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Simple answer to difficult question

“The first thing that you have to decide is whether you want to win, or whether you want to be right…”

If you’re the entrepreneurial type, as I guess I have to accept that I am, there aren’t many questions that will stop you dead in your tracks, make your brain lock up and your mouth jabber incoherently. Entrepreneurs are people who have answers to the most difficult questions, right? We look for the answers to problems that other people don’t see or choose to ignore, right? If we have a job description, it’s “Problem Solver General.”

And yet there I was, beer bottle halfway to my mouth in the Spaniard Bar in Belfast in 2009, when I was asked the first question I had absolutely no answer for. “You have to decide whether you want to win, or whether you want to be right,” David Kirk said forcefully and with real sincerity in his eyes. I went to speak, I had no words. I tried to think, my mind retreated. I reached for the usual Northern Irish bit of wit that gets us out of these tight spots a lot of the time and drew a blank.

In my 33-years to that point, I’d done lots of stuff, but it quickly dawned on me that never once had I considered my motives for doing it. You just do stuff, see what happens. In a former life as a music journalist, I’d once interviewed the world-famous Belfast producer, DJ and movie scorer David Holmes and he’d said: “if you throw enough energy out there eventually some of it will come back”. I loved that idea and many ideas like it, especially from guys like David Holmes, who had proven it to be true time and again.

But such platitudes don’t reach down into your soul and ask questions about your essence, your reason, your very being. Not what are you going to do, but why are you going to do it?

The moment that David Kirk asked me that question it set him apart for me in the room full of highly talented and hugely successful US tech executives who had all come to Belfast from Silicon Valley looking for the local startup talent.

Most had asked the USP of AirPOS or stood glazed over as I gave them today’s latest version of the elevator pitch “AirPOS will help retailers to sell anything, anywhere” was the vague and in hindsight entirely unhelpful one I’d settled on that day.

The next day I’m very sure I gave them something else, probably using the words disruptive and SaaS – as they were the buzzwords of the conference they’d just held at Belfast City Hall. The haze of the hangover from the previous night’s excesses had not nearly abated by the time we all found ourselves in the next bar and then the next bar ad infinitum, and inevitably ad nauseum of course.

In the small record shop that I was co-owner of in Belfast, Backbest Records, we’d started to build what would be the world’s first solution to a problem that would be faced, or was right then being faced, by small retailers all across the globe. Question: How could retailers sell in their shops and online from a single inventory and at a price that was affordable even for the smallest shop? Answer: an integrated point of sale (POS) and e-commerce solution. Second question: WTF is that?

We already knew e-commerce very well as my other company, No More Art Web Development, had been building e-commerce stores for small retailers for a number of years by this point. Now we had to figure out how to make POS software and how to hook it all up. We also knew a lot about ‘the cloud’ as it had become known by then, especially how bloody cheap hosting code had become, and we’d built some apps for this new-fangled thing called the iPhone too (the iPad would arrive a couple of years down the line and change everything for POS software makers, likely forever.)

This mix of knowledge and not a little bit of supposition on our behalf suggested a solution was probable. In 2009 all we wanted to do was save the record shop, I’d never even heard the term start-up, much less had I any idea what a start-up company was or how to define one and yet it seemed we were starting one.

David, for his part, fully understood our idea and immediately got involved, helping us to understand how companies in San Francisco (where he lived) and Silicon Valley, in general, would go about the journey that we were about to embark on. In short, they would do everything relentlessly and at breakneck speed which doesn’t exactly fit with the Northern Irish, Irish, UK mindset. Yes we work hard and we’re loyal and committed folk but we could rarely be described as relentless. There aren’t too many people around these parts who consider sleeping at their desk a badge of honour. In fact, it’s more likely to become the basis of an employment tribunal!

And so we had an emerging culture clash that returned my thinking to the question again. What did I want? To win? What would that mean? To be right? Could I be right? Being right felt really good on the few occasions that it had really mattered in my life. Like being right when I said to Colin Murray at 0-3 down to AC Milan at the Champions League final in Istanbul that the game wasn’t over and that Liverpool could still win this. He never argued against the idea, Colin’s a guy who just does things too. Like being right in getting involved in the conversations that would lead to being one of the founders in setting up the Oh Yeah Music Centre in Belfast with the guys from Snow Patrol when so many people said it would never happen. Like being right when we all voted for Yes to the Good Friday Agreement and Northern Ireland started to emerge from the dark days of the Troubles into our (in some ways) equally turbulent but far less violent future.

Or did I want to win and could we be as good as these other guys across the Atlantic? What did they have that we didn’t have?

