Networking

A Tale of Three Networkers – everything in life & business is about people

all_three

(L-R Rachel Rath, Draven McConville (& Winston), Denise McQuaid)

In this longish read I ask three awesome networkers from my own inner circle to share some of their secrets and to give their opinions on a few of the more controversial aspects of what makes a good networker.

The three are independent film maker and producer Rachel Rath, tech entrepreneur and Klipboard founder/CEO Draven McConville and serial CEO & business strategist Denise McQuaid. All three just happen to be Irish.

Read on if you want to start building your own network or if you just need a bit of validation that the time & effort you’re already putting into networking is going to generate a worthwhile long term return. You may wonder why I chose entrepreneurs and self starters & my rationale is that they’re more likely than most to recognise early doors that there’s no alternative to building a network. There are just too many moving parts involved in creating a successful business to do everything yourself and you just never know when you (or someone else) is going to need a bit of help.

We’ll start with Rachel Rath who has recently returned to Ireland after many years living in Los Angeles. Rachel is an actress, film maker, performance artist, screenwriter, director and comedian.

As a film maker you operate internationally.  How do you go about building a network from scratch when you relocate to a brand new location? 

I’ve lived in Dublin, London, Los Angeles and New York and every move feels like starting over. I find it best to hit the ground running by having coffees with anyone and everyone who will meet me. These contacts usually come recommended by my current network. It’s relatively easy to meet film industry people. I concentrate on attending film markets, festivals, arthouse cinemas and seminars. Sometimes it can be difficult in a new city to hear about good networking opportunities so I create Google Alerts for my niche in each city. If I read in the trades that I’ve missed out on an event that might have been good to attend, I’ll make a calendar entry to make sure that I’m there next year. If I have a dry spell and feel a bit out of touch I search for “film” on the local invite sites, such as Eventbrite or Facebook, and scroll through until I find what looks like a quality opportunity. Before attending a market/festival I will search tags on my social media feeds, e.g. #Sundance, to see if I’m linked with anyone attending and connect with them. I post on social media in advance that I’m going to be attending and that usually spurs connections introducing me to others going too. I also like to get involved in my local community – I sat on the international committee of Women In Film Los Angeles, the board of Irish Equity, founded The Attic Studio, an arts organisation in Dublin, and I currently work with Irish Screen America New York and Los Angeles, so I’m not afraid of hard work and getting stuck in to rallying people together. Each of these networks has kept me inspired and kept bread on my table.

A lot of people choose to make most of their networking effort with other people in the same line of business. Good or bad idea?

It’s easy to get caught up in the comfort of your own circles but variety is certainly best. It’s great to meet people from all walks of life to inspire you and align you with your target markets. You get to hear about projects from their point of view. I really believe in the idea that in life you look for your family, people that are great fun around the barbecue and that you may one day collaborate with. I find art gallery openings great. They are more relaxed and most people are there to appreciate fine surroundings and are more willing to chat. This year I met the most interesting person at an airport – he’s from Belfast and works for Tesco, but is an amateur local historian and was able to give me insight into a project that I’m working on that other official sources didn’t list.

I’ve heard even very sensible people say networking takes up too much time & effort. Is it worth it?

I understand this viewpoint – networking can be exhausting and not all rooms are equal. In any business it takes a collaboration of experts in various fields. If I didn’t get out there and meet people I’d never have met the expert entertainment attorneys, sales agents etc. that are so important to the success of my business. I very much believe in the adage “Just show up.” I met my closest friend at an event I almost didn’t turn up to. For me it’s important that I don’t go to these events with the thought “Tonight I’m going to get that deal.” This causes too much pressure. Yes, it’s important to know what it is that you need and have that short intro pitch ready for the “So what do you do?” question, but, when you attend with a more relaxed attitude you will undoubtedly be easier to talk with and you won’t be seen to be suffering from the rubber neck syndrome – looking around to see if there is someone more important to connect with. I’m choosy about the events I attend though. I will research speakers, the venue, or, check out the attendee list if possible, only because it is easy to suffer burnout in this game. Sometimes it’s OK to allow yourself to take a night off every now and again!

