Startup CEO

Good Things Can Happen if you only say Yes!

Two recent trigger events prompted me to write this blog. The first was this tweet last week from Sam Missingham (@samatlounge) “Women of the world, if you are asked to speak at an event or appear on a panel say Yes (especially if you don’t really want to)”. The second was seeing Carey Lohrenz speak at Dellworld 2015 & listening to her talk in depth about (generally) how women don’t put up their hands until they’re sure they can do 120% of what’s being asked of them. Carey (& I) think you should put up your hand when you can do 75 or 80% & figure the rest out from there.

Badass Carey Lohrenz addressing the Women in IT lunch at DellWorld 2015

I know this topic has been done to death a bit in recent years but I’ve never written about this from my own personal perspective so I thought I’d do that in case anyone finds it interesting & maybe it will encourage a few more people to be brave.

It’s about 2 years since I made the decision to exit from my startup/scaleup Learning Pool, sell my half of the business & go & do something else. As CEO of a small growing business your default position when presented with most decisions is No. It has to be. In order to focus on growing your business, meeting payroll every month & moving the needle significantly in the right direction you need to eliminate as much distraction as you possibly can from your business & your life.

You say No to most conference attendance opportunities, most business social and networking events (especially if they involve travel or an overnight stay) and most requests for you to speak at other organisations’ events. Unfortunately, when you’re in a place where you sometimes wonder if you could function with one or two hours less sleep at night, you don’t have a lot of time to mentor people inside or outside of your organisation either – the smart ones learn by running along beside you.

One thing I did manage to make time for as Learning Pool grew was speaking to students at local schools about careers in STEM, usually through Young Enterprise NI. As entrepreneurs, business owners or people with careers in STEM we all need to do a bit more of this.  The other was chatting to other entrepreneurs who were a few steps behind where we were – I knew from experience how useful this had been to us when we were in startup mode.

I guess the most extreme example of me saying No was the night (it was International Women’s Day 2011 – the 100th anniversary of IWD) when I received a late call from someone in government inviting me to join the Northern Irish delegation to the White House to meet President Obama on St Patrick’s Day. What was my response? I said “I can’t possibly – our year end is end of March & I’m too busy”. There was a brief silence at the other end of the line & then the very sensible person said – Mary – when someone asks you in 5 or 10 years time, what were you doing on St Patrick’s Day 2011 which would you rather say – that you met the President of the United States or that you were doing spreadsheets… I made the right decision in the end!

So – for the last 2 years I’ve been running my own private social experiment in which I try to say Yes to most things that are presented to me – within reason of course. Below are some of the positive things that have happened as a result (to date there have been no negative outcomes).

Sam Sparrow & me (& the Mannequin Pis) in Brussels May 2014 for the final of the European Social Innovation Competition

Sam Sparrow & me (& the Mannequin Pis) in Brussels May 2014 for the final of the European Social Innovation Competition

I said Yes to Terry Ryall, vInspired’s founding CEO when she asked me to help the charity launch Task Squad. This gave me the opportunity to work in a charity for the first time in my career & the insights that gave me have allowed me to since make a contribution in a number of different ways to how charities and not for profits can better benefit from technology. I also connected with an entire new network of people (including the fabulous Sam Sparrow), charities and funders and learned all about social impact investment. This eventually led to me meeting Sally Higham and angel investing in her software platform business for youth & sports clubs, Run A Club.

I said Yes to John Knapton when he asked me to join Northern Ireland Science Park in Belfast as one of their Entrepreneurs in Residence. As well as being a lot of fun, this has led to me formally mentoring one young entrepreneur for the past 6 months and offering advice & help to a number of other startups. Best of all, I got to meet Her Majesty the Queen in Buckingham Palace in June 2014 and on the same evening met Norwegian entrepreneur Ollie Gardener & 8 months later angel invested in her social learning platform, Noddlepod.

Meeting Her Majesty the Queen in Buckingham Palace June 2014

Meeting Her Majesty the Queen in Buckingham Palace June 2014

I said Yes when my colleagues at the Irish International Business Network asked me to run the SharkTank at our November 2014 conference in New York City and by doing so met wonderful Canadian entrepreneur & angel investor Kelly Hoey.

With my favourite co-conspirator Kelly Hoey before our SharkTank in NYC

With my favourite co-conspirator Kelly Hoey before our SharkTank in NYC

We had a lot of laughs on the day, found we have a lot in common & since then we’ve helped each other on a number of things and are on the road to becoming firm friends.

