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Dublin: 22 °C Thursday 24 July, 2014

What I learned: making a business work in the Wild West (of Ireland)

Clare Island, off the Mayo coast, is an unlikely place to start a business, but that’s just what Carl O’Grady decided to do in 2012.

Image: Eamonn Farrell/Photocall Ireland

CARL O’GRADY ALWAYS wanted to go back to Clare Island, off the coast of County Mayo, where he was born.

He qualified as a quantity surveyor in 2010, which he admits was “probably the one of the worst times imaginable” to try to get a job in an industry inextricably linked to property.

Despite this, he found work, but always wanted to come back and start a business on the small island of 145 people, where his father founded a small hotel in 1964.

“Clare Island is my home and I always wanted to do something on the island. It’s a pretty amazing place. It’s totally unspoilt. In terms of its natural beauty it’s unparalleled, and on top of that it’s got amazing community, heritage and a diverse history.”

Clare-Island-Scenery

With these raw materials in mind, he returned in 2012 to set up the Go Explore hostel on the Island. The self catering hostel specialises in adventure breaks, and O’Grady is passionate about showing off what the island has to offer.

“If you stand on the road you could be looking at a stone age cooking site, and then scattered all around you are famine houses. Walking the road you can see from 5,500 years ago to the famine at the same time.”

Business class

He freely admits that he got “funny looks” when he decided to set up a hotel in one of the most remote regions of Ireland in the middle of the worst recession in living memory.

“I did it during the worst economic crisis the world has ever seen. I put myself into a colossal amount of debt and took a huge leap of faith”

But I did that with the understanding and the knowledge that the island had something very special to offer.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Source: GoExplore Hostel

When he did start the business, he found that the risks weighed heavily on him. He argues that county councils should support early stage prospects, which in turn would encourage young entrepreneurs to take more risks.

“In terms of planning…that was a hugely difficult and costly process. At the initial start-up stage, without any commitment to carrying on with the project, a certain amount of feasibility finance for people to investigate businesses could be made available.”

“A lot of these guys are in their 30s and have been through the recession and have a mortgage that’s crippling them, and it’s hard to get capital together.”

What I’ve learned

The most important lesson he’s taken from the last three years, which has seen turnover at GoExplore rise by 60% in the first year and 20% in the second, would be to map any business project in detail before sinking cash into it.

View-from-GoExplore-Hostel-Mayo

The view from the hostel

“Do all the work before you spend anything on the actual capital of the project.”

He says that the growth his business has seen is “only because of the work that I put into identifying potential markets and opportunities…it gives you the confidence. You’ll only get that confidence if you really put that work in.”

Knowing your product before you take the leap is just so important.

Now, the hostel employs between eight and 12 people depending on the season. Employment opportunities on the island are scarce, apart from a fish farm off the coast.

He’s confident that the business will continue to deliver results, and visitors, for the rural island community. Not only that, but O’Grady says that he has opened the door for a whole new industry on the island.

“What I’ve done is paved the way for someone else to come and do something similar. We’re only three hours from Dublin and the ferry is only 15 minutes.”

For more information visit www.goexplorehostel.ie

Read: ‘In 2012 I lost my job, got a cancer diagnosis, and started a business – now I sell to the LA lakers’>

Read: What I learned – Keith Wood on leadership in rugby and business>

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