Posts Tagged ‘startup’


I talk to start-up entrepreneurs in the technology world on a weekly basis. They tell me about the day to day tribulations of their worlds, often top of the list is closing out their first proof of concepts in the enterprise field. The theme of the conversation is often all about the twists and turns they have to make as a company just to get in the door of a major brand company to prove their product or service can perform in a professional business environment. Never mind worrying about whether there is a business case in terms of ROI.

So let’s say nine months in they get the target company to agree to a limited trial of whatever they are selling, often cloud based services. Amongst many these range from mobile payments, traffic location beacons, battery charging stations, ticketing and hospitality applications.   Perhaps a limited number of offices, shops or arenas to start with, not all based in London as they had hoped for to get easy and economic access with their limited support resources . But spread out all across the UK the client wanting to test the robustness of the service in different regional settings, sometimes ranging from Glasgow to Plymouth.

But full of the entrepreneurial spirit and confidence in their world class engineers that have refined their products they set off to install their services. Most of the time they get away with it, they turn up and with a bit of fiddling with their platforms and network hardware they have bought in they are able to connect to whatever WiFi network that is already incumbent in the target company. Sometimes they use 4G routers if that is the only option if the internal networks are locked down. So the trial starts, perhaps over ten different sites and they are monitoring their services from dashboards built into their products for that purpose. Checking the traffic data which is so often a key feature of their offerings to justify the service is being used and the data is valuable to the client.

Then the inevitable review meeting with the client to discuss the data and how it is going, maybe 45 days in and that is when a few blips in the data begin to surface. You knew this before the review because you have been more keen than the  client to analyse the data. To cut a long story short it would seem two or maybe three of the sites are only performing intermittently and the potential client is using it as a block before they will discuss any further rollout or progress on the negotiation.

Now you have checked your systems and platform with the engineers back at base (not necessarily UK based) and they are convinced from their end that everything is functioning well. But you are the sales led Founder or VP business development faced with the client at the sharp end who does not want to hear anything but definitive proof as to where the issue is and the proposed solution. Sometimes even that won’t be necessary as often you have one shot at this. That twenty percent failure rate, which if they are talking about a rollout of even 250 sites equals a potential 50 sites not functioning properly, would already kill the opportunity stone dead for you.

So it is here that I must declare an interest, I advise Wireless Design Services International WDSi Group a vendor independent professional services team who are world experts in WiFi and other types of network services. It struck me some time back that their expertise in these network areas could be of immense value and support to growth start-ups. Particularly at that proof of concept stage but also if successful in terms of how to rollout professionally, economically and at speed across the whole estate.

So what are a few of the things we have learned from real live proof of concepts we have ended up supporting over the last year or so. The start-up  lands and the incumbent supplier of WiFi won’t even give them an SSID to link to their network, it is not in their interest to be helpful. Even if they do there is so many other critical services running on limited bandwidth it does not make your solution shine or even work. You try to bypass their network by installing your own hardware, perhaps bought in 4G routers which you have no experience of, which then prompts delays from minor details like where they are to be stored, positioned and powered from. Even if you get them in for some reason the signal seems not to stay constant throughout the day or the router goes down and needs replacing.

Inevitably you end up talking to the internal telecoms team of the client, who are nearly always remote from the marketing teams you are selling to. They generally are protective of their networks and won’t allow access particularly to start-ups with no network experience or credentials. They speak a different language, not from your world of expertise and become another barrier to entry. Even if these layers are breached it requires years of experience in design and consultative challenging environments to get WiFi/4G to function at an acceptable SLA level that will get you over the line with an enterprise client.

There are a myriad of reasons why WiFi/4G/Networks don’t function particularly well in challenging environments (the start-up world) and I would be so bold as to say you don’t really want to become an expert in any of them while trying to build out and scale a growth start-up. Rather you need to “stick to the knitting” as we experienced entrepreneurs say and not divert your attention from executing your business plan.

Sure there is a cost to outsourcing the installation, ongoing monitoring and field maintenance support to experts like WDSi, although they do recognise the need to be and are competitive in the start-up world. At the early stages of the POC point on the curve I would and have seen it myself previously as a start-up Founder allocated as a necessary marketing cost in the business plan. If those early trials do not go well, even if your services are one hundred percent and it is the networks that are at fault, you may never gain sales momentum again.

CN7PZ9F1M6(Check the date article written to get the context)

Leaked Government documents suggest a new class of company named ELTD for entrepreneurs over 45. Discussions in Government circles have recently centred on how best to give the next generation, which will be the work force of the future the best opportunity to succeed. It has been long thought that older more experienced business people, particularly entrepreneurs in the technology start up world have been soaking up and making better use of resources that could be utilised by Millennials. Some restrictions on over 45s have come to light that will help target these resources more keenly towards the younger groups.

