I started my own business on 2009. Since then, I am asked regularly how I did it. I notice I keep repeating myself answering these questions (and many others FAQs), I decided to start a series here to answer all of them ONCE AND FOR ALL! (A full list of posts on this series is here).
When I tell people what I do for a living, it usually draws funny reaction. I can’t blame them, what I do is a bit…er, let’s call it ‘non-main-stream’. And people always like to ask me ‘how did you get this business idea?’
Well, the answer is actually pretty simple. I needed the service myself! I got the idea to start a cat sitting business at around 2008-holiday season. My mum suddenly shown up in Paris to see my sister over Christmas, so my husband and I decided to join them for New Year. We have arrived to Dublin only a year before that, we didn’t have many friends at that time so we were in need to find a cat sitting service that can help us with the cats when we were away. I called a few companies out there. And not surprisingly, there were all fully booked due to holiday season and such a short notice to book them. So I jokingly said to my husband, ‘geez! I could have started my own cat sitting business! There is demand out there! I can’t be the only foreigners who need to go somewhere to see mom, right?’
Moral of the story:
1. You need to find a business idea that you are passionate about.
The chance is, once you are self-employed, you will have to work your ass off 14 hours day, 7 days a week. If you don’t like the business you are in, trust me, you won’t be able to do it. I am writing this sentence at 0:38am, I am still waiting for my takeaway to arrive, eh no, I haven’t had my dinner yet. See what I mean? Along the same line, maybe I am biased but I believe being a sole trader is the best way to go when you are running a SME. It’s very very difficult to make sure every single partner put as much effort and being as passionate as you are. Plus, partnership tends to have a lot of legal issue. (We will get to that later on when we talk about Business Structure) In my case, I love cats. And more importantly, I love talking with cat people who share the same passion. So make sure your business idea is something you will not get sick of talking about.
2. Get into a business that you know about
If you watch Gordon Ramsey Kitchen’s Nightmare, you will see a pattern. Those ‘nightmare’ consists of A LOT of people who enjoy the romantic notion of starting a restaurant but know very little about running a restaurant.
I am pretty sure they imagine they will be whirling around on the restaurant floor smiling, sexy and looking blissfully like a successful restaurateur, having amusing chat with different customers while the waiters at the background elegantly serve delicious food to happy and even sexier customers. Problem is most of these people DO NOT KNOW ANYTHING about catering!!! Not only do most of these ‘nightmare’ candidates don’t know about how to cook, they generally have no experience to run any business at all! They don’t know how to manage their finance, source suppliers (I remember one of the candidate shop her food at Tesco for her restaurant…), manage staff. And a lot of them have absolutely no experience whatsoever about CUSTOMER SERVICE! The idea that someone who knows absolutely nothing about customer service or cooking thinks they can run a restaurant is beyond me. Stick to what you know, people! Stick to what you know! In my case, I am a foreigner who is in need of cat sitting service, and I know other cat people out there who needs this service.
3. Think small
I do believe we are experiencing a new era in the history of economics. For the past few decades, we have been concentrating on how to make bigger companies. But I think we have reached a stage when people start to miss small businesses that provide personal service. So think small. If you just want to make a full time salary, you don’t need to have a million dollar business plan. You are not starting the next General Electric. That’s another reason why I think it really is the best time to start a business, because if you start small, that takes us to the next point…
4. You don’t need a lot of money
Thanks to technology, you don’t actually need a lot of money to start a small business these days. I started my business with no loan, no particular big saving spree. I just spend money on buying a domain and paying for a company name, instead of buying a pair of shoes. Trust me, you don’t need to spend a lot of money to start up. Sacrifice some of your ‘happy money’ and use them on your new hobby – starting a new business that is.
As I mentioned in my introduction, I see Ireland as a place full of business opportunities. Here are a few examples of business idea inspired by what I see overseas that I think would work in Dublin.
Mobile beautician, mobile pet groomer, mobile anything to be honest…
We have enough population in Dublin to support any mobile business. Also thanks to the fact that Dublin is so small, you can easily cover the whole city and have a substantial client base. In most capital cities in the world, mobile services have been blooming for the past two decades due to the time starve nature of the big city lifestyle. The trend hasn’t quite arrived to Dublin yet, so I see there are lots of potential.
Nappy laundry service, babysitting agent, any other businesses that deals with babies…
We have the highest birth rate in Ireland. Yet there is a lack of modern life style baby service available in Dublin. A quick check on Google shows a full page of baby laundry service in London and New York. In case you don’t know this yet, these companies came once a week (or however often you want) and pick up your baby clothes, wash them and re-deliver to your home the week after. I would love to have this service in Dublin! I need them!
