Startups

Startup CEO – a perfect job for the jack-of-all-trades who’s also able to focus

This interview of me by my friend Barry Adams (@badams) appeared in the December 2016 issue of the NI Digital Expert interview on the Polemic blog.  I realise it’s a bit weird to feature it on my own blog but I know a lot of my readers are thinking about a change of career or thinking about starting a business & I thought it might be a useful long read; especially for anyone who is perhaps having doubts and needs reassurance from another person about how they’ve done these things without the world subsequently ending.

Barry Adams

Barry Adams in his usual mega cheerful & positive mode

If you don’t know Barry already then I recommend you check him out.  He’s a Dutchman living in Northern Ireland who is well known for his digital expertise and strong opinions that he isn’t afraid to voice.  Barry’s been building and ranking websites since 1998 and he’s the most awesome SEO expert I know. As the founder of Polemic Digital he delivers world-class digital strategy services to clients worldwide and you can find out more about Polemic’s services here.

Here’s Barry’s interview with me – if you have any other questions you’d like to ask me about my career journey or about my own experiences founding & growing a tech startup then just post them up in the comments section & I’ll answer them if I can:

Tell us about yourself and your journey into digital: how did you discover tech and become so involved in it?

Like many people I didn’t have a traditional route into digital. I suppose my first “tech” job was working as part of the then very small British Telecom Mobile Communications team within BT back in 1987 where I was the proud owner of one of the first car phones (the battery filled the entire boot of the car and pretty much every phone conversation I had started with “You’ll never guess where I’m ringing you from…”). That team eventually went on to become Cellnet and then O2 of course.

After that I spent the next 12 years in London, clambering my way up the greasy corporate career pole & by the year 2000 I was a reasonably successful Finance Director. By the age of 39 I had itchy feet so when the headhunter called, I was more than ready to leave the safe, comfortable job that I could do in my sleep to move to Belfast to join a high tech startup which was a spin-out from Queens University Belfast. That company was Amphion Semiconductor and we created semiconductor IP – the code that makes chips in just about everything work. At the time Amphion’s engineering team was immersed in the JPEG & MPEG technology around enabling text & photo messaging on mobile phones for a Japanese client. We used to chuckle daily in our Belfast office at the idea that anyone would ever use their phones to send photos to their friends. 3 weeks after joining I found myself catapulted into the heart of Silicon Valley and all the madness of the Valley in the early 2000s. The learning curve (both about what we did & what my part in that was) was nearly vertical but luckily I learned quickly and I was bitten by the technology bug.

I guess my point here is that you don’t have to be a coder to work in the tech industry. Understanding the value and business benefits of tech and being able to explain that to others is a very useful skill to have.

Bryan Keating was Amphion’s chairman and I was very lucky to spend the best part of 3 years learning a lot from him. He’s one of Northern Ireland’s most inspirational and wise business leaders and of course he’s Learning Pool’s chairman today.

You’ve got a degree in Business Economics, which doesn’t have much to do with technology. If you could go back, would you choose to study the same at university, pick a different topic, or skip university altogether?

I like the quote from Alexander Graham Bell that goes “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.” 

Because I’m an open door looker the past isn’t somewhere I visit too often so this question has really made me think. I’ve sometimes joked that if I had my time over again, I’d be a tax accountant and by this point would be a long time retired.

I believe that nothing you ever learn is wasted. I temped for 2 years in my mid 20s and did some terrible jobs (complaints desk for a large US oil company, processing industrial injury claims for a trade union) but it’s remarkable how many times I use something I learned back then today. University at best formalised my natural curiosity tendencies and it set me on the path for lifelong learning.

When I was 17 I turned down a place at the London School of Economics choosing instead to study at a regional university in NW England. I was the first person in my family to attend university and the day I went to the LSE for my interview was the first time I’d ever been to London. At 17 I couldn’t figure out how to move to and get established in London and there was no-one who could help me so I chose the easier option. If I’m honest, I partied more at university than I attended lectures and that is something that I did used to regret when I was starting out in the world of work at the age of 21 with a 3rdclass degree. These days I can see that all those parties I went to was the start of collecting people and building my network and in truth, my network is what’s been useful to me over the years. I’ve only ever applied for a job formally once in my life. As everybody knows, everything in life and business is about people.

In the course of what I do today I encounter a large number of young people who skipped university choosing instead to go straight into a startup. They’ve missed university and the solid foundation that goes along with working for a few years in a more traditional organisation. They’re now onto failing startup No 3 and at the age of 22 or 23 find themselves more or less unemployable and their lack of a wider education is very evident when they get up to speak. I’m generalising of course but for most people university gets you off to a good start if you use your time there wisely. I didn’t but university opened my eyes to a lot of possibilities.

