Mary McKenna

“Business is about people; network every day of your life & learn how to hustle, not hassle”

That was my key message on Saturday at the 2nd annual Ada’s List conference in London.  It was also Ada’s List’s 4th birthday.  If you haven’t come across it yet Ada’s List is a global & supportive community of women in tech.  Currently membership is highest in London (2,800 members) and New York City (500) but there are pockets all over the world & all of them are growing.  If you’re a woman in tech I urge you to sign up & get involved.  The community is run by a group of volunteers and is seeking additional people to volunteer around content creation and community management and like all not for profit groups any financial donations would always be most appreciated.

Girl gang

My own girl gang representing the 4 proud provinces of Ireland – Sinead Crowley, Mary McKenna, Mary Carty, Denise McQuaid (L-R)

I’ve been a member of Ada’s List since the start but this was my first experience of real life engagement with the community & it was such a positive and joyful day.  It was also an honour and a privilege to be selected to present a short talk to the conference.  My talk was “How to Catch an Angel” – but more about that later in this blog.

The day was an upbeat mix of talks, workshops, sharing of personal stories and networking.  I was there with my own “girl gang” – Sinead Crowley, Denise McQuaid & Mary Carty – and we had a great day – listening & chatting (& laughing) in equal measures.

Highlights for me were the two keynotes that bookended the day – Shefali Roy’s about her own career & personal choices and Debbie Wosskow’s about the things in life that she considers important and what drives her.  A couple of nuggets to pass on from Shefali are how despite being a true high flier she’s never worked a weekend in her life.

Shefali Roy

Shefali Roy addressing the Ada’s List Conference

Speaking as someone who pretty much works every day I found that astounding and it’s really made me think about how I spend my own time.  She also (hilariously I have to say) conducts an annual cull of her network – online & offline.  Again – something I would never do.  Mine just continues to grow with new additions falling into the many concentric circles of closeness to me.  I’m too scared that one day one of those “weak ties” out in the outer limits of my Saturn’s rings might be THE ONE.  Debbie talked about the 3 Gs she relies upon to keep the wheels on as she powers through life at a terrifying pace and indeed what she looks for in the teams she invests in – graft, grace & grit, and an extra one for good measure – her girl gang.  Every woman in tech or woman in business needs one of those!  Her principles are pretty self explanatory but they can also be interpreted as hard work (I’ve written & talked about this a lot – there’s really no escape from this as an entrepreneur & anyone who tells you anything different is quite simply a liar), being nice (again, karma is something I refer to a lot & it’s unbelievable how far just being nice to other people will take you) and grit or resilience – the quality that makes you keep going no matter what.  If you don’t have grit you’ll never make it as an entrepreneur so be brutally honest with yourself.

The other speakers were great too & covered topics like how to keep your high performance culture when you’re scaling up (trust me this one is easier said than done!), using VR to improve behaviour towards women in the workplace and an interesting talk on how technology is & isn’t fuelling growing intolerance in society – very relevant with hate crime in London up by 29% in the last year & no that isn’t a typo.  Sadly I missed the workshops because I was conducting a couple of confidential entrepreneur 1-2-1 sessions but reports about them were glowing.  So – definitely one for your diaries next year & please do engage with the Ada’s List community in the meantime.

Mary as accountant

Yeah I used to be an accountant; anyone can change career if they want to badly enough

Anyway – on to my own talk.  Instead of a personal story I elected to give a brief 15 minute primer on how to practically go about finding suitable angel investors to bring into your fledgling business.  I chose this topic because as a female angel investor I’m often at the receiving end of startups and entrepreneurs who are getting this wrong and that can lead to a lot of frustration and bad feeling on both sides.  Before I start a quick proviso – this is a blog around my own personal experience…other angel investors may well behave differently.  Really the title of this blog tells you all you need to know about this dark art in a nutshell and it’s important when you’re seeking investment to keep in mind that angel investment is usually a team sport.  I’ve angel invested in 6 early stage tech businesses and only once have I gone in solo, with the other 5 I’ve either brought in other investor friends of mine or they’ve brought me along.

