‘Founders need to articulate and sell the value of change to customers’

31 Oct 2019

Mary Rodgers. Image: PorterShed

Mary Rodgers of Galway’s PorterShed gives her advice for start-ups, from following the money to remembering the importance of upskilling.

Mary Rodgers emigrated to the US in 1994 where she worked in Credit Suisse, before returning to Ireland in 2007 and setting up a US-focused consultancy, Stateside Solutions, which helped Irish companies expand into the US market.

Rodgers then joined the Galway’s PorterShed two weeks before it opened in May 2016 and has been an integral part of the team since, helping to support the creation of over 720 jobs in the west of Ireland. Now, in her current role, her focus is on accelerating and amplifying the Galway tech ecosystem, working with start-ups and entrepreneurs in the region.

‘What do I need to do today to drive my business forward? Follow the money and avoid the distractors’

Describe your role and what you do.

My role as innovation community manager is to curate the PorterShed’s thriving tech community – this entails everything from driving membership to organising Santa Claus. A key success of PorterShed has been peer-to-peer collaboration – it is not unusual to see companies collaborating or problem-solving together early in the morning or late at night. I also regularly seek out synergies and opportunities for members to accelerate their growth.

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

Everything now involves technology in some capacity. The recent surge in wellness tech has been interesting. Other areas include fintech – modern banking is here and, while current regulation may stall the rollout, it most definitely will not stop it. In the PorterShed, companies such as K​appture ​and P​ip IT​ are disrupting the current fintech market space.

In science, I am intrigued with the developments in medtech companies, such as ​Bluedrop Medical innovating diabetes care and Neurent Medical who are tackling the common problem of rhinitis. I believe these companies w​ill have a significant impact on our future health and wellbeing.

Are good entrepreneurs born or can they be made?

Most definitely made. Entrepreneurship can be taught – often it’s our own conditioning that blocks the ideation. Execution is the key, and following steps to analyse and progress an idea is essential.

Many, including myself, would class ourselves as accidental entrepreneurs, sometimes things just happen. If you have drive, determination and if you follow a disciplined process you can be an entrepreneur.

What are the qualities of a good founder?

Discipline and ambition. A concern I encounter is lack of ambition – many founders see €1m and €2m in turnover as success. For me, founders should have global ambition and a hunger for success. At PorterShed, we focus on innovation-driven enterprises – those with scalable solutions and global ambition.

What does a successful entrepreneur need to do every day?

Be systematic, follow through on leads and always be learning. Too often entrepreneurs focus too much on the holy grail – a massive client that could be years from close, or a potential sale in a market that is too far. Entrepreneurs need to focus on the task at hand. What do I need to do today to drive my business forward? Follow the money and avoid the distractors.

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

I was lucky enough to complete the disciplined entrepreneurship course at MIT in January of this year. The tools provided by Bill Aulet and his team have been invaluable in my role as a mentor and innovation manager.

There is no one answer – the disciplined entrepreneurship process combines multiple publications such as lean business models, ‘crossing the chasm’ and others, to create a cohesive actionable disciplined process. I use these learnings everyday to stress-test a solution or to help a company to problem-solve. Following the 24 steps of disciplined entrepreneurship will accelerate success and failure, and takes the subjective out of the equation.

Entrepreneurs should also exhaust all the supports available from their Local Enterprise Office (LEO) and Enterprise Ireland (EI). Too many entrepreneurs miss the cues for upskilling, always focused on the funding side. The soft supports available from both the LEOs and EI are key tools from upskilling opportunities to experienced mentorship.

How do you assemble a good team?

Everyone on the team must understand and agree to the company’s KPIs and be held accountable. Team members should bring a specific defined skillset. For technology companies this is vital – by nature software engineers are often black-and-white thinkers, and hiring team members to balance the team will be key to success.

Know your strengths and weaknesses and fill the gaps. Measure everyone’s performance, including your own, and expect the same from everyone on the team.

What is the critical ingredient to start-up success?

Resilience and accountability. Start-ups that stay focused and repeatedly measure outcomes are the successful ones. Pivoting will be required along the way, however, understanding the reason for the pivot will ensure confidence and determination going forward. The old checklist is a great tool to objectively assess your idea.

It is critical for start-ups to create products and services that customers want and will pay for. For example, I worked with a Singaporean company some years back that had developed a painless lancet. They immediately focused on the NICU and baby market, but quickly learnt that hospital networks would not pay extra for this benefit as babies scream anyway.

The company pivoted and targeted diabetic adult patients who had both buying power and influence. Their product remained the same, however, their market changed. The message is speak to your potential customers and repeatedly ask the question: ‘Would you pay for this?’

What are the biggest mistakes that founders make?

Assuming customers want to change the status quo. Most people are fine doing what they are doing. Change is a risk even if, in theory, it will save time and money. Founders need to understand the need to articulate and sell the value of change to potential customers.

What are your views on mentorship and the qualities one should look for in a mentor?

Mentors should provide a sounding board and an accountability check for entrepreneurs. I believe mentors need to listen and direct the entrepreneur to a process or solution.

I don’t think mentors should assume the role of business development – decisions should be made by the company directors the role of a mentor is to clearly lay out options, and to assist the entrepreneur to understand the opportunities and consequences of the decision. There may be a little counselling and understanding required at times, however, a good mentor will know the difference between pacifying and pushing a start-up to achieve the best that they can be.

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

Be resilient. There will be dark days, highs and lows, sometimes you will think you are mad, and sometimes you will think you are God! Be disciplined, continually evaluate the offering, and make sure you are moving forward and addressing your customers’ needs. Most importantly, remember it’s ok to fail.