Trite but true, there’s no single way to build a business.

In our office we were thinking about the common traits of all the successful entrepreneurs we’ve interviewed.  A couple of things stood out; belief in product, stamina and a strong sense of what the customer requires.

A less obvious quality, one that’s harder to unpick but is nonetheless invaluable is the ability to, at times, run away from the herd.  Or to focus on markets that other people wouldn’t dream of approaching.

You probably don’t think that much about prisons-actual physical prisons. Patricia O’Hagan does. She’s the boss of Belfast’s Core Systems. The firm develops  technology for prison authorities and prisoners. The technology enables prisons to operate more efficiently but its further selling point is that it helps prisoners reintegrate back into society by motivating them to take control of their lives.

Patricia describes it as a bit like “Amazon for prisoners. They can check their prison bank account and access the tuck shop. Communicate with friends and family. Some bad practises can happen in prison-the tech can’t detract from that, but we can ensure we know who the person is that’s requesting the information ”

Paying more than lip service to R&D

Core Systems are in a range of markets, though their biggest customers are unsurprisingly in the USA.  The company has recently invested £500,000 in R&D (it is privately funded but has benefitted from some grant aid from Invest NI.)  R&D is a key pillar for the company as their strategy illustrates, ” Although we operate in a niche market it’s become competitive, people are attracted by the size of the market. We invest as a baseline about 15% of our revenue a year. It also helps us retain staff as it keeps the work interesting.”

You can hear more about Patricia’s plan for the business on our podcast here, plus why she’s had to hire some talent in Vietnam – kids there learn to code in primary school!

Learning from the herd and applying it differently…

Meanwhile in another part of the justice system, barrister Gavan Wall turned his back on his profession to launch a retail business. A couple of years later he has several Spars and Subways and is starting his own “dessert saloon” chain.  “From my own experience with Subway and with Spar if you get the branding right at the start you can go somewhere with it. Before I opened one Yoggie Berrie store, I was thinking how it would work for multiple stores.”

Gavan splashed out on the interior, as Business Insider points out,  he is onto something. He though, has thought differently about the positioning of the  initial outlets.  He’s opened in the suburbs.  ” We’re in North Belfast, it’s a slightly slower burn, but you get that long term traction. We all know where the  popular spots are, South Belfast/ BT9 in particular. In fact one of our social media hashtags is #BT15, where all the beautiful people go. If you go to an area where nobody brings destination spots, you can get a bit of thanks and a bit of loyalty.”

You can hear more from Gavan about his plans to expand the chain and his tips for retail success on our podcast here.  #Spoiler…He also has an interesting hire starting shortly.

Spotting trends and getting in early…

This entrepreneurship among the professions is catching too. Doctor Matthew Beatty, originally from Belfast but living in London, has launched a new platform that’s being likened to an “Airb’n’b for freelancers.” Spacehop is aiming to jump on the sharing economy, essentially connecting  your assets to demand.  Anyone with a spacious room that stands empty during the day can now sign-up to rent it out as a workspace, but how does it really work?

We asked Matthew about the business model, (he was very candid about some of the lessons they’ve learned ) and where he saw the potential. (Of course you can also catch his interview on our podcast.)

Our start-up this week is  Date-Idea app. Niall McDermott gives us his one minute pitch…well it is almost Valentine’s day.

You can also join us on Twitter @theprofitmargin and on Facebook @TheProfitMargin.

If there’s topic you’d like covered, let us know and we’ll contact the experts for you.  Or if your business is doing interesting work and you’d like to talk to us about it, get in touch.  You can email us at or

(The Profit Margin is supported by First Trust Bank and produced in association with the Ulster Business School.)