We were bricking it.

It was the final of Startup Battlefield, the highlight of Techcrunch Disrupt New York, the world’s toughest pitching competition. Four long days of preparation, working on slides, owning our numbers, researching the judges, trying to guess what sort of questions they’d throw our way, technical rehearsal, after technical rehearsal, with little or no time for sleep. The fact that we had even made the competition was national news at home in Ireland so the pressure was intense. The well wishes on Twitter, the emails of support and the crazy amount of support, led by chief cheerleader Karl Aherne, sitting in the front row were massively appreciated but added to the already crazy levels of pressure. But we were ready.

And now here we were, backstage, waiting for our call, when Pat Phelan would take to the stage and compress everything over the last month’s work into three short minutes that could make or break Trustev forever. In the audience were VCs and investors from every major venture fund on the planet, as well as at least 100 tech journalists from all the top publications. Also present were all the potential customers that we had spoken to over the past few days; some of the world’s biggest companies whose interest had been peaked and now wanted to see what we were made of.  Waiting to judge us was a panel of heavyweights; including new CEO of Yahoo, Marisa Mayer, no token judges, or sponsor’s representatives, just five industry leaders waiting to shred us to the bone. If it was a sport, it would have been as brutal as the UFC.

But that was then.

The era of the pitch competition is over, I’m calling it.

Times change and things get old. The real value in startup pitch competitions is gone and now they are nothing but a terribly destructive distraction for startups who should be 100% focussed on survival and growth – this means spending very waking moment they can spare talking to customers, not performing in dog and pony shows.

In the golden age of startup pitching, it was in rooms full of valuable investors, not make-believe investors or self-important egotistic investors who happened to have left their cheque books at home, actual people who could change your startup’s fate forever. They were packed to the hilt with media and freelance journalists looking for the next great startup story.  The winners would take home not just a substantial prize, usually a $50,000 or $100,000 convertible note investment from a sponsoring VC firm. But actually, the prize was irrelevant because victory usually meant a slew of investment offers from firms in the audience. For the winners, the opportunities were endless and even making the final was a substantial achievement that would help with future fundraising efforts.

But now it’s over. Too many competitions, too little value. Now that startup pitch competitions have gone mainstream, all the value has been removed from the large majority of them. They’ve become nonsensical performance pieces more resembling Dragon’s Den or Shark Tank than the actual pitch format that entrepreneurs experience when put in front of actual investors. They’re a perfect way to fill some empty time on a conference schedule. Organisers, please remember that Startups are businesses, please treat them that way. There is no value for them in making them dance for your entertainment. Promising them ‘exposure’ is the same crap that unpaid interns are fed. And please for the love of god, at the very least try to have a judging panel that is actually qualified to judge the startup’s unique business models, by including people who have actually built successful startups.

For Startups, remember there is no surer way to destroy your reputation that wasting time at events that serve no benefit for your business. Stop entertaining others according to their rules for no value whatsoever. The next time that you’re asked to take part in a startup pitch competition, at the very, very least ask what specific investors will be in the room and what the media opportunities for your business are.

Stop performing, just focus on your business.

It always amuses me when people in the startup space talk about Unicorns as something to aspire to – an imaginary creature thats more fiction than fact.

Let’s face it, the guys and girls you want to meet and hang out with are the Rhinos, hard nosed motherfuckers that everyone respects, they’re basically armoured unicorns.

Joking aside, we need to have a proper conversation about the biggest challenge to startups; the ever insidious industry that’s developing around entrepreneurship and the biggest culprit of all – the overload of  ‘startup events’. It should go without saying, but unfortunately it needs saying –  as a startup founder, every meeting invitation, every event opportunity must be met with a single question – if I accept this invitation is my business better off as a consequence? Not every event is a waste of time but 95% of them are.

Here’s the most honest I can be about this – there is no loyalty card stamps for startup events, attending ten doesn’t get you a free cup of anything, except an eventual industry reputation for being unfocussed, hard truth maybe but hard to disagree with. If you’re spending anything close to a % of your time attending startup events, you are failing (and not in a good, flounders sort of way).

Every single startup business is very different, that’s the unique characteristic that makes it an investable opportunity. It’s also what makes it very hard to learn on the job. One of the worst possible mindsets that a startup founder can get into is thinking that generalised collective learning is a good idea, you have to focus on the problems and challenges facing YOUR business, not some sort of general ‘one size fits all solution’ which is usually the best that most startup events can deliver. The events that are valuable are the ones that before you attend you can clearly see the opportunity to learn or solve some issue you’re having and in these cases the shared experiences of others in the same situation can be very valuable.

Sit back and look seriously at the industry. You can directly correlate the successful businesses that are growing with their lack of attendance at startup events. Sure you’ll see their founders at events every now and again, but I guarantee it’s because that particular event is an opportunity for them, something about it delivers a clear benefit for them. They’re making strategic decisions to devote time to that event instead of the million other things on their plate that day. They arrive on time, leave on time and usually head back to work. And it’ll be one of a dozen events/entries on their calendar that day.

