Startup

All change…

Learning Pool Team

Learning Pool Team

In the many years I’ve worked in startup land I’ve watched other founders and CEOs hang around for far too long – hell I’ve probably even worked for a few of them – and I’ve always been pretty determined that I wouldn’t repeat the same mistake myself…so after 7 long & happy years as part of the Learning Pool senior team I’m disappearing back into the tech startup scene proper.  Working in a scale-up can be great – but it isn’t for me.

In reality what this means is that I’ll continue to do some stuff for Learning Pool that I really love (strategic sales, profile building, input to long term strategy) but less of the operational day to day matters that if I’m honest with myself I don’t really enjoy.  I’m going to get out of the way & give my co-founder space to build the company to the next stage with help from our very able management team.

So…what’s next for me?  I’m going to return to working with (most definitely) early stage (most likely) tech startups with (most probably) quite young teams, helping out with all those things that many first time entrepreneurs find troublesome – raising finance, finding & managing investors, picking which product or version of a product to back, getting to revenue on a shoestring, determining the best market entry strategy – all the stuff I love doing.

And guess what – I CAN’T WAIT.

So how do I feel at the end of a day spent mostly on the phone breaking the news to my team and a few trusted friends and associates?  Most of all I feel proud of what I’ve achieved over the past 7 years.  We’ve built a robust, growing company with a fabulous community of customers, we’ve assembled a world class high performing team and we offer scaleable and useful technology at an affordable price.  I also feel dizzying waves of excitement that are masking a sneaky bit of underlying sadness.

I’ll leave you today with a quote from Alexander Graham Bell “When one door closes another opens; but we often look so long and so regretfully upon the closed door that we do not see the one which has opened for us.” 

Watch this space!  I hope you all have comments 🙂

5 top tips to keep that small company culture as your startup grows?

Not so long ago Learning Pool was 4 people congregating around Paul’s kitchen table in Donegal.  6 years later we employ 50 people, support over 700,000 learners & 350 public sector organisations & Deloitte’s have deemed us to be the 26th fastest growing technology business in the UK over the past 5 years (6th fastest growing on the island of Ireland) with 1100% growth in our revenues in that period.  At the same time, our customers tell us that our business feels more like a family to them than a company.  This week’s blog is about how I think we’ve managed to combine aggressive growth with retention of the desirable qualities of a small business and keeping hold of our personal values along the way.  I appreciate this is a topic that many of you will know far more about than me so I’m looking forward to reading & answering your comments and questions.

Learning Pool team having cake – which happens pretty much weekly

Before I start I should say that one of the greatest pleasures of owning your own business is having the opportunity to shape the culture of your organisation because we all know too well what bad company culture looks and feels like.

These are my top tips:

Aine and Emma – two of our original Learning Pool team members snapped last week at LP Learning Live South

  1. Invest in your own people and help them grow with the business.  Today our team extends to more than 50 people, but 15 of those 50 have been with Learning Pool more than or very close to 5 of our 6 years and not one of them is in the job they started at – they’ve all moved up or sideways and up.  Many of our team did not have years of experience when they joined Learning Pool, but what they lacked in experience they made up for with great personalities, enthusiasm and energy, a hunger to learn and desire for success.  Our original company culture is carried in each of their hearts and delivered via their daily actions.
  2. Linked to point 1 above is take care with your recruitment.  Recruitment is the most important job of a fast growing company’s founders so make proper time for it & don’t delegate it to someone else.  The worst mistakes we’ve made in our 6 years so far have all been linked to poor recruitment decisions.  You know what they say – better a hole than an asshole – and it’s true.  Avoid prima donnas and mavericks, whatever they seem to bring – they just aren’t worth it.  Recruit for potential and personality and work hard to develop your talent.  When you make a recruitment mistake, reverse the person out as quickly & as painlessly as you can for their own sake and for everyone else’s.

    At the end of last week’s LP Learning Live South

  3. It’s easy to be customer focused when you’re small.  As a startup you have to over deliver anyway and when you’re starting out you don’t have many customers and you’re eagerly learning from them.  As you grow, you have to find a way of continuing to deliver that level of excellent customer service.  We’ve done this by constantly automating as much as we can as we’ve grown so that our customer facing people get to spend as much of their working week as they can interacting with customers – as that’s where the value add lies for our customers and for us.  We’re about to go through another (painful) round of this between now & Christmas but we recognise it’s worth it.
  4. Encourage everyone to have their say.  We’ve tried hard to do this at Learning Pool from the very start.  We have a culture where everyone’s ideas are heard and debated (even Tony’s) and everyone is expected to innovate.  We’ve used Yammer for years to facilitate ad hoc brainstorming across our dispersed team and it’s also used for extensive banter and leg pulling.  I used to worry about this but it’s only made me nearly faint once & that was when a local authority HR director asked me if they could see Yammer working in situ.

    Night out in Dublin 2011

  5. As founders and senior managers you have to love your team and all of you have to love your customers and enjoy interacting with them.  None of that can be faked.  It has to be real.  What do I mean by love your team?  You have to care about them in & out of work and sometimes even take care of them, you have to appreciate the contribution they make and reward them as best you can – financially and in other ways, you have to trust them and give them space to develop and progress.  You have to make time to have some fun together as that’s important too.  The Learning Pool team works hard but we play hard too and we find time to do some voluntary & pro bono work together when we can.

Team in pink for Breast Cancer Awareness Day

That’s my thoughts.  Look forward to reading yours.

