Edward Keelan, “The Dyslexic Investor”, describes his life journey with dyslexia
Tuesday 7 April 2020
“The Dyslexic Investor” describes his journey as struggling 9-year-old dyslexic to becoming a successful businessman.
My first memories of school were being escorted out of the classroom. Not because I’d done anything wrong. I was just slow in picking up on the things you’re judged on at school, specifically, turning squiggly lines into words and trying to remember the order of letters. So, whilst my friends were learning about volcanoes I was taken to a small dilapidated hut outside the main school at the side of the playing field. Being only nine I wasn’t entirely sure what was going on; but then you don’t when you’re nine. All I knew was that I was no longer with my friends and was missing out on the fun stuff. In the hut a well meaning support worker was trying to teach me basic spelling — “Say it out loud. Cover it up. And now spell it.” Over. And over. And over. It didn’t work, I still can’t spell.
Proud of everything I have achieved
I’ve decided to write this blog after I got an incredible response to a post I’d put on LinkedIn. I never meant to get a response at all. I was just proud to have graduated with a masters from Oxford University (with distinction — just saying) and wanted to share it with my friends and contacts. I also had a cute picture of my son Cameron and I’m a proud dad so any excuse to put it up. But as I was posting it I decided to mention that getting a masters wasn’t bad for a dyslexic. As people picked up on the dyslexic point I added #dyslexic to the post and people from all around the world started to write to me congratulating me telling me it gave them hope, for them, or their kids, or just generally. So, I figured what the hell I’ll write a blog and perhaps someone interested in my story might read it (probably just my parents).
I get there is a certain irony to a dyslexic writing a blog, so I figured I’d ask one of my clever friends to proof read it before publishing (thank you to all those clever friends that have proof read my work over the decades). However, as I’m writing this and given the subject, I’ve decided that I’d post it fresh, no reviews from anyone else, just my writing naked on the page. This for me is very scary. There are no points for anyone who spots my spelling mistakes, poor grammar or my personal favourite terrible sentence structures. This is just how my head works.
A system that works against you
I don’t remember the next bit of the story. I’m told that when I went home that day and opened the door, I immediately burst into tears (I was an emotional child) and pleaded with my mum that I wasn’t stupid. She was having none of it. She marched into school and demanded I be put back in the classroom shouting at the teachers that I wasn’t thick. When she believes in something you don’t go up against my mum; she’s from Yorkshire. I’m sure the teachers were probably ready to fob her off, but she felt she knew me better than they did, and I was returned to the classroom; probably just to keep her quiet. I don’t blame my school as this would happen time and time again wherever I went. I remember distinctly at around 12 years old being put in bottom set (out of five) for geography and history. The teachers explaining that they’d heard I was dyslexic so thought that it would be “easier” for me. The trouble is if you’re in the lower two sets you can’t get the grades that get you to a 6th form college. And then you can’t get the grades that get you to university. And then you don’t get a degree and you’re already starting to be limited in your career. I’m 12 years old and already, before I’ve even tried, the system is working against me. My mum came in and bashed a few heads together and I was moved up to set three. I got a B in geography.
The rules of English are a mystery
The problem I’ve got is that I find it hard to retain facts figures. The rules of English are a mystery to me. It takes me longer to process complex information if it’s written down or spoken at me (rather than to me). I get jumbled up in my own head if I’m asked to process data quickly. And often make silly embarrassing mistakes where I get the right idea but the words mixed up. I remember one boss responding to my email stating that he expected me to check my work and spend more time on accuracy; I’d probably spent 10 minutes checking this two line email only to still miss the clear errors. I don’t know why but the mistakes just don’t hit me in the face like they do for other people.
A different way of learning
I learn through asking questions, debating what I’m being told, coming back with new ideas and teaching back. None of this is something you would be expected to do before the age of 16 so I didn’t. Roll on to my masters and I must have driven my classmates mad as I asked endless questions in lectures. I need to be fully engaged in the subject matter or I don’t understand or retain it. To remember it I need to understand it at a level I could teach it rather than just to regurgitate what’s on the page. I’ve been told I’m great at explaining complex
concepts in a way that’s simple for others to understand; that’s because it’s how I have to understand something to remember it.
At nine it’s hard to explain to a teacher you want to debate everything you’re being taught. So, instead my end of the bargain with my mum was to do three hours of dyslexia tutoring after school every week for three years. It doesn’t sound a lot but when your mates are out playing football it felt like a lifetime. My parents didn’t have a huge amount of disposable income at the time as they were starting their own businesses. When I was younger one of my friends, and he’ll hate me for bringing it up, said cruelly “are you dyslexic because your Irish”. It was meant as a slight on my father's heritage but there was some truth in it. My Dad is a crazy Irish man but a genius and my biggest hero. The sort of person who works out the plot line to Six Sense 15 minutes in (and tells you). He’s also dyslexic. With that comes his natural flair and passion for entrepreneurship and at this point he was setting up two new companies. Dyslexics being entrepreneurs is something which I’ll touch on later but was a feature throughout my childhood. Anyway, it was I believe my grandparents that paid for the tuition no one ever told me.