With the benefit of hindsight I guess the right thing to have done would be to have been braver and take the place at the LSE but it’s too tricky to call. I’ve always loved those time travel sci-fi stories where someone goes back in time and changes one tiny event and this leads to far flung never imagined consequences. I’m pretty happy with my life and my career so far so I suppose I wouldn’t change a thing.

My advice to young people starting out today though is pay attention to the changes in work that are coming fast down the pipe and choose something that’s going to be useful in the new world of work. If you do decide to go to university and can afford it, choose a course that encourages problem solving and fosters a questioning outlook. It’s about more than just getting a degree. Keep your options open. A lot of today’s steady and well paid jobs will be gone sooner than we think. I saw a recent statistic that said 65% of children starting primary school now will leave school to do jobs that don’t even exist today. I’m not sure if I believe that (it could be 90%!) but there’s no doubt that the world is changing fast.

You’re most well-known in Northern Ireland as the co-founder of Learning Pool and a startup investor and mentor. What are some of the most valuable lessons you learned from your Learning Pool experience?

This is something that I’ve thought about a lot and written about from time to time on my blog. It’s hard to distill it down into something that’s easy to read so I’m going to focus on what I believe are my own key learnings.

My first point isn’t really a lesson. It’s more of a statement of fact and it’s about the importance and value of prior experience. Learning Pool was the 5th startup I’d been part of. The first 2 startups I worked in were founded by other people and both were successful in their own way. Both were acquired by much bigger fish, one after I’d left and one when I was working there as CFO. The next two were businesses that I started. The first was a business turnaround service and the second was a boutique management consultancy business, Agility Consulting, with Paul McElvaney who went on to be my Learning Pool co-founder. I made plenty of money in both of those companies but they were lifestyle businesses and not in any way scaleable. Paul & I used to talk a lot in 2005 & 2006 about generating revenue in a business while you sleep and Learning Pool was our solution.  Having plenty and varied prior experience makes it so much easier because a startup CEO needs to know quite a lot on a wide number of topics in order to scale a business fast. It’s a perfect occupation for a jack-of-all-trades who’s also able to focus! My advice is that it’s a lot cheaper to acquire that knowledge and experience on someone else’s time and money so if you want to start a business, go and work in a few startups first. A number of our early days Learning Pool employees eventually left us to start up on their own & I was always happy to see people do that. It’s how the ecosystem works. As long as you’ve had decent value from them in the time they’ve been with you wish them luck & let them go in a positive way and with good grace.

I was 47 with a solid background in finance, four startups behind me and a wide network when we started Learning Pool. You’ll find that successful startups with young or inexperienced entrepreneurs as founders usually have someone like me lurking very close by in the background.

We bought Learning Pool as a failing business. It started life as an expensive project carried out badly by one of my government clients when I was running my business turnaround service. A lot of people obsess about having an idea but really that isn’t important at all. It’s never about the idea. It’s always about having a clear plan and you and your team’s ability to execute against it. It’s also about being able to recognise an opportunity when it presents itself – the best opportunities don’t usually carry a big sign saying “Back Me!”.

My next point is the biggest lesson I learned. I completely underestimated the incredible

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My sister Trish & me at Buckingham Palace

toll that starting and growing a successful business takes upon the founder or founding team and their close family, especially in those first 3 years you are trading. For the founder there’s a mental, physical and probably spiritual toll to pay that’s very real and shouldn’t be underestimated.

It’s all encompassing. Once you’ve thrown the dice & got started there’s no easy or good way to turn back. That pressure lasts until you are stable and profitable and the company has moved through all those early pivots and found its purpose. It will take much longer than you think it will. I’m lucky to have a very supportive other half and I have to mention my sister here too. She did a lot of heavy lifting for me in the early days when I was working 7 days a week. My mum used to say that in the first 2 years of Learning Pool she saw less of me than she’d done when I lived in London – and Learning Pool was 10 miles away from her home in Donegal.

I had a conversation with one of my mentees about this very thing the other day. She asked me if it was normal to be thinking about her startup when she takes her teenager to his sports matches on a Saturday. I just laughed and said – Oh yeah – that’s completely normal. That facade of going through the social motions on the outside whilst on the inside you’re planning your next marketing campaign or going through your sales pipeline.

