A special calling card

3 Jan 2011

Nicola Byrne, founder of Call 11890, has made directory enquiries recession-proof.

It may be subliminal advertising on her part, but when talking about her approach to business, Nicola Byrne, founder of Call 11890, says she believes in “picking up the phone and asking” if she wants to make something happen.

She’s infectious to talk to: bubbly, positive and tenacious. It’s not surprising her presentations to schoolchildren and at various business networking and Enterprise Board events go down so well.

“It’s in my nature that if I say I’ll do something, I just do it. It is really amazing how people will do things for you if you just ask and then things happen. For example, when collecting an Aer Lingus ticket once I noticed the ticket wallet was blank. I approached Aer Lingus and asked could advertising be put on ticket wallets, found somebody experienced in advertising and soon had advertising on all ticket wallets from Ryanair to Stena to British Airways,” she recalls.

“When airlines went ticketless, I got advertising into Eircom phone boxes, and when they started to disappear I thought it would be nice to do directory enquiries. It’s much more secure because instead of a small amount of contracts, you have hundreds of thousands of customers. I had never worked in telecoms, but I was good with numbers and had learned over the years that if you create a brand properly, such as Nike or Adidas, it lives on.”

The ticket wallet initiative marked the beginning of her first business, Stenics Media, which specialised in advertising. In 2006, she launched 11890 as the third entrant into the national directory enquiries market, in which the main players were 11811 (Eircom) and 11850 (Conduit).

Being a square peg

A common thread among several successful entrepreneurs interviewed to date in Owner Manager, Byrne wasn’t overly enamoured with school.

“I hated school. It was a system to keep 30 kids in check. I wanted to say that whoever wrote the book we were studying could have done it better; that there was another way of doing things, and teachers weren’t interested.

“School suits people who can rehash from a book. It wasn’t built for me. I saw life as being a lot broader, with people being made up of lots of different talents. I didn’t know what I wanted to be when leaving school, so decided to get a job, and then learn everyone else’s job. I always want to know more, faster.”

Byrne’s first job after completing a course in the College of Marketing and Design was as an export clerk with Gateaux.

From there she went on to work with various companies, from Jacobs to Bank of Ireland and AC Nielsen, in marketing and management roles.

“I learned how large multinationals worked and got a huge amount of varied experience, from brand management and manufacturing to radio sales, banking and market research. I accidentally fell into working for people such as Michael Carey (chairman of Jacobs Fruitfield) and saw that success was about hard work and talent. I realised you make your own luck and I was inquisitive and willing to learn.”

Byrne admits that sometimes that inquisitiveness goes a step further and she sticks her nose into things that are none of her business in the interest of getting things done.

“People feeling helpless, frustrated and angry doesn’t fix anything. Unless you do something you won’t change the future. There’s no point just shouting at the TV.

“People have a public and a private image and if you ask them nicely they will say yes to you. If it’s a good idea, it will happen. Make sure it’s the best it can be and then ask, but ask big. If you are going to go to the trouble of ringing someone with influence, you need to make it worth your while.”

Deregulation of telecoms provided Byrne with the opportunity of becoming a third player in directory enquiries and once 11890 was up and running her philosophy of asking for business became ingrained.

The company contacted a few large organisations and asked would they be prepared to change their directory enquiries provider for a more competitive price. When it had three serious expressions of interest it investigated what would be involved in establishing a call centre. A new centre would have been very expensive, but 11890 managed to find a second-hand, hardly used centre for a fraction of the price, which greatly reduced set-up costs.

The right pieces in place

“The planets were aligned. We had the right product, which was free, and the right advertising. We got Eddie Hobbs’ permission to use an impersonation of him in the ads, which were aired shortly after his ‘Rip Off Republic’ presentation. He was the right person, who represented value for money,” Byrne recalls.

Investment in advertising has been an important part of 11890’s strategy. By mid 2009, the company had invested €8m to reach a market share of 16pc.

“We believe in more advertising, rather than less, during tough times. Your instinct might be to save costs in order to survive, but the opposite is true. We have the most share of voice on radio and have no intention of stopping. We want to be the brand that shouts about the positives,” says Byrne.

“Our aim is to try to grow to 33pc of the market. We are staying on the ‘buy Irish’ route and will work ourselves to the bone to stop jobs going out of the country.

“When business slowed down in Ireland, calls dropped. It was a different environment – 11850 had moved its call centre to Manila. We asked our people should we drop our bonus scheme or let people go and they made the decision to drop the bonus scheme. That was the pain we took.

“There have been good moments and really low moments over the past few years and sometimes you say to yourself ‘Oh my God, how am I going to hold all this together?’ But the past 12 months have been good, and while everyone else was panicking, we knew what we were doing.”

11890 now employs 87 people at its 24-hour call centre, many of whom are part-time workers.

Enterprising women

Byrne attended National Women’s Enterprise Day on 19 November, having spoken at the event the past two years. She feels it’s important to encourage women to run businesses and aspire to more senior roles for the sake of the nation as a whole.

“I want to show people that it doesn’t matter who you are or what sex you are, you’re just doing a job. Statistically there is an imbalance when it comes to female entrepreneurship – less than 30pc of new start-ups in Ireland are started by women, compared to less than 50pc in the US.

“Women are at the forefront of setting up businesses in the US.They have a couple of good role models, they have Oprah. When things get tough, women in the US strive to keep food on the table, setting up businesses associated with traditional female roles such as launderettes. We need more women in accounting, engineering and banking.

“The only bank still surviving in Iceland was founded by two women, and women have been appointed to run the nationalised banks. At one stage we had women running Vodafone and O2 here. But we’ve never had women at the top in banking – that would be a nice change. Women need to stretch further in their ambitions. The important thing is to focus on things you can do well and then just do them.”

This article was originally published in Owner Manager, Vol 3 Issue 5 2010