A Business Born out of the Heartbreak of Cancer

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A Business Born out of the Heartbreak of Cancer

My Mother & Father, Bernadette & Thomas Hurley, 1978

In 2011, my world fell apart. I was sitting at my desk in a design studio at the other side of the world, when I received a text from my father asking me to call him immediately. It was extremely unusual for my father to send me an SMS. My mind instantly raced through every conceivable negative connotation. I made my excuses to my boss and left the office. I opened the front door of the building and was hit by the baking rays of Australian sunshine. I always associated bad news with the coldness and raininess of home. Perhaps, it was something good. I took out my trusty Nokia and called my father. We exchanged pleasantries and then-the bombshell, “Your mother has taken a turn for the worst. This time it doesn’t look good. You need to come home as soon as possible”. My heart sunk.

A Business Born out of the Heartbreak of Cancer

My Mother & cousin Roisin, 2010

My mother had been battling ovarian cancer for over three years. She had been in this position before and come through it. What was so different this time, I thought? I returned to work and buried my head in some in-house branding project. For the next five hours I was Arnold Schwarzenegger, method acting as an android. I did my best to block out the bad news and ignore my emotions. If I didn’t think about it, then everything would be ok. Buoyed by this terrible logic, I boarded the daily train ride home to Surry Hills. After departing Hornsby train station, I popped on the headphones and put my iPod on shuffle. Several stops later, it skipped to a song from a my mothers 50th birthday playlist. Rod Stewart’s rendition of Maggie May penetrated my eardrums. The news finally began to sink in and the tears started to flow. Over the next few days I got my affairs in order, said my goodbyes and left Sydney. I didn’t know if I would ever be back, or what lay in store when I got home.

The Long Goodbye

The trip to Cork was the worst journey of my life. It took forty-eight hours to get home from Sydney via Abu Dhabi, London, Dublin, and finally an air coach to Cork. I must have watched over a dozen movies on the various flights home. To this day, I have no recollection of a single one. I vaguely recall a mother sitting in front of me patiently answering her sons various plane-related questions. Her reassuring tone reminded me of my mother. In that moment, I longed to hear the warmth of her voice, that presence that made me feel so safe as a child. When I finally arrived home, I ran up to my mother’s bedroom and I could barely recognise her. A once stunningly beautiful woman was ravaged by the effects of her latest dose of chemotherapy. Her weight had plummeted from eight stone to an emaciated four stone. This frail woman in front of me did not look like my mother. I tried my best to remain upbeat as we chatted. Our usual three or four hour chats were reduced to mere minutes as she continuously drifted in and out of sleep.

My Mom & our dog Miley, 2011

Over the next month, her condition quickly deteriorated until the doctors decided that she could no longer stay at home. It was off to Marymount Hospice via Cork University Hospital. What made it so INCREDIBLY hard, is that she didn’t want to leave her home that she loved so much. A part of her must have known this would be the last time she saw it. Over thirty years of memories were now to be hidden from view, as she would be unable to gaze upon the contents of the house-her footnotes to happiness. Each section of the house reminded her of my father and her children–Damien, Avril and I.

On July 2nd, I spent my last few hours alone with my mom. We watched her favourite movie, ‘Miracle on 34th Street’. I had to rewind the movie about ten or eleven times, due to her drifting in and out of consciousness. Despite knowing that she was on the way out, that night, the only goodbye I could muster was telling her that I loved her as often as possible. She didn’t like us to be sombre, so in between we would try to be positive by telling silly jokes and sharing borderline inappropriate stories, usually at my expense. She was self-deprecating, very funny and had the ability to put even the most anxious of people at ease. That night I remember her telling me how good I was to my brother and sister. Of course, I knew this old ploy. She had always talked up how important we all were to each other. Perhaps this was one last effort to make sure we took care of each other.

A Business Born out of the Heartbreak of Cancer

My Mom & our dog Miley, 2010

On the 4th of July 2011, two days short of her fifty-third birthday, I lost my mother, Bernadette Hurley, to ovarian cancer.

