Guest Alan Costell | NDRC Venture Investment Leader (VIL) of Medit and many more startups
Alan and I discuss being prepared to apply for an accelerator programme, and many other elements for a startup's success
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Dave: Hello and welcome to the podcast. I’m your host Dave Albert. In this show, I talked about technology building a company as a CTO, and co founder and have guests to discuss their roles in technology and entr epreneurship.
Dave: Today I’m joined by Alan Costello our venture investment leader or VIL here at the NDRC. Our I mean Medit. Thanks very much for joining me, Alan.
Dave: So tell us the story of you.
Alan: So the short version of this that I often describe is I started off life as a scientist in a pharmaceutical sector. So I was playing around with some more MD in industry and academia. But I wanted to get closer to the commercial side of it. So I joined pharmaceutical, big global corporates in product marketing, product strategy and product launch roles, had an MBA along the way, and then set up my own consulting practice. And exactly like all good consultants. It’s do as I say, when I mentor someone, not as I do. So I set off without any plan, without any business plan. There’s no idea what I was going to do, but just the idea that I wanted to do some stuff for myself, and let’s explore where that led me. When I started working a lot with startups, multi sectors and startups and trying to help them to move their technologies, engineering products to international markets and working with enterprise agencies do that as well. That was very enjoyable for a while and I realized that the missing link in startup moving and new product to international markets was funding. So started getting involved with engine investors in VCs and I, for about 10 years, I’ve been joined to operate in that trifecta of new products commercialization in the investment fund they needed to do that. So that’s what brought me to NDRC, about 18 months ago. We’re also..
Dave: You just got here just before we did then.
Alan: Yeah. You were Summer 17, May 17. So I probably joined April/May 17. So when I was telling you all of the good stuff and good stories, I you know, I was I was about half a step ahead of you in NDRC terms.
Dave: Just like any good teacher.
Alan: Sometimes that way. Yeah. So I guess I was kind of rolling out of previous projects. So I would probably be joining from about, I guess, February on wards, but fully and fully on from April of that year. So that that’s kind of the story of me. The other element of what I do is, I’m always been heavily involved in the community, in the startup communities and so I’m involved in, in an Enterprise Center and a volunteer role to try and help develop new startups and new entrepreneurial ecosystems and near where I live. And I’ve always given that type of time and commitment to to startups, to organizations, and even to some social enterprises, which is something that I’m quite interested in both the enterprise side and the social side.
Dave: Very cool. So can you tell us a little bit about what the day to day of a VIL is. What are your responsibilities?
Alan: So I’ll just paraphrase a conversation I had, just yesterday with one of my colleagues which is a great job because you never doing the same thing two days in a row. And that that feels pretty interesting. So our role is. chunk of our time is spent trying to find great startups and the ecosystem so we meet so many startups at events, meetups, tech transfer events and individuals come to us and we’re working with them for a week or month a year to develop that opportunity and to an invest-able proposition for NDRC. Then companies come on the program and we’re we continue working with them and generally speaking if if we find a really interesting prospect will stay with that prospect all the way through the investment and through the program and the role there is supporting that company to challenge some of the business ideas, the business strategies, the vision it’s probably mostly on the commercial side and that we’re we’re pushing on with a reflection of the technology in the product that’s being built. But as you know, it’s about the commercial and that the customer first and the technology probably follows afterwards in my terminology, and then after the program has finished we continue working with those companies and if they want us to, but we we stay closely involved as they’re developing out their seed investments I guess when companies go far enough outside of the portfolio on their on their C round or something like that. We’re probably available if they need us, but we’re our roles, probably those slightly shorter at that point. We also do a lot of work working with our partners be that in maybe tech transfers in the third level sector or with other industry stakeholders, we give a lot of time to the ecosystem to and helped develop it. It’s a rising tide that lifts all startups in Ireland.
Dave: Very interesting. Well, so what was really surprising then, cause I since I didn’t know that you were so new to this, or at least the VIL role. What what was completely different than you expected coming into the role.
Alan: So in it to a degree, the role was quite similar. What I would have done before is worked with a large number of startups tried to help them to hone their business proposition, the business strategy communicate that well to customers and to investors. So we do that here, and we do that very well here, we probably do that at a slightly larger scale. So we invest in something between 40 and 50 startup companies in Ireland every year to the programs. So one of the really nice reasons to be here is that you’re able to do what you love doing, but with a little bit more scale. So that was that was really fantastic. Also joining here and I would say this, this is going out on record and all of the other colleagues and listening to your blog now, thanks Dave. But it’s a fantastic team. So you’re learning from other people, you’re learning from colleagues, learning from the companies that we’ve invested in. So that’s probably been a pretty rapid growth learn for me over the last 18 months as well, which is brilliant because that’s just something that’s going to drive you.
Dave: Yeah. So if a company were coming in trying to pitch to be accepted to an accelerator program like the NDRC. What sort of things do you wish they knew before coming in? Well, you know, what, what did we do wrong? I mean, obviously, we got accepted so we didn’t do too much wrong, but what could we have done that would have made it so much easier to say, Yes.
