Mary McKenna reveals the mental, physical and spiritual truths of start-up life

24 May 2017

Entrepreneur Mary McKenna. Image: Saïd Business School, University of Oxford

Start-ups are hard but there is no age limit on when you choose to begin, says entrepreneur Mary McKenna.

As I chat with Mary McKenna over a dodgy cellular signal, she explains how she is juggling attending Brexit talks with a move to a new home on Donegal’s Inishowen Peninsula. Such a juggling act is characteristic of her energy and zeal.

“Believe it or not, I started my first business when I was 43 and the important advice I give everyone is: build your network. I never thought I would start a business and, for anyone who thinks they may have missed the boat, if I can do it, so can you.”

‘Building a team and creating the right sort of culture for your organisation is the hardest bit about starting any business, and it’s one of the most important jobs of the start-up founder; it should never be abdicated to someone else’

Future Human

McKenna, who was awarded an MBE by Queen Elizabeth II in 2014 for her services to digital technology, innovation and learning, is a successful start-up founder who now devotes most of her time to angel investing and mentoring.

She will speak at the upcoming Startup Grind Limerick, supported by Bank of Ireland, this Thursday (25 May).

The valuable lessons of start-up life

McKenna co-founded successful Northern Irish e-learning company Learning Pool, following a long public sector career and a spell in Silicon Valley. She exited the business in 2014 so that she could return to working with earlier-stage start-ups.

Today, she is committed to helping start and grow indigenous Irish and UK tech companies, and working with female and young entrepreneurs.

She has invested in six early-stage tech start-ups to date, three with female founding teams.

McKenna is one of the experts with the Entrepreneurship Centre at Saïd Business School (University of Oxford), entrepreneur in residence at Catalyst Inc at the Northern Ireland Science Park in Belfast, an adviser to government, a trustee of the Centre for Acceleration of Social Technology and an active member of Tech London Advocates.

“My philosophy is that if I can help at least six other people get started, that’s a good thing. Don’t just put in money, put in time and energy to help first-time entrepreneurs shape their businesses and get things moving forward.”

I ask her what are the key lessons she learned as a start-up founder.

“My first point isn’t really a lesson. It’s more of a statement of fact and it’s about the importance and value of prior experience. Learning Pool was the fifth start-up I’d been part of. The first two start-ups I worked in were founded by other people and both were successful in their own way. Both were acquired by much bigger fish, one after I’d left and one when I was working there as CFO. The next two were businesses that I started. The first was a business turnaround service and the second was a boutique management consultancy business.

“I made plenty of money in both of those companies but they were lifestyle businesses and not in any way scalable. Having varied prior experience makes it so much easier because a start-up founder needs to know quite a lot on a wide number of topics in order to scale a business fast.

“It’s a perfect occupation for a jack of all trades who’s also able to focus!”

Work at start-ups before becoming an entrepreneur

Mary McKenna on the mental, physical and spiritual toll of start-up life

Entrepreneur, investor and mentor Mary McKenna. Image: Emma Jervis Photography

Before people embark on the start-up journey, McKenna urges them to perhaps work at a start-up first.

“My advice is that it’s a lot cheaper to acquire that knowledge and experience on someone else’s time and money; so, if you want to start a business, go and work in a few start-ups first. A number of our early-days Learning Pool employees eventually left us to start up on their own, and I was always happy to see people do that. It’s how the ecosystem works.”

McKenna acquired Learning Pool when it was a failing business.

“A lot of people obsess about having an idea but really, that isn’t important at all. It’s never about the idea. It’s always about having a clear plan and you and your team’s ability to execute against it.”

‘It’s all-encompassing. Once you’ve thrown the dice and got started, there’s no easy or good way to turn back. That pressure lasts until you are stable and profitable’

She is also quick to burst the bubble about start-ups being glamorous.

“I completely underestimated the incredible toll that starting and growing a successful business takes upon the founder or founding team and their close family, especially in those first three years you are trading.

“For the founder, there’s a mental, physical and probably spiritual toll to pay that’s very real and shouldn’t be underestimated. It’s all-encompassing. Once you’ve thrown the dice and got started, there’s no easy or good way to turn back. That pressure lasts until you are stable and profitable, and the company has moved through all those early pivots and found its purpose. It will take much longer than you think it will.

