Today my interviewee is Zoe Cunningham - MD of Softwire, Founder of TechTalkfest, Founder of Achievements.io, Presenter, Actor and much more! She was a pleasure to interview and a personal inspiration of mine. When I founded Zealify, Zoe was one of the first people I met and provided me with some brilliant advice.
Hi Zoe. Thanks for chatting with me today, can we start by talking a bit about your journey?
I joined Softwire straight out of university so I’ve only ever worked in one company my whole life, which is quite unusual nowadays. I did a mathematics degree and joined Softwire as a graduate computer programmer. One of the things Softwire does is train everyone in house so you don’t need to have any experience when you join. I used to move around lots of different projects and different technologies which worked really well for me, I really enjoyed the variety. Once I had been working for about 6 years I decided that I wanted to do more than just different types of programming.
When I joined, I was the 9th employee so it was much easier to move around and do completely different things unlike in a big company. I was project manager, I managed the recruitment, I consulted and, probably the biggest change, was when I went into the business development team which works with a completely different skill set. I wouldn’t say I was naturally a salesperson or a people person, I really had to learn stuff. That then became the best learning experience because I actually learnt that we put all these limitations on ourselves when actually you totally don’t need to. Anyone can learn anything. In 2012 I was promoted to management position and I got to tie together all these skills I had been learning. The Managing Director role is the one that I love best and I love looking at everything at a really high strategic level.
Can we talk a bit about some of your other startup projects? TechTalkfest?
I started TechTalkfest in October 2012. Although Softwire was a startup when I joined, by 2012 we were 80 employees and not really a startup anymore. I was really keen to both become part of a startup scene and start my own business. So that was why I started TechTalkfest and started running events for startups on various business topics. Everyone could come together and network, I’ve become a massive, massive advocate of networking. I really appreciate business networking because historically I would’ve said I was a person who didn’t try to talk to people and suddenly I have discovered a way to get all these amazing opportunities. It seems to me that it is even more important for startups to be networking, people can meet clients, people can meet suppliers, people can meet partners, people get mentors. That was the basis of my events. So I ran events once a month as a side project from Softwire for about a year and a half.
I’m also part of an angel investing group called Angel Academe. I hadn’t really thought about investing before but Angel Academe completely takes away the risk because you do it within a group. I invested a bit of money into a company called Buddy Bounce and I suddenly thought ‘why am I investing in someone else’s business and not investing in my own business?’. So I decided I would put in a similar amount of money into TechTalkfest and take on a full-time employee. I’d been trying to grow the business to support an employee, but it wasn’t possible without investment of my time (which there wasn’t enough of!) or the cash.
How do you balance TechTalkfest and Softwire?
Starting a startup is a full time job which you have to put a lot of effort into before you get to the point where you are getting enough revenue that you can employ someone else. I just wasn’t putting in that time. I took on my first employee in April this year which was very exciting. I was very lucky that I found her through networking. I had been working as a mentor and she had been working at Microsoft and she really wanted to leave to join the startup world.
When Ghilaine joined and we had to pay her salary suddenly our minds were a lot more focused on how the business would actually make money and what the best use of our time is. This made us focus and we went from just arranging events to a private members network. The reasoning behind that is simply that Ghilaine and I love networking, we really see the benefits and our members at TechTalkfest will get back the rewards from their membership fees as well; it is a really good deal for them. It’s a really great deal and yet for the majority of people who don’t really get networking, they won’t even pay like 5 or 10 pounds for a ticket to go to an event. It’s not that we don’t want to bring this to everyone, we would love to, but we’ve found that lots of people just don’t understand the benefits.
We are still in the early days with TechTalkfest. We are about 15 members at the moment but hopefully we will grow to about 50 by the end of the year and then we will have a really solid base. We will continue growing it in London and then we are going to expand into other areas once we get the membership. It’s really exciting and it’s amazing being able to see a business grow without being involved in it full-time. I am just really pleased that TechTalkfest is taking off and it’s great to have Ghilaine running it. It is great to feel responsible for something that is making the world a better place so that is really nice.
Tell me a bit about Achievements.io.
So, Achievements.io is a more recent business that is in a much earlier stage. Achievements.io is my attempt at essentially having a tech startup, because although Tech Talkfest is a startup business it is not actually the kind of tech startup that people think of when they are thinking about startups. I had an idea that came to me from something that I have been doing which I read in some kind of book about problems and how to get a better idea of yourself. I have been - and this is probably about the same time as TechTalkfest - keeping a list of my achievements because as you deal with challenges, we are hard wired that as soon as we achieve something, that becomes our new baseline and we accept it as normal. I heard a story on the radio from an Olympic athlete basically saying: As an Olympic athlete, the worst day of your life is when you achieve a gold medal because there is this brief moment of euphoria and then suddenly it is like ’hey that is gone!’ but you have nothing to work towards anymore because your whole life was working towards this point. I found that celebrating my achievements and looking back on a whole year and thinking ‘oh my god’; like when I look ahead, and I think I still have all these things to do but actually if I look back at the last year, I have achieved a whole load of stuff that I had just forgotten about, because I am always thinking about the future. A lot of the things I have achieved have been evidenced in various media files so I have videos, audios and photos and I thought it would be really nice to have a website where it was a rich display of all that. I paid a freelancer to make me a prototype of achievements.io which is now in beta. Having gotten to the point where I am with TechTalkfest, I am pretty sure that I need to do exactly the same thing for achievements.io and find someone else that I can bring in to run the business together.
How do you think people should work out their goals?