I know in my heart I was a nicer person on 1 August 2006 when we started Learning Pool than I was 7 years later when I decided to exit. In the 3 years that have passed since then I’ve worked hard to repair a lot of that damage and I’m a happier person today as a result.

My last key set of lessons is around building your team. Building a team and creating the right sort of culture for your organisation is the hardest bit about starting any business and it’s one of the most important jobs of the startup CEO; it should never be abdicated to someone else. I’ve interviewed thousands of people and I can still get appointments wrong because recruitment is a dark art. Be clear at the outset what sort of company culture you are going to create and as founders really live that yourselves and show a good example.

In the early days it’s easiest to go fast with people you already know and have worked with before. As your company grows and that intense startup pressure lessens, seek to diversify your team as that will take you further.

When recruiting, 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. 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. Occasionally take a flyer on a wildcard. My best recruits over the years have always been those people that I’ve been a little uncertain about but have taken a chance with.

Having said all of that there’s no getting away from the fact that it’s incredibly difficult to recruit decent tech talent into a small business or startup and this was something we really struggled with in the early days.

As well as all the negatives I’ve mentioned there are lots and lots of positive takeaways too. Building a startup allows you to understand the limits of what is possible for you and it was a pleasant surprise for me to discover I am far more resilient and was able to achieve more than I thought I was capable of beforehand. For some people pushing yourself to the absolute limit is a challenge but I enjoyed it in some weird sort of way. Providing 80 other people with a challenging and satisfying career is very personally rewarding and at the end of the day, being master of your own destiny is very liberating after years of working for other people.

I could talk on this topic all day but I’ll finish by saying surround yourself with people who are better than you; learn from them and listen to their advice. Have a co-founder. If you’re serious about scaling there’s far too much for one person to do. Keep your ego in check, be nice and pay it forward whenever you can – karma is an amazing thing and people will do a lot for someone that they genuinely like.

Do you feel Northern Ireland has the right environment for technology startups? What can we do better here to encourage technology entrepreneurship?

If you want to start a tech business in a place where free money is easily and readily available and where an established friendly and helpful tech community already exists then Northern Ireland offers a great environment. There’s a lot of help available to get you started; maybe too much and that leads to a large number of unsuitable people having a go – although perhaps that’s okay too in the overall scheme of things. A quick fix would be to restructure the grants available away from startups and more towards scale-ups. The best startups of course don’t wait for grants…instead they get to revenue at lightning speed.

I think plenty of encouragement exists and I salute the work done by Young Enterprise NI, Catalyst Inc (especially through Generation Innovation and Springboard) and Invest NI (especially through supporting initiatives like Propel & Start Planet NI run by the amazing Diane Roberts).

Northern Ireland is still very Belfast-centric however and let’s face it, Belfast is still a long way (geographically and metaphorically) from the Bay Area, London or even Dublin. It’s hard to start a tech startup in a quiet backwater. I know that because Learning Pool was started in Derry; far away from our early customer base and impossible to recruit any job-ready talent. So it’s possible to do, but it’s much harder. You weigh up the pros & cons and you make your choice.

Northern Ireland is a long way behind our nearest neighbour in terms of the effort put into nurturing startups but the Republic of Ireland faces the same challenges of being Dublin or Cork-centric (try starting a tech business in rural Donegal and see what help you’ll get!) and they’re finding it tricky to scale the majority of their High Potential Start Ups beyond the magic 1m euro turnover figure.

I suppose nowhere is ideal outside of the top 3 tech startup ecosystems (IMHO Silicon Valley, London & Tel Aviv dependent on what you’re doing) for all the reasons we all know but Northern Ireland is as good a place as any to get started – just as long as the founder appreciates that the day will come a couple of years down the line when he or she is more than likely going to have to relocate to get the next growth phase moving.

It’s so important that we focus on the generations following us and from an education perspective Northern Ireland could be so much better than it is. Our schools and colleges continue to churn out young people better suited to a world that’s gone or fast disappearing and our Administration seems to be woefully incapable of turning this situation around quickly enough.

As an investor and mentor you see a lot of new startup ideas. Is there any new startup here in NI that really excites you at the moment?

I was lucky to be matched in 2016 as a mentor for new startup Elemental Software through Propel. Started by co-founders Leeann Monk-Ozgul & Jennifer Neff (both from Derry), Elemental provides an innovative digital signposting tool to make it easy for GPs and other healthcare professionals to implement social prescribing. I liked the founding team and product so much that I angel invested & joined the Elemental team as a NED in January 2017.

Tell us a bit about your hobbies outside of work; what do you enjoy in your life outside of the office?

