EY Entrepreneur of the Year awards: ‘Don’t listen to naysayers – prove them wrong’

We profile four more nominees in the EY Entrepreneur of the Year award

Chupi Sweetman, Chupi

At the age of 16, Chupi Sweetman (pictured above) created her first fashion business. When she was just 21, Sweetman became Topshop’s youngest designer ever to work at the label. But after a few years in the fast fashion business, Sweetman moved to start up her own business, catering to the luxury market.

At the beginning, the brand - Chupi – wholesaled into major department stores including John Lewis, Macy’s and Fenwick. Now, the jewellery business exports to consumers in 67 countries and, prompted by the risks Sweetman found in traditional retail as a result of Brexit, it also sells direct to consumers.

Sweetman has had to navigate other headwinds since establishing the business. US retail giant Amazon is one of the largest challenges, she says. The Covid-19 pandemic was also a difficulty, changing the face of luxury retail. But it forced her to take a three-year plan and deliver it in six months, she says.

In the coming years, the plan is for the company to open its first retail store in the west coast of the US while hitting €25 million in revenue and hiring its 100th staff member.

What vision/lightbulb moment prompted you to start-up in business?
I remember the moment my husband proposed, wearing my engagement ring for the first time I thought I own a piece of the future, something one day my great great granddaughter will wear. I knew then I had to quit my job in commercial fashion and start making heirlooms.

What was your "back-to-the-wall" moment and how did you overcome it?
At the start of the business we found accessing bank finance very challenging. I remember applying for a credit card for the business and being told to use my husband's as we were too small. I moved bank the next day and found the right partners to scale the business. I don't take no for an answer.

What are you doing to disrupt, innovate and improve the products or services you offer?
Our industry has historically been fussy and old-fashioned: velvet gloves and closed doors have given way to a digital revolution. We use augmented reality so you can try on your Chupi diamond ring from anywhere in the world, our consultants offer virtual appointments from the comfort of your sofa. We are making luxury digital.

What is the most common mistake you see entrepreneurs make?
I think the most common mistake entrepreneurs make is trying to do everything themselves. Failing to build a brilliant team around them, it's what causes so much burnout. I feel grateful to have had such a brilliant team around me, all of whom are better at what they do than I am.

What is the single most important piece of advice you would offer to a less experienced entrepreneur?
Start today. Yes there will always be someone bigger and more established but I think of the quote that the best time to start was yesterday, the next best time is now.

What moment/deal would you cite as the "game changer" or turning point for the company?
In 2016, just as the UK voted for Brexit, we had signed another exceptional department store. Back then we had built the business to be both direct consumer and working with partner retailers. But with the Brexit vote I saw a huge risk in the traditional retail model so we pivoted the entire business over the following three years to become direct to consumer.

What was you growth funding path?
We have bootstrapped Chupi. From selling our first pieces to enable that first hire, to today where as an international brand we are cash positive. We have had some lovely offers from some interesting investors, but haven't yet met the right partner.

Roisin Molloy, TriMedika

When Roisin Molloy was visiting her ill sister in hospital, she saw the unnecessary distress caused by continually waking patients to take their temperature. Having decided that there must be an easier way, Molloy developed the idea for her contactless thermometer product, TriTemp.

Her medical technology company, TriMedika, was founded in 2016 after a rigorous 18-month design, development and launch phase for her flagship product. And while there was a clear need for the product before the pandemic, the Covid-19 crisis was a boon for the company.

Molloy cites as a game changer coverage of Tri Temp on the Late Late Show and the fact that the HSE used her thermometers in all Covid screening centres and acute hospitals.

The company now sells its wares in 21 countries through both hospitals and distribution partners. While Ireland and Britain are the company’s key markets, it has also launched into Germany and Austria and plans to enter the United State later this year. Within three years, Molloy anticipates that revenue at the business will reach about £50 million (€58.6 million) with non-contact thermometers mandated in every hospital.

What vision/lightbulb moment prompted you to start-up in business?
After a long day of chemotherapy my sister turned and said to me: "If the nurse wakes me to stick that thermometer in my ear again, I'm going to jump out of the window". I'm a scientist who believes any problem can be solved. So, while I couldn't change my sister's illness, I knew that I could make her much more comfortable and that's been TriMedika's driving force position from the beginning.

What is your business model and how is it unique?
In 2016, long before Covid, we realised that contact thermometers are a huge source for infection, but at that time non-contacts weren't fit for use in hospitals. To improve vital patient care worldwide with technology that safeguards patients and carers, we designed a non-contact infrared thermometer, accurate and robust enough for use in the hospital clinical wards. TriTemp has been precision engineered to be used 40,000 times.

What was your 'back-to-the-wall' moment and how did you overcome it?
During peak Covid, at a time when our hospitals needed devices to save lives, we were informed that our shipments were stuck in customs and were not getting released. After hours of calling, I found someone with a network of customs agents in every country. Her contacts got eyes on our shipments and legally challenged officials to let them through – that's one phone number I'll never lose.

What is the most common mistake you see entrepreneurs make?
Some entrepreneurs spend all their time chasing venture capital for funding, taking their eye off revenue generation. Companies grow and succeed on revenue, and entrepreneurs need to plan in three stages for start up, scale up, and to be market leader. Each stage is very different and requires the right processes, tools and metrics for success.

What were the best and the worst pieces of advice you received when starting out?
The worst advice was "investment is a mark of success". It is a first success, but the work only begins there. Generating revenue is the real mark of success. The best advice was: "Don't listen to naysayers – prove them wrong and if it's not a 'hell yea' then it's a 'hell no'." This has helped in many decisions.

