The ‘covidpreneurs’ of 2020: ‘You couldn’t mill the flour fast enough’

Brothers Mick and Ciaran Crean of MicksGarage.com were down on the warehouse floor packing orders during the lockdown. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons/The Irish Times
Meet the miller who worked all night, the car-parts sellers who started flogging frisbees, the gin makers who switched to hand sanitiser, and the tech firms who capitalised on the screen-time boom

Coronavirus has taken more than 1,700 lives in the Republic and seriously harmed the health of thousands more. It has also wrought huge damage on the Irish economy and the workers whose livelihoods depend on it. More than one million people now depend on the State to supplement their income.

Some sectors have been almost flattened. Although the hospitality industry will take tentative steps towards reopening on June 29th, an entire industry that previously employed 265,000 people remains under mortal threat.

The retail sector has warned of more than 100,000 job losses. Event organisers this week warned of €200 million worth of damage and the possible collapse of the sector as 90 per cent of business for next year is cancelled.

But amid the gloom, several entrepreneurial businesses have not just survived but thrived and innovated. The lockdown made most people afraid, but it also presented a gilt-edged opportunity for several small and medium-sized businesses to adapt and even grow their sales. In particular, businesses that were able to trade online have retained a fighting chance.

Here are five businesses run by Irish entrepreneurs who have made the best of the coronavirus and lockdown.

‘Anything we put on the website sold’

Ciaran Crean, Micksgarage.com, Dublin
When the pandemic hit home in the second week of March and the public began panic buying groceries, the Mayo-born Crean twins, who run car-parts online retailer Micksgarage, were worried.

“We thought: oh s**t. Everybody is only interested in buying rice and potatoes, so what does that mean for us?” recalls Ciaran Crean, its chief executive.

Within days, the website’s sales started to spike. By the time full lockdown came in, it was struggling to keep up. Micksgarage, which employs 35 staff, soon doubled the volume of its Irish business. In February before the pandemic hit, it fulfilled 12,500 orders in Ireland. During April, that rose to 24,000.

Bored at home, motor-loving micksgarage.com customers had flocked online for retail therapy. The Creans, who are financially backed by blue-chip investors such as former Paddy Power chairman Stewart Kenny, took full advantage.

Sales of spare parts rose 20-30 per cent as customers began stockpiling products such as oil filters – nobody knew when garages might reopen. The roads were quiet, but ironically this drove sales of some motor products. Car cleaning items, for example, flew out of the Micksgarage warehouse in west Dublin as customers had to settle for polishing their motors if they couldn’t drive them.

The weather was good and people were playing at home with their kids. So we sourced frisbees, outdoor games and toys. They all sold out

Sales of car batteries tend to fall flat in April as the weather warms up, and Micksgarage would normally sell €10,000 worth of batteries over the month. Crean says that at the height of lockdown this April, it sold €105,000 worth. As cars lay idle on driveways countrywide, batteries were dying from lack of use.

Crean and his brother, operations and technology director Mick, capitalised on the site’s elevated traffic by broadening the range of products. Micksgarage had already been moving beyond car parts to sell other products. The lockdown online shopping frenzy made them to crank it up a gear.

“Anything we put on the website sold. Barbecues... gone. Men’s hair trimmers ...  gone. Most of those sold within the first two hours. The weather was good and people were playing at home with their kids. So we sourced frisbees, outdoor games and toys. They all sold out,” says Crean.

The company’s UK business had “flatlined”, but the rush in its home market pushed Micksgarage to its operational limits. It got so busy, the company switched off all its online advertisements in April, saving a cost that typically would be 5-9 per cent of monthly sales.

In the middle of this, Mick Crean rebuilt the Micksgarage warehouse IT system to cope with the volume. They installed a new machine to automatically pack smaller soft goods. “The system we had in March is not the same we have now. We’re geared up now to handle probably 50,000 orders a month. There is pride in how he achieved that,” Crean says of his twin’s technical efforts.

Although it was booming, Micksgarage faced the same virus fears as any other company. Crean feared having to shut the warehouse if coronavirus got in to the building. “I didn’t feel we could risk bringing in new warehouse staff, so the ones that were here had to do twice the work. They played a blinder. Myself and Mick and the management team were down on the warehouse floor packing orders. At one stage, we were coming in at 6.30am and leaving at 9pm every day.”

