Sinead Crowley

“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.

What’s In A Day?

clock

In just under 6 weeks time we move back home to Northern Ireland after spending the last 4 years slap bang in the centre of London.  I’m a little panicked by the thought of everything I still have to do in my remaining 42 days…or is it now 41…or maybe even 40.  The last time I glanced at the list in my book there are some 50 or so people I’m hoping to catch up with for a coffee before I go and I have another list on the go of places & restaurants I want to visit.  All of this got me thinking about how we choose to spend each of our days.  UK life expectancy is currently 81.5 years and that equates to just shy of 30,000 days on earth.  Seems like a lot doesn’t it?  Indeed, one of the most chilling questions I’ve heard posed recently was at TedXBrixton a couple of years back when Peter Cochrane, futurologist, asked the audience what quartile of their lives they considered themselves to be in.  (I’m hoping & praying I’m in my 3rd & not 4th).

So – how do you spend each of your days?  This is what I did with mine yesterday:

6.30-8.30am Woke up, listened to R4 Today programme (even though it makes me angry & I do sometimes end up shouting at the radio – any credible alternatives gratefully received) & read online – news, articles, email, Twitter.  My favourite piece on the radio yesterday was hearing John Caudwell (founder of Phones 4U & famous for being the UK’s biggest ever tax payer) preaching about tax avoidance in the midst of the #PanamaPapers row.  I don’t agree with John’s politics or his stance on Europe but I do believe that everyone should pay their fair taxes.

8.30am-midday I spent this time making a number of connections for entrepreneurs I’ve met with this week & last.  One of the most important parts of networking is not attending events & collecting business cards for yourself; it’s making useful connections for others & bringing people together for the greater good of the group.  All the best networkers I know – Oli Barrett, Marc Ventresca, Denise McQuaid, Tom Holmes, Sinead Crowley – all operate along the same lines – in order to get it back, first you have to give it away.  This month for me is all about blockchain (I’m looking at potential applications of blockchain for the wider public sector & have a few interesting meetings coming up so watch this space) and social prescribing so this morning I had a great Skype call with the guys at Bitnet Technologies in Belfast & another Skype call with a couple of Irish entrepreneurs who’ve got an interesting community driven social prescription model & solution.  I also answered a large number of emails – my least favourite part of yesterday – and I noticed that the UFI Trust have this week announced their VocLearnTech Fund 2016 so I had a quick Skype with Sarah Axon to find out a bit more about it before promoting it out to my networks.  It’s open until 12 May & you can find more info here if you’re interested in applying.

Midday-1.30 Time for a swim.  I try to swim a mile every day if I can.  I’m lucky in that there’s a 20m pool in the basement of the apartment block we’re renting in.  I treat it like meditation – no phones, no emails – just your own head & your own thoughts.

Laugardalslaug

The 50m outdoor pool at Laugardalslaug in Reykjavik

It’s an incredible way to settle your head & solve problems or challenges you’re struggling with.  I had the pool to myself yesterday which is always a bonus.  I’m a slow swimmer but that’s ok.  When I started back in the pool on 29 December my time for a mile was 1 hour.  Yesterday it was 49 minutes.  I like visible improvement, even if it’s gradual.  My best swim this year so far was in the outdoor 50m pool at Laugardalslaug in Reykjavik.  It was January and in the middle of a fierce snowstorm – but the water in the pool is geothermally heated to the temperature of a warm bath and it was amazing to feel the icy snowflakes landing on your shoulders and back.  Swimming is a real pleasure these days as it was something that I had to give up when I was in a startup – I just couldn’t spare the time.

1.30-4pm Phone calls with associates, new people in my network, a couple of people that I’m working with, a chat with my Mum (very important to make that call every day), a nice call with the team from the Centre for Entrepreneurship at the University of Oxford that I’m hoping to work with this year.

Maxine

Nice to run into my friend & fellow Northern Irish lass Maxine Mawhinney last night

I believe it’s important to chat with people on the phone or via Skype.  You don’t build meaningful relationships with anyone via email.  A couple of interesting emails dropped into my inbox yesterday afternoon – one unsolicited from a high end recruiter asking me if I’d like to apply to become a trustee of a charity that I’m already well known to.  It did make me wonder why they’re paying good money to recruiters to bring them people that they could just lift the phone & call but hey-ho.  That’s a discussion for another day.

4-6pm Wrote this blog, got ready for a dinner at the Irish Embassy & caught the bus down to Belgravia.  An evening in the Embassy is always one of my favourite nights out in London.

Liz welcoming

Liz Shanahan, IIBN Global Chair, welcoming last night’s dinner guests

I see lots of people that I already know but also meet interesting new people as there’s no shortage of them passing through our Embassy.  This is largely down to our Ambassador – Dan Mulhall – who is a remarkable mix of diplomat, historian and story teller & who along with his extremely interesting Australian wife Greta hosts the most welcoming & eclectic of gatherings.  Last night was no exception.  I sit on the London board of the Irish International Business Network and, like any organisation that cares about succession planning, we run a Future Leaders programme.  Last night’s dinner was to celebrate the success of our latest cohort and 4 of our young people stood up & shared their stories.

