How innovation, desire and faith in your ability can set you on the road to becoming a top entrepreneur
Starting up your own business can be a very daunting step, but Lisa Smyth meets two people who took the leap and haven’t looked back.
‘A good, solid plan is important when talking to investors’
Leaving a well-established family business to start up your own company might seem daunting. But for Christine Boyle it seemed like the natural next step in her career and she set up Senergy Innovations Limited — a company which supplies low cost solar thermal panels, making heating more affordable and accessible.
“I ran my own commercial roofing company, I had spent 17 years in the commercial roofing industry and that is where I saw a problem with solar thermal panels,” said Christine.
“Architects didn’t like them because they ruined the aesthetics of the building, roofing installers didn’t like them because they felt they didn’t fit well with the integrity of the roofing system.
“The property owners didn’t particularly like them because they were high cost and they didn’t want to pay for them.
“At the same time, the materials we were using in the roofing industry were getting lighter, stronger and easier to install and I wondered was there a way that we could incorporate them into solar thermal panels.
“That’s where the spark for Senergy came from.”
Christine came up with the idea for plastic solar thermal panels, which are 50% less expensive to manufacture and install than any others currently on the market.
At the same time, Senergy Innovation panels are enhanced by materials which create a better thermal performance and increase the mechanical strength.
While Christine had almost two decades of experience working in commercial roofing, she had never developed a new product before.
“I had no idea how to go about it, it was completely new,” she said.
“I suppose it is all about getting out there and finding people to collaborate with, who have the skills that you need.
“You have to get out there and have conversations with people and hope they like you and your product enough to work with you.”
And while the process has been a challenge, she has enjoyed preparing to bring the product to market.
Christine has worked closely with Queen’s University in Belfast and the University of Ulster to ensure she has produced the highest quality product possible.
At the same time, she has done a huge amount of research to identify her target market.
“They can be used by agricultural businesses, hospitals or schools, but the more market research we did we realised there is a huge shortage of them globally and homes will be built in the future that are energy efficient,” added Christine (50).
“As a result, we have been talking to large construction companies to identify possibilities there.”
The company is looking to target the global market, specifically countries such as China, where there is already a market for solar thermal panels.
However, Christine said Senergy Innovation will be in a position to provide the technology at a much cheaper price.
Building business contacts is crucial to the success of the business.
To this end, Christine is travelling to London this week to take part in a grand challenge gala dinner and awards ceremony being hosted by the Construction Industry Solutions (COINS) — market leader in enterprise software for the construction industry.
Senergy Innovation Limited, which was set up in November 2014, has been named as one of the finalists and Christine is looking forward to using the event to network and promote her product.
“Getting out there and meeting people and making contacts is absolutely crucial to success in business,” she said.
“It’s particularly important when you are talking about the early stages of a technology.
“It’s all about getting people to believe that what you are saying is right. We’re very excited about the COINS event, opportunities like that don’t come up very often and you never know what it will bring.
“We do hope that investment will come off the back of it.
“Having a good, solid plan is also important when it comes to talking to investors.”
Looking to the future, Christine hopes the firm will be turning over £20m within the next 10 years, so setting up the company has been somewhat of a gamble that has paid off.
“We had a family business in commercial roofing, but I originally went to university and got an academic qualification and worked in financial services,” said Christine.
“When my dad was looking to retire, he saw I had some expertise and that’s when he asked me to come into the family business.
“I had been working in that when I had the idea for the thermal solar panels and it got to the stage where I knew that if I wanted to take the product to a global stage that I would have to set up my own company.
“That’s just the way it is, it would have been impossible to get investors in a family business.
“At the same time, I had got to the stage in my own career that setting up my own company was a new challenge, it seemed like the natural next step.
“You can stay in business and keep managing it, or you can look for new opportunities and I really wanted to learn something new.
“I never had a plan to set up my own business and I often ask myself why I am doing this.
