EY Entrepreneur of the Year: nominee profiles

The last four of eight shortlisted nominees in the international category of the award

The last four of eight nominees in the international category of the EY Entrepreneur of the Year competition are profiled this week. The awards are run in association with Julius Baer, Enterprise Ireland, Invest NI, The Irish Times and Newstalk. The nominees will vie for the title of EY Entrepreneur of the Year at an awards ceremony later this year.

Andrew O’Shaughnessy, Poppulo

Every day, secure communications to more than 25 million employees in more than 900 companies are managed through Andrew O'Shaughnessy's Poppulo. Employing 200 staff at its Cork base, the company has fast become a leading player in employee communications technology, and the Covid-19 pandemic has further helped its growth.

A computer science graduate of University College Cork, O'Shaughnessy established his first company in 1996 before setting up Newsweaver, which originally focused on email marketing. When that market became saturated, O'Shaughnessy turned to finding a sector in which he could become a global leader.

In 2012, O'Shaughnessy pivoted towards employee communications and, by 2017, Newsweaver had evolved into Poppulo. Now, the company counts the world's who's who of companies as clients, and services more than 30 per cent of the largest employers in Europe and one in five of those in the US. Unilever, Bank of America, Nestlé, Telefónica and Rolls-Royce are international clients. In the Republic, Kerry Group, AIB, CRH and Ardagh Group use Poppulo.


Despite such a promising list, Poppulo wants more, and O’Shaughnessy plans to double the business in three years’ time.

What vision/lightbulb moment prompted you to start up in business?
I always loved business. It was less of a lightbulb moment and more of a drive to get off my backside, stop talking about it and actually do something.

What was your 'back-to-the-wall' moment and how did you overcome it?
I was recently married with my first child on the way and needing to buy a house with an €18,000 salary and a business running out of money. Then I made the sale of my life and convinced the bank to take a punt on the business being successful and to back me. I then set a deadline to raise more money or fold the company.

To what extent does your business trade internationally and what are your plans?
Over 95 per cent of our business is export and we have customers all over the world. Our marketing and sales focus is split evenly between the EU and the US but, because our customers are global businesses, the users of our software are in more than 100 countries worldwide.

Describe your growth funding path
In the early days it was fairly normal. I first exhausted my own funds, then my wife's and then moved on to family and friends. After that we progressed to angel investors. I wanted the business to pay for itself, so we then grew to a significant size before taking a €30 million investment last year to take us to a new level quickly.

How has Covid-19 impacted your business? Are you still feeling the effects?
We are lucky that software is something that can be built, delivered and supported remotely, so the business has been able to shift to work from home. Some customers have been badly hit and others are just not spending, but for the most part companies have realised just how essential employee communications are, so we are still growing.

What is the hardest thing you have ever done in business?
Standing beside my dad in front of the workforce of Dripsey Woollen Mills in 1988 as he told them the business was closing. I was just in the business, fourth generation, and looking at those empty, fearful faces has stayed with me.

What is the single most important piece of advice you would offer to a less experienced entrepreneur?
In the early days, although you will use a financial adviser/accountant, never hand over the responsibility for the financial position of the company to them. You need to understand the numbers and eat, sleep and breathe cash flow.

Conor O’Loughlin, Glofox

Having played professional rugby for eight years with Connacht, Conor O’Loughlin went on to build out a web and app development business. Through that, he and his co-founders recognised how the fitness industry has evolved and how challenges around managing those businesses could be solved using technology.

Glofox was born as a platform which gives fitness studio and gym owners the tools to drive sales and to grow and retain revenues. It also manages membership, billing and payments.

Founded in 2014, the company now has more than 3,000 businesses in more than 60 countries using the software every day. It employs 150 staff and serves fitness brands such as Snap Fitness, 9Round Fitness, F45 and UFC gym. While the company's main customer base is in North America, the UK, Australia and New Zealand, it serves more than 40 countries.

