All present and accounted for on Startup Island

Business people
Image: IDG

A weekend on Spike Island isn't nearly as bad as it sounds



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1 December 2016 | 0

Billy MacInnesI must admit that when I first read about Startup Island, I found myself straying into  William Golding territory and wondering if it might have all turned out a bit like Lord Of The Flies. My suspicions were heightened by the fact that despite all the stories about the event before it occurred, there was nothing but silence after it.

Perhaps, in time, we might come to hear how the pressures and strains of being isolated on the former prison, military base and monastic settlement, Spike Island had led to the assembled group of 120 or so start-ups turning on their weakest members and chasing them across the island, only for the bedraggled and nearly feral survivors to be rescued in the nick of time by the Irish navy (a happier ending than Golding’s, by the way).

A quick phone call to Michael Guerin, project manager at Spike Island, revealed that the lack of press coverage after the fact was probably down to nature of the event, which meant there was no major keynote speech to be reported on, rather than anything more sinister. To set everyone’s mind at ease, all those 130 or so start-ups who made it to the island (along with the 25 speakers, facilitators and mentors), returned unscathed to the mainland.

This is probably because, despite much of the press hyping the challenging environment of Spike Island (and the outdoor aspect of the event), it was far from onerous. The speakers and mentors may well have included an ex-US Navy Seal and a former Lieutenant Colonel in the Royal Marines, but they were there for their speaking capabilities rather than to push attendees through a gruelling training regime.

“The initial marketing sold it as if the outdoor element was a little more strenuous than it was,” Guerin observes. “We didn’t want it to be ‘to hell and back’. There was a prison/army theme to it but we didn’t want it to go too far. The theme was resilience, mental and physical resilience within your business because you work long hours and put up with different mental strains.”

Still, it’s a novel approach, compared to more traditional events aimed at start-ups where a group of potential entrepreneurs are herded into rooms to listen to experts pontificate and share tantalising snippets of their knowledge with them. As well as the very different (and isolated) physical environment, Startup Island also adopted its own approach to the event itself. Attendees discussed five key themes over the two days: business model, people and networks, marketing, selling and scaling and funding.

At the end of the two days, they left the island with working solutions and three actions to pursue in their businesses when they returned to work.

“We wanted a different style event,” Guerin says. “There are loads of start-up focused events where they have speakers telling you how they did what they did but they’re not necessarily relevant to you.”

People from 18 different countries went to the island with ages ranging from 19 to 65. Guerin reveals that feedback from the event has been very good and “a lot of people found it very beneficial”.

There are plans to repeat the event next year, although probably a little earlier in the year when it’s not so cold. “It was about proving the model this year,” Guerin remarks. “Next year, we’ll improve on it and make it much better.”

This year, attendees stayed in hotels in Cobh between the two days on the island but Guerin says there are hopes that they will sleep on the island next year. In the cells. Let’s hope it doesn’t go Shawshank Redemption on them.

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