How students turned £20 into one of Northern Ireland’s fastest growing websites

Online news site The Newry Times was launched in December 2011 by three graduates struggling to find work in the region’s recession-hit media.

Editor Paul Malone tells the inspiring of how one year on, the website now regularly attracts 14,000 readers a week and some of the biggest advertisers in Ireland.

The Newry Times is fast approaching its first birthday and it is fair to say it has been a baptism of fire.

I and two friends started Newry Times in November 2011 after we graduated from university and found ourselves on Job Seeker’s Allowance.

We had worked hard for our degrees yet we found ourselves in thousands of pounds of student debt and out in the ‘real world’ – where our friends were all moving to Canada, Australia and America in search of careers.

The alternative was a spell on Job Seeker’s benefits.

We had all but resigned ourselves to the reality that we may have to move to other parts of the world to utilise our skills until we stumbled across the idea of creating an online newspaper.

They say that finding a good idea is the hard part but I disagree. In my experience, finding good business advice was the hardest and proved the most elusive.

None of us had any business experience but, speaking personally, I knew a long time ago that running my own business was something I would always end up doing. I just didn’t know what  form it would take.

We joined a week-long Prince’s Trust programme, which I would highly recommend.

Although basic, it was exactly what we needed to try and get our heads around things others might take for granted: profit and loss, tax, accounts, branding, marketing and business feasibility.

Invest NI, however, was hugely disappointing, and I could never recommend them to anybody looking to start their own business.

I arranged meetings with three or four different self-proclaimed experts and none took an interest in our proposals.

When I questioned one particular gentleman about how we should go about setting our business up to pay tax, he dismissively told me: “Do you want the truth or the Invest NI answer? You won’t even need to pay tax; I can’t see anybody buying into your online newspaper idea.”

This exchange probably best illustrates my whole experience with Invest NI.

I was told that no loans, grants or advice was available and sent on my merry way.

But due to the persistence of a great lady in the Prince’s Trust, we eventually managed to secure several thousand pounds in grants, through Invest NI ironically.

Undeterred by the setbacks, we decided that since an online newspaper was a relatively new idea, we in fact would know best, not the ‘experts’.

As a small business, it’s all about getting your name out there and creating a bit of hype around your business.

For us that was relatively easy in the first year with minimum expenditure.

We’re all young(ish) and we’re all clued in when it comes to Facebook, Linked In, Twitter and the multiple other social network websites so we decided to utilise these as the basis for our marketing and brand awareness drive.

It’s hard work and can sometimes feel like the worst job in the world, but approaching the 12 month mark we have now a readership of 14,000 per week on the website (half of the city of Newry’s population to put it into perspective), over 3000 Facebook ‘Likes’ and nearly 1300 ‘followers’ on Twitter.

We now have some of the biggest businesses in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland advertising on our website, including Bank of Ireland, Teleperformance, Groupon, Marshes Shopping Centre, Buttercrane Shopping Centre, Bow Street Mall and The Crowne Plaza.

We were named ‘Young Entrepreneurs of the Year 2012’ at the recent SEED Regional Business Awards and our work has also been featured in The Guardian, The Times, Slugger O’Toole and the Irish Business Post to name but a few.

Newry Times was also featured in a BBC Spotlight Documentary, The Lost Generation, which was an incredible experience for us.

We could never have achieved any of this without the Newry Times and, of course, hard work.

The point I’m trying to make here is that we achieved all this with no business experience and little or no help from the business advice centres. And, incredibly, we started this business by using £20 from my job seeker benefits to purchase the website domain name.

Yes, in some instances the ‘experts’ do know best.

But in our case, we proved that sometimes business is a case of going with your own gut instinct and working extra hard to prove that your ideas and concepts really do have potential.

Business, to me anyway, was initially about creating something that will get me off benefits and ensure that I never have to fill in another application form or cover letter.

What can be better than that?

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