Thursday 19 April 2018

From software to butter: how startup culture is a real Lavery family affair

Entrepreneurship is something that can be passed on from generation to generation, as our technology editor discovers with one Irish clan

Elaine Lavery, co-founder, Improper Butter, and dad Conall Lavery, co-founder, Real World Retail. Photo: Adrian Weckler
Elaine Lavery, co-founder, Improper Butter, and dad Conall Lavery, co-founder, Real World Retail. Photo: Adrian Weckler
Adrian Weckler

Adrian Weckler

Like father, like daughter. They say that you don't lick entrepreneurship up off the ground. In Elaine Lavery's case, there was no need. Both parents had a steeped heritage.

Her father, Conall, set up and ran what was once the biggest IT security company in Ireland, Entropy. Also active as an angel investor, he recently embarked on his latest startup, the software firm Real World Retail.

Elaine's mum, Barbara, also has an entrepreneurial gene, heading up her own HR company, Pedersen Consultants.

So it wasn't a shock when Elaine Lavery, fresh from a first class degree from UCD's Quinn School of Business and an internship at Goldman Sachs, decided to go out on her own.

"It was both hard and easy at the same time," she said. "At college, the corporate life all seemed so attractive. We had all these big companies like KPMG and Accenture coming in to pitch to students at the UCD Quinn School. The opportunities seemed to be amazing. Good salaries, chances to travel and great names to put on your CV."

But there was something niggling at her, she said. She just didn't want to stay stuck working for someone else.

Like daughter, like father.

"I'm a bit unemployable," Conall said. "I was always a good employee for my companies. But I asked too many questions. That made life a bit uncomfortable for everyone. So I just couldn't continue.

"At the age of 39, I knew I had to go out on my own."

The senior Lavery started on a journey which now sees his Real World Retail, co-founded with John Hogan, having signed up over 700 pharmacies in Ireland and the UK as customers for its online software platform.

"The product was leveraged off projects John had done for pharmacy groups previously," Conall said. "He delivered business intelligence solutions in the typical traditional way which is consulting, software, training and maintenance.

"I asked whether we could put this in the cloud and deliver it as a cloud service as nobody was doing it. John said yes and we launched in 2013. We immediately got a good deal with the Allcare pharmacy group."

The younger Lavery has opted for another area: food. Specifically, butter. Together with co-founder Hannah O'Reilly, Improper Butter is taking on brands such as Kerrygold in the Irish, UK and European markets. The US market is also hovering on the horizon.

The startup's biggest customer to date is Musgrave, which owns and operates the retail chain SuperValu. It also has products in smaller independent outlets such as Avoca, Donnybrook Fair and Fallon and Byrne. It is exporting into the UK to outlets such as John Lewis Foodhalls, which is owned by the giant retailer Waitrose.

"I'm going to Amsterdam next week to pitch to a Dutch retailer," she said. "We also got some good exposure recently in France. Some Irish food brands have done well there. Kerry Group is big in France and it is interested in quirky brands."

Does having an experienced entrepreneur for a dad help?

"Elaine does ask for advice from time to time, but not about food," Conall said. "One thing I can advise on is about funding a company, its shareholding and how you do that. Basically, I have some experience about the whole structure around investing."

That's not a bad resource to have. Elaine is currently looking at funding options for her company. "In the industry we're in, we're going to have to raise significant amounts of money," she said.

""But it will be in stages. We want to work with people who are smart. It has to be a good fit."

Her dad's advice, to be as discerning about an investor as in developing a product, may be paying off.

"We're almost over the line on a current round," she said. "We're talking with Enterprise Ireland as well, possibly with a view to matching funding. The food industry is massive and there are so many aspects to it. For us, what's important is brand and consumer goods."

While Elaine is 27, her dad is over 30 years her senior. Is there anything unique about kicking off a tech-related startup at an older age?

"There are pros and cons," he said. "In every startup event I attend, I'm generally the oldest person in the room. One downside is that to potential investors, you don't look like the typical person.

"You probably don't have the energy you had when you were very young, even though I didn't do my first startup until I was 40."

But there are advantages.

"You have very valuable experience and a track record," he said.

"I have previous companies under my belt, while John's an accountant with great retail experience. So when investors look at you, they see a reliable pair of hands.

"The bank, for instance, gave us facilities way beyond what any other startup would get. So that delayed the need to go looking for funds, which is great from a [stock] dilution perspective."

As for Elaine and Improper Butter, both she and co-founder Hannah O'Reilly are planning to build on the initial success.

"We see ourselves as creating mealtime solutions using butter as the core piece," she said. "The actual butter stick itself is the Intel chip, if you like, to the dish. So now we want to complete the whole piece. So we're developing a range of premium breads and prepared mashes. We're a lot clearer about exactly who we're targeting."

In software and food, both Laverys represent Ireland's biggest export categories. Time will tell how well they track the country's success in both fields.

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