Archive for the ‘Reality Check’ Category

Here is a guest post from Mary McKenna founder of LearningPool on her recent move from Northern Ireland to London and the welcome she has received. Mary and I met for the first time at my business club at 8, Northumberland Ave 200 yds from Nelson’s Column.  A place that seems to be gaining ground as an economic West End base to work from, if you want to connect to the London start up world and the Irish business network in London. IIBN will be hosting their usual new and prospective member informal drinks there on the night of the 23rd of Feb – all with an Irish connection welcome. (If from the start up world and not Irish, I am always glad to connect with you at the Club – just get in touch)  Over to Mary…..

As I’m sure the whole world is by now aware, I’m coming to the end of my first week living back in London.  Everyone I’ve met this past week or asked for help has been extremely welcoming and I’ve been fortunate enough to have been invited to a few really useful networking events.  Best of all, however, from the perspective of a newly arrived Irish entrepreneur in London has been the Irish International Business Network or IIBN as it’s known.  The link is here for anyone that would like to know more or find out how to join I’m lucky enough to have been introduced to the original WildIrishGuy himself, Damon Oldcorn, and it seems that once you know Damon, you don’t really need to know anyone else.  I’ve always found this to be a good strategy.  Bryan Keating was the first business person I met in Northern Ireland, he’s the exact same and it’s never done me any harm.

Thursday night’s IIBN event started with drinks & chat and it was very easy to circulate and get talking to a few people as everyone’s very friendly and open.  Everyone has an Irish connection even though many, like me, don’t have an Irish accent.  Don’t let that fool you! – they all know their Leitrims from their Letterkennys and their Dungloes from their Dingles.  Our diaspora is a beautiful thing.  There were bankers, recruiters, reps from private equity houses, lawyers, entrepreneurs, investors and no doubt many more besides.  If you’re Irish, in business and in London you need to join IIBN. As part of the evening, our speaker was the charming and self-effacing Rosaleen Blair (pictured).  Rosaleen is one of those women who have achieved a helluva lot but doesn’t go around shouting that from the rooftops.  She just gets on with things.  Most of all, I liked the way she described the values her company operates by and I liked her statement of the 3 things she demands from people in her team and recruits against.  I’ve used these a few times already in conversation with others I’ve met this week but having chatted with Rosaleen on the evening, I don’t think she’ll mind.  They are as follows:

  • Trust – the members of a team have to really trust one another; of course this takes a bit of time
  • Collaboration – people need to be able & willing to work on projects with each other and to work hard to make that collaboration work
  • Sharing – Rosaleen hates it when people hold back knowledge & refuse to share it with other members of the team

I also loved what she said about encouraging a culture of “intrapreneurship” within your own organisation as a way of motivating and retaining the people in your team.  If anyone’s unsure what that means, it’s about encouraging positive aspects of entrepreneurial behaviour but within a large organisation.  It’s something we’ve always tried to do at Learning Pool. Rosaleen told us her story about how she arrived in London from Dublin in the 1990s, not knowing a soul but with a background in recruitment and having run a few small businesses in Ireland, believing herself to be fairly unemployable.  She went to work at Alexander Mann Solutions and over the course of time, persuaded her employer to allow her to try something new to fill a gap in the market and co-create adjacent services with clients (the first one being ICL/Fujitsu).  As it happened, she, working along with James Caan, became one of the early pioneers of what these days is known as RPO (Recruitment Process Outsourcing) and the rest is history.  In 2007, Rosaleen led her team through a £100m management buyout with the backing of private equity house Graphite Capital.  These days her company Alexander Mann Solutions employs 2,000 people working in 70 geographies and 42 languages.

Rosaleen also gave us some priceless bits of advice which I hope she won’t mind me passing on here to others:

  • When looking at which private equity house to go with, do some research and talk to some of the companies your main players have divested themselves of
  • As CEO, always keep your bank manager close & don’t give them any surprises; don’t pass that bank relationship off to someone else in your team
  • If your company is going to be working in some way with a private equity house, get yourself a CFO that has previously worked with a PE house, a CFO coming from a big corporate background won’t have the right sort of experience
  • Trust your own instincts and that of your team every day of the week over the advice given to you by external “experts”

Thanks Rosaleen, thanks IIBN and hello London!

