'Sometimes when I'm called an entrepreneur I cringe. I feel it’s a term one grows into'

Hannah O’Reilly dropped everything when her friend Elaine Lavery first came up with her business idea.

By Hannah O'Reilly Co-founder, Improper Butter

THANK CHRIST FOR spell check. Without it I wouldn’t even be able to spell entrepreneur. And apparently that’s what I am.

In May 2013, I became the ultimate in buzzwords – an accidental entrepreneur. My friend Elaine was returning home from a few months in the French Alps where she had worked as a chalet chef. She had an idea to start a business selling flavoured butters because she found they worked really well with steak, fish and other foods.

She was going to start making them at home and selling them at farmers markets around Dublin. She needed a partner who would help with the marketing, branding and selling.

I studied commerce in UCD as I didn’t know what I wanted to be – a quote you probably won’t read in the BComm prospectus anytime soon. I specialised in marketing, graduated (happy parents) and decided to further my education in music and study voice in the Royal Irish Academy of Music.

Notions of opera crossed my mind until I realised just how much luck (and talent) was involved in a career in the arts, so I turned back to business and arranged an unpaid internship in a music agency in London for when I had finished my year-long music studies.

A few hours after my conversation with Elaine and hearing about her business idea, I gave the internship up. The thought of spending a summer fetching other people coffee for no salary was less appealing than spending a summer of sunny farmers markets and food festivals with my friend.

Elaine’s idea came at a great time. Thanks to medical journals refuting decades worth of poor advice regarding saturated fats, butter was coming back into fashion. Thanks to the recession we were cooking at home more, and we were also looking for local, artisan and interesting food products. And thanks to Kerrygold, Irish butter exports had never been so high.

Starting in farmers markets was easy. We look back and laugh at how we thought we were busy, thought we were ‘stressed out’. From farmers markets we found our first store listing. We thought we would be excited, but in reality we were thinking ‘what’s next?’.

We moved out of Elaine’s family kitchen and rented ourselves a small cold-prep unit on North King Street in Smithfield. We were walking distance from the fruit markets where we picked up our fresh herbs. Sounds dreamy. But standing in a cold-prep unit for up to 12 hours mid-November is anything but dreamy. I promise.

Hard work

We knew to start our own business we would have to be prepared to work hard. Hours of making, packaging, delivering, invoicing, networking, debt collecting, in-store tasting and dreaming big with limited resources have brought Improper Butter to a national listing with Ireland’s leading retailer, weekly exports to the UK and UAE and a very exciting new product launch in May 2016.

People talk about self-made business people or entrepreneurs. Although we are still less than three years in business and are both just 26, I can safely say I won’t ever be a self-made anything.

I have been fortunate enough to receive incredible support from my family, brilliant encouragement from friends and, in a friend, a business partner whom I admire, respect and trust wholeheartedly.

Sometimes when I hear myself referenced as an entrepreneur I cringe. Maybe that’s because I feel it’s a term one grows into. Maybe it’s because the word can remind me of those insufferable quotes from celebrated business people who have, quite honestly, lost the run of themselves. Maybe it’s because I can’t spell it.

Entrepreneurship isn’t something I lose sleep over. Packaging, best before dates, sales reports, business plans. These are things I lose sleep over. Maybe that’s what being an entrepreneur, accidental or otherwise, is really all about.

Hannah O’Reilly co-founded Improper Butter with Elaine Lavery in 2013. They will be writing about their experiences in a regular startup diary on Fora over the coming months.

If you want to share your opinion, advice or story, contact opinion@fora.ie.

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