When you’ve hung up your boots, can you still make it in the boardroom?

First Printed in the Sunday Independent 20/12/2015

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A career as a professional sports star is something that children dream of. But what happens to sportspeople when age catches up with them?

Last month, UFC fighter Conor Pendred announced his retirement, aged just 28, stating a lack of passion. “The time is right to close one door and open another,” he said. And making that decision may have been a tougher struggle than any of his cage fights.

Closing one door can be painful but making the transition to another career can be helped if the skill sets used in sport can be used in the next competitive arena. If sport is competitive, so too is business, and the will to succeed in one area will often lead to success in the other.

But are they directly transferable?

Aidan McCullen, director of digital innovation at Communicorp, suggests that not all sporting skill sets may not directly map onto business.

“I played 10 years of professional rugby and by the end I could do a mean spin pass off my left hand. I’m not sure that had deep resonance with the advertising industry.”

McCullen’s joke masks a modest approach to his sporting career but the same mindset that allowed him develop a solid spin pass also allowed him succeed in business.

“If I was going to do anything, I would do it with a passion,” he says. “I fell in love with rugby at an early age. Everything revolved around the sport.”

To illustrate this point, McCullen recalls a chore of chopping wood blocks into quarters as young boy. He had to load the sticks into a wooden shed with a broken window, but rather than carry the sticks inside for storage, he lobbed every one, all 300 or so, via the narrow opening to practice his passing skills.

“I don’t think I was the best player. In fact, many of my rugby contemporaries might have been surprised at the extent I was able to play professionally over the decade,” he says. “But I set goals and I hit them pretty much, with a degree of luck, on the sporting field.”

His sporting career continued in London and France, playing for London Irish, Dax and Toulouse. When an injury signalled the end of his sporting career, he cast around for a desk job.

“I was interested in advertising but knew nothing of the industry. I used every networking device possible to meet with people in this area and saw that digital marketing was the new area – no one really knew that much about it, which meant I could apply with a degree of confidence.”

McCullen was hired as an intern, aged 31. He worked every job, every admin role and every boring logistical task with the same intensity as he had lobbed the logs as a young boy.

“It’s all about the mindset,” he says. “That and support of other people, people who will give you a chance. Having worked hard but been given chances, I am very keen to pay it forward.”

Players on the pitch operate as part of a team, but what if your chosen area was in officialdom?

Alan Lewis played international cricket from 1984 until 1997 – but the following year he moved into referring in rugby, also at international level. Being a ref had a huge influence on his commercial career, running the family insurance brokers, LHW.

“I call referring the art of persuasion,” says Lewis, “and it is exactly the same in business.”

Over his 13-year career as a referee, Lewis says that preparation was the key to his success.

“I studied the two teams in advance, wishing to anticipate every eventuality that might happen on the pitch. It’s exactly the same in business. If you don’t prepare before your meetings, you may as well not bother.”

If preparation and anticipation were key elements of his sporting canon, then analysis after the event was his bible.

“I can’t get it right all the time, and in refereeing this is a very public platform. But if I did make mistakes, I needed to figure out where I went wrong, so as to avoid repeating them.

“In business, this is exactly the same. Not every meeting can be a win – but if we lose, then we need to understand why and make sure it doesn’t happen again.”

Sometimes the business of sport runs parallel.

Alex Butler is a national champion showjumper. Last September, he won the Premier Series of showjumping on Hallowberry Cruz; an honour he had won three years previously.

He has jumped at the top level across Europe, representing Ireland abroad and at home. Aged 28, he is in his prime – but he must also make a business from his passion, especially as he does not come from money.

“It is possible to make a living from showjumping, if you are good enough,” says Butler. “But I want to make a good business from my passion. I don’t just want to feed myself – I want to be successful.”

That same success at showjumping has been translated into his yard outside Staffan. He has 16 stables and a fully equipped yard – but that does not come cheap. His horses are a mixture of clients’ and his own, sometimes he has shares in both. He says he is lucky in his jumping.