Large beef steaks over wood
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What an opportunity to mix with your investment peers and catch up on the recent topics in the technology and investment world. Are we in a Bubble? US versus European VCs does style matter? Super Angels and inflated valuations? What next for NI? Boy will there be some bites on the night and not just around the food.

Steve Orr Director of NISP Connect and Alan Watts Director of the Halo Angel Network are inviting a select group of Angels and VCs to join them for a Drinks/BBQ/Tapas Bar evening in London. Please do come and share in the informal dialogue and what we are sure given recent experience will be an animated discussion around the common ground for investment for both Northern Ireland and London. A number of VCs and Angels will be travelling from NI/Belfast to join in the evening with new funds and emerging companies to hear feedback.

Venue:         Gordon’s Wine Bar 47 Villiers St, Strand, WC2.

(The back of the Terrace has been reserved)


Times:         From 5.30pm to 9pm+

Date:           Thurs 18thAugust, 2011

Hosted by:   

This evening is part of a continuing programme and we are very clear on the objectives, this is not a short term play for Northern Ireland. Rather more about continuity of connection and discussion with the rest of the European Angel and VC community to reap mutually beneficial rewards. Over the coming years from the seed of discussions started here in London we are sure the rewards will come as that entrepreneurial ecosystem in NI continues to grow. As we have seen already not only have the participants from London had a view on NI but very rarely do they leave without having touched on subjects and new connections on the London scene that further helped their own progress.

We are very much looking forward to welcoming you in typical NI style on the evening. Gordon’s (some say the oldest and best wine bar in London) not along our normal Irish inspired venues theme, but  perhaps a more appropriate relaxed outdoor setting given the time of year. If you are an Angel or VC and would like to be invited to this private event or future gatherings please get in touch with me for confirmation details.

A perspective corrected image of Trafalgar Squ...
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The power of the internet and more recently social media. Francine Hardaway from Phoenix AZ and Half Moon Bay CA has been in London this week. A stalwart of the start up scene for many moons and seed angel investor. We had never met but have known each other since 1998 when I was based in San Jose CA and kept in distant touch through the blogs and now Tweetdeck/Twitter when I was back in Europe. So when she said she was landing…. well I will let her tell you herself as a little guest post below….

@hardaway  Stealthmode Partners 

I may not have seen Big Ben or the London Bridge, but i have seen my type of London, the London of innovation rather than tradition, youth rather than age. Like startups everywhere, London entrepreneurs occupy interesting spaces in low rent neighborhoods. In London, it’s the Old City area on the not-so-posh East Side. That’s where the action seemed to be on my recent visit. and make no mistake, there is plenty of action. Since the end of the dotcom era in the US, the entrepreneurship bug has spread virally around the globe, and while venture capital is still concentrated in Silicon Valley, angel funding and bootstrapped companies are everywhere. In the last two years I feel like I have had a crash course in why America no longer has a lock on innovation.
Between @DamonOldcorn and Thomas Power, I have been treated like visiting royalty here in  London.  Or perhaps more like Dave McClure. Both Thomas, co-founder of ECademy and Damon, serial entrepreneur and founder of during the first tech bubble, introduced me to wonderful entrepreneurs and found me the best events to help me discover the London Tech scene. I started off at TechSet startup pitches, where I watched the kind of event I have seen in every country I visit: a group of startups explaining their companies. Rodolfo Rosini, the keynote speaker,  a three-time Italian-born entrepreneur whose last company developed encryption for cell phones, was blindingly honest about the dangers of taking outside money, and also about how to attract it..”If investors have a committed fund you don’t need to be awesome. just better than the rest of their deal flow.”
The coolest part of that event wasn’t the pitches, but the sponsor, Pinsent Masons LLP.  One of their attorneys has started BootLaw a free site with essential law for startups. Bootlaw also holds monthly events.
The next day, a dozen social media types and entrepreneurs convened by Thomas and by Abigail Harrison, a wonderfully well-connect London PR practitioner, regaled me with accomplishments (one woman has written “Business Model Generation” and one young entrepreneur has launched MinuteBox, monetizing the online consulting time of mentors like me) at a cool pub in Chiswick, the Duke of Sussex. That was a first for me: a three hour lunch, at which one of the attendees was my son-in-law Daniel Richard, who is in charge of sales at an Irish startup, Sonru.
At that lunch I also met one of the co-founders of LikeMinds, a city club for entrepreneurs located right off Trafalgar Square. Damon Oldcorn entertained me there and introduced me to the co-founders of, who (you can’t make this stuff up) already had met with Daniel about an alliance. I have to admit that I detoured for a few hours and caught a matinee of “Rosencrantz and Gildenstern Are Dead” at the Haymarket before going on to the TechHub anniversary party back in the Old City part of town. Here I met the founders of Cravify (for finding, renting and sharing London flats) and Ubicabs (like San Francisco’s Uber). The co-founders of TechHub, which is an incubator and collaborative workspace for startups, are ElizabethVarley and Mike Butcher, who is also editor of TechCrunch Europe. They have done a spectacular job of aggregating the startup community if their party was any indication. It’s a great space with a great reputation.
Once again I remind American readers that we hold no lock on entrepreneurship, and that without constant attention to innovation on our own parts, we can be eclipsed easily by just about anywhere.