Having raised a substantial sum of money – most recently the company raised $20 million in its series A fundraising round – the plan is to build the business to power the fitness industry globally.

Describe your business model and what makes your business unique
Traditionally, gyms sold a lot of memberships in January and expected the majority of members not to show up after a few weeks. More recently, consumer demands have increased and people expect to pay only for usage and results. Glofox not only helps run the business, but also helps build that community of loyal customers.

What was your 'back-to-the-wall' moment and how did you overcome it?
There are so many "back-to-the-wall" moments that I'll pick the most recent one. Covid-19 hit the fitness industry hard, closing every gym in the world for a period of time. Many of those businesses risked losing all members and revenue.

We had to do hard things like pivot the product to deliver online workout streaming, enabling these businesses to stay in service to their customers. Ultimately the industry overcame the challenge by adapting fast and adopting online classes so quickly. It was as much about our hard work as the industry’s ability to stay going in the toughest of times.

What were the best and the worst pieces of advice you received when starting out?
The best piece of advice I received and acted on was to have a "maniacal focus" in the early days. We focused initially on independent boutique fitness studios and gyms. Now we serve the broader fitness market.

That initial focus enabled us to get the core features right for one set of customers, make happy customers and advocates, and prove we could execute on all parts of the business.

What are the big disruptive forces in your industry?
At-home fitness is a major disruptive force. Local bricks and mortar gyms and fitness studios are well positioned to win a large market share here as they can provide hybrid services that complement the personal touch of a gym visit with the convenience of online classes.

What is the hardest thing you have ever done in business?
The hardest thing I have ever done in business is to find the first one, and then 10, customers. Once you can get people using and paying for your product, a world of learning and opportunity opens up.

What is the most common mistake you see entrepreneurs make?
The biggest mistake is lack of focus. If you can do one thing well, start there and become successful. There will be plenty of opportunities to build your business once you have some quick wins under your belt.

Tim Houstoun, Global Shares

In 2008, Tim Houstoun joined Global Shares. His stewardship has since resulted in the company transitioning from a service business with low margins and limited prospects to a leading global financial technology provider of employee share management products.

Headquartered in Clonakilty, the company has 16 offices, more than 350 staff, and manages $6 billion in client assets. Earlier this month, the company announced its intention to float on public markets in 2024 once it reaches a valuation of €1 billion, while it also said it plans to hire an additional 150 staff immediately.

Houstoun himself graduated from the University of Manchester with a BA in economics and statistics. He trained at BDO in London and subsequently worked in the service sector, including as chief executive of Business Direct Group Plc.

Recently, Global Shares won business from Saudi Aramco, the world's largest oil producer, beating competitors such as Morgan Stanley and Computershare. Other clients include L'Oréal, Krispy Kreme, Bosch, Bose and the world's largest privately held company, Cargill.

Next year, Houstoun plans to open at least four new office locations having opened seven last year.

What was your vision/lightbulb moment?
When I joined Global Shares in 2008, the company was failing. It was losing money and in need of transformation to survive. Whilst it was relatively easy to make Global Shares profitable, the fundamental issue was that it was going to be near impossible to scale a service company of this kind in west Cork. Therefore, we set about the ambitious plan to build a new global technology solution and become a regulated broker.

Doing this would enable us to compete with competitors like Morgan Stanley, Merrill Lynch, UBS, Nomura, Computershare, Deutsche Bank, BNPP and others on the global stage. The challenge was for Global Shares to succeed in developing a global platform, where the large multinational banks had failed.

What was your ‘back-to-the-wall’ moment and how did you overcome it?

At the beginning of our transition from a service to a software company, fundraising was critical, and ultimately enabled Global Shares to overcome the incredibly tough early stages of starting up a high-potential technology business. Financial backing by the Irish Government through Enterprise Ireland, as well as investment by a pool of circa 30 private Irish investors, helped us overcome that challenge.

What moment/deal would you cite as the ‘game-changer’ or turning point for the company?

