EY Entrepreneur of the Year Awards – Emerging Finalists

The first four of eight nominees in the Emerging category of the EY Entrepreneur of the Year Award are profiled this week

Lisa and Vanessa Creaven, Spotlight Oral Care

Sisters Lisa and Vanessa Creaven (pictured above) founded Spotlight Oral Care with their business partner Barry Buckley in 2016 by putting in just €30,000 each. Since then, the company has rapidly expanded and boasts US retailers Ulta Beauty, CVS and Target as clients. Spotlight is also active across Ireland, Britain and Europe. The Galway-based dental business recently secured a €12 million investment to help drive international expansion, primarily into Europe, Canada, Australia and the US.

The Covid-19 pandemic has helped Spotlight grow its online sales, which now stand at 65 per cent of its entire business. Vanessa, the company’s chief executive, and Lisa, Spotlight’s chief marketing officer, are eyeing turnover of more than €100 million within the next three to five years.

Both sisters trained as dentists and since establishing Spotlight have sought to offer their patients high quality products in an industry that they say has seen little disruption or innovation. They’re also very aware of waste in the industry and are actively working to reduce the carbon footprint of their products.

What vision/lightbulb moment prompted you to start-up in business?
Day to day, patients would ask us to recommend products for their specific oral care needs, whether they wanted to try an at-home whitening kit or were struggling with sensitive teeth or bad breath. When we looked at the oral care products available, we simply couldn't stand over anything on the market. We decided to create an at-home whitening solution for our patients that was clean, clinically proven, used active ingredients that really worked and designed solutions that were customised to the individual needs we saw in our patients. They loved the formula so much that we knew we had to offer it to more than just the clinic's clientele. That was the beginning of Spotlight Oral Care in 2016.


What is your greatest business achievement to date?
Expanding our team of four to 53 during the past two years has been an incredible achievement. And for us as female founders, being able to balance motherhood with growing our business has been a wonderful experience and a great example of how important it is to share and celebrate both professional and personal achievements with your team.

What was your "back-to-the-wall" moment and how did you overcome it?
When Covid-19 initially hit, our business was 90 per cent retail. Together with our team we managed to pivot quickly, redeveloping our online direct-to-consumer approach and now it stands at 65 per cent of our entire business. We are also super proud of the fact we managed to retain our entire team throughout the pandemic, which was challenging but has been hugely beneficial in the long run.

What moment/deal would you cite as the "game changer" for the company?
The launch of our toothpaste range and our Sonic Toothbrush at the end of 2019. We launched a new website at the same time and it was the moment that we became a full omni-channel business.

What were the best and worst pieces of advice you received when starting out?
People told us it was risky to start a business, and I think anyone who has started a business will say they received the same feedback. In a way, this was both the best and worst advice, because it motivated us to make it work. Yes, business is risky, but if you know that you have something of value to offer then it's always worth the risk.

Aimee Connolly, Sculpted by Aimee

From the age of 16, Aimee Connolly developed an interest in makeup. During secondary school, she got a part-time job with Urban Decay and did work experience with Benefit Cosmetics to improve her knowledge of the cosmetics industry. Then, while studying at University College Dublin, she kept a part-time job in the industry. She was also a freelance makeup artist, getting good feedback from clients. This feedback prompted her to establish Sculpted by Aimee in 2016, a cosmetics business that now ships its products to more than 20 countries.

The company began 2021 with eight staff and has since built that to 15 as it looks at the UK and Middle East for expansion. Originally from Dublin, Connolly has funded the company’s growth to date and hopes to see the brand become a staple for consumers globally. The pandemic has shown her just how much of the company’s business can be conducted virtually, although with supply chain difficulties as a result of Covid-19, Connolly says she’s hoping for normality by the end of this year.

What is your business model and what makes it unique?
Sculpted by Aimee is an award-winning cosmetics brand operating an omni-channel business model. We have a significant presence online through our social channels, website and retail partners and we also have distribution in a wide range of pharmacies and grocery stores across the UK and Ireland. Our bricks and mortar store in Dundrum has gone from strength to strength since opening and we are focused on continually striving to improve customer experience.

What is your greatest business achievement to date?
From a business point of view, consistently growing the team and making headway into new export markets are tangible signs of growth and hitting our goals is always a great feeling.

What was your "back-to-the-wall" moment and how did you overcome it?
The very beginning of the pandemic was, as for most businesses, a significant challenge for us. For the first few weeks, there was a real sense that we were heading into the unknown, which was a hard situation to navigate. Our stockists were shut, our Dundrum store closed and the team were sent home. I didn't even know if our warehouse could stay open. After the initial panic abated, I focused on what I could control and acted quickly. We moved our client consultations, classes and events online and worked on building our online education and on creating meaningful experiences for our customers virtually. We launched into the UK virtually, negotiated deals remotely, working in ways I never thought would have been possible.

What were the best and the worst pieces of advice you received when starting out?
The best advice I received was to go with your gut. Sometimes when you're starting out you have to delve into aspects of the business that may not be in your comfort zone or area of expertise. It's easy to doubt yourself but I realised that I need to back myself and trust my instincts when it came to decision making.

The worst advice was not to be concerned about trademarking as once it’s your brand you’re covered. Protecting your assets is so important and something that businesses should address from the outset.

