COVID Entrepreneurs and the regional opportunity.
For decades we’ve battled with the challenge of how to make entrepreneurship more attractive, running initiatives like young enterprise, dragon’s dens and countless initiatives to ‘big up’ the guy (sadly its usually a guy) who ‘made it’. There are also plenty of support available to guide and coax would be entrepreneurs. These myriad of initiatives are based on an idea that being an entrepreneur is an alluring prospect that people can be pulled towards. On the other hand, sometimes it takes a crisis to tap into your inner entrepreneur and push us into action. Across the country, there are increasing examples of plucky start-ups spotting a business opportunity amidst all the confusion. With more staycation’ers rediscovering the country, we have spotted lots of coffee vans and pop up stalls beside beaches and beauty spots, typically run by young people who never did anything in catering before. We have seen thrift/charity shops pivoting to the high margin PPE business or the DIY space offering paint, gardening and cleaning products for the bored locked-down generation. And there are loads of ‘underground’ examples of hair, beauty and therapists making home visits to maintain income and their client roster. In the hospitality area, many people sign up as Air B&B hosts to increase bed capacity in a nation that has never experienced such numbers of domestic tourists, while it was impossible to source wet suits, camping gear or canoes for love nor money in the height of the summer.
And so it is with regional planning – years of plotting how to counter what seemed like a relentless concentration of economic activity in the capital was struggling to gain traction, as the lure of the biggest global employers in top end offices remained a constant draw for the best talent. Until, that is, we were all forced to work from home. We pushed our technology to the limit, forced ourselves to smile for the camera, unmuted our mics and then had a realisation that the 5 day a week commute was all a bit of a folly. Yes, we are missing the social interaction and relationship building, and sure, home working isn’t for everybody but for many, the benefits of working away from the office, outside Dublin are outweighing the downsides. And therein lies the opportunity for our regions.
Overlooked by the Celtic Tiger, peripheral regions like Donegal, Leitrim, Clare and Mayo that languished during a decade of austerity have experienced double digit house price inflation in 2020 according to Daft.ie. With national average increases at 7.4, Donegal topped the chart at 13.8%, Longford 10.5%, and Sligo 9.1%. Paradoxically, their very remoteness and isolation have driven values, while prices in densely populated urban areas have stayed the same or marginally reduced. An unexpected and welcome ‘levelling up’ economic impact.
Longer term, it will be important for the Government and its regional partners to foster and harness this bloom of entrepreneurialism, independent enterprise, and re-engagement with our regions as places to live, invest, study and visit. That will need intervention in respect of infrastructure, digital and physical, incentives to encourage local enterprise not just FDI, and more structured ‘visit’ programmes building on the success of Wild Atlantic Way and Greenways. Ironically, after years of failed or semi-effective regional policies, a gravitational pull of investment and talent towards the cities, an unexpected act of God has given our regions an economic boost the likes of which we have never seen. Let’s not squander the opportunity.