I said Yes when the Research & Educational Network Norge asked me to deliver a talk on the Future of Learning to 200 people in Oslo, even though I can’t speak a word of Norwegian and the prospect of doing something like this was terrifying. You can read more about my Oslo experience in a previous blog here if you’re interested. Suffice to say it turned out well despite my fears!

Prized selfie with Michael Dell taken at DellWorld 2015

Prized selfie with Michael Dell taken at DellWorld 2015

More recently I said Yes when Will Pritchard of AxiCom PR asked me to follow him back on Twitter so that he could DM me about something. Before starting my Yes experiment I could possibly have responded quite rudely to Will’s request. This led to me attending DellWorld 2015 as a guest of Dell, meeting tons of fabulous people, meeting Michael Dell who’s one of my all time top business champions and finally realising my dream of visiting Austin, Texas after 15 years of being too busy to attend SXSW. Michael Dell doesn’t really do selfies so I had to trade him a story. I told him how my friend Tim Ramsdale persuaded our employer CIPFA to buy a Dell server back in 1989, shortly after Dell had started up in London. Michael loved the story & the selfie speaks for itself. I later told another story to the Dell senior team. It was how when Learning Pool was 6 months old we were evicted from the flat in London that we were secretly using as an office. The final straw was when our nosy neighbour opened the door to a courier who was delivering 6 large Dell boxes to us. She rang our landlord to report us & we were immediately evicted. The guys agreed I should have told Michael that story too because he would’ve loved it!

I said Yes a couple of weeks ago when Dee Forbes rang me & asked me to speak at the Digital Week Ireland event that’s happening in Skibbereen 3-8 Nov – more details here. November’s pretty busy so I was tempted for just a moment to say No – but I thought to myself, why not. I haven’t been to West Cork for years & years & it will be so much fun and a good thing to do. Watch this space or come & join us.

Our wedding, July 2014 photograph taken in Glencoe

Our wedding, July 2014 photograph taken in Glencoe

Finally, on a personal note I said Yes when my partner of 23 years asked me to marry him in June 2014. We were married 6 weeks later in Fort William, Scotland on 21 July 2014, a joyous & sunny day.

I have literally hundreds of other examples, big & small. In the past two years my life has been enriched by the people I’ve met, the places I’ve been, the experiences I’ve had and the tons of new stuff that I’ve learned.

Not everyone has the same luxury of time that I do right now but I urge you to try this too, even if it’s just in some small way and especially if it’s something that takes you out of your comfort zone. Next time an opportunity presents itself to you & you find yourself about to say No, pause for a moment and ask yourself if you could say Yes instead. I promise you it’s worth it & I look forward to hearing about your experiences in the comments below.

I’ll leave you with a food-for-thought quote from Carey Lohrenz: “Too comfortable is a heartbeat away from being complacent, and complacent is a heartbeat away from being irrelevant”.  Take action & don’t let yourself become irrelevant!

What makes us different?

Edge of CliffThe amazing photo on this week’s blog is of Norwegian extreme artist Eskil Ronningsbakken.  Why am I using it?  Because I heard a saying about startup entrepreneurs a couple of weeks back that I liked.  It was “if you’re not at the edge, you’re taking up too much room”.  Other sayings  I like on this topic are “If the wheels don’t come off, you’re not travelling fast enough” and also “If you can’t code and you can’t sell, get the f*** out of my way”.

I think a lot about why it is some people can cope with running small businesses and others can’t.  In my view it comes down to 3 things.

The first is a stronger ability than most people to be able to compartmentalise stuff.  What I mean by this is that you can carry on doing what you need to do at that point in time (be it get up on the podium and pitch to investors, focus on getting a tender response finished or complete a sales call) when something else distracting is going on – either in your business or in your personal life.  Being able to compartmentalise in this way also allows you to block out other bad stuff that you would otherwise worry about.  When bad things happen, as they do from time to time, I think about them and if there’s nothing I can do right this minute or today to address them, then I put them out of my mind until the time is right to deal with them.  I don’t lie awake at night worrying.  I put them out of my mind in a locked box that I open when the time is right.  If I couldn’t do that, I’d never get anything done.  I’d be paralysed with fear.

The second is resilience.  I’ve seen a couple of entrepreneur buddies in the last couple of weeks who have really been under the cosh recently.  If they weren’t so resilient they’d have given up, one in particular many times over.  What is resilience?  The official definition of resilience is an ability to bounce back into shape.  In a work setting it means being able to continue functioning & making sensible decisions in the face of adversity – which could be a one off event (like a disaster) or longer term (like always being tired from working long hours consistently).  Resilience is what you need when the 10th bank you’ve spoken to that week won’t lend you money & you don’t have enough to cover payroll right now, it’s the quality that makes you get up at 3am to go & catch a plane even though you only got home at 10pm last night, it’s what makes you sit down & start working on another response to tender when you’ve just had a rejection letter in from something you thought was a dead cert.  In summary, this is the quality that keeps you going & you either have it or you don’t – so be honest with yourself.

