Paul McElvaney

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

Paul_in_stansted_lounge

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

·         books travel well in advance to get the best prices

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

·         self starter with a lot of drive

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

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

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

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

 

London Calling

Mary_and_paul_no_10

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Team Building’s great…but what happens next?

Team_lovely_august_2011

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

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

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

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

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

A blog about pride…

Event_hub_pic

Last night I attended the awards evening for SeedComp 2011 – a Digital Derry initiative to uncover the North West of Ireland’s most promising digital business ideas.  The process has been ongoing since late March & has resulted in 30 or so new business ideas emerging.  This type of competition is a fabulous way for any town to encourage & promote some innovation & entrepreneurialism.  The overall prize kitty last night was £10,000 and included a £1,000 prize for the most promising student idea – so it’s a very cost effective way to get some ideas moving in your community & get especially your young people thinking about starting their own businesses.  Most brand new ideas only need a tiny amount of money to get started.  We’re lucky to have our own Digital Champion, Mark Nagurski, in Derry to come up with competitions like this and then put in the hard graft to make them a success.  Definitely worthwhile if your town doesn’t already do something like this.

12 fledgling ideas were shortlisted at the start of May and the new promoters presented yesterday.  The judging panel included some tech industry veterans, one of Facebook’s senior executives, a couple of local entrepreneurs and a (friendly) VC.  A terrifying prospect and indeed one of the competitors shared with me at last night’s event that although he’s presented to both Steven Spielberg and James Cameron in his career so far, he was more nervous going into the room yesterday.

It was therefore with great pride that Paul & I witnessed our very own Breda Doherty pick up a prize as part of her new venture with her business partner Catherine Morris.  An all girl geek team.  What could ever be nicer?  Breda & Catherine met on the Invest NI/Digital Circle funded mission to this year’s SXSW event in Austin, Texas (thanks Matt!) and they’ve wasted no time in coming up with a new business idea & putting together a plan.  Their new idea has elements of the passion of the original Craigslist (Breda interviewed Craig Newmark at SXSW) and it uses Bill Liao’s homespun advice on marketing messages (Breda interviewed Bill in Washington DC); I’m hoping their relentless execution against plan will show that Breda has maybe even learned something from Paul & me along the way (good stuff only Breda!).  She’s certainly a different person today than the one who walked into the Learning Pool office in April 2008 to bring order to the chaos that existed at that time – more self confident, more informed about technology and investment, more assertive, more aware of how to get things done, more experienced, more of an all rounder…but still as sweet, still as stylish and still universally loved by her school chums, the whole of team lovely, our entire customer base and basically anyone who ever meets her.

Go Breda & Catherine – we’re all rooting for you & we can’t wait to see where this takes you.

Addendum to this blog (11 June 2011)

A few people have asked me why Paul & I are so supportive of one of our own star team members thinking about starting her own business…hmm…being a small business owner isn’t just about finding people & extracting your pound of flesh from them over the time they work for you.  It’s also about adding to your local community & giving back where you can, providing careers & challenge for your people and equipping them with the skills they need to go on & do something else.  Learning Pool is 5 years old this summer and we are lucky to have a high performing star team that’s the envy of many other companies.  But after 3 years in a job, people are entitled to try their hand at something else and if they go on to take a stab at being an entrepreneur themselves, Paul & I see that as a perfect 10 scored for ourselves – our work is done & we’ve achieved one of the things we set out to. 

The other day a local entrepreneur I met at a lunch told me how he’d had someone come in to arrange the desks in his company so that everyone could see each others screens – his reason for doing that – so that no-one would be on Facebook during the hours of 9-5.  What did I do – I just sighed a bit to be honest.  He wasn’t interested in what I had to say anyway.  Old fashioned companies with old fashioned opinions – think on.  Your days are probably numbered.

 

10 fabulous things that have happened in the last 4 years

Mary_and_paul_4th_birthday_wit

#teamlovely has been celebrating Learning Pool’s 4th birthday for the past week or so – just look at that cake in the photo.  There’ve been many times in the last 4 years that the achievement of this milestone seemed like a tall order – but resilience has always been the order of the day round here so we’ve just kept our heads down and carried on plugging away.  A rather frightening statistic is that 75% of new start ups have crashed & burned by the end of Year 3 – so it’s good to be in a successful minority, especially during the current global economic recession.  As we reach the end of our celebrations, this has got me thinking about the highlights of the last 4 years for Paul & me (this blog is a bit selfish for which I apologise now).  Here they are in no particular order:

1.       Getting to see Bill Clinton in Derry this week – that was cool & so was he (disappointed you didn’t mention “digital” Bill – ah well)

2.       In the early days, making a snap decision to go ahead & build Modern Councillor whilst crossing the West End of London in a taxi – it’s been a roaring success ever since

3.       Also in the early days, receiving a Letter of Offer from one of the Belfast VCs and turning it down – twice!

4.       Blagging our way in to spending 45 minutes with a Director of Education in Capitol Hill & listening to his sage advice

5.       Reaching the final of the 2008 All Ireland Seedcorn competition and having a great night out with our team

6.       Following on from No 5, our team meeting Jerry Kennelly (founder of Stockbyte that was sold to Getty Images in 2006 for $135m) at the Seedcorn awards party and having him tell us we have a great company, to keep doing what we’re doing & not to take any investment (thanks Jerry!)

