People often look for inspiration when they’re thinking about starting a business. And inspiration is a great thing if your business idea comes to you that way! But the story of the Bantry Driving Academy shows that a whole host of factors can help you to get your business off the ground. And while inspiration is wonderful if it arrives magically, the real ingredients to getting a business started tend to be a bit more practical!
Start from where you are
Our family farm in the Mealagh Valley just outside Bantry in West Cork is a working farm. We already had a successful business up and running there, set up by my husband Seán, butSeán died suddenly in 1997 when I was 8 months pregnant with my fourth child,and I was left to run the farm with the help of friends and family while bringing up our children.
Over the years, I realised it would make sense to diversify, and use the land to run a less physically-intensive business.That began a long process of thinking and talking with my children about how we could make the best of the assets we had and the circumstances we found ourselves in.(We still keep cattle here, but now the emphasis is more on herding visiting youth groups rather than calves!)
How to spot an opportunity
Think about services you’d like to have available: When my eldest daughter Fiona passed her driving test, I found it very difficult to watch her drive off alone without enough experience to cope with all eventualities. This was before the new rules on driving lessons came in in 2011. Now, every driver must take 12 lessons over 6 months, but, before that change, drivers could pass their test on far less experience, and you could pass a test here in rural Ireland with little experience of dealing with roundabouts and T-junctions. I knew my fears for my own daughter’s safety were shared by other parents, and so I’d found a problem that people needed solving. I began researching best practice in driver training across Ireland and Europe more generally. I learnt a lot, and realised we could be doing a lot more in Ireland to give people really excellent driving tuition. I also realised that I quite liked the idea of becoming an Approved Driving Instructor!
My idea, and the farm, made a great combination. Our land turned out to be the perfect place to develop a fully-equipped practice track. The 1km track is a brilliant place for learners of all ages to start their driving lessons, and we teach our trainees basic skills here before we continue their lessons on the public roads.
Develop your ideas with others: At first our idea was one we discussed inside the family, but when we were looking at how to turn it into reality, we worked closely with the team at our local development partnership to develop a business plan and to flesh the idea out. The West Cork Development Partnership (http://wcdp.ie) helped us to secure funding under a farm diversification scheme, and mentored us right up to the day we opened the BDA’s gates. The whole process of bouncing ideas off their team, and making use of their feedback, was incredibly important to the whole project.
Add striking details to your original plans
The track isn’t our only claim to fame. The BDA also has a maintenance workshop, state-of-the-art driving simulators, and a computer zone where people can prepare for their driving tests. From the start it was important to us that we put everything in place to help new drivers to get a really rounded education. We rethought our plans at every stage, and added carefully-chosen details to them as we went. Those details have helped us to build a reputation for innovation and excellence that’s invaluable to us as we promote the business. If you do get a blast of inspiration at the beginning, it’s important to keep rethinking your idea to see how you can improve on it.
Find inspiration again
Here’s the thing about inspiration: if it comes once in the magical form you’re hoping for, that won’t be enough! You’ll need it again and again after your business is launched. New products and spin-offs will add depth to your original idea, and attract new kinds of customers. They also give you ways of dealing with any natural dips or quiet periods you have built into your original business proposition. Driving lesson gift vouchers were a simple idea we came up with in our first quiet December, and though December is busy now, we’ve found there was a gap in the market for interesting presents for teenagers. We met that need!
Look at the bigger picture
Perhaps our biggest innovation has been to add cycling lessons to our offer here at the BDA, and we decided to do that after listening to the school groups and teachers who came to visit us for road safety training. They were all anxious to develop their road skills, and wanted to be safe drivers. But the young people we were meeting weren’t drivers yet, they were cyclists! That got us thinking, and so we began the process of researching best practice again. After researching cycle training practice across Europe, we committed to training our staff to deliver Bikeability training courses. Bikeability is widely regarded as offering an international standard of cycling education, and we’ve been building West Cork’s cycling skills base for over 2 years now. We’re very proud to be the only driver training facility we know of anywhere that puts as much emphasis on safety for cyclists as for drivers. We’re also proud to have developed a strong bond with local organisations that support people with learning difficulties, particularly CoAction Bantry. After we noticed how much learning to drive impacted on people’s self-esteem, it dawned on us that we could use our private track and facilities to bring those benefits to people who might not be in a position to take traditional lessons or a driving test. This wasn’t part of our original ‘idea’, but it’s one of the most rewarding aspects of the work we do today.
So, when people ask us how we came up with our business ideas, we explain that we came to them through a long process rather than through flashes of inspiration. Brainwaves at 3am have absolutely played a role in the development of the Bantry Driving Academy, but they are just one ingredient in the recipe that’s made our business a success.
Mary Keohane is the Director of the Bantry Driving Academy which is located in the Mealagh Valley in West Cork, Ireland. The BDA offers driving lessons and cycling training to individuals as well as to groups from schools, sports teams and youth groups.