Matt Johnston

25 Takeaways from Northern Ireland’s GovCampConnect

govcamp-timetableThis weekend I’ve been participating in Ireland’s very first Govcamp.  For the uninitiated, govcamps are unconferences for people who work in & (most importantly) around all levels of government.  The govcamp movement in the UK was started in 2008 by Jeremy Gould.  If you’re interested in knowing more about the history, there’s an interesting blog from Stefan Czerniawski here with a lot of relevant links.  Don’t be put off by the title!

dave-jeremy-steph

L-R Dave Briggs, Jeremy Gould & Steph Gray – yep – you can tell who the sensible one is!

Regrettably I wasn’t at Jeremy’s first ukgovcamp but I’ve been to many of those that have taken place from 2009 onwards, the year the baton was passed to Steph Gray & Dave Briggs.  I love the informal & interactive format of unconferences – a polar opposite of the somewhat antiseptic TED talks where an “expert” or “personality” lectures us & then disappears without any challenge or interaction.  Yesterday was an inspiring and positive experience from start to finish and a great way to spend part of a weekend.  These are my key observations and positive/negative takeaways in no particular order.

  1. Surely this is the first ever govcamp to take place in a genuine castle; the beautiful and slightly decaying mock gothic Narrow Water Castle near Warrenpoint.
  2. We joined up with our colleagues at Govcamp Cymru via a Skype link for “randomised coffee trials” – a phrase coined by our colleague Esko Reinikainen who is a true one-off in every sense.

    dave-mckenna

    Dave McKenna on the live videolink with Govcamp Cymru

  3. Govcamp (and any unconference) remains a great opportunity to catch up & interact with a lot of interesting people in a single day and to add a few new people to your network.
  4. It’s an easy way to get up to speed with anything of note that’s happening in government in your own locality; it was especially useful for me as I’ve been away from Northern Ireland for the past 4 years.
  5. All govcamps fall into two main factions as the day progresses – the data geeks and everyone else.

    odini

    The enthusiastic Open Data Institute NI gang – infecting us with their crazy data love – L-R Andrea Thornbury, Bob Harper, Lisa McElherron, Stephen Gray

  6. As usual there was scant senior civil service and local government representation and a complete absence of local politicians or ministers. Why is that?  They all say they want to embrace digital and they even make grandiose statements about using technology to close the divide between the haves & the have nots – but not enough it seems to come to Warrenpoint on a Saturday and engage with a grass roots community keen to help them achieve the practicalities of this.  Frustrating and disappointing.
  7. I learned a new phrase from Bill McCluggage – Steal with pride – I’ll be stealing that one Bill!rules
  8. A reminder of The Rules – surely not just for Govcamp but for all of life itself…see the pic.
  9. The phrase “this is just for within these four walls and is not for Twitter/not to be repeated” preceded a lot of interesting & juicy tales about government shenanigans – I wish we could change this environment in government & in Northern Ireland especially. We’ve come a long way but more honesty & transparency would be very welcome by a lot of citizens.
  10. I am personally bringing some of Northern Ireland’s (sensible) digital disruptors along to the next govcamp – top of my list is Matt Johnston, Roger Warnock & Barry Adams. I would’ve loved to have heard their take on some of what we discussed yesterday.  I’ll transport you all in the Fig if necessary J  That alone will be worth filming.
  11. Yesterday convinced me that the public sector should be forced to stay away from everything to do with smart cities until they have grasped the joined-up nature of what they are trying to achieve. Sad to hear about scores of expensive, over-engineered solutions being pitched to councils and the inevitable reinvention of the wheel that is occurring.  Another attendee whispered to me that in his view the Smart City initiative seems to be an elaborate money laundering scheme.    It isn’t sufficient for the public sector to be “engaged & willing”.  They need to make it their business to be properly informed and able to play their role effectively.
  12. I heard some great stories & attended a couple of really good sessions including Eoin McFadden’s on why failure matters & the difference between good & bad failure.
  13. Refreshing to attend a large event outside of the cities and it was so much fun to visit Warrenpoint.
  14. Despite the spotlight of recent years, public sector procurement is still a complete & utter mess, especially in Northern Ireland with the continuing usage & dominance of Central Procurement Directorate. Why is this allowed?
  15. Dave Briggs once said the day after govcamp is the most depressing day of the year. His rationale was that it’s the day all the changemakers have to go back to real life & face up to the daily frustrations of their job.  The challenge of doing something with all the “stuff” that’s discussed on the day remains.  LinkedIn, Slack etc are all woefully inadequate for continuing conversations.
  16. Money exists, at least right now in Northern Ireland, for small R & D pilots & innovation projects. See SBRI & #ODNI4EDU for starters.
  17. I enjoyed re-hearing some of Northern Ireland’s familiar government war stories – Eoin McFadden’s triumph with the chicken poo challenge is a particular favourite. You can read more here if you’re intrigued.
  18. I was reminded that there’s always a way if you have a network you can go to & discuss things if you’re stuck or struggling or failing – and that’s good to know as a lot of people battle away with projects on their own.
  19. Civil servants should be encouraged to be more open and transparent because the rest of us benefit enormously when they are.
  20. I learned a new word – pretotyping. Fake it before you make it.  More here
  21. The ones on the bus started imbibing at 2pm and that made them happy – well it was Saturday after all.
  22. Northern Ireland needs more people like the very articulate & totally on it Andrew Bolster. I award him my “Person of the Day” prize for his contributions to #gcc16 – thanks Andrew and thanks also for introducing me to Club-Mate … now all I need to know is where I can get more …
  23. Government to the innovator – “Sorry but your idea doesn’t match my programme”. Honestly – and excuse my language here but isn’t it about time we thought about how to change the f***ing programme.  How can this still be acceptable/happening?
  24. I have a lovely warm feeling today after spending 2 evenings and a day with the NI govcamp gang and I wish it could’ve been longer. This weekend has restored my love of the UK & Irish public sector and the people who work in it and yes I did use that phrase “if you cut me open I’d bleed public sector” in my own session.  Why?  Because it’s true & because I care.minecraft-kids
  25. The kids who pitched the last session of the day (a fabulous business case built in Minecraft for a new park in Newry) quite rightly owned the day. We are that awkward generation who aren’t true digital natives and all of this discomfort in government will soon pass.
  26. A bonus point – there are always some moments of complete hilarity on the day. Yesterday’s belly laugh was provided for us courtesy of Bill McCluggage.  It began with an audience member chipping in “As the author of that report…”  Hahaha – you probably had to be there for it!

