Business Irish

Thursday 18 September 2014

'The sheer scale of the opportunity is enormous'

The new wave of Irish entrepreneurs is hitting foreign shores

Ian Sanders

Published 08/06/2014 | 02:30

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Jane Ni Dhulchaointigh of Sugru.
Oisin Hanrahan of Handybook
Grainne Barron of Viddyad

IT's a Wednesday morning in late May – and Grainne Barron is hard at work at her San Francisco offices overlooking the city skyline. The founder of Viddy-ad moved to the city from Ireland at the end of February, and she's never been busier. Keeping in touch with her team in Dublin means she often works til 3am.

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"That's OK. I don't need much sleep," she explains.

Viddyad is a cloud-based service where businesses can create professional video ads online in minutes. Ms Barron says it had always been her plan to relocate to San Francisco. "I want the best for Viddy-ad. Of course I miss Dublin – but the best opportunity for the business right now is to be here," she says.

With her investors a short drive away in Palo Alto, Ms Barron regularly drives out to meet them for coffee. "The investors like it that we're here, it demonstrates a commitment," she explains. It's also easy for her to visit Silicon Valley companies such as Facebook and Google, and also to fly to New York to see her advertising agency clients.

Viddyad has a team of developers back in Dublin, but it's here in the US where she's leading sales and marketing. "Dublin is a great place to start a business. However if you want to scale the business, you have to move out here," she says.

Whilst being in San Francisco provides great credibility for a tech startup, Ms Barron doesn't find there's much of an Irish networking scene there. That tends to be more evident on the US east coast, where Irish entrepreneurs are attracted to cities like New York and Boston.

Oisin Hanrahan co-founded his company, Handybook, while studying at Boston's Harvard University, and moved to New York in November 2012. Mr Hanrahan looked at where the largest high-density market existed.

"New York was the logical place to be," he says.

Handybook lets customers order a home cleaner, plumber or handyman via a smartphone app. This year the company has seen a huge rise in interest, handling tens of thousands of bookings a month. Being in the US has given Handybook substantial scale that Mr Hanrahan says it might not have achieved back home in Europe. Being in New York means he enjoys the support of New York Digital Irish (NYDI) – a networking community of founders and entrepreneurs who work in the tech/digital industries.

"You always go back to your roots," he says, "and developing relationships is core to being Irish."

Mr Hanrahan admits he misses his family in Ireland but in New York he's managed to create a great work culture where there's an element of fun and plenty of socialising. "The good news is that if you're starting your own business, you get to decide the culture of your team and hire the people you want to hang out with. Again, that's very core to being Irish."

Another expat attracted by the size of the New York market is Susan O'Brien. Ms O'Brien was working in Portugal when she had her business idea, but decided to head to New York to make the idea happen.

She is founder of Smigin, a smartphone app that helps users learn a foreign language. The business had been in development for two years and it went live at the end of February.

Ms O'Brien agrees with Handybook's founder that being based in the US has had a huge impact on her business. "The sheer scale of the opportunity here is enormous. The population of the US is 314 million versus 4.5 million in Ireland, so if you want to get your product in front of customers just being here means you are at a natural advantage," she says.

Like Ms Barron, she finds it easier to visit US-based partner companies. She was recently invited to meet with Apple in California, and was attracted by the ease of US travel. "It was as simple as getting a $300 flight to San Francisco the next day so that we could talk them through our plans for product development," she says.

Like Mr Hanrahan, Ms O'Brien finds that tapping into New York's expat community is hugely valuable; she recently joined the board of the city's chapter of the Irish International Business Network, a community of Irish and Irish Americans developing businesses in the city. There's also the NYDI. Ms O'Brien has benefited from introductions to staff hires, customers, investors and media purely as a result of attending NYDI meetings.

"The expat community in New York is one of the most supportive that I've encountered. Being plugged into the Irish community here provides great foundational support and enables you to reach a much higher level of success than you would have on your own," she says.

But while Ms Barron, Mr Hanrahan and Ms O'Brien believe location is vitally important, one founder who's making her business a success out of London admits she could be based anywhere. Jane Ni Dhulchaointigh from Kilkenny came to London to study in 2002 and it was while a student that she had her business idea Sugru.

Twelve years later, Sugru, a mouldable, setting silicone rubber that can be used to fix and adapt household objects, has over half a million users in 150 countries around the world. "While in the early days it was mainly just me in the lab, I could have been based half way up a mountain for all anyone knew," she says.

A graduate of London's Royal College of Art, it took Ms Ni Dhulchaointigh six years to develop the science behind Sugru. It started out as an online business but over the last 12 months has rolled out to retailers both in the UK and US. "Irish entrepreneur Liam Casey says 'geography is history' and to a large extent I agree with him. While we happen to be based in London our customer base is global and like other international businesses we spend a lot of time on planes and Skype," says Ms Ni Dhulchaointigh.

She does however acknowledge the value of being based in a major city – its London base means the company can access a broader talent pool as they grow the team. Whilst Ms Ni Dhulchaointigh believes having a good business idea and a good story to tell is more important than where a founder comes from, she does think that growing up on a farm in rural Ireland helped shape her idea.

Sugru aims to encourage a new generation of consumers to embrace repairing items instead of throwing them away and buying new. "Like a lot of people from rural areas and farms in particular, I grew up in a family where home-made was the preferred option for a lot of things. One of my granny's favourite things to do was to mend our clothes on a Sunday, and I loved watching her work," she says.

Back in San Francisco, Ms Barron acknowledges she misses the atmosphere and friends at home in Dublin but she's proud to be leading an Irish startup out of the United States.

"We're an Irish company. We're proud to be Irish and to put Ireland on the map for innovation and disruption. It's just that we need a presence in Silicon Valley," says Ms Barron.

"If I could, I'd make our logo with a little shamrock," she adds with a laugh.

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