By @SimonCocking. Interesting insights with Alison McGardle  Market Executive for ENTERPRISE IRELAND, who we met in London as the only Irish media covering, and moderating a panel on innovation, at the unBound event in December.

What is your background briefly?

I joined Enterprise Ireland’s London office last year after doing an MSc in Management in Smurfit Business School. Prior to this I did part-time work in recruitment and executive search.

What is your role now? What areas do you cover?

As a Market Executive, my role is to support Irish companies entering the UK market. I work within Software & Services, with a particular focus on ‘Talent Management Solutions’ which includes Talent Acquisition, Workforce Management and Administration, Professional Learning, Rewards & Recognition and Performance Management. We have about 100 companies in this space, which range from start-ups with 2 or 3 employees, to sizable global providers.

It’s an exciting sector to work with in the UK, where employers are increasingly focused on attracting and retaining staff. The ‘War on Talent’ is set to become even more combative which presents a huge opportunity to Irish companies. A lot of Irish entrepreneurs in this sector have recognised this opportunity, particularly HR Tech providers in areas like employer branding, application software, and talent acquisition, for instance. These are all really important to HR & Talent directors in the UK.

My role involves being Irish companies’ ‘eyes & ears on the ground’ – understanding the market & building a supportive network for Irish companies. This includes providing advice on strategy & business plans, in-market research, and networking. It’s important that companies new to the UK have a robust understanding of the ecosystem here – and that’s where I come in, to help inform their strategic decisions, and provide advice based on what I’ve seen in-market. In addition, I manage various support projects for Irish companies – this includes mentoring programmes, networking opportunities and trade missions among other things. The sort of support depends on the size & stage of the company I’m working with, and their needs – so every day is different.

How do you help companies?

Enterprise Ireland’s network of global offices provide support to Irish companies who have validated that there is an opportunity for their product or service in the UK. A company’s engagement with Enterprise Ireland will begin at our Headquarters in Dublin, where we’ll invest in companies & take equity, and fund research & development or a company’s expansion. In the global offices, we support companies as they begin to export.

Our primary purpose in the UK is to provide advice on market entry strategies, and to help companies target & meet potential partners and clients. We work closely with Irish companies to build & refine their strategy, and to help them communicate their proposition to a new market. For this we often use ‘Go To Market’ tools we build to help companies plan their export strategy- particularly in the areas of market validation and intelligence, value proposition channel strategy and sales & marketing processes. A big part of this is helping companies to understand a new market- we spend a lot of time understanding companies’ offerings and the associated market opportunities. I’ve found that a huge part of my role in the last year is gathering market intel and coming to grips with the Talent Management space in the UK.

Which companies have worked with recently are you excited by?

In general, Irish software providers are pretty well-regarded in the UK; particularly providers with bespoke & niche offerings. I’ve had the pleasure of meeting & learning about dozens of Irish companies over the last year – but I was really excited after I met:

1. Clinch ( Clinch offer a recruitment marketing platform and CRM. I’ve had the pleasure of seeing their platform in action and it’s really clever. It helps employers to understand the strength of their brand from the perspective of a potential employee, and also to see why passive candidates aren’t applying. Clinch have tapped into a hugely important trend at the moment – employer branding – and they have a scalable product, so I’m really excited to see their continued success.

2. Tandem ( Tandem have a performance management tool that helps managers give continuous feedback. What caught my attention with Tandem is the founders- co-founders Aisling Teillard & Jim O’Brien are both seasoned HR professionals, with considerable experience in performance & people management. When an idea comes from domain expertise like this, and is executed with precision & passion, it’s bound for success- so Tandem is certainly one to watch.

3. POWR ( POWR is a tool which assesses your wellbeing & suggests simple activities to improve it. It works both for employees who want to manage their own stress, and also employers who need to better understand the needs of their staff. I think managing mental health and actively improving it is so important in daily life, and employers are increasingly recognising that need so it’s great to see a tool which addresses that.

I could go on and on listing promising companies in this space – it’s an exciting area which Irish companies do well in- take for instance Sonru, Social Talent, Jobbio, and Cut-E who have all had huge success globally.

What strategies do you have to help companies enter the markets?

Strategies vary according to a company’s size and stage. For early-stage, smaller companies who are new to the UK, we tend to support them doing some market research & validation to inform their strategy. If a larger company is new to the UK, or is launching a new product in the UK, we sometimes provide financial supports for research demand or business accelerators. We do a lot of project-based work for companies like running trade missions and buyer visits to Ireland as well.

What tips would you give to companies starting out?

The first thing I’d say is that the UK is a much more different market than you might think – time and time again companies tell us this. The first part of this is really understanding your market, deciding what to focus on, and building a plan. Even though it’s seen as very similar to Ireland, you really need a separate plan for the UK.

But the market trends aren’t all that’s different in the UK- another aspect is grasping the cultural differences. Understanding these differences makes the transition to the UK much easier- if you know what UK businesses want to hear, exporting to the UK becomes a whole lot simpler.

For instance, it’s much more difficult to get your foot in the door with UK businesses. Buyers aren’t as relationship-driven as they are in Ireland, so it’s a very different method of selling. You have to be absolutely clear on what you’re selling- not just in terms of what it does, but of the problem it solves. If you fail to communicate the value of your product quickly & effectively, you could get overtaken by the competition.

Another thing to bear in mind is risk-averseness; a lot of the larger UK companies struggle with innovation because of this. This can make it difficult for Irish tech companies selling into the UK- if you’re not immediately seen as a ‘safe pair of hands’ by UK companies, they may find it difficult to take on your technology. Building trust is part of this, which makes previous references & client testimonials really important.

The UK is a lucrative market, and Irish companies stand to achieve great success here – but you really need to spend time understanding the market, building a plan, and focussing – it saves a lot of headaches in the long-term.

How has 2016 been/ what are you excited about for 2017?

2016 has been a strong year for Irish business. At the end of 2016, over 200,000 people were employed by Enterprise Ireland supported companies – the highest in the Agency’s history. The companies we work with also exceeded Enterprise Ireland’s 3 year target with 45,000 new jobs. So it was a really strong year, following 2015 when Enterprise Ireland supported companies created record 21,000 new jobs- a record number. It’s fantastic to see how well Irish businesses are performing.

Throughout 2016 a couple of major events have been seen to threaten the global economy- the U.K. referendum and U.S. election, namely. But we’re not seeing much disruption so far. Irish companies have exhibited incredible resilience in the last 10 years, and any of the companies I’ve spoken to recognise the challenges we face over the coming years, but are ready to meet those challenges. Interestingly, I’ve seen a number of the companies I’m working with using these challenges to their advantage. Talent is set to become even harder to source & retain- which presents an opportunity for companies in the Talent Management space. So, there’s some silver linings.

We have just launched our 2017-2020 Strategy, which aims to increase exports by €5bn, and help create 60,000 new jobs. Given the results from last year, I think we’re all excited to build on the 2014-16 strategy’s success, and continue to see export & jobs figures grow. Our focuses over the next few years will be driving innovation, improving the competitiveness of Irish companies, and increasing the reach of client company exports into new markets – particularly in the Eurozone. There’s a lot of uncertainty in the world at the moment, but our targets are still ambitious – and exciting.

If you would like to have your company featured in the Irish Tech News Business Showcase, get in contact with us at [email protected] or on Twitter: @SimonCocking

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