Paddy Flynn: Adopting Startups, the Google Way

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Google is known for a breadth of programs supporting startups globally. But there is one which is native and exclusive to Ireland: Adopt A Startup. I spoke with its originator, Paddy Flynn about why Google decided to run the program, how they find suitable mentors and what the startups gain from it.

Tell us about Google’s commitment to startups in Ireland and where Adopt A Startup fits in that?
We’ve several levels of what we do through Google for Entrepreneurs. On one side we have the global community engagement initiatives, which we run and support locally, such as Startup Weekend, Startup Next, Startup Grind, and the Google Developer Group Meetups. We have reserved seats for Irish companies in some of our international programs, such as Blackbox Connect, which is a 2 week residential program in Silicon Valley. On the other side, we have more locally-tailored initiatives for Ireland. We work closely with Enterprise Ireland for many of their programs and sit on their panels. We have partnered with Dogpatch Labs, and are helping them become a strong community pillar. By being one, they help us scale our intention to help the community. One way we do that is by sending mentors to their “First Fridays” events. Once a year we run an invite-only talk series with influential mentors in customer experience and behavioural economics to speak to startups. Adopt A Startup (AASU) fits in the middle of all that and goes much deeper in its support for local companies.

Why did you decide to run it?
It came about three years ago because we wanted to use the knowledge we have in our company locally and use it to support the startup community. To a degree, we’re the scaling centre for Europe and work with a huge amount of small and medium businesses every day. There is a lot we can teach and give back to the community. We partnered with Enterprise Ireland and aimed at their High Potential Startups – companies that have revenue, business proposition, product, and ambition to scale. Currently, we run AASU only in Ireland.

Why is that?
It fits the type of Google office we have here: a central location where we all sit, with an active leadership team that enables collaboration. Most other Google offices are not as cross-functional, or dense and the location doesn’t always match with that of the startup community. We have the Foundry on our premises, but also a cohesive Irish tech community with members wanting to help each other. That is within and outside Google. There is a lot of willingness to help and collaborate throughout the ecosystem and there is a strong community element here, which is uniquely Irish.

What is the aim of AASU?
To give startups a bump on the journey and a better chance of success. We want to help them understand what their digital presence is and how they can use our tools such as AdWords, Analytics, and Search, to improve it. During the 12 weeks of the program, we make sure startups think about the business from a business model perspective and gather and use data to make decisions. We try to find out whether they have set up their website effectively and how discoverable they are. We have lectures as well as mentoring sessions. We have found out that matching startups with the right mentors is key to the success of the program.  

How do Googlers get involved?
We have a call out for volunteers, to come along to the startup events we support. There they see what’s going on before they get involved. Initially, they help out with security, food, and other similar things. When they are ready to mentor, we send them to Dogpatch Labs to mentor at the First Fridays to cut their teeth. We see who’s good, bad, or indifferent. From there, we coach and train them to become better mentors and involve them in AASU. Some of our senior mentors go on to mentor at Blackbox Connect.

How does the mentoring part work?
The startups are matched with two to three Google employees, and they work together over 12 weeks. We ask startups to set specific and measurable goals, or OKRs (objectives and key results) as we call them here. They work with their mentors to meet those goals. The level and frequency of the engagement are up to the mentors and the startup to determine. We don’t force anything. Some of the startups connect quite a bit with their mentors, while others stay at arm’s length and just come for the formal lectures. Often times, the level of engagement will be reflected at the final when startups come up and present.

What is the final about?
The journey of the startups to accomplish the goals and the experience working with their Google team. We added a competition element to the final presentation to motivate them to meet their goals even more and make the most of it. We want to see the level of meaningful change that the startups applied. What did they learn the most? How did they engage? We are not interested whether they got more money or grew their business by a certain percentage. We have seen startups fundamentally change their business models. Others completely revamp their website because they have understood better the user journey and the effective calls to action. It’s not about the quantity of change but in the quality of the understanding why that change is necessary. Understanding what they got out of it also serves as a feedback mechanism and help us hone the program.

Do you follow what happens with startups after the program?
We try to keep in touch with our alumni to see how they’re getting on. One
reason is that we love following the good stories that come out, like FoodCloud scaling their business in the UK, and Beats Medical being the first ever Irish startup to go over to Google’s Demo Day. But the other reason is again to get feedback on the impact of the program. Some of the changes they apply during the program take time to prove their worth. It’s crucial to get the founder’s feedback and make sure we are ticking the right boxes from a mentoring point of view and the impact it has. We also try to bring the alumni to talk to the current cohort to create momentum in the community.

What advice beyond obviously getting on a plane, do you have for scaling startups?
Know what you are going to do and whom you are going to meet when you get off the plane. One way we try to help is through the Tech Hub Network of Google for Entrepreneurs partners around the world. Dogpatch Labs is a Dublin member. Founders from one partner can use the facilities of another as they travel. It’s something we want to develop more, as it gives great international exposure to everyone. Another advice would be to participate in programs abroad. The consistent feedback we have gotten about Blackbox is that it has opened people’s eyes to ideas and people they hadn’t realised existed.

What stands out from AASU and your involvement with startups for you?
One is certainly the level of ambition in Irish founders. Startups are going out there; scaling, competing on a global basis, and winning in a lot of the instances. This is as valid for our cohort companies as it is generally the case in the ecosystem. The other thing is the community element. The ecosystem is more recognisable, but it still needs a push to keep going. It’s where the Gene Murphys, Dogpatches, the NDRCs and many other come in, actively pushing and helping. The community is strong here because these people want to make a difference for everyone. That is incredible to observe.

Pictures by Shane O’Neill Photography.

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