~ MECB meets the Dragons (Mr. Sean Gallagher and Mr. Bobby Kerr) and SBP Editor (Mr. Cliff Taylor.)

~ MECB meets the Dragons (Mr. Sean Gallagher and Mr. Bobby Kerr) and SBP Editor (Mr. Cliff Taylor.) I am standing at the far left.

As I approached the RDS, I had many expectations of the “Out on Your Own” event. I anticipated informed discussion regarding topics such as; what it takes to be an entrepreneur, how to identify and manage opportunity and how best to fund and grow a business, in an era of recession.

(Then) Minister Batt O’Keefe was introduced by Mr. Cliff Taylor, Editor of the Sunday Business Post and a family friend of my parents. The Minister then kicked off the event with a well delivered speech. He acknowledged the “unprecedented upheaval” in which the country has endured, but, and to his credit, stood as a confident leader. The Minister discussed his pride in the Irish innate spirit of enterprise and outlined how, in terms of entrepreneurship, Ireland is well above EU average. According to O’Keefe 4.9% of population are considered entrepreneurs, this can be compared favourable against the UK (2.7%) and the OECD as a whole (2.9%.)

Mr. O’Keefe, stood as a leader and whilst he acknowledged the recession, he did not dwell on it. Instead he highlighted the onus which now lies on him, to shape effective policy. Or as he put it himself, he must focus on matching the countries ideas and energy with targeted Government initiatives. Amen!

Next to the Podium was the familiar face of Bobby Kerr. This man (star of Dragons Den TV Show) has been described by Today FM / TV3 presenter and DCU Alumni member; Matt Cooper, as being the only “Dragon” he would have a pint with. Mr. Kerr is clearly a lovely man, whom wears his heart on his sleeve. Proud yet not sybarite.

Most of what Mr. Kerr has learned, has been through “the school of life”. Vernon Sanders Law famously stated that experience is a tough teacher, it gives the test first and then teaches the lesson (Green). Bobby Kerr is a testament to this.

He recounted his journey with Insomnia Coffee. Today, he boasts 200 staff, 58 shops, €12 million annual turnover via the sale of 5 million cups per annum. His indomitable spirit became apparent when he reflected upon the early days, which were “hand-to-mouth.” He described vividly, how on his first day, he took in €57 euro. On his way home he cried his eyes out and thought to himself that he had made a huge mistake. Although he openly admitted at this stage that he had feared for the worst, an article appearing in the New Yorker sprung to mind, it suggested that entrepreneurs are calculated risk takers (Gladwell, January 18th 2010). This, I decided, was most definitely true of Bobby Kerr.

Mr. Kerr then showed us clips of his involvement in Dragons Den. He rounded his speech up with some amusing yet cliché rich “life tips.”

  • You are more careful when it is your own money at stake.
  • Take calculated risks but don’t make a risk with no upside.
  • Luck is important but so is hard work.
  • Negotiate everything especially in today’s economic climate as bargains are available.
  • Network.
  • Maximize every PR opportunity.
  • Believe.

From a Global and Societal awareness standpoint, I believe his heightened awareness is highly related to his success as an entrepreneur. For example, even the formation of the business idea stemmed from an awareness of societal trends. Kerr had noticed a lack of take out culture in Ireland in the 1990s and thus targeted a gap in the market. I would hope that as I heighten my Global and Societal Awareness, perhaps I too will be more receptive to potential entrepreneurial ventures.

The final speech I attended was Erin McCann’s (Commercial Manager of Sage.)

Following on from previous speakers, she aimed to renew a sense of optimism. According to McCann, now is the time to spend on IT, spend when the economy is on its knees she said, it’s an opportunity to streamline costs.

McCann stated how massive MNC’s Oracle and Siebel actually started out in a time of depression. Then came her next slide, it read…

If you don’t realize your dream someone else will

“I was asked what I thought about the recession, I thought about it and decided not to participate”

~Founder of Wallmart

Before the event, I was excited. I am an entrepreneur and I approached this event as an opportunity to learn key lessons going forward, and also hear of recited tales of proven businesspeople.

During the Ministers speech I felt uplifted by his frank admissions to the errors of his parties ways. More than that, I felt genuinely enthused by his confidently delivered pitch, which assured us, that everything is going to be ok, this was of great comfort.

