entrepreneurs

Mentoring one-to-ones up for grabs at #NDW16 in Skibbereen

kevin

Anyone who knows me will know that the Kevin Spacey quote above is one of my favourites and I use it (overuse it?) often.  All the best people I can think of are those who extend a helping hand.  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 – 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.

When I lived in London the last time around, I used to run what I called Entrepreneur Friday every 2 or 3 weeks in my Southbank “office” – a booth in Le Pain Quotidien beside the Royal Festival Hall.  I found it an easy and convenient way to see the startup entrepreneurs and wannapreneurs that contact me to ask for a bit of help or guidance.  Also it was a good way to spend a bit of focused time with some of the startup entrepreneurs already in my network – the ones who would sidle up to me at a busy evening event and start talking to me about some incredibly important or private aspect of their business.  In the 3 1/2 years I lived on London’s Southbank I probably met with over a hundred early stage founders in this way and together we addressed some of their challenges.  Without giving too many secrets away, here are just a few of the topics we covered together:

  • Do you think this idea has legs?
  • How can I get my team to be more productive?
  • How can I reach out to a certain person & attract them onto my Board?
  • Will you help me revisit and improve my business model?
  • I’m not an accountant but I want to produce better cash flow forecasts (we did that one with large sheets of paper for starters; sometimes old school is best)
  • I am making a mess of recruitment; how can I get better outcomes?
  • Will you go through this investment offer with me and tell me honestly what you think?
  • Can my small company enter the government market without spending a fortune on consultancy fees?
  • I want to buy my partner out; where and how should I start?

It works best when the founder or entrepreneur comes along with a specific challenge or ask and we work through that together and maybe reach a conclusion or way forward.  Often the person knows the answer themselves and just needs validation or someone else to run it past in confidence or look at it with a fresh pair of eyes and add some finesse.

Without a co-founder, life as a startup CEO can be a very lonely place.

I’ve carried on doing a bit of this since I moved back to Ireland and I’m going to offer 10 x 30 minute slots to any entrepreneurs or people thinking about starting a new business attending National Digital Week in Skibbereen between 10 & 12 November.  You can find out more details about the event and get tickets here

I was lucky enough to be at last year’s NDW and carried out a very informal version of this exercise which resulted in some rather interesting conversations – so I’m hoping for the same or even better this year.  Conference attendees – the gauntlet has been thrown down…

Here’s the deal.  If you would like one of my 10 x 30 minute sessions to discuss in confidence any aspect of your business that you believe I can help you with, contact me via my blog, my LinkedIn or Twitter with a couple of sentences of background.  No business plans, pitch decks or NDAs please!  It has to be something that we can cover within a strict 30 minute window so the onus is on YOU to make that work.

But be quick.  I’ve had the first applicant already on Twitter whilst writing this blog.  It’s @CultureArk and the business looks intriguing.  If I receive more than 10 requests I’ll choose the 10 that I think I can add most value to on the basis of what you’ve told me.

25 tips for success for entrepreneurs…and pretty much everyone else

steve-jobs-quotes-perseverance-1444

I’ve been doing a bit of public speaking over the summer & the other day I noticed a number of recurrent themes.  Many are about success so I’ve gathered them together in a list that I’m sharing with you.  It isn’t exhaustive so please add your own top tips via the comments below.  Here we go:

  1. Network, network, network – this is the big one in my book.  Make your network work for you & if you don’t have one, start building it today.  Pretty much everything good that’s happened in my life has come to me from my network.
  2. Keep your eyes and ears open, opportunity is everywhere & if you aren’t paying attention, you won’t notice.
  3. Try and learn something new every day.
  4. Be gracious when things don’t go your way – no-one likes a brat.
  5. Set some goals and get off your arse.
  6. Keep your ego in check.
  7. Let your people (if you have any) get on with things.
  8. Be as generous as you can afford to be with your time, money, knowledge and experience.  Pay it forward & pay it back.  Karma matters.kevin
  9. Make use of your outside brain – or in old money – ask for help when you need it!
  10. Manage your personal & professional cashflow proactively; it makes things a lot less stressful.
  11. Give credit and praise where & when it’s due.
  12. Keep space in your day for some physical exercise – it makes you feel so much better.  I wish I could run but I can’t so I swim instead.
  13. Accept at least half of the random stuff that gets offered to or requested of you (I work on a higher ratio than that – probably about 70%).
  14. Deal with any issues as soon as they arise – don’t let them fester & don’t be confrontational.
  15. Appreciate what you already have – develop your own skills & promote from within whenever possible.
  16. Be aware of how you spend your time.  You may choose not to do things differently, but understanding where your time goes gives you great insight.
  17. Don’t believe your own hype.
  18. Go with your gut & if it feels right, occasionally take a flier on someone.
  19. Work hard – there are no shortcuts – no matter what all those books tell you.Estee Lauder
  20. Always take time to prepare; there’s nothing worse than people who aren’t prepared or who don’t have a plan.
  21. Be grateful.
  22. Be nice.  It takes you a long way.
  23. Embrace your personal stories and those of your team.
  24. Don’t waste stuff and stay scrappy.
  25. Know where your values boundaries lie well in advance of when you need to – and I hope you never have to cross them.

