‘My number-one piece of advice for entrepreneurs? Go for it’

29 Sep 2020

Gillian Buckley. Image: IVCA

Investor Gillian Buckley gives her advice for start-ups, from opportunities in tech and science to the importance of a strong founding team.

Gillian Buckley has more than 25 years’ experience in managing, advising and investing in SMEs across a range of sectors. She joined the Western Development Commission (WDC) to set up its investment fund, which has seen more than €60m invested in over 200 SME, community and microenterprises in the west of Ireland.

Buckley was also recently appointed as chair of the Irish Venture Capital Association (IVCA) – the first woman to hold the position in the organisation’s 35-year history. She is a business graduate of the University of Limerick, a chartered director and a member of the Institute of Directors.

‘There are so many elements to start-up success. But a strong founding team and a compelling market opportunity are at the top of the list for me as an investor’

Describe your role and what you do.

I manage the WDC investment fund, which provides seed, venture capital and loan finance to start-ups and scaling SMEs, microenterprises and social or community enterprises across all sectors and stages of the business lifecycle.

The WDC is the regional development body for the western counties of Clare, Donegal, Galway, Leitrim, Mayo, Roscommon and Sligo.

In your opinion, which areas of science and technology hold the greatest scope for opportunities?

Science and technology cut across everything, so the opportunities are endless – from industries such as the creative sector where our tradition in storytelling is being reimagined in the immersive technologies of AR and VR, to sectors that weren’t even conceived of 10 or 15 years ago.

There are huge opportunities in the convergence of sectors – for example health-tech, which sees the convergence of ICT and medical devices. We also need to use science and technology to ensure we reduce our impact on the planet, from energy production to transport to food to waste, so we have a sustainable future.

Are good entrepreneurs born or can they be made?

Probably both.

What are the qualities of a good founder?

Starting and scaling a business is challenging. Founders need strong leadership capabilities, resilience, and self-belief married with an ability to listen and take direction.

The majority of our investments are in start-ups with a founding team rather than an individual entrepreneur. This presents the best chance of success with founding team members having complementary skills and competencies.

What does a successful entrepreneur need to do every day?

Drive the business forward in line with the strategy but have the wisdom to see the speed bumps and react in a timely manner. They need to communicate with their stakeholders, from their staff to their investors to their customers.

What resources and tools are an absolute must for your arsenal?

For me, a strong network and good relationships with co-investors, sister agencies like Enterprise Ireland and Údarás na Gaeltachta, the higher educational institutions and our portfolio companies are key resources to help me and my team deliver for the enterprises and communities in the western region.

How do you assemble a good team?

That is a bit of a black art which science and technology probably could do more to assist with. It is probably one of the most critical success factors for any enterprise, but there are a lot of intangibles to deal with.

You need to have a clear job spec and detailed behavioural competencies for each team member. Having or building a relationship in advance of recruiting team members is invaluable. But developing the team is even more important.

What is the critical ingredient to start-up success?

There are so many elements that are critical to start-up success. But a strong founding team and a compelling market opportunity are at the top of the list for me as an investor.

What are the biggest mistakes that founders make?

Underestimating the time and money it takes to grow the business.

What are your views on mentorship and the qualities one should look for in a mentor?

I think mentors are vital and a huge resource in all aspects of life, not just business. One of the key criteria of a good mentor is to be a sounding board and to challenge constructively. They can also be very helpful in signposting and networking.

Being a mentor is also hugely beneficial to the mentor – they develop a lot of skills and expertise in the process as well.

What’s the number-one piece of advice you have for entrepreneurs?

Go for it.

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