‘The one critical ingredient for start-up success is a paying customer’

1 Dec 2020

Eamon Curtin of Ignite at UCC. Image: Brian Lougheed

Eamon Curtin of UCC’s Ignite programme gives his advice for start-ups, from the importance of a business network to why you need to ‘eat, sleep and breathe’ your customer.

Eamon Curtin is the director of Ignite at University College Cork (UCC), a 12-month start-up incubation programme designed to help recent graduate entrepreneurs take an early-stage start-up idea to first sale or investor readiness.

Curtin previously worked as a consultant, mentor and trainer with start-ups as well as early-stage and established businesses. In more than 20 years, he has worked with many hundreds of founders and business owners and has supported thousands of aspiring entrepreneurs through start-up training programmes.

‘A successful start-up isn’t just about finding good science or tech – it’s finding the right fit between a compelling customer problem and an effective science or tech solution’

Describe your role and what you do.

Our objective at Ignite is to help recent graduate entrepreneurs to build a scalable start-up from an early-stage idea. We do this through a programme of workshops, seminars and guest speakers, with one-to-one supports such as mentoring, coaching and consulting available as required.

My role involves designing and delivering a programme that provides the best outcomes for the start-up founders we work with. Many of the start-up ideas are derived from final-year and master’s projects and post-doctorate research, so I work with academic staff and others to encourage students to develop new ideas.

The programme is open to recent graduates in any discipline from any third-level institution in Ireland and we receive expressions of interest on an ongoing basis. I spend some time every week speaking with students and recent graduates interested in joining the programme. Another key role is coordinating the input of between 80 and 100 entrepreneurs, business owners and industry executives who contribute to the programme every year. 

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

The most significant opportunities are where science and technology tackle the global challenges we face: climate change, depletion of natural resources for energy, food and water, increasing and ageing world population and, indeed, world pandemics.

And the most exciting opportunities for start-ups are where science and technology coalesce; where food science and satellite technology combine to increase food productivity, where behavioural science and mobile communications improve quality of life, where medicine and data analytics improve health outcomes.

That said, a successful start-up isn’t just about finding good science or technology – it’s finding the right fit between a compelling customer problem and an effective science or technology solution.

Are good entrepreneurs born or can they be made?

I don’t think it’s one or the other. Starting a business, like any other pursuit, comes down to having the right combination of knowledge, skills and attitude. For the most part, knowledge can be learned, skills can be developed, and attitude or approach can be adapted over time. So most people can do it, but most won’t.

What are the qualities of a good founder?

I generally find that good founders are impatient – they like to get things done quickly. They like people, they are quick to reach out to others and they build relationships easily. They are persistent in overcoming challenges, creative in coming up with solutions and resilient in dealing with setbacks.

What does a successful entrepreneur need to do every day?

Early-stage founders cover all the bases: market research, product development, sales, business planning, dealing with investors, hiring and firing. The biggest challenge can often be staying on top of it all.

Good time management is crucial. Set short, medium and long-term goals and regularly ask, ‘Is what I’m doing today the fastest way to my goals?’

And every day, take time to recognise and celebrate the small successes along the way.

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

I have found that good advisers and an extensive business network are among the most valuable of resources. An effective network can help answer questions, solve problems, make introductions, find customers, build a team, raise investment and deal with all the other challenges along the way.

The wider the network and the deeper the relationships, the more likely that you’ll find someone able and willing to help. Spending a little time every week making connections and building relationships is well worthwhile.

How do you assemble a good team?

It helps to identify people you can work with before you need to take them on. Find ways to work with them informally, get to know them, talk to people who have worked with them, observe how they work with the rest of the team.

When you take them on, share your vision for the start-up, outline the role you expect them to play and be clear on performance standards, remuneration and other T&Cs. Once on board, talk regularly, let them know how they are doing – good and not so good. And if things aren’t working out, act quickly.

What is the critical ingredient to start-up success?

The one critical ingredient is a paying customer. A paying customer makes everything else easier – building the right product, paying bills, hiring staff, attracting advisers and raising investment.

What are the biggest mistakes that founders make?

A common pitfall that founders make, especially those with science or engineering backgrounds, is putting time and money into developing a product that no one wants. It’s a particular risk for young founders as those around them are more likely to encourage and support, and less likely to challenge.

At Ignite, we encourage start-up founders to engage early with customers to identify real problems and pain points, where customers are willing to pay for solutions, and to find innovative ways to test that customers will actually buy the product before investing too much in product development.

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

Mentors have an important role to play in supporting start-up founders. They can listen, encourage, challenge, advise, direct and connect, and the best mentors have the wisdom to know which is most appropriate for a given situation. Mentorship is a relationship based on mutual trust and respect and, as such, some mentor relationships will strengthen over time while others will wane.

Over the course of 12 months, Ignite start-up founders have the opportunity to meet a wide variety of experienced entrepreneurs and business owners – some of who will go on to become valuable mentors.

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

Eat, sleep and breathe your customer.

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