EY Entrepreneur of the Year profiles

Four profile of the eight finalists chosen in the emerging category for this year’s EY Entrepreneur of the Year awards.

Helen Cahill, InvoiceFair.com
Helen Cahill is a founder and chief executive of fintech innovator InvoiceFair.com, which is a platform that provides unrestricted growth funding for ambitious companies. It helps companies convert sales orders, invoices and future recurring revenues into upfront capital.

More than €1 billion in funding has been advanced to growing UK and Irish companies on the InvoiceFair platform in the past five years. It generated revenue of €7 million in 2021.

What vision/lightbulb moment prompted you to start up in business?
During my time in wealth management, I saw the appetite that institutional investors had for funding high-quality receivables. At the same time, ambitious companies looking to scale were struggling to secure growth funding from traditional financial service providers.  We realised that a technology-based solution that connected both parties solved a very clear systemic failure.

What was your “back-to-the-wall” moment and how did you overcome it?
When demand started to grow so rapidly that we needed to find more debt funding. We had to jump on a plane to London to secure more institutional funders, and quickly. In fact, our biggest strategic funder to this day was a cold call I made during that time.

What moment/deal would you cite as the “game changer” or turning point for the company?
The pandemic came as a blow. Many of our customers did not need funding during lockdown. Very quickly we saw Irish companies winning huge orders for PPE from the HSE and others. None of the financial providers could help with funding.  I am proud to say, as a team, we reacted quickly, ramped up, and funded more than €70 million of PPE during the pandemic.

What were the best and the worst pieces of advice you received when starting out?
The best advice was to surround yourself with great people for the journey.  It’s a lot harder to remember the worst advice. But if I was to pick one it’s probably to keep your business and emotions separate. People do business with people. Our emotions are what make us human.

To what extent does your business trade internationally and what are your future plans/ambitions?
We’ve been active in the Irish and UK markets from the beginning. We’ve also traded across Europe with existing clients who were expanding.

Alternative finance still represents only a small percentage of the business funding market, but is growing quickly across the globe, so we will certainly be looking beyond Ireland and the UK in the very near future.

Where would you like your business to be in three years?
I see a natural link to a strategic partner – maybe a bank that sees our ability to be responsive and nimble in providing complementary funding solutions to help their customers grow.

How will your market look in three years?
Very different. Alternative finance will take more and more share from traditional providers and represent a much larger percentage of the business funding market, with likely consolidation among single product platforms globally.

What makes your company a good place to work? For example, diversity and inclusion, flexible working, supported learning, health promotion, CSR initiatives
The InvoiceFair team is spread across 10 countries operating a flexible hybrid working model. Experience across the leadership team cascades down and across the main pillars making it a very rich learning environment augmented with supported learning.

How is the current inflationary environment impacting your business? How do you expect things to unfold?
The current inflationary environment, extended credit terms, and delays in supply of materials is precisely the kind of challenge that InvoiceFair was built to resolve.  Watching our clients benefit and grow faster by working with us is deeply rewarding but the economic backdrop certainly requires even more vigilance on due diligence, risk assessment and monitoring.

What is the most common mistake you see entrepreneurs make?
Failing to recognise the importance of investing properly in marketing and brand building as long-term drivers of awareness, consideration and business success can be overlooked.

What is the single most important piece of advice you would offer to a less-experienced entrepreneur?
Invest in and empower the best people who share your vision. Have a strong business plan but spend wisely and focus on the minimum viable product to prove the concept before spending big.

 

2. Stephen Nolan, Nutritics
Stephen Nolan is managing director of Nutritics, which is a food technology company that provides software to hospitality businesses. It helps hospitality businesses manage their food data, such as allergens, nutrition, cost, packaging, and communicate it to customers.

The business employs about 100 people and has customers in more than 100 countries.

What vision/lightbulb moment prompted you to start up in business?
It was becoming more and more obvious that the world wanted to know more about what we are eating, particularly when dining out. This prompted us to think about how technology could support this decision-making and help hospitality businesses.

What is your greatest business achievement to date?
Winning our first substantial contract to work with a Tier 1 hospitality business really stands out. We were up against the big global software providers, but the client felt our technology and innovation capability was much stronger.

What was your “back-to-the-wall” moment and how did you overcome it?
At the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, most of our customers closed overnight. We had two choices: to follow their lead and hibernate, or knuckle down and use the time to really push the business forward.

We retained all of our team and now look back on 2020 as the year that transformed our business due to the incredible hard work and dedication of our team.

