Experience

This section is a case study of some of the businesses I have been involved in over the last twenty-five years. These are the entrepreneurial business, not the consultancy ones which as I said on the home page, are services. I consider owning a service business to be self-employed as opposed to being an entrepreneur. Bringing an innovative idea to market is entrepreneurship.

For a bit of background on my consultancy, I established Micromarketing in 1998. Initially it was just me doing Market Research and Business Plans for west of Ireland companies in a range of industries – retail, security, restaurants, training, night clubs and so on. Customers started to ask for additional services – graphic design at first for logos, menus, posters/flyers and brochures, so I took on a designer. Then this ‘internet thing’ looked like it was going to catch on, so we started doing websites. This was very early in the web world when everyone’s domain name was made up of iol.com/something/somenumbers/somethingelse. Sites were very basic and all anyone had was dial up to connect. Working with clients who wanted a website was a nightmare! But they were exciting times.

Micromarketing continued to grow to eight or so on the team when the great crash of ‘08 came along. Consultants were the first to go in early cost cutting, so we lost 80% of our clients in a matter of weeks. About half of them didn’t pay their outstanding invoices. It was amazing how quickly the crash came. They were bad days.

I scaled the team back to just me again, just doing Market Research and Strategy. The problem with being a consultant in a recession is you work 50 to 60 hours a week trying to get work as opposed to actually doing paid work. At the end of that 60 hours, you have nothing to show for it.

Eventually, work started coming in again and I was able to get back to where I had been years earlier. I re-branded the company to Insight Strategy as I was focusing on SME’s as opposed to ‘micro’ businesses and I was moving more into Strategy than Marketing.

A good friend of mine, Ruaidhri had a marketing company based in Galway focused on digital marketing. We started to cooperate on projects with me doing the overall company strategy and him doing the digital specific marketing implementation. His company was called Conginuity.

After a year or two of working in the cooperative model, we merged the companies to form Ingenuity and started to grow the team again.

I continued to work as a consultant in Strategy until going full time with PiP iT in 2017.

I have been the CEO of PiP iT since we established it in 2013.

PiP iT is a social impact enterprise with a mission to help migrants supporting their families at home, cheaper and safer. To do this we have built a platform for international cash payments.

The problem we are addressing at PiP iT is when someone moves to a new country, it can be very difficult to open a bank account. This means they have to use a Money Transfer Office (MTO) to remit cash home (you know the brands!) which is very expensive, with fees up to 9%. This is a huge cost to the migrants. From our perspective it is a tax on the poor.

PiP iT integrates with banks in developing nations so migrants can lodge cash into their home account using our bar codes via one of our collection agents. We also integrate with billing platforms, so migrants can pay their bills directly with cash from where they live.

PiP iT is moving from the Start Up to the Scale Up and getting to this point has been quite a journey, including:

  • Bootstrapping the first few years. The three founders (myself, Julian Callaghan and Rory Ryan) worked full time while doing the research/business planning for PiP iT, building the MVP, signing up early partners.
  • Getting Angel Funding from Angels in Ireland matched by Key Fund in Sheffield who are a Social Impact Fund
  • Participating in Dot Forge Impact Accelerator in Sheffield (moving from Ireland to Sheffield for seven months to do this, along with my wife and then one year old son)
  • Getting our first transaction. Then our second.
  • Closing VC funding (led by West Loop Ventures in Chicago and Enterprise Ireland) followed by Angels in Ireland, UK and US
  • Scaling the team to 10, 8 in Galway and 2 in UK
  • Scaling out our tech from MVP to Enterprise
  • Signing up partners in EU, Africa, India, North America and Asia.
  • Going Global

PiP iT continues to grow in international markets from its base in Ireland

What have I learned from the PiP iT experience?

The tech industry is very different from previous product development experience. Products could be built and tested quickly and at relative low expense. However, even in a rapidly growing and on trend industry like FinTech, we have faced similar innovation barriers as we did with Easytool. Buyers were reluctant to work with PiP iT as there was nothing else like us in the marketplace.

