Networking

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.

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.

10 Cardinal Rules of Business Networking for entrepreneurs (and others)

GIEF Crowd

Assembled crowd in Dublin Castle when I arrived

In my world it’s quite common for entrepreneurs who are a bit further ahead than the rest of us to put something back in terms of the people following in their trail.  This can happen via formal networks (Digital Circle, Irish International Business Network, Global Irish Network, Chambers of Commerce, CBI, etc – we all have plenty of groups we’re members of) or it can be more informal – people you already know or meet along the way or via events that provide access to the Great & the Good (Culturetech in Derry is a recent example of a fabulous event that was bunged full of tech world glitterati as was the EBN Congress event run by NORIBIC in May with illustrious keynote speakers such as Steve Wozniak and Tim Smit).

Being able to ask questions of the people further ahead is mission critical to an entrepreneur (and corporate world managers I guess).  Even better is using networking to find yourself a small number of mentors and advisors with whom you can start an ongoing relationship.  Having personal access to leaders with proven success is a well known piece of the entrepreneur puzzle and one which significantly improves a startup’s chances of making it to the end of that all important first year.

Yesterday I attended the 3rd Global Irish Economic Forum in Dublin Castle.  It was hosted by the Taoiseach & the Tanaiste and is a biannual gathering of 250 of Ireland’s most influential & successful people.  This year the Tanaiste decided to include some Northern Irish businesses amongst the 100 SME businesses that are invited & that’s how come I was there.  It was terrifying.  I only knew two people there out of two or three hundred when I arrived.

One of the most frequently used phrases I heard yesterday was “I will help you if I can” – but as an entrepreneur how do you respond to and action that offer in order to get most benefit out of it for your company.  I thought about this a lot on the way home last night & decided to write a quick blog.  As usual, the list below is not finished or complete so please do add your own tips in the comments section & we’ll all be pleased to read those later.

  1. Have an elevator pitch and be ready to trot it out anytime & anywhere.  Keep it brief or you’ll lose your important audience.  Be able to flex it so that you can give a different version dependent on what sort of person you are pitching to and what country they are from – are they a potential door opener, investor, mentor.  If you aren’t good on your feet you need to practice this to the point where it just rolls out effortlessly freeing you up to watch their body language & listen & respond to their points/questions.  If you can’t do this, don’t put yourself through the pain of going to this sort of event.  Instead find someone who can do it for you.
  2. Don’t be afraid to approach people and always ask for help – when you get to a place where you feel you are comfortable to ask for some support just go ahead and ask.  Hardly anyone ever says no.  I’ve only been turned down by one person – it’s someone you all know so DM me if you want me to spill the beans – I can’t do it on here!  But it was only one person and I’ve asked hundreds for help.
  3. Don’t be afraid to be ambitious – in my group yesterday someone asked if a couple of the US heavy hitters could help her secure Hillary Clinton as a keynote speaker for her conference next year.  Time will tell on that one!
  4. Before you ask, be very clear about what it is that you want them to do for you.  I have a couple of “open” offers right now where people have offered to help me with “something” – but I don’t yet know what I can best use that offer for.  Help could be making an intro to someone to joining your board or investing in your company – and anything on the spectrum in between.
  5. Never expect someone like this to do any heavy lifting or grunt work for you, that’s your job.  What I mean by that is you have to do the homework and present the information to them so that all they do is give you an opinion or a steer – don’t expect they will do your market research for you.  If for example you were looking for a channel partner in an overseas territory, research who the players are, what their characteristics and pros/cons for you are & then ask for some advice in which 3 out of the 10 in existence are best for your company to approach.
  6. Be 100% serious when you execute on whatever it is you’ve asked the person to do.  If someone opens a door for you at your request then do your homework & don’t screw up the sales pitch when you get there.  It’s not just your own chips you’re using – it’s the chips of everyone similar to you that’s following on behind you.  I heard one US mentor describe this yesterday as “political capital”.  I’ve also heard it called “reputational capital”.  What does that mean? – I make an intro for you, you show up half prepped or don’t turn up, I’m now in a much worse place with the contact I’ve sent you to.  No pressure but be careful what you wish for and only engage if you know you are ready.
  7. Some access is for a one-off offer & some might lead to an ongoing relationship – be careful to work out which it is early doors.
  8. Related to the above point, if it’s the start of an ongoing relationship you probably need to meet a few times before both parties are comfortable.  The first time you meet just establishes that you like each other & possibly have a common interest.  You now need to get to know each other a bit better.  As the “recipient”, you need to do the running to make sure the relationship develops.
  9. When you have a new advisor in your circle, don’t just use the red phone and ring them when you need a decision made or have a crisis.  You’ll get far more out of the relationship if you keep them up to speed with what you’re doing & how things are going as you go along.  Again, it’s up to you to find a way to do that & put the work in to make it happen.  These guys are never going to be chasing you.
  10. Finally – when you’re at this sort of event, be brave and approach strangers and start up a conversation.  Everyone is there because of one or more vested interests of their own and they want to talk to you.  Never forget that people prefer to do business with people they like so at initial brief meetings like these be pleasant, don’t argue and regard it as a way of “interviewing” and filtering those that you will follow up and keep in touch with.  I came away yesterday with a handbag stuffed full of business cards and today will be spent following up with the people I met.

