Our inaugural Start-up Advice column comes from DC Cahalane, a firm fixture on the Cork start-up scene. DC is VP of growth and marketing at fast-growing Cork software player Teamwork.com and prior to that he worked with Trustev.
In your opinion, which areas of technology hold the greatest scope for opportunities?
I think we’ve got a long way to go yet in terms of technology. So much of what exists today is still in the hands of early adopters or the limited audience of the ‘tech set’. What’s really exciting is the technologies that cross over into mainstream usage – the mum and dad test as I call it, the technologies that are moving beyond those ‘in the know’ and into everyday use. Things like Hailo, Uber, Just Eat and Handy are good examples of this and I think we’re only beginning with ‘on-demand’ apps.
‘Thinking that everyone has what it takes to be an entrepreneur is a bit like saying everyone has what it takes to play Premiership football’
– DC CAHALANE
But the biggest opportunity of all in Ireland has to still be the person who cracks the shell of the Irish banks and gets proper mobile banking and finance working – Realex [founder Colm Lyon is] doing a great effort with [Pay with Fire], but compared to things like Simple in the USA, there’s a huge opportunity for the people who get it right here.
Are good entrepreneurs born or can they be made?
That’s a tough question. So much of being an entrepreneur is about instinct and being someone who can deal with the risks and pressures of being an entrepreneur. Thinking that everyone has what it takes to be an entrepreneur is a bit like saying everyone has what it takes to play Premiership football. I think anyone can start a business and anyone can be an entrepreneur but the truly great ones have something special in them from an early, early age.
What are the qualities of a good founder?
Honesty; with themselves and with others. Someone who can face the facts – good or bad — and plan accordingly. Humility is important in terms of not getting big-headed, but you still have to stand tall and proud about your business, so being a founder is not for the meek. Patience is also important; you have to be in it for the long haul, not the quick win.
What does a successful entrepreneur need to do every day?
I think the most important thing is that they have to be very aware of their day and their time. They have to start off every day knowing what’s coming up. I’m a big believer in planning the next day as the last thing you do before bed. It calms down the mind and then you wake up fired to go because you know exactly what’s ahead. Sure, it won’t all go to plan, but you’ll never be left wondering ‘what’s next’?
What resources and tools are an absolute must for your arsenal?
Any entrepreneur worth his or her salt writes everything down and takes notes about absolutely everything. No piece of information is left unrecorded, it might be a physical notebook or it might be something like Evernote (my personal choice), but having a record of meetings and conversations is invaluable.
‘Start-up success means that every minute of every day you’re analyzing what you’re doing and making sure that what you’re doing at any time is of value to your business’
– DC CAHALANE
Having a plan of action and a way of ensuring that stuff is getting done is vital; I’m obviously biased but even if we were in a different business, we couldn’t live without Teamwork Projects – every single piece of information about our business and every task that needs doing lives in Teamwork – every bug that needs fixing, every bill that needs paying, every email that needs responding to. Whether you’re fundraising or not, a pitch deck or presentation about your business should always be at hand, day or night; you never know who you might bump into at a rugby game.
How do you assemble a good team?
It’s a real chicken and egg situation – great teams attract great people. I think to build a really great team, you have to think of everyone as a cog or gear in some big machine. Every person is vital to the machine whether they’re one of the big cogs or the small cogs. Working in a start-up is usually a big sacrifice for anyone to make; it’s not a standard job with easy hours and low pressure, it’s usually very, very tough, so you have to recognise that and encourage people by trusting them to do their work and giving them authority and responsibility. A happy team, where everyone feels that their work is valued and that they’re making a contribution is something that’s very attractive to people considering joining a start-up.
What is the critical ingredient to start-up success?
Hard work. It’s so easy to get caught up in the ‘start-up lifestyle’ of attending events that you convince yourself are valuable ‘networking’ opportunities. The successful entrepreneurs are the ones that when you meet them at events they have a clear reason and purpose for being there. Start-up success means that every minute of every day you’re analyzing what you’re doing and making sure that what you’re doing at any time is of value to your business. It means long, tough hours, trying to strike that really tough work-life balance that for the majority of successful start-ups will be completely out of sync.
What are the biggest mistakes that founders make?
Over-obsessing about fundraising instead of the fundamentals of business. If you choose to go the venture capital route then it’s important to do it right, but I think some founders think that VCs are going to finance their learning process and bankroll the startup while it learns what it needs to do to be successful. In almost all cases VC money is there to help you scale, not to develop your minimum viable product.
Who is your business hero and why?
I think time will look back on Satya Nadella, the CEO of Microsoft, as one of the greats. He’s gone into a company that many would perceive had completely lost its focus and direction and he’s making the hard choices to get everyone internally in Microsoft back pointing in the one direction. I remember just after he took up the role he was quoted as saying ‘Our industry doesn’t respect tradition, it only respects innovation’ and I think with that one statement, he changed the direction of Microsoft forever. They’re now developing apps for iOS and Android and even releasing them first, they’re shelving products and projects that would have been considered sacred cows. I can’t say whether he’ll get it all right, but no one will ever be able to accuse him of not having a vision and running with it.
What’s the number-one piece of advice you have for entrepreneurs?
Ask for help from those who have been there. Most entrepreneurs are more that willing to let others learn from their mistakes. But be respectful of their time, they have businesses to run too – don’t waste their valuable time, know what you want to ask them, even send them the questions in advance. And be respectful of the years they’ve put into building relationships and don’t expect them to hand over the mobile numbers of their investors and partners – when they intro you to someone, always remember that they’ve basically just vouched for you to the contact and it’s their reputation on the line, more than yours.
Updated Friday, 21 August at 7.28pm: In an earlier version of this article DC Cahalane referred to Realex’s efforts with Realex Fire. However, Realex was acquired by Global Payments in March this year while founder Colm Lyon retained the Pay with Fire product as part of newly formed Fire Financial Services. Cahalane’s comments have been edited for clarity on this matter.