Innovative businesses emerge as true heroes of the Irish internet

17 Jul 2008

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Ordinary Irish companies are using the latest web tools from YouTube to Flickr to fuel extraordinary results for their business

Until now the online efforts of Irish firms have rarely been celebrated. Many fall into the trap of creating brochure-like websites with a few pictures, a list of products and services and a contact email address or phone number. Few are capable of transacting business online.

“A lot of SME websites are picture postcards and don’t really offer products and services,” says the chief executive of the .ie Domain Registry, David Curtin.

“We need to get them to a point where websites offer products for sale that are linked to inventories, provide support for customers and have more integrated services and content,” Curtin says, adding he believes business organisations like IBEC and ISME should be playing a role.

However, the worm is beginning to turn as Irish firms become increasingly impressed by the two-way relationship which can grow between a business and likely customers, and also by the ability to post videos, podcasts, blogs and photos online instantly.

“We’re finding that across the board businesses are beginning to use all of the ‘new media’ such as YouTube videos and embed them on their websites,” says Fergal O’Byrne, chief executive of the Irish Internet Association (IIA).

O’Byrne also points to the example being set by Bank of Ireland, which is making innovative use of podcasts on its website. “Entrepreneurs can consume those podcasts any time they want. This is content that would otherwise have meant calling into a branch and having a meeting with a bank manager.”

A good example of an entrepreneur employing the latest web technologies to build a thriving business is Barry Meehan, who runs WorldWideCycles.com from a bicycle shop in Clonmel.

“We started our internet journey in 2002 when the local enterprise board ran a web design course for small businesses and we got a €300 subsidy to get our page up. The site had a number of iterations but only in the past 12 months did we start to make it more interactive.

“Like anything in life, you only get out of something what you put in. I have no technical expertise but if I can do it anyone can. We are passionate about cycling and gradually got the hang of putting videos of mountain biking on YouTube and photos on Flickr.

“One of the first things we put up on YouTube was a video tour of the shop itself, followed by league races around Clonmel that we sponsor,” Meehan says.

The e-commerce potential of the new web tools became apparent when Meehan was washing his bike one weekend and decided to do a step-by-step blog with pictures on the correct way to wash a bike. “Sales of the bike wash fluid we sell quadrupled straight away and have stayed high ever since.”

Meehan says the ability to create a more personal bond with bike aficionados and customers has resulted in people driving out of their way to visit the shop in Clonmel. “They walk in as if they already know us, and they do.”

The international commerce aspect is also apparent to Meehan. “I sold a bike worth €3,000 to a guy in Italy. The whole transaction took place over a few emails. For a lot of higher value transactions, people tend to email us for advice.”

Another example of a business that has succeeded in making the latest web technologies work in its favour is Dublin-based Minted, a catering company run by chefs Niall Harbison and Pieter Plaetinck, who between them have cooked for clients like U2, Bill Gates, the Beckhams and the Sultan of Brunei.

Harbison and Plaetinck have built up a website called www.ifoods.tv, which features videos on how to cook spectacular dishes, a blog and the ability for people to post their own recipes.

“I was working in the Caribbean and started messing around with a video blog and it became so popular we decided to turn it into a professionally run website,” Harbison explains. “A lot of sites out there are just one-way brochures but we believe in interaction. The beauty of the site is it’s completely global, people can just throw up Mexican and Greek recipes.

“You could say we decided to turn our passion for cooking into a Facebook for foodies. The days of going home on a Thursday night to watch a cookery programme are over. Ultimately, people will be walking around with iPhone devices and buying their ingredients on the go.”

Harbison says the company intends to derive monetisation through advertising. “We are focusing on building an international community and adding new features such as live cookery shows. We are focused on staying innovative and ahead of the game and this way we will expand globally.”

By John Kennedy

Pictured: Celebrated chef Niall Harbison, who runs the Minted catering business has launched his own social networking site for foodies iFoods.tv, while Clonmel bike-shop owner, Barry Meehan, has turned his passion for cycling into an international success story

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Editor John Kennedy is an award-winning technology journalist.

editorial@siliconrepublic.com