I sat down with Tiernan Mines who is Co-founder of Hello Lamp Post, a playful engagement platform inviting people to strike up interesting, surprising and often funny conversations with familiar street objects (e.g. lamp posts, bins, post boxes etc) using text messages or Facebook Messenger, encouraging people to look at the city with fresh eyes and see it as a playground.
We chatted at his head office at Makerversity in Summerset House, where he has been based for a few years. His journey is unique is the sense that Hello Lamp Post wasn’t his idea. He met some guys who had an idea and wanted someone to see if it would work. They decided that Tiernan was the man for the job.
What were you doing before you got involved with Hello Lamp Post?
I started out on the path of construction and surveying and knew, pretty quickly, after school, that I already didn’t want to do that but had committed to a degree in the subject. I realised that I needed to pivot at some point to get to where I wanted to be and I knew that if I stuck at it and chose the right modules and met the right people, I could pivot to something that I really wanted to do.
I realised through my degree that I enjoyed the business and investor aspects of the course so turned my focus on that. This coupled with the freedom university offers you, I launched a small business.
So you were already trying things out and being quite entrepreneurial?
Yes, I think I was always doing things as a kid. When eBay first came out I was buying second hand stuff and selling it on. I found spelling mistakes in listings and selling them on in the right categories which worked pretty well.
Ultimately, I ended up joining a Tesco’s graduate scheme in their property arm and even at that stage, I know that it was the foot in the door that I planned but not what I wanted to do for ever.
How did you get involved with Hello Lamp Post?
To be honest I don’t remember how I met my co- founders Ben and Sam. I ended up chatting to them. They had an idea, it had some traction and needed someone to run it full time. I came on as a cofounder about 2 years ago. We incorporated as an official company last year and that is where I am now.
It sounds like you were not afraid to take a chance on the opportunity. Did you ever feel nervous doing it?
Yes, anyone who’s says they are not in this situation is lying. My advice would be if you are passionate about it go after it. It doesn’t need to make you hundreds of millions of pounds but if you are passionate about it and enjoy what you are doing day to day then why not. I think there was an element of naivety there, looking back, it was part frustration at the “corporate culture” and it was the right thing for me to get involved with but in hindsight the timing wasn’t the best.
Was that because you didn’t have the experience?
Yes, the naivety was, not recognizing the amount of money that was needed for the right business model. What it ultimately came down to was, I would rather live a life of “oh wells” than “what ifs”.
Did you have a strong network around you that gave you more confidence?
I did have a safety net at the time. I was living with my parents, little outgoings. Maybe there was something inside me that was urging me to start something on my own. Probably from my Dad. He has run a business since he was 16 and never worked for anyone else. I was always doing summer jobs with him and being exposed to that kind of life so maybe something subconscious was driving me there. I did go to a lot of networking events during my university times which grew my network. From that network, I realized that things can be done.
What surprised you the most about starting?
Founding a business/company from scratch is very glamorized by Silicon Valley and other factors like that. Just the word start-up is glamorized. What I learnt very quickly, when you are at the early stages without much backing, you are everyone. The accountant, salesperson, operations person, designer even when you have no skills to do most of those. It is great because you very quickly learn what you are not good at then you hire from there when you reach capacity to do so. Don’t try to over hire from the start and then always try to stick to what you are good at.
My co-founders helped a lot in the beginning but they are pretty much advisors and people to bounce things off, but I was left to get on with it. They had another team and business that they were working on full time so at the beginning, it was just me, but they helped me out a lot.
Who was your first hire?
Our first hire was a junior designer/developer. Mainly because that’s where a lot of my focus was and me the most time. Then we went to BD to look for new opportunities and then hired a full time project manager once we had more traction. Steve jobs said something like “you don’t hire clever people to tell them what to do, you get them to tell you what to do”. I realised quickly that not everyone has every skill set and the quicker you realise that when launching a business, the better.
Did you get your first hire right?
Yes I think so, I was lucky that he was already working for my cofounders other business so I knew he was great and I hired him from them. But yes, he was a great first person to have in the team. He was with the other business from an internship at university and went back to university for his last year and now taken on another adventure.
Tell me about your hiring process?
I think it can be a process that can be easily rushed out of necessity or out of being pushed. Especially if you are at capacity and you need the help fast. My first hiring criteria are based on 2 things and are completely unrelated to job role. They are kindness and curiosity. Reasons being that culture is very important to me and us, if you are kind and that is continuous to other employees then the likeliness is that there is going to be a kind culture. Curiosity is linked to our mission, if they believe in it then they will work harder for you and the team.
How do you find those traits in people?
It is tough. And I don’t think I have truly figured it out. From my own experiences in the past, I don’t see the point in creating a high-pressured environment or scenario because you don’t get the true person in those instances. Therefore, I do most of my interview over a coffee in a café away from the office, I would rather it feel like a chat. It gives them an opportunity to get to know me and the business and ask as many questions as they like. Yes, I am interviewing them for a role, but they are also interviewing me as a boss.
What kind of leader do you think you are?
That is a tough one. I have been micromanaged in the past and absolutely don’t see the point in it, so I don’t want to be that. I like to think I am quite easy going, open and fair. That is only because I try and hire people because they are good at a certain element of what we do, they have a good skill set and attitude. I try and paint the big picture often to show them where we are heading, what to achieve and how they slot into that. From there, I leave everyone to manage their work week. Yes, we have several catch ups during the week but there is certainly not a list of tasks sent out every week. I think that this only works if you are a certain personality type. Coming back to the interview, I only hire people that I think can do that and get on with it also. I do ramble on to the team that no idea is a bad idea and so the team is always thinking. I like to say that I am easy going but at the same time I expect them to do what they say they are going to do.
What do you think is the hardest part of being a leader?
Giving people enough time to do their tasks and giving the team enough time to do the job. I know I can be better at the social side for the team. It is very very easy, especially at the early stages, to just focus on the tasks ahead and not reward your team when they have worked hard.