The plane touched down in San Francisco and our hearts stopped missing the beats they’d been skipping ever since we just about got the connecting flight from Houston on our way from Austin, not helped by the plane flying through a lightning storm somewhere in the Midwest on the way. A few weeks before we’d been working on the first business plan for AirPOS when David had said he wanted to ‘get involved here’ by which be meant invest some money to allow our tiny team of three to stop working on websites for clients and to focus on the AirPOS problem full-time.

Only thing was that we, myself and my co-founder Kieran Graham, had to make it to the Chieftain Bar in San Francisco on St Patrick’s Day to pick up the cheque. And so we borrowed ten grand and headed off over the big pond. We arrived on Howard Street, where it turned out David lived, on March 16th, 2010 knackered from our week in Austin, Texas (that’s another story entirely) but ready for the days ahead.

Sure enough, a day later following a river of Guinness and Bushmills we had a cheque to take back to Belfast with us to start our ‘start-up’ in earnest and to have a go at taking on the world. The pendulum of that damn question took a small swing towards a win and, although we didn’t know it at the time, we’d met another guy in the pub that night who would be entirely instrumental and essential a few years later in helping us from the brink of disaster. A big, quiet, smart as a whip guy called Mike Gill who told us some things about software that to us sounded pessimistic (wasn’t making the software the easy part?) but of course later turned out to be God-like wisdom.

From the day of that most important of questions until right now the trajectory of our lives has been changed immeasurably by the fact that we just did stuff. We’ve met some amazing people on a seven-year journey that has seen us travel a lot of the world, build a product that helps many hundreds of small retailers to operate their businesses and raised almost a million pounds in funding to support our growth. And it all came from taking a spin on the conundrum of choice and not being afraid of being wrong (which is not the same thing as being right.)

So where am I now? Am I winning? That takes awesome effort and a dedication to a mission that is unerring and perhaps even dangerous. Being right? You and I have been right a thousand times and it got us nowhere, maybe we can only win once though? I doubt I’ll ever know the answer to that question really, but it will always be close to my mind.

Last week, in our latest get on the plane moment, we launched our Crowdcube campaign to raise £450,000 to help us to take AirPOS from our backyard in Northern Ireland and to the wider world. We went with Crowdcube because they got us, and allowed us to be one of the 5% that apply who actually get listed. If you’d like to join us in pondering great questions, building great software and in making the lives of independent retailers across the globe a little easier please check out our pitch here. You can also visit our website and see how we help small retailers here.

I’m off back to winning, I hope…

Marty Neill – CEO & Founder of AirPOS.

BRAND IDENTITY IS YOUR CHANCE FOR DIFFERENTIATING FROM THE COMPETITION

Simple answer to difficult question

“The first thing that you have to decide is whether you want to win, or whether you want to be right…”

If you’re the entrepreneurial type, as I guess I have to accept that I am, there aren’t many questions that will stop you dead in your tracks, make your brain lock up and your mouth jabber incoherently. Entrepreneurs are people who have answers to the most difficult questions, right? We look for the answers to problems that other people don’t see or choose to ignore, right? If we have a job description, it’s “Problem Solver General.”

And yet there I was, beer bottle halfway to my mouth in the Spaniard Bar in Belfast in 2009, when I was asked the first question I had absolutely no answer for. “You have to decide whether you want to win, or whether you want to be right,” David Kirk said forcefully and with real sincerity in his eyes. I went to speak, I had no words. I tried to think, my mind retreated. I reached for the usual Northern Irish bit of wit that gets us out of these tight spots a lot of the time and drew a blank.

In my 33-years to that point, I’d done lots of stuff, but it quickly dawned on me that never once had I considered my motives for doing it. You just do stuff, see what happens. In a former life as a music journalist, I’d once interviewed the world-famous Belfast producer, DJ and movie scorer David Holmes and he’d said: “if you throw enough energy out there eventually some of it will come back”. I loved that idea and many ideas like it, especially from guys like David Holmes, who had proven it to be true time and again.

But such platitudes don’t reach down into your soul and ask questions about your essence, your reason, your very being. Not what are you going to do, but why are you going to do it?

The moment that David Kirk asked me that question it set him apart for me in the room full of highly talented and hugely successful US tech executives who had all come to Belfast from Silicon Valley looking for the local startup talent.

Most had asked the USP of AirPOS or stood glazed over as I gave them today’s latest version of the elevator pitch “AirPOS will help retailers to sell anything, anywhere” was the vague and in hindsight entirely unhelpful one I’d settled on that day.

The next day I’m very sure I gave them something else, probably using the words disruptive and SaaS – as they were the buzzwords of the conference they’d just held at Belfast City Hall. The haze of the hangover from the previous night’s excesses had not nearly abated by the time we all found ourselves in the next bar and then the next bar ad infinitum, and inevitably ad nauseum of course.

