ELEVEN YEARS AGO at a conference in Birmingham, I fell in love with the idea of having a business on the internet.
There was a girl sitting beside me at the back of the room who had a smartphone, something I didn’t have at the time.
The phone kept going “ping, ping…” and eventually I said to her, “Do you mind me asking, why do you never look at your phone?” She said, “Oh sure, that’s just when I make money on the internet.”
She was a Chinese girl living in London and was trained to write and speak Mandarin. The way she was making money was making tattoos for people.
They would upload what they wanted on her website, and she would get it translated it for them, mocked up, then they would bring it to their tattoo artist.
What blew me away was she was at a conference with me and she was making money as she sat there. I fell in love with that idea.
My first product, which looking back is a bit hilarious, was a book educating people about head lice. Trinity College happened to have a PhD student who made a breakthrough in the treatment of head lice, and I used that info for an e-book.
I sold that e-book online first, and then I sold the rights to the book to a woman in New Zealand – she still sells it. Every time she makes a sale, I get money into PayPal and a ping on my phone. But truth be told, I’ve actually turned it off now.
Back to the beginning
I came from a very entrepreneurial background. My father was self-employed and my five siblings all work for themselves, bar one. When you come from that sort of household, being an entrepreneur tends to be something you think of.
At first though, I did work full-time with the health board in Ireland after I studied physiotherapy in college. But after working for them for a year, the work dried up.
So I didn’t get a job and went off to London for nine months. When I came back, I still couldn’t get a job, so I set up my own physiotherapy clinic. Ever since, over the past 38 years, I’ve been self-employed. In that length of time I’ve run four businesses.
I set up my clinic during the beginnings of the 1980s recession and it was a case of needs must. I had to stay in Sligo since I just got married. I ran the practice for about 25 years before deciding to sell it.
The clinic was really successful, and when I ran the business I did a lot of professional development to stay on top of things.
But when I got divorced, the option wasn’t there to do as much training as I wanted. So when 2005 came along, I didn’t feel my skills were up to scratch any more.
The course I would have liked to do to upskill was in London and it was a full year. But at that stage, I had four kids, so it just wasn’t feasible.
In hindsight, it wasn’t true, my skills were fine. But I thought they weren’t, so I sold up. The clinic was a good business. I made a good living off it, put a roof over my head, went on holidays and put shoes on the kids’ feet.
When I sold it, I set up a property management and letting agency, which I ran until 2014 with my eldest son – before I sold that.
Then I did a masters in digital marketing because I really am a fanatic about professional development. You need to keep your skills up to date because you will get left behind.
So when I did the masters, I got working with the The Law Society of Ireland in Dublin, teaching solicitors how to do marketing. That’s where my latest business, an online content management business for solicitors, came from.
I saw the problem when I was at a conference in Limerick, where there were 315 solicitors. Out of those, only 100 had websites, only 50 of the sites were smartphone-friendly and most have no idea how to access or change the website.
For me, that was the market to get into. I saw solicitors needed help getting their content out into the public domain, which is what my business does.
It’s a neat business. I run it from my laptop and have five writers who create daily legal content which gets uploaded to our software.
Solicitors can sign up to my service and accept whatever content they need for their site, whether it’s about family law or commercial litigation.
It might look like overnight success to some, but for me it was really a decade in the making. I just love the fact this is a really simple business to run from my laptop.
What I’ve achieved
At times I’ve questioned myself and asked “what am I doing?” But I never feel I’ve had a failure. No matter what I do, I’m grand.
I’ve always managed to make some money from my businesses, which gives me a huge sense of pride. And they’re all bootstrapped – I’ve never had a loan.
I’ve also always been a working mother, which can be incredibly difficult to be in this day and age. For all they wax on about equality and women, it is still incredibly difficult for women to get it right.
I think risky thing a lot of entrepreneurs do is not delegate. They think they need to do everything themselves and don’t find themselves someone to lean on. Then again, if you can’t afford to take people on to delegate to, of course that can be very isolating.
Some say it’s lonely. That wouldn’t be a word I’d use to describe entrepreneurship. I think “isolated” explains it perfectly.
You read blogs and advice from people who say to reach out and ask for help. But it isn’t always there. Sometimes you need to struggle through and figure it out.
I’ve probably made loads of mistakes, but I think life is about accepting things and moving on. The property management business was a very hard one to be in since we started in 2006.
We rode out the recession, and at one stage we had over 160 properties in Sligo rented. Dealing with the public and tenants was challenging, but you learn from it to be quite strict if someone owes you money. You need to make sure you get it.
I remember my mother-in-law had that determination to make sure she was paid. When I started my practice, there was a big wedding in Sligo where the daughter of a hotel owner was getting married.
My mother-in-law was a determined lady when it came to business, and she was owed money for her business from this hotel. So she went over with her cigarettes and flask of coffee and sat on the red carpet.
She said: “I’m not moving. You owe me a lot of money and the bride will have to walk around me unless I get my cheque.” And she got it.
I’ll never forgot that lesson because cash flow is vital in every business. You charge anyone who comes through the door, even your granny. I’ve never changed that policy and rarely do anything for free.
I actually did a sit-in once as well. I was the team physio for a trophy-winning football club in the 1980s, and they owed me £380. I was a separated mother and I needed the money.
The club’s chair wouldn’t give me the money, so I sat on the bonnet of his car and wouldn’t get off. I was owed the money. He gave me half of it, but I never got the rest of it – I feel he only gave me half because he didn’t like me.
Content is a huge problem for most businesses, so I see myself growing a similar platform for other disciplines.
I have a lot of friends who are still physios, so I could see myself setting this up for them as well. For the moment, I’m happy to grow Legal RSS first.
There are 10,460 solicitors on the Irish live register; I want 100 of them before the end of the year using Legal RSS. That’s my target.
When I get that then, I’m 61. So I’m not going to be hanging out of the rafters and become a trapeze artist. I’m very happy to try to build a business that ticks along.
Susan Bourke is the founder of Legal RSS. This piece was written in conversation with Killian Woods as part of a series on unlikely entrepreneurs.