Start-up Advice: Anne Connolly, Ireland Smart Ageing Exchange

6 Apr 2017

ISAX CEO Anne Connolly. Image: ISAX

ISAX’s Anne Connolly on the qualities of entrepreneurship and how to lead a team to start-up success.

Anne Connolly is the CEO of Ireland Smart Ageing Exchange (ISAX).

ISAX aims to support the needs of people over the age of 50, creating solutions for the smart ageing economy.

With an extensive background in consultancy, Connolly previously worked at Kingspan and the Ageing Well Network before joining ISAX in 2014.

She is a member of the SEAI board as well as the Voluntary Housing Association, and a governor of the Royal Hospital Donnybrook.

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

I think AI and deep machine learning have demonstrable capacity for changing lives. For example, the idea of an app that gives a diagnosis thousands of times more accurately than your best GP is amazing in its potential, and clearly relevant to commercial opportunities in the global smart ageing economy.

Are good entrepreneurs born or can they be made?

I believe some people have the appetite and drive to be successful entrepreneurs from a very young age – even at school they see and seize the opportunities. But others come to it by chance or through adversity, and bring different entrepreneurial competencies.

What are the qualities of a good founder?

Tenacity, resilience and a compelling vision, with the communication skills to make that contagious.

What does a successful entrepreneur need to do every day?

Juggle so many balls in the air at the one time, while retaining a strategic focus on what is really important.

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

Lean Canvas is an excellent tool for helping start-ups to validate their business idea.

The ability to understand quickly that you are solving a key customer problem/need and that people will buy that product is critical. 

How do you assemble a good team?

  1. Be very clear about the competencies, skills and personality types needed to realise the ambitions behind the business plan and targets.
  2. Seek to find the right people,  prioritising where appropriate the type of person over their expertise and skill set. Sometimes it is more important to get the right person and then train them, rather than vice versa. It is important to get people who have experience in areas that others do not; people who are passionate about wanting to be part of a start-up, and who may be willing to work for a smaller salary at the start, or for a stake in the start-up.
  3. Be creative about securing the people you need. In start-ups, you won’t always have the budget, so look to secondments (from suppliers, customers). Someone coming back into the company with the experience of working in a start-up can be invaluable. Also, look to partners, contractors and advisers as other sources of the expertise you might need.

What are the critical ingredients to start-up success?

  • Understanding the idea you have.
  • Addressing a key customer problem/need.
  • The level of competition you are likely to be faced with.
  • That people will buy your product.
  • A good team.
  • A business plan.
  • Support – not just access to funding, but also to mentors and advisers.
  • Timing – market needs to be ready. If you are early to market, consumers may not buy the product; too late and you may miss the opportunity with a competitor going first.

What are the biggest mistakes that founders make?

Underestimating the funding, time, effort and the emotional ups and downs involved, and then giving up too early – or too late. You need to know when its right to throw in the towel and when you just need another push.

Not being clear about the nature of the problem you are trying to solve; not fully understanding the needs of who has those problems (your target customer) and why/how the features and benefits of what you offer beats the pants off your competitors.

Who is your business hero and why?

Gene Murtagh. He grew Kingspan from a tiny manufacturer of agricultural trailers, operating from the yard of a family pub in Kingscourt, into one of the world’s leading building products companies.

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

You are never too old – that’s our message in ISAX.

But you need to make sure you are solving a problem and that there is a market for your product. Don’t give up – you will hear lots of ‘Nos’ before you get there and that’s normal for people who are trying to do something different.

Finally, work hard, enjoy the journey and have fun.