Alan: So this is a pretty wide combo, pretty wide question. So let me bring them down back here for a little while and then we can pick a little bit. The nine point ventures I think recently brought out a framework that they look at when people are coming into then they look at they call it Five T - Team, Tech, Tom which is there T for product for market size, Traction and they call the trenches which is their T for what kind of defense ability IP most can you build around your business. That’s pretty good, we’re early stage we don’t expect you to score five out of fives on all of those things. The two most important factors for any simple assessment on the way in, is around market size and team. Rock star team in a tiny market is one thing an unbelievably large and a needed market with a poor team is or no team is going to be a challenge. The other thing that I personally pays a lot of interest in is things like around elements of our interaction or elements around inside. So inside is actually just relevant to the team. And so if someone’s coming in and dropping some really interesting insight learning observation about why a market takes the way that it does, updates a lot of credibility and that. I know we’re going to pivot, I know technology is going to change I know markets and market access and range of market is going to change. So when I’m looking for is signals about how people review their markets, think about the way that business is going to be and what early steps they’ve taken. Now we’ll go into that a little bit more detail I’m sure but what do I wish startup would know before they came in to us. It’s about customer validation before product build. And I know you’ve talked about this in recent podcast as well i think the 08:59 maybe some of your Agile conversations as well. So if a startup comes in and says, I build something really cool, it’s I’m not saying you heard things and what you know that that’s where the conversation is starting from. If you say if a startup comes in a team, and insightful leaders come along and say, we’ve noticed something really interesting, really cool happening in this marketplace. We don’t have the numbers, right. But we think this is a big problem. And we think we’ll be able to solve it over a year in this way. Well, then you’re just going to have a conversation with the market you’re going to have a converse, you’re going to enjoy the conversation with the founders and so that that’s pretty interesting. And you got in and so that was around meeting you and Julie, and just knowing that the market insights, the market depth was there, there was ideas around the product, you have the probably the capability to build them but we knew that you’d be able to adapt into the market as you get more and more insights. We didn’t think that we had all the answers and you didn’t think it all the answers and Julie didn’t think he had all the answers. So that was pretty cool conversation to have. And it was and can put this on the record it was a good easy, relatively easy decision for for that to happen.
Dave: Well that’s fantastic to hear. I would put one caveat on the app built something cool not being necessarily relevant. The only way that that could be very relevant is if the thing I built validated my assumptions as opposed to it’s cool technology. Like I’ve got people who want to use this, by this, that that sort of, even if it’s a small effort to create something like that to validate your idea, validate the problem
Alan: For sure and that that’s almost the the next step or the next that the level 2.0 if you’re building something that is proving something or but there’s a subtle difference there. If you’re building something to prove assumptions, you’re exactly following the right process if you build something and it happens to show you still build first before going out there and to testing it to the market. But if you’re looking for customer validation is one of the examples I used and I’ll bluff the numbers a little bit here. But while Tesla were two years before launching the three series or being able to the three, before they were able to put it into production capability. They had like 20,000 pre-orders and..
Dave: That’s make an idea pretty well.
Alan: Those guys can go build, that’s fine.
Dave: Yeah, no, that’s the reason that I bring it up so often is because it’s a mistake I’ve made a number of times. Building something before understanding exactly what was needed for before really understanding the market which is why this time it worked out so well is because Julie was there to stop me from doing the wrong thing. She understood our users and our customers so well that even though we did build a prototype, it was more to understand it and to try to move it forward than it was. As I’d done in the past, go off for into the developer hole for two or three months and come out with a product that was not really interesting to anyone.
Alan: So that there’s two points on this one is that you guys came to us through the team with a really, really strong commercial focus with a really, really strong technical focus. So when you can imagine the position you will be in if you’re on your own or if Julie was on her own. And the other perspective I’ll take on the build before test or build before checking your market validation. And this is a very particular personal valid perspective. So I’m hear in NDRC where we invest in digital and technology startups.I’m not a technologist, I’m not a software engineer. So I can’t add pretty much any value to the technology build of a solution. But I have a naive sounding but correct perspective that it can get built. So if we’ve proven enough of the market need, if we’ve proven enough of the market demand, if we understand the value that we’re going to be creating in the market, we can build an app, we can build a back end infrastructure, it’d be buggy as hell it’ll fall over if his knees 13:23 but then we can improve from there. Sure, it’s different if you’re going into a deep tech world and and then you have to be able to show some baseline scientific and engineering concepts that you can build before you can start theorizing. But in for most cases for most businesses that we see it can get built. So for instance, with Medit whether it’s going to be a communications app, whether it’s going to be a library, an archive, whether it’s going to be sharing, whether it’s gonna be common learning platform, these things have been built as we know it can be done and we had a lot of confidence that you will be able to put together a team that would do that, then it has to get optimized and directs us to get optimizing you’re still on that journey. Of course, but it can’t get built but why should we? When there was always this perspective between the users and then the customers in that you locked out with various different forms of doctors using it. And various different forms of pharmaceutical companies wanting to get access to that in some way that we didn’t fully elucidate back at the time, but we knew there was something there. That’s the stage that we invest in.
Dave: Yeah, yeah. And when I said about building something call that will proved your idea working, I don’t mean technical. I mean that really one of the most important things I learned was to go talk to your customers users and if you’ve got some small prototype if it’s something built in Figma or Marvel or or balsamic on pape, it’s it like I remember hearing about the Evernote. The people who built Evernote and it was before they even have Ipads and the former CEO carried around a piece of cardboard the size of an Ipad. So it’s about making sure, creating something that will help you validate that there is a problem that people want it solved that can be you know discussions and interviews with your your user your potential users or customers.
Alan: For sure it’s discussions as PowerPoint, it’s it’s concepts. I mean you know that we wax lyrical about the mom test, for instance, and where where you’re talking to people and you’re asking them about their problems. The product is your business, nobody cares how you’re going to sell it for them. They just care about their problems and how important it is for them. So it’s talking to them and talking to enough people, whether you’re with the enterprise whether you’re consumer, whether you’re at a specific user, consumer user, like you guys are doing, we’re talking to enough of them taking back that insights and doing that innovation, factory innovation theater, posted noting it up on a whiteboard and seeing the cluster, it always pops right out at you as to what the key nodes are that users are talking about as their problems how they how important is when they find out what those problems are, then your job comes in. Okay can can we, should we build to fix that that’s your that’s your next decision point.
