Entrepreneurs and Their Lightbulb Moment

Entrepreneurs and Their Lightbulb Moment

Four entrepreneurs share what inspired their big idea.

Many start-ups simply follow a trend, hoping to cash in on the success of others, but some SME owners were jolted into action with a bona fide ‘Eureka!’ moment. We spoke to four entrepreneurs whose vision lit the way.

Doggie lodgings

HouseMyDog was started in Dublin by brothers Timothy and James McElroy in 2014, and since then has gained over 2,000 members in Ireland and the UK. Their dream was to connect dog lovers with trusted dog-sitters who would look after owners’ pets while they were away, eliminating the cages and stress that are often associated with more traditional kennels. The company takes a fee on each booking, and has been likened to an Airbnb for pooches.

Timothy McElroy says: “We’ve had dogs all our lives and we always hated leaving them in kennels; we noticed that whenever they came home it took a long time to get them back into their old routine.

“My brother and I are often travelling and we started looking around for alternatives to kennels but we couldn’t find anything. We saw how Airbnb and Uber were providing people with an alternative for hotels and taxis and we thought there was a real opportunity to do this for pets. We asked friends and family and the answer we kept getting back was the same: ‘It’s a nightmare trying to find someone to look after your dog when you travel.’ So we decided to create HouseMyDog to bring pet services into the 21st century.

“We had a good idea of how we wanted the website to work and we were lucky that our Local Enterprise Office provided us with a feasibility grant to create the first prototype. We knew we would need someone with a strong understanding of the tech side to help grow the business and that quickly led to us finding our third co-founder, Igor, who is now the company CTO [chief technology officer].

“We saw how Airbnb and Uber were providing people with an alternative for hotels and taxis and we thought there was a real opportunity to do this for pets”
“Initially, the biggest hurdle was developing the product itself – no matter how much testing you do, you inevitably run into issues once you get your first users. That led to a lot of product evolution, which is still ongoing today – we want to make finding a sitter as simple as it can be. The other big issue was spreading the word – how do you let people know about this new service when you have a small marketing budget? We had to be clever about using cost-effective channels.

“Thankfully, the reaction from our users has been great. We’ve had thousands of bookings through the platform and over 99% positive reviews from dog owners. We’re really proud of this as it shows our vetting process is identifying the best sitters and they’re doing a really great job. When we launched we were only in Ireland, but we’ve since expanded to three cities in the UK and over the next 18 months we plan to grow even further afield in the UK and into Germany. We recently held a round of seed financing to help us with this expansion.

“The potential market is huge: in Europe alone people spend over €5bn a year on pet services like boarding, walking and grooming and that’s growing 5% year on year. Couple that with the ‘pet parenting’ factor – people treating their dogs more like children than pets – and it’s likely to be a very exciting industry over the next five years.”

A ‘Siri’ for kids

Dr Patricia Scanlon has a PhD in speech technologies and a background as an engineer. Working at Alcatel-Lucent’s innovative Bell Labs for seven years, she has also become adept at pitching new ideas. The turning point for her talents came when she realised that existing speech-recognition software was pretty hopeless at understanding children. Now, four years after starting a Dublin-based company named SoapBox Labs, she has amassed 650,000 voice samples from 20,000 children and is taking speech-recognition software for kids into exciting new realms.

Scanlon says: “People often assume voice-recognition software like Siri and Alexa works for children, but most of the time it doesn’t and the younger the child is the less likely it is that it’s going to work. The argument that if a child speaks clearly they’ll be fine doesn’t really cut it because children don’t comply – they don’t speak clearly, they hesitate, they repeat themselves, they whisper, they shout. Plus, in the real world, kids are in cars or a noisy restaurant and existing systems just aren’t built for that.

“There seemed an obvious gap in the market, and it seemed that my background put me in a really strong place to try and tackle this

“My moment of realisation came when I was teaching my daughter to read, and we were using some apps that were designed to help with reading and language skills. I was really surprised at the lack of good kids’ voice-recognition software available and spent ages digging around trying to unearth something that worked. There wasn’t anything. Most of the software was developed 10 or 15 years ago, back before we had cloud technology and mobile devices, and it just hadn’t caught up with the modern child who uses technology everywhere. There seemed an obvious gap in the market, one potentially worth billions, and it seemed that my background put me in a really strong place to try and tackle this.