PS I thought of something else that’s important – I always send a hand written thank you card when someone has helped me or done something really special.

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.

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.

Going the extra mile…or why the little things in life really do matter

Extra Mile - Palm Springs style!

Extra Mile – Palm Springs style!

Do you remember this poem from your schooldays?

For want of a nail the shoe was lost,
for want of a shoe the horse was lost,
for want of a horse the knight was lost,
for want of a knight the battle was lost,
for want of a battle the kingdom was lost.
So a kingdom was lost—all for want of a nail.

I was fascinated by this story as a child and it’s a theme I often return to when I think about startups or small businesses. As an aside, the idea of a small issue leading on to something much bigger lends itself to many aspects of life outside business too – but more about that later.

In my mind, there are two ways that smart small businesses elevate themselves above basic bog-standard delivery and every new business struggles with either or both. Those organisations that can get these two things right effortlessly, consistently & with grace are the ones most likely to succeed.

The first part is about making sure that nothing important gets dropped. I know there’s a saying in startup land – “if the wheels don’t come off, you aren’t going fast enough”. Ignore this sort of silly “bro” culture nonsense when you’re starting your business – startup chaos is never fun from a customer perspective. If you can get efficient delivery right with some consistency in the early days as you expand beyond your founder team and early doors customers then you have a chance. It’s always very difficult to instil your founding team’s customer service ethic into your employee team. Fact. You can devise methods of measuring and monitoring customer service standards until the cows come home, but in my view the better way to tackle this when you’re starting out & beginning to expand and grow your team, is to focus on bringing the right people on board in the first place. People who already share your values and have the right mindset.

It’s ok to make a rare exception (maybe someone completely new to the workplace?) but really take care with your early recruits as those first team members are the foundation on which you’ll build out the next layer as you expand and then the layers after that. Never, ever employ someone who in the first 5 minutes of a job interview can’t articulate to you why they really want to work in your business and what specific value they will bring to you. That “better a hole than an xxxhole” statement is very true and one that I wish I’d paid attention to a bit more closely myself on several occasions – because you do really know in your gut whether or not someone is right to bring into your team. It’s all about creating the right sort of culture in that first wave of team members. If you get this wrong you are lost. In the course of my career, the most difficult customer issues I’ve ever had to resolve have been minor situations made worse by lack of communication or people in my own team lying to customers in order to cover their backs.

Also – everyone screws up from time to time. This is ok. The important thing is to learn as a team from mistakes made and to fix things for your customer as quickly and painlessly as possible for them. If you get this bit right, you could find yourself in an even better position with your customer because they’ve seen how you behaved in a time of adversity and they will admire you more if you’ve been honest.

The second part of this blog is more fun – once you’ve figured it out. What does “going the extra mile” actually look like in your particular business? I once heard Doug Richard say “any conversation with a customer is too short” – and he’s absolutely right. Without knowing why your customers buy from you instead of anyone else and which bit of what you provide they value most it’s pointless trying to go any extra miles as you could be wasting your time providing them with something that doesn’t really delight them and may even annoy them. U2’s music for example!