I think it is one of those things that everyone has to do in their own way. Deciding what you want to achieve is a really personal thing and different people want different things. I think that having the wrong goals is what causes most people the most problems. If you’re saying ‘my goal is to earn a lot of money’ but you don’t really care about earning money then you will never get there whatever plans you put in place because that is not really what you want to do. For me certainly, I deliver my best and I work at full speed rather than drifting along when there is something that I really want to achieve, I know what it is and I know how to get there. The first time I really found this was back when I decided to follow what I like to do and realized that what I really wanted to do was become a Managing Director. Or in fact, even for a few years before that when I just wanted to get to the next step above me in the company. I always thought, ‘I want to do that, so how do I do it?’. That was really what made the difference; knowing what I wanted, breaking it down, knowing what makes that work, getting feedback from people to make sure I was on track.
As a result of that, I then set myself a goal to retrain as a TV presenter. That was pretty interesting for me. I did all kinds of things to do with networking, meeting people, asking them if I could do something for free and started my own projects and had to get my own experience. Through that I got involved in radio. I really enjoy it and I have my own show which is on Shoreditch Radio. I knew what the goal was but there was something not quite right about the goal and the whole process. About 6 months ago, I read this amazing book which is basically a course for unblocking creative people. You do a chapter each week and it gives you exercises and things to do. The lady who has written this book has the most amazing understanding of human beings and their creativity. I have got so much experience of my own logic, analysis, rationality and how to code whereas this is much more about how you find out what you really enjoy doing. You’re not forcing yourself to do it but you’re just going ‘oh my! I get to do this’. I read the book by accident because I didn’t consider myself a creative person at all. I just started doing the various exercises like imagining yourself in another career, and so on, writing an angry letter to your teacher who was critical of you when you were younger - that was quite fun. And it’s about kind of freeing yourself up to do things that you are scared of. I was just happy going through this course and then one weekend the exercise was ‘who do you want to be?’ and I thought ‘I want to be an actor’. For me that was the way of uncovering something that I had as a goal that I had not even imagined before I started the book. I am not suggesting that other people should do this but I am just saying that you need to find what it is that you want to do and accept that it might be temporary. I might go further down this path and find out it’s not what I am interested in at all but it is nice to try something and give it a go rather than not trying at all.
Challenges & Achievements
What do you think has been your biggest challenges and how have you overcome them?
It’s interesting because once you have overcome something it doesn’t seem so big anymore, so it is quite hard to transport your mind back. The thing that really sticks out for me is when I was at school, and university, I didn’t ever work really hard. Discovering how to work hard is only something that I have done relatively recently. It is something that I can say is quite an essential skill for you to be able to do well in whatever you do. I really didn’t get that when I was younger, I didn’t try very hard and I wanted instant results as well. On the subject of laziness, I have a new theory that laziness is a manifestation of fear. I think that just accepting laziness, saying ‘I am a lazy person’, you let yourself off too easy.
What do you think your biggest success has been so far?
I am really proud of becoming Managing Director at Softwire, I really forget it on a day to day basis because it is just normalcy now. Everytime someone says to me ‘oh my god you’re managing director that is amazing!’ and I will be like ‘oh yeah, that is true I forgot about that.’ which no one ever really understands.
I touched on how proud I am of the success of bringing something into being with TechTalkfest which wouldn’t have been there otherwise. It is odd because I can’t really take the credit for the fact that it’s successful because Ghilaine is doing so much more work than me and has shaped it into what it is. I completely would not be where I am without her. But I do credit myself that point of inception that I dared to start something and see what would happen. I did all that extra work outside of my day job to see what would happen and that has brought something into being which wouldn’t be there otherwise.
We touched on how you balance Softwire and TechTalkfest but you also do acting, radio and presenting how do you manage that?
I have been working 4 days a week which is really exciting and interesting to see how challenging it is. You still have the same work to do but you just have now got only 4 days to do it. So that is one side of the challenge and the other side of the challenge is actually making sure I can usefully spend the other day. I did a test in July to see if I had Fridays off as holiday would I do a whole bunch of useful stuff? Or would I actually just sit at home and read science fiction? It turned out that as soon as I had free days they filled up and I was really really busy. So that is really going to help because I am suddenly going to have loads more extra time. The reason I took it was partly for time to do things and partly because of an idea from ‘Artist’s Way’. If you want to be creative you need to give your head some space, you need to not keep hammering it with things. I think that having Friday to do non-Softwire work will help me free up the weekend for more. You have to find the balance and the idea is that by freeing up more time, you actually are more effective in the time you have.
It is going really well so far but the other thing that is completely essential to what I do, and for which I need to thank the founders of Softwire, is that they have set up a flexible work environment. For everyone who works at Softwire the aim is if you can get your job done, they are going to be flexible about how you do it. It is all about achieving not about being present for 9 - 6. The third thing is that you have to be super organized. Think about how you are scheduling stuff, think about the meetings you have and whether they are useful, think about how to manage your email.
What books would you recommend?
What tools would you recommend?
What do you see as your personal vision for the future?
I still can’t get my head around a 5 or 10 year goal, I think it is a really really hard thing to do. At the moment my main focus is on retraining as an actor. I think I really like having the balance in my life that I have at the moment, however if I look back over the last ten years I would not have had any idea that it was possible to become Managing Director of Softwire. I wouldn’t have been able to see how much Softwire would grow and what it would be like to be Managing Director of an over 100 person company.
A personal goal for me would be to have like a good part in a feature film. I would be over the moon but that is going to be a long journey. And I’m just going to keep doing things and keep having experiences. The thing I find really great about new challenging goals is that you don’t know whether you’re going to hit them or not but you end up getting a lot of opportunities that you wouldn’t have had otherwise.