Entrepreneurs over 45 setting up a new company will have to apply for the new ELTD class, there will be severe penalties for hoarding dormant LTD vehicle companies prior to the age of 45. The ELTD class of company will only be allowed to trade in regional/urban areas that do not have the TechCity, Knowledge Transfer Network, Digital Catapult, Innovate, Tech Strategy Board, Incubator, HackDay, Science Park designations. They will only be allowed to invest and develop in traditional technologies such as the desktop, minicomputer and mainframe platforms. This includes Telecommunications barring Internet Telephony and returns the focus to traditional platforms like PSTN, PBX, Facsimile and Telex.  This will leave the Mobile, Cloud and emerging technologies such as AI and Robotics to the next generation.

There will be restrictions on where ELTDs can hire from, highlights include, no overseas engineering resource and only graduates from the lower layers of UK Universities/Ex Polytechnics. This will ensure that the elite layers of computer science graduates from top class Universities will be funnelled to the more needy Millennial led start ups. Any Government funded programmes  such as the UKTI led missions will not be available to ELTDs, this also applies to  UKTI supported marketing events such as UK or overseas conferences or exhibitions.

Any of the startup network events such as the regular technology Meetups on the circuit will still be available but ELTDs will only be able to attend for the first 2 hours, leaving the hospitality, often beer and pizzas to be more evenly spread across the millennial attendees. This will also allow the younger generation the best opportunities to let their hair down and to network without feeling their Dad is in the room.

There was an instant strong negative outcry from the City to this leaked background information on the proposed new ELTD status of company. This was soon  reduced to a whisper, when it was explained to them that the Government had no plans to set up an ELLP class for the professional classes. This status quo would continue to allow the lawyers, accountants, corporate financiers, venture capitalists and head hunters to target growth start ups for fees in the highly professional manner they were used to.

When the Minister for Small Business was contacted for her reaction, allegedly she said, the boys tell me nothing, I suppose they will want me to go on Question Time again looking like a startled rabbit in the headlights to justify whatever it is they have dreamed up.

The Chancellor was allegedly heard to say as he walked from his private car into a conference centre, left, left, right, right, no that’s not it, or maybe u-turn before being flung at force through a revolving door into the lobby. Luckily one of his aides was there to catch him.

The Prime minister had a beaming countenance and the journalist who engaged kept saying yes David, no David, yes David, no David not remembering what had been said. He said afterwards that it was very similar to when they were at school together.

The opposition spokesman confirmed that they were only really concerned with big brand companies from traditional industries that hired tens of thousands quoting the likes of Kodak. Although they did say they had not heard from them recently.


There are a few, a very few, that keep building start up companies, even when they have either, had their teeth kicked in, a moderate success or a global home run. Most it would seem, fail completely and drift away, which is fine and normal for a very tough game. But a more worrying trend seems to be for people, who have built one reasonably successful start up, defined by profile, impact on market, growth in revenue and people, but no exit on horizon, to not build a second.

Often to be fair to these people they get taken out by their investors as they have not achieved the holy grail of the successful exit or some sort of end point event. But rather than gathering their strength, new found experience and leading another charge into the entrepreneurial trenches they are often seduced by established venture capital companies, incubators, industry/government bodies, anything but doing it again. The choice to do this is often brought on by the syndrome of being able to take money off the table early, even before their start up has played out completely. They have been able to invest in other brighter players as they go along, seen inside the minds of the bankers and I assume get used to a level of lifestyle. That makes it difficult to contemplate betting it all on the next big idea and going back to the world of zero.

This is less of an issue in Silicon Valley, as the numbers play out given the volume of start ups there, here in UK/Ireland the numbers do not stack up. We need every experienced entrepreneur to stay in the game and build again given there are so few capable of doing it. The PR machine does not help, building these people into industry spokespersons, they get invited to attend numerous events globally to tell their war stories and so the guru status builds. Given the nature of the technology business, often still young people at this stage, I can see how easy it would be to lose sight of the reason they built their first start up …. to win.


I saw this slogan “Youth and talent are no match for age and treachery” on a tee-shirt recently. It prompted me to ponder whether young people coming to London, our fine Capital city would find this to be true of their entrepreneurial experiences. Imagine it you have been to London for a few meetings, on the whole are getting a warm reception to your ideas and are being advised if you want to scale you need to be in London. You are from Newcastle, Cardiff, Belfast, Manchester, Leeds, Dublin and Bristol as examples, big enough places to have a thriving start-up scene where you have made a major impact, but not on the scale of an International city like London. The other point being these cities/towns are small enough for the network to know and have background knowledge about who you are likely to be networking and doing business with.

You land in London, managed to get enough money together to cover the first 6 months rent/deposits and find yourself in the backwoods of London because it is staggeringly expensive, so either a shoebox bed sit or sharing with some other young people who may or may not be from your business world. But it is all very exciting, maybe even slightly scary and adrenalin filled, but you have confidence so you hit the circuit you have read about on-line. So many meet ups, difficult to judge which one or where in the city to spend your time and funds to attend, never realised it was so big. You find some, larger than life on-line but when physically there very lean pickings on numbers of connections, or lots of service companies wanting to sell you something. The good ones you find in the end, as your funds are rapidly diminishing, but here you are one of hundreds of dynamic big play companies that seem to know everyone and have people from all corners supporting them.

