Saturday 17 March 2018

Entrepreneurs of all shades must be championed

Small businesses can have a huge impact on the local economy, but they must be supported and nurtured so that they can grow and create jobs, says Liam Mullaney of Sage Ireland

'Initiatives like CoderDojo, set up to teach young people how to code, will play an integral role in this country's recovery'

FOR a real recovery to happen, we need to start looking ahead and actively create the future we want to have 10 years from now. Businesses -- both large and small -- need to look inward at what they have, but they also need to look outward at what other organisations are doing, and not be afraid to get involved, be inspired by others and look for new opportunities.

No one "owns" our recovery, everyone needs to take part and get involved in it. Just one person in an organisation can make a change that will help grow a business, which is ultimately participating in the recovery of Ireland as a whole.

I believe that small- to medium-sized businesses are the lifeblood of the economy, and working with them on a daily basis gives me a unique insight into their needs. As one of a panel of judges on the recent Startup Awards, I saw first hand the enthusiasm, positivity and drive that small business owners have in Ireland, and the talent out there really excites me!

But there are a number of challenges and obstacles facing these businesses and, on the ground in Sage, we are finding that access to credit and credit control and return on investment come up again and again.

Our customers are very specific about what they need and about ensuring that anything they buy meets those needs -- they want to know that the investment they have made can grow over time.

This is a positive sign that businesses are future-proofing and planning for a more robust business environment down the line, and we need to put a supportive infrastructure in place to ensure that the talent I witnessed at the Startup Awards is nurtured and cultivated.

The Propeller Accelerator at DCU Ryan Academy, in which I am also involved, is just the type of initiative that offers practical support. Through the programme, six start-ups that operate in online gaming, Facebook e-commerce, informatics, mobile applications and social media areas have access to over 60 mentors, from senior corporate executives to seasoned entrepreneurs. Our role as mentors includes working closely with these budding entrepreneurs to accelerate the early stage of their business, bringing it to a commercially viable level.

We know that the recession forced everyone to move out of their comfort zone and look at new prospects. This applies not only to individuals, but also to small businesses and larger organisations.

For me it's all about embracing innovations and adapting to survive. Charles Darwin said, "The most powerful natural species are those that adapt to environmental change without losing their fundamental identity which gives them their competitive advantage."

I think the same can be applied to business.

One area that businesses can easily benefit from is the cloud. Using the cloud levels the playing field for a lot of start-ups, as they can effectively outsource a lot of their requirements to cloud providers and compete against bigger organisations. It also offers a strong opportunity for Ireland, as the cloud is something that we can take hold of and run with.

Another area in which small businesses can make their mark in a cost-effective way is through social media. Social media is as much of a challenge as it is an opportunity, but it is one that business can take advantage of.

A sole trader can potentially have as much of a win for their business as a larger corporate can. For instance, I'm often amazed at what comes up from our monthly Lunch 'n' Learn chats on our Facebook page. We found that having this forum allows people to come together to discuss topics that affect real businesses in a real way every day, from how to plan a social media strategy to how to survive the crucial first two years in business.

For me, social media is about moving beyond the hype and looking at how it can really affect business results.

The web is a huge opportunity for all types of businesses -- and we are seeing a lot of innovation in the marketplace, working as we are with a host of new start-ups, many of which were born as a direct result of the recession.

We all know the impact that multinational companies have on job creation -- and it's great to see it. But it is these entrepreneurs, who create one or two jobs in their local village or town, that make a real difference. The impact businesses like this can have on a local economy is huge.

We need our Government to champion entrepreneurs of all shades, and to put in place support mechanisms that allow new businesses to continue to grow, flourish and create jobs.

This could include more mentoring initiatives like the Propeller Accelerator at DCU Ryan Academy, where experienced business people can share their wealth of knowledge and help to guide entrepreneurs to move their businesses forward.

Reskilling the workforce, whether internally or through our education system, is also essential. We need to utilise our education system now more than ever and make sure it provides the training programmes for industries that are currently offering jobs, and for those that are growing to provide employment in the future.

Programmes should be geared around growth areas in the economy to ensure maximum employment.

Initiatives like CoderDojo, a not-for-profit movement set up to teach young people how to code, develop websites, build apps, programs and games, are the type of enterprise that will play an integral role in this country's recovery.

For us at Sage, it is important that we are as active as we can be, so we have set up two programmes -- one where we work with people who are unemployed or who have been made redundant to bring them into our concierge service, and through our 'Train Your Business Brain' course, where 90 of our employees spent time learning what was actually involved in starting a business.

This gave them a better understanding of their customers' needs and the challenges they face.

During a recession, the focus is often just on the here and now, whether it is businesses or householders keeping their heads down and trying to make ends meet.

However, fostering young talent should be an integral part to any road to recovery and we have seen how impactful this can be with our Sage at Schools programme with transition year students from all across Ireland.

It's been a huge success in introducing young people to the concept of business software to help set them up for the future with the knowledge required to work in business. As a country we should never underestimate the talent of our young people.

We all need to come together to offer support, training and education and nurture talent of the future to learn from our past mistakes and help us back on to the road to recovery.

Liam Mullaney is CEO of Sage Ireland, the business management software solutions firm

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