Ha! I’m a great believer in the theory that if you love what you do you’ll never work another day in your life. My work hasn’t felt like work for the past 20 years. I’m a trustee of several charities and one of those is the Millennium Forum theatre in Derry. That’s been a great source of enjoyment to me over the years. I swim a mile most days. Swimming is like meditation and it’s impossible to make phone calls from the pool. I read a lot and I’m interested in art. I’d like to write a book. I’m toying with the idea of another startup.

It’s maybe a bit corny to say this but I’ve been happy recently to spend a bit of time travelling and hanging out with my husband, making up for lost time.

I still go to a lot of parties! These days I go home a bit earlier…

Lastly, give us one website or app that you feel is vastly underrated and deserves a wider audience

Rather than a website or an app I’d like to recommend to any UK readers with an interest in charity or not for profits an incredibly useful community that I’m involved with. It’s the Centre for Acceleration of Social Technology (CAST). CAST is running the UK’s first charity accelerator (called FUSE) & also the CAST Fellowship for charity CEOs & leaders. An invaluable set of resources exists within CAST for any charities, social enterprises or not for profits who want to get more comfortable with digital and understand better what it can do for them.

If you’ve enjoyed reading this blog & are based in or around Limerick, I’m going to be joining Pat Carroll of Startup Grind Limerick for a fireside chat on the evening of 25 May 2017.  More details here & hope to see you there!

 

3 days in Dubai – jumping in at my new startup’s deep end!

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Day 1 on the stand, Leeann Monk-Ozgul, Mary McKenna, Jennifer Neff, Dr Ola Aldafrawy of Dubai Health Authority, Alastair Hamilton CEO Invest NI, Swathi Sri Invest NI

I announced a week ago today that I’ve begun the New Year with a bang by formally joining Northern Irish tech for good startup, Elemental Software.  I say “formally” because I’ve been the company’s mentor for the last 10 months via Northern Ireland’s excellent Propel programme.  For anyone else who’s old enough to remember the 1970s it’s been a bit like that old Remington ad with the smooth as silk American entrepreneur Victor Kiam… Joking aside I can thoroughly recommend working in a company as the best possible way to conduct due diligence prior to investment and would be interested to hear from any other angels who’ve done the same.

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The three of us at one of the parties – oops – I mean networking events

Elemental’s co-founders are Leeann Monk-Ozgul & Jennifer Neff & believe it or not they met through their mutual love of diagrams…which in my book is as good a way as any to identify a business partner. Both women have a strong track record in designing and managing community programmes and both have worked for many years in the tricky interface that exists between the private, public and third sectors. Even better, Jennifer and Leeann are both from Derry and it makes me very happy to continue supporting economic growth in the North West of Ireland by backing another local company that is without doubt destined for huge global success.  Indeed, the golden thread that links the three of us is no other than Sir Ken Robinson – yes – he of “schools kill creativity” TED fame.  Jennifer, Leeann and I were all at Sir Ken’s March 2011 talk in Derry but we didn’t know each other at the time.

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Sir Ken Robinson in Derry with his mug on a mug

They saw me taking photos and wondered who I was and they loved his talk so much that they eventually based their company name on Sir Ken’s book “The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything” – far more sensible than what I did as a result of meeting him which was put his face on a mug (or should I say a cult collectible!).

Elemental provides an early to market digital solution that eases and addresses an escalating set of health related social challenges. Social prescribing is described as a way of linking patients in primary care with sources of support within the community. It’s as simple as that and it gives, for example, GPs a non-medical referral option that will run alongside existing treatments to improve a patient’s health and well-being.

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Jennifer, Leeann & I with Ambassador Pat Hennessy, Irish Ambassador to UAE

This past week Jennifer, Leeann & I have been exhibiting at Arab Health in the World Trade Centre in Dubai.  Thank you to all those people who opened their black books for me and made introductions before our trip out there.  It was my first time visiting the Middle East on business and there was an awful lot to take in in a very short space of time.  Dubai itself is easily accessible from Ireland with 30 direct flights a week from Dublin and only a 4 hour time difference.  The city has the feel of a pioneer town and I can see why so many Irish and British people (young and old) are out there seeking their fortunes.