Last on my list is the big one.  I used to think the big one was resilience but I’ve changed my mind.  It’s also the one out of the 3 that I think you can learn or at least improve.  It’s the ability or willingness to make quick decisions.  I make a lot of decisions in my job. Some days it’s all I do.  But there’s more.  It’s the ability to make decisions when you have no or certainly less than perfect information and it’s the ability to make a decision and move on.  If everyone worked in an environment where they were encouraged or allowed to do this, the world would be a much better place.

I’m sure everyone has their own views about what should be in this top 3.  I look forward to your comments or questions as always.

10 Annoying Behaviours of the prima donna CEO

Baby_crying

We’ve all seen it – the nightmare behaviours of the prima donna MD/CEO.  These are my personal favourites & I can’t wait to hear yours – so please add them in at the comments section below:

1.       Travelling in a different class to everyone else & expecting special treatment everywhere they go.  I used to work for a CEO that travelled business class when our start up could hardly make payroll some months.  Even worse – his PA was sworn to secrecy & if any team members happened to bump into him at the airport or getting on or off a plane, he used to pretend he’d been upgraded.  Pathetic.

2.       Being unable to as much as fart without the involvement of a long suffering PA.  I followed up with a Northern Ireland executive that I’d met in Washington DC about a mutual opportunity we’d discussed when we were in the USA.  He referred me to his PA to book a meeting with him.  I’ve never been back to him since.

3.       Going on & on about how brilliant they are & being the big “I am”.  Linked to this is telling everyone constantly that they are the CEO.  I used to work for a CEO in Belfast (some of you may know him, dear readers…) who at least once a day we would hear shouting from his office “But I am the CEO”…Boy how we used to roll around laughing at that.

4.       Hideous uncalled for temper tantrums.  One CEO I used to work for threw a chair at me one day – and I mean a proper typing chair with a solid metal base.  Had I physically attacked him.  No – I’d caught him in a bad moment & made some comment that he didn’t like & that was the result.  I managed to dodge the chair for anyone who’s wondering.

5.       Spending their investor/shareholder/VC money recklessly – how many times have we seen that?  $50k on a domain name, $150k on a booth used twice a year at conferences, flashy company car, unused apartment in Palo Alto that no-one in the team but the CEO is allowed to use and so on…complete waste of money & no-one dare say anything.

6.       Getting team members to do non job-related stuff for them.  One MD I worked for used to come in late to work & ring in for someone in the office to come out & first of all wait in the car park queue & then park her car.  If I ever get even slightly uppity, Paul says to me – “you’re getting more & more like X” – that puts me straight back into my reality box.  Same MD used to take a taxi from central London to Heathrow airport because she “didn’t like using the tube”.  Other examples of this might be asking members of your team to book personal travel for you or take your cleaning to the dry cleaners.  CEOs – do it yourselves!

7.       Dominating team brainstorming meetings with their own brilliance so that no-one else gets a look-in.

8.       Always hogging the limelight instead of encouraging others to have a go & try taking a lead every now & then.

9.       Leaving meetings when they’ve had their say – their time is clearly so valuable!

10.   Having ridiculous amounts of the latest technology gadgetry – half of which they don’t even know how to use.

I’m sure there are loads & loads more so let’s get them all out there.  This was an easy blog for me to write as I seem to have worked for more than my fair share of CEO assholes over the years (if you’re reading this John Thornton, you are not included in that pile!).  Having said that, it was one of my main drivers for starting my own business as I thought to myself, this really can’t be too hard if that asshole can do it!

Top 5 qualities the start-up CEO wants from team members

Start_up_employee

You have to be a certain sort of person to get on well in a start-up and there’s no doubt it isn’t a suitable career choice for everyone.  I thought a quick “top 5 qualities” may be useful for any of you out there that are wondering if this sort of adventure is for you.

My original list was much longer but I’ve whittled it down to the 5 that matter most to me – I realise that this is personal to me and many of you will have some of your own that you wish to add in the comments section.

Read on if you’ve been bitten by the start-up bug or are thinking you might jump in to the technology bubble that’s rapidly exploding right now.

1.       POSITIVITY No-one wants to listen to or work alongside a whinger or sniper.  Yeah – things generally aren’t even close to perfect in a start-up environment but get over it & get over yourself & you’ll  make a far better team member.

