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