We had similar experiences with investors. They wanted the next big thing, they wanted something innovative, something new (they being every investor I have ever talked to)… but they didn’t want something that had no direct competitors as this meant the model was unproven. They wanted new but not totally new!

Fortunately, our early investment got us to the point of making transactions. Once we were transacting, that validated our model and we were able to secure additional investment and grow from there.
I’m still the CEO of PiP iT, so I am still learning.

Easytool was a company I owned with Paul Walsh (aka Dad) who is an engineer and inventor.

He developed several product ideas for the tool market:

The RamRod, which was a multipurpose demolition tool. Check the promo

Here I am giving a ‘how to use your RamRod demo’

Here is a video on 'how to edge your garden with a RamRod'

Here is the RamRod as ‘Tool of the Week’ on Australia’s number one DIY TV Show – The Block

The 360 Paint Roller, which was a roller for painting railings (also the 360 Wire Brush which was for railings too)

Paul designed and built the prototypes and our model was to licence the patent to a manufacturer who would sell to their customers. We got the products patented in EU, US, Australia and China. The patent process is the most expensive nightmare you will ever have!

We then exhibited at major international tool shows in Cologne and Las Vegas where we signed up a manufacturing and distribution partner Great Star Tools who are the largest tool company in Asia and who owned US brand Goldblatt.


With Li Feng – VP of Greatstar in their Hangzhou office 2012

We then exhibited at major international tool shows in Cologne and Las Vegas where we signed up a manufacturing and distribution partner Great Star Tools who are the largest tool company in Asia and who owned US brand Goldblatt.


The Greatstar (China), Goldblatt (US) and Easytool (Ireland) teams in Las Vegas 2013

Getting Great Star signed up and our tools manufactured was a huge success.

Then an unexpected problem in innovation occurred. There was lots of interest in the products, but none of the major brands or the ‘own brand’ retailers wanted it first. They all wanted to see it succeed in a different market first. Great Star brought us back in to work with them on sales and promotions, mainly on their stands at various shows and we got in front of the buyers from all the major tool brands and retailers in EU, US, Canada and Australia, but everyone wanted to see sales stats from other markets before they’d agree to buy it. We were stuck.

We decided to create our own brand – Easytool – and sell them ourselves directly to retailers to validate the market. The model was built around the retailer buying directly from Great Star. This was never to be a long-term strategy, as the company wasn’t structured to do this, it was to prove demand and then revert to the original model.


With Paul at the launch of the Easytool brand at the Cologne Hardware Show

The issue we came up against here was we were too small. Retailers were not interested in buying off a brand that only sold a few products. It wasn’t worth the effort of putting us onto their system. Added to this was a lot of retail chains only controlled some of the stock in their stores, with the big brands having dedicated space they stocked and managed. This meant even interested retailers had little room to manoeuvre.

Finally, retailers who did want to buy wouldn’t buy large volumes. They wanted to buy 20 or 30 units to see what customer reaction would be like. With our model, they have to buy hundreds at least.

We were stuck again. We decided to order and hold stock ourselves and wholesale it to retailers in smaller quantities and also sell online directly to the consumer.

We generated €250k+ in sales – 75% to retailers in Ireland, UK, Nordic countries, Canada and Australia with the balance online in Ireland and UK, but we still couldn’t get a brand to buy in.

Considering the cost of keeping the patents going, combined with costs of holding stock plus marketing the tools, the model we ended with was, as expected, unsustainable.

All the above is over the span of ten years. A lot of time and money went into Easytools and the decision to stop renewing the patents and shut down the company was a painful one.

What did I learn from the Easytool experience?

The big learning was the clash between a business’s demand for innovation versus the risk of trying something new. When we showed the Easytool products at trade shows, the salespeople from companies we were meeting loved them! Something genuinely new they could sell. However, it wasn’t up to them to buy any of the products from the distributor, that was the buyer’s job. The buyers didn’t like our products because there was nothing to compare them too. The buyers wanted product statistics they could base projections on. Not just sales stats, but figures like how many are returned by consumers? They had to include this in their projections, and we didn’t have these numbers. Innovative products have a unique set of barriers to get to market.