Dave: Yeah that’s, there was so much of what we learned in the first bit that I would have just love to have known months before we started. So you know typical engineer, your problem, your first instinct just go solve it, stop that. Is really a problem?
Alan: Agree, that there’s going to be a word of trouble but my wife says that about men as well. So let’s not pull that string. It’s admirable to want to try and sell something and to want to try and deploy some skills at it but yeah, bottom line is admirable. But in a startup world, you’ve got limited resources around time and financial capacity. And one of the needs of NDRS is you have to make sure that you’re just choosing the right problem to solve. Yeah.
Dave: Excellent. So what’s something that as people get started within an accelerator that that would be good to know, before getting there? So are there any assumptions or, or mindsets that that new ventures should have as they come in other than an open mind? Well, it is that that’s where my mind was going to as as you were asking the question and colleague calls this the fog so as you go into an accelerator we don’t know the answers and we do know lots of the right questions and but we don’t know the answers and so we’re going to fire a lot of options at you, a lot of questions at you, any accelerator is going to do that to any startup event. Suddenly it’s going to open up lots of of opportunities, but that we’re not saying you should do all of these thing.Were asking all of these questions, we’re opening up lots of the issues and then it’s your job to try and structure that and go find that customer validate, what are the right problems, what are the right markets, what are the right segments or the right routes to market that we’re going to try and do what experiments can be to try and prove this. So one of my colleagues calls it the fog where you’re suddenly besieged with a lot of information, even more questions and it feels kind of hopeless and kind of scary. But in 18 months or a little over 18 months here, I’d probably seen like five cohorts and it’s really starting to hit home to me just yesterday we finished another group over in Galway and the coalescing of the ideas and the communications and the narrative in the final couple of weeks when people have done the work for the previous couple of months is is kind of consistent and that ideas will pop out form and former plan of where you’re going to go forward to what might become investment with later stage investors. So it’s going to be stressful when you come into an accelerator, there’ll be some fun, that’s fine. But it’s gonna be stressful. You’re going to have a lot of indecision, and you’re gonna have to be comfortable with that, you’ve to sit with some of that indecision as you’re going out there and working with customers, potential customers.
Dave: Yeah. So of your ventures, and and those of your colleagues. Is there anything that stands out as something that is an identifier of what indicates that there’ll be more or less successful?
Alan: So that’s an interesting question. Just the way you phrased it, my mind is kind of partitions into two questions. So let me come back it relates a little bit to the entry point of an accelerator that you mentioned earlier on and I thought we will go deeper on. So I’m a big believer in team first and probably half the investment world believes team first and half the world believes in market size first. And the market size piece is something that’s driven by venture capital economics where you have to put a certain amount of money invested or deployed in order to generate the type of returns or the type of form that you have. Some market size is really, really important. That’s not to say a business can’t be wonderfully successful, generating 2 million a year and paying for its four or five staff, brilliant and 95% of businesses all around Europe are like that. So you’re looking for something that makes a little bit different. One is a market size, a big market size with a big problem, someone’s going to win, fine. But the way you phrase your question, maybe think about the founders and what makes them different. What makes them stand out to that might mark a little bit of success. I suppose one of the one factor might be the openness to that fog and getting through it. I really like insights into the marketplace learnings from the marketplace. So maybe is that a little bit related to vision, is that a little bit related to that we’re going to solve this big problem, because this is the real cause of it. This is the real strong net effect in the marketplace for Oh, look, there’s some big numbers attached that as well. That’s that’s kind of cool. So and there’s a vision piece of, and that’s something in one of our other previous startups that it has done very well. They raised a seed round this year, and they spotted a market opportunity that was being driven by I don’t know, tens of millions of people have been employed in the big economy and doing part time, multiple part time piece of work. So there was an insight to spot that that change was happening. And then to think what’s actually the net effect underneath that, what’s happening to all these guys who are doing 50 jobs a week or 10 jobs a week, what does that do as opposed to the paradigm of 20 years ago where you did your POE job for 40 years. And so spotting that kind of insight, is interesting to think about did that conflect the founders and what they would, then they’re gonna have to execute and a factor that I often talked about in execution I don’t mind if you’re starting with an absolute base idea on where we know nearly the first of December, but I will judge have fast you move by the seventh of December and by the 21st to December, then you can have a week off and what are you going to do on the first of January. So while judge progress and traction, a quite impressively, if you’re able to make a lot happen. Okay, fine, then we just need to check if you’re making a lot happen in the right direction.
Dave: Yeah, no, the vision, that’s a tricky one. And that seems like
Alan: Maybe I’ll give an example that’s a little bit related to what Medit are doing. I heard a speaker talking recently about how they’re doing a new type of E learning and deploying a new type of E learning into developing markets. And he said, education hasn’t changed the 19th century and It’s a one guy standing at the front of a lecture room talking ash, 50 people in front of him who are writing in notebooks.
Dave: I hate that.
Alan: And it’s going to change. I don’t know how it how it’s going to change. I don’t know what factor, I don’t know what tools are going to do. I don’t know what E learning I don’t know what moves. There’s all of them in learning education is going to be an enormous subject. But that kind of insight to say that essentially the structure of our learning hasn’t changed since the 19th century, we think we can probably do that better. We’ve got these new technologies, we’ve got new modes of working, we’ve got new modes of thinking we should probably be able to do that better. So this guy has a vision that he wants to change education for the developing world he starts there and start executing underneath that. That’s okay fine, let’s back that. He’s got about 10 million users.
Dave: Now, that’s what I was going to say.
Alan: As a startup.
Dave: Who are we talking about?