What else do I have to say on this topic.  The format & rules are key & not to be tinkered with.  I remember one excruciating event at a past UK govcamp when a certain much loved & admired civil servant announced to the organisers that he would be appearing to give a keynote speech at a certain point in the afternoon & it was permitted.  Why I don’t know.  I was saddened that the ecosystem that existed at the time meant they didn’t tell him he’d need to turn up at 9am & queue up with the rest of the pitchers.

I’d like to thank the organisers Brian McCleland, Stephen Barry & Jonny McCullagh and we’re all very grateful for the generosity of the sponsors for funding a great day.  You’ve proved once again that a small number of enthusiastic and committed people can make pretty much anything happen.

Special thanks to the people who travelled a long way to be with us yesterday.  Suraj Kika of Jadu, freelance agile coach Mark Dalgarno, Rebekah Menzies of the Carnegie Trust, Deirdre Lee of Derilinx, Vanessa Liston of CiviQ and Brian Marrinan of Journey Partners.  Apologies if I’ve missed anyone.  I hope you made a lasting connection to Northern Ireland and we very much look forward to seeing you all again soon.

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.

A blog about appreciation

Matt_with_tuttle_group

Today’s blog is an appreciation blog.  Often we find ourselves just taking people for granted and not giving them enough appreciation for what they do for us – so this is an attempt to redress that balance in some small way.  I’d just like to say a big thank you on behalf of all of us who work in Northern Ireland’s emerging digital and online content sector to Matt Johnston (@cimota) for the tireless work he does on behalf of us and to promote our sector and our companies. 

I’ve spent the last two days in London with Matt.  We decided it was time to go and tell a few more people about the many talented people and small businesses that work in our chosen space in Northern Ireland.  Over the course of those two days we’ve promoted Digital Circle and its companies to:

·         The Technology Strategy Board

·         A group of social entrepreneurs

·         The Royal Society of Arts (RSA)

·         Everyone present at Friday’s Tuttle Club in London’s Centre for Creative Collaboration

·         The gathering of entrepreneurs and start up companies at Dominic Campbell’s City Camp London get together at the Hub King’s Cross

We’ve been blown away by the amount of interest there’s been in Digital Circle and at every event Matt’s had a stream of people wanting to ask him about the workings of the Digital Circle, how it started out, what the future plans are and what the Digital Circle members have gained from being part of the community.  It appears that what we have in Northern Ireland is quite unique in terms of small and micro businesses actually engaging, collaborating and helping each other out.

So this is my way of saying we appreciate you Matt and all you do for us.  The non-stop networking, the liaison with our government departments and Invest NI, the constant promotion of our companies, the search for opportunities for all of us and the signposting, the bright ideas you have, the introductions you make, the tweeting you do (I couldn’t believe how many people at Tuttle nodded when you revealed your Twitter name – they’d all come across you), the sheer volume of stuff you wade through so that we don’t have to and the dry good humour with which all of the above is delivered.

Please join me in appreciating Matt and post up your story in the comments of how he’s helped you or your company.

If you’d like to know more about the Digital Circle or join our community, you can do so via this link http://digitalcircle.ning.com/