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Jennifer and Leeann presenting to Nicola Blackwood MP at our stand

Arab Health in itself was an experience and a half.  Vast doesn’t come close with 40 country pavilions and 20,000 visitors a day.  We were lucky in so many ways.  We’d been selected to participate in the Invest Northern Ireland stand and as one of our co-founders, Jennifer Neff, has already been working with potential UAE clients for a couple of years she was able to line up days and days worth of useful meetings in advance.  We weren’t so lucky on the accommodation front.  Booking.com let us down badly by cancelling our booking on the day of our arrival in Dubai and it was incredibly difficult to find somewhere to stay at such short notice.  However, in the spirit of making lemonade from lemons we embraced the opportunity to stay for a few days in a more authentic part of the old town and see some sights we’d have otherwise missed.

Elemental is about to roll out the first social prescribing programme in the United Arab Emirates region, connecting key stakeholders in diabetes prevention and supporting patients most at risk to make better lifestyle choices, enhancing their quality of life and reducing demand on health services.

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Three of us with Dr Mohammad

Being at Arab Health was an amazing chance for me as an investor and part time resource to meet some of our contacts face to face and to hear from them first hand how they love the simplicity of our platform and how they intend to use it.

We were also lucky to be selected as one of the UK companies that MP and Minister for Public Health and Innovation, Nicola Blackwood, requested to meet with when she was at Arab Health earlier this week. It was wonderful to have the opportunity to explain how our social prescribing platform will help improve people’s lives to someone who feels as passionately about social justice as Nicola does.

Around the edges of the conference we networked with our Irish business community friends and colleagues, attending a number of events including that hosted by His Excellency Ambassador Pat Hennessy, Irish Ambassador to UAE (and at which Irish Minister for Employment and Small Business Pat Breen TD and Dr Mohammad Abdulqader Al Redha of Dubai Health Authority spoke so well).

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With Minister Pat Breen TD at the Enterprise Ireland networking event

Dr Mohammad is an alumni of the Royal College of Surgeons Ireland and having spent 8 years in Dublin is truly an honorary Irishman.  It was great to also squeeze in an early morning healthcare focused business breakfast with the Dubai Irish Business Network, to manage to see our good friend Eithne Treanor a number of times over the course of a few days and to meet our friend Barry Lee Cummings who works with his Northern Irish counterpart Wayne Denner on a worthy mission to help young people better manage their online reputations and combat cyberbullying.

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With Irish powerhouse Eithne Treanor at the Dubai IBN breakfast – if you only knew one person in Dubai but it was Eithne you’d be ok!

They say a week is a long time in politics but I can confirm it’s also a long time in a busy startup.  For anyone out there who’s seeking their own angel and wondering why I picked Elemental from all the hundreds of approaches I get these are the reasons I’d have given you if you’d asked me last Friday – awesome female founding team, growing social prescribing market, powerful product that’s also simple to use and understand and the fact that it’s tech for good.  A week later I would add – co-founders that are both great on their feet, deep customer and sector knowledge and a level of commitment and hard work I’ve never seen in another startup.  Keep your fingers crossed for us and watch our progress.  Life in a startup is never easy – even when everyone’s on message, working their butts off and the planets all seem to be aligned. Comments welcome as always.

Interested in learning more about the benefits of social prescribing? Read Dr Marcello Bertotti’s expert opinion piece here

Elemental participated during 2016 in the Propel programme funded by Invest Northern Ireland and driven by the magnificent Diane Roberts. Any startups wishing to join a current and excellent accelerator in Belfast should consider Diane’s new venture, Start Planet NI

Interested in having a conversation with Elemental Software, contact us via Jennifer at jennifer@elementalsoftware.co

Mentoring one-to-ones up for grabs at #NDW16 in Skibbereen

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Anyone who knows me will know that the Kevin Spacey quote above is one of my favourites and I use it (overuse it?) often.  All the best people I can think of are those who extend a helping hand.  It’s a theme fundamental to how I operate and have always operated and it works for me and many other people.  Also called paying it forward, paying it back, karma and a multitude of other titles – I like the #giversgain label that Camilla Long introduced me to.  The basic premise is to help other people and do so on the basis that you will receive nothing back in return.  The reality is if you give to the world, it gives back.

