Start-up Advice: Michael Culligan, HBAN

9 Oct 2015

Michael Culligan, HBAN

Michael Culligan is the national director of the Halo Business Angels Network (HBAN). He is known for his work in business coaching SMEs and lectures on business strategy.

HBAN is a joint initiative of InterTrade Ireland and Enterprise Ireland, dedicated to the all-island promotion of business angel investment.

The HBAN umbrella group supports the early-stage entrepreneurial community across the island of Ireland and actively works to increase the number of angel investors investing in early-stage companies.

Some 700 jobs were announced in Ireland in 2014 thanks to the efforts of angel investors who put €30m into backing promising young technology companies, according to the Halo Business Angel Network.

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

For Ireland Inc the opportunities in the medtech area are very significant. Ireland has developed a very well-earned reputation as a global leader in the medical devices field. Over time, with Ireland’s strengths in software and technology, there is the opportunity to develop this leadership position into the broader medtech arena.

The advent of the internet of things with 25 billion “things” predicted by Gartner to be connected presents major opportunities in data analytics. I believe that the area of healthcare in particular, with ageing demographics is ripe for innovation. Although, it may take some time for business models to evolve and succeed in the complex world of healthcare.

Are good entrepreneurs born or can they be made?

It depends on your definition of an entrepreneur. There are traditional entrepreneurial qualities, such as risk-taking, not taking “no” for an answer and self-belief with which some people are born. Such qualities, although critical for taking the initial plunge into the start-up world, are not sufficient to ensure successful entrepreneurship.

‘Many of the qualities of successful entrepreneurs are also true of good founders, particularly team building’

From many years working with working hundreds of start-up companies, I believe the most critical characteristics to becoming a successful entrepreneur are a deeply embedded conviction and hunger to succeed, a determination or steeliness if you will and, crucially, a sixth sense or clarity of thought that can enable you to distinguish the important strategic decisions from day-to-day operational issues in a company. An unwavering passion for the business you work in will see you through the tough times and, of course, if you love what you do, you’ll never work a day in your life.

In many ways, business is akin to sport at the top level. In a team sport, the truly great players have time to do the right thing and make the right decisions under enormous pressure. In business, successful entrepreneurs have great clarity of thought that enables them to make the right decisions. Team building is also, of course, a fundamental bedrock to entrepreneurial success.

Most companies are an “overnight success” after 15 or 20 years. Those that succeed in five years are the rare exception. All of these qualities — conviction, determination, clarity of thought, team building and, above all else, passion — can absolutely be learned and thus I fully believe entrepreneurs can be made.

What are the qualities of a good founder?

Many of the qualities of successful entrepreneurs are also true of good founders, particularly team building. They understand that to succeed you need to surround yourself with great people and to create a culture that facilitates this. A good founder also needs the ability to delegate and to trust fellow team members.

A good founder seeks out help from those who can genuinely add value. Ultimately, a good founder understands that business is always about the customer, the market is the ultimate arbitrator and deep integrity and respect for all stakeholders needs to be maintained in the business.

What does a successful entrepreneur need to do every day?

The successful entrepreneur spends much of his/her time coaching and empowering team members. They also put systems and processes in place to enable the business to scale – this is of course after the core value proposition is proven and validated, usually via sales in the marketplace. The successful entrepreneur needs to have key performance measures in place that are easily monitored and reflect the health of the business, be that in terms of finances, product or service innovation, sales or customer satisfaction.

‘Most companies are an “overnight success” after 15 or 20 years. Those that succeed in five years are the rare exception’

The successful entrepreneur continually re-examines the vision for the business. Many aspects of business have changed with the evolution of technology, but so much about the principles of business remains unchanged. A questioning attitude or perspective is a wonderful trait in an entrepreneur, or as Andy Grove of Intel put it a long time ago: “only the paranoid survive”!

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

  • An understanding of finance
  • Knowing the difference between sales and cash flow
  • An ability to empathise with people
  • Intangible resources such as knowledge and emotional intelligence
  • The ability to make tough decisions early when required

How do you assemble a good team?

I think it’s important to create a culture that respects people, which relates back to team building. From there, you need to empower them to grow – everyone wants to be the best they can be in their careers.

The recruitment process is also crucial and it’s important to take the time to select and hire the right people – employment is very expensive, and can be very harmful to your business if you get it wrong. It’s useful to find a way to trial people before committing to making them part of your business.

What is the critical ingredient to start-up success?

A passion and determination to succeed for the business in which you are engaged.

What are the biggest mistakes that founders make?

  • Starting a business with unsuitable co-founders
  • Confusing founders’ shareholding rights with management responsibilities
  • Spending too much cash in the wrong areas at the start
  • Not working hard enough to truly, deeply understand the market opportunity and route to market
  • Not asking for help early enough – many business people will help you if you are credible and if you simply ask the question
  • Not sufficiently focusing on true value creation
  • Overvaluing the company
  • Not considering the funding required for the full journey
  • Overestimating sales and underestimating costs
  • Not respecting deeply embedded existing marketplace structures that can have an impact on your ability to get your product to market
  • Assuming if you build it online “they will come”! Business to consumer (B2C) companies are notoriously difficult to establish. Business to business (B2B) models are easier to control – you can always develop a B2C model later

Who is your business hero and why?

Noel Keating, founder of the Kepak group. Noel started his business life with one butcher shop in the Liberties in Dublin. Kepak was founded in 1981 and at the time of Noel’s untimely death at the age of 50 in 1993, the company was well on its way to being a major success. Today, Kepak is a leading European food processing company with a turnover of €850m and employing 2000 people in 2014. Noel was a businessman of the highest integrity and with a superb clarity of vision. His focus on innovation and quality remains a bedrock for the success of the company today.

Whats the No 1 piece of advice you have for entrepreneurs?

Choose a business you are passionate about and always trust your gut, but do value the power of reflection, where time allows. After you have made a decision, sleep on it and let your sub-conscious work away on it!