Everyone knows that startups have to over deliver. It’s one of the ways to get your first few precious customers – the ones that will hopefully go on to become ambassadors for you. Subsequently, stories about delivering customer delight and the resulting karma are legendary in entrepreneur circles. Hearing these tales from other entrepreneurs is one of my favourite pastimes and in my anecdote kitbag I have countless stories of huge contracts won on the back of a small act of kindness delivered at some point in the past. One is about a sales guy getting home at night & receiving a call from a school he’d just delivered some computer kit to that day. The teacher called him because he was delivering a presentation the next day & the printer cable he needed was missing. The sales guy didn’t complain, quibble or argue – he simply grabbed a cable from the office, turned the car around & drove the 70 miles back up the road to take it to the teacher with good grace. Years passed and the small computer company had pivoted & grown into something much bigger and different. The teacher changed jobs too and when he was looking for a supplier to provide an airport security system, he went back to that same sales guy.

My own favourite is a Learning Pool story. Sam Barbee & I went to a large and remote unitary local authority to deliver a lengthy sales presentation to a big group of people in a most unsuitable room. It was one of those rooms used for computer training and many of the people were hidden from view behind computer screens. We didn’t know anyone in the group and introductions weren’t made. The council had recently become a unitary authority, swallowing up the district councils in the process. Many of those in the room had been through long drawn out rounds of local government restructuring and were feeling fragile and bruised. Sam & I soldiered on with the presentation. Suddenly a woman at the back got to her feet and announced that in her previous role she’d been a Learning Pool customer in one of the district councils. Without waiting for permission, she launched into a tale about how she’d been working one day as administrator on her Council’s learning environment and had got it into a bit of a muddle. Tired and fed up she went home. Next morning she came into work with a feeling of trepidation, knowing she had to undo yesterday’s mess. She switched her computer on and immediately realised that her Learning Pool account manager had noticed overnight that she’d got herself into a muddle and without waiting to be asked, had gone in & fixed it for her. She finished off by saying that in all her years of working in local government she had never worked with a more customer focused supplier than Learning Pool. It was incredible. Sam & I could have kissed her. The atmosphere in the room changed in a heartbeat and 6 months later, after jumping through all the usual procurement hoops, the contract was ours.

But where do you draw the line? And how do you know what your own extra mile is? This is the tricky bit. As a small company you have to find ways to delight your customers that don’t eat too heavily into your margin – but you can only do that if you know your margins on your various products and services and the dependencies between them. So – know your customers and know what they want from you, know your margins and be aware across your team of where you have a bit of space to give a bit more. Delivering the extra mile doesn’t have to cost you a lot of money but you do need to give this some thought. If you get it right, it will pay you back in spades and you’ll sleep easier at night. A good start is to make a vow never to nickel and dime your customers from Day 1 and to always extend the same high level of courtesy from everyone in your team to everyone you deal with – no matter who they are.

I’d like to hear any of your stories about instances of a small act of kindness in business paying back many fold so please do share in the comments section below.

On a personal note, I keep a loose mental tally on favours I’ve done in business for others and favours I’m owed. I can’t help it – it’s the accountant in me wanting to classify everything in life into debits and credits. Don’t worry – I haven’t started noting it down in a ledger yet. I try to keep it so that I’m in credit with everyone in terms of favours I’ve done for them. I’ve done this all my working life and it’s only ever led to good things happening for me – and it means that when I really need a favour or need someone to pull me out of a hole, there are usually lots of people I can ask.

The 5 hardest startup lessons I’ve had to learn

One of my highlights of this busy past week was chatting with the Public Service Launchpad cohort of entrepreneurs & intrapreneurs in London and sharing with them a few of the hard lessons I learned as we were building Learning Pool.  Even though I probably scared the life out of everyone with my stories a few people have asked me to blog this session so here we go.  I’ve organised my thoughts into my 5 key learns – I’m sure other entrepreneurs out there will have more of their own to add.

PSLaunchpad-2

Lucy Knight’s amazing sketchnote of my talk.