When I lived in London the last time around, I used to run what I called Entrepreneur Friday every 2 or 3 weeks in my Southbank “office” – a booth in Le Pain Quotidien beside the Royal Festival Hall.  I found it an easy and convenient way to see the startup entrepreneurs and wannapreneurs that contact me to ask for a bit of help or guidance.  Also it was a good way to spend a bit of focused time with some of the startup entrepreneurs already in my network – the ones who would sidle up to me at a busy evening event and start talking to me about some incredibly important or private aspect of their business.  In the 3 1/2 years I lived on London’s Southbank I probably met with over a hundred early stage founders in this way and together we addressed some of their challenges.  Without giving too many secrets away, here are just a few of the topics we covered together:

  • Do you think this idea has legs?
  • How can I get my team to be more productive?
  • How can I reach out to a certain person & attract them onto my Board?
  • Will you help me revisit and improve my business model?
  • I’m not an accountant but I want to produce better cash flow forecasts (we did that one with large sheets of paper for starters; sometimes old school is best)
  • I am making a mess of recruitment; how can I get better outcomes?
  • Will you go through this investment offer with me and tell me honestly what you think?
  • Can my small company enter the government market without spending a fortune on consultancy fees?
  • I want to buy my partner out; where and how should I start?

It works best when the founder or entrepreneur comes along with a specific challenge or ask and we work through that together and maybe reach a conclusion or way forward.  Often the person knows the answer themselves and just needs validation or someone else to run it past in confidence or look at it with a fresh pair of eyes and add some finesse.

Without a co-founder, life as a startup CEO can be a very lonely place.

I’ve carried on doing a bit of this since I moved back to Ireland and I’m going to offer 10 x 30 minute slots to any entrepreneurs or people thinking about starting a new business attending National Digital Week in Skibbereen between 10 & 12 November.  You can find out more details about the event and get tickets here

I was lucky enough to be at last year’s NDW and carried out a very informal version of this exercise which resulted in some rather interesting conversations – so I’m hoping for the same or even better this year.  Conference attendees – the gauntlet has been thrown down…

Here’s the deal.  If you would like one of my 10 x 30 minute sessions to discuss in confidence any aspect of your business that you believe I can help you with, contact me via my blog, my LinkedIn or Twitter with a couple of sentences of background.  No business plans, pitch decks or NDAs please!  It has to be something that we can cover within a strict 30 minute window so the onus is on YOU to make that work.

But be quick.  I’ve had the first applicant already on Twitter whilst writing this blog.  It’s @CultureArk and the business looks intriguing.  If I receive more than 10 requests I’ll choose the 10 that I think I can add most value to on the basis of what you’ve told me.

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!

Three is definitely a charm – my early stage angel investments

Today’s blog is a sister piece to last month’s “Angel Investment from this Rookie’s Perspective”. Last time around I wrote about what I was looking for in early stage startup companies when I was deciding which ones to angel invest in. This time I’m going to talk about what I liked most of all about the three startups I ended up selecting and investing in.

Before I begin, let’s recap on what my motivations are for angel investing in the first place. All angels will no doubt have different motivations. I am excited by the idea of putting something back in terms of helping some new early stage startups get moving. I wanted to use some of what I’ve learned starting and scaling my own businesses in the past to help a small number of other people get through their early growth stages less painfully than it was for me. After some thought in summer 2014 following my successful exit from Learning Pool, I reached the conclusion that I didn’t want to start another new business of my own and I knew I definitely didn’t want to work for someone else as a bog standard gun for hire (much as I enjoyed my 4 month sojourn in 2014 working with the vInspired Task Squad team – they’re doing really well – check them out) but I did want to carry on working.

This made the quest easier for me as I then knew that I was looking for companies where I could add value with some hands-on involvement and I also knew then that it was important for me to pay more attention to the founder/founding team as I was going to be working with them for the medium term. Let’s face it, in a startup the team or founder is far more important than the idea – ideas are ten a penny and most startups do pivot or at least swivel a little.

One surprising thing – I haven’t invested as part of any formal angel syndicate or group. I really thought I would but it hasn’t happened that way. That topic alone is probably worthy of another blog.

So what and who did I choose? All three startups are cloud based online platforms (a no brainer for me now that I come to think about it!), two of the three founders are female (this makes me very happy), all three founders share a number of important qualities and despite their differences they’re remarkably similar, two are companies based in England & one is in South Wales (disappointed that I didn’t find anything in Northern Ireland or Scotland this time around), all are involved with changing the way people do things – communicate, learn, organise. All three really care about their team culture as they grow and whilst they’re all focused on generating revenue and making profit, they all know that there’s more to life than making money. Finally, all three have a capacity to really scale quickly and without adding huge resource into the team.

First on my list is RunAClub headed up by fab founder and CEO Sally Higham. RunAClub has everything you could possibly need to run any sort of club or group, all simple to use, neatly packaged and stored in the cloud. Beautiful. Our customers so far are national sports organisations, local authorities, charities, community groups and individual clubs/groups. What do I like most about RunAClub? It’s such a useful product, everyone we speak to loves it and it’s so clearly scaleable. I love most things that truly save people time whilst remaining affordable and easy to use. As an investor, I like that RunAClub is scaling fast in its chosen core market but I also like that there are numerous other verticals for us to move into. An unexpected but very welcome bonus along the way has been that a really old friend has co-invested with me and this gives me a chance to work with him again.