How can you make any impact above the noise and you ponder whether you need to raise money for marketing, something you swore you were never going to do. Now as you head is turned a little, the big deals not coming as fast as you would like, cash flow going to be a problem, then they appear. A friendly face, a few drinks maybe that you are grateful for given you can’t believe the prices even in outlying bars, and someone who is taking you seriously at last and really thinks the plan has legs. Perhaps we could meet to discuss this some more, say in a weeks time, come over to my club,  office, boardroom, lunch, my goodness these people seem like players. Maybe even some of their contacts have been on TV or linked to Westminster, perhaps I have got something, I was beginning to have doubts. But surely they have been here for years and would know the good from the bad, nothing to lose in talking to them some more, so you do.


It is all very comforting, they think you are great and use terms of corporate business that you have heard once maybe but don’t really understand. They over a few meetings ponder whether it is so strong an idea that you need to raise a lot of money to give it the best chance of succeeding globally. You were thinking low hundreds of thousands they are now talking millions, but again they do this for a living surely they must know the reality of this. You are now in a turmoil , the plan had been to eke out an existence, get a few big name trials under way, and then build on that experience to hone the product. Now this is all much more exciting, less pain, faster progress perhaps off the back of the funding, which they in their smart suits and fancy offices say will be highly probable given the timing of the market.

Your gut is telling you something, a boy/girl from x city just landed in London and they want me, gosh they have already introduced me in passing to the business man who built something major. A name I had never heard of but it all sounded familiar and he was so well dressed, he in turn was impressed with my idea and wished me well. Then they produce contracts, many pages of contracts, clause 29 A etc, and whiz me through it, because whoever reads the detail of contracts and they want me to take it away to ponder it for a week so as not to rush into anything. So you do and having cleared your head the next day from the drinks they supplied the night before you begin to read, lots of detail, commitments, warranties, financial jargon, you begin to get that sinking feeling about how big a deal this all going to be and it is all riding on you.

So you read it again even more slowly, using Google to check the terminology to make it slightly clearer, now you see they want money from you up front to be retained as they put it, to act for you in this fund-raising process. You were sure they said at one point they had the money, a fund surely not looking out for others to invest, and my goodness the amount of money they want per month and a major cut of the money raised. Must be some mistake, the lead guy you have a great relationship with over the last few months must have sent the wrong type of contract, he knows we are a start-up with limited funds. So you ring him to check and after a roundabout conversation about how they have already started the process and had positive feedback from quite a number of interested parties, he while laughing and smiling all the way, says of course they need to be retained that’s how these things work.

They were sure given you are the brightest of the bright and worldly-wise you of course understood that, as they would not have invested so much of their partner’s time in this due diligence process. Which you know does cost money in its self as you will be aware, but we were willing to waive that as you were an outstanding opportunity but he had still to do great work internally to convince the rest of the partnership. So he hoped given all the time and thinking that had gone into this and enhancing your reputation on the circuit it would be only a small step to you signing this off. You are caught cold and don’t want to seem as if you are not part of the big game and a potential player and play for time by offering to come back to them in a few days with a decision which you are sure will be fine.


And you are shell-shocked, you can’t believe after all this time thinking they were going to fund you and work together as a team to build out the company, that they actually want money from you to fund them. How could you have misunderstood you really like the people and think their experience and contacts would be amazing and the thought of going back to square one again with out that weight and support is so depressing. Maybe you were being naive, maybe this is the way business is done, they have spent a lot of time on you, surely they don’t do that with lots of companies. So the pressure builds and before you know it they have called and you have agreed to meet them to move the process along and you are in the boardroom with two senior partners all smiles and positivity.

The answer to all this is you are not alone, this is the business that this world lives in day-to-day, they are sellers of their services, always there, and as they say “there is no such thing as a free lunch”. Yes they will trawl through dozens of deals, feigning surprise when most of them back off at the mention of retainers and fees because that is the world where it is how they exist. Never mind if and when retained they can actually raise the funds from their network of private wealth clients, angels and small funds. These are the good ones, real offices, partnerships and track records, beware even more the out-and-out con men that have no intention of doing any real work but are there just to fleece you for every penny you have, and they exist wherever there is money on the table. If it seems too good to be true it generally is, all entrepreneurs get desperate at times, the answer is not to give in to that pressure, desperation or conversely positive hype that skews your thinking. Even if you don’t lose money, it is the time spent and opportunity cost that hurts.

There is very little glamour in London, plenty of hangers-on and fair weather friends, it is all about learning the game, hard work and setting priorities, even then very few come out the other end smiling. But it is a learning experience and will ground you for many things by taking on the challenge. So don’t shy away from it, or retreat to the small ponds, rather embrace it with an open mind and get street wise quick. Better still find your own trusted network and home team…. as it is going to be a long game.

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!