What are your top 3 “rules” or tips to pass on to others Rachel?

  1. Look out for the brave soul who’s at the event on their own – you’ll recognise them as they’re the ones lit by the glow of their mobile phone screen. They are there to network too. Assuming they don’t look like a crazy person, say “Hi”.
  2. Have a business card that can be written on so your new contacts can make notes about meeting you.
  3. Be a gracious networker. If someone gives you their pitch and then another person joins you, pitch the first person you met to the new person. They will love you forever for it.

My next interviewee is Draven McConville, founder & CEO of London based software company Klipboard, a job he says is a privilege to have the opportunity to do.  Draven originally comes from Northern Ireland but these days lives in London. He loves art, travel, architecture & anything design & is a total car & motorcycle fanatic – he rides a Harley to work every day with a Miniature Dachshund called Winston in a backpack! (see the photo above – well – what did you expect from my friends).

We first met when you were thinking about moving from Northern Ireland to London.  What are your top tips for anyone else in the same situation?

Moving to London was always on my radar and eventually my business presented the opportunity to allow me to do so. The biggest challenge for me was arriving in a city where I didn’t know anyone. I put this down to not having gone to university where I would have begun the basis of a network with people that may also have ventured to London for their career. That said, I think anybody moving from Northern Ireland is going to find it difficult settling in London even if they know a few people, so building a network for support is important. With that in mind I had to begin grass roots networking again and what I mean by that is starting at the bottom and working your way through. My top tips are:

  1. The day does not end at 5.30pm. This is London and there is always an event to go to, get out there and go to them. Don’t be picky about the event, just make sure it is of some interest to you as that increases your possibility of meeting like-minded people. It doesn’t have to be business related. I don’t build business connections, I build friendships with my network.
  2. Be prepared to work hard, I had 23 meetings in my first week of living in London.
  3. You need to build trust, don’t expect people to make connections with you instantly. Be visible, reliable and importantly add value, no matter how small or big it may be.  This is a big city and it’s fast moving with a transient population so people typically lack time which therefore means building connections is not as easy as in Northern Ireland.

You’re an entrepreneur Draven.  Has networking helped you find investors for your business & if so how?

Great question! Simple answer is YES, with doubt networking helped me find investors for my business. I have 7 angels and a Private Equity fund based in Seattle that have invested $2 million to date into my business. There is no way that I would have had the opportunity to have these investors in my business if I had not networked. Investors really do work on a “referral” basis and not on a cold approach. My network helped me to get that warm referral approach. How? you ask.  I can give you the exact story and moment it happened for me.

I was at Somerset House meeting with some executives from Channel 4. After the meeting finished I was exhausted but instead of going home I went to a book launch across the courtyard in Somerset House. Within two minutes of arriving (and bumping into yourself and saying hello!) I got chatting to a guy. The conversation was fairly general and lasted no longer than 20 minutes. At the end of it he gave me his business card and at that point I noticed his surname. It was the same surname as another gentleman who’d been in my office a few weeks prior, so I said to him and he laughed and said it was a family relative. What was more amazing was that this tweaked his memory and he then told me his family relative had actually mentioned me to him – it helps having a strange first name!

We both went off on our separate paths but then later in the evening he came back and asked for his business card back. I joked by asking had we fallen out already! He wrote two names and email addresses on the card and told me to contact them. I didn’t ask why, I just did it the next day. I met those people and also continued to meet him over the course of 6 months for coffee and catch-ups. There were many more moments in this growing relationship but long story short, the day I told him I had a software product to release he sat up intently, listened and within an hour he had formulated a group of people I “must” meet. Those people are now my Chairman and group of investors.

Moral of the story…. be curious, explore opportunities.

Is it about quantity or quality of people?

Quality 100% for me. My network is expansive and not limited to entrepreneurs or high flying corporate executives, that’s not what is important to me. What is important is that I have conversations with my network that inspire, encourage and challenge my mind; those conversations only happen if you have good quality and like minded individuals in your network. I have high net worth individuals and a couple of billionaires in my network but I have just as interesting a conversation with the guy that serves me my coffee every morning.