School isn’t set up for us, so we must figure it out ourselves
It’s at this point where I reflect how lucky I was. What if my mum didn’t come in and fight for me? What if there wasn’t a tutor living one street up that happened to specialise in dyslexia? What if my grandparents hadn’t had the means of paying for the extra tuition? The truth is my story would have probably been very different. I’m not saying I wouldn’t have had a successful career, as I honestly believe dyslexics have other advantages, but it would have been much harder. It’s why dyslexics like Richard Branson (a personal hero), Steve Jobs and my Dad become entrepreneurs. Formal education didn’t fit for them and they didn’t find a way through it like I did. It’s also why such large proportions of both small business owners and prisoners are dyslexic. School isn’t set up for us, so we must figure it out ourselves.
I had to work harder than everybody else
I stumbled through my GCSE’s (stage 1) and then surprised everyone by doing OK in my A-Levels. By now I was starting to figure out that for me to do well I couldn’t just sit there like a sponge I had to engage in the subject and have an opinion. I also had to work harder than everyone else and learn in a way that worked for me. I went to University and in my own mind I’d made it. Through the encouragement of some very good friends (thanks Amy, Pete and Kieron) I’d go on to work my socks off and get a first from the University of Hertfordshire which lead to my first job at Rolls Royce. Interestingly, in my first week at Rolls Royce I was told by a training manager that "if you've got a dyslexic on your team don't ask them to use a computer, give them a hammer or something" unfortunately I didn't have the courage to ask "what if I'm the dyslexic" but it did wonders for my confidence. I then moved quickly on to an early stage start up called KorteQ and finally the early stage investor Octopus Investments.
I was initially in sales at Octopus and had a few false starts in moving into an investment team. I remember one person interviewing me for a job internally in their early stage team and stating I wasn’t “unique enough”. I quite liked that as I’d had lifetime of people telling me I seemed to be a bit different. Lucky for me Octopus is an awesome place (there’s another blog in me explaining why), and perhaps the only place in the world that would give someone with my background a chance. Eventually a manager called Mario Berti heard that I was a hard worker and took a chance. Hard to explain how much that meant to me without gushing. If you’ve got the opportunity you should always take a chance on a hard worker. I grabbed the opportunity. I can’t out smart most people, but I can out work them.
Even having passed my degree and securing an amazing job at an awesome company like Octopus, if I’m honest, I hadn’t real embraced being dyslexic or what it meant for me until I did my MBA at Oxford University. It was classic impostor syndrome. I’d blagged my way into my job and now I’d blagged my way into Oxford University. Eventually I’d be found out! Previously, I’d always played down my dyslexia. When I’d mention it at a job interviews I never got the job. Most people when you say your dyslexic look sideways at you and state “yes I’m a bit dyslexic too. More with numbers.”
I was surprised however that Oxford spent quite a bit of time asking about learning difficulties. At the back of my mind I’d assumed I was the only dyslexic at Oxford. So given Oxford was on board I decided to embrace it. Research it. Understand what made me different. Why am I useless in the pub quiz until it comes to the rounds on sport and music when I takeover? Why am I fascinated by history and can explain all the stories but with none of the characters or dates? Why can I happily talk in front of hundreds of people but panic every time I send an email or have to write on a white board? And, why do I naturally organise and innovate in person but fear putting anything down on a page? I get it now. I’ve done my research. My brain works differently. The parts of my brain that decipher lines into words so badly are also the parts that make it innovative and focused on outcomes and solutions. The part of my brain that struggles to untangle directions can see the big picture quickly and explain it to the person next to me. I found out from an awesome TED Talk there’s actually a whole science to it which I won’t bore anyone with here.
The future is bright
So what now. I’m currently an Investment Director at Octopus. We invest in small UK B2B companies that are scaling up. Is someone with this brain, my brain, a good investor? To be honest I’m still not sure; the chip is firmly tattooed on my shoulder. What I do know is that my colleagues are brilliant and by having them I can be a good investor. There is no one in our team who isn’t extremely bright, hyper-analytical and an excellent communicator. They’re fun to work with and despite being incredibly intelligent have a human side to them which means we all get on well and look out for each other. I’d not say I was deficient in my analytical work (especially if my boss is reading this) but my team are all exceptional. I think I bring other skills to the team. I come up with ideas on how we could find new deals. I quickly understand how companies work and what business models work in which scenarios. When I’m in management meetings I engage with the management team and understand what they’re trying to create by asking the right questions. I help our portfolio companies find solutions to complex problems and I see the bigger picture when they run into difficulties. Does this make me a good investor? On its own no, but within my team I hope it adds another dimension.
The outside world is open to us
And this is the point, being a dyslexic isn’t bad or good, we just struggle in some areas and bring something else to the table in others. Schools are set up only one way and if you can’t move squiggles into words you have to find other ways yourself. I truly believe the outside world is open for us, dyslexics, to use our skills. The fact is with modern technology retention of information is becoming less and less of an asset and a creative dyslexic mind should actually have an advantage.
If you do struggle with a learning need, I just hope you have the support network I’m so fortunate to have had and have. I’d be very happy to talk to anyone that would like advice on their own challenges.
By Edward Keelan - Investment Director in Octopus Development Capital Team