In the small record shop that I was co-owner of in Belfast, Backbest Records, we’d started to build what would be the world’s first solution to a problem that would be faced, or was right then being faced, by small retailers all across the globe. Question: How could retailers sell in their shops and online from a single inventory and at a price that was affordable even for the smallest shop? Answer: an integrated point of sale (POS) and e-commerce solution. Second question: WTF is that?

We already knew e-commerce very well as my other company, No More Art Web Development, had been building e-commerce stores for small retailers for a number of years by this point. Now we had to figure out how to make POS software and how to hook it all up. We also knew a lot about ‘the cloud’ as it had become known by then, especially how bloody cheap hosting code had become, and we’d built some apps for this new-fangled thing called the iPhone too (the iPad would arrive a couple of years down the line and change everything for POS software makers, likely forever.)

This mix of knowledge and not a little bit of supposition on our behalf suggested a solution was probable. In 2009 all we wanted to do was save the record shop, I’d never even heard the term start-up, much less had I any idea what a start-up company was or how to define one and yet it seemed we were starting one.

David, for his part, fully understood our idea and immediately got involved, helping us to understand how companies in San Francisco (where he lived) and Silicon Valley, in general, would go about the journey that we were about to embark on. In short, they would do everything relentlessly and at breakneck speed which doesn’t exactly fit with the Northern Irish, Irish, UK mindset. Yes we work hard and we’re loyal and committed folk but we could rarely be described as relentless. There aren’t too many people around these parts who consider sleeping at their desk a badge of honour. In fact, it’s more likely to become the basis of an employment tribunal!

And so we had an emerging culture clash that returned my thinking to the question again. What did I want? To win? What would that mean? To be right? Could I be right? Being right felt really good on the few occasions that it had really mattered in my life. Like being right when I said to Colin Murray at 0-3 down to AC Milan at the Champions League final in Istanbul that the game wasn’t over and that Liverpool could still win this. He never argued against the idea, Colin’s a guy who just does things too. Like being right in getting involved in the conversations that would lead to being one of the founders in setting up the Oh Yeah Music Centre in Belfast with the guys from Snow Patrol when so many people said it would never happen. Like being right when we all voted for Yes to the Good Friday Agreement and Northern Ireland started to emerge from the dark days of the Troubles into our (in some ways) equally turbulent but far less violent future.

Or did I want to win and could we be as good as these other guys across the Atlantic? What did they have that we didn’t have?

The plane touched down in San Francisco and our hearts stopped missing the beats they’d been skipping ever since we just about got the connecting flight from Houston on our way from Austin, not helped by the plane flying through a lightning storm somewhere in the Midwest on the way. A few weeks before we’d been working on the first business plan for AirPOS when David had said he wanted to ‘get involved here’ by which be meant invest some money to allow our tiny team of three to stop working on websites for clients and to focus on the AirPOS problem full-time.

Only thing was that we, myself and my co-founder Kieran Graham, had to make it to the Chieftain Bar in San Francisco on St Patrick’s Day to pick up the cheque. And so we borrowed ten grand and headed off over the big pond. We arrived on Howard Street, where it turned out David lived, on March 16th, 2010 knackered from our week in Austin, Texas (that’s another story entirely) but ready for the days ahead.

Sure enough, a day later following a river of Guinness and Bushmills we had a cheque to take back to Belfast with us to start our ‘start-up’ in earnest and to have a go at taking on the world. The pendulum of that damn question took a small swing towards a win and, although we didn’t know it at the time, we’d met another guy in the pub that night who would be entirely instrumental and essential a few years later in helping us from the brink of disaster. A big, quiet, smart as a whip guy called Mike Gill who told us some things about software that to us sounded pessimistic (wasn’t making the software the easy part?) but of course later turned out to be God-like wisdom.

From the day of that most important of questions until right now the trajectory of our lives has been changed immeasurably by the fact that we just did stuff. We’ve met some amazing people on a seven-year journey that has seen us travel a lot of the world, build a product that helps many hundreds of small retailers to operate their businesses and raised almost a million pounds in funding to support our growth. And it all came from taking a spin on the conundrum of choice and not being afraid of being wrong (which is not the same thing as being right.)

So where am I now? Am I winning? That takes awesome effort and a dedication to a mission that is unerring and perhaps even dangerous. Being right? You and I have been right a thousand times and it got us nowhere, maybe we can only win once though? I doubt I’ll ever know the answer to that question really, but it will always be close to my mind.

Last week, in our latest get on the plane moment, we launched our Crowdcube campaign to raise £450,000 to help us to take AirPOS from our backyard in Northern Ireland and to the wider world. We went with Crowdcube because they got us, and allowed us to be one of the 5% that apply who actually get listed. If you’d like to join us in pondering great questions, building great software and in making the lives of independent retailers across the globe a little easier please check out our pitch here. You can also visit our website and see how we help small retailers here.

I’m off back to winning, I hope…

Marty Neill – CEO & Founder of AirPOS.