Belfast Telegraph

‘If you think running a business is going to be nine to five, don’t do it’

Caroline O'Neill, Digg Childrens wear, Dungannon
Caroline O'Neill, Digg Childrens wear, Dungannon

Entrepreneur Caroline O'Neill knows better than most what it takes to succeed in the world of business. A decade ago, in the middle of a crippling recession, she opened up Digg Mens & Youth Wear, fulfilling a lifelong dream to be her own boss.

Since then, she has rebranded the business to Digg Childrenswear and now stocks occasion wear for girls and boys from newborn to 15 years old in her shop in Dungannon, Co Tyrone, welcoming customers from all over Northern Ireland and Ireland.

While Caroline (36) had some retail experience prior to opening the shop, it was the first time she had ever started up her own business.

She explained: I opened the shop in 2008.

"I was actually an occupational therapist (OT) and worked in Craigavon Area Hospital for two years before I had the shop.

"I had worked in a shop in Dungannon when I was at Jordanstown and I always really enjoyed it but then I found out it was closing because of family circumstances and I saw an opportunity there and went for it.

"When I told my boss at the hospital that I was leaving, he said I was definitely going to open a coffee shop or a restaurant because I was always talking about having my own business.

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Caroline O’Neill at Digg Childrenswear in Dungannon
Caroline O’Neill at Digg Childrenswear in Dungannon

"It was just the right time for me, the premises came up, I was 25, I had no responsibilities, I wasn't married, I didn't have a mortgage, although I do think I would have gone for it anyway because I always wanted to start up my own business.

"Mum wasn't sure because I had worked so hard to become an OT, but dad is in business himself and he helped to get me started."

Caroline continued: "He actually owns diggers and that's where Digg came from, my dad has been a mentor to me, he has always told me that I could do it, that he could see I was going to make a go of it.

"I really do think you need your family to spur you on, although I don't think there was any way I wasn't going to work.

"I don't think you can start up your own business without that ambition. I have gone for every opportunity and taken it."

Caroline handed in her notice in October 2007 and opened the shop the following February.

To begin with, she stocked men and boys' clothing, but she eventually realised that she would have to refocus if she wanted to grow the business.

She said: "It was the best decision I've made so far.

"Men tend to shop for clothes once or twice a year, I couldn't even get my husband to get a shirt and I owned the shop, but there is a much bigger market for clothing for boys and girls."

Caroline, who now employs three full-time staff and two part-time staff, stocks the likes of Tommy Hilfiger and Hugo Boss, and, wherever possible, she prefers to be an exclusive stockist of a brand.

"We're constantly trying to bring something different," she explained.

At the same time as the rebrand three and a half years ago, Caroline also turned her attention to the internet - and she said this has proved crucial to the success of the business.

"Retail has changed so much over the past 12 years," she said.

"I've really had to embrace social media, people think when you have an all singing, all dancing website that the sales are going to come flooding in, and that isn't the case.

"It was a bit of a shock to the system, but the fact is if you aren't on social media, no one knows that your website is there.

"When you're online, you have to give yourself personally on social media, there's actually so much work required with an online shop.

"You might not get a sale online, but it could encourage people to actually come to the shop to have a look at our clothes and we actually have people from all over Ireland coming to us for confirmation and communion wear.

"They tend to come to the website first to check out what's in stock before they travel to us.

"If I wasn't on social media every day, I don't believe my business would survive."

Of course, with a background in the health service, Caroline has also endured a steep learning curve in her efforts to make her business a success.

She said: "I didn't have the budget to pay people to do it, so I had to do training and do it myself.

"There have been times when I felt like I had bitten off more than I could chew - I have two boys, who are five and three-and-a-half years old and I'm having another baby in November.

"I do feel as a parent that I have sometimes made a mistake having to work so hard and be away from the boys.

"When this baby arrives, I will probably take a few weeks off, but the fact is when you're self-employed, you can't just drop everything.

"But that's my life and I'm not going to feel sorry for myself."

Caroline continued: "I think that's an important piece of advice for people who are thinking of starting up their own business.

"Don't take the decision lightly, because it's going to be damn hard work and if you're not willing to embrace the new digital age we're in, it's going to be even harder.

"I think if you're starting out, you need to start with a strong online presence, even before your business opens, you have to promote yourself and build awareness so you're giving yourself a head start.

"Essentially, I think people underestimate that it takes heart and soul to run your own business and if you think it's going to be nine to five, don't do it."

Belfast Telegraph