On Thursday 11th April, I attended the sixth annual BelTech conference, curated by Kainos, which showcases Belfast’s creative, digital tech sector. Here’s a bit of a summary of what I learned at the event and the key takeaways.

This year there were three tracks to choose from: Software, AI and Business. I chose to attend the Business track.

The conference was held at the spectacular Titanic Belfast building.

The key-note speaker opening proceedings was Sunil Sharma, Managing Director of Techstars Toronto.

Sunil Sharma, Managing Director, Techstars Toronto (@sunil_extreme)

Sunil shared his story of how he went from working as a career diplomat in the Canadian Foreign Service to Managing Director for Techstars Toronto. Techstars choose startup companies to join the 3-month mentorship-driven accelerator where they invest $120K and provide hands-on mentorship and access to the Techstars Network. They put on events to help the start-ups achieve the investment they require to grow and scale. For example, they organise a “speed-dating” event where the entrepreneurs pitch to 10 companies in a row, in five minute slots. This helps gain the investment and refine their investment pitch technique.

He sees Northern Ireland as an ideal candidate for such an accelerator programme with its deep pool of IT talent.

Maria McKavanagh, CIO, Verv (@mmckav)

Maria gave an engaging talk about how her company Verv is harnessing the power of AI to provide their customers greater insight into their household electricity consumption.

The system works by attaching a device to the home smart meter which can detect the current / voltage characteristics of individual electrical appliances in the home. This allows an itemisation of the electricity bill, for example it might cost £1.50 to run the dishwasher.
The benefits of this are clear for reducing the energy bill, but it’s the additional, unexpected insights that make this really cool. For example, a washing machine will draw variable amounts of electricity depending the point in the cycle. When the water is draining out of the machine the Verv device can detect this. Over time, the period of the draining section of the cycle gets longer as it gets blocked. This information can eventually be used to predict when the washing machine is likely to break allow intervention before the disaster has occurred!

Maria went on to discuss future industry trends, in particular solar panels. Now, any excess energy produced is sold back into the national grid at a price far below that which it is purchased. Maria gave the example figures of 5p per unit to sell it back and 15p per unit to buy. It is possible to buy a battery to store the excess power generated. The Verv device learns over time how much energy the customer requires per day better than they know themselves by looking at their usage history. Then, instead of selling the excess back into the national grid, it can be sold to a neighbour at, for example, 10p per unit: peer-to-peer energy trading.

Her tips for succeeding as a start-up included keep the idea simple (but make sure it’s useful), funding is the key (although be careful of who you invite to invest), don’t fall foul of regulators (get them onboard if you can), branding is important, don’t plan too far ahead and keep customers at the centre of everything you do.

Chris Johnston, CEO, Adoreboard (@chrisjsays)

Chris began by offering the statistic that 80% of purchase are made based on emotion. He went on to propose that in this “experience economy” the only way to differentiate your company in the marketplace is by offering a better experience.

Originally a Queen’s University based company, Adoreboard help companies gain valuable feedback insights by producing an Adorescore metric. This is calculated using AI to amalgamate various customer insight data sources. The Adorescore allows the company to see how they are performing relative to other companies and gives rise to actionable insights into where the company is doing well and where it is doing badly.
Chris spoke about the Marginal Gains idea, from Dave Brailsford, the former head of Team GB Cycling. The idea is that by breaking down performance and improving each element by a marginal amount, this will in turn lead to an overall significant improvement. Chris’s view is that AI can be used to find these marginal gains, particularly in customer experience.

A critic of the marginal gains theory, Chris went on to explain, was Bradley Wiggins, a key member of Team GB Cycling who insisted that focus should be on getting the fundamentals right rather than on the margins.
Chris Johnston and Adoreboard propose that both are correct. The fundamentals and essentials of the service should be in place first and then attention can be turned to the magic, the differentiators that will give your company the edge.

Oliver Lennon, Founding CEO, Syndeo (@oliverlennon)

Oliver is a former Kainos employee, he gave an alternative view to the path of start-up success with hard won wisdom.

Oliver is the founding director of Syndeo. Syndeo is a new model for delivering customer service. Powered by Intelligent Chatbots, they enable businesses to connect with the new generation of consumers whilst engaging a community of experts.

He began his talk by pointing out the difference between Silicon Valley and Northern Ireland and believes we should not be trying to replicate the US tech hub here, but forging our own environment.

He went on to show a slide with the text: opportunityisnowhere. This could be read as “opportunity is nowhere” or else “opportunity is now here”. His point was that at times on the start-up journey things can seem bleak, but opportunities are always there if you look hard enough. Luck is involved but also plenty of hard work.

He is sceptical of the benefits of accelerator / incubator programmes for start-ups. These types of programmes offer the start-up company exposure to investors and venture capitalists for funding. Oliver believes that exposure to customers would be more beneficial for learning what is best for the new company. Learning to pitch to the customer first is more important than pitching to funders.

Oliver’s tips for success:

  • Who – Who is on this start-up journey with you? Avoid hangers-on who will take your money and offer little value. The best person to promote and market your company is you.
  • What – What is it you want to achieve with the start-up? It’s ok to be humble and define success in modest terms. A company does not have to grow into Uber or Facebook in order to be deemed successful.
  • When – When do you want to do this? If you get an investor onboard you immediately start to cede some control. Investors want to see growth and profit and may encourage more aggressive timelines. There are alternative options, for example, you can bootstrap or else Invest NI offer specific grant funding for Innovation in IT.

A few other tips Oliver offered in his closing:

  • Avoid chasing awards. The process is time consuming and does not necessarily grow your business. They can be an ego boost but at the end of the day this is not why you are taking on all the work and risk associated with a start-up.
  • Listen to your customers, understand you market and learn to focus (Focusing is about saying No. – Steve Jobs)
  • Buy good coffee and have lots of chats.

Dr Rachel Gawley, Product Research Lead, PwC (@deadlytoes) and Roger Rooney, VP Operations, Options Technology (@rogerrooney)

Rachel and Roger had similar concepts to convey, namely trying to reduce the pain and risk from the start-up model without removing the innovation and disruptive nature.
Rachel described the start-up path:

  1. Innovate – Come up with a novel, desirable, feasible product idea.
  2. Grow – Ensure it is a viable business, repeatable and can be incrementally improved.
  3. Scale – Ramp it up, adding operations, automation to accelerate.

She noted that few start-ups make to the end of this process with many stumbling in the middle section due to a lack of support and infrastructure. In PwC New Ventures team, they are attempting to address this problem by providing promising start-ups with the support they need. However, there is a balance to be struck. With the backing of PwC support, infrastructure and capital to back it, how can it be discovered if the start-up is the real deal when it hasn’t gone through the proving ground that others have?

Once the business idea has been generated, they use minimal resources to validate the if it is a viable business within 12 weeks. This provides them with the quick feedback they need to know if it is an idea worth pursuing.

Roger relayed a similar message from Options Technology, this idea of harnessing the creativity and freedom to innovate of the start-up while at the same time leveraging the infrastructure of an established organisation.
He stressed four factors for Options Technology’s success in this:

  • Team – Smart, ambitious do-ers.
  • Environment – Cultivate an environment where people feel free to try things that may fail, without repercussion.
  • Market – Understand the market by maintaining close contact with your customers.
  • Access – To the technology, training, experience.

Know your customer…

The Business Track at BelTech was focussed on start-ups, providing great advice for success in this area, however, many of the lessons can be applied to any business, no matter what size. The key piece of advice coming through from all the speakers: know your customer – it’s all about the customer.

BelTech is a fantastic conference showcasing the best of Belfast’s thriving IT sector.