"Passion does not pay the office rent" - Interview with Michelle Gallen, entrepreneur and mentor of Garage48 Pärnu 2013

Michelle Gallen  is an author, geek and public speaker. She’s a serial entrepreneur having founded tickmeet.com, shhmooze.com and talkirish.com. She adores tech, straight-talking and whiskey and believes that startups are more like frogs than fish.  

Having the female perspective to entrepreneurship and absolutely loving technology, she was perfect to mentor Garage48 Pärnu 2013 event, where we had the record number of 38 ladies participating in developing working prototypes of web services and mobile apps in 48 hours.

With her straightforward and cut-through-the-crap attitude she was probably one of the most loved and hated mentors in the history of Garage48. So I just had to catch up with her to ask follow-up questions.

First, tell us a little about yourself and your relationship to technology?

I first used a computer in 1979. I loved computers, but tech wasn’t something central to my life until I had a brain injury in 1998. After that, I used what I could to rewire my brain to get back to normal life. I still use tech in many ways to compensate for deficits. It means I’m big into things that make a real difference - to individuals, to organisations, to the planet. I’m not really up for pissing about with Angry Birds.

How did you like the event? Do you think it’s really possible to achieve something in 48 hours?

I loved Garage48. I’d had a really tough couple of weeks before the event, and despite the pace during my visit (seriously? Just 2 hours of free time the entire 4 days I was in Estonia???), I came away energised and excited. That’s thanks to the fantastic venue, rigorous organisation, and the brilliant individuals who came together to make things happen.

I think constraints show people what they’re made of. Give people £1m and 12 months and they’ll spend it all and perhaps achieve as much as the teams we worked with who had some food, an airbed and a whole lot of pressure.

Did you have any personal favourites or were there any teams that really suprised you?

Timber Diameter app shone for me from the first minute the founder pitched. They had it all - problem, solution, market opportunity, industry experience and route to market. The timber industry isn’t sexy, but the founder made his proposition compelling in numbers, need and opportunity. Then these guys just executed - I got a great sense of team who were excited about what they were building, and very realistic about their place in the existing eco-system. They listened, they learned, they built, they networked. Best of all, their pitch answered all the basic questions, so an investor was left wanting to dive to the heart of their business.

Did you see any common mistakes? What was the most frequent advice you gave out during the weekend?

“Show me the money.”

I think the most frustrating thing in mentoring start-up teams is that most teams have to learn from their own mistakes. Failure is the best teacher.

But in some cases you can use very simple maths and a few frameworks to foresee failure, learn the lesson and save yourself a lot of pain.

A few teams were very attached to their ideas, and were passionate about their products. And they were really hard to mentor. These teams who thought their passion and commitment would overcome basic maths.

The way I see it is there are an infinite number of great ideas out there. But there are a finite number of business models. If your start-up cannot match its great idea to a revenue model (or an investment story), it’s over. You must be able to compute the basic maths of

“Does my sales revenue cover my product development and sale costs?

If not, you are going to fail. Passion does not pay the office rent. Commitment does not put food on the table. A great value proposition and excellent product still needs to generate cash or attract investors who will support it to the point at which it makes money.

There were also a lot of women participating in this event. Do you think it's somehow different for them or harder to succeed in start-up field?

Research shows that mixed sex teams ALWAYS outperform same sex teams, regardless of product/goal. I felt that the only same sex team (all male) on the hackathon really suffered from not having a couple of women there to balance things out.

Despite the huge advantage to a start-up of being gender balanced, I think it is harder for women to make it in start-ups. There are many reasons for lots of reasons. The fastest route to change I can imagine is to have more women founders. We need to put ourselves out there, working on real problems that have the potential to scale. We need to elbow our way into hackathons, join start-ups, hustle our way onto teams. And we need to be less scared of failure.

In your opinion, would if have some kind of effect if more women were active in start-ups?

More women in start-ups = more successful women in start-ups = more women with money and experience to invest in new start-ups = even more women in start-ups.

What would you say are the top skills needed to be a successful entrepreneur?

  • The talent of listening.
  • The ability to learn.
  • A lack of fear.

Some things you only learn by doing. A few things you can learn by listening. Someone who can listen and learn will gain experience fast - and that’s the key to success.

How do you define success?

Being able to change things for the better every single day. Whether that’s having the energy and love to help someone carry their shopping up the stairs or having the ability to generate millions of pounds in a business. Success is not an end goal. It should be a guiding principle in all your interactions.

Looking back, what’s one thing you wish you understood about entrepreneurship before you got started?

Fail fast.

Failure is not something to be avoided. Failure gives you the best lessons you will ever learn. And you’re better to learn those as fast as you can. Hackathons are a fantastic way to try and fail (or succeed!) in an incredibly short timeframe.

Some closing thoughts?

You describe me as “probably one of the most loved and hated mentors in the history of Garage48”. I find that interesting. Years ago, I was mentored by a woman who ripped me, my idea, my product, my entire business model to shreds. And I hated her for it.

But a few months of hard experience (and a lot of my own money) later, I eventually realised she was right. She taught me more by being brutally honest than all the other lovely, kind, supportive mentors who were patting me on the back. If I'd listened to her advice I would've saved myself thousands of pounds and months of my life.

Now when someone says something I hate, or something painful to hear, I force myself to listen 100% harder. I force myself to analyse the issues they’re raising, to answer their questions with facts, not a fuck you. The tough mentors are not always right - at the end of the day, we can only share what we’ve learned in our own experiences. But personally I've learned way more from hard criticism than mindless backslapping.

Too many teams on Garage48 told us mentors that they were fine, they were great, that they had no problems. That was bullshit. Many teams were clearly in trouble at different points.

No matter how awesome you think you are, you're probably missing something. Because most people are polite and kind and nice, they'll pat you on the head and try to make you feel good.

But that's not going to help you. You need to ask tough questions. And you need to learn to listen to and respond to painful feedback. Start asking:

  • 'What do you think we're doing wrong?'
  • 'What could we do better?'
  • 'What worries you most about our approach?'
  • 'What would do if this was your start-up?'
  • 'Do you have any alarm bells ringing right now?'

Don't try to have smartass answers to tough questions. Go away, think about the solution, and either change how you do things or have the right answer the next time.

If you liked the interview, you can find and connect with Michelle on Twitter. 
Maret Kruve,