Naomh McElhatton On Business, Self-Belief And Taking Risks

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As the founder of SMART Global and the DANI Awards there are few things Naomh McElhatton doesn’t know about business. Specialising in digital transformations, the mother of two knows all about metamorphosis first hand, having worked her way from the bottom up, carving out a niche role in Northern Ireland and beyond.

The entrepreneur, TED talk speaker, all round digital whizz and ultimate girl boss talks to The Style Edit about starting over, taking risks and feeling the fear and doing it anyway.

CAREER

How did you get started in digital marketing?

Well that‘s a long story. I originally studied Theatre Studies in the Samuel Beckett Centre in Trinity College, Dublin. With the realisation that the old career prospects were not too hot, I decided move to St Mary’s College (more fondly known as Strawberry Hill) in Twickenhan to become a primary school teacher. The reality soon hit that the teaching vocation was not for me, well not at primary school level. 

To be honest, the craic in London was that good I didn’t want to come home. So I decided to get a job, first up was selling classified ads in the Richmond and Twickenham Times. Very soon after that I got a job with the events management company at Ham Polo club and it was the best fun! 

When I decided to come home I worked for Ulster Business Magazine and then worked at a radio station managing the sales and marketing team. I always had a keen interest in business, and because my client base was so varied I was able to gain an insight into the challenges they faced, I always wanted to fix things. After my maternity leave with my first daughter I was told I had to take a pay cut or go, so I left. I was offered a job as a Brand Development Manager with a web design agency and also with a new start-up – with no brand identity, collateral, investment or idea where it was going. So true to form, I took the gamble and went with the start-up. It didn’t last six months, however the fascination for the digital world was ignited.

Did you always want to be an entrepreneur?

I think you need to ask my mother that question! 

I’ve always been fiercely independent and admittedly would be a bit of a control freak, liking things my own way. There are various definitions of an entrepreneur and when I looked at one definition it  stated “taking risk to hopefully make a profit”. So yes, I probably always was an entrepreneur.

I had played with various company ideas, funnily enough my first company was called Ginger Fizz Events but no one in Cookstown knew what the hell I was on about at the time. It was after the birth of my second daughter that the opportunity arose to go out on my own. If the truth be told, we had no money, my husband was out of work, and we were living on statutory maternity pay. I was fed up making money for other people – so I went for it!

It’s all a bit of a blur now if the truth be told, I think when you’re immersed in the middle of setting up a company you just get on with it. I am into finding solutions, not problems, so when problems arise I like to overcome them as quickly as possible. 

The early learnings were mainly around cashflow, then all the trimmings of employing staff, payroll, HMRC, VAT and the list goes on.

When my first company turned one, we wanted to celebrate the fact that we had survived our first year in business. At that time the world of online advertising was like a dark art, 99% of the population were still unsure as to how those banner ads appeared on their computer screens. So rather than celebrating our success, I wanted to celebrate businesses in Northern Ireland that were winning in the digital space and that developed into the DANI Awards. We launched the DANI Awards last week and I nip myself that its now the 9th year of the awards. It just shows you how digital transformation is at the very core of business now.

Being a female entrepreneur in the early days were definitely more difficult, playing in a male dominated industry I was just that “wee girl from Tyrone” trying to do something different. I don’t think they took me seriously then. They do now.

“I don’t think they took me seriously then. They do now.”

Tell us about your business, SMART Global.

The first business closed its doors back in 2014 and I then merged my digital marketing agency RUA Digital with House of Comms in UAE. Having travelled for four years back and forth, it became exhausting and I realised I needed to build something concrete at home for my health and my girls.

My role developed into training businesses on how to create their digital marketing strategy and integrate that into becoming a fundamental part of their day to day business model. I was so fortunate to work with amazing brands such as Dior, Marriot Hotel Group, Emirates Airlines and Gilead. However, they still suffered the same lack of “know how” they needed to win in the digital age.