What were the best and the worst pieces of advice you received when starting out?
The best advice was to make the jump into entrepreneurship. There’s always a reason to put it off and delay, but once you do it, you never look back.  The worst advice was that early stage companies are judged by their success in raising investment. Generating revenue is the true mark of success.

What are the big disruptive forces in your industry?
Food production currently accounts for 26 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions and the sector has a significant role to play in reducing our carbon impact.  The availability and understanding of carbon emissions data is in its infancy, but it will quickly become mainstream and drive food purchasing decisions for consumers. It has the potential to cause the biggest shift in our eating habits in decades.

How will your market look in three years?
Our market continues to evolve, with regulation now becoming more mainstream. The UK has introduced two legislative changes in the past year (Natasha’s Law and calories on menus) and we expect these regulatory drivers to be introduced across other jurisdictions.  Alongside this, we anticipate the carbon impact of food will play a much greater role in food decision-making.

What are you doing to disrupt, innovate and improve the products or services you offer?
Nutritics has developed a patent pending methodology to calculate the carbon footprint of menu items for the hospitality sector in real time.  It will allow multi-site operators to accurately report their carbon footprint to their customers and stakeholders, and analyse and manage their planetary impact.  Traditionally the only way to complete this was to manually review the product lifecycle from farm to fork, which was a challenge for food operators with large and diverse supply chains.

How is the current inflationary environment impacting your business? How do you expect things to unfold?
Our customers are heavily impacted by the current inflationary environment, with the cost of food increasing quite substantially in recent months. We expect this to continue and it’s important that we engage collaboratively with them to support where we can.  Our own business is not immune, with pressures in technology cost and wage inflation presenting challenges.

What is the most common mistake you see entrepreneurs make?
Personal sacrifice isn’t scalable and it can be too easy to neglect the importance of building a brilliant team around you. Most entrepreneurs try to do everything themselves.

What is the single most important piece of advice you would offer to a less-experienced entrepreneur?
Define your vision for success and the supporting strategy as early as you possibly can. Without this, you can quickly become distracted. The vision may change as the company grows, but without that clear goal, you’ll find yourself saying yes far too often.

3. Alan Carson, Cloudsmith
Alan Carson is the co-founder and chief executive of Cloudsmith. It facilitates modern software development practices, providing a single, secure platform to manage and distribute software artifacts, which are items produced during the development process. The company has annual revenues of $1.5 million (€1.5 million).

What vision/lightbulb moment prompted you to start up in business?
We had a previous fintech start-up and tried to find a cloud-based artifact repository that allowed you to deploy and distribute with ease. There wasn’t one that fitted our needs, and we felt confident we knew what product was needed and why. So, we pivoted.

Describe your business model and what makes your business unique?
Our core attributes are security, reliability, high availability and awesome customer support. We’re built by engineers, for engineers. Our goal is to be the single source of truth for software packages.

What is your greatest business achievement to date?
My goal for the past few years was raising a significant Series A from US VCs. We are following a Silicon Valley-like journey, where vision is front and centre.  Our pitch is that Cloudsmith is going to be a widely adopted core technology in the coming years as securing software supply chains becomes a requirement for any vendor to operate or sell into the software industry.

What was your “back-to-the-wall” moment and how did you overcome it?
Our “difficult” year was 2018. We had only a few customers, and this was before any investment. We ran out of money, twice. I was taking personal loans to keep the business running.  We didn’t pay ourselves for six months that year; we don’t have wealthy parents or other sources of income, so it was difficult to make ends meet.

What moment/deal would you cite as the “game changer” or turning point for the company?
There were a few, but our first enterprise customer was definitely game changing. It was the first time that we had gone head to head with a well-established competitor that was already installed, and came out on top.

What were the best and the worst pieces of advice you received when starting out?
The best piece of advice was to network. Business is about people. All our significant strides have come from talking to people. Customers. Investors. Partners. Competitors. And each other.  The worst piece of advice was a variation on “build it and they will come”. Nope, it doesn’t work that way.

To what extent does your business trade internationally and what are your future plans/ambitions?
From day one, we took a global approach to go-to-market. We spent zero time trying to convince local businesses they needed us. We exist on the cloud. Our customers either want to migrate to the cloud or are there already.  We have customers in 37 countries across six continents. We are still working on getting someone at McMurdo Station in Antarctica to sign up.

Where would you like your business to be in three years?
We want to IPO in five years. In three years, we want to be significantly on the way.

What are the big disruptive forces in your industry?
The software supply chain attacks that have been happening for the past 18 months have had and will continue to have a significant impact on the way software is constructed. Cloudsmith exists to lower the risk and provides a solution to how those supply chains will be managed.