RunAClub team last month in Sally's kitchen in Wiltshire - you don't have to be blonde but it helps!

RunAClub team last month in Sally’s kitchen in Wiltshire – you don’t have to be blonde but it helps!

I first saw Sally pitch at a Clearly So Big Venture Challenge event last summer. During her presentation she said – “what I really need in order to maximise RunAClub’s opportunity is another me” and that resonated strongly with me because I’ve been in that position so many times myself – so when she’d finished pitching I went straight over & introduced myself.

The RunAClub team is the liveliest and most can-do bunch of people that I’ve met in a long time. Their enthusiasm is infectious and I’m genuinely looking forward to spending time with them, growing a successful and valuable business.

My next is Captive Health. I love that I’ve known the founder Andrew Cockayne for years. He used to be one of my Learning Pool customers many moons ago and I’m so pleased that he’s become an entrepreneur himself and also that I can continue to work with him. Captive Health is the most mature of my 3 investee companies and in truth is more of a scaleup than a startup.  The company provides the health sector with a platform that allows richer interactions with and between their staff and their patients. Staff can access information and network within their teams when they’re on the move (only 40% of people working in a hospital have access to a desktop). Patients can use Captive Health to provide feedback and information about their choices and preferences. Hospitals love the products and we already have five as customers with many more in our pipeline.

At the recent PEN Awards in Birmingham with Andrew Cockayne & Leena Shaw of Captive Health & one of our progressive customers, Jo Wood of Ipswich Hospital

At the recent PEN Awards in Birmingham with Andrew Cockayne & Leena Shaw of Captive Health & one of our progressive customers, Jo Wood of Ipswich Hospital – I’m working on their footwear!

I heard Simon Stevens, Chief Executive of NHS England, speak at last month’s e-Health Week 2015 Summit. His opening gambit was “No industry has ever re-invented itself on the scale that the NHS needs to over the next 5 years without smart use of technology”. Captive Health’s product set offers the NHS some affordable tools with which to get ahead in dealing with their huge challenge and I’m pleased to be part of that mix.

Last but not least is Caerphilly based Noddlepod. Noddlepod is like a Slack for your learning communities. It’s a social learning platform that allows you to easily share your files and search for resources with the same degree of immediacy and familiarity. I met founder Ollie Gardener at a tech event in Buckingham Palace hosted by Her Majesty the Queen. Ollie was wearing Norwegian national dress. You can guess the rest. We’re very grateful to Neil Cocker of Cardiff Start & Matt Johnston of Digital Circle for allowing us to meet!

Noddlepod is my earliest stage investment of the three but it’s grown out of a number of years of considered reflection by the founding team on where learning is going next and Ollie has corralled some very experienced and well know global learning experts onto her Board including our Chairman Charles Jennings and fellow non exec Nigel Paine. Edtech continues to create frenzied excitement in the investor space and we’re encouraged (!) by the recent $1.5bn sale of Lynda to LinkedIn. Great that LinkedIn now has access to all that content but I wonder if they’ve thought about how to deploy it coherently to their millions of users?

With Ollie this month - outside my London Southbank "office" - having tea & more tea

With Ollie this month – outside my London Southbank “office” – having tea & more tea

Until LinkedIn or similar comes a-knocking, we’re focused on bringing Noddlepod to corporate universities and business schools worldwide. I love most that as a Norwegian, Ollie thinks way outside of the four walls of the UK in her growth plans and that she has a number of overseas investors and a pipeline already full of European opportunities.

So that’s my three. Exciting times. I’m certain I’ll prove all those people who advised me against making early stage angel investments wrong. As always I’m interested in hearing your questions, comments, observations. Check us out. Startups always need a helping hand and you all know it makes sense to work with small, growing businesses jammed full of bright, ambitious people with great tech – it helps our local economies and it keeps you sane.

Angel investment from this rookie’s perspective

Beautiful carved wooden angel - photo by Wolfgang Moroder

Beautiful carved wooden angel – photo by Wolfgang Moroder

“I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free” – Michelangelo

Last month I made my first angel investment. I know many of my blog readers are entrepreneurs and startups and some of you are or will be seeking angel investment, so I thought it might be useful/interesting for me to jot down (from a poacher turned gamekeeper type of perspective) for you a few of the choices I’ve made along my own personal investment journey and why – in case it helps you.

