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Featured Business: WattSpot
Name: Conor Nolan, CEO and Co-founder of WattSpot
Company Background: “Where’s the nearest WattSpot?” This is the question Conor Nolan and his co-founder Conor McGowan want to overhear walking down Grafton Street in the near future.
Anybody with a smartphone knows the pain of having to ask for a charger or seek out a socket to charge a phone. WattSpot is about having free phone charging everywhere you go.
“Phone charging facilities are a luxury,” explains Nolan. He would like to see it as another necessary service.
Nolan and McGowan first targeted big name brands such as Insomnia, Topaz and the larger hotel groups before going after independent coffee shops. A good call, as Nolan says.
The current products include boxes that are rechargeable and don’t require sockets at tables, or drilling, as well as a mains version. The benefit to the providers is that people who need mobile device charging facilities will choose the business that has a WattSpot.
Funnily enough for such a young company, its origins can be traced back to the golf course. Nolan (21), now in his second year of a psychology degree at Institute of Art, Design and Technology (IADT), got to know McGowan, a business and entrepreneurship student at IADT, while caddying in Rhode Island on a J1.
Nolan was contemplating doing a psychology degree and heard IADT was great. When he ended up studying there and got the idea for WattSpot, he turned to fellow student McGowan and they started working on the project together.
WattSpot made it through to Phase II of Enterprise Ireland’s New Frontiers programme, through which it has received funding and office space at Media Cube, IADT’s onsite business space. This is, conveniently, a stone’s throw from lecture halls.
McGowan is now completing his internship at WattSpot.
Interview with Conor Nolan
What was the inspiration for setting up your business?
I always wanted to set up my own business. I had an e-commerce business at the start of college for a few months, selling phone cases. As part of that we were selling phone-charging cases, which were very popular. That might have had some influence. But three years working at Expert Electrical in Arnotts, with dozens of staff and customers coming up to us every day asking to charge their phone, played more of a role. And of course, as a student, nearly everyone was constantly complaining about his or her own batteries. So I said I’d do something about it.
How did you initially fund your business?
We threw in a few hundred euro each so we had samples to show customers/clients. Then our parents pitched in 50:50 to fund the first 100 units. We have survived on our own from there.
Have you diversified your offering from your original focus or set up other businesses?
No – the goal was, and always will be, to provide phone-charging facilities everywhere, to make everyone’s day a little bit easier.
What have been the highlights to date?
It has to be the Web Summit. It was awesome. We received international exposure, which led to companies – in particular William Hill – coming straight up to us and saying “That’s exactly what we’re looking for.” WattSpot is now available right across the UK. And it’s pretty cool when you’re 21 and having meetings in the Shelbourne!
What’s the bravest step you’ve made in relation to your business?
Probably leaving my part-time job in January, cutting off all other funding and relying solely on this. It was made a lot easier with Enterprise Ireland’s New Frontiers Programme. But it’s not a start-up that I ever thought might fail. We’ve always had total belief in what we do and we know how necessary this service is. It’s more a start-up where you have to act quickly to really establish yourself before other people enter the market. We’ve started a whole new market here.
What’s your favourite part of being a business owner/entrepreneur?
Knowing that whatever you do you’re doing for yourself. Everything is for WattSpot. You don’t feel bad about staying up late or getting up early for work, because whatever you put into it you’re going to get back out. If the grind pays off, you’re the one reaping the benefit. I really like that side of it.
How do you achieve a work-life balance?
Work, life and college! Before Christmas it was pretty hectic: in a lecture worrying about closing deals, and in the office worrying about essays, and then working part time at the weekends as well. Now I have the weekends free, which really helps. If I was in college for the day and had a two-hour break I’d just pop over to the office and do a bit of work. I leave weekends free for college work or any extra things that need to be taken care of.
Are you inspired by any business figures or success stories?
One that really hit me at the Web Summit was Paddy Cosgrave and the whole Web Summit explosion. I went to the Student Summit with my mates, who weren’t there during the day, and Paddy was talking about how four years ago he was just chatting to his mates about this tech get-together, and now it’s the centrepiece of the tech world for a whole week! I really look up to Niall Harbison as well; his book had a big impact on me. Also the Collison brothers – Paddy and John – for two young lads like that that to be running such a successful company like Stripe is incredible.
What tools or technologies do you use that benefit your customers or business?
Hardware-wise, the units themselves are pretty awesome. They cater for every smartphone and the battery can charge up to 25 phones. In that way we cater for everyone. We also plan to introduce new phone charging products in the near future under the WattSpot brand. In a business sense, LinkedIn is an invaluable tool. And for accounts, Bullet is great.