How will your market look in three years?
More cloud. More automation. Deeper levels of observability. Smarter tools to manage risk.

What are you doing to disrupt, innovate and improve the products or services you offer?
Cloudsmith’s strength exists in the inherent abilities of being architected for the cloud. We can adapt quickly to market conditions and innovate new controls and capabilities in the artifact management space.

What makes your company a good place to work? For example, diversity and inclusion, flexible working, supported learning, health promotion, CSR initiatives
We offer remote and flexible policies, along with private healthcare, learning and development opportunities, and ultimately our biggest asset is our ability to offer staff share options to own a piece of Cloudsmith.

How is the current inflationary environment impacting your business? How do you expect things to unfold?
Not hugely. Obviously, the cost of people and the cost to acquire customers has gone up, but the market we operate in still has a need for developer tools.

What is the most common mistake you see entrepreneurs make?
Blind optimism. Ambition needs to be tempered with realism.

4. Caroline Dunlea, Core Optimisation
Caroline Dunlea is chief executive and co-founder of Clare-based digital growth company Core Optimisation. The company has enjoyed steady growth year on year with an annual turnover of more than €4 million. It employs 43 people, mostly based in the midwest.

Caroline Dunlea is chief executive and co-founder of Clare-based digital growth company Core Optimisation
What is your business model and what makes your business unique?
We combine innovative digital transformational solutions, good old-fashioned high-quality service and relationship management to deliver results that impact the bottom line of our clients. We believe relationships and results are intrinsically linked.

What is your greatest business achievement to date?
Growing a digital agency business in the midwest, competing with agencies within Dublin and winning business from indigenous Irish brands has to be top of all other achievements. Standing out within a busy and highly competitive industry as a leading agency.

What was your “back-to-the-wall” moment and how did you overcome it?
As with many companies the pandemic shook us to our core. At that time, about 70 per cent of our portfolio was hospitality and that sector was heavily impacted by Covid. Revenue dropped 35 per cent in the second quarter of 2020.  We paused for thought, assessed and adapted, accelerating the diversification within our portfolio, resulting in growth through the uncertainty of the pandemic. We have seen 400 per cent growth year over year as a result.

What moment/deal would you cite as the “game changer” or turning point for the company?
The pandemic led to a lot of businesses understanding that digital was now at the centre of their growth plans. This had a positive impact on our business. There was a high demand for our services across multiple sectors.

What were the best and the worst pieces of advice you received when starting out?
The best piece of advice starting out was the “it’s always a yes until it’s a no” approach to business. The worst piece of advice was “you’re not secure enough financially for this to be successful”.

Where would you like your business to be in three years?
We are fully committed to increasing our domestic footprint to be the largest independent Irish digital agency.  This will be driven by an increased focus on digital transformation and consultancy while not losing sight of the performance marketing services which are the bread and butter of our industry.

What are the big disruptive forces in your industry?
There remains a skills gap in the sector and the ability to source, retain and upskill your workforce is a key challenge. Changing consumer behaviour and spending patterns and the adoption of AI technologies will have an impact in coming years.  In the short term, the change in data privacy rules such as iOS tracking and the new GA4 rollout will see a pivot away from third-party data.

What makes your company a good place to work? For example, diversity and inclusion, flexible working, supported learning, health promotion, CSR initiatives
Core has assembled a team with over 50 per cent of staff female in a traditionally male-dominated sector.  We have initiatives such as peer-to-peer recognition and innovation initiatives which foster a culture of respect, camaraderie and ambition at an individual level.  A companywide profit share, internal training, a company wellness programme, 3 per cent of all profits committed to charitable causes, pro bono work chosen by the staff not management, all help put the employees at the core of the company culture.

How is the current inflationary environment impacting your business? How do you expect things to unfold?
The first challenge is on a staffing side with the need to remain competitive from a salary perspective in an industry where there is shortage of skilled digital talent.  Companies that can offer improved packages through a combination of hybrid working, incentives and profit share will have an advantage in the retention and acquisition stakes.  From a client perspective, the erosion of margins will impact return on advertising spend and cost per acquisition models and create the need to be even more prolific in delivering results-based campaigns and strategies.

What is the most common mistake you see entrepreneurs make?
Not taking a wage. The viability of any enterprise must be founded on a model of paying the right people the right wage to deliver the right results.  If you forgo the value of the founder in this approach, you are getting off on the wrong foot and the culture you will create will be alien to what’s needed to deliver a sustainable and profitable entity.

Source:  Irish Times

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