HBAN’s Niamh Sterling: ‘Hiring as a start-up is a lot like selling’

3 Apr 2019

Niamh Sterling. Image: HBAN

As part of our Start-up Advice series, HBAN’s Niamh Sterling offers some key tips learned from a career in angel investment and entrepreneurship.

Niamh Sterling is an investment consultant at Halo Business Angel Network (HBAN).

Sterling is also the co-founder and board member of several high-performing companies in sectors such as water management and digital publishing. With more than two decades of commercial success, she has a proven track record of assessing viability and building companies into successful commercial players both in Ireland and the Middle East.

Future Human

Earlier this year she spoke at the HBAN All-Island Conference, where she moderated a panel focused on the future of investing.

Describe your role and what you do.

HBAN is responsible for the promotion of business angel investment and the support of early-stage entrepreneurs throughout Ireland. My role as investment consultant is to curate deal flow, working closely with the likes of Enterprise Ireland, the BICs, accelerators, InterTradeIreland, Invest Northern Ireland and the universities to source the best start-ups.

I am looking for companies across all sectors, from fintech to food, that meet the criteria our business angels expect. We have an average of 500 referrals per year, and out of that we will select around 150 for interview. Out of those we will chose four or five to pitch at each angel event, so it’s a thorough sifting process.

The other aspect of my job is to attract new business angels into our network and syndicates, doing this through a process of referrals, events and masterclasses.

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

Fintech continues to transform the financial landscape, while medtech, especially in the context of our world-class Irish innovation, remains a very strong opportunity and captures a high percentage of angel investment.

There has been a strong increase in cleantech and agritech as well as IoT and automation tools – think B2B-focused companies in the e-commerce, consumer experience and smart home sectors that continue to disrupt their sectors with new business models and innovations that make consumers’ daily lives easier, save them time and money, and deliver a better quality of life.

Advances in augmented reality, robotics, blockchain and personalised medicine, along with other emerging technologies, will garner increased angel investment over the medium term.

Are good entrepreneurs born or can they be made?

I would suggest it’s a mixture of natural characteristics blended with ones that stem from your life experiences. I guess it also depends on your definition of a ‘good entrepreneur’ though. Exceptional leaders tend to be those that match their business success with the ability to inspire and lead their teams and those around them to do their best work – this requires a high level of emotional intelligence and that’s a little harder to find!

‘Businesses don’t fail from lack of beautiful products, they fail from lack of customers’

What are the qualities of a good founder?

They need to be agile, creative thinkers, with the courage to take risks, and the passion and drive to create something that can truly transform businesses, lives or the world we live in. Couple that with innate curiosity, domain expertise, respect for others, hunger to learn, eternal optimism and the tenacity to see them through the rollercoaster of building an outstanding business.

What does a successful entrepreneur need to do every day?

Stay focused, especially on sales, but flexible enough to capitalise on opportunities as they arise. Your business and the landscape in which you’re operating will evolve as you grow. Consistently monitor your performance against your KPIs. Watch your cash flow and use your time wisely!

What resources and tools are an absolute must for your arsenal?
  • Number one is your team. After that, a network of trusted advisers that will challenge your assumptions and share their expertise
  • Know your financials thoroughly
  • Tools that help you communicate with teams effectively and manage your pipeline and workflow efficiently
  • Podcasts and blogs are a great way to gain insights, too
How do you assemble a good team?

This is often one of the hardest parts for founders; if they are pre-seed, they simply don’t have the resources to attract the best talent. Knowing where your critical gaps are is so important to making sure you secure the right hires first, otherwise the cracks in your business will quickly show. Be clear about the criteria for the role to make sure you don’t waste time on interviewing poor candidates.

Hiring as a start-up is a lot like selling – and the good news is, not everyone is motivated by money – so you have to sell your vision and create a great work environment, and help the candidate see why you are right for them and they are right for you.

What is the critical ingredient to start-up success?

Start with your customer and work backwards from there. In-depth customer discovery and market research early on means you will understand their pain points, achieve product market fit and start driving revenues quickly.

The size of the market opportunity is also a factor; it has to be big enough, along with your ability to execute on a strategy, to capture it. Starting is the easy part – it’s the follow-through that takes exceptional planning and delivery. 

What are the biggest mistakes that founders make?
  • Building a product without understanding the big problem first. Businesses don’t fail from lack of beautiful products, they fail from lack of customers
  • Underestimating the financial needs of your company
  • Not listening to the advice of people who have been there and done it before
Who is your business hero and why?

My late father. He had to leave school at 13 to go work after his father died. He lied about his age and went to Harland and Wolff to learn his trade as a plumber. He saved hard and started his own plumbing business in 1956 out of a garage on Sundrive Road in Dublin. Today it is one of the leading HVAC and process engineering companies in Ireland, and my brother is now principal.

My dad’s work ethic, integrity, drive and passion for education were a great lesson to me, and to the day he died he would always say: “Sure I’m just a plumber.” I admired that humility.

Whats the number one piece of advice you have for entrepreneurs?

I have four!

  • Have the belief in yourself and the courage to get out there and do it. Never be afraid to try
  • Talk to your customers; really understand their pain points
  • Nurture relationships – your team, your customers, your network. People work with people
  • Know what you don’t know and don’t be afraid to ask for help

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