“I think you have to be a certain character and I think it takes three things to succeed, perseverance because you have to keep going when you come across an obstacle, patience because nothing is going to happen overnight, and partners because you need help and support along the way.”
‘I want us to be the best company at what we do’
As far back as he can remember, Niall Carlin had an entrepreneurial spirit. Even at school he would sell cartoons he had drawn, so it is hardly surprising that he went on to set up doubleJump Studios.
Based in the Gasworks in Belfast city centre, doubleJump Studios is a boutique motion graphics and video production company that counts Ulster Bank, Nathan Carter and Tyco among its growing number of clients.
It produces and creates dynamic visuals to engage and inspire, while promoting and explaining a business.
“We’re actually a fairly young company, we started in September 2015,” said 29-year-old Niall.
“When I started out it was just me working in a back room in my house in Derry where I lived at the time and I was driving up and down the road to Belfast to get contracts.”
Niall graduated from the University of Ulster in 2009 and was fortunate to quickly find a job which offered him a wealth of experience.
“I was very lucky because I left Magee and just after that the recession hit,” he said.
“It was all doom and gloom, I was very lucky to get a job just across the road.
“I got great experience and stayed there for a few years before moving up to Belfast and starting a new job in a design studio for about five years.
“I was managing my own team there and it was at that stage that I decided to take a risk and go out on my own.
“Ever since I was little, I was very creative. I loved drawing and coming up with stories and, when I was at school, I would draw characters and sell them as posters,” he added.
“That entrepreneurial spirit was always there and I think I realised when I was working for other people that I loved the challenge but that ultimately I wanted that challenge for myself.
“I knew I had experience at managing people and managing a business for someone else and I thought I wanted to manage my own business before I got into my 30s.”
Niall has relished the challenge — but he has found setting up doubleJump Studios a steep learning curve.
“When you are CEO, you are ‘chief of everything officer’, you have to deal with all the paperwork, and you have to work out how to divide yourself up,” he said.
He said his involvement with the business accelerator and start up programme, Entrepreneurial Spark, has proved crucial in the company’s success.
“It’s been invaluable to me,” he said.
In particular, he has gained experience in pitching his business to new clients.
“I had to overcome a fear of that, there is a fear of rejection, so you learn how to pitch yourself,” Niall said.
“We did a lot of training on pitching in front of 100 or 200 people.
“You fail a few times, but then you get used to the pressure of it, you get to own your pitch.
“And then eventually you are doing it without even thinking about it.”
Securing his first client was proof to Niall that he could make a success and doubleJump Studios has gone from strength to strength.
They work with companies in Northern Ireland, Republic of Ireland and as far afield as Australia.
The CEO has found that word of mouth and reputation has played an important part in its success.
“A lot of work came in from referrals,” said Niall.
The team of four at doubleJump Studios is now working hard to develop a growth strategy for 2017.
As part of this, Niall is looking to appoint someone to work solely on marketing and sales — hopefully within the next six months.
“It’s a role I have been doing myself until now and I think it is going to be hard to let go,” added Niall.
“I feel like it is a job that I do best because I am so passionate about the company but now I know that I need someone to come on board and help.
“In terms of where we will be in the next five years, I see us working with a lot of local and international clients to help them create world class content.
“I want us to be the best company at what we do in Northern Ireland, if not the UK, and I want us to compete with other leading companies.
“We’re doing all right so far, our target is to increase our turnover by 30% to 40% this year.
“I think we are probably further on than we wanted to be by this stage.
“Some companies don’t turnover anything for the first few years, whereas we have been really fortunate and we have got really great clients and a good team.
“Never in my wildest dreams when I was starting out in a back room in September 2015 did I think we would be where we are now, it’s crazy.”
And as well as the success of the company, Niall is also in the enviable position of really loving his job.
“I think everyone should start up their own business once in their life,” he said.
“It is a challenge and I wonder what I am doing every day, but if you are passionate about what you do and you enjoy what you do, then it is totally worth it.”