Olivia Mai is managing director of the Stork Exchange, a baby and children's equipment rental service which she runs with husband Bartek, hiring out equipment such as buggies and car seats.
Mai established the Stork Exchange website in 2010 as a buy-and-sell website for baby equipment, but changed tack to form her baby equipment rental business in 2012 after a bad experience with a maggot in a rented car seat while on holiday.
Since June 2014, the Stork Exchange has had a premises in Dublin Airport’s Terminal One. Mai employs four staff.
What sets your business apart from the competition?
We specialise in car seats and are trained by car-seat companies Britax and Maxi-Cosi to install them. We are insured to install them, unlike the car rental companies. We have customers coming from the United States and Scandinavia who book with us, and one of the main reasons they choose us is for safety.
What was the best piece of business advice you’ve ever received?
My sister telling me to: “Just go for it.” She took over the fruit importation family business N Smyth & Co when she was just 21 and is a mum of three. She offers me great advice.
What’s the biggest mistake you’ve made in business?
There hasn’t been anything catastrophic to date, but probably not investing in a website with a booking engine sooner.
At the beginning, I was also doing a lot of running around and felt that I couldn’t say no to anyone or any job. I think that is a characteristic of starting a small business whereby you don’t want to say no. You have to learn to charge for your time and to say no when it’s not worth it.
And your major success to date?
Getting the contract with Enterprise and Sixt car rental companies was a huge confidence boost. Doing a recent trial with buggies air-side with the DAA also. It's a confidence boost, and things like that help to grow the business and mean we've other strands of revenue coming in.
Who do you most admire in business and why?
My sister, Clodagh Andrews, who is managing director of N Smyth & Co, and her husband Marc Andrews.
When my father passed away, she was just 21. She took over the business and managed to keep it going in the face of competition from bigger players. She’s a very smart woman.
It’s a cliché to say it but she was a woman in a man’s industry with a lot of tough characters around but she held her ground. She’s practical and keeps her eye on the bottom line.
Both Marc and she offer me great advice and an outsider’s perspective.
Based on your experience in the downturn, are the banks in Ireland open for business to SMEs?
We haven’t approached the bank about borrowing so I can’t say they are not. They have been supportive in other ways to us. We get calls from them regularly asking us do we need anything, offering advice etc.
What one piece of advice would you give the Government to help stimulate the economy?
I think all the Government bodies favour tech start-ups and food exports so you’ve a tougher fight for grants and funding.
However, after three applications, I have just got clearance for an expansion grant from Dublin City Local Enterprise Office for the new staff member we hope to take on before Christmas.
What’s been the biggest challenge you have had to face?
Because my service is to do with babies and children, one of the things that annoys me most is the term “mumpreneur” – that I’m perceived as a mummy and that it’s my hobby as opposed to being a legitimate business person. It’s a hard slog: it’s not a hobby.
Another challenge has been having the confidence to stand up and pitch and present to get contracts. It’s not something that came easy to me.
The Going for Growth and DCU Ryan Academy Propeller Programme both helped in that regard, particularly in the Ryan Academy. I had to do presentations every couple of weeks there. I still don’t like it but I can do it now.
How do you see the short- term future for your business?
I would like to get more of the car rental companies on board at Dublin Airport. We had a trial at Shannon last summer and I would like to start looking abroad. Customers are asking me about that so it's something we want to look into.
What’s your business worth and would you sell it?
I don't know how much it's worth but I wouldn't sell it because I've too much to do with it and I'm finding growing the business too interesting. thestorkexchange.ie In conversation with Ruth O'Connor