Cathy White
Jun 16, 2016 · 7 min read

Following a talk I was asked to give for the incredible Escape the City team, I wanted to share the five lessons I’ve learned in the (almost) five years I’ve been working alongside entrepreneurs, startups and creatives in the London, European and *sometimes* global tech ecosystem.

In October this year, I’ll have been working in tech for five years. Those that know me will know that neither tech or PR was what I initially set out to do after studying. After many teenage years wanting to be the female version of Quentin Tarantino, and then discovering a passion for presenting, my initial dream was to be the next Davina McCall. But instead, I found myself in a god awful post-production internship…not really learning anything…

I was steered in the direction of SparkPR, a San Francisco-based agency with a satellite office in London. They were looking for an intern and in all honesty, I was looking for a job that paid and challenged me…and soon after, I found myself in the world of tech and the world of PR.

In five years, I’ve gone from graduate to intern, intern to account executive to acting MD, worked for a startup, helped another tech communications agency, the great Albion Drive, grow from two to 16, worked with Seedcamp, one of the world’s leading early-stage investors, and as of June 20th I start my next exciting challenge, as Head of Communications for Tech City UK.

I also managed to find some time to join the GeekGirl Meetup UK team and promote women in tech.

My current estimate is that in the past five years I have done PR for, or advised, over 120+ companies, a mix of startups, accelerators, VC’s and a few corporates.

All in five years…which just so happens to be how old Tech City UK is turning this month!

So when Escape the City asked me to come in and give a talk looking at just five things I’ve learned in five years, it provided me with some time to reflect and look back. What I realised is that the five things I so wholeheartedly believe in and recommend, are now core values and applicable not just in work, but in life.

These are the five life lessons I have learned and hold true from the past five years working in the exciting, growing, fast-paced environment that is startup.

Be authentic in everything you do.

Be open, be honest, be you with whoever you meet. I don’t believe in faking it till you make it, but I do believe in treating everyone as you would like to be treated. And this works on multiple levels.

As a Founder, you have to be real. You have to be real with investors, your board, your employees. There is a lot of responsibility on your shoulders, but you will have more respect from everyone by being open. Vice versa — others need to be the same with you. Want to know how your employees will react if something goes wrong? Want to know how your investors will react if you don’t hit targets? Do you want to be able to ask for help when needed?

Be real from the start. That way everyone gets a read on who you really are, which is far more important than any act, which will quickly fade when something terrible happens.

From a brand/comms perspective my opinion is that authenticity wins. People react badly to any brand that doesn’t seem true. Press can react badly if you don’t stick to your word — a great example of this is the EDF competition to get more teenage girls into STEM, they awarded the prize to a 13-year-old boy, with a huge uproar of criticism as a result.

If you want to support a cause as part of a marketing agenda look internally first and fix the problems from the inside and then out. If you want to hire a more diverse team, how diverse are your board, your investors, your senior team? Can you make changes/additions at that level before pushing outward for more employees?

If you’re going to claim something, don’t just make it words.

This year I wrote a blog post about my own struggles with depression and anxiety, which I’ve suffered with on and off for many years. It’s strange that most of us are brought up to believe this is a weakness we should hide, when in fact, since really opening up about it this year, I have felt stronger than I have in years. By being open about it, more and more people step forward and talk about it.

Which I think says a lot about being authentic.

Tech isn’t exactly great for diversity. We all know it’s a problem and we are all trying to find ways to make it better.

Having a diverse team whether it’s different genders, races, ages, backgrounds, skills and ways of working, is a very powerful thing for any company.

Don’t hire and work alongside people who could be replicas of yourself. You’re already there, you don’t need more of you.

But this goes outside of just work. Since moving to London I have made friends that I wouldn’t have met in my quiet home town in Surrey, and I love it.

Surround yourself in new cultures, in new ways of thinking. Meet new people. Hire talent from around this wonderful world. Make friends in other cities. Go out of what you know.

It’s magic and I can’t emphasise that enough.

I recently went to The Next Web Conference and listened to a keynote from King of Hustle, Gary Vaynerchuck. He said something that I firmly believe in. Give more than you receive, even putting this down to 51:49.

51 per cent of the time, you give more.

What I loved about the Tech Community from the very beginning five years ago is that generally everyone is very good at paying it forward and helping others. Whether its an introduction here, a coffee there, recommending startups to people, getting an investor to go “ooo”, there’s a lot that the community does for each other.

Five years ago, I met the 3beards — Mike, Ben, Bryce and then Joe — in my mind these guys were the dons of paying it forward. Providing a regular community event for people to get together on a Friday, exchange ideas, have a few cheeky beers and connect.

Since 3beards started, the amount of meet-ups has grown and grown, and within each little community there are people constantly paying it forward.

We see it at GeekGirl Meetup UK all the time. After every event we do the room is full of energy with everyone talking to each other and finding ways to help.

You will reap the benefits in time, just don’t expect it and it’ll happen.

But as I said, this goes for life as well.

As a Founder, if everything is ok, that’s not ok.

If anything ever feels normal, that is not normal! You’re on a ride of ups and downs, and as much as I hate using this word, your business is meant to be disruptive. Why would you want the easy “normal” route?

We should all challenge normality. As a feminist, I have great fun getting people to think about norms put upon us by society — why does it have to be that way? Why do baby boys have to wear blue and baby girls have to wear pink? Why do we have to pigeonhole people from birth?

I like weird, basically. But why does “weird” have to be weird? Now, I’m getting side-tracked.

The point, is that we should all do more to question what we know. In a startup you should constantly be getting feedback from your customers, you should be evolving your product continuously. [Side note — great blogs here by Seedcamp EIR Taylor Wescoatt on Customer Validation and Testing]

As a person, have an open-mind. You don’t know what you’ll uncover about yourself, and that’s part of the beautiful journey of life.

My friends and I have a theory that your first year in London is the one that tests you the most.

This City wants you to earn being here.

You won’t know many people, your job might not be great and you will more than likely live somewhere horrible…

But in years two and three, it gets better. You meet new people all the time, you try new things, you explore. Work improves, you’ll likely change jobs. You’ll move somewhere nicer.

And throughout this process, you meet your tribe.

Your tribe is a powerful thing. You’ll find people in similar situations to you. They won’t all be the same age, some will be older, and others younger. The tribe will grow, but you’ll create your own support network. A mixture of friends and mentors that can help you on both a personal and professional level.

You find these people by being authentic. By paying it forward. By being diverse. And by challenging the norm.

Five years on in my tech journey and in life, I am surrounded by inspirational people I count as my friends, and I love it.

There you have it, five life lessons learned in five years in the tech startup world.

Bring on the next five years.

Cathy White

Written by

Passionate about all things PR and marketing for startups. Part of @GGMUK. Founder and Director of @CEWComms

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