I’ve been lucky enough to see it first hand – the best startup CEO’s (both national and international) that I’ve been fortunate enough to meet are always that way. In the wings or greenroom backstage, getting that last email done before they get on stage, that last line of code, that last investor call. Coming off stage, there’s that urgency to get back to action and avoid hanging around that sometimes (unintentionally) comes across a tad rude, but here’s the simple truth – there just aren’t enough hours in the day to be a successful entrepreneur and you need every minute you have. Urgency and action are brilliant traits for anyone in startups at any level to have.

Sure there are some events out there that are ‘entry level’ events – startup weekends, hackathons, things of that nature but a lot of them are like the X-Factor’s of the industry – entertaining distractions where there’s a one in a million shot of a lucky break. But treat them like that optimistic distractions, social time, time off and away from your business. But don’t think that they count as ‘work’, no investor or customer will, so why should you?

All the things we talk about in terms of networking – sales opportunities, hiring opportunities, investment opportunities DO NOT come about because of event attendance, they come about as a result of having a reputation for action. If the following statement is news to you, then very seriously reconsider the path you’re on, but here goes – during a great recent conversation with Will Prendergast of Frontline VC, he mentioned to me that one of the key characteristics that Frontline look for when they’re investing is a strong bias towards action. That means an attitude of do, not think, actually go and carry out an action that will prove or disprove whatever you’re questioning instead of  just sitting around wondering where you’re going to potentially find the right answer.

It’s really what separates successful entrepreneurs from dreamers, a bias towards action. Most of the time it’s trying and failing, but learning something and then trying again. But it’s all about trying and doing. There is no silver bullet, there is no foolproof scheme that will guarantee your startup success. If you’re hanging around the Startup Industrial Complex hoping that you’ll eventually be indoctrinated into a secret circle who will reveal to you the secret handshake of success it ain’t there.

Think of it this way – if you’re extremely wealthy and go out and buy an extremely expensive McDonalds franchise, guess what you get for the privilege? Six months of working on the front line! Even McDonald’s know that business success depends on its leaders being in the trenches learning absolutely everything about their business – on site, with customers, not in some ivory tower somewhere. Leaders show up, leaders lead, leaders work harder than anyone else in the business and they work on the unpleasant stuff that no-one else wants to touch.

Next time you’re thinking about that startup event, pinch yourself and think – is there really nothing else that needs doing today? Could I schedule research calls with customers? Could I talk to my CTO about the product schedule?  Could I update my Investors and see how they could help me out with this issue I’m having? If all of those are covered, here’s a mad idea – spend time with your family, significant other, or friends, you’ll probably benefit more from that.

Your time is the most precious resource your startup has, use it properly.  

The last five years of my life have been absolutely incredible, a rush and adventure that I never thought I’d experience once, not to mind twice! And now I have some news but I guess like everything context is important so sorry if this gets lengthy but it needs to be said.

Like every good story there’s three parts.

Chapter One
Meet two incredible guys, Pat Phelan & Chris Kennedy with a crazy dream of transforming how the world tackles a huge, almost invisible problem. We all buy online, but few of us realise how rampant online fraud is and the huge costs that it causes the online businesses that we deal with.

Starting with a conversation at a damp and cold, outdoor smoking shelter at Heathrow Airport where Pat first outlined the idea behind Trustev to me, to moving into the, now infamous, waxing salon first office of Trustev, as we grew slowly, we knew there was something in the idea. At first it was hard to explain, complicated to demo and like every good prototype was ugly as hell, but it solved a big, big problem for an industry that traditionally resisted innovation at every step. Somehow, through sheer force of will and hustle, Pat managed to convince companies to take a chance on the unproven idea and slowly but surely it got easier… actually thats not true, it actually got harder, but the little successes grew into larger successes, the technology that Chris and his awesome team built started to grow legs and slowly and steadily the train started to chug forward. We raised the largest seed round in European history, picked up some nice accolades including the EU Commision’s technology startup of the year and the SXSW Accelerator Prize and started to get traction with customers.

Somewhere around this time, the urge for a change hit me and it coincided nicely with Pat’s plan to move to New York and base the Sales & Marketing functions of the business there, leaving the technical and operations parts in Cork. After chatting with Pat, which to this day is usually the easiest way to solve any problem or doubt in my head, he just encouraged me to go with my gut and that’s where the Trustev adventure came to a sad close.

You see, at that point for a while, I’d been noticing a certain other Cork business… and that’s where the story gets really interesting.

Chapter Two
Meet two incredible guys, Peter Coppinger & Dan Mackey who were already transforming how hundreds of thousands of businesses around the world get work done, all from Cork, all without investment or debt or any kind. Teamwork.com is one of those stories that is hard to believe, until you get under the hood and experience the sheer commitment and hard work that goes into keeping each and every customer happy. Teamwork.com is a success story like no other, built through sheer hard work and determination by Peter and Dan to build beautiful, intuitive software that really helps businesses get stuff done.