Do you feel you know what your customers really want? How do you stay updated with this information?
It’s where the business came from in a sense; everyone (us included) needs a place to charge their phones when you’re out and about. The vast majority of smartphones won’t last a day, they won’t even last until lunch. I do a lot of research online myself – on new products and technologies. That’s how I keep up to date and make sure we’re not static. People are coming up to me lately and asking me am I worried about Ikea and Starbucks and all the big wireless charging headlines, and the answer is no. We had the same Qi Wireless chargers back when we started and decided against them as the technology was too primitive, and it still is. It’s been in Chevrolet cars since 2011, it’s nothing new. In saying that, I agree wireless charging is the future, and WattSpot will adapt, but only when we believe it is good enough.
What has been the biggest challenge your business has faced?
Cashflow. For any start-up, that’s the big issue. When I started off, I didn’t have a clue of the hidden costs. When it was just an idea, I didn’t realise how much it was going to cost, which was probably a good thing!
What part of running a business comes to you naturally?
I have a good eye for detail, and am also good at recognising opportunities (like the original gap in the market), and going for it. I’ve played sports all my life as well and I would see myself as a leader, so getting people together and achieving goals or targets is second nature to me. I have also benefitted from studying modules such as social and organisational psychology, which help give me an edge. However, my knowledge of business, in particular the accounts, is very limited. Which is why having Conor there is so important. It’s a really great partnership when you break it down.
How did you scale/grow your business?
It’s been pretty much grinding. Cold calling random stores to get a regional manager’s number, to get the marketing manager’s number, to be put in front of the CEO. It’s a long process but it pays off if you can get them to believe in your idea. A good few of our connections come through LinkedIn, media publicity and things like the Web Summit. We were on Today FM one morning and within two hours had 10 emails from different clients. Especially for something niche like this, it really does help to get us exposure.
How do you get ideas to further your business?
In regard to technology, it’s my own research online. Checking out the new gadgets, and reading honest reviews on whether they’re viable or not. Regarding expansion and growth modelling, or improving on business models, we get loads of advice from mentors and advisors. I do have an entrepreneurial streak, but I don’t know the ins and outs of it, so it’s great to have the support there from the likes of IADT and Enterprise Ireland.
What motivates you to stay running a business?
I don’t need [a motivator]. People complain everyday about their phone batteries, so until people can go about their day and subconsciously know there’s a WattSpot nearby, we still have a job to do. I’m also looking forward to walking down Grafton Street and hearing someone say
“Where’s the nearest WattSpot?” That’s when it’ll really hit home that we’ve done a good job. We want to do what Hoover did to the vacuum and make WattSpot the main brand associated with phone charging.
What’s your vision for the future?
Our goal is to be the leading supplier of phone charging facilities in the UK and Ireland. This industry is really starting to take off now. The wireless charging market is estimated to reach $13.78 billion by 2020 so wireless charging is no doubt the future. And, as I said, we’ll get on board when the technology is there and viable. However, I believe new forms of wireless charging will emerge very soon.
I can envision, within the next five years, that people are going to walk onto trains, for example, and simply “accept” phone charging. It’ll be like using WiFi. It’s really exciting to be involved in this industry at the moment because it’s moving at such a ferocious pace.
What’s the best business advice you’ve received?
For as long as I can remember, my mum has said to me “PMA” – “Positive Mental Attitude”. Whether it’s business, college, sport or in my personal life, I try and look at the bright side of everything. Take what you can learn from it and move on.
What would be your advice to businesses starting out?
Just go for it. If you have an idea and you believe in it, there’s no reason you shouldn’t go for it. It’s better to learn from failure than regret it for the rest of your life. If WattSpot did flop, I’d be back up again doing something else. The start-up scene is addictive. There’s so much support out there at the moment too, I can’t emphasise it enough.
What’s your favourite motivational business quote?
“I’m convinced that about half of what separates successful entrepreneurs from the non-successful ones is pure perseverance” – Steve Jobs.
What, if anything, would you do differently?
A business and entrepreneurship degree! Nah, not really. I love psychology, and even if WattSpot made it big, I’d still want to finish my degree and work with athletes as a sport psychologist. I’m pretty happy with everything we’ve done so far with WattSpot and I believe people are starting to buy in to our idea, so if we can just keep adding to the momentum, we should be alright. I would have liked to have done more entrepreneurial stuff when I was younger to give me more knowledge going into this, but that’s about it!
Phone: +353 83 152 8717
Personal Twitter: https://twitter.com/ConorN11
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