Paving the way for the next generation of businesses

The challenges facing SMEs now are greater than ever before, but their optimism, resilience, and a helping hand, will see them through this period

Agriguardian co-founder James Power; judge Sonya Lennon; Three Ireland’s head of SME Padraig Sheerin and Her Sport co-founder Niamh Tallon. Picture: Naoise Culhane

It’s been a challenging period for all businesses out there. SMEs face the usual challenges of running a business, and now the cost of living crisis makes it harder for them to grow and develop.

This is reflected in research from Three Ireland, which found that more than two-thirds (69 per cent) of SMEs don’t believe they’re supported enough as a business to grow further.

The research – which surveyed more than 300 small and medium-sized companies in Ireland in August 2022 – found that support for day-to-day costs is the primary concern, with 29 per cent of businesses stating that cost of living support would be the most beneficial support for growth.

Alongside this, the businesses surveyed would also like to see government grants or funding for businesses (24 per cent) and tax incentives (24 per cent).

The rising costs of services like materials, equipment and services are the top challenge for businesses (15 per cent), highlighting how under pressure SMEs are in the current environment.

The report comes as Three Ireland launches year two of its Grants for Small Businesses programme. Funded by Three Ireland and managed by the small business network and support provider, Enterprise Nation, it will fund ten SMEs.

They will be awarded a portion of a €100,000 bursary plus advice, support and connectivity solutions from Three Ireland’s expert business advisers.

Applications opened on September 5 and will close on October 2, with the ten winners announced in November.

Padraig Sheerin, judge for Three Ireland’s Grants for Small Businesses and head of SME for Three Ireland, said there was much cause for optimism among businesses. He sees the bursary as a way to support them.

“We could see that businesses were optimistic when we first launched the bursary,” he said. “We could see that they wanted to invest in things like marketing, advertising and technology solutions. So when you look at it now, our grant covers all of those angles; a cash grant as well as access to our products, solutions and expert advisers.”

Sheerin said many businesses started with inspiration, an idea that sparked off at their current place of work, in conversation or out on a walk. Those moments could create a business that resonated with people and made a difference.

Last year’s winners highlighted this and included Her Sport, an organisation dedicated to increasing media coverage of women’s sports and participation, Byowave, which enables those with disabilities to experience video games and Agriguardian, which uses geolocation to help reduce farm accidents.

According to Sheerin, grants and support can significantly impact a business and its ability to grow and develop further.

“We’ve seen first-hand what the grant programme can do, and the feedback we had from last year’s winners has been extremely positive,” he said. “They have made incredible strides, and I’m so happy Three has been there to support them in the next stages of their journey.”

One of the best parts of having the bursary, said Sheerin, was that Three Ireland got to hear many inspiring stories from SMEs across the country.

The bursary started in the aftermath of Covid-19, with businesses cautiously starting to reopen bricks and mortar stores while others continued embracing online. And while the industries they’re in are familiar, the origins are always different.

“For our first grant programme, we heard so many inspiring stories,” he said. “We took thousands of applications, brought it down to a short list of 20 and then our ten winners were selected.”

“Covid has [revealed] great resilience and great ability across small businesses, but that wasn’t the first time they demonstrated it. That’s been there since the start and will remain a feature of small businesses. The resilience, the ability to continue, and their bravery.”

The other major takeaway from Three’s research is that support for mental health and wellbeing has increased compared to pre-pandemic levels. Some 15 per cent of companies now offer mental health and counselling services compared to 11 per cent pre-pandemic, and 18 per cent of companies provide wellbeing support compared to 12 per cent pre-pandemic.

The fact that start-ups are thinking about how employees are treated and looked after shows a greater empathy and resilience that will hold them in good stead.

Similarly, the way Three Ireland sets up its bursary fund differs from many similar programmes. While cash is part of it, the entire fund brings expertise across many different areas like IoT, telecommunications, connectivity and more.

“Ours is different in that it’s a combination of cash and access to expertise,” he explained. “It is wide-ranging; the only criteria we apply are you’re a business with less than ten employees, based in the Republic of Ireland, and trading for longer than six months.

“We want to hear everyone’s story, and how each business impacts their community. That’s how the programme is structured.”

All businesses face challenging times, but as mentioned earlier, there is great optimism out there. The last few years have brought changes that allow SMEs to evolve and structure their business differently. For one, remote working opens up the talent pool in a way that wasn’t thought possible a few years ago.

“The sentiment is optimistic,” Sheerin said. “There’s still a demand for employees and many companies are still in growth mode.

“If you think about the recruitment challenge, now more than ever, you can hire people in locations remote to where you would hire before. The employee proposition is very different as you can have a day or two in the office, or maybe no time in the office, so that whole landscape has changed.

“There are lots of reasons to be positive, and that’s why businesses are still on the optimistic side, but naturally, there are challenges every business has to navigate.”

As for those interested in applying for the bursary, Sheerin keeps his advice simple.

“Just be authentic,” he states. “Fundamentally, it comes down to personalities and people and their unique story.

“Tell us your story, the good and bad, the challenges, the opportunities, how you’re getting on and how the grant would impact your business. What would you be able to do as a result of it, and how will it help your community, the region and the locale you’re in.”

For more information, visit three.ie/business