opener, investor, mentor.  If you aren’t good on your feet you need to practice this to the point where it just rolls out effortlessly freeing you up to watch their body language & listen & respond to their points/questions.  If you can’t do this, don’t put yourself through the pain of going to this sort of event.  Instead find someone who can do it for you.
  2. Don’t be afraid to approach people and always ask for help – when you get to a place where you feel you are comfortable to ask for some support just go ahead and ask.  Hardly anyone ever says no.  I’ve only been turned down by one person – it’s someone you all know so DM me if you want me to spill the beans – I can’t do it on here!  But it was only one person and I’ve asked hundreds for help.
  3. Don’t be afraid to be ambitious – in my group yesterday someone asked if a couple of the US heavy hitters could help her secure Hillary Clinton as a keynote speaker for her conference next year.  Time will tell on that one!
  4. Before you ask, be very clear about what it is that you want them to do for you.  I have a couple of “open” offers right now where people have offered to help me with “something” – but I don’t yet know what I can best use that offer for.  Help could be making an intro to someone to joining your board or investing in your company – and anything on the spectrum in between.
  5. Never expect someone like this to do any heavy lifting or grunt work for you, that’s your job.  What I mean by that is you have to do the homework and present the information to them so that all they do is give you an opinion or a steer – don’t expect they will do your market research for you.  If for example you were looking for a channel partner in an overseas territory, research who the players are, what their characteristics and pros/cons for you are & then ask for some advice in which 3 out of the 10 in existence are best for your company to approach.
  6. Be 100% serious when you execute on whatever it is you’ve asked the person to do.  If someone opens a door for you at your request then do your homework & don’t screw up the sales pitch when you get there.  It’s not just your own chips you’re using – it’s the chips of everyone similar to you that’s following on behind you.  I heard one US mentor describe this yesterday as “political capital”.  I’ve also heard it called “reputational capital”.  What does that mean? – I make an intro for you, you show up half prepped or don’t turn up, I’m now in a much worse place with the contact I’ve sent you to.  No pressure but be careful what you wish for and only engage if you know you are ready.
  7. Some access is for a one-off offer & some might lead to an ongoing relationship – be careful to work out which it is early doors.
  8. Related to the above point, if it’s the start of an ongoing relationship you probably need to meet a few times before both parties are comfortable.  The first time you meet just establishes that you like each other & possibly have a common interest.  You now need to get to know each other a bit better.  As the “recipient”, you need to do the running to make sure the relationship develops.
  9. When you have a new advisor in your circle, don’t just use the red phone and ring them when you need a decision made or have a crisis.  You’ll get far more out of the relationship if you keep them up to speed with what you’re doing & how things are going as you go along.  Again, it’s up to you to find a way to do that & put the work in to make it happen.  These guys are never going to be chasing you.
  10. Finally – when you’re at this sort of event, be brave and approach strangers and start up a conversation.  Everyone is there because of one or more vested interests of their own and they want to talk to you.  Never forget that people prefer to do business with people they like so at initial brief meetings like these be pleasant, don’t argue and regard it as a way of “interviewing” and filtering those that you will follow up and keep in touch with.  I came away yesterday with a handbag stuffed full of business cards and today will be spent following up with the people I met.

A few weeks ago at Culturetech festival in Derry I was lucky enough to meet & chat with Wilson Kriegel (former COO of OMGPOP, creators of Draw Something) and he said something that has stayed with me.  You start forming relationships the day you are born; growing and nurturing those relationships is key to the success of an entrepreneur.  Yep – at the end of the day business is all about people – nothing else really matters.

If you’re just getting started with networking, here’s a link to an earlier blog I wrote a couple of years back https://kickingassets.co.uk/so-you-want-to-network/

 

What makes us different?