He shares some fascinating stories and insight with me daily plus most people wouldn’t have the first idea of how well connected he is until they get to know him. One morning I was getting my coffee he told me to come back at lunch to meet his friend, I didn’t ask who, I just turned up. Not naming names, his friend was one of the most important British architects of our time. Why did he do that? He knew I loved architecture so connected us and that connection has not only benefitted me in a business sense but also a personal sense. The guy that serves me coffee knows the art of real networking.

I heard someone say at a recent conference that she goes through her network once a year & carries out a cull.  I’d be far too scared to do that as many of my best opportunities have come to me from my “loose” ties.  What’s your view?

Absolutely not! I’ve connected with the individuals in my network for a reason and engaged in conversations with them, therefore they have value to me and hopefully I have value to them. I think in her case she may just be connecting to everyone and anyone which goes back to the quality versus quantity question. One thing most people forget is that your connections have their own connections. If I was to cull one of my connections I’m potentially culling hundreds more therefore limiting any potential opportunities.

Last but not least we have Denise.  Denise is a close friend of mine & someone I admire immensely.  She describes herself as having a massive sense of curiosity about people, places, culture and technology. She loves networking, meeting new people and is inspired daily by brave and passionate entrepreneurs. She is passionate about the emerging technologies that affect us all whether we like it or not! and is fervent about women having the right to an education, a place at the board room table, diverse and inclusive workplaces and female founders gaining investment. Denise has worked and lived in the US, Ireland, China and she now calls London home.

You’re a legendary networker Denise with an international black book to die for.  I’ve lost count of the number of people we’ve introduced each other to but I bet you know the number as I know you have your own networking methodology.  Are you willing to share it with us?

Only for you Mary!

I’ve lived in the US, Ireland, China and now London and as my network grew I initially used LinkedIn. At the start I could nurture my relationships with this tool alone but as my relationships with my network developed I felt LinkedIn wasn’t enough, I felt I needed to add another layer.

As I was building my network across geographies, industries, personal interest areas through to areas that feed my curiosity I couldn’t manage it efficiently with LinkedIn alone. One thing that I felt very strongly about was remembering who introduced me, where the connection came from, was it a direct introduction, was the connection made at an event or through a network, if they were nurtured online or if I found them on LinkedIn and reached out.

I’m not sure what exactly drove me to do this but I was curious to know how my network was building. Knowing where the relationship started helped me to add more value, people also appreciate when I remember where we met and it also allows me to understand my networking habits, what was working for me and areas that I needed to develop.

As my network continued to grow, I added areas of interest to those connections, what drives them, what they’re passionate about not only in a work capacity but in their personal lives too which leads to more fruitful connections and my ability to add support and value to those connections on more than one level.

I now have a little personal CRM system which I review continuously, who’s moved job, who has added to their interests, who I haven’t seen for a coffee and a catch up and ultimately it allows me to understand how I can support my network further.

Doing this has given me a stronger network, unbelievable friendships, amazing opportunities and overall it’s given me the ability to give back, push forward and continue to build my network.

Random Linkedin requests – accept or delete?

My answer to accept or delete is that it depends! Mutual benefit is what I underpin my decision with.

But what I would state to anyone starting to develop their network online is don’t send blank requests, stop now if you do! It’s extremely lazy.

My working practice is as follows:

If I receive blank LinkedIn requests and if I don’t see the mutual value, I delete them. I feel very passionately that relationships only work if there is benefit on both sides and I don’t have time to discover what the benefit is if it’s not obvious. You shouldn’t need to be a mind reader or have psychic powers! This may sound harsh but London moves at speed and the volume of requests I receive is extensive and therefore blank requests with no obvious benefit don’t deserve any of my time.

But if I feel there is mutual benefit once I have reviewed the person’s LinkedIn profile and yet the message is blank I write back to them and ask what it was that triggered their request. I give people 48 hours to respond. I do invest the time in responding and this has led to some wonderful conversations, connections and opportunities. If people don’t respond I just delete them!

If people cannot take the time to introduce themselves and explain their reason for linking I don’t believe they will become a valuable connection where there is benefit on both sides.

