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Featured Business: Dúnmasc Genetics
Name: Stephen Dowling, Founder, Dúnmasc Genetics
Employees: Seven (some part-time: technicians delivering training courses, and a vet)
Many businesses start in the farmyard, and for Dúnmasc Genetics it was no different.
Stephen Dowling, who grew up on the family farm in Co Laois, had completed a level-six agriculture course at Teagasc’s Co Kilkenny agricultural college, Kildalton. He was running a machinery business (his share in which he has since sold) and started out doing bovine embryo transfer, which is very similar to IVF treatment in humans, and pregnancy scanning.
Word got around, and what wasn’t intended as a scalable business has now turned into a progressive genetics enterprise. As well as bovine embryo transfer and pregnancy scanning, the business has moved into the artificial insemination (AI) market.
Along the way Stephen sold his share in the machinery business and did specialised training in Texas. It’s not stopping there. He has a vision for the business to become a centre of excellence, and works in a collaborative nature on the AI side of things. Dúnmasc’s competitors import AI straws, or buy bulls from farmers in Ireland and profit from the straws collected from the bulls. Dúnmasc partners with breeders and sells AI straws; it then returns profits year-on-year to farmers in the community. There’s a double payback; farmers see the benefits going back to their neighbour, and it gives the company easy access to good quality bulls.
Interview with Stephen Dowling
What was the inspiration for setting up your business?
I come from a farming background and we have a lot of cows here. I had an interest from a young age in breeding a particular type of animal – one with high genetic merit, and one that looks well. That’s what got me interested in breeding animals in a certain way. The love of what we used to do at home has led me to what I do now. When we started doing the embryo transfer, I didn’t mean for it to be a scalable business. It was for our own use. Other people started asking me would I do it for them, and it grew from there. I started seriously looking at it as a business at the end of 2012. We were licensed by the Department of Agriculture and developed it from there.
How did you initially fund your business?
We have been self funded, and backed by AIB as well.
Have you diversified your offering from your original focus or set up other businesses?
We moved into training courses. We are licensed by the Department of Agriculture and vetted by the Veterinary Council of Ireland. We train farmers to artificially inseminate their own cows; we also train vets and technicians and we do the same thing for ultrasound scanning. We do a hoof care course where we train farmers how to look after cows’ hoofs.
What have been the highlights to date?
Making a success of it; when you have a vision of what you’re trying to do and explain it to the bank and they see the picture as well and have faith in you. We were in the emerging new business category in the SFA Awards and we won Ireland’s Best Young Entrepreneur of the Year (IBYE) in Laois.
What’s the bravest step you’ve made in relation to your business?
Over the last couple of years we have invested heavily in marketing and advertising. When we were doing that, we were smaller; we were investing a lot of money and wondering would we see the return on it. The biggest thing we’ve done as a small company is put ourselves out there on the market where competitors are more well known and established; we took that leap of faith.
What’s your favourite part of being a business owner/entrepreneur?
One of the things I get most enjoyment from is a satisfied customer. I get a buzz from that, and I like the interaction with customers. In the farming industry you get a lot of unique individuals.
How do you achieve a work-life balance?
It’s not easy. My wife would probably tell you I spend too much time at work. When you’re working in your own company there’s no such thing as a day off. You can go out on a Sunday and your phone still rings. I would say it’s something I still haven’t perfected. I think since technology got better, it got worse.
Are you inspired by any business figures or success stories?
Two in particular. He’s not a business person, but I very much like Joe Shmidt’s manner and how he deals with things. Even when he’s giving interviews, he’s calmness personified. And Richard Branson.
What tools or technologies do you use that benefit your customers or business?
One tool we’re trying to develop is a mobile app where the farmer can interact with our company at the touch of a button and access his account with us. It would benefit our customers and make life easier for us with regard to farmers ordering products or services from us.
Do you feel you know what your customers really want? How do you stay updated with this information?
I wouldn’t say that I know 100% what our customers want all the time because our industry changes so fast. How I judge how the market is progressing is I look at statistics to see a trend in movements. I would also talk to the customer as well.
What has been the biggest challenge your business has faced?
The company’s growth year-on-year has been painful because it’s been growing at a rate where it tends to suck cashflow. Sustaining growth and not letting it affect your cashflow is a challenge.
What part of running a business comes to you naturally?
Talking to the customers.
How did you scale/grow your business?
We got financial backing from AIB.
How do you get ideas to further your business?
I do a brain dump; when I’m trying to develop an idea, I write everything down on a piece of paper.
What motivates you to stay running a business?
I couldn’t name one particular thing. I have this burning ambition; I don’t know where it comes from. My parents have said to me I always have a plan and this drive to succeed. I do get a bit of a kick out of taking something that was an idea and turning it into a plan that turns into another addition to the business. Progression helps me.
What’s your vision for the future?
I would like to see the company grow more. I want us to push more into export markets. I would like our company to be seen in the future as a centre of excellence for improved fertility rather than another random AI company. I put plans in place to achieve that.
What’s the best business advice you’ve received?
When I started out, I tried to pay my way. Sometimes getting that little bit of help from the bank and conserving cashflow can be key. Some people starting out have this obsession of having very few loans and trying to do it as cheaply as they can. Sometimes getting that loan and spreading it out over three, four or five years and using your cashflow to run your business is better than spending what cashflow you have.
What would be your advice to businesses starting out?
Believe in your own ideas and have patience with your business. We started from a standing-still point; we had to go from scratch. I highly recommend getting mentors to help you with different aspects of your business; you can’t be expected to be everything. Don’t be afraid to ask for help.
What’s your favourite motivational business quote?
If you can’t find a way, you’ll find an excuse.
What, if anything, would you do differently?
There’s so much I’d do differently but I wouldn’t change anything either. If I made a mistake, I learned from it.
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