Air-Glide

The Air-Glide was the first business I had with Paul Walsh (Dad). This was a great invention!
Paul was an avid golfer. He found from pulling his golf trolley behind him (in the mid 90s all golf trolleys were ‘pull’) that it was a strain on his neck and shoulder. The immediate effect of this was his golf got worse over the course of the game (which was bad enough) but also neck and shoulder pain that was ongoing.

Paul developed a handle for golf trollies that had an internal spring, so it expanded and contracted while the golfer pulled it behind them. Testing showed this action absorbed 70% of the energy required to pull the trolley.

Paul built all the design, building the prototype and testing it and I did extensive research and planning around target markets (globally), price points, distribution strategies, market entry strategies, brand strategy etc.

Once we had applied for the patent and had our priority date (the date of the claim of the patent), we exhibited at the major golf shows (Munich and Orlando) and found a manufacturing partner in Taiwan. They made test versions which they sent to us and we extensively tested the functionality of what we were now calling the ‘Air-Glide System’. It worked perfectly and was robust. We didn’t test the rest of the trolley as it was one of the manufactures biggest selling models.

We ordered 1000 units and sold them through a distributor in Ireland. All 1000 sold out in ten days. For a brand-new product concept, from an unknown brand, launched with almost no marketing, it was amazing. Then the first one came back with a wheel broken off. Then the second. Within a month about 80% of them came back with the wheels broken off. Our manufacturing partner immediately offered to refund us, but the brand was destroyed in the Irish market.

We decided to keep going and find a new manufacturer and this time to get a brand to take it on and sell it.

The following year at Orlando show one of the top five golf brands in the world agreed to licence it exclusively worldwide. A massive win for us. Cigars were smoked! The Air-Glide would go into their following years catalogue (the shows were for products a year in advance), all we had to do was wait.

As the time neared to go into production, the brand replaced their Head of Product. His first decision was to discontinue their full golf trolley line and focus on their other products. Not only had we lost a massive deal, but we had lost a year of time where we still had to pay the patents. It was an expensive year.

We persevered.

The next year at the Munich show we secured a partner who was one of Europe’s biggest distributors of golf products. Another massive win! More cigars!

We spent days with them in their UK offices working on launch and marketing strategies as well as product development. The meetings were very positive with our partners enthusiastic about the potential for the Air-Glide.

Soon after, they went quiet. No replies to emails. No answered phone calls or returned messages. Then we discovered the company had gone into liquidation. We couldn’t believe it. Another amazing opportunity, gone.

We regrouped. Decided to do one more trade show. Back to Orlando for the golf show. We met with a range of companies over a few days and came out with heads of terms with a big North American brand. More cigars!

We spent a week with them in their Canada office planning. It was an exciting time as they had huge plans for the Air-Glide. They ordered their first container full. It was really happening this time!

After a few months of them not selling any, we started to get concerned. They tried to reassure us this was the sales cycle, but we knew that it wasn’t.

In the years we had been working on the Air-Glide, the market changed and push carts – which didn’t exist when we started with the Air-Glide, now dominated the market. Retailers were not interested in buying a pull cart.
This time we were out of road. The cost of maintaining patents and running the company meant we had to decide to wind it up.

This was a disaster.

Soon after, Paul had the idea for the RamRod. We started the whole process again in a different industry and kept going on our learning curve.

What did I learn from the Air-Glide experience?