Alan: It’s a company called Allison and .com who are based in Galway. They’re quite maybe in my mind, I won’t say that I won’t judge it on behalf of anyone else but in mind they were a little bit on the song for the amount of work that they’ve been able to achieve already.
Dave: Yeah, no, I hadn’t heard of that. I’ve heard of the Khan Academy.
Dave: K H A N and I used and watched a lot of their videos on the bus and a number of years and I love the idea of it. It just, it seems like such a waste to spend time with an actual mentor in a classroom talking at you, and then going home and trying to have as myself and my wife try to do, my wife does because I’m away too much with work and podcasting. Trying to reteach kids how to do things with you know, tactical help where if, I mean my kids might be a little too young but watching a video beforehand, on your own time at your own speed or over and over again and then going and having assistance with doing the actual practical that seems so much more obvious.
Alan: It’s practical, so that’s I guess that’s a mode mode or methodology of teaching. And different people will go to a different ways. If you think if you go to Khan Academy and look around at their ecosystem, you got your code and audios, Khan Academy, you’ve got math camps, math clubs, engineering club, Python club, code club, scratch clubs, they’re all out there were actually reinventing the way we want our 8 to 12 to 15 year olds, we’re teaching them new skills in new ways to prepare them for a world that they’re operating in. I don’t, I don’t blame the education system. But I think the education system takes 20 years to change. And I don’t think it’s caught up. So we’ve got all of these academies that are teaching new skills in new ways to use is that they’re just moving faster. They’re disrupting and it’s admirable that they’re doing it in a semi voluntary community oriented way and I think education systems are going to have to catch up. It was working with a start up this week and some of the numbers that are coming out that they’re working with is something like 21 million software engineers in the world at a job that didn’t exist to adding thing like that scale like 20 years ago, and we don’t think that’s going to get smaller.
Dave: Yeah, I don’t know. I would love to see some major changes actually gain momentum in that area. I just seeing, you know, just seeing kids do homework, and that seems to be a giant waste of time, really. I know it was for me, but I’m a terrible student. So I was too busy off trying to build computers or write code to pay attention to school. But that’s just me because
Alan: I have, it’s a good dinner table argument for me to some of my extended family, our teachers and they believe in the education system and we have a very good education system. We probably have the frameworks very good education systems still. But they still want to teach the kids timetables and spellings and teach them maybe CD but now the school teach them A Ba Ca Da and they’re teaching them the letters are saying that teaching them to work out problems by inductive reasoning or by using peer group reasoning rather than being taught to tactically and by role and learn by roles and they driven mad change. It was good enough it was it was a good solution those days and then you see seven year olds coming home and be able to spell and speak large words I mean, able to work out problems and issues themselves and you think maybe there’s something to this and it’s gonna work I’m not close enough to the education system to see what the actual changes are going to be but the things are going to change in the Khan Academy. as an example. I’m a big fan of Coder Dojo it was started by James Whelton in Cork, I remember I heard him speak recently a couple of years ago when they were going through one of the growth phases and said, you know, we started a Coding Club after school because I wanted to teach my colleague, my peers how to code. Now we’re in 30 countries and five continents. And this 10,000 kids every Saturday morning,learning how to code and everyone’s still up cheering it was, it was kind of nice moment. He started off when he was I guess, maybe 18, maybe 16? Great guy. Great, great Irish tech entrepreneur is done a lot number of venture senses worth keeping an eye on.
Dave: Excellent. Yeah, definitely pay even more attention. I’m a big fan of of what Coder Dojo do. And if any of my kids show any interest to, I’ll drag them along, show a bit of mentoring for the other students because I don’t think my kids would listen to me
Alan: There is that it’s not an oxymoron. But there is something if they show interest I’ll drag them along there’s something there’s something going a bit wrong in our language there.
Dave: Well if they show any interest and they must go. I guess that’s what I was aiming for there but yes, you recruit. What do you think to get back on startups? What do you think that often time founders you see, or potentially even more importantly, the founders who don’t make the cut focus too much on? Is there anything specific or they just don’t focus enough on on the right things?
Alan: That’s another good question. Something I was thinking about a different context this morning, I think you’ve got to put yourself much more in your users or customers shoes and everything else you’re building outwards, as opposed to building from their perspective and building into that need. So you might get some people who are a little bit too hung up on the one business model that they thought of as hard. Let go of ideas and it was hard to let go of concepts that one once they’ve got embedded into a little bit that that’s one area, so I guess that’s just related back to something we mentioned earlier on about not being open to change. So getting wedded on a particular business model, getting wedded on a particular technology or particular stock. That’s to their detriment. And it’s actually stopping them from going out there and talking about it. And I think that’s the way I think that’s quite interesting is that there’s so much language around startups. now we’re talking about doing all of this startup process. And I think people talk a lot of both the process and actually just need to get down and do it and so thinking about people designing a sales process and the sales pipeline and their conversions will be this and if they’re this will change this leaving if this without lever and I’m thinking of going to talk to them let’s let’s think about a pipeline when you got to customers and I think there’s trainer from intercom was talking about this at web summit. It’s a I guess you can put the link in the notes it’s been widely shared, where he talks about a traditional sales and marketing funnel going from market opportunity leads proposition sales ground and it kind of reads from left to right if you can picture that and he said, let’s let’s grab that let’s start right at the end, right to the right hand side, and let’s think about our first two customers, the first 10 customers and expand it from there. And so inverting the traditional sales marketing thinking. So I think some founders if they don’t make it, I think maybe they’re a little bit wedded to one idea. And they’re not willing to change and quite a lot, they’re not putting themselves in the customers users shoes that thinking about their startup process on the founder, and this is what I do, this I’m an entrepreneur now, there’s this thing about a team, I’ve got to get funding, I’ve got a good thing about doing an accelerator. I’ve been thinking about doing it, this kind of grant or this kind of competition. That’s that’s not what it’s about. Go back to your customers and win the competitions that are really really relevant but don’t don’t win the competitions that aren’t relevant and stop you from going in front of your customers and stop thinking about your customers or users. It’s a good point that there’s always a balance in difference between customer user and very often not the same much of it, invariably not the same.