As the country slowly gets back on the road post lockdown, the high sales volumes have stayed but the focus has shifted. Foreign holidays are off limits, so people are now preparing their cars for staycations by buying items such as roof racks. Crean has sourced two containers of Aqua Marina watersports gear, such as paddle boards, from China. Micksgarage plans to launch a new site in two weeks to sell them.

“We hope now to be able to keep up this new normal. We were already stepping into new product ranges, but Covid accelerated everything for us. When the pandemic hit, we had to sink or swim.”

Dearbhaile Collins and Seamus of and Sapphire Eyewear, Cork
Dearbhaile Collins and Seamus Flynn of Sapphire Eyewear, Cork

‘We flew through all of our stock’

Seamus Flynn and Dearbhaile Collins, Sapphire Eyewear, Cork
Locked-down people are plugged-in people: usage of smartphones and computers soared in the pandemic. Those working from home now Zoom through the day, technology keeps friends and family in touch, while Netflix keeps us from boredom. All the extra screen time means more of us are exposed for longer to damaging blue light from devices, which causes eye strain and headaches.

Lockdown was a golden opportunity for Cork start-up Sapphire Eyewear, an online business selling styled glasses that block out blue light. Optician Seamus Flynn and his oncologist wife, Dearbhaile Collins, who works at Cork University Hospital, launched it last October. Sales suddenly tripled in April.

The couple got the idea a couple of years ago on honeymoon in Zambia. With the reduction in screen time, they felt a noticeable reduction in eye strain. After nurturing the idea for a while, Flynn finally converted their garage to install a glazing machine and leaped into e-commerce last year.

“I always felt entrepreneurial,” says Flynn. “So I retrained to learn digital marketing. My wife is creative and helped to set things up. I had a website built and then I learned to code so I could update it myself. We sourced lenses and high-quality frames and I started putting pairs of glasses together in the garage.”

As the business grew, Sapphire was exporting into 40 countries, although the bulk of its trade is at home. A month before the pandemic hit, Flynn outsourced most production to a company in Dublin as he was “spending more time building glasses than building the business”. Then the virus arrived.

“We flew through all of our stock. When we had difficulty importing more, we switched to pre-sales, promising delivery in three weeks. We flew through those too. When things were really busy, I was able to go back into the garage to glaze prescription glasses while all the labs were closed.”

Flynn suspects the lockdown will spur a structural change in people’s behaviour when it comes to balancing their work and home life. Technology will bridge the two, which will inevitably lead to us goggling more at blue-lit screens.

Prior to lockdown last November, Sapphire conducted market research that it says suggested the typical smartphone user was spending 3½ hours checking their device an average of 55 times daily. Flynn says its research in May showed this had risen to five hours daily, checking devices an average of 78 times.

“The increase in business has tailed off a little bit but it is still going strong. A lot of people are not going to go back to work in the office and services such as Zoom will be how they stay productive. The lasting result will be more screen time, and more exposure to blue light.”

James Tallon, Martry Mill, Co Meath. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill
James Tallon, Martry Mill, Co Meath. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

‘You couldn’t mill the flour fast enough’

James Tallon, Martry Mill, Co Meath
The lockdown spurred a huge increase in home baking. According to SuperValu, sales of flour tripled for a time and in the early days of lockdown there were widespread shortages in many retailers. The major branded-flour producers struggled to meet demand for this great Irish bake-off, which was apparent on social media feeds awash with pictures of homemade cakes and breads.

The shortage presented opportunities for the handful of small, traditional millers that remain in Ireland. James Tallon’s family has been milling on the same Blackwater river site near Kells in Co Meath since 1859. Only during the second World War, he says, was the mill busier than during the early days of lockdown as retailers from all across the country desperately cast around for extra flour supplies.

Tallon, who runs Martry Mill with his son, James jnr, hopes there will be a lasting impact on his business from the virus.

“There is something comforting about baking. People turned to it when times were uncertain. It is therapeutic and they were doing it with their kids. When they were stuck at home, they realised life is not all about running and chasing.”

Martry makes flour using a centuries-old method – a water wheel powered by the river flow drives a grindstone, with capacity to crush about one tonne of wheat per day. Much of his wheat is sourced from the southeast where the quality is better, he says. It supplies bakeries and supermarkets in the Meath and north Dublin areas.