The following Christmas (her favourite time of the year) we found a note hidden in the attic amongst the decorations. Her positivity right up until the end didn’t allow her to say goodbye. This was her farewell in death and summed up the love she had for her children. Just thinking how unimaginably difficult it was for her to write this note breaks my heart.

A Business Born out of the Heartbreak of Cancer

My Mother’s last note to us, found in December 2011

“Sure Aren’t You Lucky to have a Job?”

In the aftermath of the funeral, the visitors grew fewer and I had nothing to distract me from my grief. In hindsight, this was probably a good thing, but at the time I thought the best way to cope was to bury myself in work.

It was time to find a new job.

For the first time in my life, I reluctantly signed on to social welfare and started looking online, only to find a paltry amount of design jobs advertised. I concluded that I had to take the initiative. I got in contact with about twenty creative directors from agencies in Cork and Dublin. Out of these agencies, six were interested in having a chat. Armed with my updated portfolio, a host of glowing references and bags of optimism, I was in for a very rude awakening.

Out of six companies with whom I met, two Dublin based agencies offered me a job. Things seemed good, until the respective salaries were discussed. I was shocked by the figures on offer. I was fully aware of the economic turmoil in Ireland, but the money on the table was less than I earned in my first design job after I graduated. I added up the numbers and concluded that these offers would actually end up costing me money. After asking for a few days to mull over each respective offer, I got back in touch with both companies. I tried to negotiate a better deal, but there was no movement on their end. I was extremely reluctant to start at the bottom of a ladder that had taken the previous four years of hard work to climb. Both companies held all the cards and it was obvious that they wanted to get me on the cheap.

At the time, I had friends from college who were working for a few design studios who were also taking advantage of the economic climate. Studios with blue chip clients were utilising free employment through the Irish Government’s job bridge scheme and in other cases paying highly skilled workers just over the minimum wage. A lot of companies seemed to be singing from the same hymn sheet, with a resounding chorus of “Sure, aren’t you lucky to have a job?”. It was true that the economy was in turmoil and that unemployment levels were over twenty percent, but I knew that this was not right. I contacted both companies and declined their offers. I was back in Ireland only a few months, had lost my mother, was unable to find a sustainable job and for the first time in my life I was facing a future with seemingly no prospects.

“Would You Ever Consider Starting your Own Business?”

After three months on the dole, I had a meeting in the social welfare office in Hanover Street to update them on my job hunting status. I sat down with an officer and explained my situation. I told her about my mother’s passing, underwhelming job offers and my eagerness to work. She was extremely understanding. She sat and listened to me, without judgement, and empathised with my situation. She gave me some information on courses and arranged to see me in a month to check on my progress. I thanked her for her help, gathered up my belongings and made my way to the exit. Just as I was about to close the door she called me back, “Ray, would you ever consider starting your own business?”. This question caught me completely off guard, but it is something that I had always considered. “Yes, I would, but that would involve a sizeable investment to get started”, I retorted. “There might be a scheme that will help you with that. Leave it with me and I’ll be in touch” she enthusiastically replied. I left the office that day with a renewed sense of hope.

Over the coming days, I got more information on the scheme. It basically allowed anyone that was unemployed for a year to start their own business and still be entitled to social welfare for the first two years of the business. I was still a few months off being eligible, but this was a great opportunity for me. I was twenty-seven years old, living at home, had no debts and practically no overheads. If I could not make a decent wage off a studio in Ireland, I would do it myself. Over the next few months, I drew up my business plan, consulted my father (an entrepreneur since his early twenties) and reached out to any friends who were self-employed. Brimming with excitement, I set about branding my new business and setting up a marketing strategy. I registered as a sole-trader in May 2012 under the name Obtuse Ideas. I was officially self employed.

A Business Born out of the Heartbreak of Cancer

Obtuse Ideas website holding page, 2012

Why Isn’t the Phone Ringing?

