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Featured Business: Algaran Seaweed
Name: Rosaria Piseri, Managing Director, Algaran Teoranta
Based on the Donegal coast, Algaran Seaweed has faced challenges in business that many can only dream of. Not only has the company a product that is in high demand, it can’t meet that demand due to a lack of natural resources.
Algaran has been established in Donegal since 2004. It was set up by Italian woman Rosaria Piseri, who has been working with seaweed since 1996. Her vision was made possible by her business partner, Michael McCloskey, who provided the land and coastline from which the seaweed they use is harvested.
Rosaria, who has a Diploma in Natural Science from the University of Milan, found herself researching seaweed following a career working in the food and drinks industry.
Her initial research was to find the cleanest waters on the Atlantic coast, with a mind to returning to Ireland where she had come to learn English in the 1970s.
In 2000 she moved to Ireland, funding her research with the sale of the name of her company in Italy.
There weren’t the same opportunities for research closer to home due to the tides and pollution in the Mediterranean. She found out that the waters on the west Irish coast are the cleanest in the world.
Rosaria lived on the Aran Islands for four years and supplemented her research by painting watercolours, working as a translator and guiding Italian tours.
The donation of a very expensive machine for extracting compounds from seaweeds started Rosaria on the road to being able to create seaweed cosmetics. Michael McCloskey came on board and offered his land for gathering seaweed.
From a starting point in 1996, where there seemed to be no demand for seaweed products, the tides have turned for Algaran and the company has had to diversify to increase profits.
Relying on a natural resource means that sometimes high demand cannot be met, which is why the company is moving into seaweed foods – and attracting attention from the Japanese market. The 2011 Fukushima nuclear power plant disaster impacted on seaweed supplies there, and Ireland is now an attractive source of seaweed food products.
In addition, Algaran is the first company in Europe to get Irish seaweed certified as organic. Rosaria is one of the members of organic certification body IFOAM’s (International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements) Committee for Organic Seaweed.
As Rosaria explains, one of her customers wanted to get the seaweed certified as organic and to get regular tests and analysis for heavy metals. This is not compulsory in Irish legislation, but it has been a worthwhile effort.
Interview with Rosaria Piseri
What was the inspiration for setting up your business?
I started doing a lot of research about what was known about seaweed [in 1996], because a friend of mine had a very rare form of cancer and she believed in nature’s remedy. At the time, I was dealing with seaweed in agriculture and knew that seaweed extracts were very good on plants and thought they might be on humans. Unfortunately, my friend died after two and a half years and I kind of promised her I would continue. I kept studying about seaweed; I became passionate about seaweed.
How did you initially fund your business?
My first seaweed business was in Italy and was called Marvita (“life from the sea”). I sold the name of the company; that was the first money I had for setting up on the Aran Islands. I was going back and forth to Italy to meet the people I was working for and to try and see if they would finance me. I found out that one of my old chemical engineers knew a way of extracting from seaweed that would be particularly good. The machine was about IR£20,000, which I didn’t have, so an Italian company said to me “I really believe in what you do, I’ll give you this machine as a present.” After that I started to make up the formula with my remedies. They became cosmetics with the help of a cosmetologist – she sold me the formulations.
Have you diversified your offering from your original focus or set up other businesses?
Yes. Now the major part of the business is in food. It was a choice, because food is more and more necessary – if you have the right diet, you can avoid getting sick. That is our priority.
What have been the highlights to date?
Our position with the organic certification bodies. It’s not easy to get. This is certainly something we were very proud of. We were dreaming of selling our product to Japan and now that has become a reality – our first pallet left in September 2013. We believe it will be a very nice, profitable niche market.
What’s your favourite part of being a business owner/entrepreneur?
I can do what I believe in. When I decided to go for seaweed in 1996, nobody believed in a seaweed business. I did, from the very beginning, and felt I had to continue doing it.
How do you achieve a work-life balance?
That’s the worst part of having your own company. We are two business partners. We have workers that work for eight hours a day, but mainly we work at least 16 hours a day. If you have everything from harvesting to the final product there is a lot of manual work and this takes a lot of time.
Are you inspired by any business figures or success stories?