When discussing “targeted government initiatives” I felt this was an example of Hobson’s choice, i.e. there is no other option. For, I believe, the opposite of innovation, is stagnation.

Bobby Kerr has a true indelible personality and everyone in the room seemed to immediately warm to him. Perhaps it is because he has not been hardened by the business world. He is someone I admire, for that precise reason.

By the time the final speech began, I was beginning to get restless. Perhaps that contributed to my experience. I remember feeling angry, as though the speaker was either insufficiently prepared for her audience or simply naïve. I felt almost patronised by the manner with which she spoke, as though we where schoolchildren. By diminishing the struggle that now faces small business owners, this must, I can imagine, have angered them also.

I left the RDS, although hungry and tired, ultimately glad that I had attended. It sent me a fresh surge of entrepreneurial charge through my body again.

I am not the (then) Ministers greatest fan, far from it in fact. I have dealt with him before, on a project I’m involved with, and found him to be difficult.

I also usually entertain an air of scepticism whenever an elected Politician discusses the current state of the economy. On that particular day however, tone was different. A key message from all speakers was one of optimism, celebrating innovation culture and having recognised future entrepreneurs as a means of stimulating the economy back to greener pastures.

Only briefly did he allude to “investing in Innovation Fund Ireland” and the old reliable buzz words; Smart, Knowledge, Green etc.

But where he neglected to elaborate in specifics, he did succeed in appearing as a strong leader.  The inspirational speech which bordered on the motivational definitely packed a punch. Not quite in the same class of the “I have a Dreams” or the “Yes We Cans” but there was a potent, kind of “Come on, we can pull through this and be great again” kind of vibe to it.

When Mr. Kerr took to the podium, he managed to take me by surprise. He did this via admission that his biggest motivator has always been a fear of failure. As an accomplished entrepreneur I thought he would be of the view that trial and error are usually the prime means of developing an enterprise. A common thought among entrepreneurs is this concept of banishing fear from their psyche. The idea exists that when you take a risk and encounter an error, it should not be deemed as a failure. Rather, this could be viewed as a stepping stone to success. For me, a deep fear of failure can be crippling, because should someone not encounter errors they are highly unlikely to ever gain meaningful success either.

Sage where a sponsor of the event and thus, I suppose, I could forgive a few shameless plugs for their products. Mrs. McCann really bugged me though.

Here is my initial gripe. Everyone was trying to foster optimism, and that’s great. The message was don’t let the recession hold you down. But McCann it seemed was adamant to disprove the recession. I guess I felt optimism is good to a point, but where it is preached excessively with a lack of realism, you run the risk of patronising the audience.

Here is the real reason, she managed to anger me however. It was as if she was in a rush to discuss CRM products, and crucially Sage’s new CRM product. It quickly turned into a thinly disguised marketing pitch.

I have a keen interest in entrepreneurship, and I read a lot on the subject. Bobby Kerr’s message was one which I often hear, especially from entrepreneurs of his generation. They first start off by stating the heights they have achieved. Then they state that they did not have the same level of opportunities that we have now, whether that be in terms of education or money. Then they discuss the long and treacherous road to success, the risks they took, the self doubt, sacrifices made and the people they proved wrong. It’s funny though, the more I hear, and the more intrigued I become. Perhaps it’s because I’m full of hope that one day I’ll give my own version of these events.

For me, there was not a whole lot new in his presentation; however what he did do is really lift the tone of the discussion, and he had everyone riveted.

During McCann’s pitch, she gave examples of seemingly random small businesses being able to receive excellent credit from the banks. Ok, fine, there has been much talk of “recapitalisation packages.” Even if we discount, for a moment, the ISME Reports which, although have noted improvement still acknowledge excessive rigidity of bank doors, having an ear to the ground would tell you that many S-M-Es are finding it extremely difficult to secure enough credit.

Also, her speech was entitled “Tech for Business Start ups” so I expected a full discussion on ICT strategy. She made several comments, sporadically, about the general advancement of technology. She highlighted “the excellent broadband network that is in place.” I admit that improvements are being seen but pick any number of International competitiveness Indices and it is inextricably clear that Ireland do not boast a sufficient broadband network. Seemingly, the only other two “tech things” that any business needs to consider, according to McCann are Social Media and CRM. If only that where the case, it would make my Masters Degree quite a bit easier.