When you worked at Enterprise Ireland’s London office a few years ago, what were the top mistakes you saw people or companies make when trying to establish themselves in a new city?

I feel very strongly that when entering a new market, you need to look like you are committed to that market, not dropping in and flying out again. My number one piece of advice is not to arrive at a networking event with your trolley case! People will invest time and energy in helping you if they know you are committed to the market. If they feel you are just dropping in and not valuing the time they’re giving you, they’ll turn their attention elsewhere. I appreciate entering a new market is an expensive process and people cannot be here for days but you must look committed and engaged in developing your network.

My second piece of advice would be, be very specific with your ask. Don’t waste people’s time.

Thirdly, if people are generous enough with their network make sure you respect it and follow up. I believe if you’re asking for introductions and connections understand that they didn’t come easily. They have taken many networking events, many late evenings to build and nurture, so respect who is making the introduction and who you have been introduced to. If I don’t believe the person will respect the introduction I don’t make it.

Last but not least, be aware of the colour you wear when networking, I try to wear a bold colour when networking, it makes it easy for people to point at you and say you should speak to Denise across a crowded room! Be seen even if networking doesn’t come easy to you the introductions and approaches will come.

How do you deal with that “Can I buy you a coffee & pick your brain” request?

I must admit I used to be much more generous with my time for these requests until I got burned and stopped! I will only now meet someone for a coffee of this nature if they have been introduced to me from within my network. I don’t take coffee from LinkedIn requests. If people really want to meet you they will find someone to introduce them. This approach has given me a lot of time back!

I feel so passionately about networking, connections and developing relationships, my approach may seem extreme and at times harsh but I am proud to say I can pick up the phone to all my Linkedin connections and have amazing relationships.

So – a few common themes throughout all three sets of answers and a lot of similarities to my own networking approach (including Denise’s answer on the coffee/pick your brain thing).  Be curious, look outside of your usual gang, do your homework in advance, actually go to events, it’s about quality of connections not quantity, put in the time and energy, add value to others, always follow up on introductions others make for you, pay attention, be gracious, be visible, take the odd night off! I hope you’ve enjoyed reading this blog & if you did, please do share it with your own network. As always, I look forward to any comments you may have.

“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.

How Networking & Collaboration can ease your Key Startup Challenges

Cache1

L-R Mary McKenna, Clare McGee, Connor Doherty, Gemma Milne

This week I’ve spent a couple of days in Northern Ireland with Clare McGee of NORIBIC, Connor Doherty of CultureTech & Gemma Milne of Ogilvy Labs (@ClareNORIBIC @Culturetechfest @GKMilne1).  We’ve hosted a couple of events in Belfast & Derry & invited all our creative & digital industry colleagues to join us in order to discuss whether there’s any appetite in NI to create an industry led independent body to represent our sector & as part of that facilitate networking & collaboration.  The hashtag in case you want to look back at the Twitter conversation is #CACHE

In this blog I’m going to outline some ideas around how networking & collaboration can help especially digital & creative industry startups get around the key challenges identified in the recent Tech Nation 2016 report (collated & produced by Tech City & NESTA).  NI respondents identified 2 key and common challenges to scaling up their startups here in Northern Ireland & those are access to finance/investment and working within a limited talent pool (in my experience of growing a tech business in Northern Ireland, tech & sales people are especially difficult to recruit when you’re in startup mode).

Cache3

Our Belfast guests at The MAC

Let’s start with networking.  I was quite pleased when I asked the room last night “who enjoys networking?” and quite a few hands went up.  Usually people pull faces & shuffle a bit when they think about entering a room full of 200 strangers & starting conversations with them.  Then again, we Northern Irish folk are famed for our friendliness.  The other common barrier is that startups think they are far too busy to network.  I know that because that’s how I used to think too when I was working 7 days a week early doors in my own startup.  But here’s the thing.  It’s nigh on impossible as a startup to persuade good people to leave their comfortable, steady, well-paid jobs & join you if they don’t know you and they’ve never heard of your company.  As for raising finance, don’t even bother trying to do this cold.  You are wasting your time.

