Start-up Advice: Mary McKenna, entrepreneur and angel investor

28 Jan 2016

Image via Mary McKenna

Mary McKenna is a tech entrepreneur, freelance consultant and an early-stage angel investor.

Mary McKenna co-founded Northern Irish online learning company Learning Pool in 2006 and successfully exited in 2014.

Named in our Women Invent Top 100 Women in STEM list in 2014, McKenna has also received an MBE for her services to digital technology, innovation and learning.

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

Opportunity is everywhere in the technology space right now. I believe the edtech space is the most exciting and, as it covers platform, software, content, hardware, IoT and wearables, there’s a lot to go around for everyone. Whole areas of this market remain untouched right now. The global edtech market was worth $43bn in 2015 and this is forecast to grow to $93bn by 2020.

Are good entrepreneurs born or can they be made?

I think entrepreneurs are born but, with the right sort of coaching and mentoring, they can be significantly improved.

What are the qualities of a good founder?

Everyone has their own opinion about this, but my top three are:

A stronger ability than most people to be able to compartmentalise stuff. What I mean by this is that you can carry on doing what you need to do at that point in time (be it get up on the podium and pitch to investors, focus on getting a tender response finished or complete a sales call) when something else distracting is going on – either in your business or in your personal life. For example, when you’ve borrowed £250,000 from the bank you need to be able to put that information in a place in your mind where you can lock the door and throw away the key so that you don’t obsess about it. If you can’t compartmentalise then you’ll spend every day paralysed with fear and get nothing done.

The official definition of resilience is an ability to bounce back into shape. In a work setting it means being able to continue functioning and making sensible decisions in the face of adversity – which could be a one-off event (like a disaster) or longer term (like always being tired from working long hours consistently). Resilience is what you need when the 10th bank you’ve spoken to that week won’t lend you money and you don’t have enough to cover payroll right now; it’s the quality that makes you get up at 3am to go and catch a plane even though you only got home at 10pm last night; it’s what makes you sit down and start working on another response to tender when you’ve just had a rejection letter in from something you thought was a dead cert. In summary, this is the quality that keeps you going and you either have it or you don’t – so be honest with yourself.

You have to make decisions quickly based on imperfect and incomplete information and you have to allow other people in your founding team to do this as well.

I used to think that the most important of these was resilience but, today, I think it’s swift decision making. Without it, your organisation grinds to a halt.

What does a successful entrepreneur need to do every day?

You really do need a plan and every day you have to resolve or achieve the important points on your list. Having said that, every day in the early years usually involves a minor or major crisis, so you have to be able to spin plates successfully within that plan. Every day you have to move your project forward. Seeing and feeling progress is very important.

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

You need to be able to communicate effectively and organise your time properly. I’ve never needed much: a phone and an online diary are enough. It helps if the phone is full of useful numbers!

How do you assemble a good team?

Building a team and creating the right sort of culture for your organisation is the hardest bit about starting any business. I’ve interviewed thousands of people and I can still get appointments wrong because recruitment is a dark art.

In the early days, it’s easiest to go fast with people you already know and have worked with before. As your company grows and that intense start-up pressure lessens, seek to diversify your team as that will take you further.

Be clear at the outset what sort of company culture you are going to create and, as founders, really live that yourselves and show a good example.

When recruiting, satisfy yourself in the first five minutes that the candidate really wants to work in your organisation for the right reasons and has a clear view of where and how they can add value. Reject all show-offs, clowns and mavericks, no matter how interesting or compelling they seem. Believe me – all they will bring to you is a huge time sink and disharmony in your team. Occasionally, take a flyer on a wildcard. My best recruits over the years have always been those people that I’ve been a little uncertain about but have taken a chance with.

Having said all of that, there’s no getting away from the fact that it’s incredibly difficult to recruit decent tech talent into a small business or start-up.

Final word on this – better a hole than an asshole. Always!

‘Reject all show-offs, clowns and mavericks, no matter how interesting or compelling they seem’

What is the critical ingredient to start-up success?

Unfortunately, there is no recipe for start-up success and that’s the reason for the mercilessly high failure rate. There are just so many variables that this one is too hard to call. If you want to lessen your risk and exposure, don’t spend too much time or money getting your idea off the ground. Just get started and take it from there. If it flies, success is a nice problem to have. Also, start off with a business partner; it helps if there are two of you.

What are the biggest mistakes that founders make?

There are literally millions.

The worst mistakes, without exception, all involve ego and vanity: spending money recklessly on stuff you don’t need; being the big “I am”; dominating team brainstorming meetings; walking out of meetings once you’ve had your say because your time is more valuable than everyone else’s; temper outbursts; not listening to your advisers or non-execs; having loads of tech gadgets; needing to have an assistant or PA; hogging the limelight and never giving anyone else a chance, believing your own hype.

‘The worst mistakes, without exception, all involve ego and vanity’

Who is your business hero and why?

Most of my business heroes are the small guys no one has ever heard of. Those quiet self-made people that just get on with things, build a great business and do a lot of good along the way.

If I had to pick one famous business hero, mine would be Michael Dell. I met him in Austin last year when I spent a few days with the Dell senior team and their key customers. Michael started his business in his dad’s garage at the age of 19 and is still heading it up aged 50. He’s everything from commander-in-chief to best joker on the block and (having observed him close up) is universally adored by everyone inside of and outside of his business. He’s on message across all parts of his global operation and completely engaging whatever he’s discussing. Gets my vote!

Whats the No 1 piece of advice you have for entrepreneurs?

It’s never about the idea; it’s always about execution. If you can, surround yourself with people who are better than you and learn from them and listen to their advice. Keep your ego in check, be nice and pay it forward whenever you can – karma is an amazing thing and people will do a lot for someone that they genuinely like.

Women Invent is Silicon Republic’s campaign to champion the role of women in science, technology, engineering and maths. It has been running since March 2013, and is kindly supported by Intel, Open Eir (formerly Eircom Wholesale), Fidelity Investments, Accenture and CoderDojo.