10 quick questions to find out if you have what it takes to be a startup founder?

Today’s blog takes the form of a quiz to help you determine if you have the right qualities to be a startup founder or small business owner.  Not everyone does and this is a topic I’ve written about often in the past.  You all know the drill – it’s like one of those magazine quizzes everyone’s so fond of filling out in secret.  All I ask is that you’re at least honest with yourself…

1) You’ve been thinking about developing a new product and have done a couple of months market making.  You’re in a taxi between meetings in London when you receive a phone call from one of your spies who tells you a competitor is thinking along the same lines as you.  Do you:

a)      Phone the competitor and tell them to back off – it was your idea first

b)      Ring your bank, pitch your idea to your bank manager & see if he or she will lend you the money you need

c)       Scratch that idea and move onto the next one on your list – you have loads of ideas anyway

2) You badly need a Sales Exec to help your startup business cover more ground.  You engage a recruiter to help you find someone.  The next day you get a call from the recruiter – he’s decided he wants the job himself and he pitches to you on the phone.  You like the recruiter but he knows nothing about your sector.  Do you:

a)      Carry on with your original plan and interview according to the schedule – you’re sure to find someone with the right background and experience

b)      Decide to give the recruiter a chance – at least you know he will pitch and what’s the worst that can happen

c)       Look for a different recruitment firm that employs more professional recruiters

3) You’re at the airport when you run into a friend.  You’re chatting away when the person he’s at the airport to meet arrives.  Turns out he’s a visiting US venture capitalist.  You’re tentatively looking for investment.  Your friend introduces you and with no warning invites you to pitch to the American investor.  Do you:

a)      Give him your business card and say you’ll send him some information about your company and give him a call the next day

b)      Trot out your elevator pitch as confidently as you can whilst shaking a bit inside

c)       Make your excuses and get the hell out of there as fast as you can

4) It’s Christmas Eve and your business partner rings you to say he’s just had a call from the bank and they’ve turned you down for the loan you thought was a dead cert.  It’s the 4th bank you’ve talked to during December and they’ve all refused to lend you any money.  Do you:

a)      Do nothing – you’re sure it will all work out ok come the New Year

b)      Carry on with your shopping, take Christmas day off (it’s Christmas after all) but on Boxing Day, get on the phone with your business partner and start writing a new business plan for the next bank you’ll be calling

c)       Cancel Christmas and make your entire family miserable

5) You get evicted from your London “office” – ok it was an apartment and you’ve breached the terms of your lease by running a business out of it.  You have a small team and they need desks.  Do you:

a)      Call an estate agent and start looking for an office – they cost a fortune but hey – it’s one of the overheads of running a business right?

b)      Ring a friend whose office you were in the other day.  You noticed he had 3 desks but was only using one of them

c)       Have a little cry

6) You’re developing a product for market and badly need to generate some revenue to bolster up your pitiful cashflow.  The product’s only about 20% complete.  Do you:

a)      Phone around and see if anyone else you know wants to pitch in and share the risk/reward

b)      Call a few prospects and cut them a special deal for being an early adopter of your new product

c)       Stop development whilst you scrabble about to raise the cash to continue

7) You come out of a long day of meetings in London where your phone has been on silent.  You have 26 missed calls.  There’s been a serious security alert and all the London airports are closed.  You have an important meeting in Northern Ireland at 10am the next morning which you cannot miss.  Do you:

a)      Go and find a hotel before they’re all booked up.  You’ll get a plane ok in the morning with a bit of luck

b)      Run like billy-o to Euston and jump on the first train to Scotland.  You know you’ll get an overnight ferry and be able to persuade someone to pick you up at the port in the morning

c)       Call and cancel the meeting.  It’s perfectly reasonable to reschedule in the circumstances

8) You receive an abusive letter from a supplier who’s threatening you with legal action for non payment of an invoice.  You haven’t paid it because the work they did for you was woeful and you’ve explained that to them.  Do you:

a)      Ignore the letter and hope they’ll go away

b)      Call them and make a reasonable offer for the work they’ve done; if they won’t see reason put it out of your mind on the basis that most people who threaten you with legal action never actually follow through

c)       Panic and call your lawyer straight away

9) You go and pitch to a VC and they send you a term sheet which you believe doesn’t represent the true worth of your company.  Do you:

a)      Go back to them and do your best to negotiate a better deal

b)      Go back and pitch again, receive an improved term sheet and then turn that one down – you know your company is worth more and those guys are likely to put it down the toilet anyway

c)       Take it anyway.  You’re desperate for the cash and you’re unlikely to get a better offer

10) You’re 2 years into your startup and at last you can take a bit of money out and get away for a brief holiday.  On the day you pay yourself your Mum’s dog gets run over by the postman and needs an operation which just happens to cost the same as your holiday money.  Do you:

a)      Have the dog put down, tell your Mum there was nothing could be done for it and buy her a new (similar) dog for a fraction of the price of the operation

b)      Pay for the bloody dog – there has to be some karma in this world

c)       Jump on the plane as fast as you can leaving your Mum to sort out her dog

Ok – so by now you’ve guessed that these are all real life situations that happened in my startup in our first couple of years.  For every one of the 10 scenarios above, we or I did (b).  Be interested if you agree whether or not we made the right choices.  I hope you had fun reading this.  It gave me a good laugh writing it and brought back a lot of happy memories from our early days.