Inside Track: Getting to grips with Essential French


What distinguishes your business from competitors?
We have a very student-focused programme. I started the business at 23, straight out of college, so I was nearly the same age as my customers. That meant I knew what they would like and what they wouldn't. We also provide a lot of added extras for free. A lot of students asked could we do grinds in other subjects such as biology and maths, so we do free seminars now on those subjects. We bring in specialists in those areas and students who got 600 points in the Leaving Certificate to give advice on how to get an A1. I also engage with 100-200 students via Twitter on a nightly basis testing their French. Almost half our students get an A in the Leaving Cert.


What's been the biggest challenge you have had to face?

When I first set up the business, the biggest challenge was people taking me seriously as I was so young and had no business experience. Now the biggest challenge is that I have more to lose if anything goes wrong as we've been in business 17 years. It is also difficulty trying to juggle two kids with a business and not feel guilty.


And your major success to date?

Being awarded Irish businesswoman of the year last year. It was a huge boost to be recognised nationally.


What's the biggest mistake you've made in business?

I never realised the importance of networking until recently. When I started the business I was putting in 100 hour weeks. I could have done less if I was networking more, so I regret that. The business has grown a huge amount in the past three years as a result of being a part of various networks.

What was the best piece of business advice you've ever received?

One of my mum's friends said to concentrate on one area to begin with. So we started with French and became known as a specialist in that area. Sometimes you can be a jack of all trades and a master of none. We do Irish now too, but our main focus is still French.

Who do you most admire in business and why?

Cara Pharmacy founder and "Dragon" Ramona Nicholas. Anyone who is a working mum and can run a successful business is amazing in my eyes. I saw her speak recently and she was inspirational. She shared the struggles of being a working mum and running a chain of pharmacies.

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What piece of advice would you give to the Government to stimulate the economy?

The Government should remember that the SME sector is the backbone of the economy. Behind every closed shutter is a broken dream, a family that failed in business. The SME sector gives so much employment to the economy. The Government needs to realise that we are a country of great entrepreneurs and risk takers. If big multinationals get a better tax deal abroad, they'll be gone in a flash and they'll be leaving broken counties behind. The Government gives them all the support though.


Do you think the banks are open for business at the moment?

Personally I have had no issues with the banks, but I haven't had to need them. I know many people are having difficulty getting money though, and I don't think the banks are as friendly to SMEs as they say they are. While banks give funding, they give little in terms of advice and mentoring. There is no point in having money if you don't know what to do with it. Thus, people are now looking for alternatives for funding such as enterprise boards and start-up funds. Cork entrepreneur Ernest Cantillon recently started a fund for start-up businesses and I think there will be a bigger trend toward getting money from funds like that.


How do you see the short-term future for your business?

We are in the process of launching the business in Dublin. So many of our students have relations and friends in Dublin who wanted to do our courses, so that is an exciting step.


How much is your business worth and would you sell it?

I have two children but my business was my first baby. Would you sell your first child? If I sold it, I'd have more time with my kids but I probably would get itchy feet after a week. I put 17 years of blood and sweat into it and I'd say, on a national level, we are near the top. We are the leading French expert in the country, so the price would have to be right.

In conversation with Pamela Newenham