Leaders’ Insights: Claire McHugh, Axonista

30 Dec 2015

Claire McHugh is the CEO and co-founder of Axonista.

McHugh co-founded Axonista in 2010 with Daragh Ward.

Axonista has built a software product that solves the complex technical problems in bringing interactivity to TV, and its clients include TV3, QVC, MTV and ESPN.

Describe your role and what you do.

As the CEO of Axonista, my role is to grow the value of the company for shareholders. That’s done by raising the profile of the company, winning great clients and partners who share our vision for the future of TV, making awesome products and keeping customers happy. Most importantly, it’s making sure we have the best team in place to do the hard work behind all of these things, and that these people have all the resources they need to do their best.

How do you prioritise and organise your working life?

We set company objectives on a quarterly basis and we make sure everything we’re working on is towards achieving these objectives. It’s really important to set goals, and measure your progress against them. Otherwise, things can get overwhelming and it’s difficult to know where to start, what things to prioritise and what things to give yourself permission to say ‘no’ to.

What are the biggest challenges facing your business and how are you tackling them?

Up until now, we’ve been a small company, ending 2015 with a team of 15, and we’re about to grow into a bigger company. The challenge for us is to keep the key elements of what makes Axonista great and elevate it to something spectacular. What works in a start-up environment doesn’t necessarily translate to a larger company; you have to make some changes as you grow. Where you bootstrapped before, you might now need to spend, so it’s a challenge of getting that balance right.

What are the key industry opportunities youre capitalising on?

We’re in an awesome position in our industry right now, as we’re really leading the revolution that’s happening in the TV industry. More and more people are watching TV on touchscreen and interactive devices, which is where our technology sits. TV apps built by our team, and based on our vision for the future of TV, have been praised by influential writers in respected publications like The Verge, Wired and Engadget. Apple recently selected the Apple TV app we built with QVC to be pre-installed on Apple Store demo devices at launch, all across the US. Ending the year on a high, the same app was included by Apple in its coveted Best of 2015 list.

That’s only the starting point, we have so many innovative clients that we’re working with at the moment that are using our Ediflo CMS to drive interactive TV apps. 2016 is going to be a great year for us. I’m massively excited about it.

What set you on the road to where you are in the technology industry?

I took a little bit of an interesting route. I was into art, music and languages in school. After school I went to Rock School with a buddy of mine as I wanted to learn more about being a musician. Then after that I went to college to study communications but didn’t really feel like it was for me, so I dropped out during my first year. I entered the workforce full time a bit earlier than planned. I took on management support roles, and got the chance to work in a few of Ireland’s top digital agencies in the late ‘90s and early 2000s. This was a great way to learn from really talented people about how a technology business works. I found I enjoyed project management so I decided to study that part time. I joined Setanta Media in the days before they launched their TV channels, and I was part of the team that worked on setting up and then running the Irish and UK channels. They had assembled a really talented management team from RTÉ and other broadcasters, and I learned a lot from them about the TV business. So, when TV, online and mobile started to move closer together in 2010, that was a natural progression for me.

What was your biggest mistake and what did you learn from it?

It’s really easy when you’re a start-up to become dependent on one big customer, especially if that customer is paying your bills. However, something can happen to your customer that’s completely outside of your control, and that’s a scary place to find yourself when you don’t have enough money to fund your business after all the hard work and sacrifices you have made along the way. It’s not a position that enables you to make the best decisions and it’s never a good place to negotiate from. Always expect the unexpected!

‘I ensure that I’m a visible female CEO by speaking on tech panels and at conferences and start-up community events’

How do you get the best out of your team?

We have a super team of hardworking, smart and creative people who work really well together and pull out all the stops to go the extra mile, whether that’s getting an extra ‘wow!’ feature into a demo, or burning the midnight oil for a week to hit a deadline. Our team is amazing, they hold themselves to the highest quality bar and they’ve designed and delivered award-winning apps for customers time and time again. These are people who are motivated by excellence, and by achieving new things, and working with other really smart people. We do our best to give them the environment they need to thrive. Sometimes, that’s providing opportunities to work on cutting-edge TV apps that will be internationally recognised. Other times, it’s just hanging out over a few beers and some pulled pork, and sometimes it’s just saying thank you. I don’t think I can thank our team enough for all they do. They’re a brilliant bunch of people.

STEM sectors receive a lot of criticism for a lack of diversity. What are your thoughts on this and whats needed to effect change?

As a female CEO of a tech company, I’m very aware of this and my own responsibility to move the needle on diversity in our industry.

Diversity isn’t just about male/female. It’s about acceptance of all types of people, and making the world a fairer place. Like anything else, in order to make change you have to set goals and work towards them. Having a diverse team of people with different life experiences makes for better decision-making. We have men and women from Ireland, Italy, Poland, Croatia and Ukraine. But we can do better to be more diverse, particularly in our engineering team. We have put plans in place next year to have a permanent internship position on our engineering team, open only to female applicants. We also supported the Yes Equality campaign proudly earlier this year. In order to encourage young women into technology roles, and indeed business roles, I ensure that I’m a visible female CEO by speaking on tech panels and at conferences and start-up community events. I’m hugely encouraged by the high ratio of female entrepreneurs I get to work with as part of my role as a mentor for the Startup Next Ireland pre-accelerator.

Who is your business hero and why?

Business heroes are everywhere. From an industry sense, I admire [Netflix CEO and co-founder] Reed Hastings and his dogged focus to consistently beat the TV industry at its own game. At a more local level, I admire people who are doing great work at grass roots to make real positive change in how businesses can increase their chances of success. People like Gene Murphy, who is working tirelessly to make things happen in the start-up community in Ireland and putting programmes in place to accelerate start-ups that rival those in Silicon Valley. Also, Paula Fitzsimons, who is doing superb work for female entrepreneurship in Ireland with her successful Going for Growth and Acorns programmes, which help female founders scale their business to the next level. Also huge props to the massive Irish success stories like Intercom and Trustev that are showing us the heights of what can be achieved with a lot of focus, dedication and hard work. Ireland has a lot to be proud of.

‘Great people and relationships are the essential resources to get you through any working week’

What books have you read that you would recommend?

In true start-up CEO style I have a ton of books that I have started but not finished on my desk! I watch a lot of TED talks and I love watching documentaries. I would recommend The Pixar Story to anyone who wants to be inspired to greatness. I’m a total Pixar fan – I’ve been in their office in California and it’s just as magical as you would expect it to be.

However, there’s one book that stands out as being both educational and fun to read, and that’s The Hard Thing About Hard Things by Ben Horowitz. It’s a really great book to dip in and out of whenever you have a quandary or something on your mind. There are chapters like ‘How to lead even if you don’t know where you’re going’ and each chapter is broken down into no-bull case stories about very specific situations, so it’s easy to relate to. That’s my favourite business book.

What are the essential tools and resources that get you through the working week?

People! Great people and relationships are the essential resources to get you through any working week. Advisers that you call for a chat and partners who can give you the inside track on something are beyond precious.

I find that having ambient tunes, decent coffee and a clean space to work in makes me most productive. I use Slack a lot, for a number of different things. It’s so useful. I’ve a couple of Slack-based efficiency experiments on the go.

The most important thing by far is being prepared as much as possible. Sure there will often be curveballs and random things that arise, but being prepared for the big stuff means that you are poised to put the limited amount of time you have to its best use. If there’s any advice I can give to entrepreneurs starting out, it’s just that: be prepared!