Interview: Oisín Geoghegan, Local Enterprise Office Network

19 Dec 2019 | 10.25 am

Interview: Oisín Geoghegan, Local Enterprise Office Network

LEOs have become the first port of call for entrepreneurs seeking business supports

19 Dec 2019 | 10.25 am

The network of 31 Local Enterprise Offices nationwide has been a solid success since it was launched in 2014. Jointly managed by Enterprise Ireland and local authorities, the LEO network replaced the County and City Enterprise Boards setup, with aim of delivering an improved system of local enterprise supports to startups and small businesses.

Oisín Geoghegan (pictured), Chair of the Local Enterprise Network, explains how the network has developed and the business lessons he has learned from chairing it.

What have been the main milestones for the LEO network since launching?

Since 2014, Local Enterprise Offices have supported the creation of over 18,000 new jobs in small Irish companies in towns and communities all over the country. Alongside this, LEOs have trained nearly 145,000 entrepreneurs and senior managers, helping them to up-skill and further develop their businesses.

We have also made a very significant contribution financially, providing €81.5m in direct financial assistance to small businesses and startups since 2014.

The busiest and probably most successful year yet for LEOs has been 2019. Working with the Department of Business, Enterprise and Innovation, Enterprise Ireland and the local authority network, we introduced a series of new initiatives throughout the country.

One example is the Productivity Challenge, a new voucher competition to enable Irish SMEs to become more productive and competitive. In addition, 16 projects led by LEOs across the country were approved for funding through a new €2.5m LEO Competitive Fund designed to stimulate innovation in Irish small businesses.

In 2019, we also stimulated enterprise through a new ‘Start’ campaign aimed at encouraging and enabling aspiring entrepreneurs to examine their startup ideas.

Other popular LEO programmes achieved huge take-up during the year, such as the Trading Online Voucher scheme (over 1,000 will be approved by year end), the €2m Ireland’s Best Young Entrepreneur competition, and National Women’s Enterprise Day in October, which attracted some 1,700 female entrepreneurs to 17 business networking events throughout the country.

At local level, in every county, city, town and village, the LEOs have been actively stimulating enterprise, working to help anyone with a small business or an idea for a new enterprise. And this activity even extends to our youngest population in schools through the Student Enterprise Programme, which attracts almost 25,000 participants every year.

How important is the LEO network for supporting entrepreneurs?

LEOs help cultivate a climate in which opportunities in enterprise can be easily and readily pursued by aspiring entrepreneurs. However, deciding to start a new business is always a huge and frequently life-changing decision. It is something that needs to be given a lot of thought, planning and careful consideration.

While LEOs promote enterprise and encourage individuals to investigate ideas they may have for a new business, we always emphasise the importance of establishing the viability and sustainability of any new venture before making this decision.

All business ventures involve an element of risk. In planning a new venture, the entrepreneur needs to minimise the risk to themselves. The best way of minimising risk is to prepare and to plan as best as possible. This is where LEO services come in.

By enabling would-be entrepreneurs to investigate their business idea, and by equipping them with the knowledge and skillset to plan and foresee the challenges that lie ahead, we play a crucial role in preparing for success in enterprise.

What business lessons have you learned from your work with the LEO network?

One of the key lessons I have learned over the years is the value and importance of effective teamwork. Every person in a team is unique and brings with them specific strengths. Everyone wants to work in a role and an environment in which they feel motivated, and where their efforts are well rewarded.

Another lesson is that good communications in every team is of paramount importance. With the proliferation of electronic messaging, the importance of face-to-face problem-solving and teamwork is oftentimes neglected.

Nothing beats sitting down with colleagues and talking through problems and issues, with a view to finding solutions by personal connection, rather than continually issuing instructions and seeking responses via email.

Also, good leadership is about playing to people’s strengths, enabling individuals to work in such a way that they feel that they are succeeding, that they are making a positive impact in their workplace.

In our increasingly complex and busy world, the workload and expectations on each individual can be overwhelming, so we need to be conscious of the need for every team member to feel that they are progressing, that they are being supported and that there is always light at the end of every tunnel.

How have developments in technology helped LEOs do their work?

One of the most obvious benefits that technology has delivered to the LEO business processes is in the area of communications. How we engage with our client base has changed radically with the advances in technology, and this has been hugely beneficial to businesses and startups.

The proliferation of messaging on social and digital media has meant that our messages about supports to business can be delivered much more quickly, efficiently, in a more targeted manner and more cost-effectively than ever before. And this works both ways, because our clients can now communicate with their Local Enterprise Office much easier and more frequently.

In terms of applications for funding schemes and competitions, technology is increasingly being used to streamline these processes. Competitive calls for LEO funding are now wholly online.

For instance, the recent call for funding of €500,000 in the Productivity Challenge Voucher scheme was entirely online. And since 2014, the Ireland’s Best Young Entrepreneur (IBYE) competition involves an online application process.

Also, in order to make grant applications more efficient, online processes are being increasingly rolled out among LEOs for grant funding.

How can government further support entrepreneurs over the next decade?

The business landscape in Ireland continues to be buoyant and most businesses are optimistic about the future. As well as proving its resilience, Ireland is increasingly entrepreneurial and there is a healthy business support ecosystem which is continually evolving.

However, there are significant threats on the horizon. As a business support agency, the Local Enterprise Offices must continually re-evaluate our offerings to ensure that they are relevant, effective, and meet the ever-changing needs of small and startup businesses.

Through the network of 31 LEOs, and with the support of the Department of Business, Enterprise and Innovation (DBEI) and Enterprise Ireland, we share best practice, evaluate outputs and outcomes, and make plans to ensure our supports and services are modern, effective, focused, and designed for best effect.

The Future Jobs Ireland strategy published by the government sets out the future landscape in terms of transformations to industry and by consequence, those areas that business support agencies need to address in the coming years.

In addition, DBEI recently published the OECD Roadmap and Review of Entrepreneurship policy in Ireland, and this offers a detailed assessment of the enterprise ecosystem, as well as suggesting how LEOs and all state agencies can meet the needs of our rapidly changing industry. Importantly, it benchmarks Ireland’s performance against international standards.

Through the Future Jobs Ireland strategy and the comprehensive OECD Roadmap, there are clear areas of strategic focus that the LEOs will progress in the coming years. These include:

  • Helping businesses to modernise and advance technologically and digitally;
  • Focusing on sustainability and the changes needed to enable businesses to become more environmentally friendly;
  • Increasing and enhancing productivity and competitiveness;
  • Equipping owner-managers of small businesses with the skills necessary to become great managers and leaders;
  • Helping more Irish small businesses to internationalise.
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