Farming and business have always gone hand in hand for Ciara Hennebry. Now, at a time when supporting Irish is more important than ever, she is launching an ambitious new business from her base on the family farm in Rathgormack, Co Waterford.
She describes Croia Ireland — her forthcoming platform for Irish businesses looking to sell their goods online — as a potential game-changer for some Irish retailers, and says working on the farm with her father, John, gave her a passion for business.
“Farming is a business, and you have to make decisions and manage projects on a daily basis,” she says.
The Hennebrys have a sheep flock as well as the dairy herd, and Ciara says this gave her some practical insights into juggling and managing different demands in a business.
“As well as the dairy side of the farm we keep a medium-sized flock of black-faced mountain ewes. Dad has always bought and bred Scottish black-faced ewes too, selling them on for breeding. He always managed things well and I learned a lot, business-wise, from him.”
And her new business isn’t the first enterprise she’s launched from the family farm.
“When I was just 16, I started a horse trekking business,” she says. “Dad’s love of buying and selling stock rubbed off on me so I started breeding horses and started trekking tours.
“Our house and farm are at the base of Comeragh Mountains so I would trek with individuals and groups from here to Lough Mora. It was great.”
This business did so well that Ciara kept it going for four years, winning several enterprise awards, including an outstanding achievement award.
Fast-forward to 2020, after working in marketing and in the charity sector, Ciara is hoping to take the Irish consumer market by storm with her new ‘shop Irish’ platform.
“During the first lockdown, I saw how many Irish businesses were affected. I did a bit of market research and found out that the younger generation are actually those least likely to buy Irish, purely because of the lack of accessibility to Irish products,” she says.
“I thought that it would be ideal if we had a one-stop-shop where consumers could get easy access to a range of Irish products and producers, especially in the lead-up to Christmas.”
Her research also found that people were less likely to search online for Irish-produced luxury goods and gifts, such as handbags and clothes.
“People don’t know about these fantastic Irish brands and producer, so are more likely to look elsewhere. We have so many Irish designers, food producers and craftspeople on our Island and I wanted to highlight this,” she says.
“If you are looking for something, you will more than likely find it in Ireland.”
Building the website was the first challenge.
“Finding a good web developer was the first major thing on my list,” she says. “I wanted a very comprehensive, yet accessible website. However, when I got into talks with my web designer, I found out that nothing of this technicality had been done in Ireland before, but we came up with exactly what I had in mind.”
Ciara says this has been one of the most expensive elements of her new business, and it is all being financed from her savings.
Branding was also an important element. She wanted to keep the design and feel of her business as earthy and Irish as possible.
“I spent a lot of time deciding on tones, colours and design, I wanted the platform to have an authentic Irish feel to it. I wanted it to be a place where the consumer felt at home.”
Her next step was to source suppliers to join her new venture.
“I approached suppliers directly, most of which were interested. Registration is free for all businesses for November and December. It’s my way of giving back,” she says.
Despite the demands of the new business, her usual work on the farm hasn’t suffered.
“I still get up in the morning and scrape the cubicle shed before work,” she laughs.
“It’s something I’ve always done, even when working other jobs. I’d get up, scrape the cubicles and get things ready for the day, and then get cleaned up and head to my meetings.”
Farming is a welcome distraction from her day job, she says.
“I’ve always loved living and working on the farm. Now, as I’m working from home, I go down the fields and check the cows and the sheep when I take my lunch break. The cows are milked every morning and evening in our rotary milking parlour so there is always work to be done, but I enjoy it.”
She has already hired a team of five marketing professionals and has over 100 suppliers on board for her new venture.
“We have everything from small, start-up businesses to large, well-known companies like Carter Beauty by Marisa Carter. It’s been going well, and we haven’t even launched yet,” she says.
Registration is free for November and December, while from January onwards, everything sold will be on a commission basis.
“The idea of having free registration for these two months is to give Irish businesses a helping hand in the run up to what is usually their busiest season,” she says.
“We will also be offering add-on packages for businesses where they can avail of individually tailored marketing advice and mentorship from one of our trained marketing experts.”
Although Ciara is financing the business herself, she says she is fortunate to be able to do it all from the comfort of her own family home and farm. “I can still check and feed the cattle every day while not having any major overheads to pay.”
Q&A: ‘The biggest challenge has been the lack of support for this sort of business’
What start-up costs did you incur in setting up the business?
Developing the website and marketing have been my biggest expense.
The business is remotely based, at home, on the farm, but in time I would love to establish offices and a shop.
I’d also like to reach into the export market. So I’m by no means finished.
How long did it take to get your business off the ground?
I registered my business name in July as a starting point and I hope to launch in the middle of this month, so it took four months to get everything ready.
Was financing readily available from the banks for this type of business?
Yes, business start-up loans are available from the bank for various types of businesses, but I have used savings to finance the business to this point.
What grant aid or other assistance was available?
I’m not aware of any financial assistance available to a business like mine other than bank finance.
What supports bodies/agencies were available to help?
I looked for support and advice from a few state agencies, but I didn’t get any help.
I found that you basically have to be up and running before they offer you help.
Was insurance required?
Yes, I have business insurance.
What has been your biggest challenge to date?
I think the biggest challenge has been the lack of support available.
I had lots of questions before starting up this business, but I ended up having to find out the answers myself.
I didn’t find any bodies or groups to be particularly helpful, but I know that this is partly because what I’m doing is quite new and unique.
What has surprised you most about starting up this business from home on the farm?
The level of interest that suppliers have shown has been amazing. We already have over 100 Irish businesses and producers on board.
The fact that I’m doing this from home means that I have been able to juggle life and work on the farm.
What type of products will the consumer have access to on your platform Croia Ireland?
We have a huge variety of products available. We have categories on the website such as gifts, homeware, food and drink, beauty, and we also have a babies and children category.