Cache2As an aside, in the 2 weeks following the publication of this year’s Maserati 100 List in the Sunday Times newspaper last month, my inbox & LinkedIn quickly filled up with messages from entrepreneurs and startups cold pitching me.  After some consideration I’ve sent them back a version of the following note.  “If you don’t have enough of a network to get introduced to me, then I’m not going to read your cold pitch because you aren’t going to make it.  One of the key elements of startup success is an ability to nicely hustle”.  Harsh?  Maybe.  More about this later.

Cache5

Derry guests in the Playhouse

Remember that all opportunities in business are attached to a person or people – and if you aren’t on that person or team’s radar, your chances of accessing or winning that opportunity are lessened.  Even in the strictest public sector procurement exercise you have a better chance of success if you are known to the procurer.

So – having accepted that networking is a good idea – how is it best to get started?  Here’s my quick primer:

  1. Think about who you already know, especially if you are raising early stage finance. Most of that comes from friends & family (& if you really want to finish the sentence – fools!).
  2. Join some networking organisations – formal & informal. There are loads & loads of these.  Ask around to find out which will be best for you.
  3. Use LinkedIn & Twitter effectively & if you don’t know how, then learn.
  4. Maybe consider joining an accelerator – access to networks is by far the greatest benefit. There are 3 in Belfast & a brand new one within the Northern Ireland Science Park in Derry called Growing Startups.  Hundreds more in London & many specialist ones emerging across Europe & the US that more & more Irish startups are accessing.
  5. Research industry notables local to you & work out how you can have a useful interaction with them. No stalking please.  Try & see what’s in it for them as well as you – not everyone in this life is pure & good although many are.
  6. Recruit already networked people into your small team. I’d take connections over experience any day of the week.  Remember the famous Sun Microsystems quote – “No matter who you are, most of the smartest people work for someone else” – let’s face it – especially true if you only have 3 people in your team!
  7. Build out your own personal brand. This will help your startup when it’s small.  You can figure out later on how to shift the spotlight away from yourself & that’s a nice problem to have.  There are loads of ways to do this.  Publishing content on your own blog or LinkedIn & accepting all public speaking opportunities are a good start.
  8. Simplest of all – do a bit of homework before you bowl up to conferences & events. Find out who else is going.  Contact people beforehand & arrange to meet for a focused chat about something mutually beneficial.  Ask one of the speakers if you can interview them for your blog.
  9. If you’re in NI or Ireland, don’t forget there’s another island next door & less than an hour on the plane that has 10x the population of the island of Ireland & it’s a lot less hassle to operate in than trying to do business in the US.

You all know the rules of networking but briefly:

Be brave and approach strangers – what’s the worst that can happen; be friendly and pleasant; have a 30 second elevator pitch and be ready to trot it out; related to the last point recognise the part played by serendipity & always be watchful for connection opportunities without being overly pushy, be ambitious in who you reach out to – especially online – hardly anyone ever says No (I can only think of one single person who’s refused to help me with something in the last 10 years – DM me if you want to know who it is!); remember this is a two-way street & karma plays a part – pay it forward & pay it back – no matter how little you have there’s always someone else who is worse off.

Onto collaboration.  This is nothing new.  Members of the City of London guilds have been collaborating for over a thousand years.  I found a great Bill Gates quote on this:

“Creativity is less of an individual characteristic than it is an emergent property that surfaces when people convene around a problem”.

Cache4

Me with the totally bonkers Gibson Girls of Red Earth Designs – fresh, innovative, fun!

I love that.  Our events this week attracted film makers, artists, actors, publishers and journalists, software & game creators, photographers, ceramicists, artisan food producers, musicians, digital generalists, chocolate makers, people from the fashion industry, STEMettes, all sorts of fabulous creative & digital companies & entrepreneurs.  Jim Murray of Troll games summed up creative collaboration beautifully last night in Derry as he described people with different skill sets & end games working together in a shared space, brainstorming ideas & dipping in & out of different projects in different parts of the industry.  We’d simply like to facilitate this happening for our creatives & digital people on a much bigger scale.