“If I had not had the success, than it would be harder to attract good horses,” he says modestly. His business skills extend to picking good animals and producing them to the highest levels, but he leaves the admin to his partner. “I’d rather be on a horse than in an office any day,” he says.

For female athletes, the exposure is not as prominent – but the lessons are just as relevant. Jenny Byrne, a former international soccer player, founded SEIFA (Supporting Elite Irish Female Athletes) this year to highlight the discrepancies and increase support for female athletes.

An inaugural Inspiration Award went to Cork camogie player Anna Geary, who has a long list of awards and achievements. Her experience of working full time in HR, playing full-time for Cork and doing a part-time postgrad degree meant she had to learn to juggle her time.

“Sport taught me how to manage stress and my time,” Geary says. Although it seems even in sport, women must multitask…

Sunday Indo Business

Managing a creative career: how to make the figures add up for artists

First printed in the Sunday Independent 6/12/2015

A recent survey by the National Campaign for the Arts summed up the key issue facing the sector. It noted that “Ireland has long enjoyed an outstanding reputation for artistic excellence, at home and abroad, despite the fact that Government spending on arts and culture is just 0.11pc of GDP. This has placed Ireland at the bottom of the list of EU countries compared with an average of 0.6pc, surely something no country can condone.

“This unenviable position looks set to continue for the foreseeable future, given government commitment to the Department is set for cuts and standstill allocations into 2017.”

There are an estimated 4,915 professional artists in Ireland, with the latest income data suggesting that artists were earning 56pc less than those in the manufacturing sector.

Other statistics to come out of a recent Arts Council study show that 58pc of artist households find it difficult to make ends meet, 23pc were in arrears on a utility bill (compared to 8pc of the wider population) and 31pc of artists have made provision for a pension (compared to 54pc of all workers).

More than half of all artists are self-employed, with only 13pc paying tax on a PAYE basis. But considering the level of academic qualifications within the sector – 69pc of artists have a third-level degree or higher and 83pc a professional qualification, when compared to only 24pc of all workers – the figures do not add up.

Ian Oliver would have this condition turned on its head. Co-founder of the Centre for Creative Practices (CFCP) with art entrepreneur advocate Monika Sapielak, Oliver has worked on both sides of the artistic fence, both as a creative when he was a photographer and as an entrepreneur running his own business. He believes that artists need to be taught how to be entrepreneurs for the good of the artistic sector and society.

“Most people who follow the creative path emerge from fine arts degrees, creative courses or workshops knowing how to create product,” he says. “However, they are not taught how to sell their product. Somehow the end objective is in the creation rather than sale of their artwork. Without marketing, financial and logistical skills, how can people expect to be able to sell? After all, you would hardly expect a retailer or shopkeeper to offload product without basic understanding of commerce. So why not an artist?”

Oliver put this theory to the test in 2013 when CFCP in collaboration with the New York Foundation for the Arts set up and facilitated a boot camp for artists. This was supported by the Arts Council, hosted by the RHA, and took on 65 artists.

The four-day boot camp taught artists the basics of marketing, logistics, transportation and fundraising. From that, a cohort of 26 came together to form a co-operative called IDIR. They were then tasked with collaborating to create an exhibition. Using their new-found skills, the group successfully put together a show that ran for four months, from October 2014 until January 2015, in the New York Foundation for the Arts Centre and which was formally opened by Hozier.

“The boot camp and subsequent exhibition proved that artists were very capable of creating a commercial environment to display and sell their artwork,” says Oliver. “We now run seminars, classes and workshops along similar lines.”

He addresses core issues of public perception that somehow art is meant to be free: “One type of artist to believe in payment for their work are musicians. Most concerts tend to be ticketed and merchandise is available to purchase. But visual arts or performing arts have a much slower conversion to commerce.”

