Ireland

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.

I Am in My Mother’s House

Anyone who knows me well will know that our move back to Ireland has been on the cards since way before Christmas.  At first we were going to move in March, then it was April and eventually we booked the Liverpool – Belfast ferry for 17 May because we knew that without a firm marker in the sand, the drift would continue.  London is a hard place to say goodbye to but the pull of Mother Ireland is very strong.  In my case there was another strong driver – a desire to spend more time with my own (nearly) 87 year old mother.

Mum in kitchen

Mum back from hospital at her kitchen table

I increasingly felt as if I’d short changed my Mum in recent times.  During the Learning Pool years my Mum used to say to me that she’d seen me more frequently when I’d lived in London – even though my Derry office was only 10 or so miles from her home.  That’s one of the realities of building a successful startup I’m afraid.  The amount of time it consumes really takes its toll on your family.

Then on the morning of 13 May, just as I was about to walk into a board meeting on my last planned working day before the “big move”, I received a phone call to say that my Mum had had a fall in her home the night before, had been lying on the floor all night long & was just being taken by ambulance to Letterkenny hospital.  I spoke to my sister who jumped into her car & headed for Donegal.  As I made that call my stomach turned over and I felt the guilt that had been hovering somewhere in the back of my mind for the last 12 months or so land with a thud.

St Patrick

St Patrick

Fast forward a month.  Mum is out of hospital and I’m living with her in her house in Donegal.  I’ve been here since the day I stepped off the ferry in Belfast.  I spent a 2 week stretch here before back in 2013 when Mum was recovering from a hip replacement operation.  That was the longest period of time I’d spent with her since leaving home for university in summer 1977.  I don’t know if anyone else reading this blog has returned to live with an elderly parent.  I think it’s more usual for the parent to make the move – but my Mum doesn’t want to go anywhere else.  She’s happy here in her own home, with her dog and surrounded by all her own things and I can understand that.

To say it feels strange is an understatement.  I’ve swapped the life of a carefree flibbertigibbet and social butterfly – dipping in & out of stuff as I please – for someone who needs to be solid & reliable.  Someone who needs to be the same calm, patient, pleasant and well-organised person every day.

Every morning at breakfast I can clearly see my great-grandfather’s teacup in the display

teacup

Great grandfather’s teacup

cabinet – and he died in 1934.  I stumble across random things from my childhood several times a day – my plastic radio moneybox from the early 1960s stashed next to the weed killer in the garden shed, a dusty pink bonnet I can vaguely remember wearing for best as a 3 year old – now faded but still with its quality lining and fake fur trim intact.  People who were dead long before I was born stare back at me from frames on the walls.  I look for the family resemblances in their faces.

Radio

My moneybox from 1963

When I wake up in the morning, the first things I see include St Patrick in all his glory and then a photo of my Mum, my sister & I taken in November 1986, heading out for my Dad’s 60th birthday celebrations.  On that evening he had less than 18 months to live but none of us knew that at the time.

So what have I learned so far.  The time has been brief but the lessons are big ones.  I’ve learned that sometimes the things that seem important aren’t the things that are important.  I’ve learned to slow down – on any number of fronts.  I’m having to learn that patience is my friend.  Patience is something I’ve never had much of or thought I had much need of – urgency has always been my motto.  I’m learning not to over analyse and to take each day as it comes.  I’m learning to accept that someone else comes first and that their needs are far more important than mine.

Bonnet

My bonnet – still pretty

I’m learning to appreciate the little things – a story long forgotten suddenly retold, the fun of a fox coming down the hill and through the fence and so close to the kitchen window that we could see its whiskers, the daily magpie versus jackdaw battle over the breakfast leftovers, the relief of listening to someone you’re caring for getting a decent, unbroken night’s sleep, a brief walk along the shore with Mum’s dog, reading real books late at night (there’s no broadband here).  There’s a lot to be said for remaining in one place for a period of time.  I watch the ever changing views of Lough Foyle and the moving colours of the hillsides and the big Donegal sky through every window.  I inspect the strawberries, tomatoes, gooseberries and bilberries every day for progress.  I go to the back door in the evening & look at the glorious Donegal sunsets.  Everything has slowed right down to a snail’s pace.

It’s not all good.  The standard set of hospital tests conducted in the days following her fall identified the presence of a tumour in Mum’s right lung.  I will never forget the 20 minutes I spent with the kindly, nervous doctor as he explained the significance and likely consequences of that to me or the phone call afterwards with my sister from Letterkenny hospital car park.  I didn’t intend to tell her on the phone but I couldn’t help it.

I thought I was coming home to enjoy the company of a less independent parent who’d just given up driving so was more housebound than she likes to be.  To drop in a couple of times a day in passing for a cup of tea and a yarn.  To collect my Mum to nip to the shops in Derry or go out for lunch.

Turns out I was wrong.  My role instead is one I am sharing with my sister.  We are learning to be a perfect tag team.  Good cop and bad cop.  Happy and sad in equal measures.  Decision makers and gatekeepers.  Our shared role is that of final companions, comforters, amateur nurses, cooks and cleaners, encouragers, tea makers and entertainers of visitors, providers of conversation when there isn’t much going on.  We are the oil that keeps the various wheels turning as time slowly passes.  It’s a role that we, as many others before and after us, are embracing to the best of our ability – grateful to our spouses and families for their support, grateful to circumstances that mean we have the time and opportunity to be of service in this very special way, grateful to the Irish health service for everything it and its agents are doing for us, grateful that we have each other.

Selfie in hospital with Mum

Hospital selfie – Mum, Trish & me

It makes me sad when people say to us “Your mother has had a wonderful life”.  We have a saying here in Ireland – the longer you have them, the longer you want to keep them.  And that’s the place I’m inhabiting right now.  A place of transition that’s neither one thing or the other.  A place that isn’t quite real or of our usual world.

I have no knowledge of the road that lies ahead but I’m scared of it.  I’m scared that I won’t cope or won’t be good enough or strong enough.  I don’t want to let my mother down.  I don’t want to let my sister down.  Deep down I know we will manage.  We always do, don’t we?

If you’re still reading, be a bit kinder to those nearest to you today.  At the end of the day, all of that other stuff is of no consequence.  It’s people that really matter in this life.

Why did I write this blog?  Three main reasons – maybe some of you will have some words of wisdom for us, maybe it will help another person in some small way and lastly, it’s less painful than telling everyone I know individually on a one-to-one basis.  Thank you for reading.

Addendum – 26 August 2016

We lost Margaret last Friday morning, 19 August.  She passed away peacefully in Letterkenny Hospital on the morning of her 87th birthday.  Trish & I were both at her side.  She had a remarkable life full of adventures and laughs.  We had an incredible last summer with her in Donegal.  We went out most days for a drive and for lunch, entertained a lot of visitors and most of all we had a lot of fun.

We’re very fortunate to have been able to spend that precious time with Mum & it’s brought us closer together as sisters.

Thank you to everyone who’s read & commented on this blog & on my Twitter feed or on Patricia’s Facebook.  Thanks also to everyone who came to the wake & funeral & to the people who’ve kept us going since May with support & love.  We appreciate each and every one of you.

Last but not least, thanks to the nurses of Surgical 1 in Letterkenny.  Despite your resource shortages you never let that get in the way of your care for Margaret or the incredible kindness you extended to us.

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/