By @SimonCocking

Happy to bring you a really interesting interview with Mary McKenna @MMaryMcKenna  Irish tech entrepreneur, angel, trustee @SCIE_socialcare@MillenniumForum, NED @_RunAClub,@Noddlepod and @CaptiveHealth, Board member @IIBN, EIR @ NISP

What is a typical day like for you?

My days can vary dramatically and I really like it that way.  I saw a former colleague last week and he said to me that he wouldn’t be able to bear the unstructured nature of my working life – so it definitely isn’t for everyone.  I keep a lot of plates spinning.  I’ve angel invested in three early stage tech companies and have committed to each of them that I’ll do some hands-on work as part of joining their teams.  In addition I sit on three charity boards, I’m formally mentoring two young entrepreneurs (and informally a few more!), I’m one of the Entrepreneurs in Residence at the Northern Ireland Science Park in Belfast and I’m part of the Digital Catapult in London as one of their advisory network members.  From time to time I do short consultancy pieces but only if it’s something that I’m interested in and I genuinely like the team and want to work with them.

I swim a mile every morning before breakfast.  It takes me the best part of an hour and I treat it almost like meditation.  Mornings I spend writing, answering emails, catching up with people on the phone.  I’m usually out & about London in the afternoons – having coffee & chat with this one & that one.  I have a wide and varied network that I’ve been building for years and really it’s the bedrock of everything else that I do – and nurturing your network takes a fair bit of time and energy.

How do you manage / balance all your different interests?

It is a challenge.  Some things I’m very disciplined about.  For example, I attend more than 50 board meetings a year so they’re all set in stone and the dates are in the diary well in advance.  On the other side of the coin, I try to be generous with my time and will leave some space in my week to meet with the numerous entrepreneurs that seek me out.  I accept the speaking engagements that appeal to me.  This week I’m spending a couple of hours chatting with the young women at the Outbox Incubator in London, next week I’m speaking at the Irish Embassy in Oslo about similarities/differences between doing business in Ireland and Norway and the following week I’m giving a talk in the Houses of Parliament about how charities could make better use of technology.

I bet all the entrepreneurs you’ve interviewed will say the same thing – we enjoy what we do so much that it isn’t really like work.

How did you end up where you are now?

The honest answer is I started at the bottom as a new graduate and just kept going.  Back in the days when I had a “normal” job I did some extra study in the evenings and weekends and I always put my hand up when my boss asked for volunteers to take on more duties or responsibility and that led to a career path with a lot of promotion along the way.  The breakthrough if I can call it that came in 2000 when I left my safe job in London and joined a Belfast based high tech startup in the semiconductor space as their global CFO.  3 weeks in I found myself out in San Jose as part of the negotiating team talking to Intel and Xilinx and giants like that.  It was a total baptism of fire and the learning curve was unreal but luckily I’m resilient.

I started my first business 12 years ago when I was 43.  At the time I wondered if I’d left it too late but I now realise that 40 is probably the best age at which to become an entrepreneur.

Learning Pool was my 3rd business and I co-founded it in 2006.  We based the company in Derry, which at the time was more or less the startup equivalent of Siberia.  It gave us access to a steady stream of eager young graduates coming out of Magee or wallowing underemployed in the call centres that are the scourge of the NW of Ireland.  We bootstrapped and focused all our energies on sales.  8 months in we were in profit.  Five years later we had a team of 60 across the UK and Ireland and an online learning  community of a million or so public servants.  It’s a great story and one that I never get tired of telling.

What makes you different as Angel investor (compared to Paul Burmester, or any other angels?)

For me being an angel is a labour of love.  Early stage smart money is incredibly hard to come by for people starting out and especially for people who aren’t part of that whole accelerator/VC-funded scene.  I’ve written a bit in my blog about how I selected my three companies.  How it works in my head is quite simple.  I’m investing my time and money in three people.  I hope over time that they in turn will each invest in three more.  If that happens then I’ll be happy and my work will be done.

What are you excited by at the moment in the tech sector?

I get far more excited about the transformative powers of tech than I do about the tech itself.  I’m not a gadget person and I don’t obsess about the detail behind tech.  I’m a trustee of the Social Care Institute for Excellence and the social care space is one where there’s a real flurry of startup interest right now with loads of cool tech being created to make everyone’s twilight years more enjoyable.  I’d like to see some speedy large scale adoption of some of these ideas but unfortunately the pace of change is very slow in both social care and healthcare.

How was the last 12 months for you?

I exited from Learning Pool last summer so the last 12 months have been a time of real change for me.  The hardest part for me about owning my own business was always the focus so having 15 projects to dabble in instead keeps me interested.

What are you most happy about?

I visited my Mum last week for her 86th birthday.  She lives alone half way up a mountain in Donegal.  I’m happy that she’s still able to do that & live her life independently.

Anything you would do differently if you could?

One of my favourite quotes is this one from Alexander Graham Bell

“When one door closes another opens; but we often look so long and so regretfully upon the closed door that we do not see the one which has opened for us.” I never waste any time looking back because I believe things happen the way they do for a reason.  Someone asked me the same question at an event recently and got really angry with me when I said that.

Where do you hope to be in next 1 – 3 years?

I don’t really plan that far ahead.  If I were to die tomorrow I’d be happy with what I’ve achieved in my life so far.  In my life stuff just emerges and I’m happy with that.  I like to keep my eyes open and be receptive to opportunities that present themselves and then go with the flow.

Do you feel UK / Irish / European startups have different strengths and weaknesses compared to US based ones?

This one is complex as we’re not comparing apples with apples.  We might not even be comparing fruit!  There’s a huge difference in that the US has a long established ecosystem and Europe just doesn’t.  This quote hits the nail on the head for me.  “Europe’s unicorns are now valued at a combined $120bn. But to put that in context, Apple’s stock market value is $731bn and Facebook’s is $230bn”.

Unless British and Irish people really learn how to sell internationally our startup companies will never scale effectively or reach their potential valuations.

What tips would you give to people trying to get a business started?

This one is easy – just get started and take it from there.  There are so many variables at play it’s a waste of your time trying to second-guess them all.

What tech do you wish was already invented and available to make your life easier?

There are two things I often wish for.  More hours in the day and a time machine.  If anyone could figure out how to give me both of those via a tech route that would be great – LOL.

Life / work, online / offline, what are your strategies for managing it?

I’ve never compartmentalised.  I was never one of those people that had one phone for work and another for home.  For me work & life are deeply intertwined.  I only work with people I like so they are my friends as well.  Work gives me a lot of pleasure.

Anything else we should have asked you / you’d like to add?

Who’s the most impressive person you’ve ever met?

I met Buzz Aldrin during the London 2012 Olympics and was very taken with him.  He’s had several careers as well as the one he’s famous for and even now at 85 he has tons of energy and keeps innovating and looking forward.  Can you believe his mother’s maiden name was Moon?  I hope I have his outlook on life in 30 years time.


If you would like to have your company featured in the Irish Tech News Business Showcase, get in contact with us at [email protected] or on Twitter: @SimonCocking

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