Dave: Yeah, there’s I can’t think, I guess, Netflix. Customer user? I mean, there are a few but often not. Yeah, that’s a good point.
Alan: That’s an interesting example that I mean, if we just spin that idea I pay for Google Drive. I’m a user and a customer at a personal level, I pay for Netflix, I pay for Spotify, and I spend about 20 minutes before I paid for Spotify, because it was so good. So maybe there’s a consumer element of it where you can think about your user customer but in so many other elements and any b2b and any B to enterprise, B to G your users aren’t going to be your customers, it’s always going to be a more complex customer conversation. Y
Dave: Yeah, yeah, so I was going to say something about solving..
Alan: Awkward silences. Awkward.
Dave: Yeah it’s alright. Yeah, guess it doesn’t matter. So one of the things that I wanted to ask you about related to focus is you seem to be amazing at just cutting through the bullshit. Honestly, I’ve Julie’s good at it too but I don’t know how is it that you’re so good at that is there something that you can do to help other people cut through their own bullshit and and focus on the right things or is it just knowing that that the right questions to ask from the outside.
Alan: There’s a couple of perspectives on that I think if he if I speak a lot of bullshit I might recognize it coming from other people. Let me free free say that one before somebody else does. There is an idea but staying outside of or a little bit above a little bit of helicopter view if you want to use that consultancy point of view and I mentioned earlier on that we and I certainly don’t know the answers, I’ve never I want to ever come across as if I have answers but I do have lots of questions. And I sometimes talk about about I’ll keep asking stupid questions until easy answer, stop coming back. And then then, you know, you’re kind of honing in on something. And but from my perspective, I do know that I want to move a conversation on so we can explore a fog. We can explore lots of questions about what our users are saying here, what customers are saying there was a technology stack is giving you a problem for over here, but I know that I want us to move forward. So that’s always going to be my perspective, I’m I’m not going to get bogged down in the trenches and as much, so I’m not going to be an operational guy. I’m always going to be looking at where we want the question to go here. We want that question we forward so that might be an element of causing to some stuff there’s also an idea that will use other question but I’m not acknowledging by the way that I am good as according to the bullshit but the reason idea of kind of in asymmetry of roles so is Medit your first startup? second startup?
Dave: It’s the first one that has been been my sole focus.
Alan: So this is your first one has been your sole focus. I’ve, in the last five years I’ve probably worked with like 500 startups and I’m always talking about commercialization, raising investment, validation from customers, validation of a business model to that will get you to to the next stages so I’ve seen a lot of instances where I know where the questions trying to go but from your perspective you might have only seen one or two and so there’s an asymmetry of information I was thinking about this recently a couple of context dealing with some lawyers on a legal agreement that’s like 80 pages long full of legal list translations via Martian, via bad Google Translate and they know what they’re doing because they’ve done this like 10 times this week and 10 times last week and so on. You’re scared and because you’re looking at this document and you haven’t read it before and it looks horrible and look scary you don’t know what they hear two fours and warehouses and, and in so much as means. So there’s an asymmetry of information which in the accelerator, we’re trying to impart those kind of questions. We’re trying to impart those kind of passions that we would have seen before to a startup that might not have experienced it and if that works, I think that’s pretty cool. I think that’s pretty effective. And maybe someone might call that cutting through the bullshit.
Dave: I guess it probably is really it is that because, you know, the right questions to ask it focuses as as the ventures on the thing that we didn’t realize that was what we needed to focus on. And that feels like removing all the things that aren’t as important because that gets to the core of it. So this is experience is one of the biggest bits of it.
Alan: Yeah, you know, within The last 15 years I’ve been involved in startups as well. So I have some perspectives on what it’s like to be on the inside. And it’s, it’s a cauldron. It’s a crucible and of positivity. When the customers are going well of negativity, when it’s all going down in flames around you, and I have had some of those experiences haven’t had hundreds because like, there’s only 24 hours in a day. But it is about then trying to capture some of those experiences and the conversations you would have with hundreds of founders and lots of successful fundings and 37:39 and you’re trying to distill and pick up little nuggets from it, it does trainer and intercom or a Collison and stripe where he his vision for the company is they want to change the GDP of the internet. So you’re picking up these little nuggets from from people and I do read quite widely around the subject and you’re just trying to distill some of these things back into a conversation that you’re having and making it relevant for a founder at that time
Dave: Yeah okay that makes that makes a lot of sense yeah, I’m just digesting that’s the hard bit. Especially since I don’t want you to pause because I want this to be real time.
Alan: Yeah know that the I guess you don’t get to pause in in real life even though you do in a podcast, and I’ve heard you talking to other people over the last few weeks as since I got turned on. Actually, I’ve only started listening to podcasts in the last three or four one. So I’m always good for good for getting a recommendation would you often go into a pause when you’re digesting something, and you’re is quite a personal situation that you’re doing. And you are a founder, you are a CTO, it is an early stage company. So people are talking about their experiences or giving bit of advice, and it’s kind of very real time for you. You’re not doing this retrospectively. You know, a retrospective history is a retrospective strategies always seem to work out Yes, we’re doing this in real time. So it’s quite a personal thing you’re putting out there into into the podcast world.
Dave: Yeah, I mean, it’s a it’s also very selfish. It’s great to when else in the whole time that we’ve, you know, been one of your ventures, we’ve not sat down and had like a full phones off nobody walking around, nobody coming in, an hour long discussion.