If direct sales are not the solution, then what about public funding? Again Oliver would advocate a wider view on how to raise funds. “With funding for the arts slashed by 30pc, there is not enough money to go around and artists have to think smarter,” he says. “There is also money available in crowdfunding, micro loans and, increasingly, related causes.

“We help artists look at the inspiration for their art – and often there may be a link to funding not traditionally accessible via the arts.”

Fiach Moriarty is a singer-songwriter. Now in his thirties he has managed to largely support his writing through gigging. Leaving school he had a choice between studying history in Trinity and going to Rock School in Ballyfermot and – to his mother’s dismay – he chose the latter.

“Life comes in circles,” says Moriarty. “My first love is songwriting, but my second is history and that has hugely influenced my direction and style in writing. I am fascinated by events such as the Arab Spring and 1916 – I like to look at things differently,” he says. Such is his creativity that he and his songs have been featured on RTE’s Arena and he has also sung with the RTE Concert Orchestra twice in events to celebrate the Rising.

Moriarty has translated his fascination with history into opportunity but he also feels there is little income to be made in Ireland. “The free thing is very strong,” he says. “It’s not uncommon to travel across the country to a gig only to receive €20 for your trouble. If I did that in Germany, the promoters would be delighted to have me there, would feed me and pay me an appropriate sum. It is hard to make real money in Ireland.”

Moriarty has a daughter – and an imperative to earn a crust. However, he also appreciates that part of the problem in Ireland is the excess of talented singer-songwriters. “It’s great being part of a strong and vibrant community. We are all very supportive of each other and I like that – but it does dilute the pot somewhat.”

As a result Moriarty turned to crowdfunding for his second album, raising €2,000 largely through presales. His first was paid for by his SSIA. “It’s a balancing act for a singer songwriter,” he says.

Ciara O’Keeffe is a ceramics artist specialising in stoneware clay. She did a fine arts degree in Limerick and then ran a framing shop and gallery. The recession closed those doors and the onset of a family pushed her into a PAYE lifestyle. O’Keeffe now works as a ceramics teacher for the Kildare VEC. She teaches young and sometimes troubled teenagers who have dropped out of school, and finds her job both demanding and incredibly rewarding.

“It would be my ideal job, except actually producing clay art is my dream job,” she explains.

Danielle Serpico, half-Italian and half-Irish, studied fine art as a student but found her confidence knocked by a lecturer who did not share her style – despite the that she had very successful career while in college.

She was in huge demand both in Bray and in Dublin for her distinctive window paintings, but the loss of self-belief led her to drop art totally for a career as a restaurateur. At one stage, she owned and managed two restaurants and employed 40 staff. However, the recession meant she had to close the business, and left her to examine what she wanted from life.

“I had a choice and I decided to believe in myself,” says Serpico. “I started painting again, especially in the summer, and I found I had a ready supply of clients. One accidental trick was to carry my large paintings around in the back of my car – I have subsequently sold several to people working in carparks where they viewed my work. The car as a gallery!”

Serpico retrained as a mind coach and uses the same confidence techniques that revitalised her artistic life to help others. “It’s all about facing fear and doing it anyway,” she says.

Sunday Indo Business

Former corporates pioneer the new breed of start-ups

First printed in the Sunday Independent on 15/11/2015

One might be forgiven for thinking that all start-ups begin in garages and offices set up in spare bedrooms, but many former employees of multinational corporations are also having a pop at world domination.

One might imagine that the new breed of entrepreneur would never have been corrupted by the air breathed in corporate offices or by the golden handcuffs of the corporate perks.

Yet increasingly start-ups are emerging from corporate – taking the best practice and applying it to a very much scaled-down business model.

Perhaps it is also a sign of a recovering economy to witness increasing numbers of entrepreneurs leaving the safety of the PAYE net and venturing out on their own.