Edge of CliffThe amazing photo on this week’s blog is of Norwegian extreme artist Eskil Ronningsbakken.  Why am I using it?  Because I heard a saying about startup entrepreneurs a couple of weeks back that I liked.  It was “if you’re not at the edge, you’re taking up too much room”.  Other sayings  I like on this topic are “If the wheels don’t come off, you’re not travelling fast enough” and also “If you can’t code and you can’t sell, get the f*** out of my way”.

I think a lot about why it is some people can cope with running small businesses and others can’t.  In my view it comes down to 3 things.

The first is a stronger ability than most people to be able to compartmentalise stuff.  What I mean by this is that you can carry on doing what you need to do at that point in time (be it get up on the podium and pitch to investors, focus on getting a tender response finished or complete a sales call) when something else distracting is going on – either in your business or in your personal life.  Being able to compartmentalise in this way also allows you to block out other bad stuff that you would otherwise worry about.  When bad things happen, as they do from time to time, I think about them and if there’s nothing I can do right this minute or today to address them, then I put them out of my mind until the time is right to deal with them.  I don’t lie awake at night worrying.  I put them out of my mind in a locked box that I open when the time is right.  If I couldn’t do that, I’d never get anything done.  I’d be paralysed with fear.

The second is resilience.  I’ve seen a couple of entrepreneur buddies in the last couple of weeks who have really been under the cosh recently.  If they weren’t so resilient they’d have given up, one in particular many times over.  What is resilience?  The official definition of resilience is an ability to bounce back into shape.  In a work setting it means being able to continue functioning & making sensible decisions in the face of adversity – which could be a one off event (like a disaster) or longer term (like always being tired from working long hours consistently).  Resilience is what you need when the 10th bank you’ve spoken to that week won’t lend you money & you don’t have enough to cover payroll right now, it’s the quality that makes you get up at 3am to go & catch a plane even though you only got home at 10pm last night, it’s what makes you sit down & start working on another response to tender when you’ve just had a rejection letter in from something you thought was a dead cert.  In summary, this is the quality that keeps you going & you either have it or you don’t – so be honest with yourself.

Last on my list is the big one.  I used to think the big one was resilience but I’ve changed my mind.  It’s also the one out of the 3 that I think you can learn or at least improve.  It’s the ability or willingness to make quick decisions.  I make a lot of decisions in my job. Some days it’s all I do.  But there’s more.  It’s the ability to make decisions when you have no or certainly less than perfect information and it’s the ability to make a decision and move on.  If everyone worked in an environment where they were encouraged or allowed to do this, the world would be a much better place.

I’m sure everyone has their own views about what should be in this top 3.  I look forward to your comments or questions as always.

10 quick questions to find out if you have what it takes to be a startup founder?

Today’s blog takes the form of a quiz to help you determine if you have the right qualities to be a startup founder or small business owner.  Not everyone does and this is a topic I’ve written about often in the past.  You all know the drill – it’s like one of those magazine quizzes everyone’s so fond of filling out in secret.  All I ask is that you’re at least honest with yourself…

1) You’ve been thinking about developing a new product and have done a couple of months market making.  You’re in a taxi between meetings in London when you receive a phone call from one of your spies who tells you a competitor is thinking along the same lines as you.  Do you:

a)      Phone the competitor and tell them to back off – it was your idea first

b)      Ring your bank, pitch your idea to your bank manager & see if he or she will lend you the money you need

c)       Scratch that idea and move onto the next one on your list – you have loads of ideas anyway

2) You badly need a Sales Exec to help your startup business cover more ground.  You engage a recruiter to help you find someone.  The next day you get a call from the recruiter – he’s decided he wants the job himself and he pitches to you on the phone.  You like the recruiter but he knows nothing about your sector.  Do you:

a)      Carry on with your original plan and interview according to the schedule – you’re sure to find someone with the right background and experience

b)      Decide to give the recruiter a chance – at least you know he will pitch and what’s the worst that can happen

c)       Look for a different recruitment firm that employs more professional recruiters