Ok, well at least she highlighted Social Media. Well, kind of. She mentioned it’s important to have a Facebook page to see and hear what is going on in the marketplace.

Furthermore, I had issues with what she was saying. “Technology is an enabler, not an enemy. CRM is the answer.”

I have worked for a Dublin based client management software company and I have studied the area of CRM. The concept of effective CRM, I find, goes beyond the actual CRM software towards broader organizational requirements. Should businesses embrace this Sage CRM package, they may well reap benefits, if, it is integrated into and aligned with a finely measurable business strategy.

Although the following research is based primarily at the Enterprise and not the small business level, it does cast doubt on the effectiveness of any investment. Implementation failure rates are reportable around 50-80%. A Bain and Company report (published in 2005 – Bard, Harrington, Kinikin & Ragsdale) discusses negative results. From a panel of 450 executives, 1 in 5 admitted their attempts at CRM implementation had not only failed but had damaged customer relations.

I feel that one measure of Global and Societal Awareness can relate to how “in-tune” someone is in the political sense. Choosing policy making in the dynamic and Global Industry of ICT, I can learn and heighten my Global and Societal Awareness, in a manner which will become beneficial to me as a soon to be e-commerce graduate.

The then Minister, Batt O’Keefe, consistently called upon the “Smart Economy” as one saviour of the Irish Economy, and especially highlighted the ICT sector. This was of interest to me, a student of e-commerce. I also pondered the existence of a clear strategy, as the Minister had previously stated that the saviour of the economy would be in micro business, “the man with a van”. I remember writing on my notepad various questions I had wanted to ask the Minsiter. Unfortunately for me, the Minister did not allow for post presentation questions and departed upon his conclusion.

My questions would have included:

  • Is the smart economy a political construct and what are the positive and negative implications of this? What role does ICT play in the wider smart economy?
  • What factors attract Foreign Direct Investment, what makes Ireland an attractive location for high tech Industry, and is this sustainable in the short/long run?
  • Sustainable economic development via low carbon/ICT innovation, a realistic target?
  • A critical assessment of government published policy documents. To what extent are they: accurate, realistic and are initiatives measurable?
  • Ireland’s economic future and the future of ICT, are they mutually synonymous?

Irelands success at growing a knowledge and skills based economy prompted “The Economist” to describe Ireland as “one of the most remarkable transformations of recent times” and was also the basis of the Ministers optimism, this and Ireland’s “innate spirit of enterprise”.

As mentioned, he singled out ICT. Ireland has prospered in ICT markets. A simple indication of this can be seen in the Foreign Direct Investment by companies such as Paypal, Ebay, Google, Facebook and most recently Linked In.

However, this an entrepreneurial talk, I had hoped he would have discussed more start up initiatives rather than the Multi Nationals whom operate here. To my eyes, Ireland now boasts an impressively large ICT (indigenous) Industry, take for example the software Industry. However, where I feel we are falling down is in failing to reach that next step in penetrating global markets and becoming Multi Nationals in their own right. The Minister made a slightly confudled and vague reference to the supports available to small to medium sized enterprises, yet I wondered if more support could be offered, notably to those in the ICT sectors. In my experience of working in a consultancy role with an SME software company, I know one of the companies’ primary strategic goals is to feature on the radar of large Multi Nationals which could prompt a profitable takeover. This does not fill me with optimism, as I feel the long term growth initiatives for such firms indigenous firms could instead focus on international expansion which would greatly effect, for example, the countries balance of trade.

Throughout his references to the ICT industry, yet this to me was too abstract. Yes, time was an issue and yes at an entrepreneurial talk it may sound strange to suggest he talk in detail about one Industry. I agree, but the fact is that it was he who did continuously refer to the ICT Industry. When he did so, he did not convey to me a great mastery of the subject. This is a highly dynamic Industry, yet he spoke as though it was one dimensional. I would have felt more confident had he spoke in specifics and at least allayed some fears that he knew of the inherent ICT sector categories, which he did not discuss i.e.; 1.)Application software 2.)Hardware & systems 3.)Telecommunications Support services 4.)Digital content 5.)e-business 6.)Microelectronics design 7.)Enterprise application 8.)integration software 9.)IT services.