A few weeks ago at Culturetech festival in Derry I was lucky enough to meet & chat with Wilson Kriegel (former COO of OMGPOP, creators of Draw Something) and he said something that has stayed with me.  You start forming relationships the day you are born; growing and nurturing those relationships is key to the success of an entrepreneur.  Yep – at the end of the day business is all about people – nothing else really matters.

If you’re just getting started with networking, here’s a link to an earlier blog I wrote a couple of years back https://kickingassets.co.uk/so-you-want-to-network/

 

Forget Fight Club, what are the rules of Start-Up Club?

Fight_club

We all know the first rule of Fight Club – (shhh – don’t mention it) – but what are the rules of Start-Up Club?  These are the 10 Rules I’d suggest to someone starting out with a new business:

Rule 1 – Just Do It – the time will never be right & there’s no point in procrastinating, obsessing over the fine detail (you’ll find out soon enough you can’t control things anyway) or delaying.  Grasp the nettle & get going.  Entrepreneurs have many sayings but one that I like a lot is “Leap and a net will form”.  Well – it either does or it doesn’t but there’s only one way to find out.

Rule 2 – seek out a great name and then get a great strapline.  It might not be the one you start out with but keep looking.  All our companies (so far) have had great names including my very first company which was called Kicking Assets.  Keep thinking – it doesn’t cost you anything to think but this is stuff that makes a high impact.

Rule 3 – network like mad both online & in real life.  Not to the exclusion of all else of course but do work at it.  I’ve written a previous blog about networking which you can read here https://kickingassets.co.uk/so-you-want-to-network

Rule 4 – be well informed, there’s no excuse these days not to be – we have the internet!  Join the appropriate groups (online & real life, like Northern Ireland’s Digital Circle) & talk/listen to other entrepreneurs.  You have to work at this too.

Rule 5 – ask for help if you need it.  Most people are generous with their time & advice and everyone wants you to be a success.  When people help you out, be gracious & don’t abuse their good nature.

Rule 6 – look for innovation in your product or service, your product delivery channel and also your business model.  Innovation in your business model can be a real differentiator.  Again – this doesn’t cost you anything, you just need to think about it.

Rule 7 – don’t go it alone.  Find a business partner or a couple of non execs or perhaps seek out a mentor or join a collaborative network.  Starting a business is too hard for a person to do by themselves and a problem shared is a problem halved.  I have another blog about this specifically which you can read here if you want to know more https://kickingassets.co.uk/two-heads-are-better-than-one-10-pros-of-havi

Rule 8 – get good advice.  Shop around for an understanding bank (we quickly moved away from our first bank when they wouldn’t support our growth strategy & these days bank with the fabulous Northern Bank) and once you find them, have an open and honest relationship with your bank manager.  Talk to other entrepreneurs and start-ups about the accountants and legal firms they use.  Look for modern professional advisers that understand online businesses and who use technology and social networking themselves.  Cut a good deal by promising them they’ll get a decent payback when you exit.  Agree all your fees up front.  Never get any of these guys out of the Yellow Pages or equivalent.

Rule 9 – work hard and always be open and alert to opportunity.  Usually it doesn’t come up & slap you in the face – you need to be watching out for it.  I’m afraid working hard has to be a given.  Without doing it you will fail and anyone that tells you anything different than that is a liar.

Rule 10 – have some fun.  Running your own business or working in a start-up is the most fun you will ever have at work.  Sure it’s hard work & the lows can be pretty awful – but the highs are AMAZING & you get to hang out with some great people in your own team.

Send me your own tips in the comments below – I can’t wait to read them.