Babysitting agent is another business we are in desperate need and we don’t have in Dublin. When I was a student in Paris, I used to register with a babysitting agent. Whenever there are parents who want to go out for the night, they call these agents, the agents will send in a sitter from their database to go straight to these people’s home. All sitters have to go through training and be insured, and they only accept university students. Parents are happy to be able to maintain their pre-parenting lifestyle and be able to say yes to all lovely dinner parties, students are happy to get work, and these agents are making a fortune.
Quality restaurant that serve REAL foreign cuisine
I am sick of people telling me yet again there are plenty of Chinese restaurants in Dublin. No there aren’t. Some of you do know most of the Chinese ‘restaurants’ are not serving authentic Chinese food and most of them got their sauce from the wholesaler and just put them together to make a dish (I said putting them together because I don’t think there is much ‘cooking’ involved).
Also, there is a lack of authentic cuisine from other culture as well. I am still in search of an authentic Thai restaurant. Heck, I am forever in search of good honest-to-goodness Irish food cooked by Irish mommies!
And I am not talking about fancy-pants restaurant with costume-wearing-waiters, I am talking about just honest affordable cooking. There is a surge of Asian Bubble Tea shops in Dublin, which is a good sign. But we need more! If you are a foreigners living in Ireland just like myself, it’s time to sit down to think about your favourite home-cooked food and see if it is possible to work out a business plan around it.
A better and more modern version of an existing business idea
You don’t necessarily need to invent a new business to be successful. A lot of existing business idea in Ireland is due to have a big makeover. You can just pick an existing business idea and make it better, and trust me, sometimes it’s not even that difficult.
For example, it’s so difficult to find companies, big and small, in this country that have a good website. If there is a company who provides a good website with lots of information so that I know exactly what question to ask when I call them, I tend to choose such company other its competitors. Let’s use the above authentic cuisine as an idea. It would be nice that such business also have a cute website with most up-to-date menu and interactive social media page to go along with it. There are way too many businesses in this country who either don’t have website or don’t have Facebook page. If you start a business that has everything, you definitely have an advantage over your customer. Look, I am not the only company who provides pet sitting service in Dublin, but I am pretty sure I have one of the best websites among others. In fact, a lot of sitters don’t even have a website yet. How can your customer find out about you or even know your existence without a website? Also, a lot of people wants to look for the basic information before even giving you a call. Everyone is busy these days, they want to screen through things before they waste time on making a 5 minute phone call.
Another thing that’s so easy to do is provide better customer service. I hear you going ‘duh!’ Hear me out. Maybe because I am Asian, I have different standard of customer service. Most of the customer service experience I have encountered in Ireland, and in Europe in general, are pretty crappy. Just to name a few things that piss me off to no-end: don’t listen to my question and tell me to call someone else, saying they will call me back and never do, never ever answer email, very restricted office hour, etc. Providing good customer service is not only for your customer actually, it’s about helping you to make more money. If your customers are pissed off, how are you going to make it? So providing good customer service is more for you really.
Ok, my case. I answer phone call 24 hours a day (ok, I am workaholic and my business nature is a bit different, you don’t have to do that, but you got the message); I generally answer people’s text immediately except if I am in a meeting; I reply email within an hour; if people leave a message, I DO get back them as soon as I hear them; if I don’t have a solution for their problem immediately I will tell them when I will get back to them and I WILL get back to them and if I still have yet a solution then I will keep them update and tell them I tried and am still looking for a solution; I will never EVER leave someone hanging around wondering what’s happening. It all sounds very simple and common sense, isn’t it? But the majority of businesses in Ireland don’t do any of the above! So my bet is, if you can just do that, you will stand out from the crowd already and people will keep coming back to you. Depending on your business nature, but if you have a few dozen of repeat customer, the chance is you have just made a full time salary all by yourself!
My handyman is another person I know of who will get back to customers immediately. Every time I mentioned that to anyone around me, they ALL want his number immediately! See? He doesn’t even need a website or do any marketing to be honest. Just providing good customer service is enough in itself for him to get a full time wage.
Here are some examples of innovative business idea around me:
There are lots of business opportunities in Ireland and it’s very easy to start a business here. If you are like me and start a business with very low setup cost, you have next to nothing to lose. Even if it doesn’t work, it will be a wonderful learning experience for you to know what you can do and what you can’t do in a business. So sit down and come up with a business idea and have a go. There is nothing stopping you.