I was thinking over the weekend, it’s been a long game and asked myself how did this fresh faced kid get to where I am now? … or as the Irish man replied when asked for directions, “Now if I were you, I wouldn’t have started from here.”

This is one way to tell the story … Let’s start with me at age 16 still at Carrickfergus grammar school set in the fields above the council estate in NI where I lived. I was playing badminton for Ulster and Ireland by this stage, which is all I really cared about at the time. Despite the troubles we still travelled all over Ireland for matches. damon oldcorn aged 17 - Edited

Labourer Braidwater Spinning – on the factory floor building spinning frames in a textile plant in my holidays, a wage packet. (luckily I had help.) First real job Laboratory Assistant Greenland School – in a secondary school not known for its academic standards (mainly feeding the mice/rabbits and covering classes for delinquent teachers.) Accounts Clerk Rothmans – worked directly for the Management Accountant in a major tobacco company (never dreamt of smoking after that) Some said I would have made a good accountant but being tied to a desk did not suit. Sales Representative Corry Business Equipment – selling electronic cash registers to retailers (When I say sell, seldom did, I hadn’t a clue, but the company car came in handy for getting to the badminton tournaments.) Attended OCTU (Officer Cadet Training Unit) for the RAF at Biggin Hill. After a week of rigorous tests made an offer which I turned down, one of my better decisions, but still felt needed to get out of NI.

The move to Guildford, Surrey, England Aged 18 needed to access the centre of world badminton at Wimbledon Squash & Badminton Club.

Financial Representative Mercantile Credit/ Barclays Bank – with a small branch team in Guildford underwriting and lending £3M per month to consumers and the motor trade in Surrey. (Wrote the first contract hire deal in the UK.) Well trained here in all aspects of financial analysis but it was poorly paid. Financial Representative Commercial Credit –  As above but for a lesser name, more freedom,  paid more money, easy choice to move. Sales Representative Belstaff – Selling motorcycle clothing to retailers across the South East of England. I was difficult to pin down given the vast territory and remote management. So all good for the early morning coaching at Surrey University before work and then training late afternoon/evenings at Wimbledon with tournaments across the country at weekends. Salesman VGL Industries – Selling the Terence Piper microchipped vending machine in London. Getting closer to the technology world but not quite. Years at the sharp end having to outsell teams in half the time available hones you and as we see in the next stage of my career the lessons learnt here paid off in the end.Damon Oldcorn International Badminton Player

My technology years and career were about to start as the industry began to emerge

Now aged 22 beginning to realise how much money it took to live and survive in Surrey and that the Badminton was never going to be anything more than semi- professional … if even that. Salesman NEXOS – Selling the first screen based word processors to the financial and legal markets in London. Loved it here, great professional competitive team, had a flair for it and really flourished.  Salesman ITT International Telephone & Telegraph – Selling Facsimile machines and screen based electronic Telex systems. The top salesman, City/Square Mile as my patch, Big Bang Time, a killing ground.  Senior Salesman/Team Leader STC Standard Telephone & Telegraph – as above but also added bonus of hard edged Xerox US style sales management training.  

Sales & Marketing Manager Chernikeeff Telecommunications – Headhunted to a startup. Successfully hired/managed the sales team and created the marketing that launched the company that designed and built the UK’s first message switching systems. Sales & Marketing Director Norbain Micro – turned round this small public company that was a major UK Distributor of computer peripherals from Japan. Learned here about all the facets of a business in the boardroom. Sales & Marketing Director Tandon Corp – US Personal Computer vendor that sold through indirect channels in Europe. Re-energised the salesforce and dealer base and gained No 2 vendor slot in the UK 486 processor market.

As we left the eighties entered the nineties the world economy began to slow and enter recession

The PC hardware market lost sufficient margin to support an indirect model and other new major US players went direct. Time to look for new ground. Consultant Hutchison Whampoa HKJoined a small group of ex PWC change consultants to restructure the retail subsidiaries of HW in Hong Kong. Student University of Bristol – Embarked on a two year full time Masters degree in International Business which encompassed extensive study periods at Harvard, MIT and UC Berkeley. This was for the thinking time and the network not the degree. Sales & Marketing Manager Vodafone – Paknet the data arm of a voice company that did not fit, interim contract to find new markets for them.

Filled with entrepreneurial zeal and understanding particularly from my time at UC Berkeley and Harvard 

I had already created a support network in the States. First landed in Silicon Valley CA in 1987 and lived there off and on over the 90s, 7 weeks there and 3 weeks back in the UK for 3 years during the DotCom years with PhoneMe. Founder Interim Edge – I created the first of the virtual management companies for the TMT markets, later to be the interim management industry. Mine was born out of William Davidow’s thinking in his book “The Virtual Corporation” that I had engaged with in CA. Founder/CEO PhoneMe – Off the back of a world beating engineering team and their soft switch launched a Global “Web Callback” telephony service (PhoneMe “The human voice of the web” ) UK/Boston/San Jose which led to a Silicon Valley exit. Founder/CEO NicheGnat – Pioneered web conferencing in Europe through a distribution partnership with Boston based WebDialog Inc. CEO ZebTab – Led the founding team to create one of the first sports (ManUtd) and news (BBC) media platforms to successfully deliver video content directly to the desktop computer on an advertising based revenue model.