Honestly, I’ve never met a bunch of people like the team at teamwork.com. As we grew from 12 people to now nearly 70 in just under two years and no matter how tough it was, we held onto the great culture at Teamwork where everyone worked so hard to ensure that each and every teamwork.com customer got everything they wanted (and then some). Q2 2016 will see the guys and gals at Teamwork.com move into to their new, custom designed Teamwork HQ in Cork – I promise that you’ve never seen anything like it – you’ll be finding excuses to visit!

On a timely note, nothing beats the pride of seeing Peter, Dan and the team recognised by the home crowd of the Cork Chamber recently where Teamwork.com won Cork Company of the Year at the Cork Chamber Awards, long overdue recognition for what they’ve built. Having regularly walked down the streets of New York, Austin, San Francisco and other cities in a Teamwork.com t-shirt and get stopped by customers and fans, it’s about time Cork realised the juggernaut in it’s midst and I thank Cork Chamber for being the guys (and gals) who did so! Next step – getting the boys on the Late Late Show to keep the mammies happy!

Chapter Three
Present day. And here we get to the news. With incredible sadness, I have to tell you all that the teamwork.com part of my life is at an end. To be honest it’s like losing a limb. It’s so incredibly hard leaving a company that was the first and last thing you thought of every single day for so long. I’ll miss seeing each and every one of my teamwork family every day, I don’t think I’ll ever be lucky enough to work again with such a consistently amazing bunch of people who care so much about their customers. It’s like the mother of all breakups and yes, there has been nights of whiskey (and possibly singing)! (Teelings of course! Paul Hayes)

But here’s the thing – there’s this idea that’s been eating away at my brain for a while now; a problem that that I want to solve. I’ve spoken to a few people, infinitely smarter than me, who almost seem to think the same and that there’s something to the idea and so I’m making the leap, putting everything on red (cork bhoy!) and spinning the wheel. This means leaving the safety net of Teamwork.com and heading out into the big bad world myself.

Starting today, I’m starting the startup adventure anew, but this time for myself, taking everything that I’ve learned from Pat, Chris, Peter and Dan and building a business that I hope will benefit all kinds of businesses and startups. All I know for sure at this stage is that it will be the hardest thing I’ve ever done.

Cork is forever still my home, if my time at Teamwork.com and Trustev thought me anything it’s that all that matters when you’re starting a business is hard work followed by more hard work, with a little hard work at the weekends thrown in. It’s one of the few times where Location, Location, Location doesn’t take precedence. In the words of another Corkman who’s doing ok for himself, Liam Casey, geography is history and while certain things might be easier in certain locations, you can’t use geography as an excuse anymore. Cork, Dublin, London, San Francisco – wherever you go, hard work still awaits.

Huge thanks to everyone who’s supporting this big transition for me. The problem when a lot of your close friends are the hardest working startup people you know is getting the time to talk crazy ideas with them but over the past few months they’ve been incredibly generous with their time and I’ll always be thankful to them. I hate being a tease but for now, but cards will be kept a little close to the chest until we get a little further down the path, but we’re very pleased with progress to date, there’s the start of a business plan, the beginnings of a team and what I think is a great brand, name and identity for the new company.

And, yes, before you ask, it does begin with ’T’ – I’m not taking any changes and who knows? Third time lucky maybe? It’s worked so far!

DC Cahalane
Founder or possibly f.lounder (in training)

So with one week to go until the world’s attention settles on Ireland and the historic decision we have to make as a country, here’s a thought for the employers of Ireland.

You keep saying that you want the brightest, smartest people to work for you. You want people of character, who’ll take responsibility for their actions, who’ll stand up for their opinions. You want thinkers who act, do-ers with ideas. You want people who aren’t afraid to fight their corner. Most of all you want people who engage and are part of the solution, instead of sitting back and being part of the problem. Those are the sort of people you want working for you right?

So next Friday, make a special effort to accommodate your people in their efforts to democratically cast their vote. Don’t rig it so next Friday is the busiest day they’ve had all year, maybe accommodate those who want to vote early, vote at lunchtime, or leave work early to vote, whatever it takes. Don’t force them into the bottleneck of voting after work which is the danger zone. For people who need to travel home to vote consider letting them work from home for just one day (we do all the time here at Teamwork.com and its never done anything except improve productivity). Encourage your people to vote, it’s what responsible people do.

It’s just one day but its the most important one in a generation. It’s the tipping point for Ireland, where hopefully we rise to the top of global opinion as a modern, democratic country where despite the hardships of our history, despite the asskicking recession we’ve come though and regardless of the challenges ahead, we recognise one truth over all – you just don’t interfere with love, if two people find happiness then let them be happy, without any terms and conditions applying. For the record that doesn’t make us a ‘forward thinking country’, it just means we finally recognise the oldest truth in the world – all you need is love (sorry Beatles)

Decisions are made by those who show up, make sure your people do.