Tom Court

London Irish rugby player & former international, Ulster & Grand Slammer Tom Court, now an edtech entrepreneur

It was incredibly moving to listen to them – one is a rugby star turned tech entrepreneur, one is a former social innovator turned healthy food producer, one is a lawyer and one has left his City career behind & is starting a property portfolio – and we have 50 more like them.  As the Ambassador said at the end of the evening – “We can all relax – our future is in safe hands”.  The Irish diaspora is an amazing thing – I often wonder how people who aren’t Irish manage.

10.45 I left the Embassy with a head buzzing with ideas from the conversations I’d had, caught the bus home & went straight to bed, thanking my lucky stars that I’m part of such a wonderful set of networks.

I’m fortunate in that all my days are different from each other & these days I have a lot of freedom in how I choose to spend my time.  It’s a great gift, although there’s no doubt it took many years of hard work to unlock it.

Make each one of your days count.  None of us really know how many of them we have left…

Changing careers might not be as hard as you think

These days it’s more usual than it used to be to meet people who are onto their third or fourth career.  I can think of quite a few examples amongst my own group of friends and associates.  On Friday at the London IIBN conference I met Niall Quinn & then heard him talk about his own transition from footballer (Arsenal, Manchester City, Sunderland and of course the Republic of Ireland) to Sky Sports commentator to entrepreneur/businessman (when he led the buyout of Sunderland AFC by the Drumville consortium) and now executive Chairman of newco Q Sat, a rural broadband provider.

Any of you who know me will not be surprised to see there’s a photo involved – many thanks to Sinead Crowley of IIBN for snapping that one below!

Mary McKenna with Niall Quinn at the IIBN conference in London on 9 Nov 2012

Niall shared his brutally honest insights with us in his talk & I thought I would in turn share some of them with you.  He talked first about how he now views his former life as a footballer as quite a false existence.  He used to go training in the mornings & then come home & lie on the sofa.  His wife would bring him his meals & make sure the children left him alone.  When his first career came to an end he was quite depressed about it & drifted into a job at Sky Sports which although it paid the bills, didn’t really put fire in his belly.

Then he saw his old club Sunderland AFC in trouble, met with his former chairman & after talking to a few of his Irish contacts decided to lead the buyout & after a short (unsuccessful) spell as manager Niall moved into the Chairman’s seat.  Along the way he had to stop being a footballer and learn to be a business person.

He found he enjoyed the change and the new challenges and he began to take an interest in new technology.  This interest has culminated in Niall moving into a start up business as their executive Chairman.  He commented what a big difference it is between selling footballers for £50m & persuading someone to pay you £35 per month for broadband.  Q Sat has grown from 22 to 50 employees in the time he’s been there and they now have 11,000 customers (6,000 of those in rural Ireland) and are about to open an office in Nairobi.  It’s clear to see that Niall enjoys building relationships with partners and putting something back as well as building a successful and profitable business.  He talked a lot about the mentors he has learned from (in football and in business) and the way his company is seeking to build on the work that other Irish people have done before, especially in Africa.  One of the pieces of advice he offered to us was in business to keep some space aside to meet people, have conversations and network.  I’m a great believer in this approach too.

One of the funny stories he told us was about one of his friends Patrick M’Boma, a Cameroon striker and former teammate at Sunderland.  The two guys had clashed heads & both gone down.  Niall claims he knew his time playing at Sunderland was over when the physio ran onto the pitch & ran straight past him & over to Patrick.  For me thinking about this since, it seems that the life of a footballer is indeed different – as you’re either on the way up or you’re on the way down – the time at the top seems fleeting & hard to define.  Hopefully Niall doesn’t miss that aspect of his first career although I’m guessing the same boy has hung onto his competitive streak which will do him no harm.  I’m also guessing he’s enjoying being part of a team again as that team spirit is one of the most fun things about being in a small, growing company.  He said that one of the odd things about being a footballer is that although you play in a team, you still hope you are the best in the team – something that doesn’t really come up in a business because everyone has their own defined role to play as part of the overall team success.

He finished by saying that looking back he wonders now how much further ahead he would be in business if he’d quit football 10 years earlier.  We have a rule Niall – no regrets.  It’s the experiences you have along the way that makes you the person you are – and if you meddle with the order then who knows where we’d all end up.  Good luck with career number 4.

So – some people change career because they have to & some because they want to.  Whatever your reason get on, grasp the nettle and don’t be afraid to ask your network for help and advice.  Great speaker, great conference and thank you to all at IIBN for making it a lot easier for the Irish diaspora to do business outside of Ireland.  Please share your career change stories in the comments below – you know I love to read them.