Novel ideas make good business

 

Hands up all those who flossed their teeth this morning. If you did, congratulations. You're one of the 10 per cent of Irish people who do. But chances are you're one of the much bigger group who don't. Dentist Paul Sullivan thinks he knows why.

"Many of the flossing products available are awkward to use and people get fed up trying," he says. "What's needed is a flossing system that's easy to use and relatively inexpensive to buy."

Having pondered the problem as he looked into countless mouths of unflossed teeth, an idea began to take shape in Paul Sullivan's mind. Together with his engineer brother, Alan, the idea grew wings and in August 1998 Interfloss made its market debut. At least that's it in a nutshell. But it's less than half the story. In reality it took more than eight years to bring the product to market amid many setbacks.

"What kept us going was an overriding belief in the product," says Mr Sullivan who continued to work as a dentist throughout the product's development and who has yet to see any financial return for his efforts.

"The reaction of the dental profession has been fantastic, but it's a very slow burn from a marketing perspective as most people only visit their dentist once or twice a year.

"If we were starting again there are many things we would do differently. We were rookies at manufacturing, sales and marketing and we made mistakes. For example, spending money on advertising and marketing without being very sure of the return. We went into the UK too early and lost money. We put huge amounts of time into trying to interest multinationals in our product too soon and we had problems getting aspects of the manufacturing process exactly right."

Dental floss has been on the market for more than 100 years but a century later the traditional type still comes in strands that are unpleasant to use. The Interfloss product combines a toothbrush-style handle with clip-in floss units which are replaced much like the blades in a disposable razor.

Money for the venture came from personal resources and BES funding. The patent on the product was paid for by Eolas (now Enterprise Ireland) and Mr Sullivan says that without such State support, Interfloss would never have made it. "Eolas was just fantastic and we will pay the money back. We're hopeful that this will be sooner rather than later. We are about to sign our first license agreement with a large European company who will manufacture and sell Interfloss in five European markets. We think this is the way to go. We simply don't have the resources to contemplate a big manufacturing operation."

Husband and wife Geoff Caird and Catherine Melvin set up Chocca Mocca chocolates in 1993. They were travelling in Australia when they sampled a chocolate covered coffee bean and a business idea was born. "We came back to Ireland with the idea and some savings but we weren't sure how to progress it," says Mr Caird. "I took a teaching job while we thought about it and we actually started sooner than we planned because there was no prospect of a full-time teaching job at the time."

Chocca Mocca makes a range of chocolate-covered coffee beans and fruits packaged in distinctive white boxes. The company's products target the upper end of the market and it has a growing export business in the UK and Europe. It has recently introduced its Chocolate Circles. "In the beginning we worked non-stop and at one stage we had 16 staff and found we were spending more and more of our time managing people. We realised this wasn't what we wanted to do so we've rearranged how we operate. We outsource our manufacturing which leaves us free to focus on product development and gives us more time for our young family," Mr Caird says.

While vodka is not exactly the first drink to spring to mind when one thinks of Ireland, former Baileys executives Pat Rigney and Dave Phelan were convinced an Irish-made vodka would sell well in the buoyant international vodka market. The first bottle of Boru rolled off the production line in September 1998 (six months after the company was formed) and the company now employs 25 people. Boru is sold in 25 markets including Brazil and the Philippines.

"WE both came from Baileys which was a very pioneering and entrepreneurial environment," says Pat Rigney. "We had worked together for a long time, we had similar views on the market and we were very clear about what we wanted to achieve. We are close to the Irish drinks trade so we constantly asked people for feedback and kept checking that we were on course."

Rigney and Phelan decided to go big from the beginning. They brought in the West Cork Distillery and bottlers Tera manufacturing as partners and it took roughly £1 million of private funding to set up the business.

"I think you have to be optimistic by nature to do something like this and you have to take the knocks and carry on. There are moments which are very challenging and it's been very tough on our families. But we are also getting a great buzz from it. We have moved very quickly which is the advantage of being small. We also had confidence in our product and the knowledge of where to go for what we needed."

The Roaring Water Bay Spirits Company has since added two new products to its portfolio - Clontarf Irish Whiskey (in partnership with the Cooley Distillery) and Boru Rocks which is vodka with grapefruit and cranberries designed to compete against products such as Smirnoff Ice and Bacardi Breezer.

"Our products are distinguished by their production process and consequently their taste," Mr Rigney says. "Boru is made with Irish spring water, distilled four times and mellowed through charcoal. Clontarf is aged in bourbon barrels and mellowed through Irish oak charcoal which softens the taste."