An innovative tech incubator space, called the Hatch Lab, has opened its doors in Gorey, Co. Wexford. Here we talk to its manager, John O’Connor.

The Hatch Lab’s aim is to act as a beacon, to attract and anchor some of the talented ICT and financial professionals who commute daily to Dublin, in large numbers. It’s a joint venture backed by Wexford County Council, Bank of Ireland and Redmond Builders – with experienced enterprise manager John O’Connor, at the helm.

O’Connor’s role is as a catalyst, sharing his experience, knowledge and facilitating the background culture, required to best assist new and prospective tech start-ups, for the socio-economic benefit of north Wexford. Here he outlines what he has learned along the way; from growing up in rural Cork; to development work in Africa; and his on-going enterprise work with both the Enniscorthy Enterprise and Technology Centre in Enniscorthy – and the Hatch Lab in Gorey.

john o'connor hatch lab

The early years

I grew up just outside Mallow where my Dad was a very successful greyhound breeder and trainer. He is recorded in the ‘Guinness Book of Records’ for winning the English Derby twice, along with the Welsh and Scottish Derby. At school, I had an aptitude for maths, which proved useful at the greyhound track, when calculating the odds on doubles, accumulators and cross-doubles. I could also see very quickly how gambling didn’t work and that the ‘house’ never loses. I subsequently developed an interest in shares and investments, and I can remember selling oil shares on the Friday just before ‘Black Monday’, back in 1987.

“We have a purpose-built 36,000 sq. ft. building with 54 desks spaces.”

What intrigued me most about shares was that, they had the potential to grow and if not, allowed the possibility to get your money back. This interest and passion encouraged me to undertake a Chartered Secretary and Administrator course in college, subsequently graduating as a fully-fledged, registered company secretary. The benefit of the course, means that even today, I can look and analyse a set of accounts, with the ability to offer guidance and to perhaps say to somebody, “you are under-trading or over-trading, what are you going to do about it?” This background, combined with practical business experience, has proven helpful, when offering advice to assess the potential for success, of a particular enterprise or startup.

After college, I began to work in an accountancy practice in Cork City. However, I didn’t like the repetitive nature of the work and quickly moved into accounts, with Barry’s Cash & Carry in Mallow in 1988. I soon started to gain hands-on business experience, buying and selling some of the major international grocery brands, at a time of tremendous change in the grocery business in Ireland. Employee numbers quadrupled, and I went on to pioneer and innovate within the group with the hugely successful ‘Quickpick’ concept. In 1996, I had just turned 31 years of age and eager for a change and decided to take a year abroad – to undertake development work in Africa.

A move to Uganda

I was offered a job lecturing in accounts, in what has since become, the Makerere University Business School in Kampala, Uganda. After my year there, I was ready to go home, but because of my background, I was asked by the principal to set up and run a Small Business Enterprise Centre, to train local businesses. I accepted the offer and ended up there for six years in total, with a staff of 15 and loved it. I also got married at the time and started a family in the process.

The programs were part-funded by the British Council, and we were the first Centre in Uganda to operate a student placement program for top students. The students came from both rich and poor backgrounds, and we helped place and orientate them into large companies, such as British Airways and Barclays Bank. In 2002 we moved back to Ireland when I was offered and accepted the position as enterprise manager with EETC, the Enniscorthy Enterprise and Technology Centre in Co. Wexford.

Mentoring

The EETC was partnered with Waterford Institute of Technology, and we provide office space, training and mentorship for local businesses. From 2002 until 2008 we were state and EU funded, deriving 80% of our income from industry training with local companies, where their employees needed to upskill and at the same time remain at work. The remaining 20% came from enterprise support.

Ethos

In 2009, we were then delighted to ally with Wexford Co. They were impressed with our alumni track record, with the likes of Sonru and Taoglas. EETC’s role has always been like a conveyor belt for startups, enabling them to grow and move on. My Dad never worried about ‘the dog on track’ – it was always about ‘the pup in the yard’, and I am the same.

“We meet prospective clients to both assist and evaluate what stage they are at. We have an expression of interest page on our website.”

The Hatch Lab

The Hatch Lab also acts in a similar vein. It also offers a brand new facility with a capacity for 300-400 people, working in well-paid, high-end IT jobs. We focus on helping new and startup technology companies that utilise coding, to develop computer software, apps and websites solutions, for various products and services.

Hot desks

At the moment we have a purpose-built 36,000 sq. ft. building with 54 desks spaces. Hot-desking is where a space or a desk can be used and reserved on an optional or rotational basis. A hot desk can be for somebody with a business idea who may not be 100% sure, about what they are going to do. They can book a desk for one day, and we would see how we could assist them. Another type of client might be somebody working in Dublin with a Linkedin or a Facebook. Instead of driving up to Dublin five days per week, they can spend one day a week here supported by excellent broadband connectivity and facilities.

“The growth of a business is about doing your research. It’s important to think it through, with the aim, to get the business model right.”

Fast landing

Presently we have 12 high potential startup businesses and 20 people hot-desking in the building. As a company grows and employs over six people, they can migrate and take a private office in another part of the building. We also cater for ‘fast-landing’ clients, either for a Foreign Direct Investor (FDI) company or for a large business that is out-growing Dublin and would like to start here with an initial team of five people.

Expressions of interest

We meet prospective clients to both assist and evaluate what stage they are at. We also have an ‘expression of interest’ page on our website

Business model validation

The growth of a business is about doing your research. It’s important to think it through, with the aim, to get the business model right. The person has to prove that they can solve somebody’s problem. At its purest, if they solve a problem, they have to ask for money, and if they get paid for that solution, then they’ve got the bones of a business model. Be very clear about what you are trying to achieve with the business model. It has to match the customers’ needs. If you don’t do that – it may look right, but the chances are that further down the road, it may well go wrong. If you ask enough questions at the start, validating to help achieve a solid foundation – then you are on the right track.

Interview by Brendan Byrne.