The Minister also stated, with ICT, we “are in a great place right now”. This was slightly ambigious and lacked in direction and development. It was unclear to me whether he was speaking about the actual ICT sectors or in more abstract terms, i.e. the economy as a whole has benefitted.

I discovered a recent Economist Intelligence Unit study placed Ireland only 17th in terms of global digital economies. Why is this important? As stated, I believe that, the opposite of innovation is stagnation. Similar to the mantra which is commonly spoken amongst ICT board members; “its grow or die.” Although, severe challenges exist, Ireland must proceed in developing competitive advantages within ICT and also the wider smart/green economy. The Ministers speech, although full of optimism, appeared to be unresearched. It was optimism without the facts (or at least a lack of facts in the presentation) to form such optimism. Initially I had felt secured in so far as he first appeared a confident leader. Yet the more I reflect upon it, I feel that the Minister was lacking in a clear strategic and actionable initiatives which would contribute to a plan. For me, an e-commerce student whom will soon be seeking employment, I would have been more inspired had the Minister discussed future planning rather then relying on past successes and constantly referring to the old reliable buzz words; Smart, knowledge and networked economy.

From researching ICT policy in Ireland, it is clear that the government has put in significant resources and funding into the development of the ICT sector. What I question is how has this funding been used and what are the tangible results?

For example: A study conducted in 2006 placed Ireland 19th out of 25 countries in Europe when it came to use of technology in schools One in three 15 year olds in schools had not used a computer. The 2007 National Development Plan promised EUR252m investment in Information and Communications Technology (ICT) in schools from 2007-2013.

There was however very little structure or specifics given about when and where this funding was going to be invested in. The Minister for Education in 2008 stated that spending on ICT would have to be revised to fall in line with the economic recession. Ireland as a result has been slow to see the benefits of this aspect of the National Development Plan. There have been some recent manifestations of investment however. €20 million worth of grants for ICT equipment has been made available for 698 post-primary schools as part of the Smart Schools = Smart Economy scheme which launched in November 2009. With this relatively slow roll out of investment we continue to lag behind our global competitors in terms of ICT learning.

The direct result of the lack of technological expertise amongst our workforce was evident recently. A County Monaghan based technology company which develops software for Microsoft is unable to fill fifty new positions because of the lack of relevant skill sets amongst applicants. As a result these jobs are going to be outsourced. This is an indictment of government ICT policy to date as in a period of high unemployment and economic demise; we don’t have the right people to fill these much needed vacancies.

The truth is that the highest ICT adoption rates and broadband connections are in Ireland’s major cities such as Dublin, Cork and Galway. There is a noticeable divide between these cities and more rural areas. The lack of ICT investment in these more remote places means that there is a slow uptake in 3rd level computing courses. As a result we are not sufficiently producing the ‘smart’ workforce to drive the smart economy.

I had attended this talk in anticipation of a general entrepreneurship “how to” session and yet what the content of the Minister’s speech had prompted within me was to critically analyse ICT policy in Ireland. Before I attended I was already well aware of buzzwords such as the “knowledge economy” and the “digital boom”. What I now believe  however is that although government policy consistently talks about nurturing this smart economy through investment, there is little evidence of accountability on where that money is going. The ICT sector is one of the few areas where there is job creation in this country at the moment. We must focus on creating a skilled workforce that is capable of filling some of these niche technology positions. This fact is very must linkable to my own personal development plan in so far as I am almost ready and definitely willing to fill such positions in the e-commerce or digital marketing space.

The ICT sector in Ireland employs over 70,000 people in this country. Most of these jobs are with the major global companies such as Google and Facebook. It is important to remember that although the government Ministers remark about the attractiveness of our smart workforce to these multi nationals, this is not what makes us unique. Our comparatively low corporation tax rate of 12.5% must be considered the primary factor for these multinational companies decision to locate in Ireland. It has been a very real driver of innovation. If the government had sufficient confidence that our skilled workforce was the driving force surely they would have increased the corporation tax rate in the latest budget. Alas it stayed at 12.5% while social welfare and children allowances were cut.

A point re: Government’s four year plan and the very recent budget (of which were surprisingly omitted from the Minister’s speech). I was disappointed to find the Government had scrapped a tax break on patent royalties, as it is our critical assessment that this will harm future investment and innovation. The patent royalty scheme had allowed companies to earn up to €5 million in patent royalty income tax-free and pay tax-free dividends to its shareholders. This I feel illustrates poor leadership amongst Government ministers and poor policy making. Policy makers are under pressure to meet a goal, realign government finances, but they must keep sight of their strategic goals – what O’Keefe and others refer to as “the smart economy”.

