Saturday 17 March 2018

The unlikely entrepreneurs

Andrea Smith

Andrea Smith

Andrea Smith talks to the brave – or foolhardy – Irish men and women who fought against the downturn in an unusual way: by launching new businesses mid-recession

'Never waste a good crisis,' goes the old adage. This lot certainly saw the opportunities that a recession offers.

'Weekend' met the courageous owners of six new and innovative businesses that are bucking the economic trend.

rock lobster

The business

Rock Lobster is Dublin's first fish and prime cuts house, serving cocktails to a regular backdrop of live music. It is owned by Niall Sabongi (35) from Clontarf, Dublin. He is engaged to Natalie Dowling and they have two children, Callum (seven) and Max (two).

Niall's dad is George Sabongi of George's Bistro. Niall previously co-owned Romanza restaurant on Leeson Street, and was general manager of Ivan's Oyster Bar & Grill in Howth.

Starting off

"We opened on November 22, 2012, as I wanted to open a restaurant that specialises in fish and prime and was waiting for the right premises to present itself," says Niall.

"We only had about 20 days to get it up and running from the day I first viewed the premises, as I really felt that a pre-Christmas opening was essential.

"We had had next to no support from the banks, but luckily I had a lot of equipment from my old restaurant, and have a very trusting friend who helped with financing the start-up.

"I acknowledge that opening a restaurant at any time is very risky, but if I was to wait for the perfect time, I would never start this business."

The progress

"We are comfortably paying all our bills so far, and the availability of really top-notch staff was an advantage. Having said that, I think the most important part of having a successful restaurant is the right location matched with good food that is reasonably priced, hence our idea of serving lobster to the masses for €20.

"It's very early days, but the feedback from customers has been amazing."

The challenges

"As suppliers have been stung badly by restaurants closing down over the past five years, we have had to operate with short credit terms. Balancing work and personal life can be difficult, especially as my fiancee is working full-time in the same industry. I'm very lucky to have such a supportive partner."

The future

"People are still spending money and still eating out, but they want to know that they're getting value. We plan to keep giving our diners great luxurious food, such as lobster and aged steak, rocking cocktails and VIP treatment, but at a really reasonable cost.

"I believe that if you keep your customers happy, you'll do more than survive – you'll thrive."

Rock Lobster, 22-24 Donnybrook Road, Dublin 4. See

Mimi's beauty room

The business

This beauty salon provides manicures, pedicures, Rockstar spray tans, semi-permanent eyelash extensions and tinting, and body waxing – from brows to Brazilians – using Waxperts, which is practically pain-free.

It is co-owned by Jessica Ryan (26) and Karen Buckley (26).

Both newly married, the girls have strong business backgrounds. Jess is the daughter of Arthur Ryan, founder of Penneys, while Karen's dad is Des Buckley from the FX Buckley meat and restaurant group.

Starting off

"We put together a business plan, and did a huge amount of research into popular treatments and products," say the girls.

"The fact that the country is in recession was a worry, but beauty is something that women always treat themselves to, and we wanted to be able to provide them with the best treatments at great prices.

"We opened in April 2011, and as we always had a love for Sandymount, we were delighted when the opportunity to open there came about."

The progress

"It's going great so far, and we have recently extended upstairs, with a new treatment room and two more spray-tan booths.

"The advantage of the downturn is that prices have come down on products and there are better deals out there at the moment, which enables us to give our clients better value for money.

"We have a great team working in Mimi's. The girls are fantastic and our clients feel very comfortable with them.

"Seeing happy customers leave the salon and getting such positive feedback gives us the most satisfaction."

The challenges

"Every day is challenging when you have your own business. You try to stay on top of your game, because there will always be someone coming up behind you. There is always something new to worry about, but you have to just get up and get on with it.

"We're only just learning to balance our work and personal life, as we are not even two years open yet, but luckily our family and friends are amazing and so supportive."

The future

"We are looking forward to bringing in some new treatments in in 2013, including facials. We would love to open more Mimi's salons, but at the moment we are concentrating on our upstairs expansion and our new treatments."

Mimi's Beauty Room, 6 Seafort Avenue, Sandymount, Dublin 4.


The business

Martin Fanning (39) makes hand-crafted items from recycled materials or reclaimed wood, including carved names, initials, words and wall art for children's rooms, marquee-style hanging letter lights, spice racks, chalkboards and statement pieces for weddings.

He is married to Eileen and has one son, Gus (three).

He previously worked as an assistant editor in the TV and film industry.

Starting off

"I left work to be a stay-at-home dad to my son Gus, but wanted to feel as if I was contributing to bills," Martin says.

"I had already set up a craft blog that had a large emphasis on using recycled materials, so I started out by trying my hand at making a few different pieces and selling them at one of the many markets that take place around Dublin every month.

"The original start-up investment was probably only a couple of hundred euro, but Eileen and I went to the bank to work out a deal on our mortgage, and figured out a payment structure that worked for all of us. That's still an on-going discussion, and in that respect, the bank has been very supportive."

The progress

"There was a lot of interest in my carved names very quickly, particularly ones with fadas, as this seemed to be something that wasn't readily available elsewhere.

"The business growth has been slow but steady, mainly because I'm making every single item that I sell by myself. I get a lot of repeat business, which lets me know that I'm doing something right, and I have managed to keep my head above water financially.

"I find that using social network sites such as Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest can be a clever way to attract traffic to the site, without a need to spend a lot on advertising."

The challenges

"The biggest challenge has been doing it all on my own. All the work is generated by me, and I look after marketing, sourcing materials, attending markets, selling the items, and keeping the website updated."