Relentless execution is required to the exclusion of all else.  The odds are stacked against you in a startup.  70% will fail and won’t make it to the end of the first 18 months.  You have to move your project forward every day.  This means no distractions or other side projects.  No social life and the bare minimum in terms of spending time with your family.  I can remember my mum saying to me that she saw less of me in those first 2 years at Learning Pool when I was 20 miles down the road than she did when I was previously working in London 500 miles away.  If you’re only prepared to work 60 hours a week in your startup you might as well forget it as you’re wasting your time and everyone else’s.  You have to deal with exhaustion and sometimes the sheer boredom of it as you spend a lot of time doing stuff you don’t enjoy.  You have to use every minute productively.  Make all your phone calls when you’re hanging around.  Use time on planes to write blogs and website content.  If you go away on holiday, expect to work every day – even if you have a co-founder and team.  There’s no off button.  You’ll work 364 days in those first few years (everyone’s entitled to take Christmas Day off!).  You’ll also constantly iterate and pivot based on customer feedback, make endless decisions (often with insufficient info), do your damnedest to hit deadlines, overdeliver and do rework for customers without being paid for it (suck it up) and you’ll always be selling and doing a load of other stuff you’ve never had to do and are probably uncomfortable with.  It’s quite common to hear startup entrepreneurs talk about all the stuff they’ve gradually shed to make more time in their working week and in extreme circumstances that will include sleep.  I was discussing this with Mark O’Neill of Government Digital Service this morning & we concluded that kickstarting an early stage startup is like throwing cats against a wall and hoping some of them will manage to scrabble up to the top – not that Mark or I would ever do such a thing.  Also the knowledge that others out there might have cats with sucker pads instead of paws…

Financing – should you take investment or bootstrap.  Sometimes this decision is dictated by your product.  You can’t launch a new drug or build a semiconductor company without investment.  If you take investment, expect to be bitterly disappointed by the early doors valuations you receive and brace yourself for the late night calls and crazy demands of your investors.  They’ll all spin you that line about owning a smaller slice of a bigger pie.  If you bootstrap, be prepared for the pressures that will bring.  Complete focus on getting to revenue, constant running of your numbers, daily cashflow forecasts, making the awkward phone calls when you can’t pay your suppliers.  Having to borrow from the bank and then compartmentalising that worry.  Being really honest with yourself or yourselves about where you are against your business plan.

3.     Learning properly how to sell and all the boring stuff you have to do in order to sell successfully – scanning for tenders, writing responses, following up for feedback when you don’t win them, iterating your pitch, implementing and using a CRM (I know at least one startup entrepreneur who used to fire people for not keeping the CRM up to date), getting ISO accredited, building a brand, having a proper sales deck and collateral, constantly refreshing your website content.  The discomfort of making yourself pitch if you’re not a natural salesperson and (if you’re sensible) learning to sell in pairs.  Making smart decisions about what to chase with your limited time and resource.

My friends Martin Howitt and Lucy Knight from Devon County Council

My friends Martin Howitt and Lucy Knight from Devon County Council

        Dealing with your own people.  You can’t afford anyone experienced so you recruit for potential.  That then requires a lot of time (that you don’t really have) as the team doesn’t know much and therefore they run everything past you.  Not many people can write coherently so you’ll spend a lot of your time re-doing what others have done – usually after they’ve gone home or gone off on holiday.  I found a lot of time is spent trying to second guess the mistakes your team are going to make in some sort of order of priority.  In reality, not that much bad stuff happens.  It’s the excruciating moment when you see an email that’s gone out or overhear someone talking nonsense on the phone.  It’s useful to teach your team early doors how to make their own decisions.  If you don’t do that it will add to your own already massive decision burden.  Letting people go when they don’t work out.  This gets a bit easier over time and the interval between joining and leaving certainly shrinks dramatically.  Disappointment when people you’ve been good to let you down.  That doesn’t get any easier.  The realisation that you’ve become a worse person inside yourself over the years.

5.      Working out the people mix, building the culture you want and creating a cohesive team.  After all it’s your opportunity to create the sort of business you’ve always wanted to work in yourself.  Sticking to your values and not compromising on them.  It’s easy to own the moral high ground when you’re a PAYE person; you soon discover where your values limits lie when your house is on the line.  The stuff you find out about yourself that you may not necessarily like.  Burying that ego that’s been growing during your years in education and when you were climbing the career ladder.  As Jim Collins says in Good to Great, looking in the mirror when things go wrong & through the window when things go right (to see who else was involved in getting that good result).  The sheer amount of time you will spend with your co-founder(s) and team in those early years.

Gloria and Katrina from the Diverse Leaders Network, part of the PS Launchpad

Gloria and Katrina from the Diverse Leaders Network, part of the PS Launchpad

So – I hear you all ask – this sounds bloody awful so why bother?  That’s easy & I have 5 reasons why it’s worth it:

1.       The Prize – financial and other.

2.       The huge satisfaction you get from building something from scratch that you’re proud of.

3.       The highs are amazing.  When you make a big sale or you land a sale where you started out as the underdog.  When you win a big award.  I still remember how I felt the night the call came in telling us we were the Intertrade Ireland regional Seedcorn competition winners.

