Vodafone-Siro Gigabit Hubs have spawned 29 new firms

6 Nov 2018

From left: Sven Spollen-Behrens, Small Firms Association; Regina Moran, Vodafone Ireland; and Louise O’Conor, Abodoo. Image: Kenneth O’Halloran

Appetite for more flexible working a key asset as war for talent impacts SMEs.

Vodafone and Siro’s Gigabit Hubs around Ireland have helped to spawn 29 brand new companies, employing 100 people. And that’s just the beginning, said Vodafone Ireland’s director of enterprise, Regina Moran.

‘There is huge interest among businesses in enabling flexible and smart working because they can retain workers who don’t have to drive to the city and can work from home or from a nearby fixed location’

According to Moran, there are a total of eight hubs active in Ireland and several more in the pipeline.

Moran was speaking with Siliconrepublic.com upon the publication of a new report, The Future of Business in Ireland: A Conversation with SMEs. The report into the views of 600 SME business owners across Ireland found that there are clear challenges in terms of digital skills and adopting new ways of working to stay competitive and attract and retain talent.

Optimism and opportunity

According to the research, there is significant optimism in the sector, with nearly 90pc of SMEs predicting growth between now and 2021. This optimism was shared by employees, with 60pc confident about the future prospects of their company.

Munster is the most optimistic region, with 67pc of SME employees feeling confident about the future prospects of their company, versus 62pc in Connacht/Ulster, 60pc in Dublin, with Leinster (outside of Dublin) overall coming in lowest, at 52pc. Additionally, Munster employees are the happiest at 60pc, versus Dublin at 59pc, Connaught /Ulster at 58pc and Leinster at 52pc.

When asked about investment, 60pc of SME business owners surveyed confirmed that they plan to invest in their business within the next 12 months, with the majority (71pc) being spent on staff attraction and retention, followed by sales (64pc) and technology and digital tools (57pc). In fact, 69pc of small firms plan to increase technology investment within the next one to five years, and higher again for medium-sized firms, which are also most likely to invest upwards of €50,000. However, nearly seven in 10 (68pc) see barriers to growth, with 46pc seeing these coming from Brexit, followed by 40pc looking at taxes and rates.

Speaking with Siliconrepublic.com, Moran said that the ultimate issue facing owner-managers of SMEs in Ireland is the retention and attraction of people with digital skills. “What we are seeing is the rise in demand for smart, flexible and remote working. Over 70pc of people wanted smart working in their current job or would move for a flexible working environment,” Moran explained. She said this is a key reason why Vodafone and Siro were investing in smart hubs around Ireland.

“There is huge interest among businesses in enabling flexible and smart working because they can retain workers who don’t have to drive to the city and can work from home or from a nearby fixed location. It helps people to remain in their local environment.

“And yet, only 9pc of SMEs are embracing flexible working, which signals a kind of cultural problem when it comes to trusting workers to work from home or remotely from a hub. The benefits are incalculable when you think of the impact on the local community and the wellbeing of workers. Research from Abodoo signalled that the average company that enables flexible working makes an average of €9,500 per annum in employee savings when you consider the cost of office space and all that comes with it.”

The hub revolution

Modelled on the Ludgate Hub in Skibbereen, the Siro-Vodafone programme will provide 1Gbps connection to qualifying business, tech and start-up hubs for free for up to two years.

The initiative is currently open to hubs based in 15 towns: Dundalk, Cavan, Carrigaline, Sligo, Letterkenny, Wexford, Drogheda, Portlaoise, Castlebar, Mullingar, Newbridge, Ennis, Ratheniska, Tralee and Carlow.

Moran said that the eight existing hubs have already had an economic impact on the communities they are located in. For example, she said that around the Siro-Vodafone hub in Tralee, new shops have sprung up nearby.

“In the past year, 29 new companies have started up in all of the hubs, and between them they have 100 employees. There’s a real benefit for these companies because they have the environment, connectivity, and people are sharing ideas and starting companies.”

In terms of technology investment by SME companies in Ireland, the areas focused on by companies include unified communications, collaborative working and technologies that enable mobile workforces.

“We are already having futuristic conversations with customers around artificial intelligence, the internet of things and automation, and, with 5G coming on stream in the next five years, we see the explosion of increased automation in the Irish economy and more conversations around flexible working,” Moran said.

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years