What I look for

So, in a startup I look for a female on the founding team, a product or service I can imagine using myself, usually something I can add considerable value to by either introductions to my network or by merit of my own experience, an element of tech for good (or else there’s no point IMHO), authentic & honest founders, deep domain knowledge & understanding of the challenges they are solving and awareness of competitors & where they are in their development, the tech in house or if very early stage an ability to bring the tech in house, honesty about traction, founding team resilient & able to pivot and a founder who can front the business without being arrogant & smartass.  Finally I need to like them.  I assume we’ll be working together for 3-5 years, maybe longer, and life’s too short to do that with people you don’t like.

Stuff that makes me run for the hills

A know-all founder who is uncoachable, unrealistic valuation, founder not authentic or a feeling that they are dishonest, discovery that the founder has more than one focus (in a band, would rather be deep sea diving, is unrealistic about the amount of work that’s going to be required), a founder who a few months into our relationship shows they are unable to respond to change or pressure, a founder who is anxious, needy, deluded, arrogant, ego-driven, greedy, selfish, brattish, indecisive…there’s probably more.  Top of the list is that the idea is simply a bad idea.  There are loads of those about!

What startups/entrepreneurs should do and shouldn’t do when “shopping” for angels

Do your homework and have a strategy.  I’m always amazed when strangers pitch to me without knowing anything about me.  Why bother?  Are they just hoping I will let them practice their pitch?  Check out who is actively investing & who’s interested in your space.  Most important is to get warm intros to the people you want to talk to and that requires that you spend a lot of time building out your network.

Elemental story

I never get tired of sharing the Elemental story

Don’t settle for people who behave like assholes.  Respect yourself & your business idea & keep looking for more suitable investors.  I promise you that anyone who behaves badly pre investment will be much more badly behaved when they’re one of your shareholders.  Don’t send pitch decks by Twitter DM to people you’ve never even met.  Don’t send pitch decks cold by email or via LinkedIn.  Learn how to hustle nicely.  You must have a warm intro.

Of my 6 investments, two I’d already known the founder for years, one I had a year long mentoring relationship with one of the founders before investing, one I saw at a pitching event but I spent a year getting to know her before I invested, two came through my network.

What I’d like to see more & less of

I’d like to see less badly researched ideas or solutions for non existent problems and less “me too” companies.  I’d like to see more startups with customers & revenue, more real innovation around new tech, more stuff for women that isn’t health/beauty/fashion/lifestyle, more startups tackling big social challenges.

I mentioned in my talk that one of my investee companies, the female founded social prescribing leaders Elemental Software, raised £300k this summer in only 43 days from first pitch to money in the bank – you can read the story of how they did that here.

I hope this blog is useful for anyone considering accessing angel investment.  It’s very much about people & chemistry & personal preference – we aren’t VCs and many of us are motivated by more than money – so keep that in mind when you’re doing that homework I mentioned earlier.  Final word – you can find out more about Ada’s List and join here.  I look forward to your feedback/comments.

Secrets of a Professional Tweeter

Last week I was pleased to join the Northern Ireland Chamber of Commerce to speak at their Creative Connections event in the Grand Opera House in Belfast.

The real treat of the evening however was listening to David Levin.

David Levin - professional tweeter and freelance writer

David Levin – professional tweeter and freelance writer

David is one of the UK’s handful of professional full time tweeters.  That’s what he does for a living – all day every day.  He’s worked for BBC One’s The Voice, Channel 4, Radio 1 and brands such as Adidas and MoneySupermarket.  He started off by running the Twitter account for the Dolphin pub in Hackney (@The_Dolphin_Pub) during the London riots and his fame and demand for his unique service has grown from that success.  His objective is basically to give personality to a brand (he writes the tweets for loads of brands as well as a handful of celebrities) and to attract followers & achieve high numbers of retweets.

Can you believe there is such a job?  I had no idea.  It works in two ways – either David sends his client a load of pre-written tweets & they just select some & post them up themselves or he does the tweeting for clients within an agreed set of parameters & in a certain brand approved tone of voice.  Fascinating eh?  I bet there are a few people reading this blog that would fancy that as a career.

