We sat down with Daragh O’Shea, a tech startup founder and consultant from Dublin, to discover what advice he would give to entrepreneurs in the early startup phase. Daragh helps early stage B2B founders turn their vision into a reality. Daragh is both tech and commercially focused and is extremely passionate about helping clients turn customer problems into a viable commercial technology.
How did you get to where you are today?
I have quite a varied background; when I left secondary school I took a year out to figure out what exactly I wanted to do. I tried studying accountancy but hated it so changed course and studied engineering at Trinity College instead. When I graduated I was still unsure about what I was going to do.
I looked at becoming a professional rugby player but it didn’t work out. When I was younger my mother always encouraged me to do my own thing and that mindset stuck with me so I set up a sportswear business with my rugby coach at the time. The business was going well but the recession hit at a crucial time and sportswear budgets were slashed overnight.
After that, I began my software development career and got a job in web development, where I stayed on for 6 years.
In 2015, I co-founded a new travel tech startup called Dynamic Res. Within 6 months we had feasibility and joined the NDRC accelerator programme. It took almost 9 months after the programme to raise funding through a private investor. In 2017, with the help from Enterprise Ireland HPSU Programme, we finally built our first product version. We sold successfully to independent travel agencies in Ireland and Scotland with large enterprise contracts in the works. However, the company was forced to close in January 2018 due to a lack of funding when a further investment fell through.
Now, I’m working for myself and using my past experiences to help other startups.
From working with startups, and from your experience starting up a company, what is a common mistake you see new startups make?
A mistake I constantly see entrepreneurs make, and one which I made myself, is assuming they need to physically build something to test out their idea. It can be difficult to know how to apply the Lean Startup methodologies to your idea. It requires some creativity to test market demand, to test an idea without showing something built. It can be a difficult roadblock, but a lot can be done before needing to raise any money to build something.
Another common scenario is when a startup founder has a lot of experience in an industry and has an idea for a solution. However, in most cases, the solution is a very big technical solution, that needs large funding to build, a big gamble for a startup. You need to think; what is the most feasible first product you could sell. How do you get from simple beginnings to a big vision? That is the first step in the startup journey.
What do you believe are the key elements to starting up a business?
Industry knowledge is incredibly useful; experience in industry gives you a huge insight and network to reach out to. It is also helpful to have knowledge of the ‘cash industry’ to understand how to manage cash flow, forecasting, where to get startup grants in Ireland, etc.
Having someone with User Experience (UX) skills is very important early on. Many non-tech founders hire developers who will simply create what is asked but you need someone who can iterate on a solution based on potential customer feedback. This is a very different discipline and makes the solution the developers build much more likely to succeed.
At the core of your business you need to have a balance of selling, finance and UX expertise, or a willingness to learn them.
What advice would you give other entrepreneurs starting out?
Seek out other entrepreneurs, or someone who has been through it. Speaking to experienced people helps you figure out the best way to go about getting funding, support, who to talk to for investment and who not to talk to. You can learn a lot about starting up from founders who have been through the process. Enterprise Ireland and local enterprise agencies are incredibly helpful as well. I’d also advise looking at accelerator programs such as NDRC, they are useful to give initial seed capital, mentoring, and support. And try to get creative in terms of whether your idea is good, look at the lean startup model. The Lean Canvas Model website and books are helpful for sparking ideas towards your own product.
More important than all that: speak to your (potential) customers. It is rare you will come away from a conversation without a new insight. Have as many of them as you can.
What is the most common question you receive from startups?
“How do I start?”
Most people don’t know how to take the first steps because they believe they need to invest in building a product and start raising money.
As your company, Round Robot, helps startups on digital, what is a common issue you see startups making on digital?
The most common issue I see is clients coming to me with a concrete solution in their minds. It tends to be people who come from an industry who have the idea already in their heads based on an untested hypothesis. They want to build a bigger solution than is potentially needed to test their idea. I help to strip it down to a road-map driven on customer feedback milestones, aiming to save them money in the long run, and more importantly often saving them from failing.
What do you believe are the most helpful digital tools for startups?
In terms of communication, I think the likes of G-Suite and Gmail are really useful to a company. It is important for companies to look professional by using their website name as their email, instead of an @gmail.com at the end of it, but Gmail makes this really easy to do and it’s not costly. G-suite is also incredibly useful for collaborations tools like Docs and Sheets, this comes in handy at the beginning of your startup journey where you are probably working remotely or constantly moving around, it’s also great if you’re working with developers who are in a different location to you. The communication app ‘Slack’ can also be really useful for collaborations or working remotely.
In the early stages, I’d recommend using a product like InvisionApp, which allows you to create mock-ups of your product and test it virtually with potential clients. Tools like Unbounce are very useful for testing marketing web pages.
What is the most underestimated element when starting up a company?
Managing people takes up way more time than I imagined. Hiring, onboarding, getting people up and running, the HR work needed; contracts, writing good documentation. There’s a lot. You’ve also got to manage on a daily, weekly and monthly basis and set targets to keep your employees focused and productive. It’s challenging to do everything at once. I’d advise keeping your team small for as long as possible, so you can be productive.
What was the toughest decision you had to make when starting up?
Definitely shutting down my startup. It was out of our hands in the end but we fought it tooth and nail to keep it going. It was really tough at the time. We knew the end-product that should be built but just didn’t have the cash flow to get from the first version. Fundraising is a very time-consuming and difficult task. The more you can finance your startup from customer funding, the better.
Looking back, what advice do you wish you received when starting up?
I wish I learned about the lean methodology approach before I quit my job to startup a business. I could have done much more while I was still working and not just up and left. I wish I had bootstrapped a bit more than we had done, achieved more before we raised investment.
You will need to be creative in every aspect of the business early on, product, finance, marketing, and sales. Ask for advice, inform yourself as much as you can, then start working towards your goal. Believe in your vision, just be flexible in how you get there.
Need More Information?
You can visit Daragh’s websites to learn more about startup tech consultancy services or development agency services.
We also host a free, live Startup Webinar every month, where we can answer your startup questions.