DBF Interviews: Sean Gallagher

SFA 2018 Picture Conor McCabe PhotographyA recognised champion of business,  Sean Gallagher has over the past 20 years mentored hundreds of start-up and emerging entrepreneurs. He founded a number of companies in technology, commercial real estate and consulting, been an investor in ‘Dragon’s Den’ (‘Shark Tank’ in the USA), a finalist in the Ernst and Young Entrepreneur of the Year awards and was a runner-up in the 2011 Irish presidential election. Sean was previously appointed by the Irish Government to the boards of FÁS (the country’s national employment and training agency) and Intertrade Ireland, which promotes economic co-operation across Ireland where he served as Chair of the board’s Equity Network Initiative helping to promote venture capital and business angel investment in early-stage businesses.

We spoke to Sean ahead of our Business Clinic event, where he will join forces with Siobhán Murray and Liam Fennelly to offer tips on to to set up and run a business while surviving financially, strategically and emotionally.

Hi Sean. You’ve mentored hundreds of start-ups and entrepreneurs over the years. From all your experience, what are your top three tips for those starting out on their business journey?

First, to have a very clear vision about what it is they are trying to achieve: what need are they meeting? What problem are they solving? And what solution are they providing to a specific market, large or small? It is about clarity around their vision and their mission.

The second tip is around fundraising, making sure they have enough cash and enough start-up capital. It’s always the dilemma – when you begin to make sales you then generate the cash to hire the people you need, but in the early days you are trying to bootstrap it and therefore you are always trying to do things on the cheap. This can sometimes limit the speed at which you can grow your business and the scale you can achieve. So, make sure you have the right sources of capital at each stage of the company’s development.

I think the third tip is about finding the right people. The greatest lesson I’ve ever learned is that nobody ever starts a big business and nobody ever grows one without a team. You need people with complimentary skills, experience and insight that you yourself don’t have. Most entrepreneurs are either technical, have a trade or are techy, and therefore are not good at sales, marketing and finance, or are good at finance but are not good at selling or at technology. None of us have the entire breadth of skills and experience we need so we need to have a team around us to help us grow our business. Sometimes it’s hard to find those people at the right time, especially when you are not able to afford them.

So; strategy and vision, sources of funding and having a great team.

What is one hurdle you think start-ups have to navigate around in Ireland?

While I don’t think this is specific to Ireland, I think one hurdle is the size of the Irish market. I was in Hong Kong last week and in the U.S. two weeks before that. The size of the market in territories like Asia and America is such that the opportunities are vast and on such a vast scale compared to Ireland. While it’s easy to get known in Ireland, depending on the sector you are in, sometimes your market is local and regional. The hurdle or the objective for companies who want to really scale is how to get off the island and tap into large markets on the premise that if you want to launch a big ship, you’ve got to go where the waters are deep.

What can people expect to gain from the Business Clinic event?

A couple of things! The first thing is entrepreneurs, by our nature, we are a tribe. Tribes must come together, that’s what tribes do. We learn from each other and we gain confidence from knowing that other people are on the same journey. That gives us a degree of confidence and comfort that we are not alone.

Secondly, there’s an opportunity for shared learning about what other people are doing in small or large companies to address key issues, whether that’s recruitment, currency, export, how to scale or grow a company, or how to use technology. These are challenges that every single business faces, and if we are open at events like the Business Clinic to ask questions and to learn, then there is so much we can learn from the experiences of others without having to tread that road or make those mistakes ourselves personally, and at great expense. That can often help to fast-track a company’s growth.

Remember to book tickets to our business clinic on Thursday 14 November here