The first few months in business were slow. Only a handful of jobs were coming through the door-thanks to family members and friends. I had a solid portfolio, an online presence, but nobody knew who I was. I needed to market myself on a shoestring budget. I first tried the old-fashioned method of calling door-to-door, by delivering flyers to every industrial park in the Cork area. I was met with a lot of interest, mixed with a fair amount of refusals due to budgetary constraints. I managed to gain a handful of new clients, but this process was arduous, to say the least. I would spend my days calling in to businesses and in the evenings I would tackle my work. This method was exhausting. Eventually, I was running out of businesses to visit.

It was time for another strategy. This plan involved getting the Cork business directory and cold calling every business from A-Z. This method fitted in with my budget, but it was extremely hard work. Effectively, I was now a graphic designer/telemarket salesperson. I spent the next six months cold calling, building contacts and converting leads at a tediously slow rate. Then it was on to the rest of the country, but the business was growing too slowly for my liking.

A Business Born out of the Heartbreak of Cancer

First Obtuse Ideas office, 2012

During my first year in business, I learned two important lessons. Firstly, I was predominately a print designer in a world where the demand was shifting towards digital media. Secondly, I wasn’t going to be able to establish a web agency without help.

Not long after my mother had passed away, I met up with a good friend who I hadn’t seen since before I left for Australia. Gareth Barry and I had first met in 2002 while attending a one year introductory graphic design course in Colaiste Stiofain Naofa. From day one, we clicked as friends. We had the same sense of humour and an unhealthy obsession with Star Wars. Since leaving the course in CSN, Gareth had studied games design in Dublin, worked in the games industry with Blizzard and established a web development company in Kinsale (Blue Pixel). Along with having a fantastic work ethic, Gareth is hands-down the best web developer with whom I have had the pleasure of working. In August 2011, over a couple of pints in the Franciscan Well, we had discussed the possibility of collaborating.

A Business Born out of the Heartbreak of Cancer

Gareth (1st on left & 2nd on right) and I, circa 2002 and 2016

At the start of 2013, we finally began working together on a few website projects. I custom designed each site and Gareth would build them from the ground up. This arrangement worked out nicely for both parties as we built up a fantastic working relationship on top of our existing friendship. Over the next couple of years, we regularly collaborated until it no longer made sense to have two companies. At the end of 2014, we sat down and mapped out a plan to create a new company. Opus Creative was born.

Top 5 Reasons You Need A New Website

Opus Creative website, 2016

A Business Born out of the Heartbreak of Cancer

At the beginning of 2015, Gareth and I consolidated our existing clients from Blue Pixel and Obtuse Ideas. We now had a streamlined client base to build from and started the arduous task of growing the Opus Creative brand. We focused on making sure our existing clients were happy, on slowly building new business, and on putting the infrastructure in place to rival the best digital agencies in Cork. We regularly worked sixteen hour days, most weekends and during the holidays to achieve our goals. Due to our hard work and very understanding partners, Lisa and Eimear, we have been able to attract clients such as Johnson & Johnson, Blackbee Investments, Depuy, SuperValu and a host of stellar local businesses.

A Business Born out of the Heartbreak of Cancer

The two special women in my life, my beautiful partner Lisa and our adorable little baby, Nia

2016 also saw a new addition to the Opus Creative family. My first child, Nia, was born on July 15th, eleven days after the fifth anniversary of my mother’s passing. The arrival of my daughter was the best day of my life. I have never felt so happy, but there was a bittersweet taste-as I knew I could not share this moment with my mother. The fallout of her tragic passing has led me down an unexpected road. I have now been self-employed for nearly five years during the worst financial climate since the 1920’s.

A Business Born out of the Heartbreak of Cancer

Precious memories with my mom and family, 1983-2010

My mother used to tell my brother, sister and I to “get on with it”. Whenever we would procrastinate or worry about starting something, she was always sympathetic, but she was firm in insisting that we needed to work hard. She lived and died by this saying. In particular, I remember after one debilitating chemotherapy session, that she came home and set about painting the house! To this day, no matter how hard things may seem, I always apply this advice to my work and home life. She is the one whom I thank for teaching me that in order to pursue any goal-first comes the dream-then the grit required to realise that dream.

I hope she would be proud of what we have built.


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