Bust to boom

 

ENTREPRENEURS:Setting up a business might seem a daunting prospect but the recession has done nothing to dampen the entrepreneurial spirit of some. EOIN CUNNINGHAMmeets six Celtic cubs who went from bust to boom to find out more about the challenges facing start-up businesses

FOR-SALE signs dot the landscape like chickenpox, the spectre of Nama hangs over Irish business like a bouncer with a toothache, and social-welfare offices around the country compete for the longest queues. In such a climate, you’d assume every entrepreneur in the country is halfway to Australia.

However, some Celtic Tiger orphans have decided to do the unthinkable and start new businesses. When credit is a bad word, what sort of person risks everything to start a new project? What challenges do they face? More to the point, do they have any advice for the rest of us?

We talked to a diverse bunch of entrepreneurs, all under the age of 40. Their businesses all began either towards the tail end of the boom or, in some cases, in the middle of the crunch.

“A business plan helped me understand what I was doing a lot better”

AGATA STOINSKA

D-Light Studios (d-lightstudios.com)

“I was looking for a space for a studio. I never expected this.” Photographer Agata Stoinska found a gem off the North Circular Road in Dublin and it sparked a new business she hadn’t anticipated.

“It was ruined. But I used to be an architect so it was easy to see through the dust. It was a chance to do something that could be bigger than just a photography studio. It might be good for fashion shows, TV commercials, video clips, exhibitions, performances, even theatre.”

Thus far, D-Light Studios has been used for TV shows such as Total Exposure and Off The Rails, as well as for exhibitions and as a dance studio. But it almost didn’t happen. Last-minute wobbles from the original backers meant Stoinska had to look into alternatives.

“At first, I had private investors. But in November 2008, they changed their minds. I’d already hired people, signed contracts to lease the space, and I was left with nothing. I called everyone I knew, not looking for money but for advice: how can I make money quickly? So many people were doing things just because they believed in this, I couldn’t just tell them it wasn’t going ahead. One of my friends suggested the Enterprise Board and I talked to them, telling them where I was coming from and how I got into this situation. They were very helpful.”

She found herself with three days to the grant deadline, having never written a formal business plan. “I had a plan because I had to submit one to the original investors, but it wasn’t as official as it has to be for the Enterprise Board and it wasn’t for three years. Luckily, one of my neighbours turned out to do business plans for a living.”

Stoinska recommends that any entrepreneur use a plan, particularly those with creative backgrounds. “It helped me understand what I was doing a lot better. It’s not fixed; it changes over time as your business does.”

“You have to face the realities of what might be around the corner. That’s the scary part”

EAMONN GRANT

Flowers Made Easy (flowersmadeeasy.ie)

Eamonn Grant’s company is a family affair. “My mother had been involved in the flower business for 19 or 20 years, working from the family home. From 2005 the business began to grow. The idea formed that I would take it online and we launched Flowers Made Easy as a business in 2006.”

It has been a success, going from his front room to a 460sq m unit in Sandyford in Dublin in three years. Starting is one thing, keeping going is quite another, according to Grant, who says much of the real work happens after the first year. “When you get to stage two, lots of companies need more help. You have to think about infrastructure: IT, networking, payment and accounting software. This can be easy for smaller businesses but if you start pushing the numbers it starts getting more complicated.”

While no company can claim to be untouched, Grant says the nature of Flowers Made Easy has cushioned the impact. “Ninety per cent of our trade comes from the internet. It’s more of a targeted market. But things are tougher and you don’t want to kid yourself. You have to face the realities of what might be around the corner. That’s the scary part, but you do your best. With regard to the recession, we’ve been lucky.”

For Grant, help is out there; companies just need to look. “We’ve had great support from the Dún Laoghaire County Enterprise Board. I was in a thing called the PDC Hothouse programme, a course supported by Enterprise Ireland and DIT. That’s 12 months of mentoring and support. We were even lucky enough to win the Dublin regional C-class semi-final last year.”

Nor is he resting on his laurels. His wife Anna runs another new start-up called PhotoBooth (photobooth.ie), which delivers mobile booths to weddings and events across the country. “We launched it at our own wedding. I tend to have mad ideas and run with them.”

“It was a slow start, but as the months go by it has become busier and busier”

MIRIAM INGRAM and COLIN MORRIS

Tootsweet Productions (tootsweet.ie)

Miriam Ingram and Colin Morris started Tootsweet in 2007 after leaving full-time positions in Vodafone. They compose music and sound designs for film, television and theatre.

According to Morris, they came to the decision to start their business together, but had a lot to learn: “I’d pretty much decided I was going to leave and start writing for TV and film. I said it to Miriam and we decided to do it together. We knew how to do the work but didn’t know the industry that well.”

A composer friend, Steve Lynch, of Stellarsound, gave them pointers. “He was about a year ahead of us. We had a meeting with him and he was our crystal ball. So just from talking to people, we figured it out,” says Ingram.

So far, work has been steady, despite uncertainty in the media sector. “The recession hasn’t affected us yet because the slope is still going up. Anyone we’ve been talking to in the industry has said, ‘Oh God, it’s quiet,’ but because we haven’t reached that level yet, we’re doing okay,” says Ingram.

Morris agrees, noting early success has paid dividends: “The first thing we ever did was an advertisement for a company called Golfclubs.ie. The director was called Margaret Corkery. A feature film we did with Margaret, called Eamon, which was in the [Dublin International Film] Festival is now in the Toronto Film Festival. It was a slow start, but as the months go by it has become busier and busier.”

