Saturday 1 October 2016

Stand back, there's a new kid in town - hail the rise of the sidepreneur

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

Jillian Godsil

Published 01/11/2015 | 02:30

Eoin Costello speaking at the Start-up Island 2020 Forum, part of this year’s Start-up Gathering
Eoin Costello speaking at the Start-up Island 2020 Forum, part of this year’s Start-up Gathering

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.

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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."

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