 

Decision … No more Tech startups of my own … But what next?

Founder WildIrishGuy – opened a club and network at 8 Northumberland Ave to create an economic place for freelancers and entrepreneurs to be based in the heart of London. This gave me time to breath and meet a wide range of people from different layers of the network and people began to ask me to mentor and advise them. Founding Director The Irish International Business Network – A Not for Profit to support the Irish diaspora in London and New York. Now today both in wilds of Wiltshire and the heart of London working with my extensive trusted network borne out of all those years of work. Founder Partner Oldcorn & Oldcorn LLP – Independent advisory, executive coaching and mentoring to the C suite of scaleups in the emerging technology markets. damon-wild

Thank you for reading this if you got this far, this was more really for my benefit than yours, all about unravelling my thoughts as I recalled how I overcame the challenges throughout those exciting times. In saying that please don’t hesitate to make a comment or contact me direct. If it stirred anything that you would like to shoot the breeze on, the door is always open. Keep well Damon.

 

Running interference is a term taken mostly from american football where team players deflect the opposition in their attack to stop the ball carrier as they attempt to make the home run. running interference4I use this term in the start-up/scale-up world when people that I meet when networking ask me what is it that I do … I tell them “I run interference” on behalf of my clients when retained for that purpose.

This will normally open up a discussion as to what I really mean by that phrase, a bit like the quote “We are the Pros from Dover” taken from the movie “Mash”. Experienced business professionals from the technology world will know what I mean but younger entrepreneurs from the emerging technology world will be less sure. That is the point of course “when you don’t know what you don’t know” when trying to navigate the shark infested pool of founding and building Tech start-ups.

Its a pool of knowledge and insight gained over decades of working for US vendors in the big game and then founding and building technology companies from scratch in the good and bad market times. You tend to get perspective on the right moves and people from years of “shedding layers of skin” from going through the process of winning and losing in the UK and Silicon Valley. We are often pigeonholed as advisers, coaches, consultants maybe even the dreaded mentors … I suppose there may be a combination there. But what sets me apart is the blend of experience, strategic thinking and accelerated tactical implementation that moves the needle on whatever challenge you are currently facing.

A lot of my work is based on accelerating access to market, entrepreneurs always need that first big deal or partnership to reference from and cement them into the market with some credibility to continue. running interference2How do you do that? … well while you have had you’re nose to the grindstone, I have had years building a trusted network in London, this gives many entry layers to quickly research where best to position you’re attack. This combined with the weight and experience I add as to how to frame the hook that will get a reaction and opens up options for you to explore.

Sometimes it can be just as important not to talk to certain people as to chasing to meet what appears to be high profile people that can aid you’re progress. But “how do you know who is good or bad”, some that will suck time and life, maybe even money out of you’re precious venture. Well that is also about having time and experience to “understand the jigsaw” that is the multilayered emerging technology market in London. I have come across most of the challenges you are taking on for the first time, numerous times in fact, it develops an instinct in you for what feels right.

So I hear you ask … why are you not off investing, a venture capitalist, being a Non Exec, Government adviser, charity work, even retired like the rest of your peers. running interference1Well much as I don’t want to build another start-up company of my own, what still gives me a thrill is breaking markets with new technology, especially if it means taking on and beating the incumbent global vendor players. Its about doing business and deals that people don’t think possible on your wits with limited resources, “that’s the win”.

stick it to the man

Technology Entrepreneurs were mavericks, outside the system, changing the world, disrupting society and most importantly … not part of the Establishment. Well that was the way it was or certainly seemed to be. Now, I am concerned, given the increasing numbers today crossing the line. Taking government sponsored roles, moving to the other side of the table with venture capital firms (some supported by government funds), fronting accelerators, entrepreneurs in residence, angel investing and even some being included on the UK Honours lists. All this far to early for most rather than concentrating on and taking the pain and joy of building out a second and third time.
For any that were wondering, yes the system or establishment has always existed ,the top two percent, whatever term you want to use for it. It has always been self-perpetuating, my goodness if you were taking off the table of its bounty why would you want it to stop. But at certain points in the cycle it has been less impregnable, chinks had appeared, a few ladders had been left over the side to climb up or was that just an illusion. Certainly in the last decade it would appear that the ladders have been drawn up behind people who made it over the parapet in more opportune times. Some of you will know that feeling of confronting it head on, even for some people without actually knowing what system it is they had come up against. For those outsiders it tends to hurt.

