"I knew I couldn't give up...I loved it too much"

Ahead of the Network Ireland Business woman of the Year Awards, on October 2, EMMA CONNOLLY talks to the Cork finalists, for WoW!over the next three weeks
"I knew I couldn't give up...I loved it too much"

Winner of the Business Innovation award, Jenny Murphy, Red Balloon at the 2020 Network Ireland Cork Businesswoman of the Year Awards. Picture Darragh Kane

Jenny Murphy, Network Cork: Innovation award

SITTING in the middle of a sea of 35,000 green, white and gold balloons just before St Patrick’s Day, Jenny Murphy couldn’t help but cry. She had started out the year full sure that 2020 was going to be an incredible one for her business, Red Balloon.

“I had designed some really cool things, we had a new premises in Ballincollig, had taken on a new staff member and I was really on fire, pumped for the year,” she said.

Covid-19 had other ideas and in a few short hours she saw over €8,000 worth of St Patrick’s Day orders cancelled, and even worse, people were looking for refunds.

It was devastating, she admits, but being self-employed she couldn’t afford to wallow in pity or waste any time. She had to act fast.

“I remember being on the phone to a lady in the bank trying to sort things out before the schools had even announced they were closing. She asked what would happen if things hadn’t lifted by communion time, and we had a very frank discussion at that very early stage,” she said.

Originally from Glanmire, Jenny studied business studies in college and also trained as an auctioneer.

She had aspirations to be a florist, but said her hands are too small, so instead opened what’s a hugely successful balloon artistry business.

“I opened in the middle of the recession. I suppose going in I was naive and eager,” she said.

The past few months have challenged her, but also made her realise more than ever how much she loves her work; and that giving up isn’t an option.

“If for no other reason than I’ve a mortgage to pay,” she said with searing honesty.

Letting her team of three go at the outset of the pandemic was very tough.

“I’ll never forget the silence of the workshop afterwards and just trying to fight back the tears,” she said.

What followed were plenty of sleepless nights and nightmares.

“Supports were there but they were a long time coming,” she said.

“I think I was one of the first out of the blocks with the painting and ordered paint for my house in Clonakilty on March 13. If I’d kept going with it I wouldn’t have any house left,” she joked.

To keep her mind off things and to give her some purpose, she helped a friend with a restoration job for a fortnight, but Red Balloon was never far from her thoughts.

Interestingly, one thing that struck her during a period of reflection was that she had perhaps been working too hard, for too long.

“It just occurred to me that what I had been doing really was madness — offering a bespoke service for non-bespoke prices. I felt that my effort wasn’t being rewarded,” she said.

Before Easter she got a call from someone looking to send a balloon to their uncle in Dublin for his 90th birthday.

“Between us we got the balloon to him, and she later rang me to say that he was so delighted by it that he rang her twice to say thanks!”

 Jenny Murphy, Clonakilty, Co Cork of Red Balloon Cork put these balloons up in her front garden as part of a worldwide project One Million Bubbles of Joy to help bring smiles to people’s faces. Picture Dan Linehan 
Jenny Murphy, Clonakilty, Co Cork of Red Balloon Cork put these balloons up in her front garden as part of a worldwide project One Million Bubbles of Joy to help bring smiles to people’s faces. Picture Dan Linehan 

Shortly afterwards, as part of a worldwide initiative called One Million Bubbles, launched to help cheer people up during the current situation, she decorated her housing estate with balloons with her customary panache. Her act of kindness attracted widespread media attention, and just like that she decided to launch a new ‘Balloon in a Box’ service.

“I remember being outside at 6.30am decorating the estate and looking up and thinking to myself ‘this is what I do, balloons are what I’m about.’ I knew I couldn’t give up — I loved it too much — so I went for it and announced ‘Balloon in a Box’ while the momentum and attention was there.”

Since then she’s delivered balloons everywhere from Donegal to Dingle and to places she never even knew existed.

She’s even gone a step further and designed the box so that kids can colour it in and play with it. “I’m really excited by things again now and am waiting for the last few touches to be put to the website and will also be launching a new ‘design your own balloon’ feature. It’s all about constantly thinking and innovating.”

And that’s exactly what Network Cork recognised her for, with judges saying: “Her business is so creative and unique and has demonstrated a successful business model through sheer determination and resilience.

“Her work has graced many of the biggest and most important events in Cork city over the years. The lockdown was put to good use, coming up with a new twist on her unique services.”

Winner of Business Innovation at the Network Ireland Cork Businesswoman of the Year, Jenny Murphy, Red Balloon. Picture Darragh Kane
Winner of Business Innovation at the Network Ireland Cork Businesswoman of the Year, Jenny Murphy, Red Balloon. Picture Darragh Kane

Jenny is equally as fulsome in her praise of Network Cork.

“It’s like having 100 sales people on your payroll — they are so supportive. But they’re also great to check in with you and see if you’re OK when times are tough. They’re just a cohort of really kind people. Life in business can be difficult and friends and family don’t always want to be hearing about it all day long, but members are always happy to listen.”

Jenny will mark 11 years in business this October and says she’ll have to roll with whatever happens in the future.

“But it will be about focusing on what’s doable as things recover, and keeping things lean and tight. Of course I love what I do, but bills still have to paid so you just have to keep going.”

Catch up on interviews with all the Cork finalists on the links below.

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