Delivering the goods on a network site
WILD GEESE:Avis Mulhall, co-founder and marketing director of social networking site mmMule
NOT MANY young entrepreneurs’ journeys to setting up their own business include being attacked by a cheetah, having a gorilla roll over their legs and suffering a near-death experience following emergency surgery.
But none of this has stopped Dubliner Avis Mulhall from changing the world of social entrepreneurship. After moving from a six-figure salary in Dublin to living in a remote Tanzanian rainforest with no electricity and no phone, the 32-year-old caught malaria, twice, before relocating to Sydney and setting up travel networking site mmMule.
Fresh from giving a speech about entrepreneurship at an Australian school, Mulhall says: “I want to instil in young people that entrepreneurship is a valid choice as a career. It’s the only way to break the cycle of negative economic growth. It creates jobs and money for the economy.”
Mulhall is the marketing director of mmMule, which she co-founded with her brother Alan Mulhall and Australian Andrew Simpson. The lord mayor of Sydney, Clover Moore, recently said the site was one of the most innovative businesses to come out of Australia. And Mulhall was selected to represent Australia at the G20 Young Entrepreneur Summit in Mexico, where she met Mexican president Felipe Calderón.
The mmMule network connects locals who want stuff, to travellers who can deliver it. In return for delivery, travellers are rewarded with local experiences. The idea came from mmMule’s founders, who often found themselves missing treats from back home when travelling. “I wanted things like Barry’s tea, but I couldn’t get it shipped and I was tired of waiting for friends from Ireland to bring it for me,” Mulhall says.
“We realised it was a common problem as we kept seeing posts on Facebook from friends of all nationalities who wanted stuff – like food, cosmetics and electronics – that they couldn’t get shipped to where they lived.”
To solve the delivery problem, the team drew on their travel experiences. Having visited more than 65 countries between them, they knew it was always hard arriving in a new city not knowing anyone. “We always had the most fun when we had a local connection – that way you don’t feel like a tourist and you get to experience a place like the locals.
“We thought that if we could connect locals who wanted stuff with travellers who want more authentic experiences, we could solve a real problem for both, and that’s how mmMule was born.”
Following college in Dublin, Mulhall got a job in sales before moving on to a bank. There she worked her way up to lending manager but became increasingly unhappy with the job. “Morally I hated it as I was being pushed to give people loans when I felt they couldn’t really afford them.”
She left the bank and went to a recruitment firm seeking work in underwriting. Rather than find her a job, however, the firm itself offered her one. “I went on to work in recruitment for several years. I was earning between €120,000 and €130,000, I was in a long-term relationship, we had two houses and two cars, and I thought: ‘Is this it?’ I had more money than I knew what to do with yet I had no time for anything. The longest holiday I had taken in five years was five days and I was only 28.”
Mulhall left her job and flew to Africa on New Year’s Day 2009. She spent six months teaching in Milingano, Tanzania, before going on to run a surf and yoga lodge in Mozambique. It was here she met Simpson. “He came to visit the lodge for a few days and ended up staying two weeks. A few months later I got an email from him asking did I want to go to Ethiopia. It was there we decided to go into business together.”
What followed were several months of flying back and forth between Ireland and the US (where Simpson was based at the time) developing the idea for the social networking site.
Sydney was chosen as the location to run the site and Mulhall, along with her brother and Simpson, set up a base there in November 2010. But Mulhall had only arrived in Sydney when she had to have surgery.
“I had to have an operation in Sydney and following my release from hospital I developed severe peritonitis. Had I waited 20 minutes longer before returning to hospital, I would have died. I had to have further surgery and then I developed an infection in the central line to my heart and my organs started shutting down. I was unable to eat any food for eight weeks and spent several months in hospital.”
During this time she used every lucid moment to hold business meetings. The site was soft-launched (via Twitter and Facebook) in January. Within 24 hours, it had received 1,900 hits from 59 countries, 50 requests had been posted and the first Mule delivery was accepted from the UK to Australia.
“What’s even more fascinating is that our second delivery accepted was to Nigeria,” says Mulhall. A man who runs a surf camp in France gave free accommodation and lessons to someone for bringing him English bacon from Britain, while a woman in New York treated a traveller from Guatemala to a night on the town at her favourite bar in exchange for a brightly coloured blanket.
Mulhall is also involved in Think Act Change, a forum for entrepreneurs and innovators.
“I set it up to inspire ordinary people to do great things and it has exploded. We already have more than 900 members and have meetings every month to discuss ideas, innovation and entrepreneurship.”