His talk encouraged lots and lots of questions from the audience and we discussed everything from how annoying it is when you notice your competitors have been buying (usually overseas based) followers to how you should respond to criticism of your organisation posted up on Twitter & how it’s best not to go into complete meltdown as some brands have done to their detriment (such as Twix and many others).  A story has just broken earlier this week about Nottinghamshire Healthcare Trust and their manipulation of user content on their website (it’s alleged they have been removing critical user comments and augmenting positive comments with comments from their own staff) so it will be interesting to see how they handle that.  He also told us a very funny & slightly risque (for the crowd present anyway!) about how when he was doing some tweeting for the Apprentice, he mistakenly thought that the wattle named by a contestant as the least favourite part of his body was a colloquial reference to his genitals & David helpfully tweeted as such.  Hahaha.

L-R David McConnell (Arts Council NI), Louise Turley (NI Chamber), David Levin, Mary McKenna

L-R David McConnell (Arts Council NI), Louise Turley (NI Chamber), David Levin, Mary McKenna

We all laughed when someone in the audience explained how she had been “knocking her pan in” to get new Twitter followers – poor David (not being from Northern Ireland) had no idea what she was talking about.

My own talk was about How to Build a Kick Ass Business Network and my slides, if you’re interested in taking a look, have been uploaded to

Slideshare.  You can access them here http://www.slideshare.net/MMaryMcKenna/how-to-build-a-kick-ass-business-network

Mary McKenna speaking at NI Chamber Creative Connections event

Mary McKenna speaking at NI Chamber Creative Connections event

My messages to the group at the event were all about how in today’s world, if you’re not visible and active online and easy to find & connect with then there are whole worlds of conversations that are happening out there that you aren’t part of.  I’d like to cross link this blog with an excellent recent blog on this topic from Emer Coleman.  Again – you can read Emer’s blog here http://www.emercoleman.com/2/post/2014/03/why-senior-leaders-in-ireland-need-to-improve-their-online-presence.html

In case you’re wondering what David’s secrets to success are in notching up those high numbers of retweets, his top tips are to use quizzes in your tweets and also to make frequent references to star signs.

Interested in your views about this and also any hints and tips you might like to share with the rest of us.  As always, please do continue the conversation in the comments below.

All change…

Learning Pool Team

Learning Pool Team

In the many years I’ve worked in startup land I’ve watched other founders and CEOs hang around for far too long – hell I’ve probably even worked for a few of them – and I’ve always been pretty determined that I wouldn’t repeat the same mistake myself…so after 7 long & happy years as part of the Learning Pool senior team I’m disappearing back into the tech startup scene proper.  Working in a scale-up can be great – but it isn’t for me.

In reality what this means is that I’ll continue to do some stuff for Learning Pool that I really love (strategic sales, profile building, input to long term strategy) but less of the operational day to day matters that if I’m honest with myself I don’t really enjoy.  I’m going to get out of the way & give my co-founder space to build the company to the next stage with help from our very able management team.

So…what’s next for me?  I’m going to return to working with (most definitely) early stage (most likely) tech startups with (most probably) quite young teams, helping out with all those things that many first time entrepreneurs find troublesome – raising finance, finding & managing investors, picking which product or version of a product to back, getting to revenue on a shoestring, determining the best market entry strategy – all the stuff I love doing.

And guess what – I CAN’T WAIT.

So how do I feel at the end of a day spent mostly on the phone breaking the news to my team and a few trusted friends and associates?  Most of all I feel proud of what I’ve achieved over the past 7 years.  We’ve built a robust, growing company with a fabulous community of customers, we’ve assembled a world class high performing team and we offer scaleable and useful technology at an affordable price.  I also feel dizzying waves of excitement that are masking a sneaky bit of underlying sadness.

I’ll leave you today with a quote from Alexander Graham Bell “When one door closes another opens; but we often look so long and so regretfully upon the closed door that we do not see the one which has opened for us.” 

Watch this space!  I hope you all have comments 🙂

What makes a great virtual team member?…time to practice what I preach

Paul_in_stansted_lounge

Today’s my last day in Northern Ireland for 6 months.  For the past 5 years I’ve managed a highly motivated part of the Learning Pool team who are absent from our Derry mothership & who work from home in England and Scotland.  Tomorrow I become one of them.  This past couple of weeks I’ve been really mulling this over & wondering what it will mean for me.  I’m also slightly worried that I may not be the exemplary virtual team member that I imagine I will, a carbon copy of the perfect remote worker in the image I have in my mind’s eye.

