An Interview with Lulu O'Sullivan Founder of GiftsDirect.com & TheIrishStore.com
Lulu O’Sullivan reveals in the interview how she set up and runs two of Ireland’s leading ecommerce brands: GiftsDirect.com and TheIrishStore.com Specialising in Corporate and Personal gifts with a very impressive 98% customer satisfaction rating.
You can see the superb range of gifts for all occasions by clicking the icons below.
Lulu goes on to say that GiftsDirect.com is Ireland’s no. 1 online gifts provider delivering quality gifts worldwide. Its purpose is to enrich the joy of giving by curating unique, meaningful gifts and providing a hassle-free experience for our customers.
TheIrishStore.com provides a range of quality Irish products such as knitwear, jewellery and homewares from leading Irish brands and artisan suppliers. TheIrishStore.com’s target market is the Irish Diaspora and it aims to enrich their emotional connections with Ireland by providing curated products of provenance and beauty.
How did you get the idea/ concept for your business? In 1987 when I started on my journey as a 22yr old entrepreneur I did so on a moped with €2,000 in my back pocket and the spirit of my shopkeeper grandmother driving me forward. It was in the midst of a recession in the late 80’s when I decided to do a ‘Start Your Own Business’ course because I couldn’t find a job. Over the last 30 years, I have gone on to weather many economic storms, and have managed to build two thriving, innovative businesses which support Irish producers and helps them to get their product worldwide.
My business started off selling teddy bears for delivery, via newspaper ads and some quirky PR under the brand name of InterTeddy, in a small office in Exchequer St. From delivering my first orders myself on my moped, I expanded the business into a much broader gift offering, through GiftsDirect.com in the late 1990s. GiftsDirect.com was one of Ireland’s first ecommerce websites and ultimately became Ireland’s largest online gift shopping destination, with a vision to provide the best gifting experience, and to become the No. 1 digital Irish gift company in the world.
After completing a leadership programme in Stanford supported by Enterprise Ireland, I decided in order to scale the business to the next level I would set up a second brand with a larger target market of 80mil Irish Diaspora & Irish Fans. The Irishstore.com filled a gap in the online market for this target audience. These customers buy from us both for themselves and as gifts.
Give a brief account of your education background.
I didn’t go to full time 3rd level education but studied marketing at night. In 2009 completed Leadership 4 Growth programme in Stanford University.
Did you always know/ever think you would become an entrepreneur when you were younger?
No, it was circumstances that sparked the idea, e.g. arriving back to Ireland in the late 80’s during a recession when there were no jobs to be had so setting up my own business seemed like the only option!
Is entrepreneurship a common trait in your family? Yes, my grandmother, Kitty O’ Shea, was the person who inspired me to set up shop. Kitty was born in Macroom in Co Cork in 1900. As a young woman, she moved to Dublin to be with her childhood sweetheart but chose not to follow the typical path for a woman in Ireland at that time. She was something of a pioneer (she was one of the first women in Ireland to drive a car!) and decided to open her own shop on Merrion Row in the Georgian heart of Dublin city in 1920.
When I was a young girl, I would help her in the shop every Saturday and I always saw the same faces there, week in week out. Granny was more than the woman who sold her customers their newspapers, eggs and bread; she was their friend and confidant. She opened three more shops and remained in business for over 60 years, refusing to retire until she was 80!
Did you have prior knowledge of the industry before setting up your company?
No, I learnt as I went along.
What was your previous work experience (if any)? Do you think this gave you an advantage when setting up your business?
I worked in bricks and mortar retail and yes it would have helped somewhat but most was learnt through trial and error.
How did you initially fund your business? (self-funded, government funding, etc) Self-funded.
Borrowed £2,000 from friends and family when I set up the business and since then have had two private investors.
Looking back, would you have changed the method of funding you chose?
Perhaps not done it on such a shoestring at the beginning so I could have got revenues up faster.
What difficulties, if any, did you encounter when securing funding?
The biggest problem was potential funders, banks, investors understanding how ecommerce works as it was not a common business in Ireland
Did you encounter any financial difficulties in the first year of operation? If yes, what did you do to surpass them?
No not that I can remember.
What characteristics do you feel benefited you most when starting your business?
Putting the customer first, customer service was and is key to our business. Resilience and always wanting to improve would be two other characteristics.
To what do you attribute your company’s success/growth to?
From the get-go, I was innovating when I set up the business as my model had not been done in Ireland before from two aspects. Firstly, sending Teddy Bears as opposed to Flowers, and secondly by not having a physical retail store, but instead selling direct to consumers, through newspaper advertisements.
We then went on to be one of the first companies to embrace online retail in Ireland, when it set up its first ecommerce site – and to this day we continue to be at the forefront of online ecommerce – when we were one of the first websites in the world to go live on Magento 2, and went on to win an award at the Magento worldwide conference in Las Vegas for TheIrishStore.com.
When we set up The Irish Store, we quickly coined the phrase ‘Emotional Ecommerce’. We realized with this brand, the product was very much secondary – what we were really selling was an emotional connection to Ireland, a sense of belonging, and this had to be the key driver of everything we did.
What is your opinion on the importance of a professional network for an entrepreneur?
Very important. I rely on my network a lot and have in recent years really got to understand how valuable networks are.
Do you think entrepreneurship has changed in recent years?
Easier to raise finance, more businesses set up and more support, all of which are very positive for the ecosystem.
Would you ever consider starting another company or involving yourself in new start-ups again?
Potentially yes but at the moment, we are kept very busy building our two brands.
If you had one piece of advice for a new entrepreneur, what would it be?
Build a great team around you. There will be lots of challenges along the way, so learn a way of coping with them without them taking over your life. Understand your numbers.