The world of digital transformation presents amazing opportunities for business and yet something so potentially fruitful doesn’t get the airtime or investment it deserves. It was through that lack of knowledge that SMART Global was born. Instead of going into individual businesses and holding hands one at a time, I wanted to create something bigger that would allow industry sectors to come together under one roof and share their problems and frustrations. This has proved to be very successful, we now run the annual SMART Global series in the form of SMART Government, SMART Retail and Hospitality, SMART Health, SMART Construct, SMART Golf and SMART Talent alongside the DANI Awards.

My biggest career highlight? Hmmmm, there are a few. One would defo be bringing back the DANI’s in 2017. After a year out I was so humbled and chuffed by the success and positive feedback. Secondly, would have to be the delivery of my TED Talk and more recently I was listed in the Irish Times “Top 50 people to watch in 2019”, I was listed as one of their Top 5 Entrepreneurs – that’s pretty cool.

I am sure people think I’m crazy if they spied me sitting in the car in rush hour traffic going into Belfast, I will be having a full scale conversation with myself talking things through. I constantly talk to myself. Asking myself if I am wise? Should I do it …. Yes? No? Will this idea work? Sometimes ideas you think will work fail and some ideas that appear out of nowhere are the best. 

I suppose my motto is to never give up, always believe in yourself. There are so many times I could’ve thrown in the towel, settled for a six figure salary, holidays and a car but who the hell wants that stability?! I genuinely can’t imagine working for anyone else. I am open to growing the business and partnering with other folk but I couldn’t not be the boss. One of the best things I did when I finally committed to focusing on SMART Global was to work with a mentor. I was very blessed to have three amazing mentors who helped me get the plan in place. They know who they are.

“I suppose my motto is to never give up, always believe in yourself.”

TED TALK

What was your very first thought upon being approached to present a TEDx Talk?

Butterflies and absolute excitement! This was one of my ALL TIME dreams, so this was something very special!

What did the preparation for this look like?

This was a work in progress. The initial elation soon turned into fear. What will I talk about? Why would anyone want to hear from me? I then read the Ted Talk book and it highlighted over and over again to tell your story, be authentic. So that’s what I did. I rehearsed it over and over again. It was like seven year old Naomh memorising the Hail Mary and Our Father for my First Holy Communion. I replayed it in the car, in the shower, in the mirror, in front of my kids! I talked about my smartphone addiction and the implication it was having on my relationship with my girls.

In your TEDx Talk, you describe yourself as a self-confessed smartphone addict, is this still true?

In all honesty yes I am still an addict or should I say a recovering addict. I am much more aware of how much time I spend on my phone and have gotten better at setting the phone down and making eye contact with the person I am having a face-to-face conversation with.

There are no phones at the dinner table. My Wi-Fi is turned off every night now and I don’t look at my phone until morning time. My ritual now is to get the kettle on, coffee in hand and check the news on my device then.

I am not making excuses but with the demands of my job I need to keep a tight eye on what’s happening online. There’s a fine line between the reality and virtual worlds now, as a parent it’s my job to ensure my kids know the difference.

SHE SAID CLUB

Tell us more about the She Said Club

Over the last five years I’ve come through a lot; divorce, losing a business, bankruptcy. Being a single mummy can be tough at times. The mummy guilt when the girls’ father and I first split was horrendous. Working hard to pay the bills to keep a roof over our heads, but yet beating myself up for working too hard and not spending enough quality time with the girls, it was horrible. 

Men don’t have to deal with this shit. Being labelled by other people that know absolutely nothing that went on behind closed doors. Yet because I was an ambitious female it was obviously all my fault.

There are so many women in my situation and having chatted with quite a few of my peers and friends, we have had many open conversations and realised we all have the same fears and anxieties, yet we are too thick skinned to admit it in public in case our persona is weakened and that is how the She Said Club was created.

A no nonsense platform for women. Real women, real stories and experiences. To share every thing, the good, the bad and the ugly. 

In five years time, where would you like to be with She Said Club?

Ideally I would love to build it into a nationwide go-to platform for career advice, real life issues, money, health and relationships. I want to build more video content and podcasts with both men (think Mel Gibson in What Women Want) and women. To organise events throughout the country so that it becomes a household brand. No filters allowed! Given the current vulnerability of the UK and Ireland in this Brexit chaos I think we are going to need all the support and advice we can get.