This, in my opinion gives out a mixed signal to Industry – “We support smart business” V’s “We are eliminating support measures if they save the exchequer money.” Ireland is competing on a global scale for people and investment and we must hold on to competitive advantages. Abolishing this particular tax exemption hits innovation at a time when the government is attempting to encourage knowledge-intensive business.

What this illustrates is the abolishment of any benefit on a personal level. The R&D tax credit is effectively a corporate benefit. So is the tax credit for managing IP intangible assets. But as the inventor, I would now reap no personal benefit.

I concede, there were only 1,000 applications for the exemption per year, and it cost the economy €84 million. However, I do feel these figures suggest a larger level of patent activity in the economy.

The tax returns don’t show the pipeline of those that tried and failed along the way, incentivised by a scheme they never ultimately benefited from. It is from that pipeline we at least partially, draw our future economy.

Finally, the smart economy is at the centre of the Irish Government’s programme to reposition Ireland in the coming years as an economic centre for Intellectual Property rich industry.

Ireland has 3 necessary ingredients to be what the Innovation task force refer to as an: international innovation hub:

  1. a skilled workforce for the creation of IP;
  2. a robust legal system for the protection of IP; and
  3. a favourable tax regime for its exploitation.

I hope policy makers continue to consider IP legislative changes to offer Ireland a competitive advantage over other countries.

The Commercial Court which handles almost all IP enforcement cases is one of the most significant recent innovations in the Irish IP legal landscape.  The efficiency of disposal of cases and the quality of judgments has been recognised internationally.  We hope the Government, now a Fianna Gael/Labour coalition, complement this and look at legislative changes that give Ireland a competitive advantage over other countries.

The work of groups such as the International Content Service Centre Task force and the Innovation Task Force are focussed on positioning Ireland as the country of choice for knowledge-based foreign direct investment, as well as on driving indigenous growth, especially in the exporting high technology sector.

I only hope now that the momentum that the Government started with these initiatives is maintained by seeing through their implementation.

What lies ahead of Ireland now, is a real strategic opportunity, in a Global sense, if not a necessity, to differentiate ourselves through the smart economy. Pivotal in this concept is ICT and the supposed long term, sustainable growth which ICT may offer. I for one, as an e-commerce graduate will be effected by this.

Most attendees where small scale, independent sole traders and, I believe, will have left the RDS with renewed optimism and some great business advice. Due to other commitments I left the conference early. I am aware that a full agenda had lain ahead thanks to the panel of premier business mavens, which the conference boasted. The subsequent talks would have, I’m sure, offered entrepreneurs key advice including; e.g. capital formation, cash flow management, legal issues including Intellectual property, tax advice, bookkeeping etc.

To round up my discussion re: CRM: I would have liked to urge the entrepreneurs to first consider the total cost of CRM rollout. It can be timely and costly. Thanks to the speaker’s obfuscation, these points may not have been apparent. Also, where McCann reckons it is “the answer,” I contest by asking the rhetorical question of, what was the question. In other words, the product may offer value to some of the small businesses, but before adopting it, they should each consider, and clearly define the key problems that exist in their relationship cycle. I.E. Don’t invest for the sake of it, because it is the “answer” but rather, base any investment on specific criteria, invest wisely and measure precisely.

In conclusion, the reassuring and infectious optimism with which the speakers presented, coupled with their contagious passion, left me flushed with a fresh sense of confidence. The seemingly ubiquitous media tones of doom and gloom where not advocated, but contended. Perhaps the metaphorical glass is half full. Typical attendees where, I suspect, students, emerging entrepreneurs and business owners. The advantages attributable to students and budding owners have been discussed throughout. However, established business owners deserve a call out. These people, beset from all sides by the tumultuous currents of the current economic climate, are often under extreme duress. For these people too, this conference offered a fresh, positive perspective in addition to excellent management advice.

I found this event to be, for the most part, really engaging and interesting. Where sometimes the information was not new to me, it still acted as an encouraging reminder. It was a pleasant experience and I would recommend the event to business students, budding entrepreneurs and/or small business owners.