Startups And Scones: Dublin’s Secret Power Breakfast

It’s 8am on a Tuesday morning as I lock my bicycle outside a modern, single story building next to the Liffey. I’m in the part of Dublin a real estate agent might call ‘Silicon Docks’. Or maybe the IFSC. Depends on the customer.

I’m rushing to lock my bike and get in. See, I know what awaits me is scones, pastries and coffee. But I also know Niamh is going to start on time, so I’d better get my scone buttered good and fast or it will be a long and hungry two hours.

Niamh is the Dublin Commissioner for Startups and from this building, her Office supports the city’s growing startup ecosystem. The Office drives a number of new initiatives to help raise Dublin’s profile as a startup hub internationally. Dublin Globe is one such initiative. Niamh also acts as a conduit between politicians and the City Council on one side and startup techies on the other side – two species that are so different it’s entirely possible that they might never meet in the wild.

This morning, I’m here for another one of their initiatives. I’m part of a crop of newbie startup founders, with companies of three to 30 people growing up in Dublin right now. Some of these companies are performing well, but they are run by first time founders, who must wrestle with the challenges of going from 16 person companies with no hierarchy to 100 person companies. Suddenly we need to think about documented product management processes, and grown up things like HR, finance and legal departments. Less time for hacking, beanbags and hoodies.

As a response, Niamh along with Joe Hogan, Founder and CTO at Openet, has gathered about a dozen serial entrepreneurs, people who have already ‘been there and done that’. These executives have taken companies from 5 to 50 to 500, worked in bigger US corporations, and generally have a load of relevant experience. The result – once a month breakfast meetups pairing these executives (our mentors) with startup founders, who peel down there on their bicycles, eager to share their growing pains.

I arrive to the buzzing room, navigate the coffee-and-scone scrum, and no sooner have I got my first crumbly bite, but it’s time to kick off. The mentors introduce themselves. One of their companies is hitting a billion euro run rate this year. Good to know. Let the speed dating begin!

Speed dating? Yes, that’s what it feels like. The mentors are each assigned a desk, and the mentees visit three of these desks in sequence for 30-minute intensive dialogues. Niamh and her colleague Sarah will have done some matchmaking before things kick off, but generally, you don’t know much about the person opposite you when you sit down. And they don’t know much about your business either.

Maybe surprisingly, it works. When you only have 30 minutes with someone, you have to cover ground quick. Explain your company, customers, current challenges. Maybe jump right into a specific challenge. A quick-fire dialogue kicks off. As with most things startup, people are not afraid to be frank. We’re not pitching these guys for investment afterall, we just want their advice.

‘You are going to need a process for that, it’s not a once off’, I jot notes as we go. ‘Time to hire your first head of HR’, says another, who swears a big chunk of his company’s success was a great HR hire early on. Another mentor discusses the pros and cons of getting a pure operations person aboard now. The mentor listens attentively to the problem, ask questions, and describes what worked for them. My head reels at the thought of us needing a “process for everything” and a “go to person for everything.”

If Elvis, Bono and James Dean were to do naked cartwheels down the center of the room, not a person would look up, every table is so absorbed in their dialogues. Sarah needs a klaxon and heavy machinery to move people from tables once their 30 minutes is up.

So do you learn anything? I think so.

First, a lot of issues will repeat themselves in any growing company. You can learn from the experiences of others, even if they run companies that do obscure B2B things with telecom providers that you barely understand. (Hello, Openet! Sorry Joe!)

Second, when you’re forced to interact with someone on your issues you learn a lot more than just reading a blog post on the issue. Blog posts don’t talk back.

Third, as soon as you start to scale, you gotta read The Hard Thing About Hard Things by Ben Horowitz. Two out of Three successful executives recommend it.

Fourth, getting out in front of problems is the singular rule of scaling. And the only ways to do that are processes and people. Build processes, hire and promote good people. It’s heartening to learn when chatting to these founders that so many key divisions at their established companies are run today by their early hires.

Finally, if you’re a funded startup, get in touch with Niamh – she makes sure she’s not hard to find, and she can likely connect you with people who can help you.

Just be sure to get there in time for the pastries!

Paul-Quigley-Breakfast Dublin-Globe

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