The future

"I really enjoy making things and I've got tons of ideas for products. A big plan for the future involves taking one of my bestselling items, with help from a partner, and working out a way to produce it on a scale that I would never be able to achieve by working on my own.

"One of the great things about it is the possibility of working with charities, which is a very attractive idea."


The business is an online business that retails beauty products, fragrances, accessories and 'his' and 'her' gifts.

It also provides beauty tips and advice from professional stylists, make-up artists and skincare specialists.

It has a well-being section, covering therapies that can be done at home, and a directory to help visitors find a hair or beauty salon, boutique or shoe shop around the country to complete their look.

It is co-owned by Anita Whyte (40) from Athy, Co Kildare, and Paul Moran (36) from Templeogue, Dublin, who own too.

Starting off

"We launched in October 2011, after doing some market research and making contacts with big brands to see if we could build a viable business," they say.

"There was no funding available from State agencies, and we didn't want to take a loan, so it was entirely self-funded using our savings.

"Even though the country was in recession, we already had a track record of being in business, so we found it easier building the contacts and having the confidence to launch the business. And the advantage was that start-up costs were lower."

The progress

"It has been an education both in the world of online business and the beauty industry. Looking back, as it's an online business, we have realised that the relationship after the site goes live is as important as engaging a web designer initially, because an e-commerce website is a constant work in progress.

"We never really switch off because we're always thinking of new ideas and products to bring online, and ways to enhance and perfect the website.

"We recently added a facility for customers to put together a wish-list of items they desire, which can be emailed to their partners so they never get that gift wrong again. No more disappointing gifts!"

The challenges

"Publicising the business on a shoestring, and getting the brand name out there with very little money was a challenge. We overcame that by teaming up with great companies for innovative competitions, to increase our exposure to people who may not have heard of us."

The future

"We are bringing more brands online this year and want to make the site the place to visit for beauty and skincare products and fragrances, and style and beauty tips.

"We have been encouraged by seeing it grow from an idea to its position online now, and the positive reaction we get from our customers."


The business

'Suburbia' magazine was launched in April 2011 as a high-end complimentary magazine that was delivered to homes in selected suburban areas in Dublin. It developed into a national magazine in October 2012, and is now on sale nationwide alongside its sister magazine, 'Suburbia Weddings'. It is published and edited by Edward Smith (27), a law graduate who has also written for national publications and presented on TV and radio.

Starting off

"I'm a dreamer and really wanted to run a magazine, so I resigned from full-time employment in January 2011 and immediately got to work on a killer business plan," says Edward.

"Most people thought I was mad, especially as I wanted to enter magazine publishing, and many told me that I would definitely fail. My intuition was telling me differently, however.

"I got a business loan from AIB in Raheny, and was delighted with the support I received from them. I was fortunate that I had a lot of friends and contacts in the industry, which made acquiring content easier for me. The first edition launched in April with TV3's Lisa Cannon on the cover.

"The advantages of starting during the recession included the lower cost of printing and other associated costs of publishing, and a wealth of talented and experienced people available for work at ridiculously affordable rates."

The progress

"In the beginning, I didn't think about the practicalities or business side of things at all as I was driven by the excitement, glamour and my love of everything media-orientated. You can learn everything else, but nothing drives you like a dream.

"I love the whole process of sourcing content, organising and directing photoshoots, the smell of the paper, and meeting and working with talented and creative people who have the most interesting lives. It has been absolutely fantastic and I'm still here.

"It is far from easy and some times are harder than others, but the good far outweighs the bad. The business is definitely covering costs at this point."

The challenges

"Administration would be first on my list and chasing money for ads a very close second. Apart from the prerequisite determination, hard work, insane hours of devotion and seeking out opportunities, I run an open-minded business that is flexible and constantly changing to the wants of our readers and clients."

The future

"I hope to establish 'Suburbia' magazine as a household name before launching in other countries, and to extensively develop its online presence."


The business

Slender Choice is a range of healthy meal options, including burgers, sausages, beef stew and chicken curry.

It was developed by Karen and Frank Daly from Mullaghbawn, Newry, for people on a weight-loss plan or those who want to eat healthier food.

The idea came to the couple after Karen lost four stone in 2008, and struggled to find low-fat products in Irish supermarkets that were high on taste.

She and Frank have two sons, Aaron (four) and Jamie (22 months).

Starting off

"Once we had a clear vision, we set about finding the right manufacturing partners and worked on the development of the products. As well as taste, the nutritional information was critical," the couple explain.

"Thankfully, we had two well-paid jobs at the time, so we were in a position to invest our own money into the business. We appeared on 'Dragons' Den', and ultimately decided to go it alone, even after receiving an offer from Niall O'Farrell.

"We then secured investment from Kildare GAA manager Kieran McGeeney. We have also received support from both Bord Bia and the Louth County Enterprise Board. The banks were definitely not easy, but, in the end, we received support from them."

The progress

"It took 12 months from inception to get to market, and since launching in stores in November 2011, we have secured nationwide listings with Tesco, Dunnes Stores, Superquinn, SuperValu and BWG stores. We recently won a Louth Business Award for Best Business Growth.

"As a small company competing with big players, we found that social media was great for driving brand awareness.

"Cash flow is critical to the success of our business, and we were glad to be able to negotiate terms that allow us to fund our own growth.

The challenges

"In the past two years, we have jumped so many hurdles that we could be ideal for Rio 2016! Running your own company can be more work than play, and sometimes we find it very hard to switch off, but we have realised that it's important for the longer term that we get the balance right.

"We often spend hours working when the boys have gone to bed, but it is so worth it to get some family time every day."

The future

"We have new products in the pipeline, and will launch in the UK later this year. People are blown away by our passion for our products, and also the drive and ambition that we have for this young company. It just has to work – there is no other option."

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