4.       Putting yourself out there as a startup entrepreneur means you meet some great people and have some incredible experience.

5. Nothing can touch being your own boss and taking control of your own destiny – no matter how terrifying that can be from time to time.

I h  I hope this rather long blog has been useful to someone out there and I’m dedicating it to all the people who helped us when we needed help – you know who you are.  If you have any comments or questions feel free to add them in via the comments section below and I’ll do my best to answer them.  Good luck to all the PS Launchpad projects by the way.  I’m waiting for you guys to connect with me via the usual channels!

A blog about pride…

Event_hub_pic

Last night I attended the awards evening for SeedComp 2011 – a Digital Derry initiative to uncover the North West of Ireland’s most promising digital business ideas.  The process has been ongoing since late March & has resulted in 30 or so new business ideas emerging.  This type of competition is a fabulous way for any town to encourage & promote some innovation & entrepreneurialism.  The overall prize kitty last night was £10,000 and included a £1,000 prize for the most promising student idea – so it’s a very cost effective way to get some ideas moving in your community & get especially your young people thinking about starting their own businesses.  Most brand new ideas only need a tiny amount of money to get started.  We’re lucky to have our own Digital Champion, Mark Nagurski, in Derry to come up with competitions like this and then put in the hard graft to make them a success.  Definitely worthwhile if your town doesn’t already do something like this.

12 fledgling ideas were shortlisted at the start of May and the new promoters presented yesterday.  The judging panel included some tech industry veterans, one of Facebook’s senior executives, a couple of local entrepreneurs and a (friendly) VC.  A terrifying prospect and indeed one of the competitors shared with me at last night’s event that although he’s presented to both Steven Spielberg and James Cameron in his career so far, he was more nervous going into the room yesterday.

It was therefore with great pride that Paul & I witnessed our very own Breda Doherty pick up a prize as part of her new venture with her business partner Catherine Morris.  An all girl geek team.  What could ever be nicer?  Breda & Catherine met on the Invest NI/Digital Circle funded mission to this year’s SXSW event in Austin, Texas (thanks Matt!) and they’ve wasted no time in coming up with a new business idea & putting together a plan.  Their new idea has elements of the passion of the original Craigslist (Breda interviewed Craig Newmark at SXSW) and it uses Bill Liao’s homespun advice on marketing messages (Breda interviewed Bill in Washington DC); I’m hoping their relentless execution against plan will show that Breda has maybe even learned something from Paul & me along the way (good stuff only Breda!).  She’s certainly a different person today than the one who walked into the Learning Pool office in April 2008 to bring order to the chaos that existed at that time – more self confident, more informed about technology and investment, more assertive, more aware of how to get things done, more experienced, more of an all rounder…but still as sweet, still as stylish and still universally loved by her school chums, the whole of team lovely, our entire customer base and basically anyone who ever meets her.

Go Breda & Catherine – we’re all rooting for you & we can’t wait to see where this takes you.

Addendum to this blog (11 June 2011)

A few people have asked me why Paul & I are so supportive of one of our own star team members thinking about starting her own business…hmm…being a small business owner isn’t just about finding people & extracting your pound of flesh from them over the time they work for you.  It’s also about adding to your local community & giving back where you can, providing careers & challenge for your people and equipping them with the skills they need to go on & do something else.  Learning Pool is 5 years old this summer and we are lucky to have a high performing star team that’s the envy of many other companies.  But after 3 years in a job, people are entitled to try their hand at something else and if they go on to take a stab at being an entrepreneur themselves, Paul & I see that as a perfect 10 scored for ourselves – our work is done & we’ve achieved one of the things we set out to. 

The other day a local entrepreneur I met at a lunch told me how he’d had someone come in to arrange the desks in his company so that everyone could see each others screens – his reason for doing that – so that no-one would be on Facebook during the hours of 9-5.  What did I do – I just sighed a bit to be honest.  He wasn’t interested in what I had to say anyway.  Old fashioned companies with old fashioned opinions – think on.  Your days are probably numbered.