Telecommunications entrepreneur Colman Lydon discusses the value of networking, both at home and abroad, when building a new business.
Telecommunications entrepreneur Colman Lydon discusses the value of networking, both at home and abroad, when building a new business.In 1997, as a graduate of UCD, I went to work for USIT, Ireland’s student and youth travel company. In the process of selling and creating travel products and experiences, I learned what motivated people to spend their money and how this varied between people of different nationalities. After five productive years, I left to start my first business.
The idea for the business was triggered in part by a trip to the World Cup in Japan in 2002. While in Shinagawa Station in Tokyo, it occurred to me that communication barriers, both language and mobile, were getting in the way of an optimum travel experience for free-spending groups.
Surely, there was a business opportunity in providing mobile phones to large groups of individuals for finite periods of time, an opportunity overlooked by the mobile phone companies?
The idea was simply to provide US mobile phone services to Irish students traveling to the USA for the summer months. Together with my business partner, we visited New York, where high-level introductions in a burgeoning US mobile industry yielded apathy to an Irish start-up with aspirations to bring these behemoths a paltry 1,000 new customers in our first season.
Not every introduction is a good introduction. Only by starting at the bottom and working our way up through the ranks did we eventually find the right contact. An Irishman, as it happens, managing AT&T’s New York retail network, was willing to give us a shot.
An article I read when I started Fonepool, at the age of 27, indicated that the average age of a person starting their first business in Europe was 37. I thought to myself, “Great, I have a decade head start”. What I failed to realise was the great value of the connections one makes in that additional decade of corporate experience.
Critical for any start-up is the acquisition of your first customers. Start-ups often rely on a network of former colleagues for new business. USIT were catalytic in early customer acquisition. It was the catalyst that made the business real and propelled us to the attention of international partners. No longer was Fonepool an aspiring business; it was a real business. There was no looking back.
We had first-mover advantage; nobody had offered such a service before. Word spread quickly in the international student exchange network, as we acquired new customers in new countries. Our clients and contacts were Fonepool’s greatest asset, advocating our services to their network and at conferences. This advocacy outweighed the numerous challenges faced over the years. Work hard for your network and your network will work hard for you.
In 2008, I was fortunate to be introduced to the Irish International Business Network (IIBN), by an expatriate CEO in London. I liked that it was entrepreneur driven, that it was expanding to New York and elsewhere. The timing could not have been better.
Having drawn inspiration from the achievements of successful Irish entrepreneurs, there was a great deal to learn and be inspired by in the accomplishments of the Irish entrepreneurs the IIBN brought to New York to speak, such as Joe Hogan, Jerry Kennelly, Ray Nolan and many more. I wanted to contribute to and be involved in this network; the IIBN was achieving something positive.
I was invited to take on the chairman role of the New York chapter in 2011 and was pleased to do so. I was fortunate to preside over a period of prolific growth driven by the voluntary New York board and London executive, combined with the support of Irish government agencies and departments. The essence of the connections made through my involvement with the IIBN will, in many ways, define my professional trajectory over the next few years. I cannot emphasise enough, the importance of a bona fide network, predisposed to your success. It is a great feeling now to be able to return some of that good will to fellow IIBN members seeking guidance.
Global Irish network
That predisposition to the success of fellow Irish abroad is vital to future economic success in Ireland. Irish emigrants have been sending money home for centuries and that continues today on a massive scale, in the form of foreign direct investment.
The expansiveness of the global Irish network, with the willingness to participate in Ireland’s future success, needs to be further harnessed and harvested. Our success overseas is first and foremost a result of what we have learned at home. Our value system resonates, in a world with a skewed sense of value.
Having recently sold my business, working with and seeking advice from various contacts in the process, I now spend my time consulting and have started a new software company. New York has been good to me. However, one trip to Ireland a year, with my family, is no longer satisfactory. I feel it’s time to put my network to work; it’s time to create new opportunities in Ireland. I am inspired by what people are achieving in Ireland today and am optimistic of where it can lead. My experience in New York has taught me that, no matter what you have achieved, you are only as good as the network of people around you.
Colman Lydon is the founder of Fonepool Inc, an Irish-owned telecommunications company, which was acquired by Ekit Inc last year. He is also a senior board member of the IIBN New York Chapter.