This week on Leaders’ Insights, Gary Leyden discusses start-up life at NDRC and the respect he has for the entrepreneurs that come through its doors.
Gary Leyden is the commercial director at NDRC.
With a degree in business studies from Trinity College Dublin (TCD), and an MBA from University College Dublin, Leyden has been part of NDRC since 2011, though his links to the organisation stretch further back.
Leyden’s first business, Computer Gym, was founded in Bray in the late 1990s, before it relocated to the Digital Depot a decade ago. While in Dublin 8, Leyden then co-founded Vrising, which worked with NDRC to help commercialise research emerging from TCD.
Realising his talent for helping early-stage businesses, Leyden then joined NDRC, where he now leads all investment programmes.
‘I have a massive amount of respect for any founders that come through here, be they successful or unsuccessful’
– GARY LEYDEN
Describe your role and what you do.
There are a couple of aspects to my job.
One is to lead the value-add into the companies. At NDRC, we invest in two ways into the companies. One is capital, so, the cash we put into the companies. The other is what we do with those companies when we get them into the building: mentoring, coaching, focus, team-building, validation of commercial potential etc. Basically, we help to build a start-up. So, I lead all the investment programmes, from a value-add perspective.
In addition to that, I’m responsible for the wider commercial development of NDRC; strategic engagement with stakeholders, broadening our footprint regionally and internationally, and expansion of funds under management.
How do you prioritise and organise your working life?
I characterise myself as a co-founder in all of the start-ups that we invest in. Most of my time is spent working in very, very early-stage companies. The priority for me, then, is to be the voice for the customer, making sure that they are genuinely addressing a real problem for customers.
A lot of people come in here with really good ideas, but the first thing we do is get them to go out and talk to potential customers and understand if that’s an important need, one that needs to be addressed. Will customers pay? Are there enough customers?
The one thing that will drive success in a start-up? Prove that someone is willing to buy your product.
What are the biggest challenges facing your business and how are you tackling them?
As an early-stage investor, the main challenge is to ensure that we find really talented people that we know we can add value to, and that they know that, too.
It’s a challenge to make sure that we are the go-to people, that we are the first people entrepreneurs look at.
Because we’re usually the first investor, we also spend huge amounts of time with teams before they join NDRC, up to a year in many cases.
A lot of it is boots on the ground in areas where entrepreneurs are – research centres, conferences, anywhere. We run an ‘open door’ policy. Come talk to us, we add value from the moment we talk to entrepreneurs.
What are the key industry opportunities you’re capitalising on?
The pace and impact of digital transformation on all industries, we’re seeing it everywhere. Health, financial services, food, agriculture … Digital is the key component that drives that innovation. We’re not domain specific, we’re agnostic, but digital is the main thread.
At the moment, fintech is a real area of interest. It just feels like it’s something that’s absolutely ripe for innovation in Ireland, and that’s why we are running a pre-accelerator in this area in the coming months. Ireland has a wealth of opportunity in this area; we believe an explosion of entrepreneurship in this space is imminent.
Short-term, less intense and more fluid than NDRC’s core activity, pre-acceleration plays a valuable role in stimulating ideas among potential entrepreneurs. It also helps to connect corporates and start-ups interested in digital transformation. That’s why we want to use such an initiative for fintech.
What set you on the road to where you are in the technology industry?
I was never a techie, I was always the business guy. I was always the person who could sit between the customer and the techie, and speak both languages.
What was your biggest mistake and what did you learn from it?
My biggest mistake was not acknowledging that Computer Gym couldn’t scale significantly. It was a very good lifestyle business, but I probably deluded myself that it could become much bigger. I spent too long in that business.
The trigger was a growing sense of restlessness. I’m really good at the very early stage of start-ups. I can get out and do the hustle. You get to a point where you realise that the impact of your skill set isn’t as big as it was. Moving into the Digital Depot and seeing how my skill set could work on other start-ups changed me.
That notion of the importance of that peer-to-peer environment is critical. That’s why I was drawn to the accelerator model of investing. It really nurtures that and turns it into a competitive advantage.
How do you get the best out of your team?
Demonstrate leadership through doing. I try to clearly demonstrate an impact by rolling my sleeves up and getting involved in the start-ups. My role isn’t just one of management, it’s having a direct impact on the start-ups.
A part of my job, also, is making sure that my experience is passed on to our wider team, and that the team’s experience is shared, too. As NDRC scales up, it can’t just be me working with a start-up, it has to be the whole team. We have an amazing team and we share a lot; we constantly solicit feedback, stretching ourselves to do better.
STEM sectors receive a lot of criticism for a lack of diversity. What are your thoughts on this and what’s needed to effect change?
I think diversity in NDRC is really, really strong. We see cultural diversity, diversity in terms of ability and gender. We’re pretty strong across all of those. We didn’t do anything in particular to drive that, we just created an environment that attracted and supported high-performers.
Who is your business hero and why?
This might sound a bit corny, but I have a massive amount of respect for any founders that come through here, be they successful or unsuccessful. I don’t think anyone can appreciate how challenging it is, the sacrifices you make, unless you have been through it.
The view that entrepreneurs are in it for the money, and all they want is millions of euros, that’s a very small percentage. Entrepreneurs are working morning, noon and night, sacrificing family time, earnings, sacrificing it all. I’m privileged to work with people like that every day. They do it because they see a problem that they just have to fix. That’s the driver.
What books have you read that you would recommend?
Sprint, by Jake Knapp, who is formerly of Google. It covers their approach to validating an idea and prototyping it really quickly. It’s a really good book. These types of books are not rocket science, they’re often just a simple framework. The trick is to have the discipline to execute that framework consistently and properly.
What are the essential tools and resources that get you through the working week?
A lot of what we do is about sharing knowledge, and that’s through multiple levels of communication. We have WhatsApp groups among the cohorts, Slack channels, standard email. We use Google Docs to gather and share feedback from our mentors and advisers to the start-ups.
Then we use organisational tools to better build our programmes, such as our upcoming fintech pre-accelerator.
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