On the first anniversary of Cork’s Republic of Work, Daniel Heaslip sat down with DC Cahalane, its founder and CEO to discuss innovation, startups, funding, the future of work and expansion plans.
The vision for this space began eight years ago, and many things influenced its design.
My dad was an architect, so I was always interested in space. When you looked at boring offices, boring things happened in them. If you compare a Google or Facebook office with a typical Irish corporate office, they are worlds apart. US tech firms drive huge productivity, and a lot of it is influenced by the work environment.
“We are industry agnostic and stage agnostic.”
I came home to Cork and had an idea to open a co-working space. I met Pat Phelan and joined Trustev and then went into Teamwork. At the same time, I was travelling a lot and engaging with tech startups around the world. I saw the spaces they were working in, and it reinforced my beliefs that a great workspace encourages innovation and productivity.
When we built Republic of Work, it was never a space just for technology companies, and it was never a place just for startups. We are industry agnostic and stage agnostic. We have everything from architects to food companies to health and beauty businesses. This space is less about scaling and more about innovating.
The importance of community
It is everything; it is the very core of how we market ourselves. Cork is not short on office space; if you are a business you have options, and you have the traditional providers.
We sell you the community first. It is easy to suspend your laptop off the floor or work from your kitchen table, but it is far more important to be around like-minded people. We never let anyone sign up until they have worked in the space for a day. They need to know if it is going to be a productive work environment for them.
“We never let anyone sign up until they have worked in the space for a day.”
A good example of co-working in action is a tailored clothing company called Signature set up by Michael Lenihan. Michael had no background in clothing but had an idea. He came in here, and he had to think about fabric and manufacturing. He met Rashr, the makers of a technical shirt for windsurfing. After just one meeting Michael had the names of people to go to in Italy to manufacture his clothing, and he says it saved him about seven months of research and work.
Cork has always had a great community, a particular strong proactive local enterprise board but I think something practical was required. People come out of UCC Ignite and New Frontiers and the local LEO where they have learned the “theory”, and then they come here where they meet people who have been in the trenches of business.
“We are not a startup or scaling house we are an innovation house.”
What can be done to foster more innovation and jobs?
The government seems to have an ‘entrepreneurs are fat cats’ mentality. We still have a mentality in Ireland where if you are an entrepreneur you are a Sean Quinn. They perceive entrepreneurs to be wealthy or successful people. I don’t think any government has successfully understood the risk element. They don’t understand what it is like to go to an ATM on a Friday afternoon to find there is no money.
“As a country, we are dramatically poor when it comes to incentivising people to invest in startups.”
The two areas I would love to see more change in are:
1: Enterprise Ireland is an incredible organisation. I would like to see them retain more of the money themselves and provide more education and services because I think this is something they excel at, as opposed to providing more funding. They are one of the largest venture funds in Europe. I think they should do more mentorship programmes like IGAP which they ran years ago. They should be trusted to spend the money better.
I also think more direct benefits would work well. We would never be eligible for EI funding or LEO funding, and if I set up a marketing agency tomorrow and employed 150 people, I would also not be eligible.
I think there should be a benefit in the tax code where once you are self-employed or an entrepreneur there is a tax break in that part of the system. It would mean that whether or not you are going to engage with the state, there would be a benefit.
2: We are dramatically lacking when it comes to incentivising people to invest in startups. In the UK there is risk prevention built into an investment where you can get 80% of your cash back if it goes belly up.
I think if the government is worried about how startups are funded they need to be willing to help at a tax level. I understand they have concerns about smart accountancy practices. However, people like Pat Phelan who had an exit two years ago has turned around and invested in four businesses and at the same time probably paid a substantial amount of cash in capital gains tax. If they let him invest that money in companies, it would be a better distribution of wealth and better for the country, for long-term tax take and job creation.
“Like many entrepreneurs, I am a troublemaker.”
The future of Republic of Work?
When we started we knew we would open a second or third, so we have an operations infrastructure, sales and marketing infrastructure in place to support this growth.
We are not a startup or scaling house we are an innovation house. We want to be that cross between Dogpatch labs and a research centre in a University.
“Change is created by those who show up.”
You are running for the Cork Chamber. Why?
Like many entrepreneurs, I am a troublemaker, and when I came back to Cork I joined all the networking organisations and you wonder what any of them are doing? In the last two years, I got to experience first-hand. I joined the Chamber, and I realised Cork has 20 experienced, dedicated people whose sole goal is to represent Cork and the businesses here, and they do an incredibly good job of it.
Change is created by those who show up so instead of staying on the outside.
“Don’t be in too much of a hurry and go after niches.”
You are celebrating your first birthday, any advice for someone about to start in business?
Cash flow is king when you start your business and do your business plans, and you have everything divided out, everything is about cash flow.
For tech startups – don’t be in too much of a hurry and go after niches. Go deep; not wide. If you only have €100 to spend on Google AdWords you are better to go after a narrow market because if you get €500 worth of sales out of it at least, you can say ok, well it turns out men aged 35 will buy our product. If you take that €500 and go wide, regardless of the result, you won’t know why you got it.
Your users must be passionate about your product, you need them to be early adopters, excited about what you are doing and you need to connect with them.
A lot of startups build for the broadest market. I think if people went after deeper engagement into smaller markets it’s a better win.
Finally, people are everything. In a startup, every person is a vital cog. You need to spend time writing job descriptions, what is it that needs to get done. Finding the digital marketer that has the whole skill set is like finding a rugby player that can also play hurling and golf. If you hire well, you will grow better.