“I had a conversation with one of my mentees about this very thing the other day. She asked me if it was normal to be thinking about her start-up when she takes her teenager to his sports matches on a Saturday. I just laughed and said, ‘Oh yeah, that’s completely normal!’, that façade of going through the social motions on the outside whilst on the inside, you’re planning your next marketing campaign or going through your sales pipeline.”

Team building and team leading

McKenna emphasises the importance of recruitment. “Building a team and creating the right sort of culture for your organisation is the hardest bit about starting any business and it’s one of the most important jobs of the start-up founder; it should never be abdicated to someone else.

“I’ve interviewed thousands of people and I can still get appointments wrong because recruitment is a dark art. 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.

“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.

“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 wild card. 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.”

Despite the challenges – including recruiting decent tech talent into small businesses – McKenna believes there are lots of positives.

“Building a start-up allows you to understand the limits of what is possible for you, and it was a pleasant surprise for me to discover I am far more resilient and was able to achieve more than I thought I was capable of beforehand.

“For some people, pushing yourself to the absolute limit is a challenge but I enjoyed it in some weird sort of way. Providing 80 other people with a challenging and satisfying career is very personally rewarding and, at the end of the day, being master of your own destiny is very liberating after years of working for other people.

“Surround yourself with people who are better than you, learn from them and listen to their advice. Have a co-founder. If you’re serious about scaling, there’s far too much for one person to do. 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.”

The hardest decision a founder will ever make is deciding to start up in the first place.

“I had a conversation today with my Donegal neighbour who’s a farmer. He disappointedly told me he took 12 cows to market and sold only 10 of them as the other two were no good. As he was talking, I was thinking to myself, if only start-ups could get a success ratio like that. It will be harder than you think and take longer than you estimate.

“There will be days when you want to throw in the towel but you can’t because you’re too far in on all sorts of levels. If you bootstrap, there will be weeks when you don’t sleep because you’re so worried about how you’re going to make payroll this month. You will be dog-tired for all of the first three years but still capable of switching on the sparkle at the drop of a hat in front of a customer or investor. Your values and boundaries will be constantly tested and pushed to their limits.

“Even if you do all the right things and work your backside off, you will probably still fail.

“Even with knowing all of that, it’s still worth it.”

McKenna said that if you want to start a business in a place where financial and moral support is easily and readily available, and where an established friendly and helpful start-up community already exists, then Ireland offers a great environment.

“There’s a lot of help available to get you started, maybe too much, and that can lead to a large number of unsuitable people having a go (although perhaps that’s OK in the overall scheme of things). A quick fix would be to restructure the support available away from start-ups and more towards scale-ups. The best start-ups don’t wait for grants … instead they get to revenue at lightning speed.”

McKenna said that despite the supports available in Ireland, they are still a far cry from the ecosystems of San Francisco’s Bay Area, Tel Aviv or Berlin.

Regional start-up hubs

“It’s hard to start a tech start-up in a quiet backwater. I know that because we started Learning Pool in Derry – far away from our early customer base and impossible to recruit any job-ready talent. So it’s possible to do, but it’s much harder. You weigh up the pros and cons and you make your choice.”

Despite this, she has designs on establishing her own start-up hub in Donegal similar to the Ludgate Hub in Skibbereen, Cork.

She said Ireland is still very Dublin- and Cork-centric and it is tricky, island-wide, to scale high-potential start-ups beyond the €1m turnover figure.

“I suppose Ireland is as good a place as any to get started – just as long as the founder appreciates that the day will come, a couple of years down the line, when he or she is more than likely going to have to relocate to get the next growth phase moving. Fortunately, that’s a well-trodden path for the Irish and someone will always know someone who can help you when that day comes.”

The daunting prospect for women entrepreneurs is that tech is still a boy’s club.

“Many investors back people they already know, people who they’ve worked with before and who often are just like them. Most VCs and tech investors are men.

“Until a lot more women are involved in a present and visible way in the tech investment ecosystem, then it’s hard to see how this situation will change.

“Women founders can get investment but usually it takes much, much longer, requires more meetings and more effort, and even involves learning how to pitch your start-up in a completely new way in order to tick boxes quicker with a male investor panel.”

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years