In my view, these are the qualities & behaviours of a great virtual team member:

·         superb communicator – in both directions – giving & receiving information; this applies equally to customers & colleagues

·         highly organised in terms of managing appointments, follow ups, phone calls, CRM updates, keeping your online calendar bang up to date

·         ability to work efficiently on the hoof (on trains, in cafes, at airports, in the car)

·         knack to really bond with people you don’t see face to face much – other virtual colleagues but also the people in the powerhouse or mothership – the people you need to actually do things for you that you can’t do yourself

·         planning your schedule to get the most out of each day by combining appointments & using common sense

·         gift for really knowing what’s going on beneath the surface at HQ, think that comes about by really listening to what your colleagues say

·         makes the best use of the available technology & doesn’t get bogged down in constant technofail

·         books travel well in advance to get the best prices

·         effective collector & disseminator of customer information back to the mothership team

·         self starter with a lot of drive

·         ability to complete & finish things (this one is tricky for me) in a fast paced & constantly moving environment.

From time to time I’ve been critical of how other people do some or all of the above.  I guess I’ll know by this time next week how I’m doing myself.  Any hints and tips from you, my dear readers, will be most welcome as always.

So what am I going to miss most over the next 6 months when I’m London based.  Folks – there’s no competition on that score.  The photo of Paul was snapped yesterday at Stansted airport.  He’d just finished a conference call with our tech team & is posting something up on Twitter.  As usual, we had a few right old laughs yesterday – despite both of us having a 3.30am start, a tricky meeting at the Cabinet Office and the usual mixed bag of rushing around London for meetings, juggling stuff as we go.  Along the way, and starting at 5.30am, we also discussed everything that both of us are working on, we did some long term strategic planning, we both chatted to a number of colleagues, customers and partners, sketched out a couple of new products or markets for existing parts of the Learning Pool portfolio, swapped the usual load of gossip (mainly about other entrepreneurs or businesses), exchanged views on the content of business books we are both reading (cuts down on individual reading time if your business partner reads it & gives you a précis of course), managed to have both breakfast & lunch in the most random of places, went through some sort of time/space portal at Stansted airport, took two plane journeys & two long drives each, but were emailing again when we got to our respective homes last night.  The relationship anyone has (should have) with their business partner is pretty intense and full on.  I’ll refer you to a previous blog of mine if you’re interested in reading more about this – it’s here https://kickingassets.co.uk/two-heads-are-better-than-one-10-pros-of-havi

We’ve been working together like this for 8 years, we rarely disagree and you couldn’t put a cigarette paper in between us.  I guess that’s what I’m going to miss most.

 

London Calling

Mary_and_paul_no_10

I’m getting ready to move to London in the New Year.  There, I’ve said it.  Learning Pool started life in London in a rented loft in Crawford’s Passage in Farringdon before shifting our HQ back to Derry.  We used to call our London base Crawford’s Pass amongst ourselves because it made it sound more Irish.  In our early days we were paranoid about customers knowing we were a Northern Ireland company in case it was a barrier to us doing business.  As the last 5 years have progressed, we became less coy about our origins as we cemented our customer relationships although we hung onto our London phone number.  These days, our customers love the fact that we’re an Irish company and some of them have even been to visit us at our office in Derry.  Others have even been brave enough to join our team.

Our fabulous Head of Content, Deborah Limb, joined us from another more famous e-learning company.  Deborah had never been to Northern Ireland before her first day at Learning Pool.  She arrived at our office on a cold, wet, Monday morning in November 2007, clutching the remnants of a sopping wet map in her hand.  She still claims she never saw daylight during that first winter.

Now it’s my turn to go back the other way and it’s a bittersweet feeling that I have.  I lived in London for 17 years before moving home to County Tyrone at the start of the new millennium.  I left the pushiness of the city behind & moved right into the middle of rural Ulster.  I’ll never forget waking up that first morning & hearing no sounds.  Nothing at all.  I remember the relief I felt & ever since that day, I’ve half felt as though I’m on holiday – a sort of working holiday where you work harder than you’ve ever worked before but your colleagues & neighbours are so friendly that it somehow compensates you.

