Every month, we catch up with one of London’s brilliant startup founders. This week we chatted to Sinead Mac Manus.
Sinead is not only the CEO and founder of Fluency but also an experienced trainer, speaker and author. She founded her digital wellbeing company 8fold in 2010 and launched the Digital Academy, training low income women with digital skills, in 2011. She is a Fellow of the School for Social Entrepreneurs, the RSA, and an UnLtd Award Winner.
Q: How did you come up with your startup idea?
A: My background is a digital coach and trainer to small businesses. For the past four years I have been working with them to overcome stresses about engaging in digital and showing them the potential that the web and social media can have for their business. But many of my clients were just too busy to implement much of my advice so I back in 2011 I saw a gap in the market for providing outsourced digital services and with help from UnLtd and then the Nominet Trust, started training low income women with these skills.
Q: What are the company’s objectives?
A: Fluency is a learning platform and crowd-work marketplace that gets young people into work. Myself and my co-founder Ian, founded the company to solve two big problems: the fact that there are limited work opportunities at the moment for young people, both here in the UK and across Europe, and the lack of digital expertise in small businesses in the UK.
Ian and I met at the beginning of last year and we bonded over a passion to help young people get into work. Youth unemployment remains stubbornly high here in the UK and is catastrophic in many European countries such as Greece. Spain and Italy. If we don’t provide work opportunities for this generation of young people, then we run the risk of a ‘lost generation’ with knock-on effects in communities for decades.
We were lucky enough to be accepted onto Bethnal Green Ventures technology incubator in July and have been building the platform since then. We teach our young people in-demand skills such as how to build a website, how to market a company on social media or how to optimise content for Google. Our learners complete digital challenges and collect badges to demonstrate their learning. But what’s really unique about our platform is that as our learners get mastery in a subject, they become eligible for work on the crowd-sourcing platform. In this way they can ‘learn and earn’ at the same time.
Q: What have been your biggest challenges as an entrepreneur?
A: One of the biggest challenges we have faced is one facing most startups – raising investment. There is a cliff that you fall off once the incubator money runs out and it’s takes a long time to raise investment – I wish I had know just how long when I started! We’ve gotten over this by just getting out there and talking to as many investors as possible and we are confident that we will close our seed round in the next month or so.
Another challenge as a startup founder and CEO is just the amount of things to do on a daily basis! One minute I’m talking to investors, the next I’m mentoring my staff, the next I’m poring over cash flows. I’ve always been a productive worker but this job requires that you are very strategic with your time – something I am learning about every day.
The last challenge we have faced is people not understanding that we are a social business – a commercial company yes, but one that wants to change people’s lives for the better. We’re not a charity but creating social impact is at the heart of every decision we make. I don’t think there are enough successful social ventures out there to point to and say, hey look there’s a new way of doing business, but we intend to be one and lead the path for other social tech ventures.
Q: On the other hand, what have been your biggest accomplishments?
A: One of our major recent successes is getting investment from Forward Foundation which has meant we can work with more youth partners and hire a key member of staff. We were successful because I had built a relationship with the Foundation long before we approached them for funding and we share the same values in help young people from disadvantaged background succeed.
Another thing we are very proud of is working in partnership with The Prince’s Trust. They have been hugely supportive of Fluency especially as we are a new startup. We will hopefully be working together to ensure that the young people that come through their programmes have the right skills needed in the workplace and we can deliver that for them. This relationship came from a tweet so it shows the importance of social media!
Our last success is more of a personal one for me – it’s having the good fortune to meet my co-founder Ian. I have worked by myself for such a long time that I wasn’t sure how I would cope with a business partner but it’s amazing to have some else to share the highs and the lows with. And he’s an amazing coder too!
Q: What are your thoughts on the future of women in technology?
A: I personally have not had any discrimination for being a female co-founder and CEO and we try to maintain a gender balance in the company, though with our new Head of Digital Learning role we have now swung back towards the male! When I first started going to events at Google Campus in 2012 I remember standing out as a women but now it tends to be 50/50.
I would like to see more young girls and women take up careers in technology, entrepreneurship and digital and I think it’s the responsibility of women in the industry to speak out about how great technology is to work in and actively mentor younger women. I think getting young people, of both genders, interesting in, and exciting by, digital is the way to go and something we are heavily promoting at Fluency.