Dave: I mean, we’ve had, we’ve had lots of good discussions, but not like this. So I get to do this with you and other people. So I get a lot out of this as well as the listeners, hopefully.
Alan: I don’t agree that they are, they’re getting old learnings from you. And they’re going to meet other interesting people, if not today, but it’s okay to maybe just taken off a little talk there. It’s okay to be a little bit selfish and you personally but lots of other good founders work really, really hard and and their minds are consumed. Their head space is consumed as you got family as well. But I’ve yet to beat you into the office and I’m an early bird and but you work hard and you need to have some downtime. You need to take some of your own head space I think that’s maybe I did we didn’t we didn’t touch on that very on about good skills or founders. And but I think you need to be you need to know when you need to take a break and you need to take it and you need to find some sort of outlets. And if this is going to be pulled learning and pushing out good content for you, well, then that’s just a great outcome for the podcast.
Dave: Yeah, I mean it’s almost like therapy, even when it’s just me talking to the audience about something’s on my mind, it helps me I hope that it helps someone because I know that basically, I try to focus everything on what I wish I’d heard on one of those startups that I did. That didn’t become anything because I went down into a hole for seven or eight months and built something nobody wanted or tried to rebuild Amazon when really the goal was to get a customer and what I needed to do was just throw a bunch of stuff up on Shopify and have an answer within a week of launching this child instead of well, I need to build a micro service based system built with queuing so that I can, you know, scale to a huge amount of IT teams.
Alan: But if you learn how to build a micro service system, then you’ve got a positive out of that. So don’t don’t bet for anyone out there. Don’t build it learn from the past fine, but don’t build your whole framework about that. I wish I’d done this differently. And I’ll do a definitely in the future and build a framework to say okay, I learned from that this is what I’m what I’m going to apply, this is the positives, you’ve got a you’ve got to be positive and optimistic when you’re going forward. Because you’re competing all the time of the world and you need to have something that’s going to keep you going not false positives, but you need something that’s going to keep you keep you saying
Dave: No, that’s that’s absolutely right. I mean, just cutting through the bullshit there and it’s because you can see the things that the people in the weeds can’t always see, which is one of the best benefits of having mentors.
Alan: Yeah, and I’m a big fan of having mentors, even when I worked for myself, I built out a buddy system around me. And that ends up becoming a larger consulting firm where we work together. But having mentors in general, you just learn from people. And you know, I don’t have a whole lot of gray hair. If I stopped learning, I’m learning from people that are have had different experiences than me. I’m going to be in trouble, apart from the fact that I enjoy learning new things, but it benefits me and then I get to share that and pass it on to others as well. So I’m a big fan of mentors and finding personal ones, finding commercial ones as needs to be. And something that I set up here this year in NDRC was a CTO meet up and we’re we’re not talking so much about the commercial side of things. But it’s a group of CTOs and chief data scientist coming together from mixture of NDRC and non NDRC companies and one of things that we set up in there was someone will do a talk and someone sitting right in front of me did already five minutes are going to check aspect fine, grand but I specifically wanted to have a five minute talk every quarter on a soft skills, a human skills, a hiring, a how to deal with your crazy CEO and how to deal with the effect of moving from being a coder to being a CTO where you’re actually just managing coders and it’s completely different skill set. So I wanted people talking with that and being able to peer mentor and peer review each other and so that that’s working quite well.
Dave: No, I think it’s fantastic and definitely I think there’s a lot in the tech community that’s not talked about enough about mental stability and mental growth like the the soft skills that you know, many of us are mostly introverts, which doesn’t mean we don’t like to talk to people, but it may be harder for us to talk about, about how our team feels, how their day to day goes, how how you feel yourself. And if you don’t have, you know, mental health and sanity and the ability to carry on as you were talking about taking some time off, or even if that’s, you know, hours in a day taking those off because if you’re not your best self, you’re not doing anyone any good. You can keep working all the hours in the world and there’s your returns are just going to diminish to nothing.
Alan: Yeah, big fan of the law of diminishing returns. There’s been a lot of talk I think there’s a little Twitter fight going on this week 44:53as many Twitter fights do and ways trying to suggest that Yeah, you come and work for Tesla you’re gonna work 80 hours a week, hundred hours a week. Sometimes your best work comes when you’re kinda semi psychotic and only see things in blue and you’re on your hundred and 20th hour that week and of course the intense piling in on them and say, no, that’s not right. There was one other perspective on this that I didn’t mention it around sort of my mentors and people that learn from and you mentioned it was around head space and your mental health and so on. So my wife is a mental health practitioner she’s a psychotherapist people have suggested, I’ve been her client for the last 20 years but yeah. There’s just that, so but I pick up a lot of concepts are trying to pick up a lot of concepts and learning from the way that she would cancel somebody or listen so her particular brand of psychoanalytic psychotherapy is a lot about letting the person talk and then catching some of the dotted lines and connections between what I say so.
Dave: I can see that so well now. That really is your style and it works very well.
Alan: So I try and pick up stuff from her at the other thing to do but some of that head space stuff and and breaking out of patterns that you get stuck in. You’ll have seen this with ourselves with Julie or with some of the other guys right here that will go for coffee and like that’s mentoring, but it’s not what it’s going for coffee or one of the guys for salad, he has to go and take me running every now and again, which are falling out of the habit of and I need to get back into, well, we might go for running, go run up the Phoenix Park from here, which is pretty cool to do with 7am and you’re talking about enterprise sales to somebody or other and it just breaks the mold a little bit. It makes you think a little bit differently. I mean, for the people on the podcast. Dave and I are sitting here with a table between us and that’s not a natural conversation point. You got a bar we’re going on between you so sometimes break it break those moles, and that’s why stand ups, that’s why tech startups and scrums work kind of well, because you’re breaking out of getting away from the screen and shaking up the environment little bit which means that you got to think about things a little bit differently.
