‘Entrepreneurship is a rollercoaster – you need to have the stomach for it’

21 Jul 2020

Alan Merriman. Imag: Elkstone

Elkstone’s Alan Merriman gives his advice for start-ups, from the importance of determination to why false hope is dangerous for founders.

Alan Merriman is the executive chair and lead venture partner at Elkstone in Dublin, where he is helping to build a venture portfolio of digitally enabled, internationally scalable businesses.

He previously held senior finance roles in a number of organisations and was a partner in PwC. He is now also a board director on Elkstone portfolio companies including LetsGetChecked, Flipdish, Manna and Soapbox Labs.

‘My real passion is on the venture side, helping entrepreneurs with their challenges by acting as a sounding board’

Describe your role and what you do.

As the executive chairman at multi-family office Elkstone, and leading our venture business, I hold both an overall practice and a venture business leadership role.

I enjoy both but my real passion is on the venture side and helping other entrepreneurs with their challenges and scaling ambitions by acting as a sounding board for them rather than offering deep domain expertise.

In your opinion, which areas of science and technology hold the greatest scope for opportunities?

I’m a generalist and a believer in multi-sector investing so find it very hard to narrow down the opportunity set. However, I believe the use and value of data, robotics and AI are all at a very early stage. The pace of change I think is going to really pick up in the years ahead. Voice applications I think also have the potential to explode.

Are good entrepreneurs born or can they be made?

I believe both. Passion and grit are key characteristics needed to thrive as an entrepreneur and I think these can be DNA personality traits but also can come from life experiences – both good and bad. To be a great entrepreneur you need to have a passion and a risk orientation, but you also need to be a leader and leadership skills can be learned and evolve.

What are the qualities of a good founder?

Grit, passion, leadership by example and a clear emphasis on being ‘one team’.

What does a successful entrepreneur need to do every day?

Keep going – through thick and thin. Entrepreneurship is a rollercoaster with lots of ups and downs and you need to have the stomach for it and that overarching vision that helps you to keep going and going and going.

What resources and tools are an absolute must for your arsenal?

From a technology perspective, a mobile phone is the ‘door’ to everything and everyone – and even more so now in a Covid world.

However, my key enabler is the Elkstone family and our wider network comprising our entrepreneurial clients, our portfolio companies and their founders – whether in Dublin, New York or Berlin – as well as co-investors, other VCs and supporters such as Enterprise Ireland.

Being able to tap into our network – whether it is for sourcing deals, due diligence, adding real value to portfolio companies or simply opening doors – is our real edge and differentiator.

How do you assemble a good team?

You need to first sell the vision, and then really deliver on the day-to-day experiences to keep the faith and foster a culture of a high-performance team, which in turn will attract even more talent to the team. It is the snowball effect.

These days I try harder to get out of their way – the more trust and empowerment people have, the better individuals and teams can perform.

What is the critical ingredient to start-up success?

Execution, execution and execution. Or put another way: team, team, team. And what I mean by that is the key ingredient is a top-quality team that can execute.

What are the biggest mistakes that founders make?

False hope. I do not mean to be contradictory – founders need to have the grit to keep going and going, but also it is critical to test and validate and avoid positive bias.

What are your views on mentorship and the qualities one should look for in a mentor?

It is a tough journey and a trusted mentor is a great asset and enabler. A mentor who can support by acting more as a sounding board as distinct to a business adviser, I think, is optimum.

Key qualities I suggest looking for in a mentor are trust, and that they themselves have had the experience of scaling businesses or working closely with other founders who have had similar challenges. And remember ultimately that the business is your baby, not theirs!

What’s the number-one piece of advice you have for entrepreneurs?

Do what you love!

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