The system is glue

Well, if it has always been the case, what’s the problem? Focussing on the emerging technology space, if we want to continue to grow the entrepreneurial ecosystem, it needs to be a virtuous cycle of successful or experienced entrepreneurs starting again and building their next disruptive companies. What we must not have is them being seduced, distracted or diverted into other peripheral softer network roles that blunt their entrepreneurial ambition. Which in turn has less impact in growing the knowledge base of how to build start-ups. They need to take the bones of what has been successful and use that to do it better the next time, and teach others internally and externally by example. This is what Silicon Valley (sorry to mention it) has been doing for decades, they don’t even hesitate to start another company and at a speed that we are yet to match in Europe.

It really does not matter that we will always be playing catchup with the Valley, what matters is that we do our own thing, play to our strengths and continue to build out an experienced entrepreneurial network. Over twenty years ago unless you were in the inner circle or were introduced by someone who was, you could not understand how it worked or even get a chance to be funded and play your hand. Now it is more transparent with more market coverage, networks and of course the internet itself has helped with that ability to access knowledge. surferBut there is nothing to beat working for or alongside a founding team that have been through the process before with battle scars that have toughened them. The more successful serial entrepreneurs we have in the network who really love what they do, the more chance we have of inspiring greater numbers to join them in the challenge, changing the system from the outside and in the end sustaining the growth of our technology markets.

Damon Oldcorn berates the entrenched ageism of the IT industry.
empowerment

The word ’empower’ is used a lot these days to describe a company’s ability to meet change by giving authority to the people at the sharp end. Words like this always seem to be touted around by public relations people, nothing too detailed of course, just some well concocted statements to mark some occasion or other. So the poor workers on the shop floor (as it used to be known) are going to be empowered. I do hope someone has told them about this new era of decision-making and accountability.

As you know, global organisations and our own high technology firms have thinned down their company structures, partly because of economic pressures, partly with the introduction of newer technology. Companies emerge with a streamlined look, not much middle, a flat top and a flat bottom. The idea behind the structure is that the strategic decisions made at the flat top can be whizzed to the troops at the flat bottom for them to implement tactically, making ever more accountable decisions as they go. Great in theory, but not so great in practice if you’re the 45-year-old who had to be removed to make way for this new wave.

Most of the companies I come into contact with, many in the computer and communications industry, have not trained the executives at the flat top in the new-age skills needed to compensate for this rapid change in business strategy. So as you can imagine it is extremely unlikely that they have got round to the training needs of the flat bottom to help them adapt to the new demands of this empowerment process. The question is, can the executives at the flat top grasp the new-age skills for this tremendously taxing change? I mean this change is major league, so not to be treated lightly.

sensitivityTo achieve corporate excellence today, the executive will have to have many facets in their management kit-bag: creative insight, sensitivity, vision, versatility, focus and patience (to mention just a few). Let’s focus on sensitivity for a moment ( a word not often heard in this rough, tough, high technology market). If, in the final analysis, people are an organisation’s greatest asset, then the new type manager must understand how to bind them together in a culture, wherein they feel truly motivated in the pursuit of higher goals. Face to face communication, ongoing training and development, creative incentive programmes and job security all display the sort of sensitivity that nurtures strong cultures.

Every strong culture and in this case the empowered culture derives from management sensitivity. Without it employees feel unmotivated, under-utilised,even exploited. It only takes a flick through the online job bulletin boards to see how we treat our employees. The turnover of staff, both junior and senior, is as fast and furious as ever, and there is a common pattern to people moving on. A majority when asked why they changed companies, would reply that they were not managed or spoken to in a professional manner. What a waste of time and money for all concerned. Let’s see some action to design companies so that empowerment is a balanced reality between decision-making, accountability, training and management support.

jin-tt-vs-nospringchicken-flatTo return to a point I touched on earlier, ageism, there seems to be an unwritten law in this industry that says because we keep inventing shiny, new products and services, that we must always have shiny, new younger staff as well. The number of over-45s who seem to get sidelined is amazing. What happens? Is it self-perpetuating because we have younger senior executives or younger recruitment staff? Are they unsure of their industry skills or even political ground to keep on older and more experienced staff than themselves. The older executive does not lose his or her ability to make decisions, to contribute creatively and energetically. Let’s not keep falling into the trap of discarding experience, if the industry is to mature it needs that stability.

The number of young executives I see looking for answers to basic business questions (on any online industry forum) that got answered  a long time ago concerns me. It’s not their fault, who have they got to learn from if the older mentor figures keep disappearing? There has to be a process of regeneration, a cycle where experienced professionals, grounded in business skills, impart their knowledge to the next set of executives. Who else will do it? The major company training schools seem to have diminished, or if not, focus too often on technology orientated product courses. You can only learn so much from self-help business books or company sponsored MBA courses.