Where would you like your business to be in three years?
I am very focused on international growth and replicating the loyal community we have created here in Ireland in other markets. It takes time and significant resources but that is where I concentrate my efforts. I am also working on expanding the range with well thought through additions that make sense to the brand's story and ethos.

Conor and James McCarthy, Flipdish

Frustrated by not being able to order food directly from restaurants, brothers Conor and James McCarthy set about establishing Flipdish – a business which puts eateries in control of their ordering and marketing systems. While the technology started as a marketplace – something consumers using Just Eat are familiar with – the pair soon realised that restaurants being able to control orders directly was more important.

With Conor’s software background, the product was developed in 2015 and has since grown to work with more than 5,000 restaurants. It wasn’t always straightforward and the Covid-19 pandemic proved particularly challenging.

In March 2020, 30 per cent of the restaurants using the platforms closed within 10 days. The business suddenly was faced with having to cut costs by 25 per cent and the options were to either cut salaries or make staff redundant. The brothers took the first option and, with the business becoming profitable a few months later, they were soon able to return staff salaries to normal and pay back employees for the reduction they took when the pandemic hit.

What vision/lightbulb moment prompted you to start-up in business?
A massive lightbulb moment for me was when, in a previous ecommerce business, I first received an order that was handled in a fully automated way. The day before I had just completed automating the process of fulfilling an order automatically after handling them manually for months. I noticed an order had come in and went about processing it as I usually did, but then realised that the automated system had worked and the customer happily had their order. And I didn't have to do a thing.

What is your greatest business achievement to date?
The stand-out achievement, and of my career, is hiring a new staff member for each work day this year. It gives me this oxymoronic feeling of both how large the impact of creating the business has been while at the same time feeling that it's still tiny – a hundredth of its future size.

What were the best and worst pieces of advice you received when starting out?
The worst advice I've received was anything that started with "You must…" I've realised that there is no single way to be successful, and every "good" piece of advice is only good advice in some circumstances.

That said, there’s been so much good advice over the years it’s hard to pick a single example. One piece that has an impact in Flipdish was that it’s very helpful to sell your product to a single customer type. We could have attempted to offer the best on-demand ordering platform for a variety of business types: pharmacies, grocers, laundrettes, aeroplanes, etc, but this would have made it very difficult to grow by referrals and word of mouth and hard to build up a brand that’s known to our target market.

To what extent does your business trade internationally?
We are becoming a truly remote first and distributed company, so in some sense all our business is international as the concept of a physical HQ is going away. We've clients in more than 15 countries, commercial teams in six countries and staff across about five more.

What is the most common mistake you see entrepreneurs make?
Lots of people have entrepreneurial aspirations but never take that very first step. I think that is probably the mistake I see most often.

John Browne, Kastus

It was after 10 years in research and development that John Browne formally launched Kastus, a business in the field of antimicrobial surface coatings and additives. The company’s patented coating has been proven to neutralise up to 99.99 per cent of harmful bacteria, fungi and antibiotic-resistant superbugs.

And since the company’s foundation, Browne has been busy, attracting €10 million in funding as well as closing a multi-million dollar deal with Lenovo.

Browne started his career in major electronics businesses before starting his first business, Smart Glass, in 2001. After a forced sale of his business he faced some challenges but ultimately brought Kastus to market.

Last year, the company played a part in fighting human coronavirus, with its technology proven to neutralise up to 99.9 per cent of the virus. It went on to launch screen protectors, for which they were awarded EU funding. In the coming three years, Browne wants Kastus to hit turnover of more than €40 million in an effort to make the business a unicorn – a private company valued at more than €1 billion.

What is your business model and what makes it unique?
We're involved in sales to multinational companies in industries ranging from smartphones to consumer appliances and ceramic tiles. Kastus is essentially a chemicals company, selling into the customer supply chain.

What was your "back-to-the-wall" moment and how did you overcome it?
Scaling the solution from lab to factory. I hired a chief technology officer and tech team, worked hard, invested and made it happen.

What were the best and the worst pieces of advice you received when starting out?
The best advice was: don't give away equity cheaply. The worst advice: Don't do it.

How did you fund the business?
We started with promoter funding and Enterprise Ireland matching funds, followed by a small individual investment. We closed a €3 million round in 2018 with Ascent capital and Atlantic Bridge. We just closed a €5.65 million series A, and are now resourcing the commercial team.

How has Covid impacted your business?
Positively, Kastus kills coronavirus on surfaces. Awareness of the danger in touching high touch surfaces, such as kiosks or screens, is an enormous opportunity for Kastus. Brands will need to include Kastus functionality as standard in their product development plans.

What is the single most important piece of advice you would offer to a less experienced entrepreneur?
Be humble, seek advice and act on it.

What motivates you to keep performing at your best?
The opportunity to build a globally recognised brand, working with a team who are better than me.

What vision/lightbulb moment prompted you to start-up in business?
The uniqueness of the technology and its global appeal as well as the prevalence of superbugs and receiving a freedom to operate from our patent attorney.

To what extent does your business trade internationally and what are your plans?
We're mainly focused on the USA, Europe and far eastern markets. Ultimately Kastus will be a standard finish on smartphones, kiosks and tablets.

Where would you like your business to be in three years?
Turning over €40 million plus, partnered with an international client base and with a team of talented individuals working towards making Kastus an Irish unicorn.

Peter Hamilton

Peter Hamilton

Peter Hamilton is a contributor to The Irish Times specialising in business