Interested in starting your own entrepreneurial journey in business development but unsure what to expect? Then read up on our interview with Donncha Hughes, a trainer, mentor, and startup business advisor based in Galway, West of Ireland, Ireland.

What's your business, and who are your customers?

My business provides advice and guidance to promoters who want to start or grow their business. This takes the form of training, mentoring, or consultancy. My primary customer is the enterprise agency that works for the Irish State to promote entrepreneurship. They provide grants and support to startups. They pay me to deliver business training and also cover the cost of working with startup promoters. I have established myself as an expert assisting at the early stage startup period. This provides a steady stream of end customers for my business.

Tell us about yourself

My second career job, 8 years after graduating from University with a Masters in Marketing in Galway, was to manage a newly opened 3rd level-based Startup Incubation Centre. It was very exciting working with startups who rented offices in the centre. My 4-year contract was not renewed due to the economic downturn. But I gained great experience and contacts, so I started my own business replicating the best part of the day job. I won a contract to deliver business training and have kept going since. I based myself in my home office years before everyone else. I see myself as the one-stop expert for the early stages of startups in Ireland, as I have expertise in Marketing, Human Resources, Innovation, and Financials. My motivation is that I know I can help! I always wanted to be the person that people would turn to for advice. It is not scalable as currently set up, but that is not my definition of success.

What's your biggest accomplishment as a business owner?

I don’t see myself as an entrepreneur or even a business owner. I am a freelancer or, more likely, a solopreneur. I have created an excellent job for myself. It is a most rewarding job as I get to meet with strangers who want to progress their business. By asking questions, providing a sounding board, and sharing feedback and thoughts, they open up, and generally, I can help them. It can become very intense as the issues have consequences for their future. I feel privileged to be given such a role. I get to partake in many startup journeys every year, and I can pass on the knowledge I have gained. I strive to ensure that my clients are better off after I engage with them. In many cases, it is simply a boost to their confidence to confirm that they are on the right path. Other times it is signposting how they can improve with a plan for implementation. At all times, it is helping them to envision a better future. I count my biggest accomplishments in business as the successes gained by the clients. Standing back from that, I am delighted that I am trusted by my customers to step in to help startups who need support. I have worked all across Ireland and in Northern Ireland, England, Bulgaria, and Saudi Arabia from my home office in the West of Ireland.

What's one of the hardest things that comes with being a business owner?

I think I have set up my business such that nothing is particularly difficult. I just consider everything to be looked after - just like paying my Taxes. The first big difference between being a Sole Trader and an employee is that there is no guaranteed salary at the end of the month. To be honest, this motivates me as I like to issue invoices for work done and get paid as much as I can charge for quality work.

The next biggest difference is my diary. My calendar at any time is full for the next week and generally empty after that, aside from some training days scheduled months in advance. It always does fill up, but there is no long-term certainty. Like the salary, there is no guarantee of work. My approach is to keep the faith, it doesn’t take much to keep me busy, so I enjoy any down periods as part of a work-life balance, safe in the knowledge that when enquiries arrive, generally via inbound marketing, WOM or referrals, I will be in a good place to respond. I find that a quick response to clients (new or returning) saying I can help is enough to win the business.

Every difficulty in business should be viewed as an opportunity to learn and develop. For example, building a website was challenging, and I honestly enjoyed the learning curve. But I also learned I wasn’t ever going to be good enough to earn a living as a web designer.

What are the top tips you'd give to anyone looking to start, run and grow a business today?

I work with startups in almost every sector, including technology, food, and engineering. But for the purposes of this question, I will just provide 3 top tips if you aim to run a consultancy and training business.

  1. You have got to find your niche. What expertise have you got that nobody else has? Build up your track record with customers. You might compete on lower prices initially, but then you have to find an area where you can charge the market rate and above.
  2. It is important to stretch your capability. Customers will buy more services from you, so you have to be able to do more. At the same time, you need a focus on your business to know what you do and don’t do. You also have to enjoy the work. Don’t just go chasing revenue just for the sake of it. So to balance those points, the key question is, are your customers paying top dollar for your services (I never forgot that I am selling myself and my time at all times). My example is Financial Projections. I am not an accountant. But I have learned that accountants don’t like financial projections either, but customers need them, so I found a tool (an Excel template), and this is now a core service when I am asked to write business plans and help with investor pitches as the financials are critical.
  3. Do work that you like. The easiest way to get rid of or not accept a customer request for work you don’t particularly like is to quote a ridiculous fee. You can also suggest who else would do the work for them. I have found that dropping a client or project, more often than not, results in more free time in the diary, which fills with better clients and better-paying projects.

My final tip is to read. I sell my guidance and feedback. My expertise is not based on my University degree from 20 years ago but on up-to-date knowledge gained from direct interaction with startups, networking within the enterprise agency space, and the latest knowledge from excellent business books. I like practical books which share stories first but also tools that can be used on a practical basis with clients. This brings us full circle back to the first bullet point – the capability to provide a service that clients will value more than you charge.

Where can people find you and your business?


If you like what you've read here and have your own story as a solo or small business entrepreneur that you'd like to share, then please answer these interview questions. We'd love to feature your journey on these pages.

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