Start up internationally, scale up globally
There are so many reasons why I love being a part of IIBN: the clear business ethos, the connectivity between the Irish business diaspora across three different cities, and the breadth and depth of the membership.
Earlier this year, after a conversation with Siobhan Finn of Cork Innovates, I proposed to my fellow board members that we should hold an IIBN South West event. This took place in the River Lee Hotel on Friday 9th October, as we had the honour of being the StartUp Gathering Closing event. We repatriated some of our London board members, brought new and existing members together for a rich conversation characterised by experience, honesty and authenticity. Our panellists really have been there and done that but they aren’t pausing for breath as they shoot for the stars.
Minister Jimmy Deenihan opened the session by highlighting how important business diaspora connectivity is for the economy, to open doors for homegrown companies and to facilitate not just foreign direct investment but as smooth a transition as possible for people growing businesses abroad or building international operations at home.
Next, I invited three UCC graduates to the stage to share their very different trajectories, from Cork to London: Jonathan Grey from Ovation, Julia Lynes from EazyCity and Alan Gleeson from (Xpenditure).
Jonathan Grey on networking in person, planning for the worst, solving actual problems
Jonathan was quick off the mark to stress how important it is to reach out to others who have been successful and be humble enough to accept their wisdom. There are some fantastic platforms to do that now, including the Future Leaders Programme and the Irish Executive Mentoring Programme.
Digital networking is great, but you need to go out, shake peoples’ hands and tell your story. It's this story that will unlock powerful word-of-mouth advertising.
He also pointed out the fallacy of believing your own (often overly-optimistic) numbers and recommended to plan for the worst case scenario instead: “You can always bring in people to help you when things are going well”. He sagely advised to manage your energy and channel your efforts into the deals that have the greatest probability of working out and insisted that you should “do something that makes a difference in somebody’s life”. He spoke about how it’s easy to think that getting started is the hard part, but, as he thoughtfully noted, “Scaling is far more dangerous, as it’s easier to mess things up when you’re bigger, you have leverage then and you need to be careful about how you use it”.
Julia Lynes on testing your product early and adapting to expand:
In her characteristic fast-paced style Julia started by pointing out that many start-ups spend too long trying to perfect the product instead of getting out to the market and signing up for honest feedback. She went straight to the point: “Done is better than perfect; don’t send a perfect product to a market that doesn’t want it”.
Many idealistic businesses stop before they ever start because they get bogged down in the “look and feel” detail, are overtaken by their competitors because they moved too slowly or simply run out of money because they invested too much before testing the market, instead of putting their money where their potential customers wanted it to be. She also warned against applying a “copy and paste” approach when expanding abroad.
Alan Gleeson on getting funding: startups should ask for a big enough cheque:
Alan Gleeson has a lot of experience when it comes to seeking funding within companies. The one key mistake he sees is that start-ups don’t ask for what they need. Throwing his hands in the air, he lamented that “the cheques just aren’t big enough”.
He followed that up by announcing a few days later that his employer had just secured $6 million in a seed round (which explained why he was even more exuberant than usual): He advised working in a startup before going out on your own. You should walk far more than a mile in your customer’s shoes to feel their pain and then come up with a big solution. Networking at that point had become a clear theme of the panel. In keeping with his technical expertise, he recommended using the data you have to figure out where your web traffic is coming from, thanks to Google Analytics and Skype Out.
As the Q&A unfolded, Alan and Jonathan had a game of ping-pong as an audience member asked how she might get started in London. Both “Cork boys” were eager to help the up-and-coming entrepreneur by sharing what they knew to be successful in the City.
As soon as the networking break started, the volume rose instantly. Meanwhile, the three panelists were busy answering the questions of a steady stream of people, while a queue was forming to ask Sinead Crowley, Executive Director of IIBN, more about the organisation that clearly has so much to offer.
It was now the turn of Liz Shanahan from Reconfigure & Engagement Partners, Andrew O’Shaughnessy from Newsweaver and Jenny Roper from Alimentary Health to take to the stage.
Liz Shanahan: “I didn't set up different businesses; I set up a global network”
Liz is a “woman of portfolio”: she is Chair of her new company, co-chair of IIBN London, an angel investor, and she also holds a range of non-executive director positions. I asked her to share the emotional journey of selling her company: “It’s like selling your baby and it’s difficult”. She went on to talk about telling her clients and staff the news, as well as how much of a distraction it can be, just like any big deal within a company. If such a deal doesn’t go through, you can very easily be left in a difficult situation, having taken your eyes off the ball.
She also spoke about the difference that a shift in strategy and mindset can deliver. “We made a decision to go from local to global. We knew that we could trundle ahead nicely in London, but the real money was in global contracts. We knew a global footprint was important so I didn’t set up different businesses, I set up a global network.”
Was she ever overwhelmed by what she had set out to do? “I’ve been through near-failure and it’s a place that I never again want to revisit. After that, I embraced success and no, I’m not a bit afraid of it.”
Jenny Roper: funding a company, from university spin-out to international business:
Jenny prefaced her contribution by pointing out that she was in the role because of introductions made within the network. She started off by establishing a “given” of business; get used to cross-border interactions and have dedicated resources to get funding for the company.
Given that Alimentary Health is in the biotechnology sector, there can be a very significant lead in time before organic revenue from sales is generated. She took us on a funding journey involving European research grants, including the FP frameworks, Enterprise Ireland supports and other mechanisms. It’s crucial to be focused on strategy and have dedicated people for this part of the business. She highlighted the importance of third party collaborations and mentioned how the company have an evolving relationship with P&G. The challenge for them now is to find the people with the technical skills to build a strong international supply chain.
Andrew O’Shaughnessy: “Pick a niche where you can be #1 in the world, drop everything else”
- Work hard to get the right people and don’t stop until you pick a niche in the market where you can be Number 1 in the world.
- Move away from the idea of a “hero CEO” who brings in all the sales and does everything. In that case, if there's something you personally can’t do, it means the company can’t do it; taking on people raises the bar.
He told us about the elation and laser-like focus he had, coupled with the challenge of defending this view against members of his senior team, when he announced they were dropping three of the four elements of what they did, there and then. "I needed to have a solid foundation of data and research beneath me and the strength of character to steer my company through this change.”
I posed the same question to him about how this actually felt. With refreshing honesty, he replied: "I’ve been afraid that I couldn’t do it, but we don’t come into the world having those skills. Two of our company values are “Don’t just work; Learn” and “Adapt to Succeed”. You don’t have to know everything, but you must be willing to learn.”
A key question was how to deal with difficult staff members and how to handle the sensitive issue of people who were great when the company started and don’t fit part of the growth plan any more.
Here is what they answered:
Andrew O'Shaughnessy: “People need to be encouraged and put in the place where they can contribute most.”
Liz Shanahan: “This is why performance reviews are so important. Difficult conversations need to be serious, but not nasty.”
Jenny Roper: “If you have people in the wrong jobs, you need to take action.”
Shaun O’Shea, co-chair of IIBN Ireland brought proceedings to a close by sharing his own stories about IIBN and thanked all the people who had made the afternoon possible. He mentioned that he himself was part of the UCC alumni contingent at the event, but drew attracted attention to the fact that Kerry people had topped and tailed the day!
Bringing together many internal and external stakeholders, this IIBN South West occasion had its roots firmly in the region, with a strong international flavour. As our tagline promises, IIBN truly is “Connecting Irish Entrepreneurs Globally”.
Susan HayesCulleton, IIBN Ireland Patron & Board Member