FROM 1999 THROUGH 2004, I was part of three different start-ups. One dealt with Y2K software. Another involved an animation and post-production studio. Another had a very clever intelligent digital signage concept. All three were vetted for their export potential. One earned High Potential Start-up status. All collapsed for different reasons.
On the heels of Tech Crunch 50 and Bizcamp Dublin last week, I'm thinking about those past ventures because the experiences I learned in them were part of talks I gave in several Irish meet-ups like the one at the left. Additionally, my painful experiences become interwoven into the third level creative multimedia programme where I teach.
Currently, I'm surprised by the clear lines of disconnect that continue to exist between the people in charge of energising Ireland and those on the ground who are working hard to bring clever ideas to market. I think it's inevitable that civil servants think in a top-down manner. They set up procedures that they hope will vet applicants but those administrative procedures reduce creatives to paper-pushers. That's what happened to me during many days working to bring products to market at those three start-ups. I often realised I should have been trying to generate real business by using my contact managment software instead of filling in the blanks for yet another grant application.
After reading a few related items today, I'm left with a few conclusions, gleaned from my professional experience.
Face-to-face energy. As much as I enjoy virtual connectivity, or listening to audio extracts or watching short video summaries, the face-to-face meet-ups at acclaimed high-energy events, barcamps (like the one in the photo above left) and unconferences are really important. Joe Drumgoole told George Hook on Newstalk that going to TC50 was "the best event we have ever attended, well worth the time money and effort.” Eamon Leonard believes "the type of conversations we had while at TechCrunch50 and over the course of the following days, just don’t happen in Ireland." Inside LinkedIn, laudatory comments for the Bizcamp organisers confirm that the Dublin event was better than before and its effects will continue to percolate through the start-up ecosystem. If you've an idea in search of validation, subscriptions, or investment, you'll get those results faster by talking face-to-face to experts, potential clients or angel investors. In my case, I had to get out of the Man Cave and meet people at least once a week. My sweat-stained notebook shows I closed 30% of every deal I attempted when I had a plan. I got a lot of referrers from casual coffee chats in hotel lobbies, industry events and in gallery openings.
Recognise conference fees as valid for start-ups as for councillors. I get partial reimbursement for the money I spend going to vetted conferences. Elected politicians get more than they spend to attend conferences, sometimes checking in with pursers at events for direct handouts to cover parking fees, train tickets or petrol receipts. Self-employed people can treat attendance at events like TC50 as business expenses. But these are real expenses and should be considered for directly subsidies by county enterprise boards and Enterprise Ireland. EI should support day-long events organised by grant-aided small companies, instead of trying to lead with their own conferences. Specifically, I believe Enterprise Ireland should ring-fence funding now to ensure it can act as a sponsor at one unconference every quarter and award sponsorship in the form of a purser compensating for vouched receipts of travel and accommodation. It might mean trusting an EI employee to carry around EUR 7000 but that's chump change compared to pursers who used to accompany my flight crews from the Department of State when we flew into Europe and Africa.
Because you're an entrepreneur doesn't mean you have to whinge. There's a lot of energy burned up online on blogs and on Twitter by whingers who think they're entitled to concessions just because they know they have the next big thing. A lot of the whinging borrows the mindset of Irish entitlement culture. Just because you're ploughing hard at getting something world-beating out the door doesn't mean you should yammer on about the State failing to give you a gold star. I know that sounds a little harsh but I've paid plenty of real costs incurred through several failed start-ups. Go ahead and rewind on my blog or skim my twitterstream and see how much time and energy I've burned up complaining about maxing out my credit card, downshifting to another lifestyle or deciding what needs to be omitted from in the Christmas wish list. When I feel that someone owes me something, I switch on the bootstrap mode and start ringing around to see what I can charge for a new services contract. I don't slam faceless droids for their lack of respect for my talent.
Pat Phelan -- "Silicon Valley. Don't make me laugh" on his blog, 20 Sep 09.
Conor O'Neill -- "Yes. 1000 Times Yes." on his blog, 20 Sep 09.
Anton Mannering -- "No Silicon Valley in Ireland" on his blog, 20 Sep 09.
Paul Walsh -- "Entrepreneurs are not entitled to anything" on his blog, 21 Sep 09.
LinkedIn -- "Innovation Ireland"
Photo shot at Barcamp Southeast Barcamp, 20 Jan 07.