Dave: Definitely. How did you build your network of mentors and buddies? How can other people do that? Any tips?
Alan: So there’s probably two tips. It’s a sales mode that maybe I got from the my first career in and commercial farmer good salespeople are going to get know a lot, and that’s just bounces off them. So you’ve got to put it out there a lot in order to try and find those nuggets. And that was having a brass neck and just going and doing it. So one of the first startup projects I got involved in, a professor and Trinity had written an article and it wasn’t a scientific or engineering article. So we published it in maybe like a business and finance journal and the article had vision, breath, interesting concept around transport logistics and China and Europe and so on. And I blew my mind and I went into Trinity knocked on his door. He was a professor of physics and Trinity and I said, I’ve read this article. It’s really, really cool. Can I work with you? And he kind of looked at me a little bit funny when Okay, there’s this other project that I’m involved in the turned out to be the spirit of Ireland project which was a big renewable energy project that we tried to develop for a couple of years with some successes and some fails. You got to put it out there. And so when you’re going out to somebody who has a lot more experience or a different type of profile, you’ve got to go in the door and saying, I’m I’m here, this is what I can do. But this is what I’m looking to try and do for you. This is what I’m trying to bring a little bit of value to you. I think that conversation works quite well but maybe it works one out of five maybe works one out of 10 times that you do it. But if you do that, 20 or 30 times then you end up with two or three people who are rock stars and in business or investment or engineering or in a corporate world, and then you kind of try and develop that relationship a little bit. You always try and offer something every relationship has to be two way a copy Take, take take. So everything you try and offer and if the person is smart enough, they’re going to see well he’s not able to solve my large corporate problems right now but maybe they would go person, I’ll keep an eye on this. And when there’s a favor asked in six months or two years, maybe I’ll remember this person. You got to put it out there and you got to expect a lot of no’s. But that’s okay.
Dave: And be more specific would be another thing when, you know, not just kind of pick your brain to busy people.
Alan: True, can can we can we just have 10 minutes to chat about the SR. Can I buy you a coffee? It will Yeah, you’ve got to be you’ve got to offer something a little bit more first, because people’s schedules are busy. LinkedIn is still a gold resource because it allows people to check you out. So I send someone a LinkedIn invite, and in their own time, whenever they want to go into LinkedIn, they can go in and they can see my message and that’s kind of semi interesting with a click they can see who I am they can see who we’ve got some mutual connections with if you’re interested in that I’m not so much but I’ll go into the profile so this guy is chosen to write this kind of stuff about himself is he worth replying to. So it puts the control under, them an interesting opening message, you’ve got a well written profile that’s interesting. And you’re kind of making it worthwhile for them to engage with you. What? Yeah, you’ve got to do that a lot of times. So when I’m reaching out to people on LinkedIn that I have a process where I might be reaching out to 20 or 50 or hundred people on LinkedIn, and I’m tracking it and I might see who who the five or 10 people that responded to me are and then then offer the next step.
Dave: So you’ve got your CRM one.
Alan: Yeah, I’ve talked with this I mean I I’m using a one page at the moment. For as a CRM tool, but when I’m doing an Excel search, like if I was searching for educators in med in Germany, for for you guys, I just pull it into Google Sheets. And I just have a process where I’m copying and pasting the LinkedIn profiles the days when we contact with them what we did with them when they responded and and keep it simple. Then when there’s five or six important people that have responded to me and engage me, yeah. I can spin them into one page.
Dave: Nice. That’s really cool. Yeah I’ve got a Trello sheet. Mostly people have reached out to or am reaching out to to be guests on the podcast.
Alan: Be 51:23 read email from Dave.
Dave: Of going through all.
Alan: This is what’s coming.
Dave: Is there anything else that we haven’t covered that you want people to to know.
Alan: There was one area that I was going to mention earlier on we kind of got sidelined into I think psychotherapy, but maybe it relates to the cutting through the bullshit bit that if you’re thinking about a business or project put a, think of it as a layer of describe this to a podcast to an audio podcast. But think about putting a layer and an underneath the bottom underneath the line. There’s stuff activity, it’s like we’ve got to build that that feature or we’re going to migrated from Missouri database, we ask because why ever are we going to hire that salesperson? or are we going to optimized. I call that the stuff layer and it’s going to happen there’s lots of busy work, that’s fine. But above the line is the strategy, division is the reason. So all of this stuff has to marry up into doing something and that’s maybe relation to cutting through and something so cutting through some of the fog so there’s always gonna be lots of activity happening. But just think about how that maps forward into what is strategic, what is value creating for the business, for the customers, for the users as we’ve discussed, and it’s kind of a filter to maybe prioritize and deeper rotates, which is always handy good strategy. I heard a line recently a while back that I’ve been using for a while that you don’t have a strategy until you’re saying no to things and that’s that’s quite good. I don’t know me like doing things by negatives are doing things by exception, but it’s quite nice. And to think that I’m only doing things that I need to be doing And I need to say no things and then I’ve got some priority and then I’m going to be moving some stuff forward. So I use that little measure of above the line below the line. Below the line this is like the swan swimming the legs of flying furiously, but above the line, this one’s looking around the where they’re going. And that’s, that’s kind of an interesting or a way to save yourself some time.
Dave: That’s the the strategy until you say no, that thought of this like, three times since we’ve been talking about the addition by subtraction. That just that has popped into my head like three or four times as we’ve been talking.