2.       HARD WORK No getting away from this one folks.  You cannot cover off everything you need to by working 9-5 for 5 days a week.  If that’s all you can give, stay well away from start-up land.

3.       COMMITMENT I want to know you’re gonna stick around long enough for me to recoup my investment in you – and there will be one.  The flip side to that is the minute you’re gone, you’re gone – don’t expect a leaving party & sad farewells in a start-up; no-one has time for that.

4.       ENTHUSIASM AND ENERGY Enthusiasm for what we’re all trying to achieve, hunger for success and energy which manifests itself as urgency in all that you do.  Don’t come sloping in to work at 9am telling me you are tired.  I don’t want to hear it.

5.       A SOLUTIONS FOCUSED OUTLOOK Don’t bring me problems.  We have millions of those already.  Push yourself a bit, work it out & bring me a solution.  I like that a lot better.

You’ll note nothing on the list has anything to do with your skills.  I guess they’re a given & a secondary consideration.

As always your comments are welcome – keep them coming & I look forward to reading them.

 

Entrepreneur tips from the uber Rich Felix Dennis Part 2

This is the second part of a two part blog reviewing extracts of Felix Dennis’s book “How to Get Rich”.  In Part 1 we went over Felix’s view on the 5 most common start up errors.  Now the bad news is out of the way we can move onto the Cardinal Virtues of the Entrepreneur.  Anyone who is a long time reader of my blog will recognise many of these “virtues” as themes I’ve touched on before – let’s face it there can only be so many virtues.  First up is:

·         Persistence.  Felix has a different view on this from most writers of business books.  Basically his view is that you need to be terrier-like in persistence when it matters but with an ability to stop being stubborn when all the evidence shows that you’re on a mission to nothing.  So – you should try harder than you think you can for something that’s worthwhile but you should also remember that quitting is not dishonourable.  The skill comes in recognising when you’ve crossed the line from being persistent to flogging a dead horse – and that’s the difficult bit.

·         Self-belief.  This is the big one.  Without it you probably won’t start on the journey to become an entrepreneur anyway.  As Felix says, “self-belief is a priceless asset” and he’s right.  One of my very earliest blogs was about a lecture I’d attended given by Dr Dennis Kimbro.  Dr Kimbro researched 150 very successful African Americans as to why they were successful & self-belief was one of his 4 pillars.  The example Felix uses in his book is a wartime Winston Churchill but every successful entrepreneur has self-belief.  If you don’t believe in yourself it’s unlikely that you’ll convince anyone else to believe in you so get used to trampling on doubt (after you’ve confronted it in a sensible way – not at 3am in the morning!).  Dr Kimbro also talks about this at length – especially the doubt caused by your family and other friends and well wishers who seek to “advise” you.

·         Trust your instinct.  This one is necessary but tricky as it’s about knowing which horses to back in terms of all the opportunities that you encounter.  There is no easy way to get into a place where you’re able to trust your instincts.  You have to put in the long yards, kiss a lot of frogs and make a lot of mistakes along the way.  Eventually you find it becomes easier and your hit rate has improved.  Entrepreneurs aren’t managers – they go with their gut feelings and often make decisions on the spur of the moment with inadequate information.  It’s impossible to trust your instinct in a deliberate, considered manner.

·         Diversify.  It’s worked for Dennis & other legendary entrepreneurs like Richard Branson.  Don’t put all your eggs in one basket.  Launch products that compete with each other so that you own the whole market – think about it for a minute – strangling your baby in order to grow your business is more common than you might at first realise.  This virtue is tricky.  Other business gurus tell you that laser like focus is key to success.  Which of them is right?  What I can tell you is that things change (terrifyingly quickly) all the time and in business you need to be ahead of that curve and ready to adapt.  When your business is in start up phase you need to focus with all your heart and soul but when things start to get easier and money is flowing in, start a few new baskets.  Felix claims it was his 20th basket that made him super rich…see number 1 above – persistence!

·         Listen and Learn.  The last of our virtues.  Felix says that listening comes in at number 3 after self-belief and persistence for the entrepreneur.  If you’re not listening you’re not learning and if you’re not learning it’s time to get out of the kitchen & let someone else do the cooking.  I’m fortunate enough in my position to meet a lot of people.  Not as many as Felix Dennis of course but as many as I can keep up with.  I love to meet people and listen to their stories and help them kick around opportunities they may be considering.  I enjoy it and I also get business benefit as sometimes it keeps me in touch with what’s going on in obscure corners of my industry.  Time is a precious resource but spend some of it listening to others who present themselves to you – you’ll be amazed at the things you find out.