One observer to see first-hand this new breed of entrepreneur is Richard Donelan, founder and chief presenter of IrishStartUpTV. An endurance athlete by passion and an observer by nature, Donelan found himself working in Dogpatch Labs as a mentor to new start-ups.

Dogpatch Labs is a co-working space and incubation facility. Originally launched by Polaris Partners in San Francisco in 2009 and with subsequent facilities in New York, Boston and now Dublin, Dogpatch Labs spaces have incubated such companies as Instagram which was sold to Facebook for approximately $1bn.

Earlier this year it moved from Barrow Street to state-of-the-art facilities in CHQ. It also moved from a free-to-play to a pay-to-play co-working space and is supported by Google and Ulster Bank.

It’s like a mini Silicon Valley where beer busts and pizza events are the norm. And the average age of the start-up founders is 25.

While Donelan began working as a mentor he swiftly began recording the myriad keen new companies crossing his path. Since founding IrishStartUpTV he has now interviewed in excess of 150 start-ups and increasingly finds the founders are coming from corporate life.

“I created the website to share the news about the amazing buzz that is happening in Ireland. In the beginning, I found most of the start-ups hailed from academia or techcamps like Dogspatch Labs – but over the past few months I’ve interviewed more and more founders who have come from the big multinationals, including many Googlers.”

In Donelan’s experience, engineers who have big corporate experience can hit the ground running.

“They know how to scale, and they know how to build a product quickly,” says Donelan. “They also know how to talk money – always a good talent in a start-up.”

If a start-up has to outsource its technical requirements, he says, then it’s a much harder and more expensive process.

“Also, despite working in a corporate environment, engineers are basically creative types. They want to build cool stuff – not sit behind a desk. So when they do break free to do their own thing, they are a force very much to be reckoned with,” adds Donelan.

Kevin Bosc from ReferMePlease is one such ex-Googler. Previously he managed the French customer services for Adwords and very much enjoyed the many perks of the job.

“I do miss that side of things,” he says. “Google looks after everything for its employees, right down to the free food and social life. It makes it very hard to leave.

“However, I have found that the skills I learnt at Google are standing me in very good stead. For example, Google is a data-driven business and I have applied that hard learning to my new start-up.

“In the first iteration of ReferMePlease I only allowed employers to seek out candidates, but it proved too static. I analysed the data, altered it so that candidates can also start conversations and suddenly the traffic went through the roof.

“As I am bootstrapping the new business I need to watch every cent I spend. Being able to analyse and amend based on data received is a lesson hard-wired in me from my time at Google. Now the downloads are starting to yield results,” he says.

Aonghus O hEocha is another example of gamekeeper turned poacher. He worked for Land Rover and BMW as a senior manager on new Mini and Range Rover projects.

He then obtained a master’s degree in engineering business management from Warwick University in the UK, before going on to form technology firm (OHD) which specialised in radio based solutions.

At one point, he developed a grab tune app, similar to Shazam, which pulled in significant revenue before losing the marketing campaign (similar to Betamax and VHS).

“It was a great project and we made money,” says O hEocha, “but we lost out to deeper pockets.”

He has worked on other projects since, but is very appreciative of his corporate past.

“I totally understand the corporate mentality. As an SME this is imperative. I can talk the same language from the get go,” he says. Today he is CEO of GIRT, a software house that specialises in developing apps.

His corporate past allows him to understand budgets. “It is radically different from start-up to corporate,” says O hEocha.

“While I may be working on start-ups now, I am selling to big corporates and it is important that I understand my buyer. Actually, it is imperative I understand my buyer.”

Pierre Denicolay is the new CEO of Bring4You, Currently he is still employed at Google as an account strategist. His role is to help people grow their businesses using Google products. He has been employed by Google for more than a year now, but he is looking to take the skills learnt and bring them to his new venture.

His new business is already getting traction and is another advance on social cooperation. His platform allows people move their possessions via other people: a sort of family delivery service.

His informal delivery service is low-cost and allows travellers to make money by carrying goods wanted by others.

