Saturday 3 December 2016

Former corporates pioneer the new breed of start-ups

One might be forgiven for thinking that all start-ups begin in garages and offices set up in spare bedrooms, but many former employees of multinational corporations are also having a pop at world domination

Jill Godsil

Published 15/11/2015 | 02:30

Military precision: Patricia Scanlon, who set up SoapBox Labs after working at big corporates
Military precision: Patricia Scanlon, who set up SoapBox Labs after working at big corporates

One might imagine that the new breed of entrepreneur would never have been corrupted by the air breathed in corporate offices or by the golden handcuffs of the corporate perks.

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Yet increasingly start-ups are emerging from corporate - taking the best practice and applying it to a very much scaled-down business model.

Perhaps it is also a sign of a recovering economy to witness increasing numbers of entrepreneurs leaving the safety of the PAYE net and venturing out on their own.

One observer to see first-hand this new breed of entrepreneur is Richard Donelan, founder and chief presenter of IrishStartUpTV. An endurance athlete by passion and an observer by nature, Donelan found himself working in Dogpatch Labs as a mentor to new start-ups.

Dogpatch Labs is a co-working space and incubation facility. Originally launched by Polaris Partners in San Francisco in 2009 and with subsequent facilities in New York, Boston and now Dublin, Dogpatch Labs spaces have incubated such companies as Instagram which was sold to Facebook for approximately $1bn.

Earlier this year it moved from Barrow Street to state-of-the-art facilities in CHQ. It also moved from a free-to-play to a pay-to-play co-working space and is supported by Google and Ulster Bank.

It's like a mini Silicon Valley where beer busts and pizza events are the norm. And the average age of the start-up founders is 25.

While Donelan began working as a mentor he swiftly began recording the myriad keen new companies crossing his path. Since founding IrishStartUpTV he has now interviewed in excess of 150 start-ups and increasingly finds the founders are coming from corporate life.

"I created the website to share the news about the amazing buzz that is happening in Ireland. In the beginning, I found most of the start-ups hailed from academia or techcamps like Dogspatch Labs - but over the past few months I've interviewed more and more founders who have come from the big multinationals, including many Googlers."

In Donelan's experience, engineers who have big corporate experience can hit the ground running.

"They know how to scale, and they know how to build a product quickly," says Donelan. "They also know how to talk money - always a good talent in a start-up."

If a start-up has to outsource its technical requirements, he says, then it's a much harder and more expensive process.

"Also, despite working in a corporate environment, engineers are basically creative types. They want to build cool stuff - not sit behind a desk. So when they do break free to do their own thing, they are a force very much to be reckoned with," adds Donelan.

Kevin Bosc from ReferMePlease is one such ex-Googler. Previously he managed the French customer services for Adwords and very much enjoyed the many perks of the job.

"I do miss that side of things," he says. "Google looks after everything for its employees, right down to the free food and social life. It makes it very hard to leave.

"However, I have found that the skills I learnt at Google are standing me in very good stead. For example, Google is a data-driven business and I have applied that hard learning to my new start-up.

"In the first iteration of ReferMePlease I only allowed employers to seek out candidates, but it proved too static. I analysed the data, altered it so that candidates can also start conversations and suddenly the traffic went through the roof.

"As I am bootstrapping the new business I need to watch every cent I spend. Being able to analyse and amend based on data received is a lesson hard-wired in me from my time at Google. Now the downloads are starting to yield results," he says.

Aonghus O hEocha is another example of gamekeeper turned poacher. He worked for Land Rover and BMW as a senior manager on new Mini and Range Rover projects.

He then obtained a master's degree in engineering business management from Warwick University in the UK, before going on to form technology firm (OHD) which specialised in radio based solutions.

At one point, he developed a grab tune app, similar to Shazam, which pulled in significant revenue before losing the marketing campaign (similar to Betamax and VHS).

"It was a great project and we made money," says O hEocha, "but we lost out to deeper pockets."

He has worked on other projects since, but is very appreciative of his corporate past.

"I totally understand the corporate mentality. As an SME this is imperative. I can talk the same language from the get go," he says. Today he is CEO of GIRT, a software house that specialises in developing apps.

His corporate past allows him to understand budgets. "It is radically different from start-up to corporate," says O hEocha.

"While I may be working on start-ups now, I am selling to big corporates and it is important that I understand my buyer. Actually, it is imperative I understand my buyer."

Pierre Denicolay is the new CEO of Bring4You, Currently he is still employed at Google as an account strategist. His role is to help people grow their businesses using Google products. He has been employed by Google for more than a year now, but he is looking to take the skills learnt and bring them to his new venture.

His new business is already getting traction and is another advance on social cooperation. His platform allows people move their possessions via other people: a sort of family delivery service.

His informal delivery service is low-cost and allows travellers to make money by carrying goods wanted by others.

Think of it as a transport version of Airbnb. For Denicolay, his experience working with Google has really informed his new start-up.

"I set up Bring4You with two other directors - from China," says Denicolay. "The international experience I gained from Google was directly and positively impacted from that.

"I must also say the digital experience I learnt from Google was invaluable, and finally, I also benefited from all the start-up events organised by Google. It was like a bootcamp for entrepreneurs."

It is not just software giants that produce start-ups, sometimes international law can produce entrepreneurs also. One such man is Peter Griffin from internationally-recognised London-based law firm Sherman and Sterling.

Griffin's speciality is international litigation, which has seen him mediate between large organisations and even countries.

Griffin was involved at the highest levels of negotiations, including the so-called Velvet Divorce - where Czechoslovakia was divided in two in a bloodless legal split. As such, not only does Griffin have excellent negotiation skills, he also has many contacts.

"My network is very strong on many areas," says Griffin. "From policymakers through to institutional investors, I enjoy a good working relationship with the shakers and makers in international markets.

"And having dealt with tricky negotiations, I know what works and what doesn't. This is very powerful when working on projects that are very close to the ground. A start-up and a country share similar features in negotiations - the details are very important, if not critical, to both."

Griffin set up his own consultancy in London and through contacts with an African country, is now working with Irish-based Yapping.

"It's not just Ireland that has a diaspora - most other countries do too. I am working with Yapping to take a model developed for and in Ireland to mainland Africa. It's a different kind of thrill," says Griffin.

Dr Patricia Scanlon holds a PhD and boasts IBM and Bell Labs amongst her former employers. She is fully cognisant of the impact of these corporate names.

"While I was still employed and wore my nametag at events I could see people take notice. It is the same when I use the names now - having worked for these heavyweights confers credibility on me by default."

While Scanlon was working at Bell Labs she relished the environment - a mix between industrial and academic research. However, she also found she wanted to push the focus of her research into more innovative forms.

Working for a networking giant, she nevertheless wanted to look into developments that were adjacent to their core focus, such as big data and the internet of things. She was not given the opportunity to pursue her interests and found she was pitching constantly back in 2008 but without success.

"It is hard to turn a massive ship," says Scanlon. "However, it was a great experience. Despite my inability to change the R&D focus in Bell Labs I learnt how to pitch. And I learnt how large corporates listen."

Scanlon can now slice and dice her pitches with military precision. Since she set up SoapBox Labs, a smart proprietary speech-recognition software to enable reading assessments and personalisation for young children, she has been raising money and speaking with big corporates to find business partners.

At a glance she can revise her pitch to suit accountants, financial heads, engineers or marketeers.

"We work in a B2B arena but being able to gauge the room is vital. I now head up a start-up but I can talk the same language as the corporate that we want to work with, partner with or sell to. Now that is invaluable."

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