I invited Emma Mulqueeny over to YHP as she discusses her entrepreneurial exploits and how the idea for Rewired State was born. Her start-up runs hacks and modding events for the private and public sector. This is Emma’s story.
Can you give us some background information about yourself?
My father is a computer scientist and mathematician, and so my childhood was full of 'fun maths', BBC Micros and screeds of educational software to help me with other subjects. However, I did not choose to take this on as a career, or even thought it had any effect on the career choices I made in life; until I look back - and yes, in retrospect this did influence much of my later passions.
My work focused on communication and increasingly online communication. During the 90's I built up my expertise through experience and began to work more closely with Parliament and Government departments, moving increasingly into strategy.
The mantra of 'Keep it simple and be honest in your writing' that resonates so well in digital communications became more and more essential for the public sector. With Ministers engaging with increasingly digitally literate citizens with high expectations of online information from their government and Ministers, the expenses scandal hit.
With that came the meerkat moment for most people about the value of open data. Something I had personally been passionate about and argued for, to little avail. As had many others. Through serendipity I happened to be in position to bring together my geek friends with my work colleagues to help them listen to each other and for the programmers to show the value of open data in real terms. It was also a chance for Government to share their concerns, in an informal environment. I did this through running hack days with the government; starting with National Hack the Government Day back in 2009. The rest, as they say, is history!
Tell me how you initially got into business?
I have always worked for myself, I would be a terrible employee!. However, the businesses I had before were either sole trader business', or very short term partnerships to solve an immediate problem trend. Rewired State is the first one that has grown consistently, and now employs a team of people, and looks like it will continue to grow.
How did the idea for Rewired State come about?
I did not intentionally do this. I created it to respond to a specific need. But that need kept on changing and growing as we understood more, and as government understood more (and did more). Our solution and community became ever-more useful to a growing sector, moving beyond government and into the private industry.
Until the need goes away, we will stay here; ever-refining our offer, but with developers and the hacker mentality always remaining at the heart of everything we do. The community of developers in Rewired State and Young Rewired State will always be there. Business will come and go I suspect.
So similar to the hack days you ran previously with the government?
Yes, I replicated the hack days happening in pub basements across the world. Using that premise to bring developers and government together over a short period of time, during which prototypes were built and showed government the possibilities, removing the fear.
We are still doing this today, but we are also moving this methodology into the R&D space for organisations. Most of whom struggle to hire the talent they need to innovate fast and stay competitive. We give them weekend access to select developers, new things are built and then through modding weekends, taken to product.
It's a sweet deal for everyone, using pretty much exactly the same formula we started out with, just refining the input and defining the output.
Tell me about the early days, what was the hardest part of starting the business?
Time! I was so busy as I was still working with Government and The Guardian at the time. And as a single parent I was solely responsible for my children, financially as well as socially/educationally and so on. So I never had time, and I worked long long long long hours! My social life whizzed from ace to zero pretty much overnight, and when I made the jump from being paid on fixed term contracts to having to rely solely on income generated by this brand new business, that was ground-breaking and untested - it was absolutely terrifying. Many a 4am panic attack! But necessity made me carry on, working and refining, growing and adapting what we did.
How did you initially get traction?
It was not a challenge. Government departments needed to see what would happen if they opened their data. And the developer community back in 2009 was desperate to show them the value. Bringing these two groups together over a weekend of beer and pizza, as it was back in those halcyon days was not hard. So there you go... Beer and pizza!
How have you been able to fund it so far?
By ensuring it makes enough money to pay for the events and any associated staffing costs! As I was working for the first two years of its life, although increasingly part time, I did not need to burden the business with my own costs. Only when there was a proven strategy for the business and a plan, however malleable it may need to be in years to come, I was able to set targets and know that we could grow and make enough money to hire more people. And so we go on. We have not taken any investment, we don't even have an overdraft. By allowing the business to grow with demand, it means that we can continue to steadily grow our reputation and build our burden of proof that we have a solution to real challenges.
What is Rewired State? And what are you trying to solve with it?
Rewired State runs hacks and modding events for the private and public sector. Our community of developers includes open data specialists, front end designers, back end programmers, UXdesign, hackers and specialists in rapid prototyping.
We represent the solution to two challenges that are becoming increasingly worrying for organisations:
- No access to talent as there are simply not enough developers in the world to keep up with demand. Developer floors in large organisations are power-houses of people fire-fighting internal demand for ongoing service, forget innovation, but organisations need to innovate and fast in this digital renaissance. The digital literacy, access to mobile technology and agile software of an increasingly high percentage of the world's population sets an expectation of immediacy and individual tailoring of solution, pretty much in real time that is very hard for any organisation to address, without be able to quickly respond, define and refine their solutions. And for that, you need more developers than you can hire, or are available to hire. You cannot hire our developers individually through us, they are mostly all employed fully, have their own businesses or have no need to work to live any more - but we convene these hack days and hand-pick the most appropriate to address your specific challenges over a weekend, building multiple prototype solutions. The modding process is iterative with our clients and the dev teams - and happens at weekends and over a matter of weeks.
- Big Data is real now, and beyond the public sector. Industry is having to understand what this means for them. It impacts the innovation challenges as described in the above bullet point, because whilst engaging developers with your specific challenges is one way to keep up. Another is to open your data and platforms - this will breathe infinite life into your own knowledge economy.
What are the most crucial things that you have done to grow your business?
- Taking advice when needed from the people I admire most and who have found a solution to that problem, or a similar one.
- Constantly looking at what we do and identifying tricky areas, understanding what the root cause of that is and resolving it.
- Ever-refining and simplifying what we do, so that we are most useful to a greater number of people at doing a small set of single things.
- Not trying to grow too fast - ensuring we can afford to pay for what we do by being good at what we do.
- Not taken on investment.
What would you say has been the highlight of your entrepreneurial journey so far?
It is amazing to be recognised for doing what I do, of course. But more than that the greatest thing is loving what I do so much. I am still giddy with it and am still like a girl in the early throes of a love affair (even though the business is six years old) I am still at the 'No you put the phone down, no YOU put the phone down' (represented in business terms by me doing just one more thing before I stop for the day!) stage of in love with it. And I definitely have mentionitis.
What should we be expecting from yourself and the Rewired State team in the upcoming months?
Well, we are going to be speaking at more events so more people know about what we do! Our modding day process of taking hack day prototypes through to actual products is just starting to take off and we are very keen to show off about it! Obviously our philanthropic arm Young Rewired State: finding and fostering every child driven to teach themselves how to code, has moved centre stage of many public discussions worldwide, and so we will continue to nurture this. Our Festival of Code in the Summer is going to be our biggest yet, with children flying in from Europe, Singapore and the US.
Lastly, what three pieces of advice would you offer entrepreneurs starting out today?
- Fail! If you have no failed yet you are not being brave enough. Through failure you will refine what you do, and you will keep on trying new things, however short-lived, and it is far more likely that you will strike that genius idea, or stumble on one thing that drives everyone nuts, but you can solve (and make money).
- Do not look immediately for investment. I would say get at least five years under your belt before you look for help. Make your business makes money. Live and grow from that - then if you need it, go for it but know what you hold dear and know what you will trade.
- Hire wisely. Take time to understand what roles you need to have filled. Take weeks to write your job descriptions. Have a panel interviewing new people. Hire the best person for the job but remember you can teach skills, you cannot teach integrity, personal enthusiasm for your sector, work ethic. Do not hire your mates... ever.