Who would your dream guest to have on the She Said Club? 

Oooooh… Maureen O’Hara, fellow red head and idol. Maureen was a no nonsense lady. She said it as it was and didn’t suffer fools.

“There’s a fine line between the reality and virtual worlds now, as a parent it’s my job to ensure my kids know the difference.”

STYLE

If you had to wear one outfit for the rest of your life what would it be?
Well I can’t lounge around in fabulous evening-wear for the rest of my life, can I? So realistically something classic and simple, black jeans and a nice shirt with a Louboutin heel.

You have 5 minutes to do your makeup, what are your go-to products?

Fresco Doublewear by Estee Lauder, a bit of blusher, Benefit BADGal Bang mascara and always a rouge lipstick.

You get a blank cheque to spend in one shop, which shop would you choose?

Easy – Harper at the Merchant! My beautiful nude Pigalle Louboutins were stolen whilst on a hotel break last July, I would replace those with a blank cheque in the morning.

Do you keep fit?

I would be a keen runner, slow and steady. I’ll never break any records. I love long distance running, I had this wild notion of running a marathon for my 30th to have a milestone of achievement and then last year I challenged myself to Ironman which I completed in Mullingar last August, I can tell you it was the most amazing feeling to hobble over the finish line.

I think we need to challenge ourselves to push ourselves outside of our comfort zones, I have no time for complacency. I am looking forward to the Omagh Half Marathon again this year and if I can find the time I will defo compete in the Celtic Warrior Ironman again. For me running allows me to get some headspace and I have some of my best ideas running the roads. 

I actually feel agitated if I don’t get out for a run or get to do some form of exercise. I have a few home routines I do in the living room, the Body Coach is great for those days when you can’t get out because of the kids. They’ll jump around the room with me some days but normally they just stare at me thinking, “my mummy is mental!”

LIFE

What do you wish more people knew about you? 

I actually asked my friend this one and he replied “that I am actually lethal craic.” I love to laugh, nothing more cathartic than a good belly laugh.

What’s your biggest pet peeve? 

Sneaky, incompetent and arrogant people.

What has been your favourite holiday?

For down time it really is the simple things. I love having proper quality time with my girls, I try to get at least one holiday per year just to spend time with them and no distractions. I have to say I am a big fan of Portugal, we rented a beautiful villa last year with a pool and to me that was the perfect chill out vacation. The girls could just hop in the pool. I lay in the sun, there were no other screaming kids and no timetables. I read 3 books that week and it was just bliss, mum would keep the girls in the morning and I headed off for a run – absolute therapy!

What trait do you most admire in fellow businesswomen? 

Honesty and support. I am very lucky to have a strong network of like-minded women who I can turn to for advice on literally anything.

What are your top tips for time management? 

Be organised. Write your lists down, then make your priority list – as in what’s the most important. 

What would you tell your younger self? 

Breathe, listen to advice as you do not know it all. Keep your focus and it will all work out.

What does success look like/mean to you? 

My kitchen! I want to build a house. I’ve had my dream house in the back of mind from 19. My vision is cooking spag bol in my dream kitchen with my girls sitting at the island in the middle of the room, music on and a glass of wine in hand. It’s the simple things.

What advice would you give to someone planning to start their own business? 

To quote one of my very great mentors “you have the concentration of a newt.” If you are going to start-up you must be organised, have a plan in place. Take note, that this may not be the long term plan, but you must have something to work from. Mind your cash, budget, keep a tight eye on spend. Go for it – what’s the worst thing that can happen if it doesn’t work out? Work for someone else?

Stylist and interviewer: Jennifer Taggart – @jennifertaggart

Assisted by Bronagh Rafferty

Clothes: Blush Boutique, Lisburn Road, Belfast 

Makeup: Amy Savage @cosmetics.junkiee

Hair: Hugo at Andrew Mulvenna Hair

Photography: Hernan Fariaswww.hfphotography.co.uk

Location: The Champagne Room at The Merchant Hotel 

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