IN THE MIDDLE of my leaving cert in 1985, my father’s main business went to the wall, my parents lost their home and we found ourselves effectively homeless.
It was a very traumatic time and I finished secondary school with about two passes, so the opportunity to go to college just wasn’t available to me.
I started my first business that same year, making wedding videos when that trend was just beginning to take off.
It sounds hard to believe now, but there wasn’t a huge market for wedding videos in Ireland at that time, so I really had to sell the idea to prospective customers.
I remember thinking when I bought that first video camera for £2,500 back in 1985 that, if nothing else, I knew I would be able to carve out a career for myself as an entrepreneur.
The business caught on and I found myself earning about £70 a week on top of my regular job as a sales assistant in a TV and electrical goods shop in Dublin.
I did wedding videos for about three years, and as I started getting more business and wanted to expand I tried to hire somebody to help – but it just didn’t work out. I found it very hard to get them motivated about the business in the same way I was.
In the end I sold the video camera and paid back the person who had lent me the money in the first place.
In 1991, my father passed away. He had moved to Hong Kong and Macao for work and had a couple of businesses there with connections to Ireland, so I took over one of them after he died.
I was doing a fair bit of travelling and ultimately it wasn’t what I wanted to do. I came back to Ireland and decided to go back to college. Because of my experience, I got a place in a business, human resources and IT course in DCU and began studying there in 1995.
I always liked driving, so to help pay for college, I went to an open interview in Dublin with a company called North American Van Lines, who were looking for drivers for the summer.
They specialised in furniture removals for homes and businesses, and I found myself driving 40-foot articulated trucks from New York to California, and Florida to Seattle.
You were paid per job, given a fair and achievable time frame in which to complete a run that included all the necessary breaks, and if you finished early, any time off until your next job was your own.
Aside from the pay, I liked the work and the freedom of choosing my own hours, so I went back every summer until I graduated in 1998.
Following my graduation, I lectured in DIT’s student management and information systems department for just under a year, but I quickly realised that teaching wasn’t for me and wanted to get back into business again.
I got my first break into IT in 1999 when I started working for WPP, which was setting up a new company called MindShare, a global media buying and planning agency in Ireland.
However, in IT, you’re your own worst enemy as an administrator because if it’s going very smoothly and nothing is breaking, there is no reason to have you there. It got a bit repetitive after three years and I wanted to work for myself again.
While working for Mindshare, I met Barry Egan and together we set up 1Network, which provides IT support, technical and mainframe services for several private and public-sector clients.
It was a gamble to go out on our own, but I was helped by the fact that MindShare was very understanding and became our first customer.
We built our business out of a small room in an old building in Clontarf initially, moved it to Swords a few years ago and we’re still going strong today.
I’m always on the lookout for new ideas, so I got involved in setting up C-Ads – an advertising company that established a network of TV screens at petrol pumps, and I raised a couple of million to launch it before it was floated.
In 2013, one of my closest friends introduced me to his brother-in-law, John Makarus, who had worked for 20 years in maritime satellite communications for the superyacht industry and wanted to go out on his own.
Together we set up Mak-Marine, which installs shipboard communications and we also do projects like command-and-control centres for companies like Oracle in Ireland.
But I saw that the internet connectivity solutions for the superyacht and leisure craft market were outdated, expensive and inconvenient. So there was a gap in the market to offer a far more flexible and cost-effective service.
Out of that realisation came the decision to set up Voyager IP in 2014 with two other people I had met in that line of business.
Voyager IP specialises in broadband offerings, onboard entertainment and IT solutions for yachts, cruise ships, commercial vessels and ferries, as well as offshore oil and gas platforms.
It’s an old-fashioned business in many respects, very reliant on personal relationships and referrals. Many customers are yacht captains or yacht management companies with a very wealthy clientele, so cost is rarely the issue.
I have three companies at present – 1Network, Mak-Marine and Voyager IP – and while they all feed and support each other, they also stand independently.
What happened to my father’s business shows the downside of being entrepreneur, but as we’ve all seen, working for someone else is no guarantee of security either.
If you experience the loss of your home as a young person, it leaves its mark. But despite all this, I was never scared of working for myself because I wanted to control my own destiny.
My career low-point was having to leave C-Ads. I had a different vision for the company than other people on board and I lost that battle, so it was time to move on.
I try to explain to people who want to start a business that it’s the equivalent to having a child. Like a baby, it is not 9-5 and they decide when you wake, when you sleep, when you drink.
You’ve invested so much time emotionally in starting and building up a business that if you have to leave it, it feels, on some levels, like losing a child.
Experiences like that do mould you because when the opportunity came to set up Voyager IP, I was there to bring that hard-earned business acumen to the table with the two other co-founders.
I think the first moment you make a sale or take an order from a customer, that’s when you make a commitment to somebody. You can back out at any stage in a startup before that, but once you have your first customer, that’s it, you’re in it.
We have clients worldwide, so my phone has to be on all the time, even on holidays. If I didn’t want life to be that way, I shouldn’t have any customers in my line of business.
Some days I want to throw the phone out the window. Thankfully those days are few and far between, but they’re still there.
If I was to summarise what I would do differently than 20 years ago, I would probably tolerate mistakes more and understand how people react to them. I’ve learned that errors happen and it’s more important about how you react to those than the situation itself.
I think more people need to understand why they’re starting a business before they do it. Money is the worst motivator, so if that’s the reason you will never be happy. You need to do what you love because you’re going to have to do it for the rest of your life.
The big success stories skew the way people think about starting a business. There are thousands of people out there who start a business and one in a million that maybe will hit the big time.
You only hear about the people who sold their business and sell it for something like €40 million. You rarely hear about the failures.
A lot of people have no notion of what it’s like to run a business. They don’t see the first 18 months or even couple of years when the founders are battling to make sure their company isn’t one of the startups that fails.
I think they should start teaching entrepreneurship in schools and start profiling and moulding students that have the appetite for it.
As for what’s next for me, I don’t imagine my life changing from the ‘always on’ mindset. I love what I do, so why would I quit?
I suppose every entrepreneur says they want to build a company up to sell it, but I like what I do so I want to keep hold of the companies I’ve built up.
If we were made an offer, we would consider it. But we’re planning to expand it all ourselves, so I’d say I’ll be working until the day I die, to be honest.
Mark Elliott is a co-founder and managing director of Voyager IP. This article was written in conversation with Killian Woods as part of a series on business mistakes and what can be learned from them.
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