Think of it as a transport version of Airbnb. For Denicolay, his experience working with Google has really informed his new start-up.

“I set up Bring4You with two other directors – from China,” says Denicolay. “The international experience I gained from Google was directly and positively impacted from that.

“I must also say the digital experience I learnt from Google was invaluable, and finally, I also benefited from all the start-up events organised by Google. It was like a bootcamp for entrepreneurs.”

It is not just software giants that produce start-ups, sometimes international law can produce entrepreneurs also. One such man is Peter Griffin from internationally-recognised London-based law firm Sherman and Sterling.

Griffin’s speciality is international litigation, which has seen him mediate between large organisations and even countries.

Griffin was involved at the highest levels of negotiations, including the so-called Velvet Divorce – where Czechoslovakia was divided in two in a bloodless legal split. As such, not only does Griffin have excellent negotiation skills, he also has many contacts.

“My network is very strong on many areas,” says Griffin. “From policymakers through to institutional investors, I enjoy a good working relationship with the shakers and makers in international markets.

“And having dealt with tricky negotiations, I know what works and what doesn’t. This is very powerful when working on projects that are very close to the ground. A start-up and a country share similar features in negotiations – the details are very important, if not critical, to both.”

Griffin set up his own consultancy in London and through contacts with an African country, is now working with Irish-based Yapping.

“It’s not just Ireland that has a diaspora – most other countries do too. I am working with Yapping to take a model developed for and in Ireland to mainland Africa. It’s a different kind of thrill,” says Griffin.

Dr Patricia Scanlon holds a PhD and boasts IBM and Bell Labs amongst her former employers. She is fully cognisant of the impact of these corporate names.

“While I was still employed and wore my nametag at events I could see people take notice. It is the same when I use the names now – having worked for these heavyweights confers credibility on me by default.”

While Scanlon was working at Bell Labs she relished the environment – a mix between industrial and academic research. However, she also found she wanted to push the focus of her research into more innovative forms.

Working for a networking giant, she nevertheless wanted to look into developments that were adjacent to their core focus, such as big data and the internet of things. She was not given the opportunity to pursue her interests and found she was pitching constantly back in 2008 but without success.

“It is hard to turn a massive ship,” says Scanlon. “However, it was a great experience. Despite my inability to change the R&D focus in Bell Labs I learnt how to pitch. And I learnt how large corporates listen.”

Scanlon can now slice and dice her pitches with military precision. Since she set up SoapBox Labs, a smart proprietary speech-recognition software to enable reading assessments and personalisation for young children, she has been raising money and speaking with big corporates to find business partners.

At a glance she can revise her pitch to suit accountants, financial heads, engineers or marketeers.

“We work in a B2B arena but being able to gauge the room is vital. I now head up a start-up but I can talk the same language as the corporate that we want to work with, partner with or sell to. Now that is invaluable.”

Sunday Indo Business

Stand back, there’s a new kid in town – hail the rise of the sidepreneur

First printed in the Sunday Independent on 1/11/2015

Sidepreneurs have all the hallmarks of more mainstream entrepreneurs – except they also have to keep going at their day job while doing it, writes Jillian Godsil

They say the best business is grown in a recession – where labour, rents and expectations are cheap, but equally venture capital, support and credit is short. To straddle that gap comes the new sidepreneur – someone who has the idea and drive to create their own business, but is not quite ready to quit the day job yet.

Eoin Costello, CEO of Start-up Ireland, has a burning passion to turn the island of Ireland into a start-up hub – attracting entrepreneurs and venture capital in equal parts. His view is to create a global hub in Ireland, attracting the best ideas and providing the best supports. The first Start-up Gathering that ran last week has created a huge groundswell of interest, with hundreds of events in the ‘5 Cities, 5 Days’ island-wide convention.