Day to-day business sense has to be learned on the job, from people you respect and want to emulate. You can’t just hand out senior management positions to young executives before they are able to cope with the pressures that surround these demanding roles. So let’s match the investment that is made in the technology with investment in the long-term skills and care of our people at what ever stage of their careers, young or older.

Stress kills both people and productivity

half-term-holiday

As a number of you, particularly parents, will be on half-term breaks, two areas of thoughts come to mind. One is work-related stress. The other is holidays, which are supposed to be our way of winding down, enjoying ourselves and of course relieving pressure that results in stress. This entrepreneurial technology world we live in because of the speed of change, instability and pressure to succeed, often breeds stress.

It’s bizarre that many senior people in start-ups and global vendors still boast the fact that they haven’t had a holiday in years. They believe it is a statement of commitment and success. It strikes me as sad that talented people with the drive to succeed don’t have the time, both to gain a different perspective on what they are doing and also to have balance in their lives, to share that success with loved ones.

Stress shows itself at many levels in an organisation, a perfect example being in the holiday periods for the poor sales staff. How many of them are sweating to produce over target performances in a period when increasingly , the corporate decision makers have decided to leave the office? Some deal with it better than others, but all of us can learn to recognise the warning signs. The incidence of stress related illnesses is on the increase. Indeed it probably costs more to companies than industrial disputes these days.

So how do we recognise it? Well tell tale signs include headaches, tension in the neck, back pain, poor circulation, sleeplessness, lethargy, tiredness, extreme working, mistrust of others, fear of death, imagined illnesses. The classic symptoms of course are increased drinking, smoking, drug taking, irritability with colleagues or family, and lack of concentration.

There are a large number of environmental sources of work stress, the characteristics of the job itself, the role of the person in the organisation, interpersonal relationships at work, career development pressures, the climate and culture of an organisation and problems associated with the interface between the organisation and the outside world. Stress can be caused by too much or too little work, time pressures and deadlines, having to make too many decisions, fatigue from the physical strains of the work environment, excessive travel, long hours, having to cope with changes at work and the potential expense (monetary and career) of making mistakes.

a-fine-line

Both qualitative and quantitative overload may produce at least eight different symptoms of psychological and physical strain. Job dissatisfaction, job tension, lower self esteem, threat, embarassment, high cholesterol, increased heart rate and more smoking. An aspect that is particularly pertinent in this decade is career development pressure, lack of job security, fear of redundancy, obsolescence or early retirement and status incongruity (under or over promotion), frustration at having reached one’s career ceiling. Career progression is of overriding importance, especially to managers and professional staff. By promotion they not only earn money but also enhanced status and the new job challenges for which they strive.

Unless individuals adapt their expectations to suit new circumstances, particularly the changing needs of globalisation, career development stress is likely to be prevalent on a massive scale. We all need a modicum of stress to drive the bodily systems (for example it eliminates over toxicity in our body’s chemical systems). However, we also need to be able to cope with the negative effects of stress. Some of the suggested strategies are to increase your exercise levels, to use meditation, mindfulness or relaxation techniques, talk to someone outside your immediate circle, reassess your lifestyle or aspirations, protect your space, set boundaries at home or in the workplace, take a holiday or weekend away, remember the positive pleasant times and allow yourself praise for minor successes.

Other areas readily available today are massage, manipulation, reflexology and aromatherapy. A number of more far sighted companies are now employing freelance therapists to come into the workplace to give what is known as seated, fully clothed massage, which only takes 20-25 minutes of an employee’s time, but gives a great return on the employee’s wellbeing and in company performance. The strategy adopted will vary. For example, if stress comes primarily from poor physical working conditions, we might consider ergonomic solutions. If on the other hand, problems originate from conflicting roles, we might want to utilise techniques such as role playing. If individuals are dissatisfied with the rate of career advancement, relaxation techniques would be of no help, far more useful to do some career planning or train managers in the methods of career development.

ai

I can think of many people over the years who have been destroyed mentally and physically by the pressures of the modern working environment, at the end of the day some are just not able to cope with it. The increasing pace of technology change over the next ten years will only add to this. The fact that we are constantly bombarded with more data than it is possible to cope with may only be alleviated by AI, machine learning and robots taking over some of our roles.

To return to an earlier point, some of you will be on half-term holiday when you read this, the time thoughts turn to aspects of your life other than work. It’s interesting how difficult it is, though, to wash thoughts of work away from your mind in the first few days of a break, that too may be a sign of stress. Holidays can sometimes even add to the emotional stress. Some believe that a lot of short breaks throughout the year, rather than one long holiday, might be more beneficial. The bottom line is, you’ve only got one life, make the most of it, for your sake and the company’s.