O’Coineen: A Case Study in Entrepreneurship
Entrepreneurship is not for the faint hearted. It ain’t for the fool hardy either. Somewhere between the caution and boldness lies success. Recently, I met a character, Enda O’Coineen, who gave me a copy of his book, The Unsinkable Entrepreneur. Between the man and his book, one gains an insight into some of the aspects of a good entrepreneur. Couple this interaction with academic research (references 1,2,3) and a case study naturally evolves.
Mr. O’Coineen has created several businesses during his career. The business that propelled his career forward the furthest was eTel, a telecom company serving businesses the Czech Republic. Currently, Mr. O’Coineen is a partner within Kilcullen Kapital Partners, a private equity company operating in the Czech Republic. I met him through a business arrangement while operating in Prague.
Unemployed and Unemployable, No Worries.
While an extreme pessimist would say that the word ‘entrepreneur’ is a euphemism for ‘unemployed’, fast moving economies have developed respect for this role. Academic research has statistically and anecdotally demonstrated that good entrepreneurs are not necessarily good employees, and that in fact, the prior employment has little correlation to an entrepreneur’s success.
O’Coineen is a clean example of the need to respect the outside entrepreneur. When he was setting up his first business, he said “I had assiduously avoided career employment all my life and truth be known I was pretty much unemployable.”(4) And later, when he was offered a job, he told his future boss “I’m an entrepreneur, I’ve always run my own business. I’m not really a good employee.”(5)
He did prove to be a valuable employee, though out of the ordinary, employee. Moreover, he used his successful employment experience to propel his next entrepreneurial adventure.
Research has demonstrated that there is little to insignificant correlation between entrepreneurial success and prior employment status. Both needs-based and opportunity-based entrepreneurs succeed and fail at similar rates. Moreover, a sizeable portion of entrepreneurs start their business out of a simple need to have work. So, despite the temptation, don’t knock a gal who is trying to start a company with nothing in her pockets, nor doubt yourself either if you need to go off and do the same.
Push the boundaries, but don’t break them.
In one of O’Coineen’s early ventures, the publication of Afloat, a magazine catering to the yachting industry in Ireland, he printed “Sex at Sea” on the cover and encouraged the graphic artist to make a picture with boobs and propellers. Needless to say, the magazine caught the interest of many. But Mr. O’Coineen didn’t really have anything to say about the subject. Buried deep within the magazine, at the bottom of the page, was written “Sex at Sea. Ha ha, fooled you! If you are currently reading this we are quite a respectable family magazine, this is all we have about sex but please buy the magazine anyhow.”(6) And they did.
Unprofessional? He knows it was. But it worked. And, for a budding entrepreneur with a new magazine to sell, circulation mattered more than his ego.
This wasn’t the last time that he bent the rules, and it won’t be the last time that an entrepreneur does such an act. For instance, later in his book he retells a story about how he paid the employees of a phone company to get the phone numbers of banks so that he could move to the front of the line in getting the numbers for his database at a time where the phonebook was inaccurate and information was dysfunctional. Or, that he quietly tapped into a hub within the telephone circuit without paying for it because the phone company had no way to charge for it.
These and other acts are uncomfortable truths for entrepreneurs, but very much a part of the game. They do what they need to as long as it ain’t problematically immoral or illegal.
Accept Powerful Enemies, Show Patience, Be Optimistic, etc.
These and many other aspects of a successful entrepreneur outlined in academic research are also embodied within Mr. O’Coineen. He accepts powerful enemies, shows patience, and is resolutely optimistic.
For instance, when he took on the Czech telephone monopoly, he openly took on a much more powerful enemy and did it without much fear of failure. It took him many years to establish his own telecom. During those years those years he found the right mix of employees and customers to make the business a quick success.
Today, it takes a particularly brave employee to tell Mr. O’Coineen “I am not sure that your approach will work”, for he has an unstoppable “can-do” attitude. But what do you expect from a man that attempted to sail across the Atlantic in a rubber raft? Nothing but adventure and all thrust forward with full confidence that success is reasonably achievable.
Get on with it
If you ask him how he selects his next venture, don’t expect an erudite answer. He himself says “do whatever makes sense working with people to make the companies self-renewing, independent and profitable”.(7) So, just get on with it. Stop looking for academics to give you the nod of approval. Either you got it or you don’t, that is what you are. Just be thankful that current societies can accommodate entrepreneurs like Mr. O’Coineen, and maybe you and me.
(1) Walter Kuemmerle, “A Test for the Fainthearted.” Harvard Business Review (May 2002): 122-127.
(2) P. Reynolds, W. Bygrave, E. Autio, L. Cox, and M. Hay, Global Entrepreneurship Monitor 2002 Executive Report, Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, (2002).
(3) A. Zacharakis, P. Reynolds, W. Bygrave, Global Entrepreneurship Monitor National Assessment: United States of America 1999 Executive Report, Babson College (1999).
(4) Enda O’Coineen, “The Unsinkable Entrepreneur”, Mercier Press, Cork, Ireland, 2005, p 54.
(5) ibid p 105.
(6) ibid p 63.
(7) Private Correspondence, April 25, 2007.