Start-up Advice: Síofra Flood, consultant COO and general counsel

11 Jan 2017

Síofra Flood, consultant COO and general counsel. Image: Síofra Flood

Consultant COO, general counsel and author of the Frontline Startup Manual, Síofra Flood has some solid operational advice for start-ups and entrepreneurs.

Síofra Flood’s career started in Iona Technologies where she was hired as the company’s first in-house legal counsel. She has held senior legal and operational positions in Havok and Swrve, and has been involved in four successful exits.

She is currently providing COO-level advisory services to a number of VC-backed companies.

‘The COO’s job is to be an effective number two to the CEO, taking work off the CEO’s plate and being a reliable ‘right hand’, often in the background’

Describe your role and what you do.

The role of a COO can mean different things in different businesses. I operate in the general and admin arena, looking after the financial, HR, office management and legal sides of a business.

The COO’s job is to be an effective number two to the CEO, taking work off the CEO’s plate and being a reliable ‘right hand’, often in the background.

I generally work on all legal matters and contracting processes; financial forecasts, models, budgets and reporting; the process of fundraising (from helping deck-creation to working on the final legal agreements); and working on organisational structures and personnel management for change and growth.

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

In technology, areas like artificial intelligence (AI), virtual and augmented reality, and connected devices are all hot right now.

Maybe it’s a factor of the companies I’ve worked for but I think the biggest opportunities lie in the businesses that can build a symbiotic relationship with those other companies developing at the cutting edge of new technology. Middleware, I suppose!

Rather than bet the house on whether Tesla or Apple will win the race for the self-driving car, I’d sooner back those companies that develop the AI, or the batteries, or the chips that make those cars better, safer or longer-range.

Are good entrepreneurs born or can they be made?

I think the term ‘entrepreneur’ is overused. It seems to encompass anyone who has ever started a business, no matter what that business is and no matter why a person started it. You can be entrepreneurial even in a large organisation.

‘Merely starting a company or spending other people’s money does not make someone an entrepreneur’

While I think that some people are born with entrepreneurial traits, others can unlock those traits over time, particularly if they have the opportunity to learn by example.

Entrepreneurs are resourceful. They hustle and cajole. They are capable of seeing different routes to success and have an eye for the opportunity.

Merely starting a company or spending other people’s money does not make someone an entrepreneur. Nor does coming up with an idea or making a discovery. Tom Sawyer was entrepreneurial, Einstein (probably) was not.

What are the qualities of a good founder?

Optimism and resilience.

What does a successful entrepreneur need to do every day?

The holiest of grails: get a good night’s sleep. I also think that it’s useful for everyone to take five to 10 minutes to take stock of the day, particularly if you work in a start-up, when it can be difficult to maintain focus. Honestly evaluate what you have achieved or advanced during the day and how, or if, that thing truly advanced your strategy. There will be days when you think that you have gotten nothing done and that all you did was ‘busy work’. That’s OK, on occasion, so long as you recognise it, acknowledge it and force yourself back on track.

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

Gmail and a decent calendar tool are obviously vital. I am also a massive fan of Microsoft Excel, believe it or not! I’m sorry to be the one to break the news, but all founders need to have a working knowledge of Excel. They need to be able to follow (and correct, if necessary) financial reports, cap tables and sales projections – the vast majority of which will be prepared using Excel.

‘I’m sorry to be the one to break the news, but all founders need to have a working knowledge of Excel’

Dropbox materially changed the way I work, especially in a funding context, because it allowed me to get away from hard copy data rooms and to share large amounts of information quickly and easily with other parties.

Software programs and services are only as good as the way people use them. I don’t believe you can change behaviour via a software tool so, if the right behaviour is not there to begin with, all the tools in the world aren’t going to change that. That applies mostly to the many, many communications and tracking tools now available.

How do you assemble a good team?

Hiring at the right level and at the right time is crucial. Sometimes I see companies hire people who are either too senior or too junior for the role they actually need filling. Sitting down and properly specifying the role and responsibilities means that companies can be realistic about hiring, and it also means that the people they do end up hiring are better set up for success.

In a start-up, it’s important that everyone can communicate effectively to each other. Start-ups don’t have the luxury of having managers to parse messages to and from each other. So, if you are hiring for a position outside of your own area of expertise (such as a technical CEO hiring a salesperson, or a sales CEO hiring a QA engineer etc), then I believe you have the right to expect that person to be able to communicate with you in a language and at a level you can understand. Beware of people who obfuscate (intentionally or otherwise) because they know more than you about a specific discipline. Start-ups don’t have room for that.

What is the critical ingredient to start-up success?

I don’t think there is one single critical ingredient. Many stars have to align in order to achieve success at scale. The most important things are to be in the right market, at the right time, with the right team. If one of those things isn’t there, then it will be an uphill battle.

What are the biggest mistakes that founders make?

A lack of humility can lead to all sorts of problems. It can lead people to believe that there is a market where there isn’t. That a product is the right one when it’s not. That they can ignore good advice if it contradicts what they think. And that they are always the right person to lead a team. There’s a balance to be struck between resilience and optimism on the one hand, and egotism and intransigence on the other hand.

Another common mistake I see is founders not focusing on what’s important. It’s really hard work to build a successful business. It can be easy to distract ourselves with tasks that might be easier than working on a core problem. Founders need to be laser-focused on what’s important to the business at that time.

‘Founders can spend too little time hiring and can take too long to fire’

Finally, I think that founders frequently underestimate the time and effort that’s required to build and maintain a good team. They can spend too little time hiring and can take too long to fire. It’s important to realise that not firing a person who brings toxicity to the workplace sends a very negative message to other team members. Those other team members can end up thinking that the founder or CEO cares more about placating the squeaky wheel than holding on to the good people who are just getting on with their jobs.

Who is your business hero and why?

I don’t have any famous business heroes but I’ve learned an awful lot from a large number of people that I’ve been lucky enough to work with. It’s always fascinating to see how other people approach things. On hiring, for example, Hugh Reynolds, my CEO at Havok and Swrve, says that people don’t have to be on their A-game all the time, but they have to at least have an A-game.

From a purely business perspective, I admire companies that can turn a buck outside of their core area of expertise. For that, you have to admire what Amazon achieved with Amazon Web Services, where they were able to read the market and make tons of money capitalising on a service that was a by-product of their main business.

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

Keep focus.