Signing a deal with Generali to do their executive plan administration and trading at the end of 2015 was a game-changer on the back of launching our software platform and becoming MiFID regulated.

How has Covid-19 impacted your business? Are you still feeling the effects?

Global Shares’ income model consists of contractually recurring income and is therefore quite ring-fenced from the effects of Covid-19. Even though some new business deals have been delayed due to HR managers being focused on Covid issues, we’ve hit our 2020 annual sales target already in the first six months of the year. We had our largest new business month ever in March – the first month of Covid lockdown.

What is the most common mistake you see entrepreneurs make?

Entrepreneurs often underestimate the funding required and they don’t spend enough time ensuring they have the right senior management team in place.

What motivates you to keep performing at your best?

I love what I do. In particular, I love that we are writing software in Clonakilty that transforms people’s lives worldwide through the momentum of employee ownership.

Pat Lucey, Aspira

Since establishing Aspira in Co Cork in 2007, Pat Lucey has grown the business to have 160 staff, with operations in the Republic, the Netherlands and the United Arab Emirates.

Aspira is a project management and enterprise technology services company. Among its services are providing project management to ensure delivery of complex technology projects on time and within budget. It has facilitated clients taking on projects worth more than €600 million over the past 10 years.

It was redundancy that prompted Lucey to start up in business. Having worked for Motorola for 17 years, he realised in 2007 that his opportunity to start up a business was then or never. Along with his co-founder, Colum Horgan, Lucey devised a plan to develop new project management software, hired four of his ex-Motorola colleagues and "took it from there".

Now, the company is evaluating options to expand in southeast Asia and hopes to be a top-tier international brand in the coming three years. The company's international growth ambitions have been emboldened by its success in that sphere so far. Over the past two years it has built its Amsterdam and UAE operations to account for 35 per cent of sales.

What is your greatest business achievement to date?

Aspira developed a completely new software system that is now used by the National Cancer Registry to track incidents of cancer in this country, and the effectiveness of treatment. It was most rewarding because it was a tough, complex, multi-year project that has worked really well and is helping to make a positive difference in the battle against a horrible disease that affects us all.

What was your ‘back-to-the-wall’ moment and how did you overcome it?

In 2009, during the worst of the recession, our client base dried up and our remaining anchor client had no money to pay us. We applied pay cuts across the board, we [the two founders] invested more money and we pivoted to provide project management services to the energy and utilities sector. This allowed us to keep the lights on and move back to growth in 2010.

What were the best and the worst pieces of advice you received when starting out?

The best advice I received was to “listen to all the advice you are offered, and then ignore half of it” – of course, the trick is figuring out which half to ignore. The worst advice was from a bank official when he suggested I should sign a personal guarantee as they “would never” look to use it. Right!

How has Covid-19 impacted your business? Are you still feeling the effects?

Covid-19 has had a dramatic effect on certain parts of our business. For example, all our projects in the aviation sector were immediately put on hold, and all face-to-face training courses needed to be deferred. Thankfully, because our business works across a range of industries, we have been able to generate new business in areas such as pharmaceutical and banking, where there is more pressure than ever to deliver new products and implement new technology solutions to enable people to operate remotely.

What was your biggest business mistake?

Early on we had an idea for a software product. Rather than go out and test the market, I was so confident there would be demand that I gave the green light to go straight into product development. Some 18 months later, we had a really good product, but the market was non-existent. It was an expensive, but very valuable, lesson.

What is the most common mistake you see entrepreneurs make?

I see too many people think that their great idea will ensure success. If I were to list the 10 things that contribute most to success, I would place the actual business idea down in eighth place.

A related problem is that entrepreneurs, by nature, are optimists. They are so convinced they will be successful that they are blind to the inherent risks. I encourage entrepreneurs to list all the ways they could fail – not to depress them, but so they can come up with ways to avoid or overcome those risks and make it more likely they will succeed.