What always impressed me was the story of an Italian family who had a child with a very rare disease and they tried to do a lot of research on it. They made a movie out of it – Lorenzo’s Oil. I was always inspired by this, because they can fight the disease now with a special oil and you can discover something in nature that was never discovered. I consider seaweed as a treasure that is hiding in the sea.
What tools do you utilise that benefit your customers or that make running your business easier or more profitable?
There are technologies that can help; machinery that speeds up the process. It is very human intensive: you have to walk on the shore, carry the bags, and clean them physically. Even if I had the opportunity I would never go out in boats and gather the seaweed in bulk.
Do you feel you know what your customers really want? How do you stay updated with this information?
I don’t believe I always know what my customers want. It would be impossible to please all types of customer. I simply talk a lot with my potential customers and try to please them, if I can. If I have to start a new product, I make it in the way I personally like it, then I ask people to try it and give feedback. If I am happy enough and they are happy then I start production.
What has been the biggest challenge your business has faced?
In the beginning there was not enough of a market so we had to try and grow the market. At the moment we have the opposite problem – too many orders. We have to say no. This has been a problem for two years. The shore is difficult. What you harvest are wild crops; they can grow and next year they might not be there at all. The way we want to go is to have more specialised food, rather than seaweed on its own. We’re not selling seaweed in bulk because we can’t get enough. It’s more profitable for us to make the final product. The challenge is to find enough seaweed to keep the customers happy.
What part of running a business comes to you naturally?
My father was an entrepreneur in the 1940s. My brother is an entrepreneur as well. Maybe it’s a family attitude; I think there’s a natural disposition. One of the ingredients to succeed in business is to know which of your products is not going to make an income for you, or if there is no demand for it. In these cases you have to change the item or sector – a bit like a sailing boat catching the right wind. This is not something any consultant can advise you on. When you are risking your own money, it has to come naturally. If it doesn’t come naturally, you have to give up.
What has been the best reward in running your own business?
Every day I get letters from people who are amazed by the products. They feel they want to tell you. It’s always very rewarding. It gives you a boost and the courage to keep going.
What was the main catalyst for growth?
There were troubles in the rest of the world with pollution; that was an opportunity (unfortunately). The pollution of Fukushima [the nuclear power plant in Japan] destroyed some seaweed cultivation. This created a huge demand for seaweed all of a sudden. At the same time, we don’t have enough seaweed. That was the start of the demand.
How did you scale/grow your business?
There is a way of growing slowly up to a certain point. After this point the business has to grow 10 times or 20 times. There was 30, 40, 50% growth every year except for 2010, which was a difficult year. Now we’re at a point where we need to multiply our production dramatically. We have to see if we can find the right investors.
What obstacles to growth have you faced in the past?
The obstacle has been to keep the cash flowing, that’s all.
How do you get ideas to further your business?
You go to exhibitions, you watch. Before we were able to propose anything to Japan we went to a big food exhibition over there to see what was missing, what would be good. You have to do your own research, not somebody else’s, because market research can take so long that by the time it gets to you it could be too old. The world is changing so quickly, sometimes it’s not good enough to have the research done by someone else.
What motivates you to stay running a business?
It’s like you want so much to have a child and when the child is there you cannot give it back. You just say, “This is my baby and I’m going to grow it, make it independent and some day it might look after me.”
What’s your vision for the future?
We thought that the Japanese market could be good for us; we found the right contacts and distributors and these seem to be doing very well for us. We might think about approaching some other big market in the near future, like the USA or Australia.
Do you have a mentor; do you find this has positively impacted on your success?
No, not in the sense of consulting on which way to go.
What’s the best business advice you’ve received?
I got a good suggestion from a cosmetologist about a formulation. In Italy cosmetology is a step after pharmacy in university – they have to study for 12 years. I think the success of our formulation is based on that. When you do an extraction from a seaweed you also extract the active principle, which is inactivated by some other natural compounds. So you have to know which compounds you must avoid mixing with your natural ingredient. Otherwise whether there is seaweed in your product or not will not make any difference. That was very important to know.
What would be your advice to businesses starting out?
A business plan or marketing plan is not just a piece of paper you have to prepare in order to get funds. They’re really your bible. You have to do them and stick to them and if you can’t stick to them you have to ask why.
What, if anything, would you do differently?
We made a lot of small mistakes, along with lots of happy choices. I believe it is natural to make mistakes and they can turn out to be positive, if we learn from them – and we did.
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