'Startups need to have an appetite for risk - failure is just another part of the process'

Here’s some advice for young Irish firms looking to attract investors.

By Bill McKiernan President, WSM Capital

IRELAND HAS BECOME a breeding ground for young entrepreneurs. The success of companies such as Stripe has placed the country to the fore of the global startup community.

The work ethic, intelligence and level of education here is exceptional. However, there’s a reason why Ireland is really only coming into a golden age of entrepreneurship now. When I first started doing business here, something I thought was lacking in this community was an appetite for risk.

Unlike Silicon Valley, where every other person was an entrepreneur and failure was just part of the process, Ireland lacked that entrepreneurial norm – this meant that very talented, capable young people with great ideas didn’t have the appetite for risk which is necessary to become a successful entrepreneur.

That’s why I figured I could use my own experience as a successful (and failed!) entrepreneur to help early-stage Irish startups compete in a global market.

Current trends

My advice to any young company starting out is to look at some of the current key trends as this indicates what sectors are currently expanding.

Fintech is an area that is attracting growing investment. While the banking sector was initially slow to embrace the digital world, Irish banks such as AIB and Bank of Ireland have now caught up and are regularly investing in Irish incubators.

Medical technology is another emerging and ‘one-to-watch’ sector in Ireland. 15 of the top 20 global medical device companies are operating out of Ireland and NUI Galway has become a hub for research and biotechnology development.

Artificial intelligence is another big one to watch. If you’re a young entrepreneur, look at how you could offer a solution to one of these growing industries, as there are a lot of people looking to invest in these areas.

Be market savvy

It goes without saying that you need to have an awesome product in order to catch the eye of the right investor, but scalability and market potential are also some of the first things investors look for.

You could have the best product in the world and all the passion to back it up, but if the market potential is tiny, you’ll struggle to attract a big investor.

The team is just as important as the idea

Obviously, the product needs to speak for itself but any potential investor needs to feel confident that the team behind it is strong and able to develop and grow a company.

Startup life is hard, despite what some may say. It’s only great teams that make it look easy. As an investor, you are looking for a team with the passion and stamina to actually stick the highs and lows out.

A bit of experience will do you good; there are many second-time entrepreneurs in Ireland. Most startups are small initially, so make sure you’ve a variety of complementary skills in the team.

Failure is highly probable

If you are taking the leap, don’t be afraid of failure. In Silicon Valley failure is, to some degree, a badge of honour.

People understand how hard it is to create a business; failing is nothing to be ashamed of. In fact, almost all really successful entrepreneurs have failed before they got it right.

When I started Cybersource in the early 90s, we started out selling software electronically over the internet.

Eventually we split into two businesses: an online retail store and online payment system. The online retail store didn’t make it – and that was the business we initially started and saw as most viable.

I think the learning from that is to listen to your customers and pivot to where you think the best opportunities are.

Bill McKiernan is an Irish-American entrepreneur and president of WSM Capital. He will be in Dublin on 21 June to mentor early stage startups as part of the Ireland Funds Business Plan Competition, run in partnership with NDRC. The closing date for competition entries is midday tomorrow.

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