On the subject of government support, Morris is quick to point out the pitfalls of starting a business in a creative industry. “The stumbling block we encountered was that we were too arty to be businessy enough for the business grant, but too businessy to get an arts grant.”

But ultimately, he feels throwing money at start-ups isn’t the only answer. “Injecting cash into new businesses and making the process easier would be great. But to get people and companies spending money as well is the key.”

“A lot of people are afraid. But you have to be true to yourself”

MATT QUIGLEY

Outdoor Yoga (outdooryoga.ie)

Travelling the world inspired Matt Quigley to come home and start his own business. “So many people were doing really interesting things and I found it so different from the Irish viewpoint, where you never want to step out of the box. I returned at age 26 and did a national certificate in exercise and fitness and went from there.

“I’ve done exactly what I wanted. It has taken a lot longer than I would have liked and I’ve had to do a lot of other jobs to do it, but it’s what I want to do,” says Quigley, who says you need to follow your dreams. “There are two things I try to do with Outdoor Yoga: bring yoga to people, and eliminate the exclusivity of studios. Everyone should do it. The parks are right here, so why not use them?”

Quigley, who is also a qualified personal trainer and Pilates teacher, has an unusual business plan that reflects his attitude to life. “Outdoor Yoga is a project. It runs for six months and I pursue other things for the rest of the year, although I do take classes indoors in winter.”

As a practitioner as well as a teacher, he says it’s necessary to recharge and learn new things to keep his classes fresh and enjoyable. “Time off is crucial as a teacher, for personal practice. I’ll still work, whether in hospitality or as a DJ. The theme is positivity and focusing on your goals.

“The major prevention to anything is the fear of failure. I was afraid and I think a lot of people are. But you have to be true to yourself or it’ll stop you doing anything. I’m not afraid of failing – you learn from your mistakes.”

“There’s no way we could have done this without this climate. We wouldn’t have had a chance”

BRIAN McDERMOTT and KEVIN HILLIER

2Wheels (2wheels.ie)

In June 2008, Brian McDermott, Kevin Hillier and four friends went on a charity cycle. Almost a year later, and with 25,000km under their belts, it occurred to McDermott and Hillier that cycling might also be a career. “We lived on bikes for nine months, then came back and wanted to get into the industry.”

What clinched it was the ride home from the airport, says McDermott. “We saw so many people on bikes – it was massive.” 2Wheels opened for business on July 1st this year.

“Our target market is people who aren’t cycling yet. Around 100,000 people drive less than 4km every day to work in Dublin. Before our trip we weren’t cyclists. I didn’t even have a bike. We’ve started from scratch so we are very good go-to kind of people to talk to.”

McDermott says there are hidden advantages to being an entrepreneur in a recession. “When we were looking for properties to rent, you’d call from outside and guys would sprint out of their offices to help you. A couple of years ago, you wouldn’t even get an appointment. There’s no way we could have done this without this climate. We wouldn’t have had a chance.”

He is philosophical about the future, noting that he is not encumbered by huge debts: “People in my position, my age and doing what I’m doing – I don’t feel a massive sting from the recession. I’ve never had any assets or any financial pain. For our generation, it’s not that bad.

“Everything goes in cycles. We’ve had a bad run, but it was great for a few years. Things will be rebuilt and it’ll come back again. I think it’s going to come back better, actually. The reality check is going to be good for us in the long run, especially for our generation.

“We grew up in a Celtic Tiger economy and now we’re starting to realise that things aren’t always that way. I think it’s about time we did.”

“It’s difficult to support small businesses but there are simple things you could do”

OISÍN HANRAHAN

Factory Six (factory6.com)

Many of us have an idea for a business. Oisín Hanrahan, by contrast, has bags of them. “When I was in college, I started property development. We went into buildings in Bulgaria and asked the residents for the roof if we renovated the common areas. The buildings could support one or two storeys on top. We completed the first on a shoestring budget, in 2003.”

As the downturn hit, Hanrahan’s attention switched to more local surroundings, setting up the Irish Undergraduate Awards with his friend Paddy Cosgrave. “It’s a simple not-for-profit to reward academic achievement. There was nothing like it in Ireland, across all universities and fields. The President attended the ceremony on October 20th.”

He has also been heavily involved with web businesses, starting MiCandidate (micandidate.com) as “a way to connect politicians to citizens in one place”. It came online for this year’s local and European elections. But there’s more. Current businesses include Factory Six, a mobile software company, and Alpha Tailor (alphatailor.com), an online suit service.

Now, his ingenuity has run up against the crunch. “Application downloads for iPhone are at something like 1.5 or 1.7 billion now, a massive market,” says Hanrahan. “I need seed capital to get into this market and the only way I could raise money to start developing software would be through friends and putting my hand in my pocket. No one else would give me the money.”

He’s full of praise for the Enterprise Board but worries that it is hampered by its structure, suggesting more radical approaches are needed. “Every study says it’s difficult to support small businesses because the needs are so different. But there are simple things you could do, such as space. There are thousands of square feet of empty offices in the city centre. It would be easy to take a couple of buildings and say: ‘We’re going to have 500 hot desks here. No financial support – it’s a phone line that you pay every month, wi-fi and a PO box.’ Just a factory of desks.”

ENTREPRENEURS