What are the big disruptive forces in your industry?
Three key disruptive forces to date are Covid, Brexit and regulatory change from the Medical Device Directive (MDD) to Medical Device Regulation (MDR). Covid caused a huge boost to sales and brought non-contact thermometers into hospitals, but this also opened a gateway for inferior quality thermometers. TriTemp is much more than an accurate clinical non-contact thermometer – it is a precision engineered tool for accuracy, designed to positively impact and better control infection.

Xuemei Germaine, Microgen Biotech

Xuemei Germaine was educated to university level in China, where she was born. While studying biochemistry in her final year, a friend convinced her to do a second degree in Co Carlow. While her English was limited at that time, she studied hard and ultimately finished top of her class.

After that, she was offered a place on a PhD programme, which she completed before working for Pfizer. After six years there, she decided she wanted to oversee the whole process of research and development to product development and commercialisation and so, with the result that Microgen Biotech was born.

In 2012, Germaine was invited to attend a trade mission in China with Enterprise Ireland where she spoke about her PhD and techniques that could help clean polluted soil. This being of interest to the Chinese delegation, where about 20 per cent of arable land was polluted, Germaine was asked to put together a team in China.

Now, the company has one team in the Republic – responsible for research and development – and an operational team in China. Strategic partnerships with Chinese state-owned companies, including the Shengli oil field, helped the company to expand. But Germaine also saw other opportunity in food safety and has since developed microbial products to block the uptake of heavy metals by crops.

What is your greatest business achievement to date?
There are a number of milestones I've been fortunate to celebrate, but I'm really proud that we were able to launch our first product solution in the Chinese market early last year. We were able to achieve $2.5 million (€2.1 million) in revenue with a variety of customers, including government, companies and large farmers.

To what extent does your business trade internationally and what are your plans?
MicroGen is headquartered at IT Carlow, but we are a global company. Currently, our products are registered in China and have generated sales there. We are in the process of registering our products in Spain, Germany and Belgium. We're also in the process of expanding to the US.

What is your growth funding path?
We completed a $5.1 million series A funding round early in 2020 with internationally renowned agtech-food institutional investors, including Fulcrum Global Capital and Yield Lab. As we plan for more expansion, we aim to complete our Series B fundraising of $30 million early next year.

What is the single most important piece of advice you would offer to a less experienced entrepreneur?
Practice calm and steadiness. I am an entrepreneur, so I am naturally confident, resilient and have a fire to keep pushing. This is very powerful – it drives me and my team to perform. But I discovered that it's not enough to drive sustainable growth for the business. In my early years, I got irritated easily, taking the "fight and flight" approach when facing a challenge. This caused setbacks for me. In the past two years as my business grew, I discovered my real power is to be calm and steady.

What are you doing to disrupt, innovate and improve the products or services you offer?
MicroGen is using the natural power of something as small as the microbiome to help solve some of the most complex challenges that face our world. We do that by challenging ourselves to think of what is seemingly impossible and changing it to "what if?" What if we could reduce heavy metals and toxins in our food? What if we could help crops become healthier and more productive? What if we could heal our planet from the inside out?

Niall Horgan & Diarmuid McSweeney, Gym+Coffee

Niall Horgan and Diarmuid McSweeney met while studying commerce at University College Cork. But their paths soon diverged, with Horgan spending almost a decade in several sales and technology roles at companies including Twitter, Slack and Sky. McSweeney, meanwhile, worked in marketing and communications strategy at companies in Ireland and Australia.

But the pair retained an interest in fitness throughout and, in January 2017, founded Gym+Coffee. They had noticed peoples’ social schedules revolving around their fitness routines before they went to drink coffee afterwards. And so, they set up their clothing business to focus on high quality athleisure wear.

Knowing that they’d have to compete with industry leaders such as Nike and Adidas, the pair were confident that if they connected with customers through digital marketing and social media the business would be successful.

Today, the company’s clothing is manufactured in Asia and sold around the world including in Ireland, Britain, the US, and Australia. The business has attracted investors including former Irish rugby captain Brian O’Driscoll and pop star Niall Horan. It now plans to grow its community of clients and intends to add two retail stores in the UK by the end of 2021.

What was your 'back-to-the-wall' moment and how did you overcome it?
In our first three years of business we faced Brexit and Covid, which have both been tough for different reasons. The toughest moment came in summer 2020 when, due to Covid, we were unable to transport our stock from our manufacturers in Asia to Ireland. To tackle this, we partnered with an amazing Irish business that allowed us to deliver products to our customers directly from Asia. This helped the business survive a really difficult period.

Where would you like your business to be in three years?
We are a very proud Irish business but have global ambitions for Gym+Coffee. In three years' time our goal is to have broken into the UK, US and mainland Europe. Building a passionate community around Gym+Coffee is what really motivates us right now. We have just under 400,000 community members. By the end of 2022, our goal is to have passed the 1 million mark and by the end of 2023, we want to hit 2 million.

How will your market look in three years?
The global athleisure market is currently worth $350 billion and is set to grow to $500 billion by 2024 so we expect that we will see huge growth. E-commerce is also on the rise with a prediction that online sales will be 40 per cent of all sales by 2024. This gives us confidence that we are in the right place.

However, what’s going to be so important now, and in three years, is how sustainable a business is. That is a big focus for us and we are investing heavily in this area. By 2022, we will be carbon neutral and a certified B-Corp [businesses that meet high standards of verified social and environmental performance, public transparency, and legal accountability to balance profit and purpose] .

What is the single most important piece of advice you would offer to a less experienced entrepreneur?
Don't be too cautious. Our biggest successes by far were when we took the biggest risks. We opened our first retail store before we were 100 per cent ready; we launched in the US before we were 100 per cent ready; we changed our entire supply chain before we were 100 per cent ready; but all these decisions had a hugely positive impact on the business. My advice, especially at the beginning, is just say yes to opportunities and go for it.

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