As a 21-year-old growing up in Ireland at a time when employment was hard to come by, Lulu O'Sullivan decided her best bet would be to set up her own business.
Armed with €2,000 in her back pocket, she began selling teddy bears by using newspaper ads and quirky PR before ultimately growing the business into GiftsDirect.com in the late 1990s.
What was then one of the Republic’s first ecommerce websites went on to become its largest online gift shopping destination. But with such success, O’Sullivan wasn’t one to wind down. Realising that to achieve any scale, the company would have to look outside Ireland, the entrepreneur launched TheIrishStore.com during the late naughties to target the 80-million-strong Irish diaspora and “Irish fans” around the world.
Now, 70 per cent of the company’s customer base is overseas with the Irish Store accounting for more than two-thirds of the group’s revenue. In Dublin, it employs 20 full-time staff who help sell a plethora of products to both individuals and the corporate market.
For a company that started with one woman and her moped, the company has changed significantly, with plans to grow further still.
What is your greatest business achievement to date?
Realising the Irish market was too small and setting up the Irish Store targeting the 80 million Irish diaspora and Irish fans around the world. Having set this business up from scratch, in the past five years we feel we have got the brand, product, customer experience, loyal customer database and large community to a very healthy position with extensive growth each year.
What was your ‘back-to-the-wall’ moment and how did you overcome it?
In the 2008 recession we had a very strong, loyal corporate customer base and when the crash happened in September 2008, just before our key season, we realised this would definitely have an effect on our corporate revenue. We met as a team and decided to focus on our product and website to attract more non-corporate business. This worked as our overall revenue ended up not changing despite the corporate business having a tough year.
What were the best and the worst pieces of advice you received when starting out?
The worst advice was probably that my business would never work as I didn’t have a retail store, so I should forget about continuing unless I was going to commit to a shop.
How will your market look in three years and where would you like your business to be?
Continue to be the largest online gifts company in Ireland with our Gifts Direct brand and grow our current markets and extend into new markets with the Irish Store brand. We have lots of exciting projects in the pipeline, including new brands, territories and user experiences which we are sure will continue to create “wow” customer experiences for our communities.
What is the one piece of advice you would give Government to stimulate the economy?
The cost of housing remains an issue for employees. Using rapid-build housing, which would be cheaper and provide more plentiful housing, would mean more money in people’s pockets.
What is the most common mistake you see entrepreneurs make and what is the single most important piece of advice you would offer to a less experienced entrepreneur?
I often see early-stage entrepreneurs doing everything but getting the sales in. The sooner you get some sales, the quicker you can learn from your customer and make decisions around what they want and not what you want.
What motivates you to keep performing at your best?
Wanting to give our customers the best experience they can have, whether that is a user experience on our website, in the quality of our product or in the customer service experience if they call.