A lesson in entrepreneurship

There has never been a better time for starting a business, CIT entrepreneur in residence Kieran Moynihan tells Claire O’Sullivan

KIERAN Moynihan wasn’t one of those children/teenagers who was always spotting ways to make a quick buck. The entrepreneur studied electrical engineering at University College Cork and after graduation, took up a job at Motorola in Cork. Never at this point, had he thought about founding his own company.

“When I started, I knew no one in business, not one in my friends, family or extended family. I never even met a sales person in my life.”

But working for the international telecoms player taught him about the potential of the global telecoms market while the infectious excitement of the dot.com heyday also had him thinking “Why can’t I do this?”

“Literally, I woke up one morning back in 1997/1998. There were loads of companies floating on the Nasdaq. There was a big boom and I said to myself, we could put a great team together, we can spot an opportunity for a revolutionary new telecoms product, we could be the best in the world at this. It had been in my head for a little while, but then we got the team and we said: ‘Let’s go for it’. And then it began. We all worked 90-100 hours a week to do whatever was necessary. You have to,” he said.

That effort paid off. In 2007, IBM bought out Vallent and he spent the next three years traversing the world as its global vice-president of telecoms.

“All the time that I was flying around the globe I used to like helping young companies. I suppose teaching them the lessons we had learned on our own journey.”

Then in 2009, he shocked everyone at IBM by saying he was moving on to concentrate on helping young companies.

Cork Institute of Technology, which he’d helped out on its Genesis programme and at its business incubations centre, the Rubicon Centre, asked him if he’d become an entrepreneur in residence. He would be there to “inspire the students and mentor spin out companies”. He agreed.

“I spend a lot of my time each week here. For example, yesterday, we started entrepreneurship training for the students, first year right through to PhDs. It’s open to all the disciplines. So as part of that we use it as a vehicle to teach them about entrepreneurship.

“They key is to help build their entrepreneurial skills, awareness, talk them through lots of examples and more importantly give them the belief and confidence they could potentially start a successful company at a future point. We also have a CIT prize for innovation competition to encourage students to come up with actual business ideas and concepts.”

So far, the reaction has been great from the students. “The third and fourth years are very focused on it as they really see it’s a changing landscape out there. You’re not guaranteed to get a job. When I did my four-year degree, it was all very technical. I would have loved if somebody had taught me about how you’d start a business.”

Kieran is adamant there has never been a better time for entrepreneurship — desperate times call for desperate measures. One firm he uses as an example of “spotting the opportunity” is LivingSocial. “Four guys in 2007 woke up one day and said what happens if we try and get subscribers and each day we get them a deal? It was revolutionary. And look, the end of last year they got €400m new investment from Amazon and other investors, valuing the company at €3bn. Could you be one of them?”

The Irish have always been known for the gift of the gab. But Kieran has questioned this — and specifically, our confidence around selling. “Sales is almost a dirty word in this country. In perception terms, imagine you’re at a dinner party and you’re saying my daughter’s going to be a sales person, knocking on doors. It would be ‘couldn’t she be a lawyer, couldn’t she be academic?’

“But what good is a business if you don’t have sales? It’s a huge weakness. But if you go to America, there are companies with 1,000% inferior products and solutions and not half the innovation we have and they’re raising €20m to make their businesses viable. And because they’re raising so much money, they’ll get there because they’re brilliant at sales capacity.

“Sales really is a huge skills challenge here. Enterprise Ireland are running lots of courses for the bigger indigenous companies to address that. I’m trying to get it into the heads of the students and young companies. I say to them ‘You know what sales is? It’s about putting value in the hands of your customer and they giving you a good price for it and it’s a good thing’. If you think of it in those terms it’s not like snakeoil.”

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