‘I started 10 years ago at my kitchen table, so it has been a personal journey’

19 Nov 2019

Paul McElvaney. Image: Learning Pool.

Paul McElvaney of Learning Pool discusses growing the company through M&As, how he attracts and retains top talent, and what his parents taught him about running a business.

Paul McElvaney is the founder and CEO of Learning Pool, the Derry-based e-learning company that specialises in providing online workplace learning solutions for some of the world’s biggest brands and government departments.

Since 2006, he has grown the business from a team of five to an international firm with almost 200 employees in the UK and US, and more than 750 global clients.

Having recently concluded Learning Pool’s third acquisition in as many years, McElvaney has turned his attention to a market entry strategy for the US and is leading the company’s development of a new AI-driven product range.

‘I grew up in a family business, so I’ve always been exposed to the realities of running a company’

Describe your role and what you do.

I started Learning Pool 10 years ago at my kitchen table, so it’s been a very personal journey for me to grow the business to where it is now. These days I work hard to sustain the unique culture we’ve built Learning Pool around, while continuing to build great relationships with clients.

We’ve trebled in size in the last three years and we’ve received some pretty prestigious recognition for our efforts, which we’re all proud of.

I also work hard to drive our innovation agenda through the company as well as leading our M&A activity. We’ve just completed our third and most ambitious acquisition by bringing Oxford- and Boston-based learning innovation company HT2 Labs into the Learning Pool group.

How do you prioritise and organise your working life?

We have a high-performing team and a fantastic open culture at Learning Pool. This means everyone knows exactly where the business is headed and we’re all working towards a shared goal. So, a lot of my time is spent helping my team make the right decisions to drive our growth. But you have to stick with it and there are always some pretty complex decisions to make. I try to use my experience to make sure we make the right ones, at least most of the time.

I spend a lot of my time talking to my senior team, who are based in four locations across the UK, to chat through the hurdles we’re facing and find the wins we need. I always try to build in time to talk to the wider team and maintain a sense of the challenges they’re facing, and I get nervous if I don’t speak to a customer at least every day, so that gets high priority too.

All that said, the company has grown a lot recently, so sometimes my time is best spent on projects that drive our CSR work and company wellbeing initiatives or working with my board on long-term strategic priorities..

What are the biggest challenges facing your sector and how are you tackling them?

Adapting to the pace of change has been a constant challenge as the business has grown in the tech sector. We’ve built a reputation in the market for being ahead of the curve and we’re currently helping to shape a new product, with our new colleagues from HT2 Labs, using cutting-edge technology.

Attracting and retaining high-calibre people is a challenge of course and so maintaining Learning Pool as a desirable place to work is probably the number one priority for the business. I figure there are a few things I can do to influence this: keep the company growing so we create new opportunities for our high performers, maintain our culture and make it better, and stay close to the customer so we remain on the right track – even if we are at the bleeding edge.

What are the key sector opportunities you’re capitalising on?

We’re reshaping part of our technology offering right now and our recent acquisition is an important step on that journey. Our new tech platform uses artificial intelligence to personalise the learning experience for each user and creates a data-rich environment to demonstrate business value and impact. This has the potential to be a game changer for our customers – we’re quite excited!

What set you on the road to where you are now?

I grew up in a family business, so I’ve always been exposed to the realities of running a company. I learned a huge amount about running a business from my parents when I was growing up, which has stood me in good stead when I finally succumbed to the lure of being an entrepreneur.

I’ve always been inspired by entrepreneurs who’ve started their own businesses from nothing and gone on to turn them into something substantial. The technology sector also inspires me because the possibilities are endless, and the only constant is change.

What was your biggest mistake and what did you learn from it?

I think one of the biggest mistakes I made early in the business was to be too exit-focused too soon. When we stopped being obsessed with exit, we were able to grow the company in the right way and the shareholder issues looked after themselves. At the right time for the company, we found the right partner in Carlyle Cardinal Ireland and they have supported our continued growth.

When I look back on the mistakes, another common thread is where I failed to make the right decision quickly enough. Sometimes it’s right to let a situation play out but when you know in your gut that something has to be done, it’s better to just do it, no matter how painful it is at the time.

How do you get the best out of your team?

I’m going to say it’s based around our culture and values again. It’s a huge part of our success story at Learning Pool and the value can’t be overstated. In short, I’d say recruit carefully, pay close attention to fit and culture, and then…get out of the way! 

Have you noticed a diversity problem in your sector?

It’s fair to say the tech sector is still dominated by men. Although some companies are still male dominated, especially at leadership level, this isn’t the case at Learning Pool.

We have a good mix of men and women in management and a good gender mix at different levels right throughout the company. But we know that if we take our eye off this, we can get the balance wrong quite quickly, so this is something we pay increasing attention do.

Did you ever have a mentor or someone who was pivotal in your career?

This is a tough one! Bryan Keating, my chairman and one of Northern Ireland’s top business figures, is someone I know I can rely on for guidance. In my early career, he told me to focus all my efforts on the team and my customers and let everything else figure itself out. That was the thing that gave me the most clarity when I needed it and benefited Learning Pool hugely.

What books have you read that you would recommend?

I just finished reading Black Box Thinking by Matthew Syed. It’s about decision-making in large organisations and confronting mistakes. It’s really fascinating and there’s plenty that can be applied to any business.

I also took some time off this summer and gorged on several Steve Cavanagh books – The Defence is one of my favourite fiction books and would certainly recommend it as a way to relax.

What are the essential tools and resources that get you through the working week?

Funnily enough, I’ve gone through a process of trimming down the amount of tech I use recently. The G Suite tech stack works well for me to communicate, keep up to date and avoid forgetting stuff. So as long as my phone has battery, I’m usually all good.

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