After a short hiatus it’s time to pick up my ongoing NI Digital Experts interview series. This week I’ve put my questions to Mary McKenna, a renowned Northern Irish technology entrepreneur and angel investor.
Everyone who’s anyone in the NI digital scene will know of Mary. She’s one of our wee country’s biggest tech success stories, and always willing to share her experience and expertise with new startups and scale-ups.
I’ve met Mary many times and love her spark and personality. I’ve a huge admiration for what she’s accomplished. When it comes to the local startup scene, she is by far the most knowledgeable person I know, clued in to all the comings & goings and with a keen eye for spotting potential successes – and failures. Additionally, Mary and I share a trait in that we both express our opinions strongly and passionately.
The story of her journey in to technology entrepreneurship is definitely worth reading, so grab a cuppa and settle in:
Tell us about yourself and your journey in to the digital industry: how did you discover digital and tech and become so involved in it?
Before I start I’d like to say thank you Barry for the opportunity to be featured in your very interesting blog series. 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. At the age of 39 I got itchy feet & 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 2000’s. 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 joke 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 20’s 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 3rd class 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 statistic just last week 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 distil 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 scale able. Paul & I used to talk a lot in 2005 & 2006 about making money 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.
My next point is the biggest lesson I learned. I completely underestimated the incredible 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.
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 we started Learning Pool 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 very lucky this year to be matched as a mentor for new startup Elemental Software through the Propel programme run on behalf of Invest Northern Ireland by the brilliant Diane Roberts. 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 like the founding team and the product is first to market in a growing, interesting and valuable space.
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 4 charities and one of those is the Millennium Forum theatre in Derry. That’s been a great source of enjoyment for me over the years. I swim a mile most days. Swimming is like meditation and it’s impossible to make 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 readers two very different but incredibly useful communities that I’m involved with. The first is 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.
The second is the Irish International Business Network (IIBN) for any Northern Irish businesses or entrepreneurs wanting to build or improve their network outside of NI. IIBN has chapters in London, Dublin & NYC and one in Sydney on the way. I’ve been a member for the past 5 years or so & have found it to be money well spent as well as a great source of new and interesting friends.
Finally I’d like to give my own blog at kickingassets.co.uk a quick plug. I write a lot about startups on there.
About Mary McKenna