I quickly learned to be less brusque & more chatty in my interactions.  More talk about the weather & people you know & less focus on the agenda is the Northern Irish way.  Gradually the sharp edges from all those years spent living in the city were worn down a little.  Of course I’ve been back in London pretty much every week since 2000 – sometimes twice a week – but always as a visitor, staying in a hotel room, running for a plane home as soon as the meetings are finished.  I’m wondering how I’ll slot back into the hurly-burly of London life after the deep, deep peace of country living (quoted with a nod to Mrs Patrick Campbell).

So why am I as a person and why are we as a business doing this?  I guess we’re fed up with fighting for what’s right (that it should be just as easy to do business from Northern Ireland as it is from any part of the UK or indeed Europe) & accepting what’s reality.  Like it or not, London is indeed where UK government’s beating heart lies.  It’s also where a large number of our customers, a huge number of potential customers and some of the people we’d like to work more closely with are based.  On top of that, our Northern Ireland location is stifling Learning Pool’s growth as there just aren’t the skills here that we need to recruit in to grow our business.  We’ve raised this point many times with Invest Northern Ireland.  We’re further hampered by having an ornament of an airport 5 miles from us in Derry that we never use as the flight times aren’t conducive to being anywhere on time to do business – and the government agencies and politicians seem more interested in in-fighting & scoring points off each other than looking outwards & making Northern Ireland an easier place from which to operate internationally.  In summary, we’ve concluded we’re missing out on opportunities and holding ourselves back by not having a London presence.  And I think that’s a very sad state of affairs.  Learning Pool was recently confirmed by Deloitte to be Northern Ireland’s fastest growing tech company & the 6th fastest growing on the island of Ireland, but we have to look to London in order to continue our expansion.

Of course there’s plenty of upside.  I’m looking forward to being back in the heart of the capital for a six month period and I’m intending throwing myself into the whole London work/social scene and spending plenty of time with friends & colleagues, old & new.  I’m looking for somewhere to base Learning Pool London right now so watch this space & all will be revealed.

I know this is an emotive topic, especially for other Northern Ireland businesses – so I’m looking forward to your views & a lively discussion in the comments below.  Keep ‘em coming!

 

Team Building’s great…but what happens next?

Team_lovely_august_2011

On 1 August Learning Pool turned 5 years old.  5 years is a significant milestone for any company and certainly time to take stock and work out what happens next.  We decided to spend 3 days together as a team in order to celebrate, have some informal time together (although Learning Pool is far from formal at the best of times) but also to revisit our plans and discuss our options as a group.

This photo of Paul & me with our team was taken on Derry’s new Peace Bridge last week – just before we split into 6 teams and scrambled all over the City on a fun treasure hunt.  We’re very proud of our team.  I doubt it’s possible to grow a sizeable team any quicker than 5 years, no matter how many management books you read or how impatient you are.  It’s like growing a harmonious flower bed or baking good bread.  There’s a method & stages to go through but at the end of the day, it takes a certain amount of time.

People have to form relationships & become comfortable with each other before they can perform well at anything.  It’s difficult to do this when the organisation is growing fast as there are new people joining the team all the time & “upsetting” the dynamic.  Everyone knows the Tuckman model of team formation and the 4 stages – forming, storming, norming, performing.  It can be hard to get onto those later stages when there is a constant influx of new team members.

When I look at the photo, 18 people or about one third of our team have been with us less than 12 months; 16 have been with us for over 3 years and the remaining 23 have been at Learning Pool between one & three years.  I often think about the Belbin exercise our team completed at our first team building event on Lusty Beg island in December 2008 when the company was just over 2 years old.  We had no co-ordinators & no implementers.  We had 2 completer finishers (fortunately!), one team worker, 2 plants and a solitary monitor-evaluator.  The remaining 24 people were crammed onto the resource investigator & shaper spaces – 12 apiece.  Things have changed since then, although some days I miss that early chaos.

My question to you all in this blog is how do other companies build on the success of team building days & keep the momentum going once your dispersed teams have dispersed again.  How do you keep that energy & focus going once everyone has waved goodbye and gone back to their day jobs?

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

Sherry_coutu

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

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

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

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

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