Competition is old hat.  It makes me think of gung ho alpha salesmen in shiny suits driving Ford Mondeos.  Ugh.

Going back to a startup’s ability to recruit for a moment, by 2020 Millennials will make up 50% of the workforce & 88% of them say they prefer to work in a collaborative environment not a competitive one – and you have to make your workplaces Millennial friendly if you’re going to attract the best of the best.

Northern Ireland is populated by thousands of micro businesses.  Collaborating with each other helps you go further & bid bigger – if that’s what you want.  So – if you like the sound of this, complete the NORIBIC survey here and have your say.

We’re launching the Northern Ireland branch of London’s Irish International Business Network at the Digital DNA conference in Belfast on 7 & 8 June.  I’m going to be driving this in Northern Ireland when I return home mid May.  But the good news is you don’t have to wait until then to join IIBN, you can join now & get your international networking kicked off pronto.

Last word – if you’re cold pitching to the people who accept cold pitches, Gemma Milne’s excellent advice is to keep your cover note to the length of two tweets max, don’t include pitch decks and business plans, maybe include a really short explainer video, don’t send generic – think about how what you have is of interest to who you’re sending it to.  Oh & whatever you do, don’t send them to me 😉

I’d love to know everyone’s thoughts around this topic so please do include them in the comments section.

An Evening with Willie Walsh

BA aviva

Willie Walsh’s photo of a BA plane skimming over the Aviva Stadium in Dublin during The Gathering

This week at London’s branch of IIBN we were lucky enough to have Willie Walsh, CEO of International Airline Group (parent company of British Airways) as our keynote speaker at one of our regular business networking events.  A New Year boost to start the business year and what an opportunity – to hear the great man address a 200 strong Irish business audience.  Some might say a tricky enough crowd!

There’s been plenty written about Willie Walsh in the 15 or so years since he was first appointed CEO of Ireland’s national airline Aer Lingus but on the night I was more interested in seeing what makes the man himself tick.  He didn’t disappoint.  Alongside business chat and the expected slides about performance of IAG he told plenty of personal stories (I won’t publish them here – you’ll just have to go & hear him speak yourself) that were amusing but also gave some insight into the man behind the headlines.

WW

Willie Walsh keynoting at IIBN

The keynote covered IAG expansion (the usual big corporate stuff about world domination), a very useful explanation of how the fall in crude oil price hasn’t cut costs for European airlines due to adverse movements on the currency market (IAG still spends €1.6 billion on fuel per quarter), his work as Chairman of Ireland’s National Treasury Management Agency (it was particularly interesting to get insight straight from the horse’s mouth into some of the areas the Ireland Strategic Investment Fund is investing – domestic life sciences companies, several areas of new technology and also a housebuilding joint venture to address acute housing shortage in Ireland), Brexit (he’s against it, along with most other CEOs of large UK corporates) and Heathrow expansion (“I don’t believe this UK government will tackle the issue of airport expansion and this provides a great opportunity for Dublin”).

But what did I like the most.  First of all, Willie Walsh is a great live speaker.  He’s very natural, entertaining and articulate but there’s an underlying seriousness and real substance to his delivery.  I could have listened to him speak for much longer.  It’s the confidence that comes from having deep, deep knowledge of your subject matter; something you don’t see so much in business these days.  He reminded me of Michael Dell, another great business leader that I heard speak a number of times in 2015 – except that Willie is far more irreverent!  And he probably uses “richer” language than Michael Dell would ever do…but both of them have the gritty determination of people who’ve seen everything their chosen industry has to offer or throw, both command the respect of the entire room and both are and always have been hard working to the extreme – you can just tell that by listening to them.

Cool Beans

Cool Beans co-founders Isolde & Sarah with Willie Walsh

Before the keynote started, we had a 3 minute startup pitch as is usual at IIBN.  We like to give our newer entrepreneurs and future leaders a chance to have their voices heard and to expose them to potential investors, partners, customers.  This week it was the turn of Sarah O’Connor and Isolde Johnson, co-founders of the Cool Bean Company.  It was a great pitch and the girls rather cheekily finished up with a photograph of a British Airways plane (long haul flights & beans – I’m not too sure about that!) and a smile over to Willie.  Let’s face it – you’ve gotta pitch when you get the opportunity.  It was great to see Willie Walsh chatting with Sarah & Isolde afterwards and also that during his own keynote he commented what a good pitch they’d given.

