Mary McKenna: ‘Learning Pool was born after I found a discarded memorandum in a bin’

The entrepreneur, mentor and angel investor on why backing women founders is a winner, her best mistakes and the importance of having boundaries

Mary McKenna (far left) with fellow AwakenHub co-founders Mary Carty, Sinead Crowley and Clare McGee. Picture: Conor Healy

There is always a way. I think one of the qualities of an entrepreneur is that you don’t give up. People say no to you all the time, especially at the start when you don’t have a product. All you have is a story. If you take this onboard at the beginning, then it helps you not to be discouraged.

Know where your red lines are before you start. You need to be sure of what your values are and where your boundaries lie because as an entrepreneur, especially as the company grows, there will be moments when someone asks you to do something that crosses a line and you need to be able to respond immediately. For me, there was once an opportunity to secure a lucrative contract, but it would have meant paying someone off. We didn’t do it.

Be sure of what your motivations are. I recently met up with some early-stage founders as a mentor and one of them was telling me he was trying to do two things with his business – that is, to make a lot of money out of his idea, but to also fix the Irish education system. These aren’t necessarily mutually achievable, so you need to decide which one is more important to you. If you want to change the education system, then starting a business probably isn’t the way to do it and you might want to consider a social enterprise instead.

Being in a start-up nearly killed me. I loved it but you have to be in the right place to do it as you need to be focused. There are huge pressures in building a bootstrapped business where everything is about making payroll next month, ensuring revenues continue to grow and all of that. It really doesn’t leave space for anything else in your life. I’m a bit of a magpie and love the variety that comes with what I do now.

Great business ideas can be found as well as imagined. Learning Pool came about after I found a discarded memorandum in a wastepaper bin in a co-working space in South London where we were visiting. A government agency was selling it off as a project and friends working at the next desk had taken a look at it and dismissed the idea. Within 30 minutes we were having coffee with the person responsible for the sale and knew we could do something. We weren’t on the tender list, however, but our friends were, so we bid through them and won.

The best mistake I ever made was. Buying Learning Pool from the agency. For the first two years of having the business, it felt like we’d made a terrible mistake, because it was such hard work. We had initially thought we’d put some lipstick and a pair of earrings on it, turn it around in six months and flip the business. It didn’t work out like that though.

The person who starts a business isn’t necessarily the one to lead it as it grows. I sold my half of Learning Pool seven or eight years ago. My co-founder held on and has obviously benefited from Marlin acquiring a majority stake in it last year. I don’t regret that I exited when I did though. My business partner was 17 years younger than me and was still enjoying running the company, whereas there were other things I wanted to get out there and do. I also didn’t want to be in a big company, as it gets more boring as you expand. I was much more interested in early-stage businesses, so I got out and started mentoring and investing in them instead and I love it.

I didn’t start my own business until I was 43 years of age. I grew up in a small Irish diaspora bubble in Yorkshire and nobody I knew was an entrepreneur, they were nurses, bricklayers and so on. But while there was no-one there to guide me, I think there are just some people who see problems that need fixing and I’m one of them. AwakenHub is a great example of this. My co-founders and I saw there were so many great women entrepreneurs that needed support. No one else was doing it, so we decided we’d better step in.

This is controversial but, I think the way Enterprise Ireland brag about being the biggest start-up investor in Europe and the way they dominate the scene here is damaging. All roads lead back to them via New Frontiers, HBAN and so on and there is nothing else. This leads to an ecosystem where people are afraid to speak their mind because they are worried they will lose funding or grants. The government would be better off focusing on tax incentives that encourage the private sector to play a bigger role in backing entrepreneurship rather than doing everything through a state agency. There is a similar situation in Northern Ireland where the government often hands out money to unsuitable companies who then spend years fiddling around trying to find a good market fit. If other investors were in there, this wouldn’t be allowed to happen.

The worst decisions I have ever made in business have been around recruitment. It is critical you aren’t too prescriptive and don’t give over the responsibility to recruitment agencies because I think they push you into choosing the wrong people. What I have learned over time is that it is better to have a hole than an asshole on your team.

The best recruitment story I have. It’s the time I had this guy into the office early one morning for an interview and it went really well and I was thinking I’m definitely going to hire him. But as we came down the stairs and to the front door there was the morning post sitting at the entrance. Instead of picking it up and handing it to me on his exit, he actually stood on it. That told me a lot about his character. He’ll never know that he never got the job because of that.

Being interested in solely making money is quite sad. I’ve invested in around 20 start-ups so far, of which I think 12 are female-founded teams. If some of these make enough to invest in more entrepreneurs, then that is satisfying for me. Angel investing as a way to keep the ecosystem growing is far more interesting to me than just making money.

AwakenHub has grown far beyond our expectations. But its success just tells us that there is a big need for it. We’ve been keen to ensure that men are part of AwakenHub but we don’t want them to take it over. We have had funds offer to invest in companies we’ve identified and that is great but we don’t want the current situation to be replicated where it is men running the show. It is critical that we have more women backing women.

We’re still decades away from reaching parity. For every woman founder in Ireland there are four men. The gap is still huge even if it has narrowed a little. You can see this in terms of investment. I do modest amounts of angel investment with a particular focus on women founders, but there are hardly any other women out there doing it here.

Women founders typically have deep domain knowledge. That is why they are good at spotting problems that need to be fixed. If they get funding, they often deliver a significantly better return than businesses founded by men because of this.

The worst companies? The ones founded by young fellas from the City of London or wherever who have made a ton of money and decided they want to fix some global problem. They often don’t have domain knowledge, but just barge on in there anyway, get things wrong and waste everyone’s time.