Alan: I don’t know am I stretching it, but my mind instantly went there to stripe publish, what, 14 lines of code and you’re there. We’re an NDRC company publish 11 lines of code. I think they’ve I think Connell has put it in a tweet. And so how much are you letting go of, how much are you saying no to? Of course, you can build more code. Of course you can wait more lines, that’s fine, but what’s the bare minimum you need to do in order to make your strategy step forward. Pitch yesterday from one of our companies was talking about two lines of HTML and a whole system is on boarded into into you and that was changing the way enterprise was looking at the financial enterprise system was looking at at business and so did you call it a mission by subtraction addition by by subtraction? Yeah you’re not you don’t have a strategy until you’re saying no to some stuff.
Dave: Well what’s interesting is that next week we have our team over for team meeting because we have some remote workers and one of the things I made sure that we have we have on our agenda is to discuss what to remove from medit. I mean, I know it’s early and the answer might be nothing but I want to make sure that at least every quarter, every six months something like that we do we still need this? Do we still need that? Is this still right? You know, so not just continue adding bells and whistles but cut out anything that’s not valuable. So just maybe that’s why the addition by subtraction popped into my head so often there.
Alan: I think that’s I think there’s an interesting exercise, it may be nothing. And, you know, you’ve only been writing the code for for a couple years, and you’re just rolling out into the market, there may be nothing to subtract. But if you’re looking at your business from a commercial founder point of view, and you and Julia roll commercial and technical, but if you’re looking from a commercial point of view, what should we be putting out there? Are we still doing that Facebook campaign, even though we’ve actually moved on or we build our business model? Are we still doing? I was doing nurturing that relationship even though we’ve realized that they’re not going to be a strategic partner, but we’re still going to a conference meeting up with them every three months for coffee and Okay, what what can you imagine from whether commercial or technical point of view that seems like a good exercise to do?
Dave: Yeah, definitely know there were probably quite a few things that I mean with the team and our processes. I’m always asking at each stand up or not each stand up but at each weekly team meetings. Is there anything we can do better? Is there anything we can stop doing? But this is the first time we’ve really done it about the product. So looking forward to see if there is anything. I don’t think there is. But a team together can think of a lot more than I can on my own. Yeah.
Alan: Okay. And doing that. And I know you already have this, but in an environment where people can chip open say, Well, why do we still have that we’re still looking at this legacy piece over here. And to create an environment where people can do that is pretty important as well. You have that, it’s not a command and dictation and why did you have going on I don’t think. You’re hiding it well.
Dave: If anybody thinks they have all the answers in I don’t want to be with them anyone near them you know that’s that’s the one thing I know is that I know nothing.
Alan: I might be a little harsh but it start from there to take on you. There might be a little more other than that.
Dave: Is there anything any any call to action you have for people anything that you want them to do related to accelerators or NDRC or..
Alan: Yeah, that that’s a nice opportunity. I guess it’s not exactly a corporate club. But a call to action is that we do have open calls for our programs next year. We just announced yesterday that our next goal way cohorts will be starting in the spring as an application form is live. We have an application open at the moment for our Dublin program, which will start again, approximately the spring is going to be busy first half of the year. So if you have an idea, if you are already a startup as you consider yourself to be come and talk to us. Application forms are fine but come and talk to us. Reach out for coffee, reach out for a call and we’ll try and help you anyway. Even if you’re not right or we’re not right for you. So come and talk to us if you’re a startup and think that’s probably the main shadow. Oh, the other one would be that what we’re always looking for people to support us if you’re a mentor if you want to get involved with startups and help them advise somebody introduced me this morning to a guy who’s looking to get involved in a particular sector, and we’re going to connect them to do that, because that’s just a little bit of paying it forward. It’s a little bit of, of helping everybody in the system that works well. So be in touch. And otherwise, we can mutually help.
Dave: Yeah. And like, that’s not just technical people or CEO’s, I mean that, like we had people related to PR and marketing and design, and I can’t even think of some of them right off the top of my head.
Alan: There are mentors, finance and corporate finance and business modeling, and yeah, and I,
Dave: I think psychology might be a useful one.
Alan: Yeah, that that’s something we’ve looked at, and we will consider again, is that idea of resilience. And I’ve looked at that before and worked with a couple of psychologists working with startups and that and help people to understand the fog. One of the things is that you’ll get lots of in an accelerator. You’ll get lots of mentors from lots of opinions at you. And part of your job as a founder is to still down and decide which ones you’re going to go with and which ones you might not go with, knowing that there’s lots of this good advice coming at you. But yeah, we’ve looked at psychology and resilience as a skill set, because there are great days and when you go and close up for sale, you’re going to go and bring the team out for a beer, glass of wine, that’s fine. And there’s a lot of crap days, there’s a lot of days when the funding round doesn’t close and the customer doesn’t close because you’re embedding a lot more hope into it because you need it more than they needed you, so there’s a lot of tough days. So one of one of the benefits of an accelerator is that cohort and there’s a range you that there is a little bit of peer support little bit of mutual’s and pickups as well as advice on areas that you need to to circumvent a technical problem or something like that. So that that’s probably the share that we have open calls for our regional programs, our Dublin programs. And if you’re interested in getting involved with startups, we’re always happy to chat and see if we can channel it.
Dave: And I’ll put it in the show notes. But where should people try to reach out to you? What’s the best way to contact you?
Alan: NDRC.ie got an info app that’s going to get you some application forms and put you into the system. But like we’re all pretty open as we have to be. So come find us on LinkedIn and Twitter and you get me @AlanJCostello on all the usual social networks and pigeons.
Dave: Thanks very much for joining me
Alan: Thanks very much for having me, I appreciate it.
Dave: Really appreciate it. This was very useful, very informative, and thank you all for listening.
Until next time, remember, any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.