A lot of what he said on the night was aimed at people new to business or young people starting out.  He said that he himself has never really applied for a job and told the story of how as a 17 year old at school in Dublin he casually went along to an open day at Aer Lingus and how that led to him becoming an apprentice pilot instead of going straight to university.  He said he’s shocked by how afraid people are of making mistakes and (rolling his eyes) recounted a few of his own.  The message was that if you don’t push yourself so hard that you make a few mistakes, you’ll never reach your potential as you won’t know where your boundaries lie.  Of course, as everyone knows, the cardinal sin is not learning from your mistakes or making the same mistake twice…and the Holy Grail is the knack of learning from other people’s mistakes, although I’ve yet to meet anyone who can do that successfully!

He also talked on the topic of finding a business personality that you own and are comfortable with.  Fortunately, we don’t have too many Michael O’Learys – although you have to admit that it’s worked for him.  Willie Walsh went back to himself as a 17 year old & said that of the panel that interviewed him on that day, three thought he was smart and self confident but the fourth person thought he was cocky.  I guess he had a bit of luck with him on the day that the balance didn’t go the other way – but the point he was making is that it’s a fine line and one that only the individual can find and get comfortable with themselves.

So – I’m a fan of Mr Willie Walsh.  I like people who care a lot about what they do, who work hard, who believe in their mission and have strong opinions.  I like people who are generous to others that are a bit behind where they are and I like people who are able to admit to and take responsibility for their mistakes.  I like people who dream big and aren’t afraid to go after the massive goals and targets that most people would run a mile from.  I like people who’ve come from humble beginnings but who through their own ability and hard graft are able to shimmy up the greasy career pole despite most of the odds being against them.  I like people who do public service and find the time to give something back.  I like people who take the unconventional road.  And the rest of the audience – they liked him too.  Most had seen him speak before and were very impressed that he used a completely different set of stories and jokes this time around.  I’m with them – there’s nothing worse than people who get up on stage and trot out the same tired old stuff over and over again.

Final word from me today.  Check out Cool Bean Company when you get a chance – we might only be half way through January but they’ve already announced a contract this year with all 135 Waitrose stores so I think we’re going to be seeing a lot more of Sarah and Isolde.

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.

Startup recruitment – reject show-offs, clowns and mavericks …

Bryan Keating - possibly the world's best Chairman

Bryan Keating – possibly the world’s best Chairman

From the warmth of my temporary California base this week I noticed with interest that successful scaleup Futuregov is advertising publicly for an Executive Chair. Why with interest? Well really it’s because these types of appointments are so rarely advertised in a scaleup or SME.

This got me thinking about small business recruitment in general and what a dark art it is. Staying with the Exec Chair campaign for a moment, I can understand fully why Carrie & Dom are going down this route – it widens the selection pool beyond their own (extensive) networks and it’s a more transparent, open and fair process. But will it get them the right or best candidate? I’m not sure. Inevitably, processes that open some doors also close others.

In my world, the more usual way to bring someone into your small business as Chairman or a NED is to go out to your network and then make direct approaches to people, or a person, that you think may be suitable. A number of conversations take place behind closed doors and the “target” individual will make a decision based on any combination of the following and more – do they like your business, do they like you, how much else have they got going on right now, does your opportunity complement or conflict with their other current activities, can they see clearly how they will add value, what are you offering them, how’s it going to look on their own cv, are your exit aspirations linked to their available forward timescales, etc

Many of the sorts of people that I might approach if I was seeking an Executive Chair would never participate in a public recruitment process. They wouldn’t wish to be open and transparent in their dealings or intentions and they simply wouldn’t compete in a public way with others – definitely not. So well done Dom & Carrie for being brave enough to run a process that rules those people out and good luck with finding the right person.

