Taking a leap of faith: Meet the NI enterpreneurs seeking investors to fund their dreams

GRAEME COUSINS learns about a business venture that is helping to connect NI entrepreneurs with potential investors

Wednesday, 26th May 2021, 8:00 am
Mixing a BatchBuddy batching bottle with ingredients

Far from dampening their spirits, the beginning of lockdown last March actually caused some of NI brightest sparks to set about achieving their business dreams.

According to Jenny Ervine of Raise Ventures, a privately-led company which links start ups with investors, being out of work has been just the motivation some people needed to make a fresh start.

She said: “Sometimes being furloughed or being made redundant can provide an opportunity for people to go after their passion. Or they might have experienced a problem which they want to solve, for example tech entrepreneurs are stepping in to build something they can sell back into the industry they’ve just left.

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Back row, the Raise team of Jenny Ervine, Michael McDowell and Marty Neill . Front row, Raise start ups John Ferguson CEO Batchbuddy and Charlene Armour CEO Armour

“It’s actually quite a good time. The people who are entrepreneurial will jump into it straight away.

“And that could be people of any age. We’ve seen some great pitches from students or it could be someone whose been in an industry for a number of years and want to try something different. It’s not constricted by gender either.”

Raise Ventures began life in 2010 as Start Six with the same ethos it has today – connecting start up businesses with investors, many of whom are also venturing into that field for the first time.

In 2019 Raise, led by Jenny along with Marty Neill, Matt Johnston and Michael McDowell, began its Accelerator programme, which essentially putting a rubber stamp on start up companies by scrutinising their entire business model, offering them guidance and helping them to develop their ideas.

John Ferguson and Kellie Blair from BatchBuddy

Their new programme Raise Syndicate offers angel investors (individuals who provide capital for a business start-up) the opportunity to invest in early stage fledgling companies that have graduated from the Accelerator programme.

Jenny said: “The challenge for the startups is collating enough angel investors to get the investment they need and the challenge for angel investors is how to get started with investing.

“The Raise Syndicate will facilitate quicker collaboration between startups and angels as well sharing of more industry knowledge and expertise in the best way to make the process seamless.”

Because the start ups have already completed the Raise Accelerator programme it means investors can provide capital with more confidence.

Charlene Armour

She said: “The Raise Accelerator programme will give confidence to angel investors that the early stage startups are investor ready.

“With a portfolio of 12 quality startups combined with their pitching introduction events, the Raise offering provides a programme of startups that have a good team, and a good product in a large market that has potential.”

Nine of the 12 start ups are from Northern Ireland with the other three coming from Ireland and the UK.

Jenny said: “The 12 are all at slightly different stages. We have four that are investor ready. Another four, five or six that will be investor ready very soon.

“We are one of the first privately led accelerator investment programmes in Northern Ireland.

“Other programmes would be government led like Propel and Catalyst.

“We work alongside these companies for six months. We know them inside out.”

Jenny comes from a marketing background: “I love the story of a start up, turning it into a campaign is one of my passions.

“I was lucky enough to get involved a few years ago as an angel investor with a couple of companies. I’ve seen both sides in terms of marketing for start ups and as an investor looking for start ups.”

Of the importance of TV programmes like Dragon’s Den, Jenny said: “Seeing everyday people give it a go, it certainly helps to inspire other people to do the same.

“One of the start ups that I’m involved in called Snuggle actually pitched at Dragon’s Den a number of years ago and got an offer.”

Timing is everything, and for John Ferguson, the CEO of BatchBuddy, lockdown couldn’t have come at a better time for his business.

With bars and restaurants shut, the only place people could enjoy a cocktail was at home.

It meant that John’s business plan of providing regular folks with the means of producing high-end mixes in their own kitchen got a short in the arm.

With BatchBuddy John and his team have developed a new range of smart cocktail batching bottles and ingredients boxes that he says will guarantee amazing tasting cocktail every time, even if you have no experience making cocktails.

He came up with the idea after spending some time teaching bar staff how to make cocktails and concluding that the process could be simplified to the point of using a bottle with marking on it telling you where each ingredient had to be poured to.

John said: “The problem that is solves is that it guarantees you, even if you’ve never made a cocktail in your life, that you will make a cocktail that tastes like it came out of the Merchant Hotel.

“All you’ve to do is fill each ingredient to the line and put it in the fridge. It also guarantees you don’t have unwanted ingredients in the cupboard.”

He added: “The idea of the batching bottles came about nine months before the pandemic.

“I did not know the pandemic was coming, but we got lucky being in the right place at the right time.

“We’re in a good place at the minute. We had a successful Kickstarter (crowdfunding campaign), raised over £10,000, and used that to buy our initial stock.

“We fulfilled that Kickstarter and now we’ve got a range of seven bottles, we’ve got all the ingredients kits to go with them. Sales are slow but steady.”

John said the most popular kits were for the Bramble or the Pornstar Martini.

John commented: “We’re introducing cocktails to people who have never drank cocktails before. These are beer drinkers, they’re just amazed by it.

“It’s an experience, it’s as close to Michelin Star food as you can get.

“I actually don’t drink myself, but I do appreciate the art.”

John, who has years of experience in the hospitality industry, said his business is really focused on tapping into online consumerism: “One of the big changes is that people are buying drinks online, that’s something that wasn’t really happening before lockdown.

“Now that everyone knows how to do it, how easy it is, I think that’s changed the hospitality landscape.

“Of course people will still go to pubs and off sales, but the adoption of online consumerism in the past year is unparalleled.”

He commented: “We’ve grown the business to the point where we’re attractive to a seed investor or an angel investor.

“We’re looking for around the £200,000 mark to take us to the next stage.”

Another investor-ready company is Armour – a platform that allows companies to identify, audit and comply with health and safety legislation.

It’s run by Charlene Armour from Stewartstown in Co Tyrone. She said: “To start up a business a few hours here and there is not going to cut it. If you think something is going to take you two months it’s going to take you six, that’s the reality of it.

“Thankfully we are part of the Raise programme. Raising investment isn’t easy, irrespective of male, female or otherwise, it’s a tough gig, but it’s worth it if you can solve that problem.

“Raise have helped so much to get me to this stage of pitching to investors.”

Charlene spent so many years working as a consultant on health and safety legislation that she decided it was time to put herself out of business so to speak.

Her idea was to create a software package that allowed companies to stay on top of legislation that was relevant to them.

She said: “We launched the business in June 2020 so we were knee deep in lockdown

“I’d been working on it for about a year and a bit before that. It kept me out of mischief anyway.

“Essentially what we had to do was create a new platform that allows businesses to identify the health and safety legislation that is applicable to them, plug the gaps and keeps them up to date with legislative changes.”

Charlene is looking for £250,000 investment to grow her business: “A lot of the business is bootstrapped by myself. We’ve launched the product, we have some paying customers, but the difficulty that I face is that I’m not a developer.

“We’re raising that investment to try and bring in developers and more content experts so we can scale it out into Europe, United States.”

She commented: “My goal is ultimately to disrupt myself. Via this platform I can give them the tools and the tips and the tricks and all the things that I would be teaching them when I was working as a consultant.”

As well as helping BatchBuddy and Armour to the point at which they can pitch to investors, Raise Ventures have also nurtured a number of other innovative companies.

One is SWIS (Sleep When I Sleep) – an app to pause playback on audiobooks or podcasts so you can find your place when you wake up.

They have also helped to grow ConXion - a mobile app to connect travellers around the world who wish to share a taxi and save on travel costs.

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