I met Lisa at WTF (Women Tech Founders) a month or so ago, where she did a panel discussion about being a female CEO. If you just look at her linkedin profile she has had a phenomenal career within construction and now technology so she was someone I was really excited to sit down with. She is a woman to watch and an inspiration for females wanting to start-up in tech.
You have had a very successful career from completing your PhD, to buildings leader, director, CEO and Co-founder, what’s your story Lisa?
I’m an engineer by background – Civil and Architectural, with a PhD in computational fluid dynamics (which involved spending four years writing C# code). So a pretty logic-driven and practical person. When I got into industry I did a lot of different things. I project managed one of the first electric vehicle demonstrator projects in the UK, optimised the design of an opera house to save 3000 tons of carbon and worked out how to stop some wind turbines sinking in the North Sea.
I’ve always liked doing new things. Then I pitched to my employer that I should start a new regional business for them (so I could cut my commute and see more of my then 1-year old daughter!). And I spent five years doing that, winning business, managing clients and growing the team. That business is still going strong and I’m hugely proud of it. But about two years ago I had a burn out. It was the weirdest thing, to feel less and less in control and less and less able to make the right decisions. So I took a sabbatical and my experience ultimately inspired me to start HellyHolly. Now I run HellyHolly, Carba and also help my previous employer with their digital venturing programme. It’s a great mix, and I love it.
Could you tell me about HellyHolly and Carba Consulting?
Carba is a consulting business that offers expert witness services to the construction industry; when there is a dispute the legal teams or insurers will employ experts to research what’s gone wrong and give their opinion on who is responsible and why. We specialise in steelwork fabrication and design, and digital design processes, including forensic investigation of digital building models. My role in the business is strategic, I don’t contribute opinion but I work on quality and business development – reviewing what’s produced and helping with client relationships.
HellyHolly is a startup in the AI/chat space. We make a productivity platform for managing the competing demands of all the different domains of your life – work, social, home, family. A huge amount of mental energy goes into making sure all these different areas are in sync and coordinated, because existing tools and data are in silos that don’t talk to each other. When you’re busy, stressed and tired doing all that coordinating and collaborating can easily go wrong. So we make software that stops things going wrong, helps you make better decisions and shows you opportunities to do the things you want to do. We’re currently running in private beta with working parents – these people have a lot of stuff to get right and feel terrible if they get something wrong! So it’s a great use case to start with.
Have you ever suffered with the impostor syndrome?
All the time! For me it manifests more in finding it hard to decide what advice to take and what to leave. I’m naturally collaborative – I’ll always crowdsource opinion and insight from my colleagues or networks, I value others’ perspectives and expertise and I will always listen. There’s always something to learn right? Sometimes though you can get into the habit of undervaluing your own opinions. So I’m getting better at looking at the advice I receive through the lens of that particular person’s perspective, not taking it as hard rote fact, and trusting my gut.
What is the worst business advice you have received?
Being advised to use tools and processes that don’t fit the stage of the business. Having been in large corporates, grown a business from scratch to scale and now running a startup, I’ve learnt that you need to pick tools – whether mental models, frameworks, software, whatever, that are right for right now. You can’t take the tools you use to run an established business and apply them to a startup, because what you’re trying to do is entirely different. An established business is all about refining and optimising operations, stabilising and embedding. A startup is all about learning, trying stuff, moving fast and evolving. You can’t write an 80-line gantt chart for that, so don’t try.
What is the best advice you would give to a woman looking to start her own business?
Spend some time learning about yourself first. What’s your purpose? What really drives you? Whatever you’ll do you’re going to need bags of passion for it. Passion is the only thing that’s going to get you through the deep, deep pits of despair when it seems like nothing is working or no one else cares, or worse – when everyone thinks you’re wrong! You’re going to have to commit seemingly irrationally to your vision for an unreasonably long time so it helps hugely if it aligns with how you want to show up in the world.
What has been the challenges of building tech products as a non-tech founder?
Making progress when the only resources you have are your own time and the time you can convince other people to give you for free, and getting that MVP into existence when you have a big CTO-shaped hole in the company. I see a lot of other ‘non-tech’ founders struggle at this point too; you have to decide to raise money, pay an agency or find a technical co-founder. Even if you think you are ‘non-technical’, I would recommend getting absolutely as far as you can as fast as you can under your own steam. We hacked together our first proof of concept prototype ourselves before finding our technical co-founders, using things like google scripts, zapier, slack etc. You can get a long way with free (or very low cost) tools. This isn’t going to be a product that you can take to market, but you can use it to share your vision and to do customer research and ultimately to convince others to join you. I feel like we massively lucked out when we found our co-founders and could get on with building our ‘proper’ product and our company, we’re such a great fit as a team.
What single thing would you change to improve gender equality within technology or even construction?
Having spent all my working life as a minority gender in the workplace (including being the only female on a construction site of 250+ all male welders at nineteen years old) I’ve seen a lot of issues. I’m not a fan of the ‘fix the women’ approach that is typically how companies choose to tackle gender issues – got a gender equality problem? Let’s get women to be different so then they’ll succeed more! To me this is a lazy attempt at a solution. This isn’t to say that mentoring or coaching isn’t valuable; it’s valuable to anyone, not just women. But mentoring, coaching, role models, case studies or whatever aren’t going to change anything if we don’t fix the culture first. We need to fix the inherent structural reasons that make the landscape of opportunity disproportionately favourable or difficult to one gender or another. We need to fix decision making. We need to fix bias, conscious or otherwise, in systems and processes. And for me this comes down to better diversity right from the top down. So until someone can prove to me by research that there is true equality in our selection, promotion and progression processes then we should have quotas that require equality at board and senior management levels.
I also want to see more men speaking up for gender equality, by rejecting appearing on ‘manels’ for example, and calling out bias. This isn’t just a women’s issue, equality and diversity makes things better for everyone.
The fund I help manage in my corporate VC role is expanding, so there’s a lot of strategy to work out about how to scale up our processes and collaborate more with startups, which is super exciting. For Carba we’ve got a couple of really big international cases on at the moment, so that’s heads down and power through time. And for HellyHolly we’re building on from our private beta – the next few product iterations to get through before we go for a public launch. I’m hugely excited to get the product in the hands of more people, learn how it gets used ‘in anger’, and keep on making it better and better. Anyone interested in the launch can let us know at www.ourcanary.com, we’d love to hear from you.
And from me to you ….
Waaa there are so many!
“No ache, no cake”, which I say to myself over and over in my head during my spin class, right when I hit that ‘why on earth am I doing this to myself again’ moment.
And “We are what we repeatedly do – excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” – I like this because it reminds me that we can chose to become whatever we want – to build skills, adopt new behaviours or change our mindset. Nothing is inherent – you just have to start acting how you want to become.