To set the scene I’ll start with why I’m doing a small number of early stage angel investments in the first place and what my criteria have been. My main objective was to eventually select a handful (my final number is three) of early stage startups where I liked the idea but more importantly liked the founder or startup team. My motivation is to use some of what I’ve learned starting and scaling my own businesses in the past to help a small number of other people get through their early growth stages less painfully than it was for me. If I make any money along the way, I’ll celebrate that as a bonus. Making money is not my primary objective – which is lucky because many of the wise heads I know have gleefully warned me (a few of them several times over) that it’s impossible to make money by investing in early stage startups.

A couple of other bits of info make up the full picture. Although I’m a member of a couple of formal angel networks, I haven’t invested through them or as a part of any of their syndicates. So far anyway.

Finally, the startups had to be somewhere on the spectrum of my own areas of interest so that I can add value. This inevitably means software, X as a service or platform, community, scaleable, public sector, always something to do with people and how they can save time or money by collaborating, learning from each other or working together.

I’ve been talking to startups for years. It’s a natural part of what all entrepreneurs do. For me the night out that will always trump all others is one where I can watch other startup entrepreneurs pitching. I just love that initial rush of thoughts about another person’s ideas – working out the angles on the business models and the commercials…seeing if I can spot some opportunities that they’ve overlooked. As an aside, I love it even more if it’s something I’ve considered doing myself in the past but haven’t been able to work out the commercials or the logistics and then someone else manages to do that (for example, Northern Irish startup Send My Bag).

As a seasoned and successfully exited entrepreneur, people seek me out anyway for all sorts of reasons. Because of this it was fairly easy for me to start about a year or so ago to assemble a long list of 20 or so potential investee companies and kick off an initial conversation with the founders as a way to start my selection process.

This is what I was considering:

• Do I like the product or product idea and am I convinced it can scale?
• Would I buy it myself for my own (theoretical) organisation to use?
• Is the founder credible, articulate, stable and sensible but with a dollop of sparkle?
• Do I like them enough?
• Can I see myself working with them over the next 3-5 years?
• Are they resilient enough to keep things moving forward when times get tough and do they have the grit to sack bad hires quickly and stand up and fight for themselves and their company when they need to?
• Are they well-informed about their competitors and the way the market is moving?
• Can the founder front the business; are they likeable and convincing without being arrogant and smartass?
• Is their company valuation reasonable and realistic?
• Do they have a good overall grasp of what their next 2 years looks like in terms of back of the envelope targets, resource requirements, funding, effort needed, team, etc?
• Is the founder generally on top of their workload and easily able to articulate key messages and information?
• Are their targets and forecasts reasonable or complete pie in the sky?
• Can I clearly see how I can add value to both the founder and the company?

It took me a while to put the above list together as I’ve never written it down before. In case you’re wondering – yes – it is more or less in order of importance to me. I did say this blog was going to be about my own personal investment journey…

Only companies that passed the first 2 questions made it onto my long list of 20 companies in the first place and then between June and December last year I whittled those original 20 down to 3. I guess where it gets interesting is how I did that. I’m afraid it isn’t scientific for anyone who’s expecting a checklist and a spreadsheet.

A few fell at the valuation hurdle. If all you have is an idea and you don’t have any product built or any customers, your company in my eyes is not worth £1m. Simple as.

A few others fell by the wayside because of the founder. The trick here is to keep meeting with them until you’re either convinced that they’re the real deal or until they let their guard down and expose themselves to be anxious, needy, deluded, arrogant, ego-driven, greedy, selfish, brattish, indecisive or any of the many qualities you as an investor don’t want to see in a startup CEO or leader.

Some over time I just had a bad feeling about, or something told me that the founder wasn’t 100% honest – I could just feel it wasn’t good when I scratched the surface.

Others I lost because a few months in the product was no longer holding up or it became apparent that the founder wasn’t able to move at the pace required to get to market within their window of opportunity.

A couple went because the founder had more than one focus and it became apparent that they were spread too thin and weren’t giving any of their projects the attention they deserved.  A couple more because the founder knew it all and wouldn’t listen to any advice from me or from anyone else.

And so I was left with three – which was the number I was hoping for in the first place. Two of “my” founders are female and one is male. They all share a number of important qualities and despite their differences they’re remarkably similar.

This blog is part of a short series and I’ll write about the companies themselves next time around.

If you have any questions please ask them in the comments section below and I’ll do my best to answer.

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?