by Divina Paredes

One of NZ’s first female CIOs is now a startup founder at age 69

Nov 18, 2018
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Chirpy is a combination of Facebook, Meetup, TradeMe, and Linkedin; all in one location, just for over 55s Carol Mahoney, Chirpy Plus

Carol Mahoney smiles when she meets with potential business partners and members for the startup she co-founded with her son, Shaun.

“They always assume he is the technology person,” says Carol, who just turned 69.

The reality is Mahoney is the CTO of Chirpy Plus, and her son, a finance executive, is in charge of marketing.

These initial reactions do not faze Carol, who has been breaking barriers in an industry that is dominated by males (she was one of the first female CIOs in New Zealand) and proving that the startup world is not necessarily a younger person’s territory.

She asks, “How many startups are started by a mother and son?”

Carol and Shaun Mahoney

Chirpy is an online community for those aged over 55 years, and it is the third startup she and Shaun have launched.

She also has another business,providing designs, templates and tools for quilts.

Chirpy had a ‘soft launch’ last month in New Zealand and Australia, shares Carol, who joined her son, in an interview last week with CIO New Zealand.

Membership sign up has “exceeded expectations,” she discloses. “While we have been sitting here, we have had two sign ups.”

Shaun, who is based in the Gold Coast, says the site averages 40 sign ups a day in Australia.

As to how the idea for Chirpy came about, Carol says many people in their senior years face a different challenge in the digital era.

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The UK government has acknowledged the extent of this problem, with Prime Minister Theresa May creating a Minister for Loneliness Jen Cherrington, advisor, Chirpy Plus

“Social media is an increasingly popular pastime, but it doesn’t solve the issue that actually we like to meet up in person. And for lots of people, that’s actually a tough thing!”

She adds that, “Virtually all nations are talking about the cost of loneliness and its effect on society, when really what most people are keen on is social interaction. But they don’t know how to reach out.”

Chirpy was created to help over 55s solve the social dilemma of making new friends in the real world, getting great deals and a tailored platform for this internet savvy group is an ideal and local solution.

“At Chirpy, we want to help this group of over 55s online find people, who are local to where they are, so they can then meet up in person and make the connections that keep us all healthy”.

She explains Chirpy aims to bring the online and virtual into the real world.

According to Carol, Chirpy is a combination of Facebook, Meetup, TradeMe, and Linkedin; all in one location, just for over 55s.

“It’s a place to make more friends, to save money, and to connect – safely and securely.”

She says they have opted to provide a subscription based and moderated site.

Carol and Shaun have plans for a global rollout of Chirpy, noting how the site’s target demographic happens to be the fastest growing demographic of internet savvy users in most of the Western world.

“We are building a ‘company with heart’, which is something unique, and we intend to make a difference in people’s lives.”

Cool factor

“This is not some fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants startup,” exclaims Jen Cherrington, an advisor to Chirpy.

The former CIO of Genesis Energy says she gets approached with lots of ideas for startups, but none caught her eye like Chirpy Plus.

“It was the fact she was trying to build a platform to help combat loneliness that really caught my attention,” she says.

“This is bleeding edge, SaaS cloud based, with a view of the future.”

She stresses, “It is not about building a platform – it is already there.”

Cherrington first met Carol and Shaun at a startup event.

The mother and son were with other presenters, mostly in their 20s to 30s, who were pitching a range of apps.

We all know most successful startups address a real need, not just a new pizza app, and they are built by people who know a bit about life! Jen Cherrington, advisor, Chirpy Plus

“They were cool and trendy, but they were not providing a real business model,” says Cherrington.

When she saw Carol, she mused, “Let us put her on a skateboard wearing high top sneakers and see if that helps.”

When Carol was pitching Chirpy Plus, however, “she was talking about way cooler stuff than this bunch of kids that are developing apps, ” admits Cherrington.

“We all know most successful startups address a real need, not just a new pizza app, and they are built by people who know a bit about life!”

She adds that, “We (and I include myself in this group) are the fastest growing demographic in the over 50s who are internet savvy.”

“And, despite the fact that we are also the biggest users of social media, we are a lonely group, because we don’t get enough human face to face contact,” she explains.

“Governments acknowledge that it is a real issue that costs lots of money – but importantly, we all need to have friends.”

She says the UK government has acknowledged the extent of this problem, with Prime Minister Theresa May creating a Minister for Loneliness in January this year.

Plus, she says, Carol Mahoney has a real edge.

“She’s tech savvy and has been breaking these norms for a long time,” states Cherrington.

“The business model is sound, it can be global,” she declares. “And, if tech is the fastest growing export sector for NZ, then this could be the next Xero.”

Startup-plus founder: Carol Mahoney also has an online store providing designs and templates for quilts.

‘Secret deals’

Shaun, for his part, explains why they opted for paid subscriptions.

“Simply, it keeps our members engaged, it provides us the cash flow to ensure our platform is fully moderated.”

He explains that members pay a flat rate of $5 a month, whether in New Zealand or Australia.

“This is less than a large cup of coffee,” notes Cherrington.

Carol Mahoney says Chirpy Plus is building its base, so it is free to join until the year end.

“You need basic users for people to see there is enough activity going on,” she explains on this approach.

She adds that Chirpy is working with national providers for a range of services and deals for members. “We are helping older people save money, and we are adding some fun.”

Cherrington agrees. “Even though we are in an older age bracket, there are some essentials in life we have to pay for, like power, travel insurance, and banking fees.”