During lockdown, he ramped up production to its maximum capacity, grinding from morning until night. He chose to fulfil the extra demand coming from his local area, rather than answering the frantic calls from wholesalers and retailers nationwide, including Dunnes Stores.

“We didn’t want to leave local customers short, because they will be the ones we would still be looking to if it all died down.”

The early lockdown period was “hectic ... you just couldn’t get it milled fast enough”. The spike in demand has since tailed off but several shops in the Meath area that he supplied for the first time will be keeping Martry Mill on.

Tallon was developing the mill as a visitor attraction prior to the pandemic, receiving bus tours and demonstrating the traditional milling process. Tourism will stay depressed until there is a coronavirus vaccine so this strategic pivot is on hold for now.

But once the tourism industry bounces back, Tallon plans to start it again. “It is something unique. How many other businesses can you walk into today and find things still done the same way that they were hundreds of years ago?”

‘Sanitiser was the best thing for the gin business’

John Power and Eileen Brennan, Beara Distillery, west Cork
An enduring consequence of the arrival of coronavirus is a huge ongoing demand for alcohol-based hand sanitiser, which kills coronavirus. Several distilleries have stepped in to help.

Brother and sister John Power and Eileen Brennan have been making award-winning Beara Ocean Gin at their distillery in Castletownbere since 2017. After the pandemic hit, they pivoted into making sanitiser for SuperValu, which deploys the distillery’s new StaySafe brand for its shoppers’ use at its 223 store entrances, and back of house for supermarket staff.

“Everything happened so quickly with the virus. People were sat in pubs on a Sunday, and they were all closed by the next Friday,” says Power. “We didn’t know where all this was going to go. Then we heard from friends in the industry about the sanitiser idea. We thought it was the best thing for the business.”

Gin is a celebratory drink and there isn’t much celebrating going on. Nothing is guaranteed in life but the sanitiser is something we can easily do going forward alongside the gin

The distillery is a graduate of SuperValu’s “food academy”, which gives local producers a shot at getting their wares onto its supermarket shelves and into other retailers through the wholesaler, Musgrave, which is part of the same group. Power and Brennan approached the supermarket with their high-grade sanitiser idea, using specifications from the World Health Organisation.

Distilleries are ideal for meeting extra sanitiser demand because they are already set up to meet the State’s stringent regulatory requirements for the handling of strong alcohol products.

“You have to be able to work with 80 per cent alcohol. To buy it you have to have a bonded warehouse, approved by Revenue. The premises has to be inspected and approved by the HSE, which also has to separately approve the final product. SuperValu were looking for a regular supplier who ticked all four boxes, and that was us,” says Power.

The €250,000 contract to supply 27,000 litres of StaySafe will help Beara Distillery to “pay the rent and wages” while its gin sales shrank during the pandemic, especially in off-licences.

“Gin is a celebratory drink and there isn’t much celebrating going on. Nothing is guaranteed in life but the sanitiser is something we can easily do going forward alongside the gin. We have all our homework done.”

‘It was a great time to learn new stuff’

Enda Harty, KnowHowDo and Tilleo, Dublin
Online learning business KnowHowDo is the sort of decentralised, globally connected, tech-driven business that may rise quickly from the economic ashes of the pandemic.

It was founded in Ireland by a Meath man based in Spain, headquartered in Dublin’s Dogpatch Labs, staffed by 45 workers in 11 different countries, and it targets mainly US customers with its online courses tailored around leisure activities. Talk about neatly capturing the zeitgeist.

The global anti-virus lockdowns accelerated the launch of the company’s latest learning platform, Tilleo. It is a subscription service targeting US customers, mainly women, to pay for video tutorials delivered by social media influencers. Customers pay 99 cents per month for all-you-can-eat access to a range of videos on topics such as plant-based cooking, dog-training and make-up.

Enda Harty, a 20-year tech veteran who is the company’s founder and chief executive, says he planned to launch Tilleo later in the year but speeded up the launch to mid-April to capitalise on the fact that much of its target market was stuck at home in the US with little to do under lockdown

“People had time on their hands. It was a great time to learn new stuff. There was a huge growth in our ‘student’ numbers, so we thought: this is the time. Tilleo is basically a Netflix for new skills.”

The group, which includes several other platforms apart from Tilleo, is aiming for $6 million in sales this year. Hart says that all profits generated by Tilleo from launch until the end of July will be donated to Feeding America, a non-profit helping food banks in the US respond to the effects of coronavirus.

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