“I quickly realised that I didn’t need to take an end product to market. I didn’t need my own apps or web services; what I was proposing was ripe for partnering up with people who needed it – be that for games, learning apps, VR [virtual reality], AR [augmented reality], entertainment. For us as a business, the core technology doesn’t change a huge amount each time, so we’ve been finding really strong partners who can take our technology to market.

“We’re currently working with some pretty big clients in different application areas and we’ve also just closed a round of funding – we’re basically in scale-up mode and getting the product out there, and by the end of this year we have a couple of clients who are hoping to launch with our speech-recognition technology. These are really exciting times for us, and also, I hope, for kids, who are about to find that one aspect of tech is now a whole lot more accessible to them.”

Concrete to go

Engineering students Peter Brewin and Will Crawford formed Concrete Canvas in 2005, based on an idea of theirs which uses technology they invented to turn fabric into concrete using just water – no mixing gear required. Their low-fuss concrete-on-a-roll has been a big hit in the industry and defence sectors, as well as in disaster relief.

Peter Brewin: “As students at the Royal College of Art we entered a competition creating new uses for cement. The first usage was the concrete shelter that can go up and set within 24 hours. We were so excited by the technology that after graduating we set up a business. Over the next couple of years we got a business plan together, grew the team and added the canvas product, which comes in rolls and is then manipulated into shape by the client on-site.

“We were so excited by the technology that after graduating we set up a business”

“Our main funding came from business angels and our first big client was the Army for use in Afghanistan. They used the concrete layer to protect sandbag walls and better defend soldiers against incoming fire. After that, we demonstrated our technology to Network Rail for use in lining drainage and ditches. It saved them time and money compared to making the concrete off-site in slabs. Since then, we’ve grown and now sell to over 50 countries. Our turnover is £6m (€7m).

“In terms of key learnings, I believe there’s great advantage starting a company soon after graduation. You don’t have a mortgage, you don’t have a family and you can afford to take risks. You must put in long hours when you start off.

“I also think it’s important to do it with someone you trust completely, like Will. And you need to enjoy and be fascinated by what you do – you can’t have money as your motivation.

“We’ve shown you can do it on a skinny budget, but we could have raised more cash earlier and quickened up development. However, you don’t want to give too much control away in terms of equity early on. It’s a trade-off, but we are quite pleased where we have ended up.”

Kind halter-necks

Halto was founded by sisters Lerryn Ryall and Lucy Cox in 2012. It’s a device designed to be used on halter-neck bikinis to prevent the bruising, blistering and headaches some women feel when wearing them. The soft, cushioned device with two holes allowing the bikini strings to go through is now sold nationwide via stockists such as lingerie retailer Bravissimo.

Lucy Cox: “The idea came when my sister was looking for a halter-neck bikini for her honeymoon in the Maldives. She found that wearing a halter-neck can be incredibly uncomfortable as, especially for women with big boobs, the weight is taken by the string knot at the top of the neck.

“We felt there must be a solution. So, she got a boot sole and a bit of glove and made a device to go under the knot. She took it on holiday and wore it 10 hours a day with no pain!

“We carried out an online survey to find out how broad this problem was and we had 300 responses in two weeks”

“We decided there was a business there but we didn’t know if it had legs, so we carried out an online survey to find out how broad this problem was and we had 300 responses in two weeks.

“Taking advantage of an EU-funded start-up programme, we got help from a local university to do some 3D printing to develop a prototype.

“The next stage was a crowdfunding campaign in February last year which raised £11,000 (€13,000) in pre-orders. With the capital, we developed packaging, our website and found a manufacturer.

“We also heard from Bravissimo who said they were interested in the product. So, we googled the chief executive’s name and sent her an email. They’ve since placed thousands of orders.

“Our next target is to get multiple retail stockists and start distribution in Australia. You’ve got to listen to your gut when it comes to making decisions and finding the best people to work with. What feels right for you? Who understands your challenges and shares your energy?”



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