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We are building a ‘company with heart’, which is something unique, and we intend to make a difference in people’s lives Carol Mahoney, Chirpy Plus

Thus, one of the things that they will feature are ‘secret deals’ that will be available only to a certain area.

These deals will not be advertised elsewhere, as they are available only for Chirpy members. These could include discounts in a grocery or a cafe for members in select areas.

Carol says the site will also host classified advertisements.

According to her, Chirpy members can also ask who are the other members living in the same area and contact them if they would like to meet for coffee.

Or, a member who is driving to Wellington can ask other members going the same way if they would like to carpool and share fuel expenses.

She says one of their first anchor partners is Genesis Energy, and they are in final discussions with three other partners, who will be known just before Christmas.

Building an agile team

At Chirpy Plus, Carol’s title is chief technology officer and co-founder. She also manages the money and the team.

“We are very much in the agile way of working,”she explains.

“When we bring somebody on board, we ask, ‘how do you want to work, how many hours a week?’ We build the job around the person.”

She says this flexibility allows them to have a diverse team. One member has five children and tends to work late at night till 5am.

She says Chirpy has a “core” team, who have been with them for some time and are used to a “very agile” way of working.

“We all work from home, using remote tools such as Trello and Zoom.”

According to Carol, they are divided into four teams, spread across Australia and New Zealand. Key members of the team are aged 55 years and above.

We recently lowered our average age of developers by bringing in some new graduates, she discloses.

Chirpy Plus co-founder Carol Mahoney and advisor Jen Cherrington (Photo by Divina Paredes)

This is not some fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants startupJen Cherrington

Chirpy is presently on WordPress and PHP and CSS, but is moving to Firebase and Polymer.

“Firebase has the speed and growth we need,” she states, on their platform choice. A plus is the “friendly” developer environment that share their ideas for the global members.

Thus, she says, “We are sitting in New Zealand, but the technology we are using is global.”

Carol and Shaun have launched two other startups together. One of this is the Uletters, which creates newsletters for SMEs across Australia and New Zealand.

The other is The Sticky Handshake, a social network for small businesses. The site provides a free referral solution for time-poor small businesses across New Zealand. “We help SMEs build connections in both the real and online world,” she says.

Carol shares she became an entrepreneur after leaving her corporate roles. “I had to learn all the other skills in running a business, not just the technology side,” she explains on adjusting to her career shift.

“In doing so I learnt the value of branding, sales and marketing, and how technology fits into the mix. And most importantly, how important cash flow is!”

“A key lesson we learnt from those startups is ‘listen to your customers’, they are the only people who matter!”

Pushing her way into IT

Carol shares insights on what worked for her in building a career in technology, and how current and future leaders can encourage more women to join the sector.

“You have to to talk to people when they are starting their careers, to get them into a frame of mind that they can do it,” she says. “Women don’t always put themselves forward for a job.”

Carol recalls how she “pushed her way into IT,” while working as an engineer at NZ Post. She put herself up to work in the organisation’s first computer systems.

Xero founder Rod Drury

The business model is sound, it can be global. And, if tech is the fastest growing export sector for NZ, then this could be the next Xero Jen Cherrington, advisor, Chirpy Plus

She has held CIO and CTO roles at a company that is now part of Bunnings, and also at Allied Liquor Merchants and Dominion Breweries.

Cherrington notes, “She had opened the door for the rest of us.”

At EY, Carol was national director of technology and knowledge management. She left EY and spent a year travelling around the Australian outback in her motorhome.

On her return, she decided to do something different, but also in technology.

She became manager regional services (North) for the NZ Defence Force, based at the Whenuapai Air base and the Devonport Naval Base.

“I was the liaison person between the users of technology in the Northern Defence Bases for Army, Navy and Air, and the team (JISA) who provided it,” she relates.

Carol also worked in project management at Procare Health.

Shaun has memories of his mother building her first computer from scratch and joining her as she took it to computer shows.

“She was the only woman there,” he proudly says.

Picture: Dennis Skley (Flickr)

Guerilla marketing

Both mother and son augment their online promotions with face-to-face meetings. They hand out car stickers to volunteers.

Carol visits retirement villages. She says they talk about the technology and how they can use it.

“It is so heartwarming to hear our members’ stories,” she says, “especially when I talk to large groups about our vision in what we will achieve with Chirpy.”

She states, “I am our market, when I talk to a lot of people about Chirpy, they can relate to it.”

“Grey hair has an advantage,” she says, smiling.

Cherrington calls this “guerilla marketing” and attests to its effectiveness.

She says is it important to go to these “grassroots” events. “There is nothing better than having advocates for your brand.”

Back when Cherrington was working for eBay in the UK (she was country manager in 1999 to 2003), she and her team would go to different events like car boot sales and fairs to promote the brand.

They were handing out t-shirts. “I knew we made it when I walked down the streets and saw somebody wearing one of our shirts.”

One of the things Carol Mahoney wants to dispel is the misconception about how older people are using technology.

Using Chirpy as an example, she says half of their members access the site using their smartphones, and only 15 per cent do so using desktops.

Cherrington concurs. “In five years, I am the prime demographic for Chirpy,” she states. “And I am as internet savvy as you can possibly get.”

“There is a lot of talk nowadays about older people not retiring at 65,” says Carol.

“I have no intention of retiring.”

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Carol Mahoney with Shaun: ‘How many startups are started by a mother and son?’