Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Experiences as a mentor for the IBM SmartCamp world finals (cross-post)

This is a cross-post of something I posted on the IBM SmartCamp blog.

I was honored to be invited to act as a mentor at the IBM SmartCamp world finals which are being held in Dublin this week. In preparation I had a look at the videos from the finalists and it was clear that they were all very deserving finalists. I also was somewhat overawed to see the very impressive list of mentors that had been assembled. After a few introductory speeches, each of the companies then gave a six minute pitch about their company. We then broke up into a series of small mentoring teams and we met with each of the companies in turn to discuss their strategy.

The purpose of these sessions was to give them advice about how they can improve their chances of success. In initially I was doubtful that I would be able to give much useful advice since I have no personal experience of working in a small start-up. However, after listening to the discussion I found that I was able to offer some real advice which the participants seemed to value. I must stress that the advice was only very minor tweaks to their strategy since all of the companies seemed to have well thought out strategies. Nevertheless the companies seemed to really appreciate the advice they got and I can see how they really gained from their involvement in the event. There was only one company where we advised them to radically alter their strategy (I won't embarrass them by identifying them).

The day's activities were wrapped up with a masterclass by Chris Horn about building a successful company. Chris spoke about the lessons he learned during his time as a CEO of Iona which was probably the most successful software company ever to originate in Ireland. Chris' advice was very relevant and I could see that many of the company founders in the room were taking notes. The important points were:

  • The main issue facing all startups is that they need to simultaneously lower the cost of adoption for their potential customers while at the same time ensuring that there is a high cost for any potential competitors to replicate your product ans service. For Iona he described how they were building upon a public standard, but at the same time managed to keep ahead of their competitors. He also described how the focussed on making it really easy for customers to adopt their technology by making their entry package very cheap and easy to install.
  • Another factor he spoke about was the fact that potential customers were nervous in buying from a small company. He felt that the fact that Sun Microsystems became one of their shareholders helped build their credibility.
  • The world is not entirely flat and it matters where your company is based. In hind sight he feels that he would have been more successful if he had relocated to the USA when the company went public. He feels that the way forward for Irish companies could be to have their R&D headquarters in Ireland, but their business functions headquartered in USA.
  • He felt that he was too quick to promote internal people who had been with the company from the start, while the company could have been better served by getting in people with more experience. 
  • Chris feels that the number of talented entrepreneurs in Ireland has really increased in recent years, bu Ireland is still very short of experienced chief financial officers who know how to raise capital and grow a company.

At the end of the day, we had to submit marks for how we rated each of the finalists. This was very hard they were all very good. I can't reveal any voting yet, because the winner will be announced tomorrow morning at an event in the new convention center. I am sure that whichever company is chosen as a winner, all of the finalists can look forward to a bright future.

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