StoryLab’s Martha Kearns: ‘ACORNS was an amazing eye-opener for me’

We talk to female entrepreneurs who are forging innovative businesses in rural Ireland. Today, we talk to Martha Kearns from StoryLab who left a high-flying media career in Dublin to head West for a better work-life balance.

In recent weeks we reported on how women in rural Ireland with new businesses or at least with well-developed ideas are being invited to join ACORNS 6. The ACORNS programme is designed to support early-stage female entrepreneurs living in rural Ireland through a peer learning approach. Thanks to the support of the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, and the voluntary contribution of time by Lead Entrepreneurs, there is no charge for those selected to participate.

The call is now open for applicants for ACORNS 6 and fifty female entrepreneurs from across the country will be selected to participate. Anyone interested in receiving an application form ahead of the September 21, 2020 deadline for ACORNS 6 should register their interest here

“As the Covid-19 pandemic unfolds and more people seek better work/life balance, it looks like we made a very good call six years ago”

Today, we speak to Martha Kearns who moved from Dublin to Sligo with her young family and set up StoryLab with her husband in 2014.

What is the problem you are trying to solve and the size of the market you are addressing? 

Myself and my husband, Ciaran Byrne, are former national newspaper news editors (in Ireland and the UK) and were enjoying successful careers based in Dublin but, after each having worked in the industry for 20 years, we were looking for a fresh challenge on a professional level while also seeking a better work/life balance that would benefit our young family. Being on the front line, receiving hundreds of press releases daily, we could see where a lot of PR companies were going wrong in their approaches to the media. We could also see how businesses were struggling to tell their stories in an engaging way. With a background running newspaper departments in areas including news, business, education, lifestyle and features, we could see how we could help businesses develop their stories and raise their profiles. 

What is your core product and service about and how does it work?

StoryLab is a content and PR company. We’re still in the storytelling business! Some of our products include producing written content, such as supplements for national newspapers and strategic internal and external communications in multiple formats for large corporations. Our other core services include graphic design, branding, social media, videos and podcasts.

We also provide public relations (PR) where we help our clients raise their profile in the media. As innate story tellers, we see our content writing skills as a key part of our USP (unique selling point). By combining our storytelling skills with an established network of contacts in the country’s leading media organisations, we successfully secure quality PR coverage for clients across print, broadcast and digital formats. We now have five full-time staff as well as many part-time and freelance collaborators and are looking forward to further growth in 2021.

“I was so impressed with the bravery of those who had an idea and believed in themselves and their ability enough to go it alone. This probably planted the seed in my mind”

What are the experiences that encouraged you to become an entrepreneur?

Working as the news editor in the Sunday Business Post, I was regularly interviewing, meeting and reading about people who had set up their own businesses. I was so impressed with the bravery of those who had an idea and believed in themselves and their ability enough to go it alone. This probably planted the seed in my mind.

When I started discussing with my husband our desire to remain within the media industry but have more control of our hours and our career path, setting up on our own business seemed like the logical thing to do. However, giving up both our jobs and moving to the other side of the country to set up a brand-new business with a two-year old and a four-week old in tow didn’t seem too logical to our family and friends at the time!

As the Covid-19 pandemic unfolds and more people seek better work/life balance, it looks like we made a very good call six years ago.

“Being part of ACORNS showed me the comradery among female entrepreneurs in Ireland and how much we all want to help each other succeed”

What are your impressions of the start-up ecosystem in your region and in Ireland in general?

When we moved to Sligo, we were so impressed with the local set up. We got huge support from the staff at the Innovation Centre at IT Sligo where we had our first office (we are now based on Stephen Street in the heart of Sligo town) and immediately we were being asked to speak at events and get involved in the local start-up scene which is very vibrant in Sligo. We got – and still get – great assistance and support from the Sligo Local Enterprise Office (LEO) which has always been incredibly helpful and Ciaran was a participant on Enterprise Ireland’s New Frontiers programme.

But we were not expecting the warm welcome we received from the business community and groups such Sligo Chamber of Commerce; there truly is a collaborative approach to doing business in the region and we are delighted to be part of a thriving local ecosystem. We try to collaborate with as many other local businesses as possible.

What are your thoughts on the start-up environment in rural Ireland from the perspective of being a woman entrepreneur?

During Covid, we saw how reliant we are on good broadband so – regardless of gender – that has to improve, especially if we are moving towards a new landscape where more people are working from home or working remotely. Our office broadband in Sligo town is excellent but our home broadband is very poor.

Being a female entrepreneur has not been an impediment but rather you might see some positive bias (especially when event organisers are trying to balance gender among speakers!). Being part of ACORNS showed me the comradery among female entrepreneurs in Ireland and how much we all want to help each other succeed. 

How did ACORNS help you navigate the start-up landscape in Ireland?

ACORNS was an amazing eye-opener for me. It really put me on a path to professionally and continuously improve the business. It has been the best thing I have done for the business since setting up. It has opened up my network (and client base) outside of our main catchment areas of the North West and Dublin to take in the entire country.

If you ever have an issue or a problem, there is always a fellow ACORN that you can call for help or support.  The encouragement and support from my fellow participants as well as Lead Entrepreneurs has been inspiring. You want to do well so that the rest of the ACORNS community is proud of your success, like I am of theirs.

“Build your market and don’t put your eggs in one basket. Don’t just rely on local – go national and international if you can.”

What are the biggest mistakes or lessons you have learned so far?

Being afraid to chase invoices! At the beginning, we were almost apologetic when sending out invoices which resulted in longer lead-in times for payment. Now, we are confident in our pricing system and know our clients are paying for a job well done so there is no more embarrassment! Also, we learned the hard way not to give away too many ideas until a contract is signed.

Very early in our journey, a large company shook hands on a communications plan and then stole all the creative ideas we had given then. Even though they could not implement the plan correctly, we were annoyed at ourselves for giving away too much without having a contact signed. But it never happened again! 

What advice do you have for fellow founders?

Don’t try and do everything yourself – however do try and have a basic knowledge of what’s going on right across the business. For example, we outsource our accountancy and bookkeeping services to experts, however, I still know exactly what is in our bank account each week, what outgoings we need to keep on top of and what cash is coming in. Also, don’t be afraid to ask for help.

Fellow entrepreneurs – like those on the ACORNS programme — are always happy to help out with advice, contacts or just a listening ear. Build your market and don’t put your eggs in one basket. Don’t just rely on local – go national and international if you can.

Anyone interested in receiving an application form ahead of the September 21, 2020 deadline for ACORNS 6 should register their interest here 

Written by John Kennedy (john.kennedy3@boi.com)

Published: 17 September, 2020