7.       Holding a launch party in Johannesburg in Nov 2009 at the UK Trade Commissioner’s residence and having lovely Baroness Glenys Kinnock, Minister for Africa, as our keynote speaker

8.       Being overjoyed when Donald Clark approached us and subsequently offered to join our board as a non exec director (great to have you on board Donald – #teamlovely loves you to bits)

9.       Welcoming 200 people to our annual conference at London’s Royal Mint on 12 May 2010 and receiving their fabulous feedback

10.   Being one of Deloitte’s Rising Stars at the end of 2009

11.   Knowing that we’re well on our way to building the biggest & best public sector online learning community in the world

OK – so there were 11…here’s to the next batch!

 

Two Heads are Better than One – 10 pros of having a business partner

Paul_and_me_causeway

The photo above is me with my own business partner, Paul McElvaney.  It was taken a couple of summers ago & we’re sitting on top of the world – ok – it’s the Giant’s Causeway but it feels like the top of the world when you’re there…it’s a much better photo of Paul than it is of me but I love it nevertheless because we’re both laughing and the sun’s out.

This week we were over at Belfast’s Start VI talking to some early stage entrepreneurs about their plans for their new businesses.  This got me thinking about the whole business partner debate – to have or have not – so here are my thoughts on this subject:

1.       If you’re dreaming big with your start-up you should think about finding a business partner – unless you already have proof that you’re superhuman.  Our business, Learning Pool, has grown from nothing to 50 people and £3.5m turnover in 4 years.  That’s a lot of work whichever way you look at it.

2.       Partners should have complementary business skills – it’s the 2 + 2 = 5 effect.  In our case, Paul’s far more technical than me & has a project management background whereas I come from an accountancy & legal background.  Having said that – both of us are immersed in our chosen sector and we can both sell – that bit’s important.

3.       Two people means you have more ideas for brainstorming and (at least) two views on opportunities and risks; you can also learn a lot from each other.

4.       If there are two of you, chances are you have a much bigger network than one person and you just know more stuff and have more experience to draw on between you – so you can make better decisions than a person trying to figure it out on their own.  There are many decisions that Paul & I make every day on our own but there’s also a lot that we decide upon jointly via a process of debate & brainstorming between us – it’s hard to understand unless you try it…and you have to be prepared to not always get your own way.

5.       It makes the business more “formal” in those early days – if you were by yourself chances are you wouldn’t bother with monthly management accounts or you’d be more lax over expenses or you wouldn’t write so much down.  This early discipline stands you in good stead when you start to scale.

6.       Two people can cover a helluva lot more ground – business requires a lot of travel, pitching, attendance at events, socialising, networking.  It also makes it easier to get away for a bit of a break.

7.       Your partner’s there for the bad times – when you don’t win a contract you’ve pitched hard for or when the bank says No – but also for the good times – and it’s great to have someone to share with.  A new business is like a rollercoaster ride and having a partner to bounce off & share stuff with & who picks you up when you’re down & vice versa flattens out some of those crazy peaks and troughs.

8.       Most entrepreneurs are control freaks so it can be hard working so closely with another person, especially at first.  They do say that you have to work at your business partnership like you would a marriage and that’s true.  You have to be prepared to be completely open and honest in a way that you will not be used to – not even with your family or your spouse/partner.  Your business partner will know more about your personal finances and even your personality traits than your close friends or family do.  You will have seen each other make unpalatable decisions and behave ruthlessly and you will have exposed that darker side of your nature to each other.  Once you’ve accepted this it is slightly comforting.

9.       There’s some practical reasons when you’re starting out – like having more working capital as there are two of you or having more places to get hold of start-up capital.

10.   Having a partner makes you more resilient and it makes you work harder – as you have someone else who’s opinion you care about to prove yourself to.

My own experience of this has been incredibly positive.  Paul & I work well together.  We both work hard and put an equal amount into our business in terms of effort and expertise – that’s important too – I don’t know how it would work if one partner felt short changed by the other but I guess it would be uncomfortable and unsustainable.  We have a lot of laughs along the way and there’s a great deal of healthy competitiveness and “sport”.  There have been some really bad days on the journey but there have also been some amazing highs and I wouldn’t change things for the world.  I’ve ended up with a friend that I would trust with my life without any hesitation.  And that’s a big deal.

I’ll leave you with a quote from John D Rockefeller “A friendship founded on business is a good deal better than a business founded on friendship”.  Bit of food for thought in there.  I look forward to your comments friends & readers.