Start-Up of the Year Ireland 2022: Nick Cotter, The Cotter Crate

Start-Up of the Year Ireland 2022: Nick Cotter, The Cotter Crate

Posted: Thu 3rd Feb 2022

At our StartUp 2022 Ireland event in January, three Irish businesses pitched for the title of StartUp of the Year.

Judged by Enterprise Nation founder Emma Jones and last year’s winner, Sarah Ouellette of Kindora, the competition saw Limerick agritech business The Cotter Crate crowned as winner for 2022.

Enterprise Nation spoke to Nick Cotter, CEO of The Cotter Crate, about the award, his background of entrepreneurship, and what lies in store for his business in the future.

Congratulations, Nick. How was your experience of the Start-up of the Year award?

Well, my view on awards is that they’re a very necessary part of going through the whole start-up journey. Because they not only motivate the founders of the business but the broader team as well. It’s a great boost.

When we find ourselves facing particularly tough problems, awards like these remind us to keep pushing forward and persevering. It means there are people out there who have evaluated our business and firmly believe that it’s doing something worthwhile.

Is that what prompted you to enter the competition? Seeking that validation?

Yeah. We have two previous start-ups as well as this one, as our motto has always been ‘go slow to go fast later’. And the essence of that is exactly what you described: the validation.

All we do is live and breathe this, and that can be both helpful and unhelpful. So it’s very good to have objective people look at the business and tell us we have something worth continuing with, and that they want us to succeed.

That’s what prompts us to enter as many of these entrepreneurial competitions as we can. Obviously, it’s great for profile, but it’s very beneficial in terms of that validation.

Part of the award involved pitching to the judges. I imagine you’ve had experience of that already. Were you comfortable with it?

We’ve done a lot of pitches, yes. Some very bad ones and, more lately, much better ones. There’s definitely a learning curve to it and a certain way to go about it. We’ve improved as time has gone on.

I’m on a scholarship in college and probably my most intimidating experience was having six people sitting opposite, firing questions at me for 45 minutes. But it helped.

We’re trying to get better at pitching because we’ll be raising investment at the end of this year. And certainly, in terms of our pitch right now, winning this award is very helpful in telling us that we’re not doing a bad job.

You’ve been an entrepreneur from a young age. What made you go into business ownership so early on in life?

My dad was always an entrepreneur. And we grew up on a family sheep farm where everything was encouraged.

The first lambing season I was involved with, I was 11. I didn’t really have much interest in farming and I was almost forced to do it. But Dad told me I was needed to help keep the lambs alive.

At the time, I wanted some expensive laptop for gaming, and Dad said, ‘If you work for three weeks, you can buy it’. So there was that reward at the end. And that was always the message: if you work hard, you can get what you want and you can have a nice life.

The main thing is, I was able to learn about responsibility. It was teaching me cause and action, and showing me where I could go in terms of business.

Tell us about your businesses so far. You’re on number three now.

My brother Jack and I started a firewood business in our early teens. Small scale, working in the evenings after school. When it picked up, we started trying to do better because we were competing with other suppliers. We've ended up selling nationwide, and we employ eight people now.

The second business is Cotter Organic Lamb, selling the lamb we produce on the farm. That started when we had the bright idea of selling it directly rather than through the nearest organic processor to us, which is about four and a half hours away by car.

We’ve won a couple of food awards. And now everything we produce, we sell directly to the public, local restaurants and so on. We were fortunate enough to be featured on The Late Late Show, the TV talk show, in 2020. That was a big boost, certainly with COVID and hospitality businesses having to close.

The current enterprise, The Cotter Crate, started when we invented a piece of hardware for handling small lambs. We vaccinate our lambs at about six weeks old against a number of diseases. We have about 500 to vaccinate in one day, which is a huge amount of physical labour.

So we made up this piece of hardware to hold the lambs in a less demanding position. We used it on the farm at home for about three years and then a family friend told us we should take it to the Innovation Arena. We filed a patent beforehand, just in case.

We got a lovely reaction. More than 200 farmers asking where they could buy it. We started getting serious interest, and we were lucky enough to pick up three awards. At that point, we realised we couldn’t deny it to ourselves: we’d genuinely invented something that there’s a demand for.

From there, how did you develop the business?

At the start of 2020, we went off and developed the product – the hardware and the software. By 2021, we were ready for testing. We rounded up 18 of the best commercial sheep farmers in Ireland and the UK and had them use the crate for the entire calendar year.

Then University College Dublin and Queen’s University in Belfast did research projects with it as well. Those academic papers are being published in the next few months. And that leads us to today.

We’re launching the hardware and software products in Ireland and the UK next month. And then we’re spending a lot of 2022 trying to augment the solution so it can be used for cattle as well as sheep.

You mentioned you were looking to raise investment. How will that play out?

We’ve put together €550,000 on our own through the firewood business and grant aid. We’re looking to raise between €1 million and €1.5 million in six to nine months to expand the business on the sheep side and deploy it for cattle as soon as possible.

We’re in talks with angel investors and VCs at the moment. And certainly a lot of interest has come as a consequence of this award and the others we’ve won. But we still need to prove ourselves in the market.

We’ve tried to bootstrap to date as much as possible, because the ambition for this business is so different to the other two. And there’s that need for significant funding that we just don’t quite have available to us.

Is there a particular type of investor you’re looking for?

I’m hoping that whoever invests with us will be interested not just in the business’s profitability, but the positive impact we can make on the environment and the sustainability of agriculture.

In the western world, we seriously underappreciate the food our farmers produce. So it’s about making sure the social licence is protected so we can continue to operate and grow high-quality protein through our livestock farming. But we’ve got to do it more sustainably.

So the VC or angel investor will have to follow those types of values. Because it wouldn’t be the most strategic investment on our part if they’re only interested in sucking money out of us.

I didn’t get into business for the financial side of it. Yes, of course there’s a profit incentive, but the bigger picture, and what gets me up in the morning, is having a positive impact.

Finally, three businesses in, what are the big lessons you’ve learned so far? What advice would you give someone who’s considering going into business for themselves?

Going slow to go fast later is the key to success. Because if you don’t get the fundamentals right, once you scale up, you’re not going to be able to solve problems and you’re going to make really big and expensive mistakes.

Number two: get your product or service into the hands of the user as early as possible. They’re the people whose needs you’re satisfying.

And, three, if you’re the smartest person in the room, you’re in the wrong room. You should always be trying to better yourself and improving your business over time. Because challenges get bigger and ambition increases.

I haven’t met a person yet who hasn’t been willing to help whenever I’ve reached out to them. So have an open mind and be prepared to having your ideas changed or improved. That’s how you become the better person.

Read more about The Cotter Crate at the companys website

Enterprise Nation has helped thousands of people start and grow their businesses. Led by founder, Emma Jones CBE, Enterprise Nation connects you to the resources and expertise to help you succeed.

You might also like…

Get business support right to your inbox

Subscribe to our newsletter to receive business tips, learn about new funding programmes, join upcoming events, take e-learning courses, and more.