The Cognikids founder believes many investors are not used to the way women pitch their products
Cognikids founder Ollwyn Moran is struggling to secure funding to grow her business, despite orders coming in thick and fast.
She has had to jump through hoops to get a bank loan, at fairly unfavourable terms, and says investor appetite is limited for female-led firms that are not “sexy” tech startups and don’t “talk shite”.
“My business is not a sexy tech business. It’s not necessarily cool. I know an awful lot of other businesses that got huge money in – we’re talking up in the millions – and only survived through constant raising of funding. And they’ve folded, either pre-Covid or during Covid. Mine is a solid business. It is growing.”
Cognikids sells easy-grip cups, spoons and bottles that help develop babies’ fine motor skills. The company re-branded from Creeper Crawlers, her first commercial venture, which made suits with traction grips to help babies learn to crawl.
Ms Moran is also looking to rework Cognikids’ best sellers for the elderly assisted-living market after requests from multiple customers.
The firm now has three different patents for its products, selling across Ireland through its own website and in major retailers including Boots and Dunnes Stores, as well as exporting to the UK, EU, Korea, Japan, Hong Kong and Singapore.
Despite her steady success, the neurodevelopment expert and former secondary school teacher has found it a struggle to get investors to believe in her business.
“They don’t take it seriously because I’m a female and I’m a single mum and it’s a baby business.
“When you’re pitching a baby business to private investors, a lot of the time you’re pitching to a certain cohort and a certain profile and maybe that certain profile weren’t really involved in the bringing up of their children.
“My heart just sinks when I hear that. I think, ‘You’re not going to even hang on until the financials now.’”
Raising funding while female is not only an issue in Ireland. A recent study by the European Women in VC group found that only 1.7pc of all venture capital went to female founders in the EU in 2016-2020.
This is despite women tending to do well when they are given a chance. In 2020, women-led startups in Ireland raised more than twice what men raised, according to the study.
Ms Moran says many investors are not used to the way women pitch their products.
“We don’t talk shite,” she says. “We are absolutely straight up. Maybe we don’t blow our own trumpets enough when we’re in talking in business because we’re getting on with the job. We don’t need the pat on the back.”
A series of unfortunate events has made life during Covid that bit more difficult for the entrepreneur, who first incorporated the business nearly 10 years ago.
She was approved for significant startup funding from the State a number of years ago, which required her to match it with private investment. She managed to exceed her target, but missed a deadline by one working day due to Christmas holiday closures.
“I lost the State funding. And as a direct result of that, I lost the private investors too. It was really hard. I actually think I took that harder than the breakdown of my marriage.”
Just before Covid, she had agreed a deal with a major Irish retailer to stock her products, but when the pandemic hit, she was out of luck.
One of her biggest orders was on the water as the world went into lockdown, but when the shops were shuttered, the order was pulled.
And in June this year she had to decline her biggest order to date – worth around €150,000 – because she didn’t have enough cash to go into production. “That broke my heart, to be honest with you,” she says.
“I’m convinced something big is definitely going to come to me because I feel as if I’m always on the cusp of stuff, and I just miss it. Maybe that’s the madness of the entrepreneurial spirit.”
The mum-of-two goes without a salary so she can plough the proceeds of sales into her business, and says Enterprise Ireland (EI) supports – as well as its Going for Growth network for female investors – have been invaluable.
The semi-state body owns a stake in her business via its Competitive Start Fund, and she has also received €100,000 from its High Potential Start-Up fund, which she easily matched with €100,000 in private investment.
But she says last week’s Budget did little to help companies like hers, the “middle guys” that are past the early stage and are trying to grow.
For instance, Enterprise Ireland requires a firm to have at least 10 employees to qualify for certain further supports.
“I’m kind of caught on a roundabout,” she says. “I can’t employ 10 people because I don’t have the funding. The irony is, if I had the funding I could bring on new products.
“We have purchase orders and promises to buy. We have two distributors and two large online retailers in the UK looking to buy because they have seen the prototype, but I don’t have the spare cash now to tool up because you’re talking up in the multiple thousands.”
She has been “hounding” various banks and finally obtained a loan at terms that are not ideal and which will disqualify her from the Government’s credit guarantee scheme.
The knock-backs have forced her to get “clever with cash” via her suppliers and factories. And after some consideration, she has decided to go back out on a funding round for “€500,000 upwards”.
“I think we’ll have cut our teeth now on being very clever with cash so when we do get some – because I absolutely have no doubt but that we will get investment in – then we have so many creative ways of making it last.”
Walking and sea swimming have kept Ms Moran and her children sane during the pandemic, and while the funding stresses may be frustrating, they have not dented her determination to succeed. However, she is more cautious.
“I’ve become a huge realist. I don’t celebrate anything until the money is in the account.
“You just keep your feet firmly on the ground. You keep plugging away, and don’t ever put all your eggs into one basket, no matter what – whether it’s with a retailer or an investor or a bank.”