JOHN WHELAN: Ireland’s entrepreneurs step up a gear but still a way to go

Nearly a decade since the onset of the recession, we see a new confident breed of companies driving the economy, creating jobs and fuelling government coffers, writes John Whelan

Today’s entrepreneurs have shown they know the culture required to build a business in a technologically driven, digital environment.

However, we are still only average in creating new business start-ups compared to the rest of the EU according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).

Our new business birth rate has improved dramatically according to the OECD, from being the laggard across the EU in 2014 for business start-ups; we are now slightly higher than the average across Europe.

Recent government data confirms that number of new company start-ups has grown to 22,091 in the 12 months to September 2017 — a very healthy jump of 10% over the prior year.

However, in their detailed profile on Ireland, the OECD points to the substantial untapped potential still in the population, particularly among women. For example, women are three times less likely than men to be self-employed, which is well below the EU average.

Particular emphasis is focused on women entrepreneurs, or lack of them. The OECD states that to increase the quantity and quality of entrepreneurship activities by women, it is important to understand the barriers they face in business creation.

Two thirds of women report their lack of skills and knowledge to start a business, have a fear of failure much higher than men, are more risk averse, more pessimistic about the growth potential of their business, and less likely to provide innovative goods.

Ensuring that women entrepreneurs realise their full business potential is now a major priority for Enterprise Ireland.

The Enterprise Ireland Female Entrepreneurship Unit was established in response to an under-representation of women entrepreneurs in Ireland.

As part of the initiative it has co-funded a number of key specific tailored development programmes to support ambitious women optimise their business success with DCU Ryan Academy, in which I delivered workshops on internationalising the business.

A similar programme was co-funded with CIT Rubicon in Cork.

However, there are now numerous other programmes directed at women to encourage them into starting a business. Is it enough?

No such fears for those in the 50 to 64 age bracket who top the poll for self start-ups across Europe, reports the OECD. Ireland’s Smart Ageing Exchange is having its impact.

Its Build your Own Business programme in which I delivered Dublin workshops, recently went regional, announcing in October a partnership with Cork County Council and its Local Enterprise Offices, to specifically tailor a programme to meet the needs of regional mature adults.

The eight-week programme includes workshops, bespoke mentoring, networking and the opportunity to pitch to a panel of investors on the finale night.

Anne Connolly, chief executive of the network, said: “It’s a myth that starting your own business is only for young people”.

The writing was on the wall for the Government in 2009 when the economy went from recession into depression, our business failures peaking to the highest rate in Europe, our new business start-up rate the laggard of Europe.

A national entrepreneurship forum was set up which finally gave direction in a published comprehensive National Policy on Entrepreneurship.

In it, the Government planned to deliver an ambitious increase in the numbers of quality start-ups over five years from 2015 to 2019.

Many of the targets are being met according to the Government’s business and innovation department, which points to a survival rate of 94% of companies set up since 2015. This is well up on the EU average and double that of the UK.

However, the more intractable issue remains that not enough start-ups manage to scale-up and become large global corporations.

Whereas in the UK, there is a much higher failure rate than in Ireland, they lead the way in Europe for start-ups that go on to scale-up to €100m-plus revenue.

I don’t buy into the mantra “fail fast, fail often”.

However, having sufficient funds to scale without running out of money, has to be balanced against scaling too slowly and risk losing momentum and vital opportunities.

It is a trick that Irish entrepreneurs — male or female — must learn to pull off.

John Whelan is an expert in global trade


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