Emma Mulqueeny, Founder & CEO Rewired State, on Hacking the Government
Emma Mulqueeny is the CEO of Rewired State
and Young Rewired State: independent developer networks delivering change for
industry and country.
Rewired State is the only independent developer network in the UK with over 600 software developers and designers, bringing about digital innovation and revolution through rapid prototyping events focused on research and development (R&D) and marketing campaigns.
Young Rewired State is the only young developer network of UK kids aged 18 and under who have taught themselves how to code.
Emma writes regularly for the Guardian and on her own blog and is best known for her campaign to 'teach our kids to code', relentlessly pushing the potential of the UK digital industry.
TNW: How did you come up with the idea for Rewired State and Young Rewired State and then arrive at the decision to turn your idea into a reality?
EM: In 2009 I had been working as an advisor to the UK government for nearly ten years, and increasingly focusing on the government's digital communication strategy. Conversations always led to open data and transparency: there was no way a 21st century digital strategy could ignore the consumer demand for facts and information, rather than spin – and there was no ignoring the power and opportunity afforded by open government data.
I knew many geeks, and we would spend many evenings in pubs in Shoreditch talking about the potential for open government data, and why government was so scared of it. It came down to a misunderstanding of what developers might do with government data, that there was inherently some risk, reputational or actual security risk.
So we all decided to run what we lovingly called National Hack the Government Day.
We got buy in from senior government figures, we got our hands on as much government data as we could, and for a whole day 100 geeks built websites, apps and widgets using said data. At the end of the day we showed the results to the government and press – and voila, a few months later data.gov.uk was born. That one day stripped the fear, raised the understanding and generated huge excitement about the potential.
From that day on, we were asked by a number of government departments to come in and run bespoke hack days for them, for R&D, for marketing or just to check out what data they had and what might be most useful.
But one thing we noticed. At our hack events there were no people under the age of 25 signing up to come along.
So in August 2009, we ran a weekend called Young Rewired State, same thing: open government data, but over a weekend this time, and at Google so that we could make it less dorky. We had 50 places, and three applications. It took us three months to find 50 kids, three months of blood, sweat and tears – and it was then that we realised the state of education in the UK did not support technical skills or computer science, and so it became our raison d’etre.
By 2010 there were so many hack day requests coming in, I decided that I would leave work and run Rewired State full time.
Increasingly organisations in the private sector were looking to open innovation and publishing APIs (programming interfaces for developers to build products using their data). My two pals with whom I had run National Hack the Government wanted to remain in paid work and so I jumped in and threw myself into it... just as the country went into huge recession and a change of government meant a crack down on all government spending.
In 2010 Rewired State became a formal organisation with Young Rewired State as its philanthropic arm, mentoring and teaching people aged 18 and under how to code. We are a not for profit, a social enterprise.
TNW: What is next for your company?
EM: We are now a network of just over 600 UK based developers aged 19 and over, and we have 500 young people aged 18 and under. We run hack days, rapid prototyping and research and development weekends for an increasing number of private sector organisations – and so we need to grow beyond the UK.
By extending the network into Europe, the States and Australia in 2013 we hope to be able to build the largest independent network of developers. Borders matter not, but locality of sometimes relevant to client challenges.
We are also launching two digital services in the latter half of 2012 that will enable an easier interaction with the networks and provide scalable online mentoring for the Young Rewired Staters.
TNW: Do you have any tips or any advice for women who are thinking about becoming entrepreneurs?
The main thing I would say, is make sure that you network like mad before you take the leap.
Do all the talking, the drinking and the breakfasts – go to every event you can, before you start your start-up – because once you have started it, you need to scale all that back drastically and call on those networks and connections you made as and when you need them. You will need to measure your life very carefully.
TNW: What does your day look like?
EM: I get up at 6am and do about an hour of email catch up. 7-8.30 is school run (my two children go to two schools each in completely different directions from my house and on the A31, so I sit in traffic for an hour at least every morning!). Most days I try not to go into London, but I am always in London for one whole day a week – usually Wednesdays – so on that day I go straight to the train and to London where I have back to back meetings. On other days I work from home, raising money, talking to clients, organising hack days. The team I have work remotely, so we all talk at least once a day and I organise as many meetings as I can by skype so that I do not have to spend time travelling. At 4pm I collect my eldest daughter from the station and my youngest at 4.30 then walk the dog. Home to make them supper/do their homework. I start work again at about 7pm through until around 9pm, depending on my other half and his plans.