There’s a wider issue here and one that I’d never really thought about much – despite having spent an awful lot of my own time during the past 10 years actively recruiting people into my own teams. At a dinner in Dublin last year I found myself sitting next to the head of a very, very large software company’s 2,000 person development team. We chatted away and inevitably the conversation turned to how difficult it is for a small business to recruit decent tech talent. My dinner companion at this point happened to say to me that he has a rule whereby he never recruits people via recruitment agencies or headhunters. Never. No exceptions. His reason for this was simple and straightforward. He believes that only second rate candidates use their services. He recruits only via his company’s new graduate programme and he sometimes interviews people recommended by others in his network or team. His further rationale when I challenged him a little on this was that he may occasionally miss a good person in this way, but the amount of time he saves by not bothering with or interviewing “bad” candidates was considerable and the trade-off was worth it. It also saved him from the nuisance factor that recruiters & headhunters introduce into your business – once they’ve placed a candidate with you they continue dialogue with your employee so that they don’t miss an opportunity later to make more commission when they can persuade that person to move again.

Later on I thought about my own career path and realised that I’ve only ever formally applied for two out of the numerous jobs I’ve had in my working life – once as a new graduate (I got my first job by applying via an advert placed in the Guardian) and again when I was moving to a new country (Northern Ireland in 2000) and didn’t have an existing network. Everything else I’ve ever done has come to me through my network.

Recruiting the right people into your team is the hardest job of any startup or scaleup CEO. I don’t care what any recruiter or HR person says about this, recruitment into your team is a nightmare and often it’s completely random as to whether or not the appointment you make turns out to be a success. Drawing up endless criteria and scoring lists of candidates against them? For the most part a complete waste of time and energy and it turns the process into something akin to the very worst excesses of procurement. Recently I’ve heard of a couple of people in my own network who’ve been encouraged to apply for vacant posts by the Chief Executives of those organisations. Both have gone on to apply & attend interview and both were unsuccessful. What’s that all about? Were they being used as stalking horses by unscrupulous Chief Execs wanting to make up their interview numbers or was it that the panel had a scoresheet that had to be adhered to on the day and therefore the Chief Exec was over-ruled or outvoted and their preferred candidate ousted by someone who happened to interview better on the day. (Rookie startup CEOs – this is something else to definitely watch out for – the professional interview performers – great at interview but by the end of Week 1, you realise with a sinking heart what a dreadful mistake you’ve made.)

Instead, satisfy yourself in the first 5 minutes that the candidate really wants to work in your organisation for the right reasons and has a clear view of where and how they can add value. Also, reject all show-offs, clowns and mavericks, no matter how interesting or compelling they seem. Believe me – all they will bring to you is a huge time sink and disharmony in your team.

For me, this is an interesting topic because despite having built world class startup teams several times over on a shoestring, recruitment is something I’ve struggled with over the years. I’ll readily admit that some of the worst and most personally painful mistakes I’ve ever made in business have been recruitment related.

Interested to hear your views, hints and tips for others on small business recruitment so please do share in the comments section below. The photo above is of Bryan Keating, the best Chairman I’ve ever worked with or for. Although having said that I’ve always loved the story about how the founders of the Innocent drinks company used to employ a 50p piece in the early days that they referred to as “The Chairman”. They flipped it for a simple heads or tails decision when required. I don’t know if the story’s true or not but certainly food for thought Dom & Carrie?

The Un-Office Christmas Party

Last December I was at a few lunches and drinks parties where a number of people said – I’m treating this as my Christmas party because I don’t have an “official” one to go to.

Anke Holst & John Popham, KIngs Cross, December 2013

Anke Holst & John Popham, KIngs Cross, December 2013

These two lovely people, Anke Holst (@the_anke) & John Popham (@johnpopham) were at one such impromptu drinks meetup in a Kings X pub that loads of other people, most of them one-man bands, turned up to.

I’m considering trying to organise something in London for this December, if anyone from my sole trader/entrepreneur/lone wolf/freelance consultant/one-man band network is interested.  After all, Christmas is only 108 days away…maybe early evening dinner somewhere fun on Tuesday 16 December?

Give me a shout on Twitter or in the comments below if you’re in.