3) You’re at the airport when you run into a friend.  You’re chatting away when the person he’s at the airport to meet arrives.  Turns out he’s a visiting US venture capitalist.  You’re tentatively looking for investment.  Your friend introduces you and with no warning invites you to pitch to the American investor.  Do you:

a)      Give him your business card and say you’ll send him some information about your company and give him a call the next day

b)      Trot out your elevator pitch as confidently as you can whilst shaking a bit inside

c)       Make your excuses and get the hell out of there as fast as you can

4) It’s Christmas Eve and your business partner rings you to say he’s just had a call from the bank and they’ve turned you down for the loan you thought was a dead cert.  It’s the 4th bank you’ve talked to during December and they’ve all refused to lend you any money.  Do you:

a)      Do nothing – you’re sure it will all work out ok come the New Year

b)      Carry on with your shopping, take Christmas day off (it’s Christmas after all) but on Boxing Day, get on the phone with your business partner and start writing a new business plan for the next bank you’ll be calling

c)       Cancel Christmas and make your entire family miserable

5) You get evicted from your London “office” – ok it was an apartment and you’ve breached the terms of your lease by running a business out of it.  You have a small team and they need desks.  Do you:

a)      Call an estate agent and start looking for an office – they cost a fortune but hey – it’s one of the overheads of running a business right?

b)      Ring a friend whose office you were in the other day.  You noticed he had 3 desks but was only using one of them

c)       Have a little cry

6) You’re developing a product for market and badly need to generate some revenue to bolster up your pitiful cashflow.  The product’s only about 20% complete.  Do you:

a)      Phone around and see if anyone else you know wants to pitch in and share the risk/reward

b)      Call a few prospects and cut them a special deal for being an early adopter of your new product

c)       Stop development whilst you scrabble about to raise the cash to continue

7) You come out of a long day of meetings in London where your phone has been on silent.  You have 26 missed calls.  There’s been a serious security alert and all the London airports are closed.  You have an important meeting in Northern Ireland at 10am the next morning which you cannot miss.  Do you:

a)      Go and find a hotel before they’re all booked up.  You’ll get a plane ok in the morning with a bit of luck

b)      Run like billy-o to Euston and jump on the first train to Scotland.  You know you’ll get an overnight ferry and be able to persuade someone to pick you up at the port in the morning

c)       Call and cancel the meeting.  It’s perfectly reasonable to reschedule in the circumstances

8) You receive an abusive letter from a supplier who’s threatening you with legal action for non payment of an invoice.  You haven’t paid it because the work they did for you was woeful and you’ve explained that to them.  Do you:

a)      Ignore the letter and hope they’ll go away

b)      Call them and make a reasonable offer for the work they’ve done; if they won’t see reason put it out of your mind on the basis that most people who threaten you with legal action never actually follow through

c)       Panic and call your lawyer straight away

9) You go and pitch to a VC and they send you a term sheet which you believe doesn’t represent the true worth of your company.  Do you:

a)      Go back to them and do your best to negotiate a better deal

b)      Go back and pitch again, receive an improved term sheet and then turn that one down – you know your company is worth more and those guys are likely to put it down the toilet anyway

c)       Take it anyway.  You’re desperate for the cash and you’re unlikely to get a better offer

10) You’re 2 years into your startup and at last you can take a bit of money out and get away for a brief holiday.  On the day you pay yourself your Mum’s dog gets run over by the postman and needs an operation which just happens to cost the same as your holiday money.  Do you:

a)      Have the dog put down, tell your Mum there was nothing could be done for it and buy her a new (similar) dog for a fraction of the price of the operation

b)      Pay for the bloody dog – there has to be some karma in this world

c)       Jump on the plane as fast as you can leaving your Mum to sort out her dog

Ok – so by now you’ve guessed that these are all real life situations that happened in my startup in our first couple of years.  For every one of the 10 scenarios above, we or I did (b).  Be interested if you agree whether or not we made the right choices.  I hope you had fun reading this.  It gave me a good laugh writing it and brought back a lot of happy memories from our early days.