Living out the American dream
WILD GEESE: Colman Lydon, MD of Fonepool, a telecoms business in New York providing mobile phone services to students travelling to the US on J1 visas
WILD GEESE Colman Lydon, MD of Fonepool, New York
FOR DUBLIN-BORN Colman Lydon, a sojourn in New York is a case of “if I can make it there, I’ll make it anywhere”. Since landing in Manhattan some eight years ago, he has successfully sold his own telecoms business and is now ready to start another chapter in his life, which may, or may not, lead him to pastures new.
Lydon, from Sutton in north Dublin, never set out to be an entrepreneur. “It came about more by proxy than design; it was not something that I’d always aspired to do,” he says. He was inspired while working at travel company USIT, where he hit on the idea to provide mobile phone services to students travelling to the US on a JI visa.
At the time, Irish phones were incompatible with US service providers, so Lydon had a captive audience and formed Fonepool to offer such a service. By 2004, as the company was starting to grow, he moved stateside to develop it further, broadening the target market for the product.
“Ireland is an important source of business for us, but an increasing number of customers are coming from Latin America and Eastern Europe,” he says.
For Lydon, New York was an inspiring place to launch a business. “You see the rewards of success all around you and it drives you forward. The early stages of a start-up are incredibly dynamic and exciting; New York fuels that in a fundamental way. Positivity is to the fore; you are open to anything.”
However, he concedes that it’s difficult launching a business away from the support network of home.
“In some ways, you take a lot for granted at that time. You have given yourself no alternative, and taken it upon yourself to follow this path so anything that gets in the way – you can’t consider it insurmountable. If you’re not up to the challenge, you will be exposed very quickly. If you’re thinking about failing, you’re in trouble.”
The company was self-funded in its early days, which meant that Lydon had to live on the revenue from the business. Luckily, Fonepool had its first customer within 15 days of Lydon arriving in the US, but his early days weren’t all about living the dream. “Living in Manhattan on $1,200 a month, including rent, is an art in and of itself.”
But he found welcome support from Irish expats. “It is during these lean periods that you really experience the willingness among the Irish community abroad to offer support. At home, we would have to compete with each other, leaving room for acrimony, but abroad our interests are aligned.”
Stateside, the opportunities to meet fellow Irish people abound. “There is an Irish network for every shade of green in New York and they all have their place here,” says Lydon, who found his home with the Irish International Business Network (IIBN), which he now chairs. A voluntary business network, the IIBN also has chapters in London and Dublin.
“IIBN has been a great thing for me. It’s nice to have confidantes and mentors and there are some incredibly accomplished people here in New York. It’s great to be able to draw on that experience and to find that they’re willing collaborators.”
And, says Lydon, they tend to share a common trait. “Irish entrepreneurs and executives have the capacity to turn their keen commercial eye on, and be undeterred by, the most challenging opportunities, irrespective of domain.”
Rather than call on the business supports available in New York, Lydon also found help back home through Enterprise Ireland (EI), which provided office space and co-funded a feasibility study for a piece of technology that “remains an integral part of the business. Their work with early-stage start-ups abroad is often overlooked.”
For entrepreneurs considering a similar move, Lydon says: “You do need to arrive in New York and be absolutely focused. It doesn’t matter where you are; in the early stages of a start-up so many things can distract you and as soon as you lose your focus you’re in trouble.”
Earlier this year, Lydon brought the experience full circle when his business was acquired and he moved with it to work for the acquirer, a subsidiary of Jersey telco JT Global.
“Every entrepreneur who starts a business is hopeful that it will be sold. You want to build something that will be coveted by someone else. It’s a great validation and it really takes the process full circle and starts the new chapter in my career.”
For Lydon, this will bring about “a new chapter” in his life. “It was exhilarating to sell the business and validates many of the difficult decisions I had to make along the way.”
Like many emigrants, the thoughts of moving home are at the back of Lydon’s mind, but having met his Brazilian-born wife in New York, it’s far from a certain move. “Living in Ireland is appealing. I love Ireland and I would like my kids to spend more time with their cousins” but “my family’s future is paramount. In a more connected world, the venue is superseded by the opportunity to provide for my family’s future.”
Wild Geese is a weekly interview in the Business supplement with Irish business leaders abroad. This article appears in the newspaper today, and in the Business section of the website here.