Young entrepreneurs defend Irish start-up scene

Global Entrepreneurship Monitor report said aspiration to become an entrepreneur in Ireland is low


Some 19,000 Irish people may have started new businesses last year, but the aspiration to become an entrepreneur here remains low according to the recently published Global Entrepreneurship Monitor (Gem) report – widely perceived as a key barometers of entrepreneurial activity worldwide. The report found fewer people currently planning on starting new businesses in Ireland, and that the majority of new businesses have no aspiration for growth. But what do Ireland’s young entrepreneurs think?

Steven Menton, the chief executive of young entrepreneur network Archipelago, believes Ireland is an extremely entrepreneurial-focussed society with numerous start-up and incubator programmes in place to support entrepreneurial activity.

He said the demand for these programmes proves that aspiration to become an entrepreneur in Ireland is high and that a large number of people are seeking to start their own business.

“There are a huge number of incubator programmes, such as NDRC Launchpad, Wayra, Dogpatch Labs, Startupbootcamp, Nova UCD, Ignite and the DCU Ryan Academy. These programmes are not empty. They are oversubscribed. They receive far more applications than there are places. There wouldn’t be so many programmes if there was very little aspiration to become an entrepreneur.”

Growth aspirations
He also disagreed with the finding that the majority of new businesses have no aspiration for growth, saying that if someone has the confidence to set up a business, they will “absolutely take the risk to seek growth”. “Liam Ryan from GetHealth is a case in point. He is currently partaking in the GE Health Academy in the US. He has global ambitions for the company.

Sophie Morris from Kooky Dough is another example. Her business is doing well domestically but that didn’t stop her looking abroad. Her products can be found on supermarket shelves in the UK and United Arab Emirates. The same goes for Robin Blandford of Decisions (D4H). He operates out of an office in Howth but recently signed a contract with the Canadian government to supply software to search and rescue teams in Alberta.”

Menton says Irish people have, throughout history, been looking abroad for growth, as the domestic market is so small.

And while Ireland may lag behind many other European countries when it comes to entrepreneurship, he said we are still a hugely entrepreneurial country.

“A study said Dublin had the potential to become a tech hub for Europe, creating nearly 3,000 jobs. They wouldn’t be saying that if we didn’t have a good start-up ecosystem.”

That study, compiled by Dublin City Council, the Dublin Chamber of Commerce and the Creative Dublin Alliance, said the city could be recognised as the top EU hub for innovation in technology, and could sustain the already thriving start-up sector in the city.

“It’s our entrepreneurship and innovation in the tech scene, with numerous tech companies and apps coming out of Ireland, that make us a credible location as a tech hub. Look at Soundwave. It’s an Irish company that has been endorsed by the likes of [Apple founder] Steve Wozniak. It’s gone global.”

Sarah O’Connor, co-founder of gourmet food business The Cool Beans Company, said she believes most start-ups have huge aspirations for growth. “We have been looking to export our product from the very beginning. We might be totally delusional but we’ve wanted to be big from the start. We don’t want to grow just for the money and success; we are also interested in the impact growth can have on employment and the economy.”

She said Ireland is teeming with young people who are starting their own companies, or who have aspirations to do so, and it is gaining global attention as a tech hub as a result. “My co-founders and I meet a lot of early stage entrepreneurs through different events and incubators. That makes us feel there is a vibrant community of early stage start-ups here, and they’re not all in the tech sector.”

Ms O’Connor, who is also a senior manager of the EY Entrepreneur of the Year programme, said she was very surprised by the findings that aspiration to become an entrepreneur in Ireland remains low.

“If the Junior Entrepreneur Programme run by Jerry Kennelly and the EY Entrepreneur of the Year programme are anything to go by, it would seem there’s a huge appetite for entrepreneurship in Ireland. It’s not just among young people setting up their own businesses, or people forced to start companies out of necessity. Some people are leaving their jobs at big companies to set up their own businesses.”

She said Irish companies and people are becoming more and more supportive of those who set up their own business.

“I’m involved in Sandbox [a community of young innovators and entrepreneurs] and being around them inspired me to start my own company. My co-founder Isolde Moylan and I met two other ‘Sandboxers’, Sophie Morris and Graham Clarke, to get their advice about running our own business. They phoned us back the next day saying they wanted to invest.”

Ms O’Connor said this kind of support is key to many start-ups in Ireland. “I still work full-time but EY have afforded me a huge amount of flexibility in my day job. They have been really supportive. I think entrepreneurship is encouraged a lot more these days.”

Dublin scene
Sandbox chief executive John Egan said the start-up scene in Dublin is much more active than in the rest of the State, which could lead people to believe we are more entrepreneurial than we are.

“Dublin is an extremely active entrepreneurial centre, but the same can’t be said across the rest of the country. There are a huge number of start-ups in the capital and accelerator programmes, but when you take the whole country into account, I think there is less aspiration to be an entrepreneur.”

While he agreed with the finding that the majority of new businesses have no aspiration for growth, he said it’s important to differentiate between certain tech start-ups and people who set up their own shop or restaurant.

“A person who sets up a shop might have no aspiration for growth. They don’t want a chain of shops, or to locate their shops abroad. They might not want to work 24 hours a day. Then you have the likes of Soundwave, which was specifically set up to go global. While most tech start-ups want to be international companies, the same can’t be said for most corner shops.”

However, he believes the number of young entrepreneurs is rising, with more graduates opting to set up their own business than join the workforce.

“It’s far more culturally acceptable to be an entrepreneur now and there are good role models such as the Collison brothers from Stripe. The rockstars of this generation are entrepreneurs. People look up to the likes of Mark Zuckerberg.

“We have a very empowered group of young people who grew up in strong economic circumstances. They are very well educated and have masters degrees in sophisticated subjects. All that’s open to them is a low level job so they choose entrepreneurship instead.”

The 2012 Gem research for Ireland also indicated the level of women’s entrepreneurial activity had remained steady though their expectations for the growth of their businesses have increased significantly. The report said this was a result of increased spotlighting among policymakers and development agencies to encourage more women to become involved in entrepreneurial activity and to be more ambitious for their new businesses.

“It’s the duty of men and women to be role models, stand up, tell their story and show the next generation it can be done. CPL Resources chief executive Anne Heraty and Colette Twomey, of Clonakilty Black Pudding, are great examples of people who put themselves forward and tell their story. We need more women to do that,” Ms O’Connor said.