George Best

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What do Waxy O’Connor’s, Angels, Northern Ireland, The Bible Code Sundays and VCs have in common?  Well on the face of it very little, especially in London and often in a tech investment world that is so wrapped up in itself ….. so cool….. so inner game. But you know what – that is just on the surface, a veneer that belies great people doing wonderful things and very open to new ideas or opportunities. Obviously the Guinness and Irish music helped as usual on the 12th May at the informal gathering at Waxys in London. I had guessed that not only would the group in from Belfast meet interesting people, some they had never heard of before, but my instinct was the London crowd would meet others from London that maybe they had heard of but just never touched on. So it was  all right on the night so to speak, real players in the room from named VCs  and those Angels you hear about doing sweet deals and of course the Northern Irish extending their hospitality to hear thoughts and stories that start a journey for them. It’s a long game as they say and what is lovely about this one is the people involved from NI and London giving so much of themselves on the night and in the future. Entrepreneurship in NI and the links to the wider world will take time and consistency of contact and engagement to help both sides understand the mutual benefits. So if you are an Angel or VC or feel you should be in the loop keep an ear to the ground or make contact for the next London gathering …. a big clue….. almost certain to be an Irish setting in the West End of London, see you there.  (Ironically it might just turnout to be the coolest invite in London)

An Ulster fry, served in Belfast, Northern Ire...

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Lets assume for the moment that the feeding frenzy particularly on the West coast US is driving the valuations beyond the point that most Angels want to pay. Maybe that wave is even spilling over into London, so what do you do about it as an Angel to access deals that might be as you see it at a more sane level or entry point? Well I don’t have all the answers (honest) but one way might be to switch to areas because of geographical distance. But still within a less than 50 min plane ride that are not as over subscribed at present,  OK I admit it this is leading up to something that I have organised to help Northern Ireland or the “Belfast Bubble” as I like to call it. I want them to break out a little and up their engagement with angels, syndicates and maybe even early stage VCs on a more constant basis in London. On the evening of the 12th of May 2011 in the West End of London a number of players from NI will be here to mix and share experiences with a back drop of typical NI hospitality and maybe even a little Irish music. I know these early informal conversations are just a starting point to encouraging long-term relationships that will build over years, there is no hurry these things take time. Very much like London did from a base with very few role models some 5/6 years ago, when some interesting people started their Web Missions and networking drinks themes that have become common place now as the London scene has matured. So let me assure you given I have been around this world for quite a while, that I would be very surprised if all parties on the evening did not gain something from the experience even if only talking to others on the London scene. If it sounds of interest and you are an active Angel or a VC contact me for a detailed invite. (Oh and if this date does not suit there will be other London/Belfast events throughout the year so contact anyway)