TNW: What is your top tip for balancing motherhood with a career?
EM: I am a single parent, I was separating from my husband when I decided to leave work and run this full time, I had two children and as I had been the main bread-winner, no child support from my ex. So it was utterly terrifying, but it was also a great driver for success!
It took me a while to accept that being a female entrepreneur who was also a single parent meant that I was not going to be able to be based physically with the heart of start-ups - London.
I spent too much money and wasted time trying to make sure we were located in the right spot, that I was at the right things – to the detriment of my life and family. We live in Guildford and whilst it is not a million miles away from London, the commute was two hours door to door, which meant having a nanny (that I could ill afford) from 7am to 7pm, and yet only be at work exactly 9am to 5pm, so I was having to get home and continue working.
I decided, on one long bus journey, that I would ditch the childcare, stop trying to make it all work in one office and see if we could not work this out remotely. (We are lucky in that we can use the many shared working spaces in London to actually run our hacks and host meetings where necessary – why not use them?)
My costs immediately dropped dramatically and the car journeys to and from school gave me such insight into my childrens' lives. I got to know them again and now I would not give that up for the world.
YES it drives me insane to be forced away from work to go collect the children in the middle of the afternoon, but as soon as I am on my way, I am relieved – and it brings some time away from the intensity of work.
Of course it is not without its challenges, and I do face the constant question of 'where are your offices in London?' and I am often forced to turn off twitter when I see wonderful start-ups and pals all congregating for a wonderful get together, impulsive meet ups on sunny days and so on. But I count myself so lucky to have a family and a business that I adore – these moments of feeling like I am missing out are worth it.
TNW: If you could get on a soap box and get something off your chest about the world of entrepreneurship, something you’d like to change, what would it be?
Please do not expect start-ups to have offices when not absolutely essential. Do not pressurise or create mock Silicon Valleys in specific areas. It is expensive, divisive and destructive.
TNW: What has been your biggest challenge throughout the history of your company, from planning to funding and execution, and how could others learn from it?
EM: Cash flow is always a challenge. As a result of worrying about this, I have made some appalling decisions. Firstly I agreed to a terrible deal with a large media organisation. Where they would provide infrastructure, office space and a very small monthly sum, in return for 50% of the company revenue for a year. So whilst I had a trickle of money coming in so I could save myself 4am panic attacks, I had to find at least 50% profit in everything I sold in order to pay the master and so my pipeline slowly dried up until we were effectively dead in the water.
After we got out of that, I then agreed to help from someone I had met through the years of networking, I hardly knew him but he offered to help me get social funding and find a fast way to ease the cash flow issues in order to recover and keep going, as a mate. I agreed too readily, thinking it would be my saving grace. Needless to say this ended badly, with all of our business plans held to ransom, no sign of any potential funders and a demand for a large salary, a substantial chunk of the organisation and position of Chair!
So I had tried to mitigate the issue of cashflow by partnering and then by getting some help – when in fact what I needed to do was understand the options available and learn (fast) how to successfully apply for these things.
I have now set up an advisory board of people I respect to help drive the vision and strategy whilst keeping the ethics of the business at the heart of it. And I understand social funding!
TNW: Do you have plans to expand internationally? Which countries and when?
EM: Yes, throughout the US and Europe in 2013, Australia in 2012.
TNW: Do you believe it is better to find customers then funding or vice versa?
EM: Well, I run a social enterprise so I have to prove the value. For me the customers were key to shaping the need, and it was only after this that I could apply for social finance, with a proven success metric.
What have you learned the hard way through the fund raising process that you wish someone had told you at the beginning?
That no one else can do it for you, and no one will really help you pro bono – no matter how much they love you!
Money muddies the waters, so for me I had to learn about Social Enterprise and Trusts and funding – once I had tried a few applications I had nutted the process and understood how projects could be funded I was off and running. But I spent nearly two years and far, far too much money trying to get someone else to take that pain away for me.
TNW: What do you think could be done to increase the number of women entrepreneurs?
EM: Encourage remote working in start-ups and make it as valid as a start-up with offices in 'hip new start up land'.
TNW: What is one leadership lesson you learned the hard way, but wish someone had told you at the beginning?
Just because as an entrepreneur you can do a million things at once and have no issue with swapping hats, titles, tasks every five minutes, it does not mean that the staff you hire are happy doing the same.
My main leadership lesson has been to hire people who are great at one or two things, and let them then get on with doing those one or two things.
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