I’d like to add another quick virtue of my own – be as generous as you can be with your time and with your advice to others – make sure you put something back – karma is important too.  That’s the end of the book review.  As I said at the start of blog No 1 – it’s not your usual business book & indeed it annoyed me immensely the first time I read it a couple of years ago.  It’s worth a read if you’re interested in becoming rich as there are a few nuggets of advice in there.  Having said that – I predict that most people will find Felix’s advice distinctly unpalatable and they will decide their comfortable existence rules ok for now!

As always – interested in your comments and thoughts.  I’m in southern California on holiday this week so expect a few blogs in the next week or so on far more frivolous subjects…

Felix_dennis

So you wanna be a startup CEO…5 qualities you absolutely need

Paul_and_me_casino

Being a startup CEO seems to be an attractive occupation right now and one that the press & certainly Hollywood makes look pretty easy as well as fairly glamorous.  I thought I’d write a blog about my own views on the necessary qualities people need to make it through to the other side.  Please note that being the CEO of a startup requires a different set of qualities to being CEO of a mature & established business and indeed, that sort of experience may well be a hindrance in a startup environment.  Also it’s no accident that the photo of Paul & me above shows us in a casino setting – there’s a lot of luck at play as well – so don’t feel too bad if your startup is one of the 50% or so that fail in the first year.   

I’ve seen other bloggers make great long lists of these but I’ve distilled mine down to 5 main qualities:

1.       RESILIENCE – this is the big one.  It’s also a quality you should look for in a business partner or in your team members as you recruit them.  The official definition of resilience is an ability to bounce back into shape.  In reality in a work setting it means being able to continue functioning & making sensible decisions in the face of adversity – which could be a one off event (like a disaster) or longer term (like always being tired from working 16 hour days consistently).  As part of this quality I would include not bleating about how miserable you are & making your colleagues feel bad as well – there’s nothing worse than that.  Resilience is what you need when the 10th bank you’ve spoken to that week won’t lend you money & you don’t have enough to cover payroll right now, it’s the quality that makes you get up at 3am to go & catch a plane to London even though you only finished work at 10pm last night, it’s what makes you sit down & start working on another response to tender when you’ve just had a rejection letter in from something you thought was a dead cert.  In summary, this is the quality that keeps you going & you either have it or you don’t – so be honest with yourself.  At the end of the day, having the stamina & energy required to make a new company a success should not be overlooked.  The amount of sheer hard graft is savage & impossible to communicate to anyone that hasn’t been there.

2.       READING PEOPLE AND SITUATIONS – you need to be naturally good at this and it’s the quality that stops others from pulling the wool over your eyes.  First up you need to have a gut feel about how things are going for the company – you should be able to just tell, a bit like second sight.  You also need a natural ability to read your markets and know what products are right, when to launch them, etc.  Other times you use this is in appraising ideas (which you do on an hourly basis in a startup) and rapidly sorting them into good & bad, negotiating, making decisions (most of the time with a serious lack of information), recruiting people, choosing partners and so on.

3.       OPTIMISM & POSITIVITY – if you don’t have this alongside being the keeper of your original vision, don’t expect anyone else to believe in your company and that goes for both team members & people outside.  I don’t mean blind belief but I do mean being confident and using a bit of spin when you need to.  By that, I don’t mean lying to your team about stuff – it’s more about protecting them from many of the stresses that they don’t need to know about as they have no ability to influence the outcome & it will only distract everyone.  You need to be able to absorb all of this burden and put a smile on your face and your best foot forward at all times.

4.       RISK – I’m unsure if this is a quality or not but being a startup CEO and being risk-averse do not walk along hand in hand.  You will borrow large sums of money, you will guarantee those loans against whatever tangible assets you own, you will take major decisions without any of the information you need never mind would like, you will fail at stuff over & over again.  If you are unable to compartmentalise & shut these things away in a place where you don’t think about them – you aren’t cut out for this life.  It will make you ill & paralyse you with fear.

5.       LEADERSHIP & VISION – your team needs to look up to you & your customers & other stakeholders will hopefully admire you & what you’ve achieved.  You need to keep the team on track, communicating the shared vision to them over & over again so that no-one ever loses sight of where you’re going, you need to be able to pull off what I call “Take my hand & walk with me into the abyss” when you only have half the story yourself and you need to be able to keep it real – no-one wants to work for a CEO that never does any work themselves.

I hope this helps any of you that are thinking about going down this route yourselves.  It’s hard work & unrelenting being in or heading up a startup but it’s also deeply satisfying and a lot of fun.  Always interested in hearing your views so post your comments up below.