In a product development business, patent your idea as late as possible. There is a fine line here as you obviously need to be careful of the idea getting out, but the cost of a patent rapidly scales up. The first year will cost €1000. No problem – gets you a ‘priority date’ meaning you can start showing it to people. The next 18 months will cost €7-10,000 – real money now. This is the PCT (Patent Cooperation Treaty) phase which gives you global protection for the period. So, around €10,000 will protect your idea for 30 months. What I have learned is getting a product to revenue, takes a lot longer than that. Once PCT is finished, you will then have to pay patent fees for each country you want the product patented in. Depending on how many countries you pick, you are now into the €100,000 a year range. (Click here for short blog I wrote on the Fidget Spinner patent)

I also learned about the reality of the sales cycle when dealing with major brands and product development. The trade shows I attended in Orlando and Munich, were showcasing products that were not available for retail until the following season – 12 months later. The show was to take orders which were then manufactured and delivered. When we met buyers at the show, they were buying ideas/products that would not be available for an exhibition till the following year, so when we got a buyer interested, it was going to be a minimum of 2 years before a product would be on a shelf. The potential for that buyer/our champion to leave in that time frame was very high. As this time goes by, you are paying for patents…

Needful Things

As I outlined in the About page, when I finished college I wasn’t in the market for a ‘real job’.

The jobs available for marketing graduates were all corporate and I couldn’t be a cog. I wanted to do something I could connect to. Ultimately, I wanted to run my own business. Why wait?

I loved (and still love) horror, fantasy, Sci-Fi and comic genres so I thought a book/comic shop was my answer. I also loved (and still love) Galway and it didn’t have a comic shop, so that was my starting point.

I had partnered up with my friend Mark Toner to be my cofounder and over the course of the summer of 1994 while I was completing my primary degree thesis, I also completed the market research and wrote the business plan.

This was going straight headfirst into what I had studied for the previous four years and I loved it!

As soon as my thesis was submitted, I moved to Galway.

The business plan was complete – we had our financial projections, knew our suppliers, identified the stock we would hold, had a promotional campaign developed, we just need to get a bank loan. These were the days when the branch manager made loan decisions, not an algorithm. The manager from on Bank of Ireland might turn down a loan application and the manager in the Bank of Ireland across the road could approve it.

We were turned down by 13 banks and were approved by the 14th.

An early lesson in perseverance and we were off!

We opened the doors on the 8th of December 1994.

We hit a steep learning curve of the realities of actually running a business, but we had great fun doing it. We were early initiators of ideas that are a basic requirement now – like having a newsletter (which was printed and posted) and having a loyalty club (we had this before any major Irish retailer had one)

We also launched a website in 1995. That was very early days in The Web!

Making changes to it was almost impossible, but we got enquiries and orders online. There was no functioning payment gateway in Ireland at that time, so we couldn’t accept online payment, so cheques, drafts and money orders would arrive in the post from online orders.

Through running a business, I got to meet many other Galway business owners. I started getting asked to take on market research projects, writing business and marketing plans. By 1998, the 80:20 rule had kicked in and 80% of my income was consultancy but I was only spending 20% of my time at it. Needful Things was the other side of that equation.

Mark decided to follow a new direction in outdoor education, so we decided to wind the business and move on to new adventures.

Twenty Five years after the shop closed, I’m still stopped on the street and asked if I’m ‘the Needful Things guy’

What did I learn from Needful Things?

This was the bridge from academic life to real life, and the big learning was how much value experience has. Theories I had studied in college that didn’t make sense to me at the time, I suddenly understood. ‘Over trading’ was a concept I couldn’t get my head around in college. How could a company grow too fast? Didn’t make any sense. Nine months into growing each month, we suddenly didn’t have enough cash to pay the stock invoices and so couldn’t order any more stock (comics are monthly, so this was a big problem). We had to have a big sale to generate cash to pay off our outstanding invoices to restart our credit for new orders. This wasn’t planned so threw off our financial model by making less of a margin, with the added problem that our ‘regulars’ bought up loads of books that were on sale and then didn’t buy anything for months.

I now understand Over Trading.

The most important thing I learned in my comic shop days is how exciting it is to run your own business. People see being self employed as a type of freedom. Its not. It can be a lot of fun, as long as you make it that way.