However, for every 100 entrepreneurs taking their first brave steps, Costello reckons there are at least 500 waiting to find the right time, the money or the opportunities to put their toe into the water.

“There are three main impediments to people becoming full-on entrepreneurs,” says Costello. “The first is the lack of incubation space or co-working areas. For every one mom-and-pop shop that broke out the garage, nine others did not. Working at home may be a safe bet in terms of rents, but it means start-up entrepreneurs miss out on the gregarious nature of an incubator or shared facility. Ideas breed ideas.

“The second major impediment is a lack of knowledge about resources available through regional bodies and organisations such as Enterprise Ireland and Local Enterprise Boards.”

Finally, Costello reckons that we might also be overlooking an important resource in ‘breakout’ start-ups. This is where individuals working for large corporates have reached their optimum levels of success and are looking to branch out into entrepreneurism. Costello says large corporates would benefit from encouraging sidepreneur-swayed staff out into full entrepreneurship, often becoming suppliers to their new enterprises.

Costello quotes Patsy Carney, co-founder of EirGen Pharma in Waterford, who did just that ten years ago – by forming EirGen after a career with IVAX pharmaceutical. Last year, Carney sold it for €135m, which surely beats a monthly pay cheque. Costello argues that corporates need to help sidepreneurs leverage their corporate skills into start-ups.

The movement from sidepreneur to entrepreneur often happens at the point when second-round investment arrives. David Willoughby is just on the cusp of making that move following 18 months of sidepreneurship, which involved his extra time and his own money in creating a new networking product aimed at the Irish community here and abroad. He is launching Irish Yapping at the Web Summit and hopes to be able to transition into a full-time CEO as soon as finance allows.

Willoughby is a former entrepreneur who came a cropper during the recession, when his engineering firm collapsed. He witnessed creditors repossessing equipment and machinery and swore he would not be exposed again. He returned to education, worked in Africa, and returned to Ireland – where he found work with a software company as business development officer.

“Around that time, I saw the text-based alert system in my local community,” says Willoughby. “Then I watched a programme about young people emigrating, found parallels in my own life, and the idea for Irish Yapping grew from there.”

Irish Yapping allows individuals sign up and put a pin in their home and nominate the radial distance, up to 50 miles, that they can connect with fellow Irish Yapping members. There is a further option to put a second ‘current’ pin for when users are abroad. It is free to use for individuals, though in time a business programme will be offered allowing promotions and advertisements to fund the ongoing development.

As part of that commercial growth, a partnership agreement has been signed with FCR, the owners of the Golden Pages. The product is geared at multiple diaspora groupings and has significant scope to scale globally.

“We are also in extensive talks with a potential CFO in London,” says Willoughby. “The international business plan is being developed and we are aiming for between €2m-€3m worth of investment. At that stage I will give up the day job and become a full-time CEO.”

He is optimistic this will happen early next year, if not before. For breakout sidepreneurs like Carney, or start-up sidepreneurs like Willoughby, there is light at the end of the tunnel. For other sidepreneurs, the chances of migrating to full entrepreneurship are unlikely without support.

Legal secretary Valerie Coleman began a business in traditional crafts, creating bespoke knitted apparel. As soon as she finished one design, it was sold directly off Facebook. Her business ‘Other Mammies’ was formed and named for forgotten domestic craft skills. For the first year she became so busy she could not keep up and forged a partnership with another colleague – and then began looking at factory premises.

“We looked long and hard at the figures,” says Coleman. “But to take the leap from working my business outside my day job would have meant giving up the safety net of my salary – it was just too risky. I could not afford to take the risk.”

To this day, Coleman produces bespoke clothes and personalised kitchenware and sells it piecemeal over the net and through local shops. Her dedication to creating unique quality products ensures she has a steady supply of customers, but she will always remain a sidepreneur.

“I am resigned to doing this as a side business and I do like the sanity of my day job,” she adds, “but I will always wonder what might have happened if I had made the leap.”

Sunday Indo Business